To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation

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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.

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Nosferatu to you too, and the horse you rode in on

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!

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Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive

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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.

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Don’t send in the clowns

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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Mating Games: A Girl in Every Port (1928)

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It’s hard to conceive of Howard Hawks without sound. His films are focused on work and its downtime, and it is in spurts of chatter in which his characters define themselves. As physical as their occupations may be, it’s always their words that reveal their true selves. Which is why watching Hawks’ silent films are so disorienting. The Museum of the Moving Image is in the midst of a full retrospective of Hawks’ work, and this past weekend they screened many of his silents, including A Girl in Every Port (1928), which manages to set up many of the director’s pet themes before the arrival of sound allowed his talents to fully emerge.

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Dr. Caligari: A Macabre Tale by Haunted Writers


drctitlecard (1)The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
airs tonight on TCM as supportive programming for The Story of Film, the 15-part documentary series about the history of world cinema.  Episode 3 covers German Expressionism, so tonight’s TCM schedule also includes F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Along with Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane, Dr. Caligari is a staple in many introductory film courses, including mine.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I have seen this story of a madman who manipulates a sleepwalker into killing for him well over 100 times. I was sad to discover that it is slated for 2:15am EST, forcing those who want to catch it to set their DV-Rs or other time-shifting devices. Given its importance, it deserves to kick off the evening’s programming.

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The Story of Film: The Crowd (1928)

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Earlier this month Turner Classic Movies began airing The Story of Film, a 15-chapter documentary by Mark Cousins tracking the history of the moving image from 1895 – 2000s. Running from now through December, TCM will also air 52 movies that Cousins mentions in his work. To coincide with The Story of Film Chapter 2: 1918 – 1928, tonight TCM will air everything from Nanook of the North (1922, 8PM) to King Vidor’s silent masterpiece The Crowd (1928, 2AM). While Nanook was recently issued on Blu-Ray, The Crowd is only available on out-of-print VHS, so this airing is a rare opportunity to see it in a decent edition. George Feltenstein, the Senior Vice President of Theatrical Catalog Marketing at WB, recently wrote that the home video future of The Crowd depends on the sales of Vidor’s The Big Parade, which comes out on October 1st. It was originally because of the The Big Parade’s massive success that Vidor was allowed to make the smaller, artier The Crowd, so maybe it will have the same effect on WB executives today. Like Murnau’s Sunrise (’27) or Paul Fejos’ Lonesome (’28), The Crowd depicts the trials of the everyday with expressionistic intensity, proving that the working man is as worthy of tragedy as royalty.

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The Story of Film: The Life of an American Editor

As any fan of reality TV can tell you, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are poorly policed.  Reality shows emphasize drama—often following entirely predictable and palpably artificial storylines—yet are constituted of footage of events that actually happened.  The irony is that for all the ways that this may feel challenging or new, it has been part of cinema since the very beginning.  This is where movies began, in the 1880s and 90s.

The earliest motion pictures were just what their name said: pictures that moved.  And as such they had a lot in common with pictures that didn’t move—records of real events.  Take a quick look at whatever pictures you have on your phone.  How many are attempts to tell stories, or to be artistic, versus how many are documentary records of things that happened to you?  Think about what comprised the first ever Lumiere Brothers film show in 1895—here’s our office, here’s our friends, this is somebody’s baby.  It’s a photo album that moves.  All that’s missing are some Lumiere Brothers selfies throwing up deuces.

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The Entertainer: Allan Dwan (Part 1)

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“Directing movies — I’d do it for free, I like it that well.” -Allan Dwan to Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By…

The 400 or so films that Allan Dwan directed are playgrounds for their actors, sandboxes of freewheeling experiment. Trained as an electrical engineer, Dwan was a technical innovator, but his flourishes were always in service to the specific talents of his performers.  In his self-effacing style, elaborate tracking and dolly shots never call attention to themselves, but only to the characters on-screen. Whether its suave Franchot Tone swinging off a saloon chandelier in Trail of the Vigilantes (1940) or glamour queen Gloria Swanson fighting through a packed subway car in Manhandled (1924), Dwan found hidden reserves of athleticism and wit in his stars. They would need it to motor through the  scenarios of borders, doublings and makeshift families that Dwan was assigned, which he treated as complex logic problems that are always solved, from institutional separation (political or geographic) into personal bonds (lovers, friends). He oils these Hollywood mechanics through his attention to character detail and penchant for parody, able to pack pathos and the madcap into his unstable, gleefully entertaining concoctions.

Dwan has never had the name recognition of some of his classical Hollywood contemporaries, and aside from Peter Bogdanovich’s essential interview book The Last Pioneer (1971), has had precious little written about his inexhaustible career. Some of this has to do print scarcity, as much of his silent one-reelers are lost, and his Republic Pictures films might as well have been due to rights limbo. That has all changed this year, with two major retrospectives (at MoMA in NYC and Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna), and a flood of writing, from Frederic Lombardi’s critical biography Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios to the massive (free) dossier published by Gina Telaroli and David Phelps, a labor of love with contributors from around the world (including yours truly). After viewing twenty-some of his films over the past month, I’m about to add more to the pile.

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Report from the trenches: Slapsticon 2013

I used to say that Slapsticon was the most wonderful time of the year—but then last year it didn’t happen at all.

It’s like Christmas was canceled.  So its return this year is doubly sweet—it’s the most wonderful time of two years!

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For the uninitiated, Slapsticon is a putatively-annual four-day classic film convention dedicated to slapstick (mostly silent) comedy.  But that doesn’t properly describe it—it’s unlike any other classic film fest I’ve ever encountered.  For one thing, it’s all movies.  Other fests are mostly dealers’ rooms with an ancillary screening room attached.  Slapsticon allows its luminaries to hawk their own books and DVDs, but 99% of the thing is a bunch of film geeks packed into a screening room.

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