Category Archives: Film Preservation
A friend of mine sent me this post, and I thought it was worth sharing. It’s written by a twenty two year old guy in North Carolina who’s interested in the dying art of projecting movies on film. When he heard that Tarantino was arranging to have The Hateful Eight screened in 70mm at some theatres, he wanted to be involved, and ended up flying out to California on less than a day’s notice to offer his services. I really enjoyed reading about his experience, but beyond that, I was grateful to know there’s somebody under forty who’s actually excited about working with film.
I don’t want to get into an argument about film vs. digital. I’m not an expert, and aside from the inherent qualities of each format, what you end up seeing and hearing at any screening depends on the equipment being used and the theatre you’re in. But the fact is, the first hundred years of cinema history exist on film. DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K restorations are all fine, but if you want to see Lawrence of Arabia the way it was meant to be seen, you need to go to a theatre and see it in 70mm. Digital cinema is great, but it isn’t film. I can get on the net and track down a high-resolution scan of a painting by Van Gogh. It’s still not the same as going to a museum and seeing the actual painting by Van Gogh.
So it’s encouraging that this guy has invested the time and energy to learn how to run film through a projector. Future generations who really want to experience Sunrise, The Magnificent Ambersons or Do the Right Thing will be relying on people like this, people who are truly dedicated to the medium. They’re keeping film alive.
So anyway, here’s the link. And if you feel like I do, it couldn’t hurt to post a comment so he knows his efforts are appreciated.
I’ve got a lot going on over the next few weeks, so I’m going to take a break. I’ll be posting again toward the end of June.
A note to those of you who are into Orson Welles. You’ve probably heard that a number of Welles’ friends and fans are mounting an effort to finish his last movie, The Other Side of the Wind. You may not have heard that they’ve started an Indiegogo campaign to raise funding. Here’s the link.
If you’re as anxious to see this movie as I am, I recommend you throw a few bucks their way. The footage has been sitting in cans for decades. If this effort fails, who knows if we’ll ever see Welles’ final film.
Citizen Kane was one of the movies that made me aware of movies. I’d seen hundreds of them, but I’d never really thought about who made them. I’d never really thought about what those words “directed by” meant. Suddenly all that mattered was the director. And Orson Welles was the director that mattered most to me.
Not too long after watching Kane, I was talking to a friend and mentioned that I’d seen it. She said she had a book on Welles, and offered to give it to me. I was thrilled. I hope I thanked her profusely. It was Joseph McBride’s critical study, simply titled Orson Welles. I took it home and started reading it immediately.
One of the most interesting chapters in McBride’s book is the one where he describes his first encounter with Welles. They met for lunch one day, and the next thing McBride knew he was acting in the director’s latest project, a film called The Other Side of the Wind. The details were sparse, but I was thrilled to know that Welles had something in the works. I couldn’t wait til the day when The Other Side of the Wind would be released.
That was around 1972. Welles died in 1985. At the time of his death, The Other Side of the Wind was still unfinished.
I’ve been dying to see this movie for decades. Every so often something would happen to raise my hopes, but nothing ever materialized. Welles recieved an award from the AFI in 1975, and it seemed like his luck might be turning. During the program they actually screened clips from The Other Side of the Wind. I was knocked out. A few years later I saw Welles in person at the DGA, and he showed some more footage. I’m sure he was hoping that one of the industry insiders in the audience would come forward with financing. Didn’t happen. Then after Welles’ death, I’d read things from time to time about how someone was trying to rescue the film, about the bizarre legal tangle that it was ensnared in, conflicting accounts about how much of the footage Welles had actually assembled before his death. It was all very discouraging.
Finally, earlier this year, it was announced that a deal had been made. Royal Road Entertainment had obtained the rights to the footage. Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall would be involved in producing a final cut. Initially, I was ecstatic. My enthusiasm dissipated as I read more, because I realized that Welles had only managed to complete about forty five minutes of a work print. Bogdanovich and Marshall were going to try to assemble the rest.
I don’t mean to say that I don’t trust these guys. They’re both intelligent men with years of experience in the industry, and they both worked with Welles during the filming of The Other Side of the Wind. In fact, Bogdanovich plays a leading role. They’ve also shown their dedication to this project by pursuing the footage for years.
But Welles had an extremely individual approach to editing. In fact, there’s no one else you can even compare him to. The cutting in Citizen Kane looks pretty sophisticated for 1941, but it was only the beginning. If you look at Fake?, which the director made toward the end of his career, you’ll see that Welles had developed an extremely intricate approach to editing. In bringing together footage from a number of different sources, he gleefully plays with space and time, creating a vivid and witty collage. In the clips I’ve seen from The Other Side of the Wind, Welles seems to be continuing in a similar vein, a style you might call fluid fragmentation.
My point being, Welles had a totally unique approach to editing. To make it even more challenging, there was no final shooting script for The Other Side of the Wind. McBride quotes Welles saying that he had written a script that would run for nine hours. He ended up discarding it, and decided to improvise based on what he knew about the characters, This doesn’t mean he had no idea where he was going. I’m sure Welles had the arc of the story clearly laid out in his own mind. But, as close as they were to the director, Bogdanovich and Marshall don’t know what was going on in his head. And while they apparently have access to a script Welles wrote, it’s apparently not the kind of shooting script that would give specific guidance.
And even if they had something that specific to guide them in dealing with the visual side of the film, there’s still the aural dimension. Welles was unique among filmmakers, because before he ever set foot in Hollywood, he’d spent years in radio. In terms of sound, Citizen Kane was by far the most intricate and innovative film Hollywood had made at that time. In later films like Touch of Evil, The Trial, and (even with it’s technical deficiencies) Chimes at Midnight, the use of sound is incredibly subtle and expressive. Approximating a Welles soundtrack would be difficult enough under the best circumstances. But the director relied heavily on looping during post-production, and this requires having actors available for re-recording dialogue. Many of the actors who appear in The Other Side of the Wind, including the star, John Huston, are dead.
I realize now that I’m never going to see the film that Welles envisioned. At best, I’m going to see an approximation. While I know that Bogdanovich and Marshall will do everything they can to honor the director’s conception, whatever they come up with will be their best guess. This isn’t meant to be a criticism. I’m really grateful to them both. It’s just a fact. As talented as they are, they’re not Orson Welles.
I read that Royal Road is planning to have the film ready by the one hundredth anniversary of Welles’ birth, which will be in May, 2015. This sounds like a nice idea, but honestly, I think it’s completely unrealistic. Lacking a shooting script, it could take months for them just to construct an outline to guide their work. Editing the footage in a style that approximates Welles’ approach will be a daunting, time-consuming task. And assembling a soundtrack that comes anywhere near the richness and complexity of the director’s work will be incredibly challenging. We have to remember that Welles usually spent months, sometimes years, editing his work. With all respect to Bogdanovich and Marshall, the idea that they could complete their work by next May seems difficult to believe. While I can certainly understand the desire to have the film ready by Welles’ one hundredth birthday, it seems like it might be better to let them take whatever time is needed to get it right.
I was also wondering if anyone had spoken to Walter Murch. Having worked on the reconstruction of Touch of Evil, Murch has had hands-on experience in assembling Welles’ work. He not only understands images, he understands sound. As an editor with decades of experience, it seems to me his assistance would be invaluable.
Even with all my reservations about this project, I don’t mean to be cynical, and I wish everyone involved all the best as they undertake this monumental task. I’m sure everybody agrees that the most important thing here is to honor Welles’ intentions. I’m really glad this is moving forward, and I know there a thousands of people like me who were rejoicing at the news that a deal had been signed. Here’s a link to the New York Times article that appeared just after the announcement was made.
Profuse thanks to Royal Road, Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Marshall and everyone else involved in the long, difficult struggle to bring The Other Side of the Wind to the Screen. Whatever they come up with, I will be standing in line to see it.
A few weeks ago I went to the New Beverly to see some movies. I actually saw two separate screenings, a Sam Peckinpah double bill and a William Witney double bill. I want to start by saying that I appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s commitment to showing films in 35mm (or on occasion 16mm). Digital is fine, and given the economics of distribution and exhibition, there’s no way we’re going back. But it’s important to remember that, from the beginning of cinema history up until just recently, film was the standard, and that 35mm is an excellent medium for projecting an image on a screen.
That is, if you’re using a decent print. If the print’s not in god shape, you can run into all kinds of problems, and that’s why I’m writing this post. For the Witney bill, they showed Master of the World and Stranger at My Door. Stranger at My Door looked good. The print was in good condition, and it was a pleasure to see it on a big screen. On the other hand, Master of the World looked awful. The print was still pretty crisp, but the color was completely degraded, to the point where the whole movie looked pink. I doubt William Witney would have been happy if he’d been in attendance that night.
The Peckinpah bill was worse. I guess you could say the print they showed of The Getaway was acceptable, but it obviously had a lot of miles on it. Watching Junior Bonner, though, I got angry. The color was so bad, I’m not even sure you could call it color. It looked as though somebody had dumped the reels in a bathtub full of bleach. This is not the way the movie was meant to be seen.
It was especially frustrating because I loved the movie. I’d never seen Junior Bonner before, and it’s definitely one of Peckinpah’s best. Those who know him only for his action flicks don’t fully understand who he was as an artist. Junior Bonner is a low key film about a fading rodeo star who rolls into his hometown and reconnects with his family. It’s a beautiful character study, the cast is great, and Steve McQueen is especially impressive.
I’m glad that Tarantino is programming stuff like this, but he really needs to find better prints. Aside from my personal frustration at seeing a print so badly faded, I wonder what impression this gives younger viewers of 35mm. What would somebody in their early twenties think watching the Peckinpah double bill? They’d almost certainly come away with the impression that film was an inferior format, and that they were lucky to be living in the digital age.
Revival houses have always had to struggle to get decent prints, and these days it’s probably harder than ever to show movies on film. It’s great that Tarantino has a huge private collection, but he’s not doing anybody a favor by showing stuff in this condition. Older audiences will be frustrated. Younger audiences won’t get a chance to see these movies the way they were meant to be seen. And I think many filmmakers would be furious at the way their work was being presented.
So if you’re gonna show 35, it’s gotta be good 35.
I just got back from seeing Too Much Johnson at LACMA, and I’m not sure if I can describe the way I feel right now. Excited and grateful are two words that come to mind, but that’s just scratching the surface. I feel like I’ve been allowed to look through a window on the past. I feel like I’ve travelled back in time and caught a glimpse of a brash young man who was crazy enough to think he could conquer the world.
No doubt my reaction has a lot to do with the tremendous respect I have for Orson Welles. It’s not just that I think he’s a great director. I feel closer to Welles than any other filmmaker. His work literally changed my life. So to have this footage surface out of the blue when everybody thought it was long gone is pretty amazing.
It’s important to say at the outset that Too Much Johnson was never intended to be released as a feature. Welles wanted to present William Gillette’s play on the stage, and the production he envisioned included film segments that would introduce each act. He shot four hours of footage and began to edit it, but the play didn’t survive out of town tryouts and the partially completed fragments were never shown. Apparently the reels sat in a warehouse for decades until they were recently rediscovered.
The surviving material is over sixty minutes of film that was partially edited by Welles. Of those sixty minutes, only about the first third approaches anything like a coherent narrative. The rest is comprised of disconnected scenes in some kind of sequential order, but remember that this was never meant to be a complete narrative anyway. What we’re seeing are fragments of fragments. In some cases we see multiple takes of a single shot, and at times it’s hard to make any sense of what’s happening onscreen. Many people would probably see this stuff as an incoherent mess. Apparently some audience members who have viewed the footage were disappointed. I guess it depends on what you’re looking for.
I was thrilled. Not because it’s up there with Welles’ best work. It’s certainly not. But it’s a glimpse of one of film’s great artists at a time when he was first getting a grip on the medium. And in spite of the incomplete and chaotic nature of what remains, it clearly points toward the work Welles would do when he came to Hollywood.
To this day, many people look at Welles’ career and see a failure. They complain that he worked intermittently as a director, couldn’t adjust to the demands of the studio system and left many projects unfinished. No doubt the appearance of one more unfinished film will be seen by many as further evidence of his “lack of discipline”. What rubbish. The idea that somebody who completed thirteen features, often using his own money, could be called undisciplined is ridiculous. Obviously Welles’ critics have absolutely no idea how difficult it is to make a movie, much less how incredibly difficult it is to make a movie on your own terms. These people also ignore the fact that Welles staged several plays, created a small but startling body of work for television, and produced a staggering number of broadcasts for radio.
He didn’t finish everything he started. That’s true. Welles had a restless mind and was constantly looking for new challenges. Sometimes he took on more than he could handle and found himself running short of time or money or stamina, and yes, he had his share of colossal failures. So what. I’m way more interested in somebody who shoots for the moon and fails than I am in somebody who plays it safe and “succeeds”. Welles liked to take chances. He liked to test the boundaries. He liked to experiment.
Too Much Johnson is an experiment. Watching the footage it was as though I could feel Welles’ excitement in discovering film. In the early scenes especially I got the sense that Welles was playing with the medium, trying to see how far he could go. A couple of the people who spoke at the screening I attended said that Welles was trying to recreate the look of the films made between nineteen ten and nineteen twelve. I couldn’t disagree more. In movies from that period scenes were almost invariably shot from a single angle, usually frontal, and cutting within a scene was rare. Close-ups were almost non-existent.
Too Much Johnson, on the other hand, is strikingly dynamic. Welles’ forceful compositions anticipate Citizen Kane, and the only silent film directors you’ll find who take the same liberties in framing a shot are the guys who made avant-garde shorts in Europe during the twenties. Even before he got to Hollywood, Welles already had a strong visual sense. He was always looking for ways to create space. And in the sequences that are most fully shaped, there is a good deal of cutting, some of it so bold and so rapid that you might compare it to Eisenstein.
Apparently Welles watched a lot of silent comedy to prepare for shooting, and no doubt Mack Sennett was an inspiration. But the complexity of the best gags and the imaginative imagery are way beyond the crude, knockabout antics of the Keystone Cops. Too Much Johnson is closer to the inspired surrealism of the films Buster Keaton made in the twenties.
Seeing Too Much Johnson is a reminder of how much Welles loved comedy. Because our view of him today is based mostly on the features he made, I think that’s an aspect of his work that tends to be forgotten. While most of his films have comic moments, the context is often so dark that I rarely laugh out loud. But look at the plays he staged on Broadway, like Horse Eats Hat and Shoemaker’s Holiday. Listen to his radio adaptations of Life with Father and Around the World in 80 Days, or the variety shows he did in the forties. Check out The Fountain of Youth, a witty and inventive TV pilot he made in the fifties. Welles loved a good laugh, and Too Much Johnson reminds us that he spent a lot of time trying to make audiences laugh, too.
I think one of the reasons that Welles left a number of projects unfinished is that he expected a lot of himself. When you look at the time he invested in preparing his films, the energy he expended in shooting his films, and then the obsessive care that he took in editing his films, it’s clear that he had extremely high standards. Those of us who value his work can’t help but feel frustrated that we never got to see Don Quixote or The Deep. But my feeling is that he didn’t finish them because he wasn’t satisfied with them. In his mind, they weren’t good enough.
If that’s true, he’s probably rolling over in his grave now that this footage from Too Much Johnson has been discovered. It’s rough, it’s raw, it’s messy. But for those of us who love Welles, it’s a reminder of how talented, how daring, how creative the guy was. It’s exhilarating to see the way he threw himself into shooting this footage, back when it probably seemed like anything was possible. Back when he was still a brash young man who was crazy enough to think he could conquer the world.
There were many people involved in bringing Too Much Johnson to the screen. One of the most important players was the National Film Preservation Foundation. They’ve been responsible for the rescue and restoration of many movies thought to be lost, and if you care about film history, you might want to think about making a contribution. Just click on the link below.
Mexicans have been crossing the border to work in the United States since the border was drawn back in the nineteenth century. Many make the trip to escape poverty or persecution, hoping to find a better life. There are some success stories, but the vast majority end up working long hours for subsistence wages. Those who don’t have the papers they need to work legally get stuck in exhausting, low-paying jobs, and often the employers who know they’re stuck take full advantage of the situation.
One of the most powerful films I’ve seen about those who make the crossing is Espaldas Mojadas by Alejandro Galindo. While the story is driven by melodrama, and the director makes his points forcefully, the film also has a haunting sadness that stays with you long after it’s over. This isn’t just a movie about a guy who’s trying to make a living and stay ahead of the law. Espaldas Mojadas is about the painful loneliness and crushing isolation that people feel when they have to leave their home behind.
The film begins with a lengthy disclaimer explaining that it has nothing to do with the US/Mexico border, and that in reality it’s about people who break the law and the consequences they must suffer. It’s all totally bogus, of course, but it’s a sign of how worried the Mexican film industry was about offending American audiences. The US market was vital for the Mexican producers, and the fear of losing that market was always hanging over their heads.
The story opens in Ciudad Juárez, where we find a man, Rafael, desperately looking for a way to cross the border. He’s in trouble with the law and needs to disappear quickly, but he doesn’t have the papers he needs to enter the US legally. Rafael makes a deal with a coyote who takes him across the Rio Grande into Texas, but this is just the beginning of his troubles. He finds work, but his American bosses use him and abuse him. And if he gets fed up and leaves, then he’s back at square one and has to go begging for a job all over again.
Espaldas Mojadas is a lament for all those who’ve been trapped in the US while their hearts are still in Mexico. Though Galindo relies heavily on melodrama, the film doesn’t treat Rafael’s plight as an excuse for action. The director spends a good deal of time with his characters, allowing us to get inside of them. For me it’s the quiet moments that are the most affecting. Rafael standing by the railroad tracks as he talks to a friend about how it feels to be lost in a strange country. A Mexican border official scolding Rafael for working illegally in the US, and then falling silent as his prisoner tells him about the desperation that drove him to do it. But the most beautiful and haunting scene takes place in a work camp where the men have been laying tracks for the railroad. They have a day off. They’ve been breaking their backs all week long, and now they’re lounging under the railroad cars to stay out of the sun. A man with a guitar starts to play, another starts to sing. The song is Canción Mixteca by José López Alavez, and it’s about the loneliness felt by those who are far from home. The camera tracks past the men as they listen, and in this melancholy moment Galindo crystallizes the sadness they feel and their longing for the country they’ve left behind.
While there’s a good deal of music in the film, the underscoring is provided by nothing more than a single guitar, and this was exactly the right choice. Instead of having a full orchestra to pump up the drama, we have a single musician providing a very spare and very effective backdrop for the story. The lonely tones of the solo guitar match Rafael’s sense of isolation perfectly. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a thrilling performance by Lola Beltrán and El Trío Calaveras at a bar in Ciudad Juárez. They set the crowd on fire with their passionate rendition of a song about the pride they feel in being Mexican.
Unfortunately, this film, like so many other Mexican films from the same era, is only available as a budget DVD. The print is okay. The transfer is acceptable. But there are no subtitles, which is probably going to keep anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish from watching it.* I’ve written before about the challenges of trying to preserve Mexico’s cinema. I know the list of films that need attention is long, and the money available is short. But is it too much to ask for a quality DVD release of a classic film by a major director from Mexico’s golden era?
Is anybody at Criterion listening?
Honestly, Galindo is very good at communicating through images, and I think most people could follow the story even without subtitles. You might miss some of the plot points and some of the humor, but I still urge you to give it a try. It’s a powerful experience.
Last week I came across a post on David Bordwell’s site which gives an in-depth look at some of the challenges we’re facing in terms of preserving both film and digital. It’s long, but it’s well worth reading. I was especially interested in the essay by Margaret Bodde, Executive Director of the Film Foundation, regarding preservation of digital media. As the studios rush to embrace digital, they seem blithely unaware of the fact that preserving media in this format is much more complicated, much more work intensive, and much more expensive than preserving film.
Anyway, if you’re into this stuff, I think you’ll find it pretty interesting. The link is below.
With the holiday season in full swing, I’m going to be taking some time off. I won’t be posting again until around the middle of January. Hope all of you have a safe and happy new year.
And whether or not you celebrate Christmas, remember it’s better to give than to receive. Keeping that thought in mind, I hope you’ll take a minute to visit the National Film Preservation Foundation web site. In recent years the NFPF has been involved in many worthwhile restoration projects, including a John Ford comedy thought to be lost, an early Fleischer Bros. cartoon and portions of a silent film that Alfred Hitchcock worked on. If you’d like to support their work, or even if you’d just like to learn more, click on the link below.
I’ve been trying to go through Mexican cinema more or less chronologically, so for this post I wanted to write about a film from the 60s. Tough luck. It seems that Mexican films from that decade are almost impossible to see. There are probably a few reasons for this….
First, the Mexican film industry was more or less falling apart. The movies produced throughout the 50s had become increasingly tired and routine. By the end of the decade three of the major studios had closed. Unions made it difficult for new filmmakers to enter the industry, so there was little innovation or experimentation. And of course, television was becoming more popular, which led to lower receipts at the box office. So while filmmakers in France, Italy, Japan and the US were breaking boundaries and trying new approaches, Mexican filmmakers were dealing with tremendous challenges.
This doesn’t mean nobody was doing good work. But it does mean that Mexican movies made during this period were mostly low budget affairs that got little or no distribution outside the country. While Godard, Oshima and Antonioni are known to almost anybody with a background in film, even film scholars are mostly unaware of directors like Alberto Isaac or Carlos Enrique Taboada.
As a result, these days Mexican films from the 60s seem to be pretty much invisible. No doubt you could dig up a number of cheap comedies and masked wrestler flicks. But if you look for movies made by people who actually cared about what they were doing, they’re impossible to find. My search for DVD releases of films that Isaac and Taboada made in the 60s turned up absolutely nothing. I did find people writing about their work, some of them enthusiastic about what they’d seen. But the movies are not available. I was dying to see a title called En el balcon vacio, directed by Jomi Garcia Ascot in 1961. The comments I read about the movie really intrigued me. But forget it. It ain’t out there.
The thing that scares me most is the possibility that prints of these films are either in really bad shape or don’t even exist. In spite of the fact that film preservation has a fairly high profile in the US and Europe, there are numerous titles that are lost forever. Because Mexican cinema doesn’t attract as much interest as other countries, I’m afraid that most of these films aren’t even on anybody’s radar.
[Update: I was able to find a few titles by Carlos Enrique Taboada on eBay. I purchased Hasta el viento tiene miedo, and enjoyed watching it. I hesitate to even call it a horror film, because it’s pretty tame by current standards for the genre. But it’s an interesting movie, focussing on a group of young woman at a school where the headmistress is very stern….]