An Open Letter to Google: You’re Killing Us

The motto of Google is, “Don’t be evil.”  Well, I’ve got a message for you, guys.  You’re being evil.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but you’re killing us.  By “us” I mean the small group of independent film preservationists who try to make a living my preserving and presenting films.  And there’s one thing that’s killing us more than anything else.

YouTube.

YouTube (which is owned by Google), has morphed into a Frankenstein-like creature that’s made up of cat videos, people’s reviews of other media, music, and bootlegged movies.  It’s become the global repository for everything that is cinema.  People never seem to ask me whether something is available on video, on film, whether they can see it with an audience, nothing but this: “Can I see it on YouTube?”

But there’s a problem.  Google has an odd policy about YouTube, which is that anyone can post anything for any reason at any time and it’s up to the original copyright owners to file a complaint to take it down.  The amount of Google patrolling that happens there is pretty thin.  Disney does it of course, but you have to be on it all the time.  New videos pop up every moment.  And I’ve done some complaining… they often ask me if I’m really affiliated with the project.

Google seems to have the idea that the whole world will be better if everything that ever existed in the history of the world is suddenly indexed and available for download.  A few years ago, Google was scanning books, copyright notwithstanding, and posting them for searching in Google Books.  When some of the authors complained, there was a strange reaction that this was somehow stupid.  After all, if the books are up and searchable, isn’t that an advertisement for you to buy it?

No, it isn’t.  And it’s even worse for people restoring films.  You see, the restoration of a film isn’t copyrightable.  Please don’t email me and tell me otherwise.  I’ve researched it.  If I add something to it, then I can copyright the changes, but only that.

So if I restore an uncopyrighted film, spend hours doing it, release it on video to recover my costs, then it’s perfectly legal for someone to rip the DVD and throw it on YouTube.  A lot of people think this is great.  It’s cool.  It’s sharing a movie with the world, opening up the audience.  And, to a certain degree, that’s true.  It is giving publicity to the work.

But it’s free.  And it encourages people not to buy the work, which means that sales go down, and suddenly you’re not making it on the razor-thin margin of sales, but you’re still reaching the same number or more people than you reached before.  They’re just not paying for it.

Sure, I hear you say, there are people who will find out about your work on YouTube and buy it just to show support.  But I’m finding that that’s about 1 person in 10 to 1 in 20.  Five to ten percent.  90%-95% just look at it and say, “WHEE!  IT’S FREE.”

So I’m just a bitter whiner punk, right?  Well, don’t believe me.  Ask people like Paul Gierucki, David Shepard, Kevin Brownlow or Dave Stevenson.  They’ve all had to curtail or stop their releases because of YouTube.

And Google is generous enough to let us share ad revenues with people who post films.  That’s wonderful. We can post our own stuff and hope we can make money that way.  Except no.

The most popular person on YouTube has some six billion views, with an annual income of $4 million.  This equates to about $ .0006 per view.  That’s for dude-boy video games and YouTube Poops that are amazingly popular.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we apply that to a bootlegged version of Seven Chances that appears on YouTube.  It’s got 40,500 views at this point.  I’m not supplying the link because I fear that some of you will watch it.

I spent about 80 hours just fixing the color sequence for this film, and Kino paid me about $250 for my trouble. (They apologized for this, and they were very nice, but they said they couldn’t afford any more.)  The bootlegger has taken this film, which I’ve got to say is probably among the most popular silent Blu-Rays, and he’s earned a whopping–get this–$24.68.

And let’s assume that maybe one in ten would otherwise have bought the film if they couldn’t get it for free… that’s 4050 copies sold.  I’m sure Kino would LOVE to have sold that many of this disc set.  I’ll bet it didn’t sell anywhere near that.

While I’m on the topic of Seven Chances, let me take this opportunity to rant a bit more.  Not only does Kino make no money off this, but the print on YouTube is horrible.  The uploaders used a compression technique that makes the film really dark, so that you can barely see the color in the sequence I restored, and a lot of detail is missing in the rest of the film.

I think this really does Seven Chances and silent film in general a great disservice.  By featuring inferior copies on YouTube, we’re perpetuating the idea that silent films, and old films in general, look bad.  People almost invariably feel that it’s due to bad old technology and not bad new compression techniques.  This perpetuates the idea that old films are inherently boring and not worth seeing.

AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT WE PRESERVATIONISTS ARE FIGHTING AGAINST.

Not only is Google depriving us of income that we might otherwise get, the are also poisoning the well for new people giving these films a chance.  The vast majority of the bootlegged features are exceptionally dark and blurry, and this is often noted in reviews that we see on IMDb.  Sometimes for good movies.

Let me clarify that Seven Chances IS copyrighted, and that one of the bootlegged versions has been up for two years from the time of this posting.  It’s got the copyrighted score on it.  Imagine how much easier it would be to bootleg someone’s restoration of a public domain film.  That’s not even against Google’s rules.

Look, I appreciate free as much as the next guy, but the market here is dying.  At one time, you could try to sell films to TCM, but they’re becoming increasingly insular due to costs, and they still have zillions of films from the RKO, MGM, and Warner library that they’ve never aired.  Why should they license films from outside?

That leaves Google.  I’d love to see Google spend some of its dripping billions on putting non-junk on YouTube.  If YouTube is suddenly the cultural repository of all video not on NetFlix, then can it at least look good?  Can you find collectors, historians, archives, and preservationists who will get you good prints instead of stuff that’s reviewed as “bad, and I couldn’t read most of the titles”?  Throw those people or organizations a check.  After all, they saved good copies of the films in the first place.

I suppose we can consider archive.org, but their stuff, with a few exceptions, looks even worse than YouTube.  It’s even more lax in rules than YouTube, with blatant violations like an uncut Dracula and the Metropolis restorations with complete Kino titles.

I know that a lot of people seem to think that restorations happen like magic and are pretty cheap to do.  I used to be in the computer animation business and we’d have a similar problem: guys would come in and request substantial changes, then come back in 5 minutes and ask to see them.  Hence our motto: “All computer rendering takes place in zero time.”

Since I do this professionally, I’ll outline what I’ve done on my NFPF restoration of King of the Kongo.  I get a couple of requests a month to put this on YouTube, and about two per week asking for the Dr. Film episodes.  Then they don’t understand why I answer, “I can’t afford to put them on YouTube.  Once they’re on YouTube, they’re valueless.

I don’t have another job to fall back on for the money I lose on this.  And if I did have another job, I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the work I do now.  Here’s what went into King of the Kongo, Chapter 10:

  1. About $6500 of lab work, including scanning and archival film recording.
  2. Breaking the film down on a shot-by-shot basis to fix contrast and brightness issues (about two days of work plus about two days of computer rendering time.)
  3. Stabilizing the film on shot-by-shot basis to make the image stable enough to do lip sync.  (about 4 days of work plus a couple of days of rendering.)
  4. Synchronizing the sound.  This is a technical disaster that I could go on about for hours, but let’s just say it was about a week.
  5. Getting everything moved.  The sound discs moved from Michigan to Indianapolis, to Virginia, to New Jersey, back to Virginia, and back to New Jersey.  This was all hand-carried to avoid damage in shipment. The film went from NY to Indianapolis, then hard drives went back and forth.  The logistics are a nightmare, with about 5-6 people involved in it.
  6. Restoring the credits.  Again, a long, long explanation, but a lot of math and about 4 days of work for 45 seconds of footage.
  7. De-noising the picture.  Using a special statistical analysis program, all 30,000+ frames of the film are analyzed to remove suspected dust.  About half of these are false positives and must be cancelled by hand.  This takes about two weeks.

Now, I did get an NFPF grant to cover this.  They covered the lab expenses.  Everything else I did myself.

So am I going to put this all on YouTube for free?

Am I going to produce more episodes of the Dr. Film show and post them for free?  (Maybe even one with the Kongo restorations.)

I’d love to.  I’ll do it when Google sends me a big check to cover my heating bills for last winter.  I’m sure not going to make it back in Blu-Ray sales.

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10 Questions with Tommy José Stathes

I’ve known Tommy Stathes (rhymes with Mathis) for a few years, and his relentless drive to pick up cartoons is fascinating.  Not only does he have original 1920s Kodascopes, but he collects old film prints of cartoons discarded in the 50s.  He knows all about the different versions and cuts available.  I hate to use the word obsessive (which might apply), but he certainly tries to get things right and tries to spread the word (and joy) about cartoons.

Like me, Tommy goes out on the road and does shows with live film projection.  I particularly like the answer to his last question in which he talks about the need to promote, promote, promote… even though it might be a little embarrassing.  But we’re both promoting stuff that few people know about and fewer people care about, so getting the word out is critical.

Those of you who follow this blog know that there’s a running thread about the fact that TCM has never even acknowledged my existence despite my efforts otherwise.  It therefore, galls me to no end that TCM is now presenting the second special with Tommy’s efforts, and that they found him on the web because of his work.  But NOOOOOO, they never found my site.

This leads to another topic: Tommy and I are constantly ribbing each other.  Most film historians take themselves pretty seriously, but I don’t especially and neither does Tommy.  If you don’t follow either of us on Facebook, then you may not know that he loves to poke fun at my hatred of Disco.  He finds the most horrid Disco songs, sometimes bordering on unlistenable, and posts them on my page.  He’s also fond of something called YouTube Poops, which I have to admit I don’t understand at all. (Mr. Stathes has asked me to clarify that he personally does not like YouTube Poops, and he doesn’t particularly understand them either, but he does enjoy posting them on my Facebook page to annoy me.)

In retaliation, I have posted things on his page playing up his resemblance to Senator Al Franken, and accusing him of running nothing but dupes.  Dupes are inferior copy prints made on film.  It’s considered a prank to wait until a collector’s pride-and-joy print hits the screen in a darkened theater and then yell DUPE.

Now, just because we have a Facebook war doesn’t mean we hate each other. Some people have actually taken our jokes seriously.  I have to admit I have a grudging respect for the punk.   I tried to let the air out of his tires, but he doesn’t drive.

Tommy Stathes contemplates that lost Bray cartoon, or perhaps he smells a whiff of vinegar.

Tommy Stathes contemplates that lost Bray cartoon, or perhaps he smells a whiff of vinegar.

Q1.  You’re going to be on TCM with your own time slot in October.  Please give this a plugola for the readers so we know what to expect.  Keep in mind that I’m insanely jealous because it’s been a running tale here that TCM doesn’t even open my mail, much less give me a WHOLE TIME SLOT (you evil….)

That is correct! On the night of Monday, October 6th, TCM is dedicating the evening to rare, early and classic animation programming. I’ve provided an hour’s worth of rarely seen cartoons produced by the Bray Studios from 1913 to 1926. Bray was the first successful cartoon studio and many of animation history’s notable animators and studio heads got their start at Bray. The films come from my early animation archives and TCM asked me to co-host the program with Robert Osborne, which was a surreal task for me. Maybe you’ll see my stage fright showing through.

Q2. I’ve often said that film is the least-respected art form.  But cartoons are the least-respected films. You save black and white silent cartoons, which most people would never even bother to watch.  Why is it that you save them when almost no one else even cares about them?

I can’t tell just how sarcastic you’re being, because I know you like and collect some of them too, though, as you know, there are actual film historians and archivists who openly dump on cartoons. [Ed note: I wasn’t being sarcastic at all.]  I care about these films and save them firstly through a personal interest in animation and in film history, and secondly because there have been no long-term, grand scale archiving efforts outside of a small handful of private collectors who have helped carry the torch in recent decades. I think every vein of pop culture history is inherently of value for several reasons, and it’s the niche I decided to research and preserve. You’d be surprised, though. For every seasoned film buff and historian who might turn their noses up at old cartoons, there are two dozen or more bright-eyed and fascinated ‘civilian’ attendees at my film screenings who are completely charmed by these films. At the end of the day, they ARE fun and charming films, whether you understand their history and value or not.

Heeza Liar 1

Col. Heeza Liar, a popular JR Bray character.

Q3. You’re particularly excited about John Randolph Bray.  Please tell us a little about him and what makes him special.

As I began to hint at earlier, Bray is an extremely important figure in animation history. Without him, there would have been no bona fide animation industry, or its birth would have been delayed or played out in some other way. Bray was born in Michigan to a minister’s family in 1879, and though a creative and industrious person, he had an unsuccessful stint at college. Bray then got into journalism and finally cartooning once he moved to New York City in the early 1900s. By 1912, Bray had seen some of the earliest cartoons that were made, such as Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911) and he began thinking of ways to translate his own comic characters to the screen. There’s an old rumor that he posed as a reporter to gain access to McCay’s studio, learned about animation techniques that way, and proceeded to run back home to start animating..and eventually patented those techniques as his own. Bray had a reputation for being unscrupulous that way, but these and other moves he made led to the founding of his studio upon securing a distribution contract with Pathe. Bray is often called the Henry Ford of animation–unlike no animators before him, he kept up with regular release schedules by applying the assembly line method of production in his studio, which, coupled with the animation techniques and shortcuts he developed himself and ‘borrowed’ from others, sped up the process and allowed theatergoers to begin seeing cartoons regularly. What many people don’t realize is that all this happened years before Disney became famous.

Q4. Tell us about the master want list.  How often do you recover a cartoon that’s on it?

The infamous 16mm Silent Cartoon Want List! It’s a semi-complete list of silent-era cartoons that were known to be available in 16mm. Sometimes I go for a few months not finding anything on it, and sometimes I’ll find a dozen things in one month. You can never really know when stuff like this will turn up, or where. In the three or four years since I started the list, I estimate I’ve found and taken over two hundred titles off of it.

Q5. I am on record for hating cutesy Spielberg films, but you have a special love for …batteries not included.  Why do you love this film so much?  Doesn’t it have to do with a different type of preservation?

This is one of those situations where I saw the film and fell in love with it at age 5 or 6. So, Spielbergy and 80s Hollywood schmaltz aside (which I think is far more endearing than the quality of Hollywood films today), I love the film for several reasons. It takes place in disappearing Old New York, showing the boarded-up and abandoned period of the East Village. I’ve always loved distressed old buildings so a film centered on them is eye candy for me, as is any film taking place in my native New York prior to the 1990s. Then there’s a great story about an elderly couple who are trying to live out their final years in relative peace. The husband is trying to hold onto his old tenement building and the cafe he’s ran for decades, and the wife is battling dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. We see their and other residents’ struggles to carry out their lives while a real estate firm is trying to level their block for new luxury high-rises. For mainstream Hollywood, comedy and cheesy elements aside, I think the story is told quite beautifully. And how could you go wrong with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy? I’m not usually big on sci-fi films so the elements of the story surrounding the little flying saucer repairmen is just a novelty to me, and not the focus of the story or the film. It’s fantasy-based but the conclusion is a victory for those of us who are sensitive to the plight of average people and those of us who are architectural preservationists.

Q6. I know you hate to speak before a group about your films.  How is it that you spread the word about watching these films and that they’re cool?  Do you get word of mouth at your shows?

Well, I wouldn’t say I hate doing it. It’s taken me a few years to get comfortable with it, and I don’t have the gift of gab in general, so it’s always a bit of a challenge. The word about my work and shows is spread through a lot of online promotion, word of mouth, and carefully written programs given out to attendees of a screening.

Mr. Stathes unspools another of his spotless original prints for an unsuspecting audience.

Mr. Stathes unspools another of his spotless original prints for an unsuspecting audience. (Photo by Joel Esquite)

Q7. Your site is called Cartoons on FILM.  Why are you so into FILM when most people want blu-ray or DVD?  Is there something special about film for you?

I will always feel that there’s something intrinsically charming and special about holding a reel of film and seeing the little individual frames spooled up in a roll. I was born in the VHS age, but became instantly hooked when I saw a projector up close and all the care and mechanical components that went into making the apparatus work. While the technical working of machines isn’t my immediate forte, the joy of running a projector and showing people a movie off of a DVD or digital file is galaxies apart. Physical film and projectors win, hands down. There are always people who are also fascinated with seeing the projector up close and I think that’s half the attraction of my screenings.

Q8. It’s known that I constantly make fun of you.  It’s actually upset some people, so I have to mention it here.  Please state for the record that I really am mean, don’t like you, and am completely dismissive of your efforts.  Feel free to mention the dupe joke if you like (even though I’ve had to declare a moratorium on it.)

If you’re really truly mean, then my name is Senator Al Franken. You and others also call me Senator constantly. I can’t win! People should know that you’re only [half] kidding when joking about my spotless original prints.

Q9. I’m aware that you especially like Disco music, which is an “art form” that I really do find vile and disgusting.  I’ve often said that those of us who lived through the 70s are embarrassed about Disco.  We don’t want to celebrate it at all.  Just because this is your time here, please pick a relatively inoffensive Disco tune and I’ll post it with your comments about it.  Lawrence Welk covers of Disco tunes are not to be discussed.

Oh, no need to torture you any further with a specific disco tune or my thoughts about it. All I’ll say is something I’ve said before: Not everyone who lived through the 70s is embarrassed about Disco. Sure, there was a lot of tackiness about some of the music within the genre and some of the culture connected with the music, but that’s true for most popular genres of any media. I think the tipping point and the reason a lot of people were annoyed by it is because it went overboard and infiltrated too many corners of life, rather than remain one genre of music and culture that you just heard about once in awhile outside of being a true disco king or queen in constant immersion. Some of it is very beautifully orchestrated music with a catchy, clean beat or melody. For me there’s a sentimental aspect to it and it’s one of several kinds of music I like. Get down on it and dance, dance, dance Dr. Film!

Q10. I hate it when people interview me and don’t really understand the point of what I do.  What important question did I not ask you, and how would you answer that?

I think you got everything down pretty well, since you have a practically perfect understanding of what I do. I think there are two remaining questions: A. Where are you going from here, and what else do you want to do? B. What are some challenges involved in being an independent archivist and exhibitor?

My answers: A. My basic long-term goal is the same as it’s always been. Find, reunite and preserve as much silent-era animation as possible in one location. The additional things I want to do include finding more ways to get these films out to larger audiences, which includes home video, hopefully more broadcasts, and possibly some “modern” things like streaming, while retaining some sort of control and a method for making some kind of revenue. I’m not employed by an archive or university so, as you know, guys like us need to have a sort of proprietary lordship over the films we work with, even though our mission is to share them with the public as much as possible. B. Well, I just answered part of that question already! The only other thing I’ve had to learn is how to be my own promoter. Again, being independent means I have to promote, promote, promote, almost all on my own. I hope my friends understand that I’m posting about my shows and projects on social media all the time because that’s the only way I can keep it going and stay afloat, not simply because I’m obsessed with the medium. In my non-film walk of life, I barely even get into discussions about my work or film with the general population. I may be a showman and put on public events but if you ran into me in the street and had a chat with me, you would never know I do this sort of thing.

A shot from How Animated Cartoons are Made

A shot from How Animated Cartoons Are Made

Posted in Views and reviews | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Ghastly Skeletons of Paul Bunnell

I know I’ll get some complaints here.  “Hey, you just did a blog about that Blamire guy! Do something else!”  Well, I haven’t sold my soul to Larry Blamire or to Paul Bunnell.  I promise that I’ll write blogs about other topics at some point.  Right now, I’m deep into the National Film Preservation Foundation restoration of King of the Kongo, so when someone tells me that I can get a new article, that I don’t have to do anything, and that it has to do with film and history, well I have to post it.

And besides, Paul and Larry are making films that I particularly enjoy, and Paul even sees the light about real film.  (Larry, not so much, but we’ll work on him!)

Paul’s film The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is one of those independents that was shot with love as a tribute to the films of the past.  I particularly enjoy Paul’s description of Kevin McCarthy.  The more I hear about Kevin, the more I regret that I never got the chance to meet him.  He sounds like a really amazing guy.

And, while I’m on the topic, Larry Blamire’s Kickstarter project to fund The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us is winding down.

So, while I’m on enforced hiatus from the Dr. Film blog, here is an interview with filmmaker Paul Bunnell by filmmaker Larry Blamire.  Can you get any cooler?


Paul Bunnell (left) and Larry Blamire check each other for melon-oma.  (Lost Skeleton Returns Again)

Paul Bunnell (left) and Larry Blamire check each other for melon-oma. (Lost Skeleton Returns Again)

LARRY: Paul, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is such a refreshing blast of entertaining individuality. Can you recall a singular moment in time when the idea for it was born? Or was it a gradual birth, like a kind of slow mental ooze that happened while you slept?

PAUL: There was not a singular moment in time the idea was born, although that would have been wonderful!  It wasn’t a slow mental ooze, either, and to be honest, thinking about it probably disrupted my sleep.  It was more like a caterpillar, in that the basic idea came to me, not fully formed, but inspiring enough that I started filming.  Then, as you know, production went into a sort of stasis, or cocoon, to follow my metaphor, during which changes were made to the style and the story.  Finally, quite a bit later, the finished film emerged as a beautiful, wacky, black and white butterfly, still bearing a resemblance to its beginnings, but quite different from the original concept!

LARRY: Are you concerned about the current glut of Dark Comic Sci-fi Musical Romances?

PAUL: Actually, I’d be thrilled to see many, many more Dark Comic Sci-fi Musical Romances.  The world could always use more entertainment, and GLJX, of course, is ready, willing and able to lead the way!

LARRY: The film seems to take place in an alternate reality 50s, yet it’s very consistent that way. How did you describe its world to your cast, designers, etc., without them doubting your sanity?

PAUL: There was never any question; my sanity was doubted since day one. I had very specific ideas for sets and props and wanted to give the film an artificial studio look without being condescending or cheesy.  One of the things I wanted to replicate were the craggy exterior sets from Bride of Frankenstein. I told my production designer: “You can mess up the other sets, but no matter what, get this one right!” It was a challenge to achieve the desired effect for the money we had to work with, but Lawrence Kim figured it out and my hat will forever be off to him. By the way, where is my hat?

LARRY: Talk about your casting process; any cattle calls? Mostly folks you already knew?  [Ed. Note: In show business parlance, a cattle call is “a theatrical audition at which many performers are seen only briefly, often in groups.” Just in case you didn’t know.]

PAUL: Some I knew, some I didn’t. I discovered one of the gang girls working at a coffee shop. She was this striking beauty with classic features. I told her about my upcoming movie AND that I was married. I didn’t get a date, but she did happen to call me about a year later when I was casting and I gave her the role of “Annette.” I discovered another Ghastly One at a nightclub in Los Angeles; Morris Everett was the real rockabilly deal, complete with tattoos and a zany personality, so he got the part. Finally there was a very good friend of mine, David Slaughter, a fellow film aficionado who was rather critical of my movie That Little Monster. I put him in GLJX so he would have a birds-eye view of the struggles it took to make a movie. To this day he has never negatively criticized GLJX. Everyone else auditioned for their roles through the casting call process, except for Mr. Projector (Aaron Ball), who will always be invited to appear in every movie I make.

LARRY: Creed Bratton is particularly terrific–how did he become involved?

PAUL: It’s a funny thing to admit, but I had no idea who Creed Bratton was before I cast him. I was trying to get my friend George Chakiris (yes THAT George Chakiris from West Side Story) to play Mickey O’Flynn. He was on the fence about it. I then met Paul (Phantom of the Paradise) Williams and decided he would be absolutely perfect to play Mickey – and after a couple of meetings he said YES! Four years later when I finally got the money to finish shooting, I contacted Paul but couldn’t get his schedule to correlate with ours. I went to my casting director for ideas. She put out a notice and received hundreds of submissions, one of which kept finding its way to my attention. That “one” was Creed Bratton. His agent mentioned The Grass Roots and that he was the real deal from the sixties and so on. I decided to meet with him to discuss the role. During the meeting I mentioned I didn’t own a cell phone. Creed immediately took his phone out of his pocket and threw it into a nearby tree. I knew at that moment he was going to play Mickey O’Flynn. Happily, Paul Williams was able to give us one day and agreed to play the talk show host. His scene was shot on the first day, which also happened to be Creed’s first day. At the end of the day Paul took me aside and complimented me for casting Creed, saying how perfect he was for the part. I had to admit he was right.

Creed Bratton as Mickey

Creed Bratton as Mickey

LARRY: We’ve each had the pleasure of directing the wonderful Kevin McCarthy. Was he just as quiet and reserved on your set?

PAUL: No. He was actually quite feisty… in a good way.

LARRY: Okay, I was kidding right. He was wonderfully insane on our set.

PAUL: That’s true .. and I had the pleasure to witness the insanity when you filmed his cameo in Trail of the Screaming Forehead. What a fun day that was!  When Kevin came to film his role in GLJX I was a bundle of nerves. I just wanted to please him, but everything seemed to go wrong that day. The 35mm camera stopped working and we had to send out for a replacement; this shut us down for a few hours. Kevin kept suggesting changes in the script. One thing he didn’t like was revealing the resurrection suit at the beginning of the movie. He also re-wrote some of his dialogue, which I happily approved. Oh, and that wonderful hat! Kevin thought it would be a good idea for his character to have some kind of a hat and I agreed. A week later I received a magazine clipping in the mail. It was a caricature of the rock band DEVO wearing their signature hats. Kevin drew an arrow to the hats and wrote: “These look interesting.” I thought it was very funny since I was sure he had no idea who DEVO was. The idea was so inspired that our costume designer (Kristina West) created a modified DEVO hat for his character. All thanks to Kevin!

JX Bunnell & McCarthy

Kevin McCarthy (in Devo hat) being directed by Bunnell (left).

LARRY: Kate Maberly’s delightfully wacky in this. Can I say “delightfully wacky”?

PAUL: You bet! Any actress from the UK who can play an American valley girl is the mutt’s nuts — that’s British slang for “delightfully wacky.”

Kate Maberly is like a valley girl.

Kate Maberly is like a valley girl.

LARRY: How tight were you to the script? Any improv?

PAUL: Occasionally I would call out “Start Acting” instead of “Action”.. but for the most part we stuck to the script. The only time we veered was when Creed Bratton or Paul Williams was on set. They came up with quite a few zingers, most of which made it into the final cut.

LARRY: Paul Bunnell: fun to work with? Or Fritz Langian nightmare?

PAUL: I always try to keep my sets fun and positive. There was only one “incident” where I lost it with a pushy Assistant Director. I guess he didn’t understand my Langian working method.

LARRY: Did your concept of the film shift at all over the period of making it?

PAUL: Somewhat. The script was heavily revised and re-written during our six year “hiatus”. In the original story there were two concerts and Mickey O’Flynn was the villain. This changed and Mickey became more fun loving and cartoon-like.  I then added the delightfully wacky Dandi Conners character and the big set piece at the end. A major change was the musical aspect itself. Originally GLJX was NOT a musical – not until I brought Scott Martin on board to write some songs for Mickey O’Flynn. I liked them so much that I decided to add a full blown musical number in the diner. That one turned out so well that I decided to add more songs while waiting for our money. If it wasn’t for the six year break there would only be a couple of songs in the movie – and if it took any longer we might have had more songs (or no movie at all).

johnnyxonesheet-web-xlLARRY: I know you’re passionate about shooting on film–and it looks gorgeous–can you see any circumstance where you would try HD? (come to the dark side, Paul… come to the dark side…)

PAUL: I believe that film is still the best way to capture the image. I finished GLJX without using a digital intermediate and made a few 35mm release prints from the original camera negative. I also made a beautiful 2K DCP (Digital Cinema Package) version of the movie. Both versions are beautiful to watch. If you don’t have a skilled 35mm projectionist there is always a chance something could go wrong with the presentation (missed changeover cues, focus issues, etc.). But with digital projection there is a controlled presentation every time which reduces the odds of something going wrong. So for today’s modern audiences I would prefer to have it seen digitally in a theatre, but for myself, I prefer the look of the 35mm print.

LARRY: How did you get the last of the Eastman Plus-X Negative Film? Burglary?

PAUL: I started filming 2nd unit stuff for GLJX in November 2002 on Kodak 35mm Plus-X black-and-white film stock and continued with it in 2004 when the actors came on board. Then there was the long break between filming and a lot was changing in the industry during that time. When we finally got the money to finish in 2010 I heard that Kodak had just discontinued their Plus-X stock. Luckily there was a small amount of Plus-X in various Kodak facilities, but it was going fast. It seemed that every filmmaker was buying up whatever they could get their hands on. My sales agent pulled some strings and got us just enough to finish the movie with some rolls coming as far away as France.  So that’s how GLJX became the last 35mm feature film shot entirely on Plus-X.

LARRY: Were you a monsterkid? Come on, ‘fess.

PAUL: I used to watch all the classic monster movies every weekend on “Fright Night with Seymour” .. so I guess you could call me a bonafide monsterkid.

LARRY: What was the first movie monster that ever scared you?

PAUL: For some reason I remember being creeped out by War of the Gargantuas. By the time I got a color TV set I was over it .. but that wasn’t until I was 40.

LARRY: Off the top of your head, give me five films that influenced or affected you greatly, but not in alphabetical order?

PAUL: How about in year of release order: Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931); James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935); Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937); Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958); and Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

LARRY: Who’s your favorite painter?

PAUL: Earl Scheib (he painted cars when I was a kid).

LARRY: Did you make home movies as a kid?

PAUL: Yes. I made my first one in 1974 on super 8mm film with no sound. My first “talkie” was a year later in which I played the role of “Count Dracula”. I followed it up with “Bite of the Werewolf” featuring a classic Don Post mask. I made a total of 22 films during the 1970s-1990s

LARRY: Loved the talk show scene; a good example of the film’s High Strangeness. Is surreality a goal of yours? Or do I just see what I want to see?

PAUL: I love the surreal. The sound designer had all this canned laughter and applause that sounded like it was coming from a huge studio audience. I decided it was way too much and dialed it back to almost nothing. I wanted to give the scene a feeling of awkwardness. I wanted the sound of the actual audience watching GLJX to be the laugh track. It was probably a risky choice, but I think it works and helps give the scene a High Strangeness feel.

LARRY: The score is fantastic. Nice to see the Moon-Rays involved. Tell us about Ego Plum and Scott Martin.

PAUL: Ego Plum and Scott Martin are a couple of multi-talented musicians whose work compliments each other nicely. Scott is a classically trained composer who writes his score on paper, like Amadeus did back in the day. He rehearsed the singing parts at his house and was present for all the recording sessions. He really is quite brilliant. Ego Plum is one of those self-taught musicians with a great ear for arranging and composing music, although I’m not sure about his other ear. He orchestrated and performed the music for Scott’s songs, which gave them a unique sound. He also composed the film score which took several months to complete. I was usually there for the sessions and helped out with bongos, phone books and bicycle tires. The Moon-Rays title track is a delight and pretty much encompasses all things musically ghastly, but in a good way.

LARRY: The production numbers are ambitious and very nicely done. Nightmare to stage or Fun Time; you decide!

PAUL: I usually had a vague idea for staging but wasn’t completely sure until I surveyed the set. I would walk around the sound stage with headphones and listen to the songs before filming. The choreography was worked out well in advance with ample rehearsal time. For the numbers I worked with choreographer Carolanne Marano and let her co-direct with me. This method worked really well and I think the quality shows on the screen.

LARRY: I remember seeing That Little Monster first listed in the Sinister Cinema catalogue and being intrigued. Talk a little about how that film came about.

PAUL: I wrote a script for the television show Monsters with high hopes of getting my directing career started.  I met with producers but there was little interest so I decided to make it myself. TLM turned out to be more of an experimental art film with an appearance by Forrest J Ackerman at the beginning and a cameo (his very last) by Bob Hope at the end.  I never got directing work based on its odd nature but the Sinister Cinema and Elite Entertainment releases did get me some much needed press. It was then I decided to make GLJX. Like TLM I decided to shoot mostly on weekends. This went on for five months until the money ran out. I was just about to give up after trying unsuccessfully for six years to raise finishing funds when in the eleventh hour a former grip on TLM (and good friend) Mark Willoughby came to my rescue! He financed GLJX and was quite pleased with his promotion to Executive Producer. Who would have thunk it?

LARRY: Radiator girl from Eraserhead? True or false?

PAUL: False. She is actually known as “Lady in the Radiator”.. but if you’re referring to De Anna Joy Brooks’ expanded cheeks makeup in GLJX, this was not inspired by Radiator girl.

LARRY: What are distribution plans?

PAUL: We had a small theatrical release and quickly became known as the lowest grossing film of 2012. Strand Releasing became our official distributor in 2013 and released a beautiful DVD edition, chock full of exclusive bonus features.  Also, GLJX is currently available to stream on Netflix.

LARRY: Can you give us any clues about what’s next for you? Already working on other projects?

PAUL: My next movie is called Rocket Girl; about a young girl’s adventure on Earth in the futuristic year of 1967. There’s also a bio-pic about 1960’s pop icon Tiny Tim. But the one I’m really itchin’ to do is a reimagining of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.

[Ed. Note: It’s interesting to hear these guys gush on about The Man Who Laughs.  I was a contributor to the Kino DVD of that film.]

LARRY: Okay, that is way cool. One of the first movie monster paintings I ever did was one of (yeah, I know he’s not really a monster) Conrad Veidt’s startling images from the 1928 film. Not to give too much away, but would it be a period piece?

PAUL: My version of The Man Who Laughs will be reimagined to take place in a 1930s mythological setting; more of a fantasy driven fairy tale than an authentic period piece.

LARRY:  Sounds like another piece of unique entertainment from the mysterious mind of Paul Bunnell!  Thank you very much for the interview, Paul.  This has been perfectly ghastly, but – as you say – in a good way!

jx poster_style d


Just in case you missed all the hyperlinks, you can read more about Paul Bunnell’s Ghastly Love of Johnny X here.

Larry Blamire is trying to fund his next movie, The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us here.

And, if you’re a first time reader, this blog is promoting a classic film TV show that I’ve been trying to launch for years. It’s here.

Posted in Views and reviews | 3 Comments

10 Questions With Larry Blamire

Back in 2003 or so, Mike Schlesinger was promoting a trailer for a movie that Sony had just picked up.  I saw the trailer and howled with laughter.  Mike told me that it was a real trailer for a real movie.  I asked him if the filmmakers could keep that pace up for the length of a whole feature, and he assured me that they did.  It was a little film called The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,  and I bugged Mike mercilessly to find me a theater where it was playing.

Making a movie is a tricky thing, and independents doubly so.  It’s almost a delusional state, or a psychological malady.  You need to have a crew of at least a dozen people working together on a project that the odds say may never be seen outside of the 2am-4am time filler slot on TNT.  Most don’t make money, and most lose their investment entirely.

This is why I’m often enchanted with the can-do spirit of 1950s filmmakers.  As much as we like to make fun of him, Ed Wood was a successful filmmaker.  He beat the odds.  He got films made and released.  Roger Corman was and is a successful filmmaker.  His films hit theaters and TV.  Were they silly?  Sure!  Cheap?  You bet!  But they got made… and the directors came back to make more.  I’d guess that 90% of movies that are started are never finished, and maybe half of those that are finished are ever released in some fashion.

I sensed an immediate bond with writer-director Larry Blamire’s creation when I finally got to see it.  A lot of people don’t really understand what he was trying to do.  The most clueless critics (I’m not going to link to a clueless review… find it yourself) say that Larry is spoofing 1950s-60s movies and making a deliberately bad film.  He’s not.  He’s making a tribute to those films, and he’s even limited in much the same way they were.  Sure, it’s funny, and it’s a little more over-the-top than the originals were.  But it’s clear that Larry loves movies, low-budget or not.

One of the marvels of Lost Skeleton was the way Larry aped that poetic but tin-eared dialogue that we know so well.  Ed Wood is famous for it, but you can hear it ring through epics like The Conqueror and most of the Roger Corman films of the period.  It’s the sound of “Get it done by tomorrow morning so we can shoot this.”  Larry nails it.

And it takes a special kind of actor to be able to read that sort of dialogue without sounding like he’s an idiot.  John Wayne couldn’t do it, but Charlton Heston could.  Lyle Talbot did it in Glen or Glenda.  But all of Larry’s talented stock company does it brilliantly.  It’s a joy to watch these folks tear their way through the film, with innovative reaction shots, and clever but not-quite-hammy portrayals.

When Larry premiered Lost Skeleton Returns Again at a convention in Kentucky,  I drove for several hours to see it.  I did it again to see his cut of Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  (I even resisted the chance to throw spitballs at Mike Schlesinger when he won the Rondo award, and that was self-restraint, people.)

But now Larry is spearheading a brilliant and innovative Kickstarter campaign to make the third Lost Skeleton film.  I couldn’t let this opportunity go without talking to him about it.  Most Kickstarter campaigns are pretty static and dry (like mine was),  but Larry has a new video or hook every couple of days.  It’s quite cool.

For the record, The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us is a project I endorse wholeheartedly.  But then again, I’m that guy who has a popular blog for a TV show that he can’t sell!  Still, we all must do our part, and this is mine!

I INTERVIEW NOW!  (Did you see what I did there?  Well, if you didn’t, then skip it.)

Writer/director/actor/producer Larry Blamire

Writer/director/actor/producer Larry Blamire

Q1. You’ve done some clever satires of popular genres.  Your first picture was Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. That’s been discussed to death, but I’d like to talk to you about the pictures that inspired it.  It has a very Bert I Gordon/Roger Corman/even 50s Universal feel to it.  These pictures have a feel of “Wow, these poor guys had nothing to work with.  It’s amazing that the film even got finished.”  You seem to celebrate that spirit.  Would you discuss that feel of 1950s filmmaking and maybe give us some films that gave you some inspiration?

LS1LB: I wrote a play in the late 80s, a comedy-with-heart called Bride of the Mutant’s Tomb that had an Ed Wood-like director scrambling to finish his film in Bronson Canyon while everything seemed to go wrong.  I didn’t realize that would be me several years later.  Although everything wasn’t going wrong for us of course, it was still a mad scramble and that now almost seems a “method” approach to what we were emulating.  My relationship with 50s low (or medium) budget scifi is complex; I chuckle with respect.  That is to say no matter how unintentionally funny some of them were (and plenty weren’t) I still admire that they got it done.  It’s almost heroic.  And I love when a film like my oft-mentioned Attack of the Crab Monsters conveys genuine atmosphere, a sense of doom.  It’s crazy.  They often touch a surreal vein in me, the incongruous imagery they present, whether consciously or not.  The reversed footage of The Blob running up the old man’s arm, giant eyes crawling around snowy mountaintops, even that skinny big-headed monster in Fire Maidens of Outer Space lurking in a lush natural Eden-like setting.  Unconscious strangeness is still strange.

Q2. I really loved that your sequel to Lost Skeleton was not just a rehash of the original, but it was a much bigger-budget production that went in a completely different direction.  From an artistic standpoint, tell us how you like to approach the idea of sequels.  I know that a lot of the 1950s sequels don’t do a good job of changing direction and become rehashes.  One particular film that does it well is Revenge of the Creature, which is quite a different film from the picture that spawned it, Creature from the Black Lagoon.  On the other hand, the Godzilla pictures really started to get old quickly after a promising start.

LS2LB: I agree.  And Revenge of the Creature is a great example.  I enjoy that film as much as the original (though every time I watch it I do want just a little more monster-on-the-loose action).  I do dislike sequels that rehash.  I only did the second Lost Skeleton movie because I had a different idea, and I went from dead set against it to “I gotta make this movie.”  Even the music reflects something entirely different; from the low budget scifi style production music to the Herrmannesque feel of Morgan and Stromberg’s score.  I love both but the latter reflected the matinee adventure perfectly.  Expedition, jungle, monsters–I still love that formula.  And guess what–it still worked for my favorite Jurassic Park movie, Jurassic Park 3, another example of a sequel treading different ground.  Hell, it was more fun than either of its forerunners.  Do a sequel if you have something different up your sleeve, otherwise don’t bother.

Legendary Bob Burns with gralmanopidon (Frank Ippolito) for Lost Skeleton Returns Again

Legendary Bob Burns with gralmanopidon (Frank Ippolito) for Lost Skeleton Returns Again

Q3. As everyone knows, you’re currently trying to finance the third Lost Skeleton movie, which I understand is a departure from the last two.  Your Kickstarter campaign is really brilliant.  What did it take for you to get this going?

LB: Well, thank you and it’s taken a lot of work.  I tried to start it up last year but I was taken away by other projects.  Several months ago I began making the videos that I felt were necessary to try and get across that we do some wacky and different stuff.  It started with the “lost” footage from the original “silent” Lost Skeleton, which was created to be only one small part of the faux documentary A World Without Lost Skeleton.  And that piece was a (something) load of work for me, some pretty intensive editing.  But I have to say I was as happy with the outcome as anything I’ve created.  It sets up the conceit of the Lost Skeleton being at war with me, which I thought might be an amusing arc to keep the Kickstarter interesting.  Add to that exec producer Mark Stuart’s mighty effort with the pledge incentives and you’ve got a lot of work put into this.  As to The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us, once again the story came to me and presented something very different from its predecessors; the characters living in the suburbs circa 1963, with Dr. Paul experimenting with atmosphereum while a series of “radiation murders” is going on, and the Lost Skeleton moving in next door as he seeks to get his full power back.  It reaches new heights of absurdity, which is always of interest to me.

Q4. You made a number of episodes of Tales from the Pub, which are quite hilarious.  Those are great spoofs of 1950s “spooky” shows, particularly One Step Beyond and even some of the John Nesbitt shows.  I particularly like the way that you have a nasty film-like splice in the credits of every episode, just like a bad syndication print would have.  Can you talk a little about the 1950s shows that inspired you for this?

LB: We were having meetings in Dan Conroy’s basement pub like once a week, looking to plan our next project and it came to me as something of a creative outlet; these perfect little economical pieces that we could shoot on our own and post online just to keep ourselves sharp, and of course have fun.  I’m pretty sure I had just seen a fairly creepy episode of Lights Out (I think it was) called “The Martian Eye” that had something of a claustrophobic paranoia to it.  These were infectious for me; the more I wrote the more came to me–and I really enjoyed the challenge of having to tell a story in just a couple pages.  The cast was game and everyone chipped in wearing different hats; shooting, lighting, etc.  One Step Beyond was probably the closest model, but like our movie parodies I hesitate to add that I really do enjoy that show.  It’s nothing like, say, spoofing something cause it’s “bad”, it’s spoofing it because it’s fun.

Production designer Anton Tremblay with his  old dark house model for Dark and Stormy Night

Production designer Anton Tremblay with his old dark house model for Dark and Stormy Night

Q5. I almost feel that your spoof of “old dark house” pictures, Dark and Stormy Night has too much material to spoof, since it’s never really been done before.  You caught everything in these pictures, from the scheming relatives to the rigged seance, the dumb “wait, that’s impossible” character identity switches, and the hidden gorillas in the basement.  I’d like you to talk about this genre a little and how it inspired you.  Give us some specific vintage titles you’d recommend.

dasnLB: I really do love old dark house pictures–Jen [actress Jennifer Blaire] and I have been known to binge on them–and it’s sad to think we may be (incredibly) running out of ones we haven’t seen (I’m still hoping Columbia’s 1933 Fog, which sounds like an old dark house on an ocean liner, may turn up).  I decided it would be absurd fun to incorporate every ODH setup there is (some of which you mention), combining the will, stranded travelers, washed-out bridge, curse, escaped lunatic, etc.  When Jen and I watch them we have strict criteria; for instance if the night lasts only one act, or if the police arrive and the setting is no longer so isolated, we’re inevitably disappointed.  If there’s no storm, that’s a letdown–at least give us some howling wind for crying out loud.  In fact, atmosphere might just be the most important ingredient for us.  And even though DASN is a comedy I wanted it to have some of that.  Just to rattle off some favorites: The Phantom of Crestwood, The Bat Whispers, Night of Terror, Menace, Rogues Tavern, One Frightened Night, House of Mystery to name a few.  The Old Dark House is wonderful of course, though highly atypical, and Rene Clair’s And Then There Were None is probably the classiest, and a wonderful film in any category.  Of the made-for-TV movie heyday, the best would have to be the excellent but unfortunately titled She’s Dressed to Kill (1979).  Of course I love the alternate venues, like the old dark baseball stadium in Death on the Diamond or old dark movie studio of The Preview Murder Mystery.

Larry with his wife, actress Jennifer Blaire

Larry with his wife, actress Jennifer Blaire

Q6.  I know you’d rather not be typecast as “that Lost Skeleton guy” because you have a lot more ideas to offer.  Please discuss Steam Wars and what you’re doing with that.

LB: Steam Wars is my epic and it’s coming into its own, starting with the first three books of a graphic novel, the first of which is almost at the printer, followed by action figures–all leading up to a movie (and possible franchise).  I’m partnered with Jerrick Ventures on this, which is Jeremy Frommer and Rick Schwartz.  SW incorporates everything I love about big action movies, swashbucklers and cliffhangers and involves massive Victorian fighting machines shaped like armored warriors and manned by crews.  It’s steampunk, though I was developing it before there was such a term.


Teaser trailer for Steam Wars
Q7. Rumor is that you’ve worked a little with Ray Harryhausen… I’ll tip my hand and admit that I am a big fan of Ray’s.  Just because I’m a fan… tell me a little about that experience…

LB: Well, I would never say I worked with Ray (if only!).  However just to have his blessing on Trail of the Screaming Forehead, in that we were using traditional stop-motion, was a thrill for me.  Hell, hanging with him on several occasions was a thrill.  One of my boyhood inspirations and idols, the last true cinema magician.  The Cyclops emerging from the cave in 7th Voyage of Sinbad was a defining moment for me.  I’m proud to have Trail called a “Ray Harryhausen Presents.”

Andrew Parks blazing The Trail of the Screaming Forehead

Andrew Parks blazing the Trail of the Screaming Forehead.

Q8. Trail of the Screaming Forehead is a departure from the Lost Skeleton genre, but a subtle one.  It’s more of a bright Technicolor film, much like some of the color 1950s and early 60s fare. Can you discuss the different artistic “feel” of Trail and what films inspired you on this?  I keep thinking of Invaders From Mars for some reason…

LB: Definitely, as well as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Small town residents gradually taken over until the heroes become more isolated and paranoid.  I wrote it immediately after the first Lost Skeleton and it just came to me; again, a need to do something quite different but with a similar humor.  This one had no “strings showing” though.  It looks slick and polished, as though made by different folks in the early 60s.  Mike Schlesinger calls it Douglas Sirk meets Body Snatchers or something like that.  It definitely has that look.  Are you familiar with that great book Still Life, with those ridiculously rich color photos from 1950’s movies?  Like that.

I should also mention I’m writing the audio Adventures of Big Dan Frater, with Brian Howe, Dan Conroy and Alison Martin reprising their Screaming Forehead roles in a series of outrageous tales. The great Philip Proctor (Firesign Theater) is narrator. These will be available soon, and ongoing.

(Dr. Film responds: I’m not familiar with Still Life.  I suppose I should be.)

Q9. I know you shoot digitally, which is a particular preservation problem.  The version of Final Cut Pro that you used to cut Lost Skeleton is now unsupported and obsolete!  Do you have any plans to preserve your films so that the master materials are not lost?  (I didn’t make a pun about the Lost Skeleton becoming lost, so you’re welcome…)

LB: Thank you for that.  No, you know, I really don’t.  But I should.  Definitely.

Q10.  I often get interviewed by people who have no idea or understanding about what I do, and I think they don’t ask questions that are entirely relevant to the point.  What question should I have asked that I didn’t ask, or what would you like to answer that I didn’t ask?

LB: I actually really liked these questions because they’re somewhat different than what I’ve gotten before.  The only thing that comes to mind is something like “what are you watching now?” which may or may not be of interest.  I just finished With Fire and Sword, Jerzy Hoffman’s 1999 epic that wraps up his trilogy set in 17th Century Poland, which I found beautifully entertaining and richly satisfying.  It might even edge its way into my top ten favorite movies which changes gradually over time. René Clément’s Les Maudits made it on there not too long ago.  Blowup  may always be at the top for me.

Posted in Views and reviews | 7 Comments

The Artrepreneur in the Lon Chaney Economy

Legend has it that Lon Chaney, Sr. sought a raise at Universal in 1918 and was refused. The studio head, William Sistrom, told him, “I know a good actor when I see one, but looking at you, I see only a wash-out.” Chaney left the studio that day determined to make more money and do more of the work he wanted to do.

Chaney had a problem. He wanted to be a leading or top supporting actor and specialize in odd character parts. No one thought it was possible. They all wanted handsome leading men, actors like Henry B. Walthall or Wallace Reid. Chaney not that kind of actor, and he knew it. He was without work for some time and finally got a break in a William S. Hart western.

chaney

Lon Chaney during the shooting of The Miracle Man, his breakout film

In 1918, Chaney was a single father with a 12-year-old son. This was when there almost were no single fathers, unless the mother had passed on. He had been in nearly 150 films at Universal, and he worked steadily, but he sought something else. He was an artist who wanted to control his own destiny, and he was willing to do what was necessary to make it happen.

Silent film accompanist Ben Model has a word for people like this. It’s a guy who is an artist and also runs his own business. It’s artrepreneur. Part artist, part entrepreneur. Chaney was definitely one, and, really, a lot of artists are, particularly in show business.

Eventually, Chaney found his niche and was able to do exactly what he wanted to do. He even got the sweetest revenge by being hired back to work at Universal, something he always demanded a premium to do. (This is partly why I have always thought that Chaney would never have done Dracula for Universal. He was in a long-term contract with MGM, a bigger, more prestigious studio that loved his work. Why would he slum at Universal?)

As a successful star, Chaney bumped into another struggling actor in about 1925. His name was Boris Karloff. Karloff was walking home from a job and Chaney gave him a ride home. He gave Karloff a bit of advice that he never forgot: “The secret of success in movies lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do–and they’ll begin to take notice of you.”

And, right there is the inherent disconnect in it that faces everyone in the arts: Chaney said you have to be different from anyone else, and yet he couldn’t find work because Sistrom didn’t think he was enough like everyone else. Chaney would have gotten hired, fired, and been forgotten like Reid and Walthall if he’d been as handsome as they were. He had his own idea about his own art.

The artrepeneur has a key task. The world wants to put you in a shoebox so they know how to deal with you. For an actor it’s handsome, ugly, foreign, suave, funny, something. The artist who doesn’t fit into the shoebox (and the most successful ones don’t…just like Chaney said) needs to convince people that his art is worthwhile, even though they might not understand it.

“Gee, I want to play disabled guys, people missing one limb or multiple limbs. I want to play foreigners and villains. I want the audience to be so sad for me that they root for me, even though I will almost always die in the last reel without getting the girl.”

WHAT ARE YOU, CHANEY—CRAZY?

And, in a very real sense, Chaney was crazy. He’d have been much smarter to go off and get a “real” job, like most people did at the time. He wanted his son to stay out of acting and stick with his job at the General Water Heater Company. Really. I’m not making that up.

In the 1920s and 30s, that was a good idea. The chances of making it in acting are incredibly low and you could usually count on a company taking care of its workers (that is assuming that you didn’t lose your job during the Depression of the 1930s.)

But these days, that’s all out of the window. We now live in what I call the Lon Chaney economy. Everyone is in show business. The old model, the one where you got a job, put up with the garbage they fed you for 20 or 30 years, and then retired on a good pension… well, that’s seeming more and more like science fiction.

The new model is this: “I don’t care what your education is, I don’t care what your background is. I care what you can do for me that I can’t find someone else to do cheaper. If you can’t find something, then you’re out.”

Faced with a job market in which one is basically forced to repeatedly audition to stay employed, many workers are electing to chuck the whole thing and become artrepreneurs. Hey, if the world is like that, with no security, then why not work for yourself?

Well, I can’t claim to be as successful as Lon Chaney. I’m hoping to work up to Doug McClure. However, having done this for a while, I have some suggestions:

1) Be versatile. Don’t say, “I’m an artist… I do ONLY THIS.” Your goal is to do your work and eat, so remember that doing things that encourage that goal helps you. If you need to design a web site for yourself, go to stupid parties to meet clients, or figure out how to do your own accounting, then do it. Don’t let it eat up all of your time, but do it. Budget time accordingly, like money.

2) Be prepared for indifference and hostility. You’ll have to answer the questions. “Is this your day job?” “Hey, I know a guy who does what you do, but he works for free!” “This isn’t work if it’s fun. You’re not doing real work.” I assure you, even if you love what you do, there will be a lot of unpleasant stuff around it. Your job, and you must accept it, is to enthusiastically tell them that, yes, you’re crazy, but you think the world needs what you do because….” and really work on that last part.

3) Learn how to recruit help when you need it. The artrepreneur can’t do everything, but he must learn to do some things. You’ll have to do a lot of different things, and do them fairly well, because you’ll start out having no money and people won’t believe in you. One may be good at marketing, another may be good at technical stuff. It’s a good place to start your one key marketing bit, the one only you can do. If you can’t convince another fellow traveler that your work is worth his time, then you haven’t got the spiel down yet.

I’m not going to claim I know all the answers. I’m not what you’d call a great success, and I still struggle with that key thing. People still think what I do should be for free.

What I do know is that more and more people are going to be in my shoes, because the nice thing about the artrepreneur is that he can never be downsized or outsourced. He never works for that passive-aggressive boss like the one in Office Space.

Now I just have to convince people that the Dr. Film show is cool and shouldn’t be free on YouTube. Argh. It’s an ongoing battle.

Posted in Dr. Film's Pocket Rants | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

One Year Later and the Dust Settles

Last year,  on this very night, I was writing a really cool gag post on London After Midnight.  I knew it would be a perfect thing to post for April Fools Day.  This is also Lon Chaney’s Birthday…

I cooked up an  elaborate fraud and posted it, neither the first nor the last of such things,  and I made it really sound believable.  That was the problem, I guess.

It wasn’t the first one of these I’d done.  I always posted something cool on the old alt.movies.silent newsgroup, but that’s now been overtaken with spam and endless posts about whether Irving Thalberg was the spawn of satan (I kid you not on that last piece… I gave up on it after about 20 of those.)

I’d never done London After Midnight because it’s so obviously bogus,  but I had a couple of nice pictures and a good lie cooked up, and what fun it is for April 1st.

To add to the fun, and make it clear that this was a joke,  I added a news item  about the Dr. Film show being picked up by TCM.  If you follow the blog and the site at all, then  you know that this is something that is likely never going to happen, and that was the whole joke of it.

Well,  the TCM message boards got hold of it, and they went nuts.  I got emails from all over the world, my readership skyrocketed (only for a day, mind you), and people told me that I was the spawn of satan (and here I thought it was Irving Thalberg.)

Of course,  I didn’t post it to the TCM board, and I wasn’t even a member. I had to become a member to post a response to my lambasting.  It was generally felt that I was trying to get publicity for a weak and/or failed web site and that this was going to put me on the map.

Genius idea… wish I’d thought of it.  Didn’t work anyway.

The net result was that my blog posts have gained some traction, but only later in the year, I still get an occasional nastygram from someone on the TCM message boards (which I can’t do anything about), and Dr. Film didn’t get any more recognition than it had ever received… and that was pretty minimal from the start.

Oh,  yeah, there’s one more upshot.  There’s going to be no April Fool joke this year.  I can’t stand the noise.  I had a good one, too.

Last year’s blog:
HERE

And the firestorm from the TCM board (again from last year…  note that this is reverse chronological order from newest to oldest.)
TCM HERE

Will the April Fool return next year? I’m not sure yet, but I wouldn’t count on it!

Posted in Dr. Film's Pocket Rants | 6 Comments

The Religion of Vinegar Syndrome

 

Of all the things I encounter in the film world, vinegar syndrome is one of the saddest.  It’s a deterioration that hits acetate film and turns it into a smelly dry plastic that smells of a rancid salad.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone.  The film gets brittle and unusable.

The belief system of how vinegar syndrome works and affects prints has become unshakeable.  It’s much like a religion, the difference being important: real religion covers matters untestable and unknowable.  Vinegar syndrome is testable and knowable.  I sometimes post about this in various groups and inevitably I’ll come across someone who just hammers me about it, calls me an idiot, and propagates the same untested beliefs.  It’s gotten to the point that I get a little sensitive about the whole topic and don’t discuss it much.   Lately, however, a bunch of people have asked me to cover it in a long blog.

Now, the problem with this is that film people, almost by definition, are not technical people.  They don’t understand the technical aspects of why the film has started to deteriorate.  There’s also a problem between the archival and the presentational aspects of film history, too. I’ll discuss that a little as we progress.

I have this problem, you see.  I come from a technical background.  I’m an engineer.  I love to test things.   I suspect that there will be a lot of controversy and some people will call me a blasphemer in the religion of vinegar syndrome.  If it gets too nasty, I’ll just disable the contents on this post.  I love blogs.  You may notice a bit of hostility here, and I assure you that it’s because I’m really tired of having to defend myself.  I’ve done the tests and shown the saved films in public.

Since I’m flying in the face of established religion, I’ll steal an idea from Galileo, a guy who flew in the face of established religion in 1632, when he wrote his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.  He had a character named Simplicio advocate for a earth-centric model of the universe, while saner heads debated him.  So I’ll do the same thing here.

Simplicio: What is vinegar syndrome?  I hear it’s a disease that spreads from film to film and destroys them

Dr. Film: Vinegar syndrome is a problem associated mostly with tri-acetate film.  As the film ages, it outgases a little bit of acetic acid, which is vinegar.  As it accelerates, the film base becomes thin and brittle, and the film may buckle, tear, and become unprojectable.

Vinegar syndrome is not a virus, not a disease, not anything but simple chemical deterioration.  It affects different films in different ways.  If a film was developed poorly,  stored in bad conditions, stored with things that caused it to deteriorate, or is on unstable stock, it will tend to go vinegar.

I have had prints go completely vinegar while sitting right next to other prints that have not gone vinegar at all.  I therefore dispute the claim that it spreads… however, exposing prints to vinegar is not a great idea in general.

Simplicio: Why is that?  Does that make the disease spread?  Shouldn’t you quarantine the films that are vinegar in sealed cans?

Dr. Film: No, vinegar is an acid.  In solution (that means the air around the film), it will tend to eat at the film base, like any acid would, which causes the film to outgas more vinegar.

Putting vinegar prints in sealed cans is a sure way to kill them.  The vinegar builds up, and eats at the film, causing more vinegar to be expelled, but there’s no place for it to go, and it becomes an autocatalyzing process, meaning it gets worse and worse.

Is this tested?  Sure.  For many years I wanted to test the theory and I wondered if there was someone who’d accidentally done the test for me.  In 1998, I discovered that someone had done the very test I’d wanted without knowing it.  I went to an auction that had a bunch of 16mm films for sale.  Many of these were films from the 1930s from Goodyear.  They had been stored in a milk crate for 40 years or more, and the auction house hadn’t even bothered to remove them.

What did I find?  The films that were in the cans, without exception, had some degree of vinegar syndrome decomposition.  The films that had been stored in open air had NO vinegar decomposition.  And the films without the cans, in many cases, were older than the ones in the cans.  I realize that this is an anecdotal one-off answer, because it does not take into account that this particular set of films may have had a unique temperature/humidity range for storage that caused this reaction.  However, in subsequent years, I have repeatedly found this same situation in collections from all over the world.

Simplicio: I was told by my favorite archive that you could put in Kodak’s molecular sieves and it will stop this problem.

Dr. Film: The idea behind the molecular sieves is to neutralize the vinegar in a sealed can.  Whatever chemicals are in the sieve react with the vinegar and take it out of the air surrounding the film.  In theory, the molecular sieves are a wonderful idea, but they don’t work out so well in practice. If you have a huge supply of them and you change them every 6 months to a year, then great.  It’s perfect and it will help.  Otherwise, the sieve and the vinegar end up completing their reaction, and you have a full (now essentially chemically inert) molecular sieve and the vinegar syndrome marches gleefully on.

Simplicio: So when a film gets vinegar, we should just throw it away, right?  There’s nothing that can be done.  That’s what my friend told me.

Dr. Film: You can do what you want, but there are things you can do to slow down the progress of vinegar syndrome, regardless of the conventional wisdom.

Knowing about these various methods and working with deteriorating old film, I wanted to find out what worked and what didn’t.  I decided to do a control study.  That’s where you make a test and change only one thing in the test to find out if it helps.  Several years ago, I bought a 35mm print of She Couldn’t Say No (a 1950s movie with Robert Mitchum) which was affected by vinegar syndrome and warp. I bought this because I didn’t particularly care about the film, and I figured that I could use it for control tests: one reel left alone, and each reel treated with something else.

There are these things that I have personally tested:

1) Vitafilm: this is a film cleaner that is quite nice in some circumstances.  It has a STRONG pine smell, enough that some people gag at the first whiff.  No one is entirely sure what is really in Vitafilm, so I can’t answer for what it does chemically.  I can say that in tests, these things happen:
a) The film becomes more pliable and warp tends to flatten out (this may require rewinding several times, but it does work.
b) Tape splices (other than Kodak tape) loosen and must be reapplied.
c) The cleaner will dissolve most other plastics, including reels, cores, and a lot of projector rollers.  Do NOT project a wet print; it could destroy your projector.  (Take it from someone who has learned this!)

2) Glycerin: this is a plasticizer that evaporates into the air around a film within a can.  Again, it does take vinegar out of solution and it does make the film more pliable.  Since it’s liquid, it gums things up, and it cannot be put in direct contact with the film (it makes the film mooshy).  However, I have successfully used this on a number of films.  It was particularly helpful on a trailer for The Robe which was so stinky that it would knock a normal human down at 30 paces and was actually getting sticky from base melt.  Glycerin stopped it in its tracks and the print is still around.

3) Camphor (solid).  Camphor is used as a spice in Southeast Asian cooking, and it still used (in small quantities) in cough syrups.  It is a plasticizer, but in people it is also a vasodilator, which means it causes a person’s blood vessels to dilate a bit. This is great for sinus conditions and coughs, which we associate with camphor’s strong smell.  Unfortunately, it is possible to “OD” on camphor (look it up) by ingesting too much of it, so it’s now on the FDA’s bad list.  Fortunately, there are a lot of Asian grocery stores that still stock it, and it’s wonderful stuff.  Why?
a) Camphor works, like glycerin, as a plasticizer, but does not affect the film if in direct contact!
b) It does not dissolve splices, affect other plastics, etc.
c) It’s self-limiting, which means that you can throw camphor in with your prints and the camphor will vaporize and be absorbed to just the level that the print needs.  A desperate print will suck it up faster than a print with no problem.

Simplicio: My friend at the archive told me that camphor is just a stunt and it will reduce the long-term stability of the film.  It really isn’t good for the film at all, and it doesn’t stop vinegar syndrome.  

Dr. Film: This depends on how you define “long-term.” An archive isn’t in the same business I am.  I am in the business of saving and sharing filmsAn archive is in the business of saving films.  The archives were charged with the responsibility of saving copies of films for future generations, not particularly with making them available for anyone to see. (That’s not a criticism… that’s what they were intended to do.)

Archives are also notoriously underfunded, so a print may languish in storage for years until someone gets around to inspecting it and getting it ready for preservation.  This means an archive is understandably nervous about any chemical coming in contact or proximity with the film.  They don’t know what it is, they don’t know what the long-term effects are, and the whole thing is just very, very scary.

Now, again, I’m not in that business.  Sure, I collect rare films, and in most cases these are films that are beneath the notice of the major archives.  They archives are so busy preserving mainstream history that they miss the little rivulets of the story that fascinate me.  This is not intended to slight them: I’m glad they’re out there, and they do a wonderful job of what they do.  It’s just not what I do.

For me, if I have a film that cannot be shown, then it’s not of much use.  If it’s too shrunken, brittle, or ripped to run, then it may be saved but not necessarily shared.  These are the kinds of films I may donate to an archive in the hopes that someday they might be duped or something…

However, if I can do anything to extend the projectable life of a film, then I’m on board.  Does that mean it might be projectable for another 10 years but it will shave 10 years off the longevity of the print?  If that’s so, then I’m still on board.

Let me give you an example: I have a print of The Ford in Your Future, which is a really cool short that promotes Ford’s new 1949 cars.  It’s a Technicolor print, and a real stunner in Technicolor.  It shows off the process well, and shows why it doesn’t look the same as it does on video.  I also am well aware that this is not the only print in the world (in fact, I’m sure it’s on YouTube in a highly compressed, muted color version).  When I got the print, it was horrible: warped, vinegary, shrunken, etc.  Some careful treatment with camphor for a few months, and the whole thing was vastly different.

It was, in fact, so different, that my lovely assistant, Ms. Greiff, said, “When did you get a new print of this?  It looks so nice!”  I informed her that this was the same print that has caused focus flutter and heart failure in a projector just a few months before.

If that takes ten years off the overall life of the film, then it’s fine in my book…

On the other hand, I don’t think it probably will.  Again, I don’t know for certain, because we don’t have tests, but…

Camphor has been known about as a plasticizer for years and years.  In fact, when we get old 1920s prints on diacetate or single acetate film stock, it was commonplace for a projectionist to throw a chunk of camphor in with it.  Some cans even had a little holder built in for a chunk of the stuff.

So we know that camphor has so far not particularly hurt the longevity of 1920s safety film.  We also know that camphor was used on nitrate.

Does it hurt triacetate?  I think probably not, but I don’t know that.  I’m not going to contribute to the hoodoo nature of this by speculating without tests.

Several people have told me that camphor, glycerin, and Vitafilm don’t help because the overall acidity of the print doesn’t change, given that they’ve tested them with A/D strips.  These are little strips of paper (I think… I’ve not seen them) that test the overall acidity of a print.

I have not tested this, nor do I know of a good place to get A/D strips.  I know that from personal experience that I’ve gotten years use out of warped, brittle prints, and I can absolutely state that several have lasted 8+ years with camphor.  Some have graduated to not being with a piece of camphor all the time and they live out in the open air again.

I know that some people are very nervous about vinegar and so test everything with an A/D strip before purchase or sale.  If someone would point me to a source of these, then I can test them.

Again, I say that the base deterioration may continue, but the print is useful for a long period, and so this is still a good call for me.  My untested “gut reaction” is that in some cases the base deterioration slows or stops, but I have not tested this to find out.

Simplicio: There’s a new film cleaner on the market that says it stops vinegar syndrome.  What do you think of it?

Dr. Film: I haven’t tested it.

Simplicio: So you’re advocating against the use of film cans and for the use of camphor, just the opposite of what the archives do.  You must hate the archives.

Dr. Film: No, I love the archives.  I also love the safety of what film cans give you, because I’ve had films ruined by external factors that cans could protect against.  However, it’s been my experience that films need to breathe and dissipate their vinegar vapors, and so I don’t use cans.

And I’ve explained why I do use camphor.  A few little blocks of it in a film can works miracles.  I do use film cans for camphor treatments.

Simplicio: Has anyone reported problems with any of these treatments?

Dr. Film: Some people report a white powder that forms on the film.  This is probably a residue of wax or anti-line treatment that is dissolving.  I would advocate a good cleaning if this occurs.  In no case has this damaged the film.

Simplicio: You’re a radical, mean guy who is dangerous to the world of film and all it portends.  You scare me.

Dr. Film: I’ve heard that a lot.  Don’t believe it.  Test it first.

Posted in Dr. Film's Pocket Rants, Views and reviews | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Top 10 Film Preservation Stories of 2013

I hate lists like this, but I know people love them.  I’ve deliberately not included material that’s long been available but recently released on video.  These are all things that have never seen the light of day and have been rediscovered this year.  So, for example, Ben Model’s Musty Suffer series doesn’t make the list, because those films have been out there and known about for years (I’ve seen a number of them).  On the other hand, his Accidentally Preserved DVDs do make the list, because they highlight previously unknown films.

I’ve also plugged my restoration of King of the Kongo quite enough for most of you.  We’re doing another chapter, and I’m sure there will be more plugs to follow.  The fact that we’re reuniting the sound and picture for the first time since 1929 is still quite cool.

cinecolor

A print that appears to be three-color, but with distinctive purple Cinecolor edge lettering. Cool!

AND NOW, THE LIST!
10. Hey, is that SuperCinecolor?  This is film preservation and history for geeks, but in 1948 there was a strike at Technicolor that caused a slowdown in their production of prints.  For a while, Warner Brothers had Cinecolor print their product for them, to the point that a few cartoons from this period are actually credited as being “IN CINECOLOR.”  But Cinecolor was a two-color process, and Technicolor was a superior three-color process.  All the Cinecolor cartoons, when seen today, are three-color.  What’s the story?  Well, this year, a few cartoons popped up on eBay that show all the earmarks of being in Cinecolor (reddish/purple edge codes for one), but are definitely three-color, because they have vibrant blues and greens in the same shot, something regular Cinecolor couldn’t reproduce.  Even stranger, these are 16mm prints.  Cinecolor eventually employed a process called SuperCinecolor, a three-color process, but that didn’t find its way into theaters until the 50s, and then always in 35mm.  So why are these prints in SuperCinecolor several years before?  I’m not sure, but I suspect it involves avoiding patent lawsuits with Technicolor that didn’t expire until a couple of years later.  Wanna hear more about this?  I can elaborate!

motm

One of the Monsters of the Moon (1939).

9. Monsters of the Moon (1939).  OK, this is a film that I found, but I’m excited about it.  A couple of aspiring filmmakers made a long promotional film based on their idea of Martians invading the moon.  It was a clever mixture of stop-motion and live-action.  It plays like a long trailer, but it was supposed to attract the attention of big-time Hollywood producers.  Unfortunately, the producer it attracted was William Pizor, a bargain-basement filmmaker if there ever was one.  Pizor bought the footage and put his name on it in dim hopes that he could raise money to finish the film. (It should be noted that Pizor was the producer of Murder by Television, which was highlighted in episode one of the Dr. Film TV show, which you’ll see if I can ever sell it!)   Monsters of the Moon never went anywhere.  The only known copy of the film ended up in the hands of Forrest J. Ackerman (long-time monster fan and editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland), who took the footage, recut it a bit, added some girly footage at the end, and showed it at the first WorldCon in 1940.  He lost the film afterward, finding it again a few years later, when he gave it to (please hold your hisses) movie mogul Raymond Rohauer, who added some titles, showed the film once, and kept it.  Ackerman saved stills of the film and touted it as one of the great lost films.  It showed up on eBay this year, in its original form, with Pizor’s name on it, proving that there was actually more than one print struck.  What will become of this?  Stay tuned!

8. Accidentally Preserved.  Ben Model is a marketing genius.  Many of us who do film preservation work have stacks of one-off films that aren’t “cool” enough to merit video releases.  In many cases, they’re the only surviving prints of a particular film, but, as I always say, “It’s the law of supply and demand.  You may have a unique film, but if no one cares, then it still has no value.” Ben and I agree that an important part of preservation is presentation.  If no one sees the films you’ve preserved, then they might as well be lost.  Ben has done something I’ve never been able to do, and that I’ve not seen anyone else do, either.  He’s made people care about oddball silent shorts, and he’s getting people to buy DVDs.  That’s really, really great, folks.  It means that more stuff like this will become available.  It helps everyone.

stooges-brophy-hello-pop7. Hello, Pop (1933)  This has been a great year for recovering Technicolor footage.  Few people know that The Three Stooges worked for MGM before they went to Columbia, the studio where they gained fame.  MGM even made a few early two-color Technicolor shorts with the Stooges and their then-leader, Ted Healy.  The MGM Stooge shorts tend to be highly variable, and  today Ted Healy comes off as abrasive and annoying.  Still, this is an important stepping-stone for the Stooges, and there are very few two-color Technicolor shorts that survive.  Always a poor judge of comedic talent, MGM fired the Stooges and kept Ted Healy.

6. Whoozit (1928) If you know me or read this blog with any regularity, then you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of comedian Charley Bowers.  Among the most neglected of silent comedians, Bowers’ work has been passed over because nearly all of it has been lost.  Over the past 15 years or so, bits of his work have been popping up piecemeal, and they reveal an artist unlike anyone who came before or since.  That’s not superlative, folks… Bowers was unique.  Whoozit is Bowers’ second film under his contract with Educational Pictures.  He’d been with FBO the previous year, and those films had been successful, but they bounced him out anyway.  Contemporary reviews claim that this film is better than There It Is (Bowers’ first at Educational.)  Given that There It Is is now considered a minor classic of silent comedy, I have high hopes for Whoozit.  Thanks to preservationist Serge Bromberg and the EYE Institute for digging up this gem.filmdaily4344newy_0718

5. Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good for You (both 1957) These are both short films featuring a young Peter Sellers, who was just beginning his career in feature films.  If that isn’t cool enough, they were both co-written by the legendary Mordecai Richler, author of the Jacob Two-Two series and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.  I  have a feeling that these will be just plain hilarious.

4. Their First Misunderstanding (1911) What’s not important about this film?  Pretty much everything is.  It’s an early film from Independent Motion Pictures (IMP), which became Universal over the next year or so.  It’s the first film in which Mary Pickford got billing.  It was directed by George Loane Tucker (Traffic in Souls and The Miracle Man) and Thomas Ince (Civilization).  Oh, and it co-stars Owen Moore, who was married to Pickford at the time.  I can’t wait to see this.

salamander3. Dr. Who: The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear.  In the 1970s, the BBC stupidly erased a big chunk of the Dr. Who episodes from the 1960s.  The first doctor, William Hartnell, was affected badly, but the second, Patrick Troughton, had the majority of his episodes destroyed. The BBC had sold 16mm prints to TV stations in Africa and New Zealand (as well as others), which is where a few episodes have been found, but there has been a discernible slowdown in recovered episodes in the last few years. Philip Morris (not the cigarette company) has been traveling the world literally being a filmic Indiana Jones to find abandoned TV episodes.  He’s been kidnapped by pirates and arrested many times.  Morris found 9 episodes (almost two complete stories) and returned them to the BBC.  They paint a new portrait of Troughton’s Who, since he gets to play multiple parts in one (and quite well), and we finally get to see the first appearance of stalwart Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (here not yet ascended to full rank.)  Great shows, so lovingly restored that they look like BBC 2” tape from the 1960s even though they came from 16mm kinescopes.

2.The Mysterious Island (1929) This has been available for years, but only in black and white. The Czech film archive has located an original Technicolor print. Sure, this is a disappointing film, with an early music-and-effects track (and some talkie sequences). Two-color Technicolor was a novelty at the time, and particularly a film that had a measure of underwater footage (although much of it here was faked.)  This is important as one of the first MGM talkies, one of the first Technicolor talkies, one of the first color/sound science fiction films, and it was directed by Benjamin Christensen (at least in part) before he was ousted from the project.

1. Too Much Johnson (1938) has got to be one of the Holy Grails of film preservation.  The only print was thought to have burned in the 1970s, leaving it a big question mark in the career Orson Welles.  OK, we know it’s not a great picture: it was intended to flesh out a play that tanked and Welles was threatened with legal action on it anyway.  It was never shown in public, but what was a movie with the Mercury Theater people shot three years before Citizen Kane like?  The mind boggles.  I haven’t seen this yet, but I’m looking forward to it!

johnson

Posted in Background on the blog | 10 Comments

“That should be banned!”

I remember a play I was in many years ago.  I was playing a Supreme Court Justice in First Monday in October.  One of the main questions in it concerns an obscenity case in which the justices are called upon to decide whether a particular porno movie is so obscene that it cannot be shown.  The justices all gather together and watch the movie,  except one.

The holdout justice insists he doesn’t need to see the movie.  He’s voting for it to be shown, no matter what.  He feels that the First Amendment is sacrosanct and any chipping at it lessens us all.

Amen!

There’s been a lot of hubbub on one of the movie collector forums about Disney’s Song of the South (1946).  This is one of the few films Disney has never released on home video… well, one of the few popular color and sound films.  I’ve never seen it.  Its last theatrical release was a rather sparse one in 1986.

Song

And the cries come out against it: “It’s racist.”  “It’s antiquated.”  “It would offend people.”  “We shouldn’t show it in case it does offend people.”  “It’s not a great work of art, in part because it’s offensive.”

I never understand this stuff.  It cuts across political barriers, too.  Basically, the criterion for banning something is “I don’t like it.”  Books, movies, music, you name it, someone wants to ban it.  It’s often in the name of “the children.”  We wouldn’t want to expose children to this sort of thing, would we?

Let’s look at what this is, instead of our opinions about it:
James Baskett won an honorary Academy Award for the film.
Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel appears, the first African-American woman ever to win an Oscar.
Walt Disney considered Baskett a discovery, one of the best actors he’d found.
The work with animated characters superimposed over live action is groundbreaking, especially in a color film (this was shot with the three-color Technicolor camera.)
It’s one of the last works of legendary photographer Gregg Toland, the cinematographer of Citizen Kane.

Is there racial stuff it it?  Sure.  Is it insensitive by modern standards?  I have no doubt it is.

Should parents plop their kids in front of it without explaining it to them first?  NO!  But that goes for a lot of stuff.  The television is not an electronic babysitter,  nor is the iPhone or any other device.  Sure, there’s a lot of mindless stuff out there that can just be watched, and this isn’t one of them.

I haven’t seen Song of the South.  I don’t need to.  It should be out there to be seen.  If we have to get Leonard Maltin, Whoopi Goldberg, or Bill Cosby to do an introduction, then fine.  It should be seen.

This reminds me of an interchange I had with a friend of mine who I’ll only identify as “Chef Carl.”  I was asked to come up with a program for Black History Month.  OK, I said, let’s show how racism once rocked the movies.  Let’s really show it.  I had some good examples.  They wouldn’t let me do it.  The manager of the theater said it would be perceived as insensitive because I’m white.  OK.

So I thought about all the African-American folks I know and thought, “Who’d be the best one to introduce these pictures and explain the history of them?”  I thought of Chef Carl.  He even agreed to do it.  Then the manager came forward and wouldn’t allow Carl to do it either.  Why?  Well, they were afraid that Carl would be seen as a “token black,” which was bad, too.  I told Carl about it.  I still remember his answer:

“So you can’t introduce the movies because you’re white and I can’t introduce them because I’m black.”  BINGO.  The most accurate response I can imagine.

botnsmallThere’s a similar uproar with Birth of a Nation (1915), which is a DW Griffith film.  Birth of a Nation changed the world.  It was the first time that it was clear that a long, feature-length film could make money and keep making money.  It caused the landscape of movies to change.  Vaudeville houses switched over to movies.  Movie houses changed from flat Nickelodeons to raked, long theaters.  Theaters put in extra projectors to make smoother changeovers.  It was a big deal, and it made money in the North and South, wherever it played.  It’s a good film, it’s a landmark film, and it’s one of the key films in the history of the motion picture.

It also sparked a resurgence of the KKK in America.  There was a lot of racist content, and one of the Klansmen is a hero.  It was true to the book it was based on, which was also racist.  Without even really understanding what he did, DW Griffith made a racially polarizing film in 1915.  It was so polarizing that he got death threats and there were Klan rallies that showed the film to whip up support for a new (and very different) Klan.

Griffith (a child of Kentucky) felt so awful about the film’s reception and what it did that he made a followup called Intolerance (1916) that made the age-old plea of “Why can’t we just get along?”  Just how racist Griffith himself was is the stuff of much speculation.  I can simply state that Madame Sul-Te-Wan (1873-1959) a long-lived African American actress, appeared in Birth of a Nation.  There’s also a reel of home movies shot at DW Griffith’s funeral in 1948.  She’s in that reel, too, crying and needing support from others, the only person in the whole reel who seemed to be moved at the occasion.

If DW Griffith was the evil, racist pig that many modern authors make him out to be, then why was Madame Sul-Te-Wan so moved at his funeral?  She knew him… we didn’t.

Shouldn’t we see the film for ourselves to find out?  Or, if we choose not to, shouldn’t we be free in that choice, too?  There have been protests at showings of Birth of a Nation even as recently as a few years ago, rife with cries of “It should be banned!”

No, it shouldn’t.  The surest way to perpetuate an idea is to try to stamp it out.  I’ll repeat that, and it’s key: The surest way to perpetuate an idea is to try to stamp it out.

Let me give you an example of what I’m saying.  When FW Murnau made Nosferatu in 1922, he stole it from the novel Dracula.  Let’s be honest, he stole it.  They changed all the names around, but the plot is barefaced and recognizable.  The book was very much in copyright and Murnau was sued.  The studio lost, and the film was ordered destroyed.  All prints, and the negative, too.

Except.

Nosferatu became forbidden fruit!  Film pirates the world over clamored for “the last print.”  There were a lot of “last prints” saved, duped, and bootlegged.  It got way more release in foreign countries than any of other Murnau’s films did.  He became a popular director mostly because of the fame of a movie that no one was supposed to see.

Bela Lugosi (right) and Conrad Veidt (left, in makeup) in one of the most famous lost films

Bela Lugosi (right) and Conrad Veidt (center, with cape) in one of the most famous lost films

So consider Der Januskopf (1920).  This was another FW Murnau film pirated illegally from a novel and play.  In this case it was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.  It became Janus-kopf (Janus head) and the two characters were Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor.  The dual role was played by Conrad Veidt.  Veidt’s butler was played by Bela Lugosi, who was on his way from war-torn Hungary to America.  This is one of his few appearances in a German film.

Historically important?  You bet.  But no one sued over this film, and there was no clamor over its illegal piracy.  No one bootlegged the last prints or the negative, which stayed in storage until it rotted.

Two films, one director, both pirated, one forbidden fruit, and one completely legal.  The forbidden fruit survived.  Stamping out the idea perpetuated it.  Today, you can get a version of Nosferatu on any street corner, in various versions, cuts, tints, and speeds.

And is that different now?  Nope.  Song of the South is forbidden fruit.  It’s out there.  As of this writing, there are 85 copies on eBay for sale.  Those are just the ones who are brazen enough to post them.

Just 10 copies of Steamboat Willie for sale, though.  That one… it’s always been available.  It’s a landmark Disney picture, the first cartoon with sound, the first big Mickey Mouse picture, and 10 copies.

So is Song of the South a great film?  I have no idea.  I might like it, I might not.  I might be offended, and I might not.  My advice to Disney is to make it available and therefore control the dialogue about the film.  Now it’s forbidden fruit.  You can make it a “Never Forget” historical item, which it needs to be.  You can also make sure that everyone knows why it’s historically important.

By the way, I don’t want political comments in the comments section or I’ll shut it down.  “Those liberals” and “Those Republicans” are equally guilty of censorship, albeit often for different reasons.  This isn’t a political forum.  It’s a film forum.

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10 Questions with Glory-June Greiff

Author-historian-performer Glory-June Greiff is just the sort of multi-hyphenated person that I need to associate with, because there isn’t a lot she can’t do, except hold still.

Glory is the author of two books, Remembrance, Faith, and Fancy: Outdoor Public Sculpture in Indiana and People, Parks, and Perceptions: A History and Appreciation of Indiana State Parks. These are both available for the best prices from the author (and you can get them signed in time for Christmas!)

Not only does Glory write books, but she does one-woman shows as authors Gene Stratton-Porter andBeatrix Potter. She does presentations on the WPA and CCC, among other topics. She’s written countless National Register nominations, done treks across the country in search of odd history fragments, and she’s always the first to climb into the rafters of an endangered building to figure out how to save it.

Glory is what Ben Model calls an artrepreneur, someone who is in the arts and does a lot of things. This is both because she’s multi-talented and because artists need to be versatile in this challenging economy.

When I wrote the pilot for Dr. Film, I created the role of Anamorphia for Glory, because I knew she could play it, that she’d have fun with it, and most importantly, that she’d show up!

Glory has her own web page, which is under construction, but her blog is here.  It is generally a little less ranty than mine, but you’ll probably enjoy it all the same.

•••

Q1: You’re not really a film preservationist, but you do preservation of another sort.  What is it that you do?

I’m not even sure why you want to interview me, although I certainly am a rabid proponent of preserving film!  My work and my passion of the past several decades, however, has been in historic preservation–the saving, interpretation, and appreciation of historic buildings, streetscapes, landscapes, and roadscapes.  I am a public historian by trade.

Q2: You’re also a big believer in slide film over PowerPoint.  Why?

I hate PowerPoint.  I hate most PowerPoint presentations, but that’s really a different story. (You know the ones: the speaker is up there reading the words on the screen to you.  It makes me scream.)  PowerPoint has certain advantages,  such as an interactive component, which are seldom used.  I can count on one hand the PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen that could not have been done the same–or usually, better–using slides and real talk.  And then they would have looked better, too.  Nothing as stunning as Kodachrome slides!

By the way, in the old days I used to create slide/tape programs with all kinds of production elements, like variable pacing, background music, themes, mixed voices.  I used to be radio (and radio production) so I did the narration. People would come and talk to me after saying how much they liked my “movie.”  How satisfying was that!?

Q3: Weren’t you a Kodachrome die-hard?

I was. I am!  I still project my beautiful Kodachrome slides for various talks I give.  And yes, I shot several rolls of Kodachrome after Kodak ceased production (I had stocked up), and was among those who got the last Kodachrome processed at Dwayne’s in Kansas in December 2010.  Heartbreaking.  Nothing like it.

Q4: You have always been a fan of old movies.  How did you get started?

Ah, well.  It’s in the genes, I think.  My mother loved old movies–of course to her, they were the films of her youth and held memorable associations as well.  Her own mother sought escape in movies from a hard life during the Depression and World War II.  My dad liked going to the movies, too.  We’d bundle into the car with a pot full of popcorn on weeknights (cheaper!) and go to one of about eight drive-in theaters in our area–all the way from Michigan City to Mishawaka and Niles, Michigan–we were really blessed!  The one we visited most often was only about three miles from our house on the old Lincoln Highway, but it was wiped out by a tornado when I was a kid!

Of course, that was golden age of old films being shown on television, and one was usually just starting when I arrived home from school.  Mom would tell me when she first saw it and about the actors.  My father liked the westerns and war stories shown at night or on weekends, which I didn’t always enjoy as much, but the adventure movies, like the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, I very much did!  (I think I can still recite most of the dialogue of Captain Blood.)  But the films I most cherished watching with my dad were the late Saturday night Universal horror movies and 50s sci-fi.  (“They’re here!  They’re here!”)

My grandparents lived next door to us when I was growing up, and between my mother’s and grandmother’s subscriptions, I think I had access to three or four film magazines.  When I was in junior high, I got a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland.  Always was a pretty weird kid.

Q5: I know that Eric really got you stuck on silent films.  Do you have some favorite films or actors to recommend?

Hmm.  Tough one.  Lon Chaney is a genius, and Eric, who has huge collection of Chaney material, really turned me on to his work–far beyond Hunchback and Phantom, which everybody knows.

I like comedian Charley Chase, who I find to be right up there with his more well known contemporaries.  “Limousine Love” is a scream!  And of course, Max Davidson, largely forgotten today, is hilarious and I never miss a chance to see his films, which are best viewed, of course, with an audience.

I’ve become a huge fan of Charley Bowers, and I had never heard of him before I met Eric.  Actually, I’m quite fond of several silent animators, none of whom I had known much (if anything) about before.  I’m astonished at the content and effects of 1920s animation shorts and cartoons, and I wonder what these guys were smoking!

More prosaically, perhaps, I like Clara Bow a lot.  And the under-appreciated Marion Davies, particularly in her non-costume roles.  To ease my eyes:  early Gary Cooper, hubba hubba.  Buddy Rogers, ditto.

And I love Douglas Fairbanks–love how he moves!  (Mind you, it was his more handsome son I noticed first, but Fairbanks, Sr. just looks like he’s having so much fun in his films!)

Q6. How do you support Eric’s film preservation work and how does he support your preservation work?

We do have a cooperative arrangement that usually works pretty well–unless we each have a gig at the same time, which happens!

And sometimes I’ve sacrificed going to events or even given up getaways; there was this time when we were going to leave for northern Michigan, and suddenly an emergency film restoration project arose.  Personally, I think I should get a credit on the restored version of  Seven Chances!

As a rule, I play the part of the “lovely assistant” and help Eric set up his film showings, run interference when necessary, act as shill occasionally, and answer secondary questions.  I hope the best thing I do is keep encouraging his work, because I think it is important and it is not always recognized.

As for my work, Eric plays a similar part, assisting with my various programs and also coming along and helping with fieldwork and research.  Sometimes we are both called to the same place; this is a usually a closed or underused theater, and Eric pokes through the projection booth while I clamber all over the building!

Glory in character as Anamorphia

Q7: You’re in the Dr. Film pilot episode as Anamorphia.  What was it like to play that part?  You’ve been a fan of movie shows like this for a long time.  How did it feel to be in one?

You know, these are wonderful questions.  I had a dream since I was a teen of doing a sort of vampire woman horror-host TV show–bear in mind I had never seen Vampira or Elvira.  (I grew up in northern Indiana.)  I worked in radio for some years and never had much thought to venture into TV–unless the opportunity had arisen to do a gig like that!

So this is the closest I’ve gotten to it.  I do think my director has me go a little too over-the-top, but maybe that’s appropriate!

It’s fun; I love doing theater of any sort–and I wish someone would pick up Dr. Film so we could shoot more episodes!

Q8: You’re a big supporter of the Dr. Film show, and you want Eric to keep trying to get it out there.  You even wrote a guest blog about it.  What makes you so passionate about the show?  You seem even more gung-ho about it than Eric is.

That was a nice segue from the previous question, wasn’t it?  I don’t know, maybe it’s because I have been working in field where you simply don’t always win–in fact, often do not–but you just have to pick up and keep trying because it’s the right thing to do–and you must pursue your passion.

Dr. Film is the kind of show that SHOULD be out there–more so now than ever, I think.   I grew up just knowing about a lot of movies just because they were THERE–but they aren’t there anymore.  We are losing our cultural references.   And anyway, film history is fun!  

Q9: What are some of the craziest things you’ve done to get things preserved, either in the film world or otherwise?  I hear you’re pretty dedicated sometimes.

Crazy things?  Why, what do you mean?   Well, one of my very first preservation efforts involved a beautiful early 1900s office building in downtown Indianapolis.  I set up pickets with signs and a petition campaign.  We made the newspapers, but didn’t win; the forces against preservation were too great.  But you have to keep trying.

A year or two later I spearheaded a campaign to save a beautiful abandoned New Deal-era apartment complex.  We did guerilla renovation on one apartment and brought everyone we could out there to see it to try to change the minds of the powers-that-be.  It took four months of my life, full time, but that remains one of my proudest efforts–even though we didn’t win.   Those apartments were built to last; it took the city months to tear them down at far greater cost than they thought.  Ha!

To this day I am known to run wildly into abandoned buildings and dance along abandoned stretches of old highways.  As for film, how many times have I ridden in a car full of film that smells like a salad? (That would be indicative of vinegar syndrome.)   And about that time I gave up my trip to northern Michigan. . .

10.  What question did I not ask you that I should have asked?  And answer that question, please.

Why do you dance all the time?

Why do you breathe? (Thanks to The Red Shoes.)

Why do I take the old roads and shun interstates?  Same answer.

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