Posted by Susan Doll on July 28, 2014
Ahhh, New Orleans! Where else can outrageous people eat exotic food while downing powerful alcoholic drinks with catastrophic names. On a recent trip to NOLA, I was prepared for everything—the crowds of colorful revelers, the world’s most demented ghost stories, even the parents who dragged small children to Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. But, what really surprised me—and, pleasantly so—was how much I learned about movie history during my brief vacation. Avid movie-goers know that a variety of contemporary films and television programs have been shot in New Orleans and Louisiana, including the third season of American Horror Story. But, Louisiana’s contributions to American film history go back to the earliest silent days.
Now that the announcement has been made official I can go ahead and ‘fess up: I recently recorded an audio commentary for the newly restored Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the UK Blu-Ray release by Masters of Cinema. It was a huge thrill for me—I’d been wanting to do a Caligari commentary for years and no one had asked me yet. But not only was it a chance to finally yammer my way through Robert Wiene’s masterwork, but this new restoration is simply stunning—it’s from the original 35mm negative. Looks like it was shot yesterday.
And seeing this film fresh makes all the difference in the world, because there are so many myths and misconceptions about Caligari that need clearing up. Like, that this film is some kind of avant garde work of art. Because (ahem) it’s not.
There is a secret conspiracy that rules the world.
This hidden power can make or break a fortune at a moment’s whim. It decrees the rise and fall of nations. It chooses who lives, and who dies.
There are some—like the heroic British spy with a number for a name, or the alluring Mata Hari-like international woman of mystery he keeps running into—who think they can use the tools of surveillance, cryptography, and overall spookcraft to expose this obscure force and save the world.
Wanna know a secret? This secret power—he’s a banker. You can Occupy Wall Street all you want: the Great Banker is the spider at the heart of this massive web, and he will outlast you all.
So, yeah, for a silent movie made in Germany in 1928, there’s a lot going on here. You can play along at home if you want when TCM runs this later tonight.
Tomorrow night, TCM is letting Roscoe Arbuckle loose to rampage across the prime time schedule in some seminal silent comedies produced by Mack Sennett. This is must-watch stuff, folks, even if you’ve seen it before, and I was given the joyous privilege of writing some contextual material for the TCM site to frame the screenings.
And I seized that opportunity to do something that had been on my to-do list for years—namely, to do nothing. But wait, I don’t mean I just slacked off. I wrote the essay—I just wrote it in a way that deliberately avoided any mention of certain events.
I had been given a similar opportunity many years ago, when I was asked to write the capsule biography of Arbuckle for the book 501 Movie Stars. I failed that time.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 5, 2013
In the third quarter of 2013, Netflix’s streaming service passed HBO in its number of subscribers, reaching 31.1 million. Buoyed by the success of its original series, as well as exclusive “season-after” deals on shows like The Walking Dead, the streaming business continues to grow exponentially. In comparison, the company’s original DVD-by-mail operation has become an afterthought. Only 7.1 million still receive those red envelopes, less than half of DVD subscribers from just a few years ago, and the company has been shutting down distribution centers in response (down to 39 from a high of 58). While CEO Reed Hastings pays lip service to the importance of physical media, all of its actions indicate that Netflix DVD-by-mail is close to extinction (for more, read this article by Janko Roettgers). These are distressing times for movie lovers, as each technical innovation paradoxically makes it more difficult to view the vast majority of film history. With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history. A once-totemic figure like Frank Borzage, who was honored in a Fox box set in the long-ago year of 2008, has no titles streaming on Netflix. But for years the Fox discs have been available to rent from Netflix. As one of the 7.1 million still renting physical media from Netflix, I took advantage and watched 7th Heaven for the first time.
Posted by Moira Finnie on October 20, 2013
A missing piece of the puzzle in Orson Welles‘ career could be found at The George Eastman House in Rochester, NY last Wednesday evening. Hundreds of fortunate film lovers witnessed a bit of cinematic history at the North American premiere of the recently restored work print that comprises Too Much Johnson in The Dryden Theatre on October 16th. Never completed by the wondrously ambitious, over-scheduled, and often under-financed young Welles, the real beginnings of the prodigy’s love affair with movies can be glimpsed in these three chaotic, often funny and engaging silent scenes, alive with the raw curiosity of Welles with a new toy and the high spirits of his talented company of players. Too Much Johnson doesn’t have the astonishing verve or visual polish of Citizen Kane or the depth of The Magnificent Ambersons, but the existence of this film confirms the remarkable creativity pouring from Welles during his early career.
Welles had made a surreal, striking eight minute film, The Hearts of Age (1934) while still in his teens, experimenting with makeup, technical effects and symbolism, but his eye and enchantment with the medium’s real possibilities jumps off the screen when viewing the disparate images in Too Much Johnson, even today. Long believed lost, the last copy of this unfinished film was thought to have been consumed (“rosebud”-like) in a fire in 1970 at the Welles home in Madrid, Spain until it was found five years ago in Italy. How these films wound up moldering away, neglected and unknown in a warehouse in Italy is still a mystery.
UPDATE! Aug. 21, 2014. Too Much Johnson is now available online thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation and can be viewed here.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on October 15, 2013
For eleven years the Museum of Modern Art has been hosting “To Save and Project”, their international festival of film preservation, highlighting the major archival discoveries and restorations from the past year. An annual reminder of the vital work being done by preservationists the world over, it acts as a preview of the repertory year to come, presenting classic Hollywood titles hopefully headed for Blu-Ray (Nightmare Alley) to epics from international auteurs receiving belated stateside attention (Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side). With nearly all of the 75-plus titles being screened on film, it’s also a polemical statement that celluloid remains the most stable and reliable format for preservation.
Posted by David Kalat on October 12, 2013
It’s getting ever closer to Halloween, and TCM is imminently going to screen the spectacular 1922 Nosferatu. I was asked to contribute an audio commentary on this legendary horror classic for the UK Blu-Ray edition from Masters of Cinema. In preparing my track I took the opportunity to challenge some of the received wisdom about the authorship of this film—but one disadvantage of the audio commentary format as a vehicle for that kind of discussion is that I was limited to the visual examples presented by the film itself. To really make my case I wanted to be able to show some other film clips or stills—which is best suited to a blog! So here we go—into the mad world of Nosferatu’s creator, F.W. Murnau Albin Grau!
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on September 24, 2013
In 2009 The New Zealand Project was initiated, a collaboration between the New Zealand Film Archive, the National Film Preservation Foundation and private collectors to preserve and distribute American films housed in the NZFA’s vaults. They had stacks of American nitrate prints that had gone untouched for years, since the NZFA had focused their efforts on preserving their local film history. In 2010 nitrate experts Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate their holdings and assess which titles were most in need of help. What they discovered was astonishing, a cache of presumably “lost” films, including John Ford’s Upstream and the first three reels of The White Shadow, for which Alfred Hitchcock was the assistant director, editor, scenarist and art director. In total 176 films were shipped to the U.S. for preservation. Many of these rescued titles are streaming on the National Film Preservation Foundation website, and today the NFPF released a DVD with some highlights of this trove. “Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive” includes the Ford and Hitchcock features, as well as a selection of shorts and newsreels that haven’t been seen since their original release over 90 years ago. TCM will air a selection of these titles on November 17th and 24th.
Posted by David Kalat on September 21, 2013
From September and on for the next several months, on Mondays and Tuesdays TCM is airing a sprawling and ambitious multipart documentary called The Story of Film. As you have may have sussed out by now, this is a somewhat controversial program–in large measure because of its rather jaundiced view of classical Hollywood genre filmmaking. For an audience that watches TCM regularly, and finds leisure time to visit a TCM-sponsored classic movie blog like this, Story of Film‘s stance isn’t likely to find many happy supporters.
That being said, there’s a lot about Hollywood genres that is worth revisiting, challenging, and interrogating. There is too much received wisdom that has calcified around certain subjects, creating preconceptions that get in the way of being able to engage with these films in a fresh and clear-eyed way. And so, seen from that perspective, creator Mark Cousins’ approach represents an opportunity to explode some unhelpful conventional wisdom…
When it comes to silent comedy, though, he blows past that opportunity, managing to be simultaneously vaguely hostile to Hollywood’s classic era while also being uncritical about what it meant. Here’s what he says about silent comedy in the book version of Story of Film: “Silent American cinema’s greatest genre, comedy, had changed course at the beginning of the sound era and the fates of its director-stars were varied.” Yup, there it is again–that old canard about silent comedy being distinct from talkie comedy, and superior–treating 1928 as some kind of Rubicon.
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