Update on King of the Kongo

Boris Karloff shows up in Chapter 9. This is only slightly restored; we’re in the middle of this process.

I’m posting this in various groups that are asking me about this.  If you follow me on the Dr. Film page, you may have heard some of this, but it’s worth reading because there’s new information in here too.

THE PROJECT:

King of the Kongo is the first sound serial, made in 1929.  Although it’s been on video for years, the prints available are really bad, and they were all made from the sound version without the sound discs, so not only does it look bad, but doesn’t make sense without the sound.

It’s not a great film, but it’s fun.  I think it was partly the inspiration for Son of Kong, which also takes place in a wrecked temple, has a gorilla, jewels, and some dinosaurs in it.  Other than that, they’re different!

It’s also the first time Boris Karloff has dialogue in a sound film.  It’s his second sound film, the first being Behind that Curtain, which came out about a month earlier, although he has no real dialogue in that.

I’ve been working on this since 2011, and I bought a print of the film in 1989!  I have collected as many sound discs as survive on this one.  The entire picture survives, but only some of the sound.  Keep reading.

THE HISTORY:

King of the Kongo was released in late summer 1929 to a lot of ballyhoo.  It was released as a sound-on-disc only and it was called a “wild animal serial.”  True to their word, there are lions, cheetahs, “gorillas,” “dinosaurs,” and elephants in the film.  There was a silent version offered, but I have found no record that it actually played anywhere in the silent version.

In the 1950s, two collectors found a beaten up nitrate print with no sound discs and made a run of 16mm prints.  I spoke to one of the collectors who made these prints.  There are a few of these in private hands.  I think there were only 5-6 made.  I bought one of these prints.  The lab work is, shall we say, questionable.

Several video companies released various copies of the film mastered from various prints in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 2011, I discovered that the print I had bought in 1989 was actually the sound version.  I had only dimly considered it for a restoration project, but the curiosity got me to contact Ron Hutchinson, who sent me copies of several sound discs he had.

I did a Kickstarter to restore Chapter 5, and subsequently restored Chapter 6 and 10 with National Film Preservation Foundation grants.  Each chapter is two reels (each reel lasting about 10 min), and there’s a talking sequence (about 2-3 min) in each reel.  The rest of each reel is silent with a music and effects track.  So far, the sound survives for about half the serial: Chapter 4 (one reel), Chapter 5 (both reels), Chapter 6 (both reels), Chapter 7 (one reel) Chapter 8 (one reel), Chapter 9 (one reel) and Chapter 10 (both reels).  The script for the entire film survives.

As I was finishing up the work on the last of the NFPF grant work, word came to me that there was a stock film library that had the entire film in 35mm.  Given that what I had was from beaten up 16mm prints made in the 1950s, the idea that there was nitrate was of some surprise.

THE CURRENT PROJECT:

I had been negotiating with the owner of the stock film library and the Library of Congress (where the stock film library is now held) since 2015.  The length of time this has taken has led many to believe that I’m an evil hoarder who will never release this material.  I just felt there wasn’t really cause to release what I had if there was a chance of getting better material, really four generations better than what I’d restored.

This year, I got all the details worked out, and we went through the whole film.  In one state or another most of it survives in 35mm.  We still have only 10 of the 21 reels of sound, but that’s not changed in several years.

The LoC currently has 47 reels of material on the film, and, amazingly, much of this is original camera negative!  Given that this was a Mascot serial, later a part of Republic, the master negatives should have burned with the bulk of the Republic and Mascot material in the great Fox nitrate fire of 1937.  Just how this survived is a mystery.

So we’re trying to restore the entire film with the best surviving material from each chapter, the best surviving sound material from each chapter, and using actors to recreate the missing sound.

WHERE WE ARE ON IT: 

I am restoring the whole film at 4K right now.  The Library of Congress is still in the process of scanning materials.  I’ve only seen about 1/3 of the material so far.  I have a grant that covers most of the cost of the actors and the blu-ray mastering, but the whole process at 4K is REALLY SLOW, and there’s a lot of damage in the film (keep reading).  I’m hoping to have a release of this on Blu-ray in 2020.  The grant I have is barely going to cover expenses, which means I’m going to have to do a lot of the work myself instead of farming it out while I do only the most critical work.  This just means it takes longer, but it’s happening.  FINALLY.

So far, I’ve rendered preliminary passes of Chapter 7, 9 and 10.  I’ve discovered that there’s a section of Chapter 9 that’s rotted out and will have to be replaced from 16mm.  Also, the surviving 35mm of Chapter 10 is missing the cliffhanger resolution and will have to be restored from 16mm. Even though we’re working from stunningly sharp negative on most of this, the negative is deteriorating.  There are glue splices that are starting to rot and there’s flickery decomposition throughout most reels.  I’m working with animation historian Steve Stanchfield to remove most of this, one more pass through restoration programs I wasn’t expecting.

WHAT I HAVE LEARNED:

This film really has some beautiful photography in it.  This aspect of the film has been missing in the horrible dupes that have been available for many years.  You can tell that some of it was shot on location and in a hurry in those scenes, so the lighting there is kinda hit or miss, but the interior scenes are very well done with some atmospheric lighting.

Some of the scenes in Chapter 6 were originally tinted!  Pretty amazing.  The negative has tinting instructions in it.

The temple scenes, credited with being shot at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, were inserted from camera negative shot in 1922 and 1927.  These shots, by and large, are responsible for a lot of the deterioration.  Apparently, producer Nat Levine just bought this negative and then had costumes made to “match cut” in with the footage of his actors shot in California.  The closer temple shots in California are shot in some deteriorating building, and I think it’s a Spanish mission.

WHAT I AM HOPING TO DO:

I’ll have a restoration commentary on this (that seemed to work well on Little Orphant Annie), and I’d like to have some guest commentators on this so I’m not shouldering a three-hour yawn fest of me telling you that this is from print one or print six.  I’ve contacted a whole swath of people and I’m hoping to have a number of them provide some good insights here.

WHAT YOU MAY HAVE HEARD:

There is another entity trying to release King of the Kongo on DVD/Blu-ray.  They have been spreading bad will in social media and the collector network.  If you have heard that I am hoarding material or if I am out after a cash grab on this for my own glory, this is not true.  The actual answer is that I’m bordering on psycho for working on this as much as I have!  I’ll be lucky to break even!

I don’t go for trashing other people in public forums, so I wish these guys well, and I hope they continue their work in restoring other serials.  I have no idea why they are so upset with me, but it’s been pretty nasty in some circles.  If they release King of the Kongo in their group, you have my blessing to buy it.  Maybe they’ll have some cool stuff I missed.

No, I will not be working with them.  Sorry, life is too short.

Karloff threatened by a gorilla in this, um, well, you’ve gotta love it.
Close-up from Chapter 9. This is from original camera negative
Larry Steers discovers jewels in European settings while searching through a Spanish Mission doubling for a Cambodian Temple, all of which is supposed to be taking place in Africa. OK, it’s not too accurate.

On Marvel and Snobbery

First off, let’s take this on a micro level. On the level of individuals and individual taste.

There’s been a lot of huff lately because Martin Scorsese has been on record saying that he thinks Marvel movies “aren’t cinema.” Francis Ford Coppola has backed him up. The backlash is that people are now saying that anyone who doesn’t like the Marvel films is a snob.

Wait a second. We’re all snobs. And we have to be. It’s self-defense.

All you have to do is scroll through Netflix and see the endless movies that are on there, and realize that it represents only a fraction of the movies produced and the ones that are available. If you sat and watched them all day, you’d never get to the end of it. You have to be your own filter.

You have to say, “I like this kind of film, and I don’t like that kind of film.” It’s that simple. It’s the way we eliminate things. It’s stereotyping, and it’s inherently unfair. And it’s snobbish.

And before you say, “Stereotyping is always bad,” remember that stereotyping has probably saved your life today. We all do it. We do it to save time and energy. You’re out driving and you think, “that van driver is an idiot. He’s weaving badly,” and you avoid him. A minute later and he veers into your lane, and you were right. You stereotyped him as an idiot, it was probably unfair, and you saved your life because of it. You may not have even been aware of it. Movies are the same way.

I filter movies in the same sort of way, and you probably do, too. I hate seeing the same thing over and over again. I hate getting 2/3 of the way through a movie and knowing how it’s going to end. You know the drill:

The killer monster isn’t REALLY dead, and he’s coming back for you…

The guy we thought was the cattle rustler isn’t really the cattle rustler, and the bad guy is actually a good guy.

James Bond gets out of a deadly situation because the bad guy comes up with some convoluted plan instead of JUST SHOOTING HIM.

The gangster is an emotionally constipated guy who is ruthless and deadly, and eventually causes a violent gang war in the last act of the film…

I hate movies like this. If I think they’re going to be completely predictable, I will skip them. My definition of a good movie is something that has me guessing by the last act. Charlie Kaufman films are good movies in my book. Sometimes I don’t even know what the hell they’re about even after I’ve left the theater.

So I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of Marvel Comics movies. They’re cookie-cutter movies, following the rules of Save the Cat, and I’d rather skip them. I know people will yell at me about this and tell me that I’ve never seen any of them, so how would I know?

Well, that’s kinda the point. I actually have seen some of them, in parts. I saw part of one of the Spider-Man movies by Sam Raimi. I like Raimi as a filmmaker, so I thought I’d give it a shot. The movie was not only predictable, but the CGI effects were idiotic and ruined the entire picture. They were so idiotic that I thought the animation in the old Filmation Spiderman shows was superior. That’s not a compliment to Filmation.

And now, they’ve rebooted it, what, twice? No, thanks. I assume the CGI is better now, but it needs to be a lot better and the plots a lot more interesting before I’m in.

Have I always been against superheroes? Well, no. I cut my teeth on the old George Reeves Superman shows, and I loved the old Batman shows with Adam West. Those were done in the accepted old way where we said, “Hey, these are comics, we can’t take it seriously, and so let’s be silly with it.” And the serious comic fans hated that (the Batman series much more so than the Superman series.)

In 1978, there was a reboot of Superman with Christopher Reeve. Reeve was a magnificent actor, and he did a lot with the part we hadn’t seen before. Moreover, they took the tone somewhat more seriously—it played more like a James Bond picture. There’s no coincidence there: the screenwriter was Tom Mankiewicz, who had written some of the Bond pictures in the early 70s.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the superhero movies piqued my interest. It was Tim Burton’s reboot of the Batman character. It wasn’t patterned after the comics, but it was reworked as a film noir/German Expressionist kind of film. It was a complete departure from what had been done before. Sign me up. Let’s give it a shot. I wasn’t the only one: lines were around the block just to see the trailer for this one. We all thought it would be a joke with comedic actor Michael Keaton in the lead, and we were wrong.

In 1992, he followed it up with a better version of the story, making it even MORE German Expressionistic (I’m a sucker for that), and we had a character named after 1920s German actor Max Schreck. I’m on board. But Burton’s vision was too dark for Warners, so they hired director Joel Schumacher to take over, and he camped it up again. Yawn.

Since then, the now-rebooted-twice DC universe has been in a race to be as dark as possible and as kid-unfriendly as it can be. The dark tone gets ridiculous because it’s so overdone. I generally like Christopher Nolan’s movies, but his Batman epics are, in my opinion, unwatchable. Too much cut-cut-cut spastic editing, too dark, and no characterization. Not interesting.

So I’ve written off both the DC universe and the Marvel universe. I guess the reasons are slightly different, but I still don’t care.

But that’s OK. I write off lots of stuff. I think Martin Scorsese is a great director, but I don’t like gory violence in movies, and I think gangster movies are so clichéd that I can’t stand them. Scorsese’s non-gangster movies (like Hugo or The Aviator) are excellent, but once I see DeNiro in the cast, I start to wonder if I want to see it.

I know a lot of people love gangster movies, but I have always thought the best one was The Public Enemy in 1931, which set the limits for every one to follow, and still has the most brutal ending of any gangster movie I’ve ever seen (even though they couldn’t show spurting guts in color, it’s still brutal.)

The pattern is always the same: Young upstart takes over the underworld, he’s emotionally constipated, can’t relate to anyone, very cold, and he fights, claws, and kills his way to the top. At the end, there’s a gang war and he’s either triumphant or is killed, depending on this slight variation.

The Godfather films are a nicely made version of this, and we have two characters in the films who play this plot out. Then there’s Goodfellas and Casino and The Departed and… I didn’t watch them. If they’re substantially different, then someone tell me and I’ll skip past the spurting guts.

Someone told me about The Sopranos and I thought, WOW, this must be finally the new wrinkle in the gangster stories I’ve hoped for. With the introduction of the psychologist character and a gangster who has emotional issues, I thought it might be something new. It was, but only for a while. They finally decided that Tony Soprano was a sociopath and was going to keep killing people anyway. And that sucked, because why would a sociopath seek counseling? They think they’re better than everyone else from the start… they would never talk to a counselor. I skipped the last couple of seasons.

So, if you’re keeping score, I’ve just written off the Marvel universe, the DC universe, and a lot of Scorsese and Coppola. I must be a super snob. I’ve spent about 1300 words defending my positions for disliking all these films and I’m now ready to completely refute my argument. Well, maybe not refute it, but I’ll definitely reframe it.

Because now, we’re going to transfer ourselves into the macro universe. The big picture, where we talk about cinema itself, the audience, and the direction of art. Not about individual preferences.

It doesn’t matter what I think.

It doesn’t matter what you think.

It doesn’t particularly matter what Scorsese and Coppola think.

Here’s the problem: whether you like the superhero films or not, they are cinema. They may be cinema we don’t like, but they’re cinema. The problem is that the superhero movies are crowding out everything else from theaters. This is by design. They see teenagers as ones who will buy merchandise (they make more money from that than tickets), and they see anyone outside that demographic as irrelevant. It is by design that I’m turned off by too many superhero movies.

I spoofed this in one of my podcasts where Dr. Film went to the multiplex to see Stan and Ollie and everything playing there was a superhero movie. (Incidentally, the reason I positioned the Dr. Film character as a film superhero was just to spoof this kind of thing. The podcast episode has me turning into a superhero to complain about superheroes. It’s a joke on a joke. Sorry I had to explain that!)

And this points up a bigger problem: what the hell is the world of cinema coming to when Martin Scorsese can barely get a film into the multiplex? Coppola can’t do it, either.

We’re at a point were Netflix is controlling the world of movies (they financed Scorsese’s latest picture), and Netflix has yet to decide whether they’re only a streaming service or a theatrical distributor AND a streaming service.

Meryl Streep has complained that we’ve catered films to teenage boys because they are the most reliable audience for theatrical movie. She’s right, and gee whiz, what did we get? Superhero movies.

We don’t have a wide audience going to movies because we’re catering to teens. The teens don’t know how to behave in movies, so they’re rude. They drive out the older folks. Add that to badly maintained projectors and theaters, and we have a microcosm of what’s wrong with movies today.

I don’t hate superhero movies. I don’t particularly want to see them, and that’s by design. The trouble is that we need variety back in theaters. We need the voices of Scorsese and Coppola. Hell, even Roger Corman. I’d rather see them come back than one more reboot of Spider-Man.

A Reflection on Ten Years at Garfield

Some guy introducing a movie at Garfield Park Art Center last year. Looks like a long film!

I generally avoid talking about my local exploits on the Dr. Film blog, because I know I have to pitch for a national or international audience. I don’t get enough local traction to stay in business! However, this is a special case, and it touches on a lot of ideas that are universal. A lot of it deals with how we perceive and build audiences.

When I became a full-time film geek in 2004, I had no idea how I was going to do it. I went to various places and told them I would like to run a film series. I got the same guff from most of them:

“We only want to run movies from the last ten years.”

“Indianapolis audiences are not sophisticated enough to support classic films.”

“You can only do something like this in Carmel (the rich suburb north of Indianapolis), where people support the arts.”

“If we’re not getting 50 or 75 people, then we’re not getting enough, and we’ll shut it down.”

These arguments annoyed me. Frankly, they still annoy me. I got several places to give me a chance, but they shut me down after a few shows. They didn’t know how to promote it, and they didn’t get enough people, and they just stopped.

Even more annoying were the places that would start having me do shows and see some limited success, then going with this idea: “Eric charges us, so we can download stuff from archive.org and just run that instead of having him here, and then we save money.” Without exception, those have died out too.

I’d like to think it’s because of my smiling face, but the reality is that people don’t want to leave the house anymore, and you have to give them a good reason to do it. What I’m giving them is a special show, some history, and a behind-the-scenes introduction. I try really hard not to run junk prints, and I always run on film, usually material that’s not just super easy to find elsewhere. Either that, or I’ll run a long version or a Technicolor print that you can’t see at home. In short, they’re seeing a curated movie series. And people respond to that.

People also respond to seeing films in an audience setting. I think that this is an endangered art form. We’re perilously close to losing the audience experience and replacing it with sitting in front of our 60” screen. That has advantages: no rude patrons, phone conversations, etc, but older films (and especially silents) were designed as a participatory shared experience. The Marx Brothers films, to name just one example, are timed for audience response. There are dead spots you’ll find if you watch them alone.

So in doing this work, I’m not only preserving films, but I’m preserving a way of watching films. This is a critical thing for me. I put the message, “Go out and see an old movie,” as the last title in the Dr. Film pilot. Yes, I believe in it that strongly. I can’t tell you the number of times I watched a movie with an audience—one I’d seen before—and it came alive for me, whereas is just sat there like a lump when I saw it at home.

As I continued doing film work, I moved more and more toward preservation and less and less toward doing movie shows. Movie shows are just too hard. The venues don’t want to deal with me, and you’re just spitting into the wind most of the time. I get tired of the same arguments, running Wizard of Oz and Casablanca to the exclusion of anything else.

There’s a fear that arts organizations have, and a certain cynicism. The fear is they can’t attract an audience, and they have to run only a sort of “best of” for a film series. The cynicism is that they don’t think the audiences are smart enough to deal with anything else than a “best of.” I continually am amazed at the idea that no audience will embrace anything older than the 80s. I call it the “Let’s run Ferris Bueller” mentality. It’s one reason I have steadfastly refused to run anything newer than Star Wars when I pick the films. Why? Because you can see those films easily, and you know them. Why run them again? (OK, it might be nice to see an occasional one in an audience setting, but not all the time, please.)

I’m in the business of selling a special experience, something you can’t easily get at home. I’m sure that Ferris Bueller is running somewhere 24/7 on some channel. I don’t need to show it to you again. I will run a “war horse” occasionally, but it’s got to be a special case: I got a nice Technicolor print of Singin’ in the Rain and those are holy grails for film geeks. It doesn’t look like that on video.

That fun in recapturing the thrill of a theatrical performance keeps film series alive. On the other hand, what kills a film series is inconsistency: you run too sporadically, and people don’t find you. You also have to promote it correctly or people won’t find you either.

And that brings me to why Garfield is so special: they put up with all this and stayed with it. They promoted properly, and they were willing to deal with the slowly rising curve of audiences finding us. A number of other people have approached me about doing film series: a place in Carmel told me they could only run films that were related to “the great American songbook,” another couple of places started off with me and then decided to run a selection of all Disney classics, and another place set up a beautiful film theater (in part at my direction) and instead runs The Goonies and Ferris Bueller from Blu-ray several times a year. I see it as a waste of potential and an assumption that audiences are ossified into the 80s. People are and more diverse than this. (For the record, I loved Ferris Bueller but The Goonies makes me gag.)

When I started at Garfield in September of 2009, we had four people. It was a selection of shorts. When we ran the first feature, Our Town (1940), we had four people again. The director at Garfield Park Art Center at the time, Tom Weidenbach, told me that he was impressed that I’d picked an appropriate movie for his Day of the Dead celebration and wanted to stay with this. It was incredibly brave. For the next several months, we struggled with low crowds, but we stayed with it.

“Staying with it” for so long has allowed me to run a wide variety of films. I’ve run westerns, musicals, crime dramas, comedies, great films, and terrible films. The oldest film we ever ran was The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots from 1893 or 4 (depending on your source) and the newest was Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger from 1977. That showing of Sinbad was the most popular in terms of one-off attendance, but we got repeated requests to re-run certain titles: the record is The Great Rupert (1949) which we’ve run three times (and we still have some requests to repeat it again). I love to run silent films (we always have a live score) because I think silents are great with an audience and so few of them are ever seen.

Today, we’ll get a consistent audience of 30-50 people at a Garfield showing. That may not seem fantastic, but for an Indianapolis showing, it’s great. There’s an unfortunate local cultural bias that no art happens south of Washington Street in Indianapolis, and it’s just not true. Now that the Red Line buses stop near the park, I’m hoping attendance goes up.

We upgraded screens a few years ago, thanks to donor Scott Keller and metal sculptor/designer Todd Bracik. I bought new projectors from a place in Florida, and they’re regularly maintained (often because they BREAK) by a guy in Detroit. And we’re shooting for year 11 for 2020!

Thank you to all the directors of the Garfield Park Art Center who supported this through the years:

Tom Weidenbach

Lesley Alanna

Susan Grade

Megan Fetter

Kavita Mahoney

You helped make this the longest-running classic film show in Indianapolis.

Aaaaand, I answer your questions…

This is the original negative for Reel 2 of King of the Kongo. As good as it gets! Taken at the Library of Congress, June 2019.

Q1: It’s been a long time since you’ve written a blog. You’re still on Facebook periodically. What are you doing?

I’ve been working on things. I’m hoping to get King of the Kongo going someday soon, but it’s been a problem. I’m working on some other projects too. I’ve hit a ton of roadblocks, and I’m even hitting some now. It’s been frustrating. (If you’re a newbie, King of the Kongo is a project I’ve been working on since 2011. It’s the first sound serial, and I restored three chapters of it before I discovered that there is better material out there and it can be upgraded.)

Q2: What’s the deal with King of the Kongo? Why not just release what you have?

I was on the cusp of doing just that last year when Steve Stanchfield convinced me to make one last run at the 35mm. There’s a 35mm at the Library of Congress, which is kind of a mess, but mostly complete. I’ve looked at it and it’s really nice for the most part. There’s even a lot of original negative in it. The 35mm has what’s called a donor restriction on it, meaning that the donor regulates who has access to it, even though it’s held at the Library. Confusing? Welcome to my world.

Q3: Well, we’re your supporters. Do a Kickstarter and get it out there.

It’s not that simple. Doing a quick budget run on it made me realize that it was going to cost more than I could raise on Kickstarter. We needed to pay the donor at Library of Congress a large access fee and that was a bugaboo. She named a fee and then I had to scramble to find ways to raise that money.

Q4: Did you find some?

Yes, the Efroymson Fund very kindly awarded me a grant last year, but then I had trouble raising the donor and then I’ve had trouble with some of the intricacies at the Library of Congress. They’re great, but it’s a process. There’s been lot of red tape I’ve had to get through in order even to start this. I was considering starting another Kickstarter to raise even MORE money.

Q5: Are you going to?

Not right now. It’s not just super easy to do this work. You have to get a lot of people on board, you have to get grant agencies on board, etc. There’s no way that I could recover the production costs of King of the Kongo without getting grant money or Kickstarter money to do it. It just doesn’t make sense. If some of the arrangements I’ve made fall through, then yes, I will do another Kickstarter, but we’ll see.

Q6: Well, there’s another organization that’s wanting to release it, and they’ve been putting out flyers…

Yes, I know about that. It’s one of those things that bugs me. I would have liked to work with these guys, but they seem to think I’m the bad guy for some reason, and that I want lots of money. I can’t imagine why anyone would think I want lots of money for a project like this, but they seem to. It’s sad, really.

Q7: Well, why not pool resources and work with them, just swallow hard and do it for the good of film preservation?

I’d like to, and I did try, but the response I got was being trashed personally and professionally in letters and public forums. I cut people a wide swath, and I don’t care if you trash me personally to my face, but when you take it public, and you damage my reputation in ways that cost me money, I draw the line. I actually get criticism for being TOO WILLING to work with some people, but these guys, no. I can’t. I honestly wish things were different.

Q8: So when it Kongo coming out?

I have no idea. It will come out when it comes out. I’m right now waiting for some scans to start trickling in. This has become a really epic project that seems to have a life of its own. The good news is that, unless we find more sound, this will be probably close to the end of it, because we found a lot of original negative.

Q9: What other projects are you working on?

Well, I was trying to get a disc out with some of my really rare animation films on it. I’ve been working on that since the first of the year. The project seems to have stalled and I’m not sure when it will come out, if at all.

Q10: Kickstarter?

Maybe. But I can’t do a Kickstarter until I know that I can actually do this project. Otherwise, I risk raising funds for a project I’m not sure I can deliver.

Q11: Anything else?

Yes, I’m working on getting some Lupino Lane films ready to release. I’ve been working on some scans I got from Library of Congress. Thad Komorowski has been doing some work for me even this week on it. I’ve got to get some technical hurdles fixed on this one before it comes out, too. Otherwise, it won’t be good enough.

Q12: Why not just release what you’ve got?

I may have to, but I really try to make these things look as nice as possible. One of the problems I have is that I’m willing to take on projects that are a little less commercial and where mint condition materials do not survive. (I’m attracted to these projects, because I know if I don’t do them, then no one else will.) This opens me up for criticism about doing sub-par work. The Lupino Lane films, by and large, survive in choppy 16mm 1920s Kodascopes and copies of choppy 1920s Kodascopes. They will never look fantastic, but they should look a lot better than they do.

Q13: Why do you care about the criticism? Just do the work!

I have to care about it somewhat, because people jump in and trash you and then you have the reputation for turning in 3rd-rate work, which hurts your sales. In a lot of cases that I work on, perfection isn’t an option, and it’s not even close to an option. Little Orphant Annie has sections in it that look kinda soft. They always will. There are a couple of shots where I have to cut to inferior material right in the middle of a scene, because footage was missing in every other print. But it’s complete and in order, and I’m proud that we were able to get that accomplished. It’s as good as that film can look now. I still have 400 copies of Annie sitting in my living room and I can use the space, so I need to worry about the criticism a little bit.

Q14: Why do you do a long blog occasionally instead of what Seth Godin says, doing a short blog often?

Seth Godin would faint at my marketing practices. I write blogs when I can (right now I’m inspecting a print of The Front Page as I write this), and it’s in chunks. I also have a visceral reaction against the flippant, now, now, now, short, short, short mentality we’ve developed as a culture. I like to take my time and develop things. That’s why I love the folks who’ve read this far. Thank you. (BTW, you can listen to the podcast and hear us spoof ourselves and Seth Godin a little bit.)

Q15: Speaking of Annie, why haven’t you sold it to TCM? Wouldn’t that help you?

I don’t think it’s going to happen, guys. It was in the hopper a bit over a year ago, but it dropped off the radar when Filmstruck died. I’d talked to them about a number of other projects, too. It was just the wrong time. And I’m not sure the right time is going to happen again. I’d like to be wrong on this.

Q16: Why haven’t you tried getting funding for King of the Kongo through TCM or releasing it through Kino?

Who says I haven’t? Kino was very positive about this project and wanted to help, but the numbers just didn’t make sense. TCM was just plain not interested. I suspect that if I can get it out there, then TCM may perk up, but right now I’m a super-niche releasing guy and I have only one major title in my hopper. I’m beneath their notice, and, frankly, I probably should be. I’ve got to get more product out there in general, and I just haven’t. (I’m not averse to going through places like Kino in general, and they released my prints of two major titles last year for their Outer Limits sets. They’ve been winning awards, too, including the Rondo and Saturn awards. However, unlike me, Kino is not just plain nuts, and they can’t go releasing projects willy-nilly that no one will buy!)

Q17: Didn’t you say something about a blu-ray of Ella Cinders and some restored footage?

Yes, it’s in the hopper. I’ve located multiple prints of the Kodascope and we should be able to create stunning material on it, and there will be no cut footage, but maybe stills. If I had a staff of 5-6 people and a budget for scanning, I’d be on that right now. There’s script for the complete film and an original score that survives. But I can’t get to it just now.

Q18: Well, we support you! We know that it would be easier to get more films out of you if you had more cash coming in. Why don’t you do a Patreon so we can support that?

I’ve been considering this, but the bugaboo I have is that I need to provide something monthly or quarterly to Patreon subscribers, and I have no idea what that would be. These things are like earthquakes. You may not have any action for years, and then suddenly everything breaks loose. If any of you have ideas on how to do a Patreon successfully and keep subscribers happy, I’d love to hear it!

I honestly love you guys for the support I’ve had. We’re in a best of times, worst of times Dickensian conundrum these days. In terms of the access and technology to present these films, it’s the best of times. In terms of the marketability of the films, it’s pretty awful. Markets are drying up faster than we can fill the void. That’s why I love you guys so much. You’ve supported my work through a failed TV pilot, into a blog and now into a weird podcast and restoration work. It’s been a wild ride!

The Romance of “Bad” Cinema

One of the things I get asked frequently is if I’ve seen the worst film ever made. The given answer, since The Golden Turkey Awards came out, is that the worst film ever made is Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). That’s not a great picture, but the worst?

Being a film historian, I’m also supposed to know the greatest film ever made, and I don’t know what that is either. There’s no such thing as a perfect film. They all have problems. For example, the worst cutting continuity I’ve ever seen is in The Ten Commandments (1956), which is considered a classic. There are more mismatched cuts in that film than I’ve ever seen. It leaves Plan 9 in the dust, and Plan 9 isn’t very good.

I’ve often said that Plan 9 isn’t even the worst Ed Wood film. It’s not the worst Bela Lugosi film. There are films with special effects that are not as good. It’s not particularly ambitious and it manages to miss most of its goals, but it hangs together as a film.

The most charming thing about Plan 9 is the tin-eared dialogue that Ed Wood manages to infuse in the proceedings. It’s the kind of dialogue that an actor can’t read at all, even though it may look OK on the page. It forces the performances to be wooden and strange, and it makes them funnier than they should be.

(Aside: Filmmaker Larry Blamire is an ace at imitating and spoofing Ed Wood-style dialogue, and people have criticized him for it. I’ve read numerous clueless reviews that accuse his films of trying to be bad. They are not trying to be bad. They are spoofing the style of movies from the 1950s. They’re taking it a notch higher and making it funny. I can’t understand why people get this with Airplane! (1980) which spoofed the deadpan over-the-top style of airport disaster movies, but they often miss it with Blamire’s films. End long aside.)

Plan 9 is basically trying to be a mixture of The Day the Earth Stood Still and a zombie/walking dead film. It contains the dire warnings from the aliens and the ghoul trappings from other pictures. The special effects are bad, the dialogue is bad. The editing is world-class terrible, but not the worst I’ve seen. (See the article I wrote on this years ago). But the script itself isn’t too bad. The concept is OK. The actors do a decent job, although not spectacular (Mona McKinnon is a special exception… she’s awful.) The sets are passable, although they look cheap, because, well, they are.

But if you want to see a worse Ed Wood film, watch Glen or Glenda. There are large swaths of it that don’t even make sense. You could cut Bela Lugosi’s scenes out of it and never know they were gone. If you want to see a film with worse acting in it, geez, there are a lot of them. If you want to see a film with worse special effects, how about Robot Monster (1953), which has a few shots of the “space platform” that are truly laughable? Or maybe The Lost City (1935) with a few shots of a model ship that wouldn’t fool a five-year-old.

The thing I admire about Ed Wood, and I truly do admire it, is that he got these films made. He got them released. It’s a difficult thing to do that. For every one film that is made, there are a hundred that were started and not finished. For every one not finished, there are probably 10,000 that were never started. There’s a big part of me that scoffs at people who say they could have made a better film than Ed Wood. My answer is the same as what I often say when people criticize my own work: “Yes, but you didn’t.”

I’m not trying to defend Ed Wood here. His films are pretty bad, but he made it through meetings with stupid producers, financing people, editors, actors, cinematographers, lighting guys, studio renters, effects guys, and all the other people you have to deal with, and he did it. And not only did he do it, but he did it with almost no money. It’s an admirable thing that he could do it at all.

I’ve been going through the work of director Bud Pollard lately. (Full disclosure: I’m considering doing a Blu-ray of his Alice in Wonderland [1931] and the surviving footage of The Horror [1933].) Bud’s films are every bit as bad as Ed Wood’s. The acting is, in general, worse. The sound recording is worse than Wood’s. The makeup is inexcusable. The cinematography ranges from decent to terrible. But Pollard did this 25 years before Wood did, and he got all of this done when it was a lot harder technically to make a sound film at all. On one level, you’ve got to respect the achievement.

Alice is, however, still laughably bad. The lead actress has a wig that would embarrass even William Shatner… one person ran out of the room screaming when I ran it and another told me it gave him a headache. But still, Pollard got this made. For what it’s worth, The Horror or at least what survives of it, is much worse and has even more problems… and it’s not entirely clear whether that was released or not.

The bottom line is that all of these films are entertaining. They may not be classics, but they’re fun to watch. It’s enjoyable to see what these guys did with no money and how they worked with it. I respect this immensely. I love to sit through a “bad” film now and then just to see how they’re put together. It’s one of the reasons I restore things like King of the Kongo. I know no one else will touch them.

Then there are the films that are made with a cynical intent to cash in on something. The 1967 Casino Royale is a fun mess, but a misfire intended to exploit on the James Bond craze. 1950’s Rocketship XM loses points with me for being an attempt to seize the publicity around Destination: Moon. It’s a decent enough picture, though. Then there are things like Weird Science and My Science Project, both intended to ride the wave of PR that was to be generated by Real Genius (1985). Real Genius tanked because those two films preceded it into release and made everyone think it, too, was junk.

Another case in point: Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1951). This movie is terrible. I mean, it’s really, really terrible. Apparently, the motivation was to use these two guys (Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo) who had an act imitating Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and to put them in a faux Martin/Lewis film. The hope was that Paramount and Hal Wallis would see the film and pay to have the negative destroyed, which it wasn’t. I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of Martin and Lewis. Their comedy seems a little desperate and forced to me, and I know it’s a minority opinion. I like the way their movies are made, and I respect the performers a lot, but I just don’t find them especially funny.

Mitchell and Petrillo, on the other hand, are painful. Petrillo looks almost like a clone of Lewis, but he’s nowhere near as talented on any level. Mitchell is a decent singer. I can give him that, but he has no comic timing at all. Poor Bela Lugosi looks sick and doesn’t understand what he’s doing in the film. Frankly, I don’t either. The bottom line is that this is a train wreck. It’s not really even entertaining. You just watch it with your mouth open.

But, for me, the bottom of the barrel are these films that should really be tons better than they are. A lot of people will tell you that Ishtar (1987) is terrible, which it isn’t. It was handled by a director (Elaine May) who was used to shooting lots of footage of ensemble players, and when she had to do that with a picture that required action and had two expensive stars in it, the movie went over budget. But still, there are a lot of laughs in Ishtar. It’s full of good moments and clever repartee.

How about The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)? This is an awful film. With uneven special effects, and terrible performances, topped off by in incomprehensible script. The 1932 Island of Lost Souls is pretty good. The 1977 remake Island of Dr. Moreau isn’t very good, but it’s light years ahead of the 1996 version. The newer film stars a bloated Marlon Brando having an attitude attack about being in a film at all, with Val Kilmer having an attitude attack about being upstaged by Brando. The film had a troubled production history, with bickering stars and directors, finally being helmed by none less than John Frankenheimer, who should have known better. You’ve got a boatload of top talent in this film, and it adds up to a complete mess.

Another total loss: Battlefield Earth (2000). OK, this movie is awful. I suppose the special effects are decent-ish, but John Travolta and Forest Whitaker are over the top in the worst possible way. The script is a total disaster, full of improbable coincidences and plot holes you could pilot the Titanic through. Director Roger Christian has had an undistinguished career as a director (although he’s a top art director), but I get the feeling that this film was going down the tubes before they ever called him.

And ultimately, I find these less excusable than Ed Wood’s pictures. These guys had everything. Money, actors, cinematographers, screenwriters, top studios, and they still couldn’t make a decent film. You wonder what Wood could have achieved with similar funds. It certainly couldn’t have been worse, and maybe it would have been entertaining.

I’m going to be discussing a bit more about this in some upcoming blogs. It’s easy to make fun of a bad movie, but it’s really hard to make one. It’s like those painful assignments you used to get in social studies class. You’re thrown together with people who have to work in a group (in this case, it’s all the actors and behind-the-camera people you need to do the work.) If you happen to get a group of all of the smart kids, you can do well. But if you get one kid who screws up and doesn’t do his job, the whole group can look bad. Even then, sometimes the smart kids make a bad project, and the kids who sit in the back and sleep come up with a winner once in a while. You just never know.

About the Podcast

I’ve gotten some feedback about the podcast that I would like to address here. I always have to say that when every side complains, I have to be doing something right, because you can’t please everyone, but you certainly can annoy everyone.

First, let me tell you a little about it. I guess it hasn’t really been properly introduced here. It’s at https://podcast.drfilm.net

For those of you who may not have been following this long-term, I started this as a TV pilot years ago (2008-2010). I utterly failed to get anyone to take the pilot seriously, although I sure tried. The intent was to share rare films from my collection and do it in a humorous way as kind of a tribute to the 1950s movie hosts. The one thing that succeeded was the PR that I put out on Facebook.

But no one ever read the web page, and they thought that I personally was trying to promote myself as Dr. Film. Dr. Film was always supposed to be a character, not Eric, and that made it a little strange. My genius marketing skills at work.

And then I started the blog, in hopes to reawaken interest in the pilot, which failed as well. Ultimately, the blog became a forum to discuss film issues that I thought were important, and it veered away from the concept of Dr. Film.

Oddly, the blog got a little play, and so I wanted to keep it going, and the Facebook page is a great forum for discussing issues that not many other people discuss. We discuss lost films, restoration issues, and copyright stuff, things that aren’t often fodder for other places. And that’s cool.

I thought seriously of shutting down the Dr. Film web page and just moving it over to other sites, since the pilot was a non-starter (I still like the pilot, but that’s apparently just me.)

But several people told me I was crazy. They said, “You have a trademark that people know NOW, and you’re wanting to throw that away? Why would anyone do that?” Of course, it’s a crazy way to have acquired a trademark, but hey, what are ya gonna do?

And then people told me that I needed to have a podcast. “No one reads blogs anymore, dude,” they said. “You need to get with the program and do a podcast.” And I went out and listened to podcast after podcast and I thought to myself, “I can’t really add anything to what’s out there. I have nothing to distinguish the podcast.”

I thought back to the origins of the Dr. Film character. I know that my voice and “manner” tend to sound pompous and condescending, particularly when I’m “acting,” so I designed Dr. Film as a pompous character, knowing that I could play that! I decided to go back to the character’s roots and play from there.

I added some back story and made Dr. Film a film superhero, with his alter ego being me. So there’s a difference between Eric and Dr. Film (finally.) And Dr. Film stands for real film history, quality presentations, and non-stupid stuff.

And I brought back Anamorphia, who keeps Dr. Film stable and cuts him down to size.

I probably can’t do a Dr. Film show TV show anymore (I have too many restoration gigs now, and I’d have to finish those before I could even think of shooting anything), but I can do an occasional podcast.

So if you’re a fan of the blog, with serious issues discussed, then stay here, and you’ll continue to see them. I’m going to make an effort to do more of them, but I’m working behind the scenes on a lot of stuff that I can’t really tell you about. Not yet at least.

I realize that there are a lot of you who are disappointed at the silly tone of the podcasts, and they are actually a good deal sillier than the Dr. Film show. I’ve gotten several complaints that the Dr. Film character is negative. Well, he’s not supposed to be a character you like. He’s intended to be obnoxious.

I’m hoping to make a show that appeals to a different audience and one that uses newer technology than what the blog relies on. It’s still tackling serious issues, but in a light-hearted way, and, oddly, we’re doing it in a 1940s radio sort of approach.

The shows we do that are the weirdest and most “out there” seem to be attracting the most listeners, and the straight interviews, which I will continue to do, seem to be more like medicine that people need to get through to the weirder and funny stuff.

This is partly why I’ve resolutely refused to put the blogs on the same page as the podcasts. They’re not the same thing. I know that some people are telling me that they don’t listen to podcasts and would rather have CDs, and others tell me that they only stream and don’t want blogs. It seems like two different markets to me.

So if you’re interested in what we’re doing in a purposely bizarre podcast, please listen in. If it bugs you, if it seems too frivolous and not serious enough, then it’s not for you and stay here on the blog.

Is this marketing genius, or marketing foolishness?

I have no idea. I make this up as I go along. If you want a marketing genius, call Seth Godin.

Interview With a New Author

The cover for Eric’s new book.

This is a real departure for the Dr. Film blog, and we’re not going to do this very often, but, well, just this one time.

Here’s an interview between Dr. Film and his alter ego Eric, about Eric’s new book. If you haven’t followed the podcasts, Dr. Film is Eric’s utterly hostile, completely film-centric alter-ego.

Dr. Film: Hi, Eric, nice to see…er… be you.

Eric: Nice to be you, too.

Dr. Film: I hear you have a new book coming out.

Eric: Yes!

Dr. Film: Well, it’s about film, right?

Eric: Nope, not really at all. There’s only one section in it that has a film reference. It’s a joke, that only film geeks will get. It’s called “Pardon Me While I Have a Strange Interlude.”

Dr. Film: Then why are you wasting our time with something that’s not about film?

Eric: Because I already have an audience here, so I might as well.

Dr. Film: I see. So tell us about the book.

Eric: It’s called A Fearful Thing to Love. It’s a weird science-fiction/horror sort of story about a young woman who’s turned into a vampire. But not your standard vampire. It’s also a romance and sort of a science-gone-wrong story.

Dr. Film: Wow. So it could be a movie.

Eric: Well, I hadn’t thought of it as a movie. I suppose it could be. It would probably be expensive, since some of it is set in 2091, some of it during WWII England, and some of it in late 1600s France.

Dr. Film: So she lives a long time.

Eric: Yes, a very long time. It’s been compared to the Twilight Zone story Long Live Walter Jameson, by Charles Beaumont, but others have found elements of The Andromeda Strain and other things in it, except those aren’t about vampires and this is.

Dr. Film: OK. What made you write this?

Eric: I got tired of reading the standard vampire story about curses and evil and stuff, and all the religious trappings. I get that out of the way early in this one, and it doesn’t come up again. This is more like an unfortunate disease.

Dr. Film: How is it that people who have known you for years have never heard you talk about this?

Eric: Because there’s nothing more boring that an author talking about a book he hasn’t written, unless it’s a filmmaker talking about a film he hasn’t shot.  People write you off really quickly; they can’t be part of your vision because they haven’t seen it.  It’s like the people I used to see at Star Trek conventions asking me if they’d like me to read their story about Mr. Spock.  NO!  RUN!

Dr. Film: So is there a lot of sex and violence in the book?

Eric: Some. Not what you’d call a lot, and it’s not explicit, except some at the beginning. It’s more a character study and an exploration of ideas.

Dr. Film: OK, you have a female vampire, so that means we have to have lesbian scenes with hot chicks in it, right?

Eric: (looks at audience) I’m sorry, folks. He’s a politically incorrect idiot, but what are you going to do? I see that’s what you’re expecting. Well, this is written to go counter to your expectations. If you’re looking for Stoker or LeFanu, or even Hammer’s Countess Dracula, you’ll be disappointed.

Dr. Film: I’m trying for the hard sell and you’re making it tough here, dude.

Eric: Think moody, think more Outer Limits or maybe a lighter version of Charles Beaumont or Lovecraft, and you’ll be closer to what this is.

Dr. Film: Well, that’s something, I guess. How is it that you have time to do this with all your film work?

Eric: Good question. I didn’t. I get calls and emails all the time so it’s impossible to concentrate on something like this. I gave up writing seriously in about 1990 or so, because I just wasn’t producing the results I wanted. I worked on this during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years for the last several years, the three days of the year that no one pesters me.

Dr. Film: What made you dig it up after all these years?

Eric: Easy answer. I’ve been pestered relentlessly by Glory-June Greiff, my co-conspirator on the Dr. Film show, to do something with this. She liked it better than I did.

Dr. Film: So does that mean you have more fiction writing that we haven’t seen?

Eric: Yes.

Dr. Film: What is it?

Eric: Let’s see how this one does.

Dr. Film: No hints?

Eric: No.

Dr. Film: A sequel to this one?

Eric: Not in the works, no.

Dr. Film: So this is a different sort of vampire story, written to counter your expectations. What else can you tell us about how it’s unexpected?

Eric: It’s deliberately structured to go counter to the standard English teacher way of laying out a novel. It’s not in 3 acts, but rather 5. And instead of escalating action and danger, it has less as the story progresses. And the last act is almost a comedy, with a happy ending.

Dr. Film: A happy ending in a vampire story? That’s weird. You’ve still disappointed me that there isn’t a lesbian scene in it.

Eric: I didn’t say there wasn’t a lesbian scene. There is one, but not with hot chicks, and there’s absolutely no sex in it.

Dr. Film: You have a lot to learn about marketing.

Eric: Spoken by the genius.

Dr. Film: Does this mean that you’re going to be doing less film work?

Eric: Not necessarily. It just means I’m not a one-dimensional cliche character like you are.

Dr. Film: I represent that. What sort of film work do you have coming up?

Eric: That’s more of a question for you, isn’t it?

Dr. Film: I suppose it is. Well, there are two projects that may be coming up soon, but I can’t tell you about them.

Eric: Yeah, I can’t either. But maybe soon. I had some time with no film projects and I put it into getting this and the podcast done.

Dr. Film: Those podcasts are cool.

Eric: Yeah, you would say that.

Dr. Film: We get a lot of requests to restore more film. Why aren’t you doing that?

Eric: Because our dear market isn’t strong enough to support the sales of these films, and a TCM sale fell through when Filmstruck collapsed. If I’d sold more copies of Little Orphant Annie, I’d be working on more film projects.

Dr. Film: So the fact that you’re doing this book is because you didn’t have enough work otherwise?

Eric: I suppose you could say so.

Dr. Film: Does that mean that you’re going to be polluting my sacred film space with promoting your junky book?

Eric: No, I would never do that to you. I know how it would hurt you. If I write a film book, then that’s another story. I’m planning one; it’s about halfway done.

Dr. Film: Well, is there a place that people can go to discuss this book?

Eric: I’m glad you asked. There’s a new Facebook forum for it. It’s here: https://www.facebook.com/graysontext/

Dr. Film: I feel better already.

Eric: I knew you would.

Dr. Film: Any other film tie-ins on this book? You know how I am about that.

Eric: The cover art was done by Larry Blamire, the creator of the Lost Skeleton series, a talented director and author in his own right.

Dr. Film: Wow, so another hyphenate. But it’s a great cover.

Eric: It’s a fantastic cover. I may ask Larry if he can make small posters of it available.

Dr. Film: I think you should plug our new podcast again.

Eric: That’s a great idea. We’ve only been working on it since 2015. It’s here: podcast.drfilm.net.

Dr. Film: Available on most mobile and desktop services!

Eric: Well, we should wrap this up before it gets too boring.

Dr. Film: Too late.

Again, that book link is here:  http://www.lulu.com/shop/eric-grayson/a-fearful-thing-to-love/paperback/product-23899576.html

The Film Geek’s Guide to The Other Side of the Wind

OK, I’m going to start this off by warning you that if you’re a whiny type of person, then there might be spoilers here.  But I don’t think it’s possible to spoil this film, because it’s really a character study more than anything else.  And we know the ending from the first shot, because it’s given away.  The point is not plot surprises, but rather where the characters go.

I personally think that this is the kind of thing you might want to read before you see the film, so you get some of the references, but your mileage may vary.

The Other Side of the Wind is an experimental film.  That shouldn’t surprise you, because pretty much every Orson Welles film is an experimental film.  That’s part of his appeal to me, which is that you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get when you watch one of his pictures.  I’m a sucker for something different, and that’s what this is.

It’s ostensibly a spoof of reality-style documentary pictures that were very popular in the late 60s and early 70s, and it goes out of its way to make it incredible (as in not credible) and over the top.  There are scenes in this that no documentary filmmaker would ever have taken, but we go with it, because, well, it’s fun, and it’s a dramatic device.

A lot of people are saying that the protagonist here, Jake Hannaford (John Huston), is a semi-autobiographical Orson Welles.  He isn’t.  He’s a semi-biographical John Ford.  Welles was a huge fan of Ford’s, and Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Ford extensively about this time (and a little earlier).  Ford became a huge pain in the butt because he stopped cooperating with people and just gave stupid answers to interview questions.

Further, there’s a recurring theme about whether Hannaford is gay or bisexual and deeply closeted.  This was the case in real life with John Ford, according to many people who knew him.  Maureen O’Hara spoke about it in her autobiography (not that she was exactly unbiased).

There’s another deep parallel that a lot of people will miss.  FW Murnau is brought up early on and then dropped.  But if we know Murnau, he was also a gay (or maybe bisexual) director who was killed in a car accident eerily like the one in The Other Side of the Wind.  

The parallels go further… they keep saying that Jake Hannaford had made silent films, and so did Murnau.  Murnau was always on a quest to make films with few or no intertitles, a purely visual experience.  The film-within-a-film in The Other Side of the Wind isn’t really a John Ford film.  It’s a MURNAU film.  Symbolic, lyrical, slow-moving, and silent.

It’s also a fun contrast to see the documentary-style footage of Hannaford in cut-cut-cut in-your-face editing style while the film-within-a-film is slow, with few cuts and deliberately paced.

It’s a little bit of cinematic bravura that reminds me a bit of Mozart’s A Musical Joke.  By listening to Mozart dissect what doesn’t work in a composition, we learn just how intimately he did know what worked.  Welles is the same with directing.  He knows how all the styles work, how the different approaches are handled, what silent films are, etc, and he can seamlessly play with them.

The Stranger is less a film noir than it is a German Expressionist film.  Too Much Johnson is a silent picture shot just the way those were shot, often in open air with bright sunlight and poor reflection, even in the “indoor” sets.  Welles gets this; he always gets the feel right.

If the cut-cut-cut style of The Other Side of the Wind is annoying, then it’s supposed to be.  It’s pretty clear that Welles found it annoying, too, and that’s the point of it.  Dialogue is given in little snatches and bits of background.  If you aren’t paying close attention, it will just wash over you like so much tidewater.  There’s a lot in it, and attention is rewarded.

Ultimately, the film is really about directors being crazy and in a crazy world, with incredible stresses and conflicting artistic demands.  Hannaford wants to be artistic but can’t afford to finance his own work, which we all know is not really commercial (at one point, the projectionist running the film is told the film is out of order, and he asks, “Does it really matter?”)

What’s missed a lot here is just how intensely Welles is talking about directors.  Most of the cast is filled with directors.  Norman Foster (as Billy Boyle) was not just an actor, but a director for many years, only returning to acting for this part.  He was a long-time friend of Welles’ and almost walks off with the picture.  Peter Bogdanovich is another co-star, another director just coming into his own when the film was shot.  Henry Jaglom, director.  Dennis Hopper, actor-director.  Curtis Harrington, director.  Claude Chabrol, director.  The cast is littered with directors, and not always playing themselves.

Much has been said about the ethics of finishing this movie without Welles, knowing fully that there was a lot of it that was shot that didn’t make it into the final cut.  Look, I’m a stickler for doing things right.  This feels like a Welles film.  They did it right.  Is it perfect?  I’m sure not, but Welles left behind 45 minutes of the film that he’d cut and extensive notes.  This isn’t the first time a film was resurrected from raw footage.  I remember Sherlock Holmes (1922) and Oliver Twist (also 1922) were brought back this way.  With collaboration from so many people who worked on this and knew Welles, I’m inclined to give this a pass.

There’s also some controversy about Oja Kodar.  People say that she’s the equivalent of Susan Alexander, the talentless singer raised to stardom in Citizen Kane.  I don’t think that, given her performance in this film, we can settle that question. It’s clear that given the way Welles shot her, very carefully, that he loved her.  Her reactions are on the money, but is that Kodar or Welles?  It’s hard to say.  I noticed that facially she reminded me of Agnes Moorehead on more than one occasion, just in the way she reacted to things.  That may be coincidence or direction!  There’s a lot of Oja seen here, much of it unclothed, but she has no dialogue.  Welles regarded her as a collaborator, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

One bit of autobiography and wish-fulfillment does creep in to The Other Side of the Wind.  John Huston decks Susan Strasberg, who is playing a mock Pauline Kael. Kael had written some scathing things about Welles (you can look it up; I won’t go into it here), and I’m sure Welles relished the thought of getting back at her, at least cinematically.

Too bad it had to wait until they were both dead!

Cinema at a Crossroads

I think we’re seeing the death of classic cinema. I really do. You’ve heard me rant about this before. We’re seeing that the only 5 great films that everyone wants to see are Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, and Wizard of Oz. After that, the Godfather films are OK, and then Cinema begins with Star Wars.

I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t know what can be done. One of the main arguments, which I absolutely hate, is that these movies are no longer culturally relevant and are such relics of the past that they should no longer be seen, because no one cares. Nor should they care. The 5 movies listed above (I refer to them as the Holy Quintet) are exceptions because they have passed the cultural litmus test of history.

I hate that.  I know I said that, but I wanted to accentuate that I hate it.

You can argue that TCM keeps cinema alive, and to an extent, they do. But they only keep some cinema alive, and they only have 24 hours a day. I have also complained, with some validity, that they show Casablanca too much, whereas they could show a lot of other stuff and do classic cinema a lot more service.

But then if I owned Casablanca, I’d show it a lot, too. It’s a fine picture, but it’s got to bear the burden of representing most films made before 1977.

There’s a vast array of silents (TCM only shows silents 4 times a month, at midnight on Sundays), B pictures, cartoons, serials, short comedies, and such that never get seen. That never will be seen. Stuff that’s fun, entertaining, and would even, dare I say it, “educate” people. The collectors have some, the archives have some, and the studios have some.

There’s always archive.org. I don’t like it. 90% of it is junk with terrible compression rates and bad quality. It fosters the idea that all old movies look bad. Then there’s YouTube, which, well, is pretty much the same. That’s not to mention the fact that piracy on both sites is rampant. I had to alert Kino to a site that was bootlegging Seven Chances with Bruce Lawton’s commentary and my color restoration on it. YouTube took it down, but the same guy got a new address and put it right back up. He put ads in it.

But it’s free!

Netflix isn’t the answer. Why? Because increasingly it takes movies (and I mean even recent ones) off the server and replaces them with binge-watching TV shows. They started off kinda cool, but died away quickly.

I had a lot of hope for Filmstruck (and, full disclosure, I was working on a deal to supply them with some silents and other materials), but AT&T killed it. Why? It wasn’t making enough money. (And, yes, that means that the deal is off.)

You see, no one sees classic films.

So no one watches classic films.

So no one buys Filmstruck.

So AT&T cancels it.

The saving grace about TCM is that it was stipulated in the sale to Warners that TCM had to stay on the air as a commercial-free classic film network. And that keeps it on.

This is causing me to want to ramp up a service that I’ve wanted to do for some years. I think of it as a public service, because it would provide a venue for NON-SUCKY transfers of films that TCM doesn’t show, which, let’s be honest, is about 80% of everything.

And I know you’ve heard me talk about this before, too. But I back-burnered it because I was busy with other projects, like Little Orphant Annie and King of the Kongo and the Milan High School games.

TCM has kind of the right idea with its educational program advocating The Essentials (again, full disclosure: I don’t have cable, but I travel extensively [I have a collection of half-used hotel soaps to prove it] so I see them on the road fairly often.) But I see TCM as almost a graduate-school of film with the very top echelon of films. They don’t offer a lot of things that people don’t know anymore.

What were the major studios? What’s a cartoon? What’s a serial? How were they shown? Why did these get made? When did color start? Did silents always have music? These are questions that people ask constantly.

How do I know? I hear these questions all the time. People are interested. I’d love to have a streaming service that housed forums where historians talked about things like this. It’s not out there. It’s going away.

I used to complain that when I worked at classic film houses, they would run all fifties all the time. Then, the boomers got old and stopped coming, and we skipped the 60s and 70s, so it’s all 80s all the time. One place I know shows Ferris Bueller and The Goonies several times a year. They say it’s “hipster-friendly.” But the hipsters don’t know any older films, so why the heck would they come to see them? A lot of them don’t have cable, and so they only see bad quality on YouTube, if they even have knowledge enough to search for it.

I would have started my streaming service a couple of years ago, but I had another problem. I do a lot of tech, but I can’t do it all myself, and I have a tech guy who needs paid. I have a grant writer who is trying to move into other things and won’t return my calls or emails, so basically I have to find another grant writer or be rude and obnoxious to the one I have.

This project is too big for just me; I’d love to have it as a cooperative among film collectors, archives and even studios that will play nice (accent on the play nice.)

But I need $ to get it going, and it’s a chunk too big for Kickstarter. I’d like this to be a public interest 501c3, because, increasingly, I believe that classic film is being culturally neglected and needs a champion out there to make it accessible. I’d like to have a free section and a paid downloads section.

Actually I have a pretty detailed plan for it, if I could just get anyone to care. I’m notoriously bad at marketing (as I’ve pointed out many times), but I really think we’re at a time when culturally we NEED something like this.

Or else it will go away. Like Filmstruck did.

Anyone got any ideas? Let me know. My email is up at top, and the comments will be open for a while, plus you can always start a discussion in the Dr. Film group.

I have a lot of failed, or to put it charitably, incompletely successful projects (if you don’t believe me, I have 400 copies of Little Orphant Annie to sell you), but I don’t want this to be one of them.

The Perks and Perils of Preservation on Your Own Label

When I decided to do a preservation of Little Orphant Annie, I also decided to start my own video label. It was a calculated risk, and it remains to be seen if it pays off. I’ve done much work for major labels, including Shout! Factory, Kino, Flicker Alley, etc, and I’ve helped smaller labels including Cartoons On Film, Undercrank, and Thunderbean. But Annie was different. It was my baby. I’d gotten it through numerous hurdles, and I really didn’t want it to be announced as NEW RELEASE FROM XXX VIDEO! PRODUCED BY ZZZ and with restoration by some dude named Eric.

Besides, none of the other labels wanted to release it anyway. Well, some of the smaller labels would have been willing, but then it would have been the same thing, and I didn’t want to do that. Now, many of you will be out there saying, “That Eric is just a credit hog and wants to get his name out there. What a ham.” Well, in a way that’s true, but overall it isn’t.

You see, I do a lot of film work, and preservation especially, but no one knows who I am. Well, some of you do, particularly if you read this blog, but in general, I’m an unknown quantity. That works out very well for me in some ways, because I’m the guy who likes to stand in the corner at parties and eat black olives until everything is over, but it doesn’t work out for me in other ways. By staying unknown, it reduces my chances to do other, more interesting work. There has to be a compromise between me standing silently in a corner and me being a ham who just has to be in front of an audience all the time. It’s a tough balance to find.

So Annie was my first shot at this. If you’ve been following me on Facebook, then you’ll know that it was the first of two giant preservation projects that I did starting in 2016 that have only recently reached fruition. The other one was the Milan Miracle Basketball films, which are the original game films of the David-vs.-Goliath basketball championship in Milan, Indiana that inspired the movie Hoosiers (1986). In both cases, the films needed preservation, and no one else had the immediate capacity to do it. If I hadn’t done them then, it would be too late for at least some of the elements by now.

I had to do a bunch of research on the DVD and Blu-ray formats. This is why I sometimes put polls up on my Dr. Film Facebook page. Some people do on-demand DVD publishing, which is easiest to do, and takes the least up-front money. But you can’t do Blu-ray discs on demand through Amazon, so that put the kibosh on everyone who said, “WE WANT BLU-RAY, NOT DVD!” Of course, then there were the other folks who told me that they didn’t want to buy a Blu-ray player, because their old TV works just fine, thank you, so could you put it out on DVD?

Thunderbean and Cartoons On Film have a good answer for this. They make combination packs of DVDs AND Blu-rays, both of which are functionally identical. That way, if you buy the package, there’s a disc for whatever your use is, and it saves the publisher from having to do separate art for the Blu-ray and the DVD boxes, because they are different sizes. That said, I guarantee that at shows I’ll still get people that tell me that they want one or the other and that this disc won’t play in their system.

Then there was the next problem. Everyone told me they want commentary tracks. Well, OK, the DVD software I’ve used for years doesn’t support commentary tracks, and it also doesn’t support Blu-rays at all. So that meant I had to learn a new software package, which I thought was OK.

Except it wasn’t. In order to get a software package that would do DVDs, Blu-rays, and support commentary tracks, I had to use a piece of software that is so horrid I shall not name it. Versatile it may be, but user-friendly it is NOT. I also learned the Blu-ray is a Sony monopoly, so every disc professionally pressed has to go through a Sony employee for approval. This is why Blu-rays cost so much. High-demand ones are fairly cheap, but the first run of them is expensive because you have to pay for the Sony guy. This is why Harry Potter Vs. Spider-Man’s Avengers is only $3 while Little Orphant Annie is expensive.

I thought that on-demand would be a lot cheaper for raising seed money, and if it didn’t work out, then I wasn’t out the minimum Blu-ray order of 1000. Many people told me, “It’s a boring old silent film! It isn’t even that good! You’ll never sell 1000!” Others said I would probably sell them, but it might take a while.

I thought I’d also try to do some on-demand to see how that went, too. Toward that end, I remastered the Dr. Film TV pilot we made in 2008. If you’ve followed the blog, then you know that we tried to sell this to TV for years and no one cared, and the blog and Facebook page were made to promote the show. The irony is that we tried to sell a show that no network  wanted to buy, but we succeeded in selling the blog and Facebook pages, so we’re still marketing Dr. Film, even though there isn’t a show in the works…

There was no reason to release Dr. Film as a Blu-ray, since we shot it in standard-definition. Glory-June Greiff and I sat down and recorded a commentary track in which we discuss what went in to making the pilot and how we really didn’t understand how to market it. If you decide to buy the DVD, then make sure to listen to the commentary track, because it’s probably even more fun than the show.

My strategy is starting to work! I have been approaching archives to see if they’ll work with me on my next restoration project. Instead of hearing the phone click in my ear, I’m now hearing, “Oh, yeah! You’re the guy who did Little Orphant Annie! That was cool!” So those doors are opening. That means I can start to do more things now.

My last task, after the restoration was done and the Kickstarter thank-yous sent out, was to pick a name for my label. I sweated over this. Dr. Film is a bit silly, but some people know it. Others know me only by my own name, which is important too. I ultimately decided that I’d be Eric Grayson (Dr. Film) to cover both bases. Yeah, it’s kinda lame.

Maybe you have a better idea for a name. I’m always willing to listen. You’ll find me at the next film restoration gathering. I’ll be the guy standing in the corner eating black olives. Come and say hi.