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Keeping Film Alive

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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.

What It’s Like to Be a ‘Hateful Eight’ 70mm Projectionist

Clocking Out

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.

The Other Side of the Wind on Indiegogo

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.

If You’re Gonna Show 35….

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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.

Preserving the Future

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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.

David Bordwell – Preservation Forum

Time Out

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.

National Film Preservation Foundation

Don’t Forget Mexico

I’ll be honest. When I said I wanted to participate in a blogathon to support film preservation, I envisioned writing a thoroughly impassioned and well-documented account of the challenges faced by those who were trying to preserve Mexican cinema. I’ve been writing about Mexican films for over a year now, and during that time I’ve reached two conclusions:

1.

Mexico has produced a lot of great movies.

2.

A lot of them are really hard to see.

Up until a few years ago, I was pretty much completely ignorant about Mexican film. I’m still pretty ignorant, but I realize now what an amazing cinematic tradition the country has. I get the sense that most Americans are in the same place I was a few years ago. People talk about films from France, Denmark, Iran, Azerbaijan and Croatia, but I never hear anybody talk about films from Mexico. Sure, you can point to the buzz about del Toro, Iñárritu and Cuarón, but the fact is that none of them are making films in Mexico any more.

So when I was offered the opportunity to participate in a blogathon devoted to film preservation, I decided this was my chance to let everybody know how rich Mexican cinema is, and how important it is to preserve that heritage. Unfortunately, after a week of scouring the net for information, I haven’t come up with a lot of hard data.

The good news is that Mexico seems to have the largest film archive in Latin America, and also seems to be a leader in the preservation of Spanish language films. The Filmoteca at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and the Cineteca Nacional have thousands of films in their archives, and have a fair amount of funding to pursue their work. Within Mexico, there is widespread recognition of the importance of conserving the country’s cinematic tradition.

The bad news is that, just like in every other country, there are a lot of films that are neglected, forgotten, or just plain gone. Here’s my imperfect, inadequate, but still impassioned account of some of the challenges that face those who are working to preserve Mexico’s film history.

It won’t surprise anybody that many of the films made during the silent era in Mexico are gone. But in reading about some of the lost films from that period, I came across the name Elena Sánchez Valenzuela, who starred in La luz, tríptico de la vida moderna (1917). Not only was Sanchez Valenzuela one of the first stars of the Mexican film industry, she was also one of the first people to understand the importance of preserving cinematic history. In the 20s she wrote about film for for a daily newspaper, and later Sánchez Valenzuela helped lay the groundwork for the Cineteca Nacional, which today plays a leading role in film conservation. Back when most people saw movies as cheap entertainment, Sánchez Valenzuela understood their importance in the larger culture.

If I tell you that El anónimo (1932), directed by Fernando de Fuentes is considered lost, you may not get too worked up about it. But imagine that Howard Hawks’ first feature was gone forever, and maybe you can understand how sad this really is. If you haven’t seen Vamonos con Pancho Villa or El Compadre Mendoza, you have no idea how important Fuentes was to the history of Mexican film. I wouldn’t want to push the Fuentes/Hawks comparison too far, but this director had a clear-eyed, unsentimental view of the Mexican Revolution, and did not shy away from the scarier aspects of the country’s culture of machismo.

Some of you may be familiar with Maria Candelaria (1944), one of the more famous films directed by Emilio Fernandez. However you may not be familiar with the ongoing struggle to return the film to its original form. When MGM bought the rights to distribute Maria Candelaria in the US, for some reason the original negative was shipped to Hollywood. There it was cut by more than 20 minutes and the film was dubbed into English. While the Filmoteca/UNAM was able to reclaim the negative, the soundtrack has not survived. So at this point, there is no way to restore Maria Candelaria to its original form.

It’s difficult to find information on more recent movies, but I can tell you I’ve had a hell of time tracking down many titles. I should emphasize that I’ve had to watch all of this stuff on DVD. Nobody in the LA area is showing Mexican films on the big screen, and as far as I can tell that applies to the rest of the US. It’s disturbing enough that many of the films I’ve purchased are cut rate releases that use degraded prints. It’s even more disturbing that a number of works by established directors aren’t even available on DVD.

I wish I had more information to pass on. But I’ll close by saying that if you haven’t seen anything by Fernando de Fuentes, Emilio Fernández, Arturo Ripstein or María Novaro, you’re missing some of the most beautiful and interesting films ever made.

And if reading this makes you want to throw a few bucks at film preservation, follow this link….

https://npo1.networkforgood.org/Donate/Donate.aspx?npoSubscriptionId=1001883&code=Blogathon+2012