Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fin de Cine

(Being an unofficial continuation of the discussion "Where Were You in '92?" about the disappearance of films - on film.)

In the '80s many t.v. stations stopped showing 16mm sources and converted to videotape technology. They sold off their massive 16mm film libraries, mostly to private collectors. The market was flooded with 16mm copies of almost every conceivable movie and t.v. show, and they were going - for a while - for about the cost of a VHS tape (e.g.: a 16mm print of "Demon With A Glass Hand" for $20.)

These 16mm prints had no perceived value in the marketplace, since VHS had become the de facto home-viewing option.

A few years after that the largest 16mm rental house, Film Inc. (which predominantly rented to schools and military bases) went out of business as well, holding a public auction. 25 years later, the original rights holders of these films can't supply museums, festivals, or theatre chains with film prints - 35mm or 16mm - of their films. Warner Brothers can't supply programmers with "A Clockwork Orange." They don't have them (I presume they are out there somewhere, in private hands).

Warners' advice - rent the DVD and project it that way.

Just because something has been on DVD doesn't mean it's been properly restored or archived. Many of the gray market/foreign prints of otherwise out-of-print titles that crop up online are actually from video elements - Secam or BetaSP tapes acquired from some fire-sale seller; sometimes even from a pan-and-scan VHS tape.

Perhaps the only film copies of many titles are in the hands of private collectors, on 4th-generation 16mm t.v. prints.

Film preservation has moved closer to being a computer expert recently than being a librarian. Rather than collecting and managing the original source materials, it's conceivable that a preservationist may never actually lay his hands on a piece of film; instead they scan and manipulate "digital assets," furthering a myopic digital groupthink.

In the old days (before, perhaps, 1980) film preservation meant being a hoarder. You would get your hands on any and all pieces of film you could lay your hands on, usually (and if extremely lucky) at critical historically advantageous periods. Like when sound came in in the early '30s, and all the silent films were discarded or recycled for the silver content.

Or during the late '60s, when all the videotapes of old made-for-television movies or old episodes of Johnny Carson were erased to make room for the tapes of new shows.

Natural hoarders thrived in this environment, but weren't turning around to exhibit the treasure - they lived a somewhat subterranean life for fear of being arrested for owning something that wasn't theirs (in spite of the fact it may have been found in the dumpsters behind the Sunset-Gower studio vaults). Hoarders can be stingy on allowing access - the stuff they covet is the most rare; in fact the more degraded and discounted the better. It took work and devotion to find it, and it may be unique; they fancy themselves collectors, not curators.

Henri Langlois, of the Cinémathèque Française, was famously indiscriminate and promiscuous in his acquisition procedures (yet failed miserably to record what - and how - he had what he had). Kevin Brownlow has spent his entire adult life tracking down the apparently endless outtakes and versions of Gance's 1927 "Napoleon" (to increasingly diminishing returns).

The studios have abandoned maintaining and managing their 35mm prints - that burdensome privilege goes (for now) to independent contractors like Technicolor Delivery (a subsidiary of the old color-processing company) and Theatre Transit, two truck-based delivery services that are becoming increasingly obsolete as digital delivery slowly, expensively, but exonerably gains a foothold in exhibition.

(The video and digital masters, meanwhile, often less carefully managed since they're not the "originals," often fall into the hands of grey-market entrepreneurs who sell them to foreign dvd and cable distributors, irregardless of where the rights might lie, over and over again. Vide the many conflicting releases of "Bloodsport.")

Meanwhile, the studios have a new challenge - to save and possibly archive all the miles of "digital" footage created by new productions, who think that since they're no longer yoked by the chemical burden of developing film, they can keep the camera(s) rolling far beyond normal or useful parameters.

As the new age of DVD restorations proves profitable, the methodology of resurrecting films - often to exploit commercially by adding value with outtakes or deleted scenes - has changed what's saved, and how. Will preservationists seek out these hoarders, with their neo-ludditian affection for celluloid (or polyester...or acetate)?

Will future restorers have access to the lost footage, alternate European or t.v. edits, discarded outtakes and other ephemera such as trailers which may have footage not in the film but which reveals clues to other deleted scenes?

Eventually there will be a tipping point, maybe as soon as 5 years in the future - maybe in 10. And the theatres, in full concert with the studios, will finally abandon film and go entirely to the "convenience" and "security" of digital delivery.

It will mean no more scratches. And it will mean no more new films projected from film. No more chemical-based (as opposed to "bit"-based) backups.

In 5 or 10 years, no more film.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Modern Problems

Cheech and Chong films of the '70s and '80s were cultural milestones, and wildly successful, in spite of their unavoidable looseness of structure and limited production values.

Hey what do you expect; they're dope movies.

They're on DVD, but in plain-vanilla versions with no extras. They've been effectively dumped. (Universal must somehow be embarrased by their irresponsible content. Which is why they're so perfect for their times.) They're not available for midnight shows either - no 35mm prints are in circulation, and possibly aren't in existence anymore.

John Landis's "Animal House" in 1978 started a whole wave of rude college-age adolescent films, and great hay of being irresponsible. "Animal House" owes much of its frission to the fact that everyone is supposed to be in college and above such antics by then.

That was a booze movie.

Films about drugs don't seem to be popular in the modern culture so much anymore. The grosses of "Harold and Kumar," "Half-Baked," and arguably "Pineapple Express" bear out the fact that stoners don't tend to go out to see themselves depicted in movies. It's tempting to say that they aren't clued in, but that's a cliche' - they're all over the shit. They simply don't get around to seeing it before it leaves theatres. Like most of us.

(Of course, the DVD impulse buys 6 months later at 7-Eleven makes up.)

Is pot humor no longer relevant? I'm not so sure; at least 75% of the adults I know do or have smoked pot (maybe I'm running in the wrong circles). It's not like cocaine, which seems to have receded into the been-there-regretted-that revisionist phase of the past. It's so '80s.

Being politically correct has ruined humor in films. When's the last time you were really shocked in a comedy? Judd Apatow's films have their share of rude humor, but I'm cautious of their lurching half-assed gentleness that's disguised as pants-down adolescent confession. His films, even the excessive (on the wrong levels) "Superbad," blithely sidesteps the angry base heart of more socially aware "slob" comedies like "Animal House," with everything from handjobs to dead horses to dean's wives, or real counter-culture smartbombs like Ralph Bakshi's "Coonskin" or "Heavy Traffic" (which demonstrated 30 years ago a truly subversive disregard for boundaries I don't think Bakshi quite understood or could ever harness again).

These films - these comedies - seemed somehow dangerous. The new generation of "American Pie" films don't - they're closer to the fart jokes of old Mel Brooks. Sure, they get the parents into the act. Why should the teens have all the Porky's fun? But it's grade school softball. The Mary's hair gel bit in "There's Something About..." is only 30 seconds long. They didn't know what to do with it.

Eddie Murphy used to make us nervous - until he began talking to the animals in Anthony Newley remakes.

Even John Landis couldn't remain irresponsible forever. He killed Vic Morrow and a couple of Cambodian kids, and his career (which was meteoric if short) thereafter hit the "Old Boyfriends" brick wall of "Oscar." "Three Amigos" already had us gunning for him anyway.

But in that dark period he did sneak "Into The Night" past the thought police - which may be the ultimate "up all night" film. It stars a gimbel-limbed and sleep-deprived Jeff Goldblum, our lady of the cocaine-mistress Michelle Pfeiffer, a hopeless spy subplot, and is fueled by a speed adrenaline that's relentless, seductive, and hypnotic.

It's not just content - it's attitude. It not only depicts transgressive behavior - it personifies it to its core. There's something peculiarly Michael Milken/Wall Street takeover about it - ruthless and material. "After Hours" and "Miracle Mile" are two more late '80s cocaine up-all-night films which, if viewed through the right rose-colored glasses, may seem like precedents to Apatow/Rogan's "Pineapple Express," with drug-informed meditations on being "up," being out of control, out of your element and surrounded by excess.

"After Hours" disguises itself as a romantic comedy. "Miracle Mile," perhaps more revealingly, turns into an apocalyptic nightmare.

The difference between those 2 and Apatow's/Rogan's "Pineapple..." is that the later is a pot film. The others are cocaine films. There's something personal, intense, and paranoid about cocaine that the laid-back feeling of pot doesn't quite translate when drug dealers are being shot 100 times right next to you and bleeding all over your serge suit.

Rogan thinks its a right joke. Landis and De Jarnatt are stone serious.

Cheech and Chong were of their times. They reflected the age, and the audiences that partaked in them. In the old days, you could actually smoke pot in movie theatres. I grew up in a simpler, less uptight movie-going age. The security guards didn't come crack a flashlight upside your head when you lit up back in the midnight movie years. All they were worried about was someone sneaking in the side exit. (Now they're worried you'll steal the movie. You already did.)

The moving-going experience is different now. Since you can't fire up while the film's going on, you might as well wait until the DVD or Tivo it on PPV and have the party at home.

In 1981, Chevy Chase starred in "Modern Problems." He develops supernatural powers, and wrecks (and reeks) havoc with his neighbors and bosses. At one point he snorts a 15-foot-long line of "demon powder" (talk about art mirroring life) and masturbates Patti D'Arbanville "telekinetically" to a wild orgasm.

Just another party movie. This got a PG rating. The kids could come. It was directed by Ken Shapiro, a NFL cameraman who hit it big on the midnight circuit with his "The Groove Tube," the most memorable scene of which involves an actual talking penis facing you on the big screen for about 4 minutes.

This wouldn't come across the same way in this age of video, iPods and home screens. You'd just have to be there, seeing it at midnight after a couple of 40 oz.'rs or a shared spliff, with 100 other impressionable college students. Seeing it at home, by yourself with access to a remote, seems a bit cold and pointless.

They don't make 'em like they used to.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Where Were You In '92?

The current state of film preservation seems mostly to be concerned with finding old prints of films considered lost. That's all well and good - with an estimated 80 to 90% of silent films before 1930 deteriorated or gone, there's a lot of work to do.

(It wasn't until the advent of t.v. in the '50s that films really began to be saved more methodically, if only to show late at night. Now they want you to pay for it, by renting or selling you the DVDs. Of "The Lucy Show," no less.)

But there's a new generation of films - from the '80s and '90s - that have slowly and quietly been lost as well.

Dozens of small and medium-sized production companies that were created in the early days of VHS and cable, that struck deals for any and all independent films that suddenly had international audiences and portable assets, found themselves facing hard times as DVDs, the internet, and true "100 stations" finally came to fruition in the '90s.

Companies such as Hemdale, Vestron, Working Title, Miramax, Trimark, October Films, Live, ThinkFilm and Handmade all found their business models challenged and undermined in the last 20 years. All these companies have been sold off, cannibalized, or simply shut down.

In many cases their libraries were sold to the highest bidders, often to pay off creditors. Most of the films should have been sold to VHS or shown on cable stations, and many of them were. Ever see "The Reflecting Skin"? An early Viggo Mortensen psycho-drama that screwed up a whole generation of kids in the early '90s who caught it in its short cable life.

The rights to these films, usually a tangled web of foreign contracts with varying terms, deals, and rates were left alone and forgotten. The "assets" themselves, the films (never in the same place), have also changed hands uncounted and untracked.

These companies were responsible for hundreds of films, many of them from independent, foreign, and culturally important filmmakers in the last half of last century.

You can't find them anymore.

There's a whole generation of Ken Russell films that aren't available. He's still alive, you know, and been making films, but almost his entire late '80s and '90s output is out of print. Doesn't "Crimes of Passion" or "Whore" count for something? We used to rush out to see every Ken Russell film because...well, because it was Ken Russell. "Gothic" and "Salome's Last Dance" both have at best grey-market pan-and-scan releases. In legal limbo and not likely to rise to the surface again.

(And why are "The Devils" or "Listzomania" - two of his early and most hysterical classics - also not available in any format, including 35mm prints from the rights holders? I don't think this has to do entirely with Ken Russell (although no one ever really known what to do with him in the first place).)

Many films during the go-go era of the last 2 decades have gotten lost not through policy, but through neglect. Not just the prints, but the original elements, promo materials, and the rights themselves have gone untracked and forgotten as companies looked forward rather than back. The vaults themselves that held the assets (assuming they were held in vaults in the first place) have been sold, and possibly torn down or converted to condos.

Miramax owns various domestic rights to hundreds of foreign and domestic independent films, many of which had very limited or no theatrical releases. In the legal limbo when the Weinstein Bros. were put asunder from Disney, these films are now unobtainable.

(And it continues - Tarantino's and Rodriguez's ode to '70s film "Grindhouse" in its original form - with the shorter runtimes and fake trailers - is no longer available... in any format. It's for all practical purposes a lost film. Miramax isn't in the business of maintaining libraries for rent of 35mm films they own.)

Have these films been abandoned?

By example, Jeff Lipsky's October Films, an important distributor in the '90s, was bought and turned into USA in 1999. Later it was merged with Gramercy, and later Universal folded it into Good Machine (after buying them out) and renamed the skeleton Focus Features. Of course, each change further confused, diluted, and scattered the previous agreements. The original October library has been cherry-picked over the years, but such items as the post-"Bad Lieutenant" Abel Ferrara films and Pedro Almodovar's "Kika" are MIA.

(Interestingly, Mr. Lipsky appears to be lost at the moment as well.)

The foreign DVDs you may be able to find online are not from prints, but from video elements, sometimes from old VHSs.

The irony is, most of these small companies are bought for their libraries.

In the rush to commodify the new culture, the films have been treated like so much deodorant, bought and sold like cans of baked beans. Their shelf life has been prematurely shortened.

Can you hear me?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Smart Agent

In the old days, there were only a handful of channels by which you could watch shows on t.v. They showed classic movies, and I got the vast majority of my early film history from watching whatever they showed in the afternoon on the weekends ("Attack of the Mushroom People") or late at night ("In A Lonely Place"). You had to choose from a very limited list what you most wanted to watch.

"I hear Hitchcock's a good director. Maybe I should check that out."

Now that there's 100s of stations and 1000s more on the internet, it's easy for the new generations to see what they want to. Too easy.

They won't end up discovering Nicholas Ray because it's the only thing on. And they'll never make it a point to sit through Orson Welles because it's only shown once a decade again. Infinite access to all things makes those things less valuable. It's supply vs. demand; scarcity creates value. Now you don't have to "earn" the experience. Anything is called up at a click.

Now such films aren't even shown. Sure, Bogart's films are still out there. But they're lost - absolutely buried in all the other options out there. The good stuff used to be "pushed" towards me. Now, I have to "pull" it to me if I want to encounter it.

So the old classics are lost in plain sight, undetected in the stacks of libraries - online and physical. (It's not enough that the negatives of the films lost in the Universal fire are stored elsewhere - what good do they do when there are no accessible prints in existence?)

The only way their secrets will be revealed is if the new audiences are directed to them, by search bots - smart agents - that collect your personal interests and extrapolate what you would be interested in, what you should be looking at.

In the www age, we need smart filters to push pertinent info to us more than ever. How many times have you found yourself lost while trying to look something up online? It's like being in a library that's been hit by an earthquake - with all the books in a pile on the floor with no way to find what you want.

Our cultural memory is diluted. Used to be they'd show old films on t.v. all Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Now it's infomercials (why give it away for free?).

Which means, 90% of people under the age of 25 has never seen a frame of black-and-white film.

Those cool MTV videos don't count.

Mediators - teachers, mentors, or coaches - can lead the new generations towards what they should watch. Archives and museums should continue to curate art worth knowing, not just the new and the now, but the influential, the historical, the unique.

Otherwise, the future custodians of culture, infinitely distracted by the latest Hollywood gimcracks, the newest handheld technologies, the firewire downloads, will never know what was and what should be.

Having it available isn't enough. These kids need to be slapped around a little, have some sense knocked into them. They need to be told what's what.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Once Bitten

A married print is one that has the soundtrack "attached" to the film, so it plays (as it should) in a projector.

When a film is in previews, and by that I mean they're showing it to audiences before it's entirely done to see if what they got is what they think they got, the soundtrack isn't yet married.

A gaggle of studio technicians will come into the theatre where you're working and install a special interlocked device to play the soundtrack in one projector at exactly the same rate as the film as it goes through another projector. (A drift of a mere frame per minute can turn into mis-syncing within 5 minutes. An audience can tell if the sound isn't coming out of the mouth the way it's supposed to.)

Back in the late '80s, the Samuel Goldwyn company came into the theatre I worked at to test-screen the new Lauren Hutton vampire comedy, "Once Bitten" (which also starred Jim Carrey, before he would explode into stardom with "Ace Ventura"a year later). They were worried (they weren't sure how the film was really going to play, in its rough state) and had 2 unannounced screenings, a couple months before it was released, one at 6:00 and one 9:00. They recruited a young crowd for the 6:00, telling them only that it was a "comedy" from a major motion picture company, and they found out what they already knew: that the film wasn't working.

It was a rough cut, admittedly, and some of the sound wasn't finished and transitions weren't very elegant. It was a work print, and the actual splices were still in this copy. (They expressed concern that they had all be checked to make sure they didn't break during projection. It would wreak havoc ("Reek"? "Wreck"?) with the sound syncing playback.)

They ran a hand-held sound mixer with a wire back to the booth to the middle of the auditorium, and a sound guy sat there through the film adjusting levels depending on the way the mix sounded in the crowded auditorium.

The film ran over 2 hours. There was one sequence in particular that stopped the film dead, about 40 minutes in. It was some talky scene in which someone (not Mr. Carrey) talks about their motivation or backstory with someone else, and from that point on nothing seemed to work until the end. It was as if the scene sucked all enthusiasm or ability to laugh out of the audience.

It had to go.

After the first show was over and the audience response cards were read, the technicians in the booth found the spot in the film, in reel 3 and held the film up to the light. They then took a scissors and cut the film and dumped it into the garbage can.

A hundreds of feet of the stuff. About 5 or 6 minutes of film. It was amazing. And across the booth, another pair of technicians dumped the corresponding soundtrack-ed reel sequence into another trashcan.

It was the epitome of high-level crunch-decision Hollywood editing at its finest.

The 9:00 show went much better. Later, as they were packing up, I asked if they intended to keep the deleted scene they had in the trashcans.

They said they were taking it with them, to burn.

Friday, August 1, 2008


I've written elsewhere (here, in fact) on how actual prints of films reflect the history and the wear they've acquired as they've travelled through the world, through many projectors, and many hands. Each showing of a film, by dint of its physicality, is different than the one before. Different tolerances, different age and conditions, and slightly (if you're lucky) different wear. And that doesn't even take into account the audience watching, and their response each time.

A film showing to an empty theatre brings up philosophical questions about spectatorship, mechanical reproduction, and semiotic phenomenology that I don't have the space, inclination, or ability to go into here.

Professor Paolo Cherchi Usai has the inclination - he teaches film at University of Rochester in NY, and champions archiving and preservation, especially forgotten silent films. He's gone further than most, however, by suggesting a discipline that looks beyond merely restoring some "perfect" or original version of the film, and considers each copy of the film to be its own unique variant - that reflects the age and treatment its received, changing and veering away from the original state (assuming there is an "original" state of any work of art, which is another phenomenological barrel of wax).

Each print becomes a version - damaged and repaired, spliced or edited, altered for regional, legal, aesthetic, or personal reasons. The usual suspects are film workers, projectionists, and censors, but also may include museum curators, collectors, and even film fetishists. (Pace the numerous prints of "Blow-Up" from 1966 that had frames of Vanessa Redgrave nudity surreptitiously cut out.)

This aesthetic embraces and celebrates the plastic nature of film - the actual physical surface of the stuff, made up of images captured chemically. It's sculpture, and is not "committed" to a final state once released into the world. Each print becomes an interactive and ever-changing and never-completed alternate. Which challenges the concept of "restoring" a film.

Digital restoration processes traditionally remove flaws to recreate a "pristine" copy. But it's not the original, only a representation. While this is useful for access and distribution, it ignores the issues raised by the state of the primary source (or sources).

This entire outlook directly challenges our relationship to physical objects. Are we preserving /recreating a copy that is only an idea of what it "should" be, or should we preserve the actual artifact?

Usai argues that it no longer matters. The original print, no matter how bitched-up and fingered, is an actual source. And the actual state of the variant should be preserved as a historical palimpsest.

This actually isn't as daft as it may first seem. I've heard of this before - many horror films of the '70s and '80s, particularly of European descent, often had different versions tailored to the markets. Trashy films like Lucio Fulci's "Perversion Story" or Franco's "Female Vampire" had violent cuts, or sexy cuts, sometimes even having hardcore scenes cut in by some unknown hand (making the "restored Continental versions" more highly prized to the underground bootleg horndog market).

But this also comes up in the documentary on the recent Kino DVD of Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin." The restorers found a negative of the film in Germany, dating from the late '20s, in the best shape they'd seen by far, but shortened by many shots. They began recreating the film from this censored print, until research discovered that this version was cut by Eisenstein himself to conform to the censorship requirements in pre-Nazi Germany at the time. In other words, a rare (and apparently unique) variant by Eisenstein himself, as valuable as the original.

So the next time you see scratches on a print of the latest Adam Sandler film at your local multiplex, consider it history wrote in celluloid.

(Those interested may find more to read here:)