The Big Push

I’m going to let you in on a secret.  This blog is only a ploy to get you to look at the rest of my web site.  Well, it’s not really a secret.

You see, I created Dr. Film as a TV show a couple of years ago, and the web site has been up for ages.  I couldn’t get anyone to look at the site.  No one wanted to look at my demos, either.

There will be another screening of the complete show on August 4, 2011, at Garfield Park in Indianapolis.  Here’s the link if you’d like to attend.  It’s free.  If you don’t know about the complete show, then read on, Macduff.

The reason this is “the big push” is that I’ve only now figured out a decent marketing campaign, and the show is now going to a number of venues.  I spent more time figuring out a marketing campaign than I did making the show.  There is new art, an upgraded web page, and I’ve got a publicist on board.  I hope this will put us over the top.  It’s a lot of work for a show about old movies.

You see, I love old films, and it bothers me that so few people watch them anymore.  It’s my feeling that most people are uninitiated and just don’t understand what they’re seeing.  I think that some people are a little put off by the hosts on the major channels.  They treat film as high art (which it is), but we sometimes miss the raggedy fun of a strange old film we’ve never seen.

After all, Citizen Kane is great art, but how many times can you watch it?  And in my experience, there is so much stuff that is sitting out there unseen and unpreserved that it saddens me to see the same old warhorses trotted out for the “old movie show.”  Theater owners and TV stations think that if it isn’t a title you know, then you won’t watch.

I’ve got some experience in this.  I’ve taught film history and appreciation, and people seem to like my classes.  I also remember the old days of TV, with the rough-edged local host doing a movie.  I thought that if I could combine the come-what-may atmosphere of the old days, no suits, no slickness, and weave in a little real history, we might have a good show.

That’s what Dr. Film is.  Or what it will be.

The show is designed to highlight unusual films that you don’t see on television much.  It’s definitely got a “what the heck is that” factor built into it.  I’m hoping to catch some errant channel flipper on his way past the classic film channel.  I hope he stays long enough to see what we’re showing.

Yes, I did make a complete pilot that’s broadcast-ready at 96 minutes.  I’ve taken some heat for not posting it.  It’s not on iTunes or YouTube either.  Why not?  Because it took so much time and effort to make the episode that I can’t afford another one.  If I give this one away, then the networks look at the show as “contaminated” by having been out there in the “free” world.

Trust me, in an ideal world I’d love to do this for free.  The stats are painful, though.  Three full days of shooting, many, hours of rewriting, days of film transfer work and re-transfer work.  Then the ultimate: I had to add titles, artwork and composite the show.  It took me a solid month to do it.  I admit that Episode 2 would take less time, but it’s still a lot of work.  I can’t spend this kind of time on a show unless I can get money back out of it.

The good news is that I’ve got the whole thing down to a staff of 3 people, and I’m the one who does most of the work.  That means that I can crank out episodes for a pretty inexpensive price compared to what other places have to charge.  Sometimes being a film geek and an engineer has its benefits.

I hope you’ve seen enough of the site to be excited about the show.  I hope you’re excited about the blog.  I’m the worst person in the world on marketing, but I know one thing.  I call it the marketing triangle.  I need three people to do effective marketing.  If I tell you that my restaurant is great, you won’t believe me.  I’ve got a stake in it, and you’ll raise your eyebrow and walk away.  It’s human nature.  But if a buddy of yours tells you that my restaurant is great, you’ll give it a chance.

I can’t just tell people that Dr. Film would be a cool show, and that this is an interesting site.  You have to tell a friend.  Hopefully, your friends will tell friends too.

What else can you do?  Well, if you have a friend with money who might like to sponsor the show, then let him know about it.  If you know any potential network or cable outlet that might like to pick up the show, then let me know.  Please don’t pester people, but a polite, “Hey, this is good,” is always welcome.

Would you like to have a free commando screening of the pilot episode?  That’s great, and I can help arrange it.  I realize that people want to see the show, and that’s fine.  I just can’t go making copies of it for public consumption.  Terry Gilliam got Brazil released on word of mouth.  I’m hoping that Dr. Film might get the same reception.

I know it’s crazy.  I’m told that often.  But one of my blog posts recently went viral in Europe.  I got about 20 pingbacks in an hour.  I never thought that would happen.  Maybe this can happen too.

Plan 9 from Out of Sequence

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) gets the name of being the worst film ever made.  It isn’t; it isn’t even Ed Wood’s worst film.  Plan 9 does have that oddly poetic Wood dialogue that doesn’t make sense and can’t quite be read properly by his actors.  It also has a raft of really awful cinematic mistakes, particularly in editing.

Some of you may be unfamiliar with the film.  It’s a low-budget story of aliens who come to Earth and re-animate dead people.  For some reason, the aliens believe this will frighten the living into listening to a dire warning: mankind is on the brink of a discovery that could threaten the entire universe.  If this doesn’t make sense, then you should watch the film, because that doesn’t make sense either.  Plan 9 is also notable for being Dracula star Bela Lugosi’s last film.  Lugosi died suddenly in 1956 during tests for a movie that was to be called Tomb of the Vampire.  Three years later, Wood cribbed this footage and used it to make Lugosi seem to be one of the walking dead.  For most of the picture, he’s awkwardly doubled by a guy holding a cape over his face.

When I teach classes in film history, I use the graveyard scene chase from this Plan 9 as an example of bad editing.  The scene is intended to be a tense chase through an old cemetery.  The walking dead chase Mona McKinnon as she struggles to stay ahead of them. This aim fails completely, because Wood has cut it in such a way that there is no consistent geography to it.  The shots are all over the map, some out of sequence, and some just wrong.  Now, that monster is… over there… and… over there, and she ran through that set once, no, now backwards, and that monster moved left to right and now right to… oh, I give up.

The other problem that the editing exposes is the utter poverty of the film.  Bela Lugosi’s double basically trips over a cardboard gravestone, and we see it bobble.  Wood hired an actor with a gigantic posterior to pick up Mona McKinnon at the end of the scene, and he cut it so that the posterior is seen far too often.  Tor Johnson has a nice shot in which he is seen emerging from his grave, but the bulky actor can’t quite stand upright, and struggles to get to his feet.  Rather than cut away… please CUT, Wood leaves it in, because big Tor looked so cool.

Watch Ed’s cut for yourself.  Now that I’ve pointed out the myriad errors, we can move on from there.

This is a sequence that lends itself to reordering, because the soundtrack is essentially just the Plan 9 theme.  The music is actually pretty good.  The monsters are at least somewhat spooky.  The photography is fine.  The problem is that the sets are cheap, and the editing is horrid.  Apart from one shot at the beginning of the sequence, there’s not a single shot with a monster and Mona McKinnon in view at the same time.  This is not fixable, but a good editor can minimize it.

I noted several key problems with the scene:

  • Mona McKinnon takes forever to run out of the shot with Lugosi’s double, and there’s no sense of drama in it.  Too long.
  • Tor Johnson’s grave emergence takes too long and slows the pace.  If we start it earlier and shorten the whole thing, making it seem as if he’s coming out just as McKinnon is going through the cemetery, then we’d have more tension.
  • McKinnon goes through the same set 3-4 times in different directions to pad out the scene.  It’s confusing, and too long. CUT.
  • The actor who rescues McKinnon at the end takes too long getting around the car and his posterior is embarrassing.  Let’s help him out by minimizing that.
  • OK, we all know that Bela Lugosi was long dead by the time this movie started shooting.  Wood’s use of test footage is actually pretty clever, but the double (Dr. Tom Mason) is glaringly obvious because he looks nothing like Lugosi.  In order to give us a little illusion, let’s not hold on long shots of Mason.  Let’s also not use the same shot of Lugosi six times just because he’s billed in the film.  If it doesn’t make sense, it needs to go.

I had to fudge a little.  I didn’t have access to the sound stems (the separate tracks for music, sound effects, and dialogue), so I was stuck using the sound as it was on the finished soundtrack.  By the time dialogue occurs, late in the scene, I’d cut the better part of a minute out of it, so I had to overlap two pieces of disparate music to make it work.  Here’s what I did with it:

The point in all of this is to show what an editor does.  People think he just cuts out the boring parts of a movie.  That can be true (it was in this case!), but he’s also responsible for making the film flow properly.  He takes a bunch of shots that the director supplies him and has to make sense of it.  If the film’s shooting was a disaster, then he’s essentially trying to rescue the film at the last moment.  There are people known as film doctors who specialize in taking footage from troubled films and creating something better out of them.

One of the episodes of the Dr. Film TV show will be dedicated to editing techniques and how films are put together, as we trace the development of the art through the years. Look at this and sort of a sneak preview of what is to come if the show gets picked up.

Stephen King directed Maximum Overdrive (1986).  He told an interviewer that when he saw the “rushes” of the film with his editor, he thought he had another Plan 9 from Outer Space on his hands.  The editor told him that all films look like Plan 9 until they’re cut properly.

Plan 9 would never have been a good movie, but Wood’s editing makes it a lot worse than it had to be.  Sometimes it’s what you do with the lemons that makes all the difference.

The Reclusive Collector, or How Films Become Lost

Film people are a different breed.  It’s a necessity.  Some of you have heard the legends about some guy who has discovered the only print of Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927).  The story goes that he’s just waiting to cash in on the bonanza when the film’s copyright expires.  Well, there isn’t a bonanza.  The potential market for a video release of London After Midnight is so small that the money probably wouldn’t even cover the costs of transferring a nitrate print to video.

Film collectors don’t collect films because we want something rare and valuable (there are a few, but not many, who do that).  We collect films because we love them.  We collect films because they look beautiful on the big screen.  We collect films because we know that many will be neglected and thrown away unless we keep them.  Most of us would like to do more public shows, but the way the laws are written makes it difficult.  (See my other post on “The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law” for a more detailed rant on this).

The rules for public performance of music are much more civilized than they are for film.  I can even bend the artist’s intent and still get by with it.  If I decided that I wanted to become Hitler Elvis, and that I wanted to sing Elvis songs in German while doing a “Sieg Heil,” I could probably do it.  I’d have to pay the BMI/ASCAP fees and keep a record of which songs I played, but I could do it.  I use this example not because I’m advocating it, but because artistically it’s about as far from what Elvis did as I can imagine.

But for film it’s different.  Say I wanted to run a retrospective of Walt Disney movies, and I wanted to do it respectfully using quality prints.  Say I wanted to pay the proper royalties and contacted the people at the Disney corporation.  They’d file charges against me!  Sure, I can be disrespectful to Elvis for a price!  But even paying proper respect to Mickey Mouse gets the Feds at your door.

It’s much easier for a collector to sit on his collection and not let anyone see the films he has.  No hassles, no effort.  It avoids all kinds of issues.  I’ve been called evil and greedy by people who want me to release a copyrighted film on video (I won’t).  I’ve been called evil and greedy by movie studios who are upset that I saved something they threw out.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a real story…

A number of years ago I was in an old film exchange in Vincennes, IN.  They were going to close it and throw out all the films that no one wanted.  Down in the guts of the building was a 35mm print of a film listed as Going All the Way.  I recognized the title. It was based on a best-selling novel by Dan Wakefield, and much of it was shot near my house.  The owner of the building wanted $50 for the print, so I figured I could watch it once and trade it.  At least I’d see it on a big screen.  Remember, I have 35mm projectors at my house.

How, you may ask, did a print end up here?  It happens all the time.  The studio makes a decision: “Are we going to make enough money off a future show to justify paying for return shipping on this print?”  If not, they just leave it for the owner of the theater or film exchange.  This is a long-held tradition in the film industry.  Dawson City, Alaska became the last-stop dumping ground for hundreds of silent films, and they were miraculously preserved due to the low temperatures.  The practice of dumping continues to this day, which is how I found this print.

A few years later I happened to meet the author of the book Going All the Way, Dan Wakefield, at a poetry reading.  Knowing that there’s an audience for personal appearances, I asked him if he might be willing to appear at a screening of the film if I could arrange it.  He was very nice and told me that he’d be happy to do that.  Unfortunately, I had no idea who owned the film, and he apparently didn’t, either, so that made it doubly difficult.

Like many independent films, Going All the Way only barely got made.  Even though the book was a best-seller, and Dan Wakefield is a major author, it was a tough sell.  Since there’s a fair amount of sex in it, the major studios shied away.  Studios like to make films with explosions and not ones from character-based books.

Going All the Way got sweet revenge on the studios by being one of those rare independent films with a long shelf life.  Ben Affleck appeared in it (before he became famous), which suddenly makes an obscure indie into a marketable feature.  The copyright records indicated a complex web of finances and loans. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down who owned it for a theatrical screening.  The rights history is online, but there are video rights and theatrical rights, and all sorts of other ancillary things.   After a while it looks like buckshot on a rural stop sign.

A buddy of mine tipped me off that the theatrical rights might be owned by a particular studio.  I won’t implicate them, partly because they’re generally pretty nice, but they’re known the world around.  I called my contact there, and he told me that it was owned by a studio sub-division, and he gave me the contact information.

The lady yelled at me and screamed that I was an evil film pirate, and that they would sue me.  I thanked her and told her that I’d suddenly lost the film and I wouldn’t be showing it.  Normally, I’d offer to let the studio borrow the print or use it for remastering, but not with an attitude like that!  She confirmed that they didn’t have a negative or print material on it.  (It’s not surprising… I think I counted twelve ownership changes since the film was released.  Studios just bought rights in bulk and didn’t check to see if film shipped on every title.)

I point out that this explains why there isn’t a legitimate DVD or Blu-Ray of Going All the Way.  With the film masters missing, no one has material good enough to reissue the film.  It’s not exactly lost, but it’s the next thing to it.  We’ve got the low-definition master tape made for cable release and VHS.  That’s it.  Amazon has some bootleg DVDs made from the VHS tapes.  I’m sure they look terrible.

Let me interject here that projecting 35mm is a lot of work.  You have to change reels every 20 minutes.  It’s heavy, and everything needs to be rewound afterward.  I don’t do it unless I really need to.  So this film had been sitting in my basement, unseen, for all this time.  I will also interject that it was on Agfa stock, important because Agfa is an undated stock that a lot of independent films used, because it was pretty cheap.

Fast forward another year or two.  A film festival wants to run Going All the Way.  They want to get Mr. Wakefield to attend the screening.  They’ve heard I have a print.  They contact me and ask what I know about it.  I tell them that the owner studio is hostile, but if they can get a legal clearance, I’d be happy to let them use the print.

But first, I’d need to watch it to make sure the print is in good shape.  In all these years I hadn’t seen it.  I figured it was time.

I put in the first reel.  It was ratty and brittle, but runnable. A couple of splices made with masking tape.  Ick.  The credits came up with the title, and a 1950s car.  Looked OK.  As  I let it run, I realized that Ben Affleck wasn’t in the movie, nor was anyone else I knew from the cast.  This wasn’t the right film!

What I had gotten was a soft-core drive-in film called Goin’ All the Way (no g—that’s the key).  I hadn’t known it because it was on undated film stock. I never had the film that I thought I’d had.  The festival ran the correct movie from VHS (gag). All that work to track down the owners and the rights, threats of lawsuits, and nothing!

And still, it’s possible that Going All the Way will never be recovered on film.  It was made in 1997!  If this film were a person, he wouldn’t be old enough to drink yet!

This is how films become lost.  It’s also how collectors, people who want to play the rules, will say, “I don’t have that.  I don’t know anything about it.”

No wonder that 50% of all films made before 1950 are said to be lost today.

Kongo Speaks! Karloff Clams Up!

I had an interesting conversation last year at a film convention.  I had brought a chapter of King of the Kongo (1929), which didn’t go over especially well.  That’s not a surprise; it’s not particularly good.  Most of the Mascot serials aren’t particularly good.  They’re a lot of fun, full of action, and most of them don’t make a lot of sense.  This was where the conversation came in.

It’s known that King of the Kongo was film was released in both silent and sound versions.  I’d seen another version of the serial on VHS tape, and it trumpeted the serial’s theme song, “Love Thoughts of You.”  My print didn’t say this.  With this missing, I simply assumed that I’d gotten the silent print.

Not so, said the gentleman speaking to me.  How could I ignore the fact that there were long stretches of film that showed actors speaking–without intertitles?  The film didn’t make any sense!  I figured that the producer sent out the same print regardless of who ordered it, and if it was for a silent show, then he just didn’t ship the sound discs.

King of the Kongo was produced as a sound-on-disc film, which meant that the sound had to be played back from a set of records that accompany the film.  There are tons of these films that were made in the early sound era.  The problem is that in order to see the films today, it’s necessary to have a copy of both the picture and the discs.  By early 1931, all films went to the easier-to-use optical soundtracks that we still use today.  (Well, they’re similar… no hostile notes please.)

The gentleman went on to tell me that he knew of collectors who had sound discs for King of the Kongo and, to top it off, several people told me of the legend that “a reclusive collector” had the complete serial on film.

That reclusive collector is yours truly.  Many years ago, in 1989 to be exact, I bought a 16mm print of King of the Kongo from a collector named JM Gillis.  (I can use his name because he’s deceased now.)  He was liquidating a collection of films he’d amassed since the 1950s.

I wanted King of the Kongo because it was historically important (it was the first sound serial), and because I love Boris Karloff.  I bought it even knowing the print was silent.  Other people wanted it, so it went for a premium.  Even though it was licensed by a video company, I never made my money back on it; they didn’t sell very many copies.  No one was ever interested in putting it out on DVD, much less Blu-Ray.

Gillis told me that he’d had a guy make several 16mm reduction prints from 35mm back in the late 1950s.   It was that song credit for “Love Thoughts of You” that kept bothering me. I wondered if the lab technician who’d made Kongo just snipped it out because he didn’t have the discs.

As I mulled it over, I wondered if the guy at the film convention had been right all along. I might have the sound version, but with the song credit removed.  That would explain the long sections without dialogue.  It would also explain why I was never able to make heads or tails of the plot.

The idea occurred to me that it might be possible to test my theory by getting access to some of the extant sound discs.  I contacted Ron Hutchison at The Vitaphone Project, which is dedicated to finding lost movie sound discs.  It’s named for the Vitaphone process that pioneered the successful sound-on-disc movies in the 1920s. Ron told me that he had material for 3 reels of King of the Kongo.  He was more than happy to make me CDs of them.

The complete serial is 21 reels!  He had only 3: Chapter 5, reel 1 and 2, and Chapter 6, reel 2.

I went to the basement and grabbed the two chapters involved.  I quickly transferred Chapter 5 to video and loaded it into my snazzy new computer.  With a few minutes of work, I saw that I could roughly get a dialogue scene to work in the first reel.  It was going to have to be done all by hand, not by calculation: my print had some splices in it, and was missing a few frames at the end each reel.  The length of the soundtrack proved that the credit for “Love Thoughts of You” had indeed been chopped out.  The sound was about fifteen seconds longer than the actual reel, just enough time for the missing title.

The lab work on this particular chapter was pretty bad.  It was dark and hard to see.  I loaded it into a video enhancement program and corrected it the best I could.  That way I could at least see the lip movements.  I sent the audio to sound king Dave Wood; he scrubbed it and got it resynchronized until it looked OK.

The results?  Well, with about 15 hours of work, I have a complete, restored Chapter 5.  The serial is not a great work of art, but it never was.  The sound sequences give the story a lot more clarity!  It appears that they had already finished the serial as a silent and then added one talking sequence in each reel.  The rest is silent with the original 1929 score on the discs.

I felt sorry for the actors.  In the early days of talking films, the microphone was heavy and nailed down. Later on, as microphones got lighter, and mike booms were invented, the sound man could follow the actor.  In Kongo, the microphone is in one place and the actors have to dive for it to say their lines. Immediately, they must move away for the next poor guy.  Quality acting is out the window.  The idea is to get through the scene without having to stop and cut. Incidentally, Boris Karloff has no lines in the available sound footage, although he’s highly visible in the rest of the chapter.

And then the song.  “Love Thoughts of You?”  What is this doing in here?  It has no place in an action serial.  The song is pleasant enough, sung by a typical 1920s tenor, but it clashes with the hard-edged African atmosphere of the rest of the film.  It even distracts the cliffhangers.  Typically, when the hero is in dire peril at the end of the chapter, the music swells dramatically and we cut to the “Don’t Miss the Next Chapter” title card.  Not here.  As Walter Miller is charged by the baddies, the title fades up, accompanied by a bubbly instrumental of, yes, you guessed it, “Love Thoughts of You.”

I have no idea if any archive has a better print of King of the Kongo.  I’m certain that it’s not high on anyone’s restoration list.  I doubt that my material is good enough to make a proper restoration on archival film.  Next year, there may be a world premiere special showing of the complete chapter–on video.  And you can see two clips of the dialogue sequences here.

How’s that for a so-called reclusive collector?  That’s a discussion for another day. Call me crazy… I think this material should be seen!


Midnight in Manhattan, er Paris

It seems difficult to review a Woody Allen picture these days without discussing his personal situation.  The problem is that, much as he denies it, Woody’s pictures are often subtly autobiographical.  Allen’s new picture, Midnight in Paris, is about a screenwriter disenchanted with his work in Hollywood who wants to start over in Europe.  Um, well, there goes art imitating life again.  Allen’s last several films have been financed and shot mostly in Europe.

Many people have suspected that Allen was losing his touch.  His films were not as self-assured, and they had less of a smooth feel than he’d been able to achieve earlier.  I’m happy to report that this now seems a temporary aberration.  Midnight in Paris marks a return to the “classic” Woody style, whatever that is.  It’s not like one of his “earlier, funny films,” and it’s not like his Bergman-obsessed works like Interiors, but it has elements of both, and they work together well.

In Midnight in Paris, a screenwriter (Owen Wilson) is visiting Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her family.  Weary of his hackneyed Hollywood jobs, he’s working on a novel about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop.  While McAdams and her mother shop all over Paris, they meet up with a blowhard know-nothing (Michael Sheen).  He’s the type of guy who doesn’t really know all that he thinks he knows, especially about art and history.  These scenes are extremely reminiscent of ones in Allen’s film Manhattan, as is the entire sub-plot in which McAdams’ character falls for Sheen’s.

But that’s fine, since the bulk of the plot covers some familiar themes in very nice new ways.  Disgusted with those around him, Wilson goes off for a walk and discovers himself in the Paris of the 1920s.  Allen handles this masterfully.  The shift happens in an old area of the city that could have been in the 2000s or 1920s, and we’re not quite certain how it works for a while.  The mechanics of how the time travel actually happens are never explained or even explored.  It’s simply a plot device.  Allen uses it but doesn’t exploit it.  James Cameron, please pay attention here.

Once in the 1920s, the film takes off.  If you’re one of those people who knows nothing about Paris in the 1920s, then you may be left out of a lot of the plot.  I’d encourage you to read up a little on it before you see the film.  It doesn’t stop to spoon-feed you along.  Wilson’s character meets Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and a host of others.  The casting is impeccable.  Of particular merit are Kathy Bates as Stein and Adrien Brody as Dali.

While in the 1920s, Wilson meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard).  Cotillard’s character, like Wilson’s, feels stuck in the wrong time.  While Wilson would prefer to live in the time of the 1920s, Cotillard (native to the 1920s) yearns for the Paris of the 1890s with Lautrec and others.

There’s no point in giving more of the plot away; the rest of it is quite engaging and shows Allen’s comic introspection wonderfully.  The question of whether to live in the past or the present is addressed quite humorously.

The real revelation in Midnight in Paris is that Owen Wilson is quite good!  I’ve long considered Wilson a lightweight comedic actor of limited talent.  He’s been in more of his share of movies that are overloaded with fart jokes, and I was beginning to think of him as limited to those kinds of things.  I had quite liked him in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), but most of the rest of the time, he’s been like a cut-rate Adam Sandler.  His character in Midnight in Paris is clearly written as the Woody Allen character… you can hear the text is written for those inflections.  The challenge for Wilson is to play a Woody character but still make it his own.  I’m happy to report that he rises to this challenge admirably.

There are still things I’m not quite enchanted about in Midnight in Paris, but very few of them.  The most striking one is that we know it’s a Woody Allen film because the colors are biased dramatically toward yellow all the way through.  There’s less of this than there has been in previous Allen efforts, but I hope he gets it out of his system some day.

I’m trying to recommend this film to everyone I can, because I’m really not pleased about the current trend of movies that have to credit Stan Lee and have a roman numeral in the title.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that… but there is something wrong that we have so much of it.  Midnight in Paris is smart, not based on a comic book, and it’s not a sequel to anything.  May it play to packed houses.

The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law

I get very upset about US copyright law. It is so labyrinthine that a person can do all he can to be honest and forthright, but still step on legal toes.  It’s even worse that people claim to own rights they don’t own, and other people deny rights to films that they actually do own.

The whole thing reminds me of the Tootsie Frootsie routine from A Day at the Races (1937), in which Chico cons Groucho out of a wad of cash. In case you haven’t seen it, you can see it  here.  Inspiration struck me, and this skit was born.

I’m in favor of copyrights, and paying fees when necessary.  I do want to remind you that the constitutional founders wanted limited terms, and Congress has extended the term of copyrights at least three times.

As silly as this seems, all of the law in here, to the best of my knowledge, is exactly correct.  There are a lot of lawyers out there who are every bit as unethical as Chico.

Films are dying because of this foolishness.

Groucho: Hey, Ravelli, I found a couple of old movies.  I think one of them is yours.  How much do you want me to pay you to show it?

Chico: Oh, no.  That’sa mine.  I sue you.

Groucho: I found it in the trash!

Chico: Hey, thatsa right.  I throw it away.

Groucho: So you want to sue me for showing something you threw away?

Chico: You guess it.  I sue you.

Groucho: Well, I could buy it from you.  How much?

Chico: I no sell it.

Groucho: How about if I give it back to you, and then we show it?

Chico: OH, NO!  I no want it.

Groucho: Maybe I could just pay you to show it once.

Chico: I no want you to show it.  I sue you.

Groucho: You realize it would cost more to sue me than it would just to take my money.

Chico: OH, NO!  I sue.  Trusta me, I sue.

(Harpo comes out, dressed in judicial robes, and passes out pieces of paper saying CEASE AND DESIST.)

Groucho: You know, just retaining that shyster lawyer there costs more than this film is worth.

Chico: You’re right, but I sue justa the same.

Groucho: Why?

Chico: Thatsa whadda we call precedents.  If-a I sue you, then I’ve make a precedent, and then it make-a it easier to sue the next guy and-a win.

Groucho: So you’re suing me for wanting to show something that you threw out, you don’t want, and it’s not worth the money that you’re spending to sue me.  I can’t buy it from you and you don’t want it back.

Chico: I do this just-a because I can.

Groucho: It doesn’t matter.  I found another movie too, and you don’t own that.  I’ll just show that one instead.

Chico: You can’t do that!  It’s a copyright!

Groucho: How do I find out who owns it, then?

Chico: Well… justa by accident, Pinky and I, we own a law firm.

Groucho: Why I am not surprised?

(Harpo comes out again with cards saying “Ravelli and Pinky, Attorneys at Law.”)

Groucho: OK, I’ll bite.  How much does it take to look up the copyright for this film?

Chico: I can’t tell you.

(Harpo whistles and shakes head.)

Groucho: I thought you were a lawyer.

Chico: Thats’a why I can’t tell you.

Groucho: What would it take so that you could tell me?

Chico: Well, I need a retainer.  Money.

Groucho: I knew it.  How much?

(Harpo holds up five fingers and whistles.)

Groucho: Five dollars?  Well, that’s reasonable….

Chico: No, he’sa not got enof fingers.  Fifty dollars.

Groucho: All right.  You know, Custer wasn’t even scalped like this.  (He hands him money.)

Chico: Atsa fine.  Now, if the film was-a registered with the Library of Congress, then it’s a copyright.  But that’s OK, the copyright, she expire after 28 years.

Groucho: Great!  This movie is more than 28 years old, so I’m in the clear!

Chico: Not-a so fast.  Congress, she pass-em a law that lets the owner renew it for another 28 years. But sometimes they renew, and sometimes-a, they no renew.

Groucho: Dandy.  I suppose there’s some sort of published master list of renewals somewhere?

Chico: Ooooooh, no.  You gotta find em!

Groucho: And where might I do that?

Chico: Well, just-a by accident…

(Harpo holds up a card saying, “Pinky’s Copyright Research.”)

Groucho: Then I don’t need your law firm anymore!

Chico: Sure ya do!  I tell-a him what to look up, he goes to the Library of Congress to look it up, and then I certify it.  That’s a called “due diligence.”

Groucho: How much will that be?

Chico: At’s a thousand dollars!

Groucho: A thousand dollars?  Why?

Chico: Well, ya gotta fly him out to Washington, put him up in a hotel for a day, and then fly him back.  Atsa thousand dollars.

Groucho: Why can’t I just send him out by car or train?

Chico: Then ya gotta feed him.  You’d lose on the deal.

(Harpo opens mouth ravenously.  Groucho cowers.)

Groucho: I can hire a local attorney to do it, and then save all that money.

Chico: You think you can find an attorney more honest than me?

Groucho: I’d hasten to think so.

Chico: In Washington?

(Groucho rubs neck and thinks.)

Groucho: I never thought it would happen, but you made a persuasive argument.  Are you proud of yourself?

Chico: I’m proud of this wad of cash I got from you.

Groucho: Hypothetically speaking… you do know what hypothetical means, don’t you?

Chico: Sure.  That’s the long part of a triangle.

Groucho: No, you’re thinking of a needle the doctor uses to immunize you.

Chico: Hey, the judge gave me immunize to testify against Pinky!

Groucho: Well, I can see I’m not going to get anywhere this way.  Let’s say this: imagine that I paid you the money, and imagine that Pinky went to do the research.  Imagine that there’s a renewal.  Then can I run the film?

Chico: Well, you gotta pay the guy who owns the film.

Groucho: Won’t that be stated in the renewal?

Chico: Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Sometimes a guy renew-a film that he no own, and that’s a void renewal.  Sometimes-a he sell it to someone-else, and that might not be recorded in the papers at the Library of Congress.

Groucho: Then how do I find out who owns it?

(Harpo holds up a card, “Pinky’s Copyright Detective and Genealogy Service.”)

Groucho: And how do I find out if the renewal is void?

Chico: You need a lawyer for that.

(Chico smiles and offers card again.)

Groucho: All right then, I can just wait until the second term of copyright expires.

Chico: Oh, no, you can’t do that.

Groucho: I’m certain of that.  But tell me why anyway.

Chico: Well, Congress, she’sa pass another extension.  You see, if you register once…

Groucho: For 28 years…

Chico: Yes, and if they renew…

Groucho: For another 28 years…

Chico: Yes, well, Congress, she’s a make the renewal period 47 years.  Then shesa change her mind again.  Now it’s 67 years.

Groucho: That makes the total copyright period 95 years.

Chico: That’s it!  You guess it!

Groucho: There’s no possible way I could make enough money from showing this film to offset the costs of finding out who owns it.

Chico: That’s what I discovered.

Groucho: I wanted to show it for preservation purposes.  For an old time movie.

Chico: Oh, that’s a no good.

Groucho: It’s a lot less work just to throw it away.,

Chico: Now you understand why I threw mine away.

(Groucho tosses print away.)

Chico: That’s what you call film preservation.

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The Quick, Quick, Slow Cut

One of the criticisms I hear of older films is that they are slow-moving and boring.  The editing of newer films is supposed to be faster.  This is simply not true.  The editing of modern films is different.  In some ways, it’s even slower today.

Hollywood today is frightened to death of dialogue and plot.  They fear it might get in the way of a good chase scene or fart joke.  The problem is that a great number of films jettison so much dialogue and plot that they become basically two-hour chase sequences, and that’s boring.  When you have no idea who is doing what to whom, and there is no characterization left to let you know it, then all you can do is sit back in your chair and wait until something interesting happens.  Sadly, it seldom does.

Editor Peter Hunt (a pause now in silence for one of the greatest editors of all time) used to say that an action sequence in a film should never be more than five minutes long, or else the audience gets bored.  He pointed to Thunderball (1965) as a movie that annoyed him a bit, because he’d cut the scenes the way they seemed to flow most efficiently, and the three producers on the shoot kept overruling him. “Oh, that shot is too good to throw out.  Put it back in.”  And as a result, he thought Thunderball was draggy in places.  He was right.  Still, Thunderball’‘s opening fight sequence is one of the slickest and most efficient in film history.  It still works today.  Don’t believe me?    Check this out.

OK, the rocket pack at the end is too silly.  But let’s contrast this with a newer Bond film, Casino Royale (2006).  Due to legal snags, the original Fleming book couldn’t be adapted as an official Bond film until this was released.  The book is a little sparse for a two-hour film.  So what to do?  They grafted on three chase sequences with just a hair’s breadth of plot to combine them.  And each chase sequence was about 15 minutes long.  The first one was a foot chase, which was at least pretty compelling, but it was followed by a truck chase inspired by (or stolen from) Raiders of the Lost Ark and then a chase through an airport taken from Die Hard 2 (if they’re going to steal from Die Hard films, can’t they at least steal from a good one?)

As a result, Casino Royale has been running for about 45 minutes before the story really starts, at which point I’ve pretty much ceased to care.  It gets worse, because the plotline that Fleming used, which was intense and psychological, is cut to the bare minimum.  We can’t have too much of a plot, because we might bore 15-year-old boys who come to see things blow up.  It was only due to the fact that I know the book, and I know other versions of the story, that I could follow it.

In case you just missed it, I cited an example in which an older film actually moves faster than a newer one, and it was a film that the editor thought was too slow!  The idea now, and increasingly, is that the story doesn’t matter at all, so we need to pad out the action scenes.  This means that the video game based on the movie is probably going to be very cool.  I guess no one has realized that video games and movies are different media.  I’m not terribly excited about watching a two-hour video game in which I can’t participate.

So I’ve ranted enough about the slowness of today’s cutting, and how scenes go on too long.  That’s not what most people go on about when they talk about old films being slower.  What they’re talking about is that each shot is often longer in older films.

I’m not against fast cutting. You’ll note that the cutting in Thunderball is actually pretty fast.  I am against cutting a movie so that you lose a sense of geography in the film.  For over a hundred years, we’ve cut movies according to rules.  These rules help us understand what is happening in a film.  A fight should start with a long shot, which gives us an idea of where everything is located.  We might then cut to a closeup of a punch, and then to a medium shot back to a reaction by someone.  Establishing shot, insert, reaction…

There are a lot of people who don’t do that anymore.  We shoot everything in extreme closeup.  I’m not sure why we’ve gone to this, but we have.  Some people think it’s because TV is lower resolution and closeups register better with the audience.  This means that the filmmakers really are shooting for television even though we may see a theatrical release.  Other people say it gives us a sense of immediacy with the action.  In my humble, ranty opinion, it does none of that.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of an epileptic seizure.  We have no idea what is happening, and it’s nothing but disorganized movement.  If we combine this with the trend for longer action sequences, then basically  it just gives me the urge to sit back in my chair and yawn until something coherent shows up.

I know I’m opening myself up for a criticism that I don’t like anything that’s new.  Not true.  I want to see good, strong storytelling.  Editing is part of that.  For example, I was delighted to see Inglourious Basterds (2009).  The opening sequence of that film is a thing of beauty.  I won’t give it away, but it centers on a German officer (Christoph Waltz) trying to discover the location of some Jewish refugees.  The editor stretches out some takes to make us uncomfortable sitting in our chairs.  What is he thinking?  Why is this scene going on so long?  The tension builds masterfully.  It’s as good as any scene you’re likely to see.

On the other end of the scale, watch the chase between Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage in The Rock (1995).  It’s cut too fast, with too few establishing shots and too many closeups.  You can see it here, although I apologize for the squished aspect ratio (and the language is not appropriate for kids).  I’ll be blunt here: I love Sean Connery, I love Nic Cage, I’ve visited San Francisco and driven down these very streets.  I hate this sequence.  I can’t tell what’s going on.  It makes no sense; the camera is too shaky, the cutting is too fast.  Director Michael Bay made it on to my “banned for life” list because of this film.

You wanna see a good chase scene shot in this same area?  Here’s one:” It’s from What’s Up, Doc (1972) made by Peter Bogdanovich.  Notice that he uses long shots so that we know what’s happening.  It’s not slow (it may be a bit long), but it works.  The guy knows how to make a movie! Yeah, I know that the point of the two scenes is different.  The Rock is a serious chase with a little comedy and What’s Up Doc is a comedic chase with some thrills.

My point is that the cutting is completely different, and that’s due to what the editor used and what the director gave him.  I think it’s insane to make a generalization that older films are slower.  Some are, and some aren’t.  And you have to figure whether long scenes are slower than quick cuts.  It’s hard to measure.  Editing is an important and little-understood art.  It’s something I’m going to come back to on this blog page.  One of my pet projects is a re-edit of a scene from Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I’ve contended for years that the worst problem with that film is editing. Stay tuned.

On the Trail of Blamire’s Screaming Forehead

One of the things that gives me hope about the viability of Dr. Film is the cult following afforded Larry Blamire.  If you don’t know who he is, I’d recommend having a look at his Bantam Street site,  So far, Larry’s films have been witty spoofs of older genre films.  His cult favorite, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (released theatrically in 2003), is part Roger Corman and part Ed Wood, while being delightfully silly for its entire length.  Dark and Stormy Night (2009) was also a funny spoof of a type of film that was rampant in the 1920s-1940s, in which a bunch of people are locked in an old spooky house while someone starts bumping them off one at a time.  What I love about Blamire’s work is that it demands something of its audience: you have to know something about what he’s spoofing in order to get all the jokes.

I’d heard for some time about the great, missing Blamire epic, Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  It was slated for a 2007/8 release when its cutting was, well, circumvented by an executive producer.  We might compare this to what almost happened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), albeit on a much smaller scale.  The abortive cut has surfaced on Independent Film Channel a few times, but bears little resemblance to the original concept.  Happily, Larry has been able to wrest the footage away from the miscreant, and we are now able to see the director’s cut of Trail. Like Gilliam before him, Larry has been trying to drum up support for the film by doing late-night showings at conventions.  Blearily, I am happy to report that I was in attendance at the first of these screenings, and that it went wonderfully.  (I say blearily since I had to drive for about 3 hours to attend the screening, which required the same return trip.)

I am loath to give up much of Trail’s plot, which is one of those things that unravels itself like a mystery.  It’s intended to be that way, in much the same way that most of the 50s invasion movies were.  Trail of the Screaming Forehead is a tribute to Don Siegel and Douglas Sirk in the same way that Lost Skeleton had been a tribute to Corman and Wood.  Shot with deliberately garish colors (like so many films of the era), and full of stereotype characters, Trail also boasts cameos from great 50s stars, including HM Wynant, the late Betty Garrett, Dick Miller, and the late Kevin McCarthy.

Larry Blamire can write campy dialogue with the best that ever did it.  His lead actors are now familiar repertory players in his company.  They are all able to read deliberately clumsy lines in a convincing yet slightly bewildered way.  It’s hard to do, and I respect them all for it.  They don’t make it wooden, and they don’t do it winking at the camera in the way Adam Sandler would do.  I laughed heartily all the way through the film, as did most of the preview audience.  I’m glad to see that most of Blamire’s cast is now getting work in other productions.  They deserve to.  In Trail, I’d like to single out the performance of Andy Parks, who is a real master of the reaction shot.  There’s a scene in which HM Wynant mistakenly thinks Andy has been taken over by the alien foreheads (no, I’m not kidding), and Parks does a take over his shoulder as if to ask, “Are you talking to me?”  It’s an age-old gag, but Andy brings such conviction to it that I had to laugh.  Parks hasn’t worked in a mainstream film for years, and Hollywood is a poorer place for it.

Am I completely glowing with praise?  Well, mostly, yes.  Those of you who know me also know how picky I am.  As a hyphenate (a guy who does more than one job in a film), Larry Blamire sometimes has a problem.  The Editor Larry sometimes is too in love with dialogue that the Writer Larry wrote. That sometimes lets the pace of the film drag a little.  I thought that The Lost Skeleton Returns Again had some slow moments in the middle, as did Dark and Stormy Night.  This does not seem to be the case with Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  There are a few carpy things I could say, such as the fact that I was confused about Jennifer Blaire’s motivation when she fried the foreheads in one scene.  I thought her rendition of the title song was a bit out of place in the middle of the film (I’m not complaining about her singing, which is great, but rather the placement of the song).  Incidentally, Trail of the Screaming Forehead has a loopy title sequence, done by Manhattan Transfer in great 1950s style.  My complaints are but small issues.

OK, I give up… I know that someone is going to want a plot synopsis, but I warn you that it’s not something you want to read about… you should see it.  A scientist (Fay Masterson) discovers that the forehead, and not the brain, is the seat of all human knowledge.  In order to further her theories, she isolates the formula for foreheadazine and injects it into a colleague (Andy Parks).  His forehead and intellect grow to enormous proportions.  Meanwhile, evil alien invaders, which are disembodied foreheads, invade the Earth and begin plastering themselves on local townsfolk.  Can the world survive?  Who will stop them? Can I stop laughing long enough to hear the plot unfold?

I’d love to see Larry Blamire get to do more films.  He’s got a lot of talent and great ideas.  He’s starting to get shoehorned into doing Lost Skeleton movies, and that’s fine, but it would be great to see him get backing to do things like his interesting-looking Steam Wars project.  Regardless, I’ll keep watching what he does.  It’s great to see someone else out there who loves old movies as much as I do.



A Certain Madness…

No one cares about old movies.  I was horrified recently to read the introduction to Leonard Maltin’s book 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen.  He focuses on movies from the last 15 years!  Leonard Maltin!  The mind reels.  That kind of limitation is like hiring Bill Clinton to write a book called 100 Sexiest People and then telling him he’s only allowed to write about men.

I understand why Leonard did it, though.  I don’t want to trash him: he’s a great guy, and he’s a great friend of old films and preservation.  Leonard is really one of the top film people in the world. Importantly, though, Leonard is not crazy, and he knows that people won’t buy a book about films made in the 1920s.

But, you see, I am crazy.

I am not crazy because I love old movies.

I am not crazy because I collect and preserve film prints of movies that no one cares about, just so I can see them.

I am not even crazy because I share my collection with audiences.

I am crazy because I think you should at least give old films a chance.

It seems to me that no one cares about old movies anymore because no one ever sees them.  A friend of mine said that when cable TV came, they took all the old movies and put them on one channel.  Then they filled the rest with junk.

Let me tell you, folks, about the days BC (before cable).  Infomercials were illegal by rule of the FCC.  At 11:30pm, after the news, only one station had a talk show.  That was Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.  He murdered the competition, so the local stations left him alone.  If Carson had bad guests on a particular night, the you could just flip channels and see a great movie on any of the 5 or 6 other channels you might get.

In the summer, when my parents used to annoy me (which was most of the time), I would stay up until 3am most nights watching movies on TV.  One station had a show called Summer Film Festival with a host who introduced a different film five nights a week!  Another station had a festival called When Movies Were Movies with another host.  There was even a great monster movie host every Friday night, and a Science Fiction movie every Saturday night.

The era of hosted movies died with cable.  It used to be that nearly every station had one, then one or two stations held out, and finally, all movies were hosted on Turner Classic Movies by Robert Osborne.  And again, I’m not here to trash Mr. Osborne, because he does a great job.  Osborne is unlike the movie hosts of old.. he’s all classy and slick.  Most local hosts were shot on a shoestring, and some of them were deliberately silly and over the top.

The single holdout movie host, who does it like it was done in the old days, is Elvira, also known as Cassandra Peterson.  God bless her for sticking in there. But Elvira is one of the hosts who always runs bad movies and snickers at them.  That’s fine, and an outgrowth of her stuff is the guys of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This is where I come in.

Or rather, where I don’t come in.

Not only do I miss the old days of movie hosts, but I also think that we don’t do them anymore because no one watches old movies.  And I think that no one watches old movies because they don’t see them on every station anymore.  And, because no one sees old movies, no one understands them.

I’m just crazy enough to invent my own show, patterned after the shows of the old days.  It’s called Dr. Film, which is the subject of this web site.  It’s intended to be just the same as the hosted shows used to be: a little educational, but silly enough to appeal to a broad audience.

The trailer for Dr. Film (see the home page of the site) says that the title character is an eccentric genius with a plan to change the world–by showing old movies.  I do hope to change the world by showing old movies.

I hope to get a few more people interested in films that were made in black and white.  I hope to show people that editing styles have changed, not that older movies are slow.  I hope to show people that the majority of a film doesn’t have to come from a computer in order for it to be worth seeing.

I encourage you to check out the Dr. Film site.  We’re still hoping to sell the show to some network.  But first, we have to get enough people to care about the project so that a network is convinced it’s worthwhile.

I know the project is worthwhile, but then I’m crazy.  Come be crazy with me.  Let’s change the world by showing old movies.