The Invisible Man Returns

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People from around the world gasp in spontaneous indifference at my absence.

I haven’t written a blog in some time.  In fact, it’s been so long that Google has de-indexed me.  I’m getting emails asking for links to some of my best-loved blogs.  (For what it’s worth, those seem to be Plan 9 from Out of Sequence, Maureen O’Hara Vs. the Egg People, and The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law.)  There’s a subtle plugola that might get just those blogs reindexed!

People are also asking me where I am.  I’m on Facebook and on the Dr. Film Facebook page, but no blogs.  Why would that be?  Well, frankly, I’ve been underwater with work and I’m only now coming up for air.  Writing a blog like this takes concentration, and I’ve been saving that for paying work.

Let me answer the questions I have been receiving:

Q1: Is King of the Kongo coming out on DVD/Blu-Ray soon?

A: No.  There are extenuating circumstances and I can’t go into them here.  A Kickstarter campaign would not help.  YouTube won’t help.  There are some problems.  That’s all I can say.

Q2: Have you found any more sound discs for Kongo?

A: No.

Q3: Are you working on any more preservation projects?

A: Yes.  I’m hoping to raise money for some.  I’m hoping that I can get Little Orphant Annie, the basketball films from Milan Indiana, and a film called Little Mickey Grogan restored.  At the current time, all are having some problems.

One of the reels of Little Orphant Annie awaiting the word to restore it!


Q4: Are you doing crowdfunding for these?

A: Maybe.  Some of the issues involved are deeper than just funding; again, I can’t go into them here.

Q5: You keep talking about a video streaming project?  Have you given up on that?

A: No.  We’re moving forward on it and it’s being developed.  I’m hoping to get a federal grant for it.  I listened to what you guys said and I’m going to try to fund a 501(c)(3) broadcast and streaming station that will be aimed at promoting literacy about older films and film preservation.  If I can get it off the ground, it will be called VintFlix.  We have the page reserved already.  It will take more funding to get going than I can get on Kickstarter.  I’ve been in contact with the National Endowment for the Humanities and they are saying encouraging things.

Q6: Is the Dr. Film show dead?

A: It’s not a bit well, but I wouldn’t say dead.  We are still talking about a podcast, but I haven’t had time to do one.  If VintFlix gets off the ground, then the Dr. Film show will be on it.

Q7: You promised to write a blog on digital vs. film on the Facebook page, but you haven’t.  Where is it?

A: I’m working on it.

Q8: You say you’re busy.  Does that mean you’re making a lot of money?

A: No, I’m fulfilling obligations and doing publicity for other things.  I would never recommend doing what I do unless you’re unbalanced like I am and just need to do it for some reason.

Q9: You’re doing shows and personal appearances?

A: Yes, a great number of them and in several cities this year.

Q10: Are you appearing as Dr. Film?

A: No, as myself.  If you’re interested in booking me, then you have my contact information in the Dr. Film main page or the email link at the upper right of this page.

Q11: I saw your King of the Kongo presentation at (wherever you saw it).  Can you bring that to my theater?

A: Yes.  Contact me.   The episodes are available on film or DCP.

Q12: I saw your show on the history of color in the movies.  Can you bring that to my theater?

A: Yes.  Contact me.  We have to do this one on film, and it doesn’t work in a really huge auditorium.

Q13: Are you affiliated with David Pierce and James Layton, who wrote the book on the history of Technicolor?

A: No, but I know them.  My presentation is entirely different from theirs, although theirs is quite good.   I’ve seen it more than once. (They discuss the history of the Technicolor company, whereas I show examples of many of the different processes, including Technicolor. They go more in-depth than I do.)

Q14: I think your work is very cool.  How can I support you?

A: Buy some t-shirts or send me PayPal.  I’ll send you the address if you’re so motivated.

Q15: We’re not interested in stuff you’re trying to do.  We’re only interested in what you’ve done.

A: Thanks for that.  Would you rather me just wait and post a boatload of stuff when things get resolved?  Part of what this blog is about is the ongoing saga of film preservation and how I’m trying to do it.  It’s a drama.  Have fun with it.  Really.  There may even be a book about it someday…

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.

Islands in the Stream

I get complaints when I write a blog about the Dr. Film show.  People like the blogs about classic films better.  Someone wrote about the “existential whining” that he didn’t like.  Well, this is going to be another one of those blogs, but it affects what we’re going to do with the show, which means classic films and restorations you won’t see anywhere else.

A lot of people come up to me, especially at conventions, and ask, “When is the Dr. Film show coming on?”  Some think it’s already on.  Some think it should be on, and are surprised it isn’t.  Still only know Dr. Film from the blog.  This blog has gotten surprisingly popular.

The Dr. Film facebook page is pretty popular too, and the show isn’t.  It’s because no one has seen the show.  On the Facebook page, we talk about preservation issues, and there are plugs for new projects and odd copyright problems.  It’s a neat forum. In a very strange way, a way I never expected, I’ve created a community around a show that doesn’t really exist, and a fan base and people who come together over something that has never developed.  I’m not complaining, but it’s surprising.

You see, I put up the blog to promote the show, which I figured would get popular and then we’d have more people clamor to see the show.  And the Facebook page was put up to promote the blog and the show.  But we only have the pilot, which was shot in 2008, finished in 2009, and remastered/recut in 2011.  That’s it.

If you’ve been a loyal follower here, then you know what I mean and how we’ve struggled with this.  We’ve been completely and utterly ignored by cable and broadcast.  Few people will even give us a chance by watching the show.  I really don’t think we will ever be on an over-the-air broadcast or cable network.  I want to emphasize this.  I just don’t think we’re high-profile enough.

There’s been a continuing thing, something that I get asked all the time, “Why don’t you just put Dr. Film on YouTube?”  I don’t do that because I can’t afford to.  YouTube is dominated by teenagers, rich folks, and the chronically unemployed.  I don’t qualify for the first two, and hope to avoid being the third.  The economics of YouTube are awful.  I’ve looked into it, and with the viewership I’m likely to get, it’s impossible for me to make enough money to justify expenses.

And then people tell me, “But people will see you and you’ll be famous!”  Well, I don’t care about that.  I want to a) show old movies and b) not go broke doing it.  Those are my goals.  I really don’t care if no one knows who I am.  If I have to be a little more “known” in order to accomplish my goals, then that’s fine.

One of the things I do to accomplish my goals is to study the marketplace, and I see odd things happening, especially in social media.

I noticed my friend Archie Waugh doing something that I’d never even considered with Facebook.  I’ve never met Archie, but I’ve known him for years, even before Facebook, because he is a long-time silent film fan.  But Archie is geeky (I consider this a good thing!) in a number of areas, and one of his favorite ways is that he’s a big Godzilla fan… not just Godzilla, but all of the Japanese monster and TV shows.  Properly, they’re called Kaiju.

Archie hosts a group that gets together every Saturday night and they all pop in a DVD at the same time and then start talking about it as it runs.  They used to use Facebook’s chat function, but they grew into their own chat room that one of the members puts on his own server.  And they’re not making fun of the movie (although sometimes they might kid it a bit), but they’re talking to each other and enjoying the film and sharing an experience…

They’re not seeing each other, but are spread literally all over the world.  They’re a community, and more to the point, they’re an audience.  They love to do this!  I’ve polled them about it.  It runs counter to my way of thinking, because I go to a movie so that I don’t talk to other people, so I can immerse myself in the experience.  I don’t like to share that with others.  But it’s not all about me.

This is a new kind of audience.  It’s a different kind of audience.  I can see why some people utterly fail to accept this.  The texters hate the immersion people and the immersion people hate the texters.  And I hope there’s room for both in the world, because there are just too few people who are interested in some things to make an immersive audience pay off.  If there are 10 people in each big city, then you may get 1000 people in a virtual audience, but go broke doing a movie roadshow.

I hate that.  I love the movies, but I have to face reality.  I hope that some of the texters can become members of the immersive audience and vice versa, but neither is going away.

And that brings me back to Dr. Film.  If YouTube doesn’t work out economically, then what about some sort of internet streaming?  Netflix was not interested.  Well, I’m not sure whether they were interested or not.  I never heard back from them.

I thought, well, OK, we can stream the Dr. Film show on a private YouTube channel and do an Archie-style chat along with it.  I even spoke to Archie about it.  I almost did it, looked like everything was coming in place, but…

People yelled at me.  Some people had seen the pilot that we shot, and a few hated it.  The complaint was not that the idea was bad, but some people hated the feature I’d picked, and a few hated the video transfer I’d gotten.  The statement was that it was like one of the Star Trek pilots… they were good enough to incorporate into the run of the show, but you wouldn’t want to show one for your first episode.  The complaints were loud, and I listened.

Now remember, by this time, years have gone by.  I’m thinking we just trash the show.  It was fun, it was a good idea, but it didn’t work. That idea didn’t set well with people either!  Meanwhile, the blog readership expanded, the Facebook memberships went up, and we still had no show.

I thought, well, OK, we can try to make some more shows.  By now HD has taken over, so we need more equipment and more expensive film transfers.  That’s OK, I can work that out…  I applied for grants, and, gee, I got none of them.  People don’t really understand what I do.  It’s not “art” to them.

I kept thinking that I needed my own internet TV station, and I was looking into that.  I knew that it was possible to make a private station with a dedicated server.  I’ve seen a lot of them, and I know that many are on Roku.

And then there’s this other problem: most of the TV stations on the internet are BAD.  The classic movie stations rely almost exclusively on material that’s been cobbed from archive.org.  I’ve lived through this before: it was like when Goodtimes video came out and flooded the marked with awful-looking public domain movies.  They were cheap, but they gave headaches to those of us to tried to be a little more up-market.  I can’t always be Kino or Criterion; there simply are some things that look bad in the surviving prints, but I’d like to show them anyway.  I just don’t want to be painted with the same brush as Alpha or Goodtimes, who seem to go out of their way to get bad material.

So I thought about offering Dr. Film as a streaming service ala Netflix.  I did a survey there, too.  People told me that they wanted free, please free, we have no money.  Well, that means commercials, which I can do.  But an equal number of people said, NO, please have a monthly subscription.  It was evenly split down the middle.

Ben Model is at least somewhat successful with his Accidentally Preserved DVD sets.  I helped him work on those, so it’s possible that we could just produce Dr. Film shows and put them on DVD.  But I think that’s silly.  We don’t have the kind of following to make that work.  Ben’s DVDs sell because people know Ben and people know that they’re getting rare films on the DVDs.  I don’t think Dr. Film would sell because not enough people know what it is… at least, not yet.

And then I see that Netflix is dropping a chunk of its older movies because no one cares, and no one watches them.  It makes me ill.  I know there is an audience, maybe a small one, for classic films.  And there’s a lot more out there than what gets shown on TCM.

Part of that audience is on the Dr. Film Facebook page.  Another part of it reads this blog.

I have a number of ideas that I’m mulling over.  I need your input on these.  I’ve got technical skills but not a lot of cash.  Please let me know what you’d like to see.  If I initiated a Kickstarter program, I’d also need to know that you or your friends would donate to help cover startup costs.

MY FIRST IDEA: A 24-hour streaming TV channel, all movies made before Star Wars.  We’d have serials, cartoons, shorts, and features, but also shows that were made exclusively for the channel that are about older films.  Everything from film, nothing from archive.org!!!  Movies would be from my collection and from other collections.   Everyone who contributes films will be paid, no matter what!  (It’s important!)  Dr. Film would be a part of this network, and it would air probably once a week.

I could work something out so that we could have a subscription version and a free version of the same network.  The subscription people would see the shows uninterrupted and then have a cartoon at the end of the show, all real content, no ads.

As cool as I think this might be, it is a marketing nightmare.  The problem is that there’s already so much dreck out there that we’d have to find a way to differentiate this network from all the other cheesy networks.  Do you have ideas on how we could promote it?  Please tell me!  It would be a lot of work for me to set this up and maintain it, so we’d have to have some viewership to make it worthwhile.

ALTERNATIVELY:   We just admit that the whole idea is limited, but we have a following with the Dr. Film sites.  And then we have a site that would ONLY be Dr. Film, nothing else, but shows could be streamed on demand with or without commercials.  This one is less work for me, and I suspect less cool for you.  But I don’t know.  You tell me.

I sometimes will just have the TV on in the background and come in and out on it when something caught my interest.  People tell me that this JUST ISN’T DONE anymore.  It’s all streaming on demand, all the time.  You tell me!

In either case, I’d probably expand the Facebook presence a little bit and put in a chat function on the Dr. Film page so that people could discuss the shows as they are watching.

What do you think?  What would you like to see?  Feel free to post here, on the Dr. Film page, or email me and give me ideas.  If this really is a community, let’s let it function like one!

“The History Not Found in Books”

Sometimes, when I least expect it, I hear a nugget of wisdom that just keeps me thinking for days. On March 28, I attended a lecture at Indiana Landmarks about historic buildings. This will be of no surprise to the folks who know that Indiana Landmarks promotes (among other things) preservation of historic buildings. The lecturer was Henry Glassie, a really top-notch guy who gave a smoother lecture than I ever could. (Full disclosure: Indiana Landmarks is also hosting a showing of my restoration of The King of the Kongo in July of this year, but I’m not shilling for anyone.)

glassie
Henry Glassie (picture from Indiana University)

Glassie spoke about surveying historic buildings in Virginia, and he had traced the designs to countries that had had similar designs in Europe.  Barns and houses, primarily.  He noticed that there was a definite pattern in the buildings depending on where the inhabitants had originated in Europe.  He also noted that the folks in the American South had cleverly adapted some of these buildings to make newer and more useful designs, while retaining the original character of the older design.

Then he started speaking about what happened to these buildings over time.  You may know that a lot of barns are endangered today simply because we don’t know what to do with barns, since farming is now industrial and not familial.  And modest old houses are a bit of a problem as we move into larger McMansions to hold all of our stuff.  Glassie noted that all of the houses he had surveyed… all of them… that represented what is perceived as the popular cultural history of Virginia, had been saved, and in many cases restored. The others—the little dwellings, the sheds, the outbuildings—were either gone or in worse shape than ever.

The plantation houses, the houses of the rich, the story of Gone With the Wind and all that goes with it… those were saved. The smaller houses, the ones for poor families, the odd barns, the work buildings… those were being demolished, because no one wanted to deal with them.

“It’s important to save some of these,” Glassie said, “because these buildings tell us of the history not found in books.”

My mind spun!  I loved this idea.  I knew exactly what he meant.  We preserve the popular stuff, the stuff we know about, the stuff we can still identify with, and the rest gets swept under the carpet.  It doesn’t fit in with our idea of the past, so out it goes.  Who cares if it documents a truth that a clever historian can read and decode?  It doesn’t fit our narrative, so begone!

And immediately, I realized that this is the kind of film history I practice.  The film history not found in books.  I realized that this is why the “Holy Quintet” of classic films annoys me a little (Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, and Singing in the Rain.)  Those stories have been told.  They’ve been retold.  They’re part of our narrative of film history.

This is why, in popular culture, Gone With the Wind is the first Technicolor film ever made.  Who cares that Becky Sharp came four years earlier?  And what of the two-color Technicolor that dated back to 1917?  It may be true, but it doesn’t fit our narrative—out it goes.

The trouble with this is that what doesn’t fit the narrative doesn’t get seen, and what doesn’t get seen doesn’t get preserved.  It’s the same with films and buildings.  In the words of Hannibal Lecter, “We covet what we see.”  And if we don’t see it, then we don’t care.

OK, it’s a little granule of a thought, I admit, but it’s a powerful one.  The history not found in books.  Wow.  I began to realize that I fight very hard to tell film history not found in books.  I find so many fascinating nooks and crannies that I want to share them.

I’m kind of the opposite of the traditional film history guy: If the story has been told, then I want to move on to a new story.  Yeah, I know about the script troubles in Casablanca or Buddy Ebsen in The Wizard of Oz.  What else is there?

I remember when I first started showing the pilot for Dr. Film.  People screamed at me.  “OK, we like what you did with the characters, we like how you did the show, but the feature you picked, Murder by Television (1935) is terrible!  You should take that out and put something good in, something like White Zombie (1932).  That’s about the same length and it’s at least a decent movie.  And since it stars Lugosi, you’ll only have to re-shoot the ending, so it’ll save the whole show.”

But I didn’t want to do that.  I refused to do that.  I have a very solid concept for Dr. Film and White Zombie wasn’t it.

I like White Zombie.  It’s a fine film.  Lugosi is great in it.  It would make a fantastic episode of Matinee at the Bijou.  And, for the record, I like Matinee at the Bijou.  But Dr. Film isn’t Matinee at the Bijou.  It’s seeking to tell the untold stories.

In the opening credits, the members of the Midnight Film Society slink into their chairs and the narrator solemnly intones, “…they screen the unseen…”

White Zombie isn’t unseen.  It’s one of the most common Lugosi films out there.  If you’ve seen 15 Lugosi films, you’ve seen White Zombie.  Since I don’t have a fantastic rediscovered print like Tom Holland found, I didn’t have anything unique to show.

As this little nugget of truth continued to worm its way into my skull, I came to realize just how much I love the untold stories in film history…

I lobbied last year (and this year) to restore The King of the Kongo because it represents so many untold stories: What was Boris Karloff doing in movies before he was famous?  What were the early sound serials like?  Did early part-talkies use undercranking?  It isn’t a great movie either, but it deserved to be restored.  It needed to tell its story.

Max Lerner once said, “History is written by the survivors.”  Film history is too.  I love DW Griffith, but is he really the father of film?  We’ve found out recently that other people at the same time were doing innovative work as well.  Griffith had the advantage of being preserved and available because of MOMA and Library of Congress, but it’s only recently that we could see early works by Raoul Walsh or even Cecil B. DeMille (whose early work is really cool… before he started making stale costume dramas that made more money.)

We know Fritz Lang (survivor) but not Paul Wegener (most films lost).

We know Willis O’Brien (survivor) but not Charley Bowers (many films lost).

We know Laurel and Hardy (only one short lost) but not Max Davidson (fewer shorts, and several missing).

The stories of Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford are changing as we find their early work to be more interesting and significant than we had thought.

MGM star Clark Gable we remember, but what of MGM star Lee Tracy?  There was a time when Tracy was a much bigger star.

I find myself drawn to these kinds of things.  I find that the films in the popular culture, the ones written about in books, are often no better than the obscure little pictures we’ve never seen.

Alternate title for Merry Go Round from 1932
Alternate title for Merry Go Round from 1932

A couple of years ago, Universal reprinted Merry Go Round (1932), which might as well have been a 1945 film noir.  Universal had a stupid policy in the 1960s and 70s: if it wasn’t a monster movie, or it didn’t have Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, WC Fields, or the Marx Brothers in it, then it wasn’t worth reprinting.  This meant that scads of great titles from Universal and Paramount (Universal owns the Paramount library from 1929-47) are sitting unseen in vaults because they were deemed unmarketable.

Merry Go Round was a great story of double dealing, corrupt city officials, shady lawyers, bed-hopping, etc.  Just the kind of thing that would be great cinema in 10 or 15 years.  And we’d never heard of it.

Because we’d never seen it.

Because its story wasn’t told in books.  (And there was no reason to tell its story in books, since no one had seen it.  Sitting there in a film catalog, it doesn’t look particularly interesting.)

OK, maybe I screwed up in showing Murder by Television on Dr. Film.  I personally find this an “are you kidding me?” moment in Lugosi’s career.  He’d just done The Raven at Universal, and now this?  Why?  And you unravel the answer: he needed  cash, so he would take work anywhere.

Sure, it’s a bad film.  But why it’s a bad film is really fascinating.  And I find it a fascinating film to see for its badness.  That doesn’t mean I only want to show bad films.

And it certainly doesn’t mean I want only to show good films.

It does mean I have no interest in showing Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, and Citizen Kane.  Come to think of it, lump White Zombie in with them.

I’m still fascinated with film history–obscure but interesting and worth revisiting—the history not found in books.  If Dr. Film ever makes it to air, then you can expect to see more of these kinds of stories.  I’m happy to leave the mainstream to Robert Osborne.  He’s better at that than I am!

To Free or Not to Free? That is the Question

I’m frequently bombarded with ideas and new concepts.  I try to incorporate them in my marketing approach for the Dr. Film show.  Since we’ve not (yet) been successful in selling the show, I study people who are successful at marketing to see what they’re doing, and I learn a lot in the process. I thought I’d pass on some of it to you.

A couple of years ago, I was projecting a film festival, running a bunch of films that were not very interesting.  I’m always a sucker for something different and unusual, but I wasn’t finding it on this day, so I had to keep reminding myself that this gig would pay for a big chunk of the month.

SitaPoster
Official Sita Sings the Blues poster.

The last film I put on was called Sita Sings the Blues.  It delighted me.  You want something different and unusual?  This was it.  A beautiful animated film, using Indian-style art, with music by Annette Hanshaw, a long-forgotten singer from the 1920s and 30s.  You wouldn’t think the styles would mesh, but they did, and really well.  The art was great, the plot engaging.  I loved the picture.

I filed it away in my brain and forgot about it.  A while later, I read something that said Sita creator Nina Paley had had trouble licensing the rights to the music.  The real soul of that movie is in the songs, and without them, it would ring pretty hollow.  Some time later, I heard that a deal had been reached.

I looked on Nina’s website to see what the story was.  What I read was quite fascinating.  And now, we take a little diversion, but I promise I’ll come back to this.

The most frequent criticism I get about the Dr. Film show is that it should be free on the internet, that it should be a YouTube channel, because only there would it find an audience.

I always have had a problem with this reasoning. I love old films and I love to share them and to tell their stories.  But I can’t go around putting stuff on YouTube for free.

As I’ve discussed before, I used to work with a video company, and they released obscure titles on video, films that didn’t survive in pristine form, or films that were a little out of the mainstream.  The company did relatively well, well enough that expenses were paid and there was money left at the end of the year.  Not much, but some.

Then a company called Alpha Video ordered one copy of everything in the catalog, making bad DVD masters that they sold for $1 at Wal-Mart, a price that no one could compete with.

This one move killed the video business, because there’s no room in the market for a middle-of-the-road distributor. It’s either top of the line, pristine prints (Criterion/Kino), or bargain basement (Alpha Video/archive.org). Releasing films from my collection cost me money, so I stopped.  I still love to share movies and save them, but on a more modest level.  I do in-person film shows, and they pay better than video releases ever did, if such a thing can be imagined.

But I still keep an eye and ear out for new trends in distribution.  The world is changing and doing so at a really fast pace.  I realize that the market for Dr. Film is not a large one, so it demands creative marketing, which ain’t my forté.

This is what fascinated me about what Nina was doing.  After she reached a settlement with the people representing Annette Hanshaw, she posted Sita Sings the Blues, for free, without commercials.  You can, if you choose to, donate money to her to support her new projects.  It’s sort of like an online PBS.

The whole “everything is free” nature of the internet just seems to quash any way of making money, and making money is critical here.  If Nina wants to make a new film, she has to cover costs and keep her lights on.  The time she invests in it means time not being spent on something else that might keep the lights on, so it’s important.

This is a key point that I came to in making Dr. Film.  It took me a solid month to edit the single episode we shot.  I was lucky at the time because I had no other work going on.  Today, I couldn’t do that.  I have other work that would prohibit me taking the focused time it would take to cut an episode.  This means I’d have to turn down work in order to make the show.  Or I’d have to hire someone to help me… ack!

Basically, I can’t do the show for free.  It simply costs too much.  I either need a grant, or a donation stream, or a paying customer.  If I put a 90-minute show up on YouTube, once a month, I’d literally go broke.  I could cheapen it and use some of the bad production techniques that mar other YouTube productions, or stick to short clip shows, but I don’t want to do that.  It would save editing time by eliminating Anamorphia, but that makes it a lot less fun, too.  I want to make a good show, not just a cheap show.

I wondered whether this approach is working for Nina.  (Whether it works for Dr. Film is a a different question.) She claims that the approach is working.  I emailed her a bit about it, and she seems preoccupied with other work (which is great!), but the bottom line seems promising.  It’s covering costs, and that means she’s still working, which is really what we want from an artist, right?

Nina’s page also points to a great site called QuestionCopyright.org. This site is wonderful food for thought… they are advocating for a rethinking of copyright law, which is a great idea.  Many are talking about abolishing it, saying that content should be free and that containers (books, CDs, etc) cost money.  It’s an interesting thought.  Do I wholly endorse it?

No, not entirely.  I love the idea, but I remain to be convinced that it’s viable.  I live in a world where I’m struggling to keep the lights on and the heat bill paid.  I’ve had people copy and freely distribute my work, and I got no credit or money for it.

I’m constantly having to fight against the perception that my work is worthless, so I’m pretty hesitant to set its worth at zero.  Sita Sings the Blues is fundamentally different from Dr. Film anyway, because Nina gets to promote her work by showing it at film festivals and such, whereas there’s no real path for me to promote Dr. Film.  I honestly think that a free Dr. Film would both get ripped off (the rare films inside it would be redistributed), and it would get almost no viewings because no one knows what it is.  A double whammy.

But I’m still crazy.  I love old movies.  I still save them.  I still share them on a more intimate basis. I’m going to go on doing it.  You can credit Glory-June Greiff (my long-time co-conspirator and the actress who plays Anamorphia) for keeping the Dr. Film project on the table.  She’s adamant that it deserves an audience.  I’ve advocated giving up on it for years and she won’t hear of it.

Will Dr. Film be out there for free?  You show me a way that I can make them and stay solvent, and I would love to do it.  I’ve got a new distributor talking about the show (can’t discuss it yet), and a potential for a distribution deal over local TV if that doesn’t pan out,  and a further possibility of some grant money that would allow me to shoot more episodes.  The other criticism of the show is that people don’t like the films chosen in the pilot episode. Maybe having a variety of episodes in a package could help sell the idea.

On a different but similar topic.. Penny Dreadful’s Shilling Shockers is more like Dr. Film, and I’ve been studying its distribution system.  It’s more of a classic “hosted horror movie” show, without the educational component or the variety of Dr. Film.  I really like it.  It’s got a lot of heart despite the fact it’s cheap.  The only thing I don’t like about it is that they intercut their segments with awful garbage downloaded from archive.org.  I’ve come to realize that the main advantage I have with Dr. Film is that I have actual film and a knowledge of what is or isn’t public domain.  Penny is getting sponsors and selling DVDs of her shows.  It’s not on YouTube, but on local terrestrial TV, a new small-station phenomenon that is growing, along with occasional live streaming episodes. (I would have put some Penny artwork here but there were no pictures on her site that didn’t come with nasty rights warnings, so that has an impact on the kind of plugola I can give her.)

Going forward, I intend to post a 10 Questions With… highlighting one of the people at QuestionCopyright.org.  I’d love to get more of their ideas out there.  It’s a cool concept, and, again, I advocate copyright reform with every fiber in my being.  I may not go as far as they do, but that’s OK.

Will any of this affect Dr. Film?  I have no idea.  Dr. Film is the show that’s lying on the lab table with an erratic pulse, not quite dead, and not quite alive.  These are just some random ideas on trying to jump-start it.

James Bond Meets The King of the Kongo

I’ve always said that collecting and restoring film is like James Bond without the women.  You have international intrigue, shady characters, plots and crossplots and unexpected villains.  This is an idea that isn’t unique to me, however, since “Wild Bill” Everson came up with a movie serial parody that was actually produced as Captain Celluloid Vs. The Film Pirates (1965).  There’s also a famous anonymously written USENET parody about film collectors that was surreptitiously posted several years ago on alt.movies.silent that is formatted as an actual James Bond film.

But once again, fantasy is outpaced by reality.  Let me preface this, as I always do, by stating that I’m not making any of this up.  I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent and the guilty, but I didn’t fabricate anything.

kongo2

In August, I put up a Kickstarter campaign to restore one episode of King of the Kongo (1929).  Many of you regular readers will remember that this is the first sound serial ever, and that I have a 16mm silent print of the entire serial, but only three reels of the sound are, well, accessible.  These are on Vitaphone discs, which were carefully transferred by Ron Hutchinson at The Vitaphone project.  I use Ron’s real name because he’s a good guy, and I have nothing bad or controversial to say about him whatsoever.

I’d been working with another fellow who shall, however, remain anonymous.  I had advised him on setting up a computer-to-film conversion process and even did a considerable amount of help for him in getting some Cinemascope conversions done digitally.  He quoted me a very nice price on getting the restoration printed to film.  I knew this was important because I’d promised to premiere the restoration at the Syracuse Cinefest, and they need the film on 16mm.  For the sake of this posting, we’ll refer to this gentleman as Red Grant, to use a Bond name… and it’s actually fitting.

As I was preparing the Kickstarter project, I posted a notice about it with a group that is dedicated to the preservation of serials.  Let’s refer to them as SPECTRE.  Now, innocent me, I thought if I was preserving a serial, then I was on the same side as SPECTRE.  Not so, my friends.  It seems that SPECTRE wants to do its own restoration of King of the Kongo and that they felt what I was doing was a waste of time and effort.  Again, innocent me, I thought, gee, we’ll pool our resources and share what we’ve got to do the best job possible.  It seems that the SPECTRE chief just wanted me to go away, because he “knew where a 35mm of Kongo was located,” and he “knew of the existence of several more discs.”  He didn’t actually have any of this stuff, whereas I had all of my materials, but he knew where it was, you see.  And I was competing with him, at least from his standpoint.

This aspect of collecting is one that still infuriates me.  I guess SPECTRE didn’t really want to restore King of the Kongo, but they wanted the credit for restoring it.  Knowing where something is and having it are two very different things.  I know where more Kongo discs are, too, but they are in the hands of a reclusive collector who thinks he has something worth a lot of money.  And that’s more money than it’s worth, more money than you could ever raise from selling copies, and basically pointless.  The fact that SPECTRE was actually rallying cries against me and hoping for my failure in the face of their own inability to obtain materials is just confusing.  I am reminded of Samuel Peeples’ line, which, in summation, says that this kind of reasoning is like “trying to bisect a sneeze.”

So, I got the grant (thank you again, donors), and I had a company do the scanning for me that did a bang-up job.  The problem was that the print was banged-up, too.  Actually, it was the pre-print that was banged up, the 35mm nitrate that my print was copied from.  There were also a few sections that were printed out-of-frame, a Mascot Serials trademark that I hadn’t noticed in my quick-and-dirty transfer done on my home equipment.  As archivist DJ Turner has said, “Sometimes [a high-resolution transfer] doesn’t do these old films any favors.”

This is an unretouched title frame from the scan
This is an unretouched title frame from the scan
This is a frame from the restoration (Quicktime oopsie at bottom!)
This is a frame from the restoration (Quicktime oopsie at bottom!)

I had to do a lot of surgery on Kongo to make it look halfway right.  I could keep spending time on it, hand-tweaking it even more, but it actually looks fairly good now.  I matted out the out-of-frame sections, rebalanced the black-and-white contrast on a shot-by-shot basis.  I hadn’t counted on the huge slow-down such a thing would cause my computer, but it was a massive computing task.  Red Grant had told me that he’d need the file by early December, so that was my goal.

I worked extensively with David Wood (a good guy, so I’ll use his name.)  Dave is the equivalent of Q in this story.  In fairness, I was the picture Q and Dave was the audio Q.  Dave asked me a question I thought no one would ever ask me: “Was this transferred with an RIAA curve or a Vitaphone curve?”  Well, I knew Ron had done the transfer work, but knowing curves was a pretty arcane thing that I wouldn’t expect most people to know.  It turns out that the needle and transfer arm of a record player are calibrated to a certain equalization curve, much like you’d use on your stereo.  Dave had discovered that there was an official Vitaphone curve (something I never knew).  So he applied an inverse RIAA curve and then a Vitaphone curve, and the sound was vastly improved.  He also matched the speed with the footage I had.

Now, if you understand what I just said, then you have some recording knowledge, and it will impress you.  If you didn’t understand it, then please come away with a vague sense of awe for what Dave was able to accomplish.

I had to do a little minor surgery on the sound, but it basically fit, and I married track to picture and watched the results.  Pretty good!

Then I sent a hard drive to Red Grant.  Red took his time getting back to me. Before all else, he denied ever knowing about a time deadline, which I had clearly outlined in both the Kickstarter project and in emails to him.  Then he said he was having problems with the soundtrack, and then he couldn’t do it.  He promised to look into an alternate way of doing the soundtrack.  Fine.

This made me panic.  As part of the project, I’d promised to produce a film print.  I started looking for other places.  I posted on international film groups.  I found a place in Norway, a place in Germany, a place in Italy, and a place in NY that sounded like they could do it.

I’d specified 16mm output, but most of the places I contacted were limited to 35mm output.  Only two places, a guy in Italy (we’ll call him Largo) and a film lab in NY (we’ll call him Felix Leiter) could do the 16mm that I needed.

Meanwhile, back to Red Grant.

Just before Christmas, I heard from him.  I’d asked him if he could do anything to expedite the process… anything.  Then I got the answer.

Mr. Grant told me that he’d be happy to expedite the process.  All I’d have to do would be to send him some rare footage that I’d promised not to let out of my hands.  See, I have this problem… when I promise someone something, I keep the promise.   If I treat someone shabbily, then I’m not likely to hear back from them in the future.  I always figure the right way to treat people is on the straight and narrow.  (And that way I get more film, which is what I want anyway!)

So Red Grant, knowing that I had some material I would not let him copy, and sensing that I was over a barrel, figured he could blackmail me into giving him some rare film.   He also didn’t count on one thing: I’m a pretty easy guy to get along with, but when you try to screw me over, as Red Grant did, I’ll crawl through the depths of hell with infected knees before I’ll let you win.  In short, he’s not getting anything from me… ever.

But the drama isn’t over.  You see, Felix Leiter wants four times the money I had allotted to make the print, and Largo only speaks English through fractured Italian, so getting him a file as large as Kongo is a problem.  Also, Largo only makes a color positive print, whereas I’d stipulated a black and white negative.  Largo’s price is quite reasonable, but it’s not the product I need.

In the meantime, I sent a special envoy to talk to Felix Leiter, hoping that he could be talked down from the stratosphere of budget breaking.  That’s not gone well, either, since my special envoy just had to go to the hospital emergency room.

(Deleted here is a long Bondian sub-plot involving TV network head George Kaplan and the possibility of showing Kongo and even the Dr. Film show on national TV.  Trust me, it’s real… if you want to know about it, post a message in the comments or on the Dr. Film Facebook page.)

So how does this end?  Who will make the print?  Will it be Largo or Felix Leiter?  Will the print be finished in time for the Syracuse Cinefest?  Does George Kaplan exist? Will Kongo appear on his network or another one, and what of the fate of the mysterious Dr. Film?  Will James Bond be able to rescue the secret formula from the clutches of… oh, wait.

I really have no idea how this will end.  A lot of this is out of my hands.  I can only tell you that if it follows the pattern we’ve had so far, it will be dramatic, twisty, and unpredictable.  Welcome to my world.

Followup: Don’t miss continuing adventures as this plot continues to thicken.  Here is the next article in the series: Welcome to Brazil, Mr. Bond!

Ten Questions with Bob Furmanek

Since the Dr. Film blog is very pro-preservation, I thought I’d highlight some people who are doing preservation work.  It saves me work on writing blogs (yay), and it gets some publicity to people who are fighting the good fight for preservation.

I’ve got several feelers out for people in the biz, but this will be our first one.

Mr. Furmanek poses with heavy 35mm reels and a Simplex XL.

 Q1.  I know you have worked with Jerry Lewis on some of his films. We all know Jerry as a philanthropist and a comedian.  Can you tell us a little about what you’ve done with Jerry and how Jerry feels about film preservation?

I began working for Jerry in 1984 and worked for several years as his personal archivist. He owned a huge warehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood that contained material dating back to the 1940’s, including home movies, scrapbooks, photo albums, recordings, transcriptions, kinescopes, etc. It was my responsibility to identify and catalog all of the material. It took two years to get the job done.

He is very supportive of film preservation and has often expressed  his concern over the deterioration of important materials. He has lent his name and support to several projects that I’ve worked on over the years, including the restoration of a 1928 Loew’s movie palace. I know that he has donated some of his vast collection to both the UCLA Archive and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Q2. You recently did a show at George Eastman House showcasing some of your 3D collection.  Can you tell us about that?

Jack Theakston and I were asked to present a program on the history of 3-D motion pictures at the Dryden Theater and it was a great thrill. I had never been to the George Eastman House before this event and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I brought the only known polarized 3-D print of Robot Monster and the audience loved it. They have a very conscientious staff and I look forward to presenting more 3-D programs at the Dryden Theater in the future.

Q3.  Tell us a little more about your 3D work.  You’ve really done a lot to preserve 3D over the years.

Thank you Eric, that’s very kind. I began my work over 30 years ago when I discovered that the studios and copyright holders were not being very proactive in preserving their 3-D holdings. Thankfully, the situation has gotten better at most of the studios. Most recently, we were able to insure preservation of the science-fiction film Gog and that was very gratifying.

The full story of the Archive’s history is on our website at http://www.3dfilmarchive.com/home/history-of-the-archive

Q4.  I recently heard about your quest to bring some 3D Blu-rays out to the market.  Can you tell us about that and how we might be able to help that happen?

We recently provided important research materials to both Warner Bros. and NBC Universal on their 3-D holdings. Thanks to our documentation, both Dial M for Murder and Creature from the Black Lagoon were mastered in their director-intended aspect ratio. It’s the first time both films have been presented in widescreen since the original theatrical release.  Viewers will no longer see the scissors pre-set device on Anthony Dawson’s back or the telephone pole in the upper reaches of the Amazon which were both visible in the open-matte versions. It’s very important to honor the director’s creative vision.

So far as how you can help, my best recommendation is to support the initial two Golden Age 3-D releases on Blu-ray. Dial M is available as a stand-alone release and Creature can be purchased in the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection Blu-ray set. It’s also available as a single disc, region free disc in the UK. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Creature-Black-Lagoon-Blu-ray-Region/dp/B008LSAQPW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1350684816&sr=8-1

If these titles perform well, it will encourage the studios to dig deeper for other vintage 3-D material. There were fifty 3-D features produced between 1952 – 1955 so there’s a lot of prime stereoscopic material still buried in the vaults.

Q5. I know you’re a big fan of a really short-lived color process called Super Cinecolor.  We’re all geeks here.  Tell us about that and why Super Cinecolor is cool.

My interest began around 40 years ago. As a fan of Abbott and Costello, it always bothered me when their two Super Cinecolor features (Jack and the Beanstalk, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd) were shown on television in black and white. I eventually tracked down a 35mm print of Beanstalk in the mid-1970’s from an old time distributor in Baltimore, Robert T. Marhanke. I’ll never forget how vivid the colors looked on that 1952 print and it encouraged me to learn more about the process. When seen in an original 35mm print, the process has a very unique look with neon blues and deep, vivid reds which lend itself well to costume films and science-fiction titles. Some of my favorites are The Highwayman, Invaders from Mars and The Magic Carpet.

Because of the unique aspect of the double emulsion stock, it’s very difficult to accurately transfer Cinecolor materials in telecine. When I produced Special Edition laser discs of Beanstalk and Bela Lugosi’s Scared to Death (in two color Cinecolor) I was very careful to replicate the vibrant and somewhat unnatural hues found on the original 35mm prints.

Q6. You were THE GUY who rediscovered the missing color footage for the Star Trek episode “The Cage.”  I know it’s a little asterisk in your career, but it was really important for a lot of Star Trek geeks.  How did that happen and how close was that to being tossed out?

I found the footage in a vault with other negatives, IP’s [Interpositives] and fine grains. The vault was full of material from long-closed accounts and the film would have eventually been destroyed. It was not labeled and was lying on the floor under the bottom rack of a shelf. When I pried open the rusty can, there was a roll of color 35mm negative. I un-spooled the first few feet and when I saw the Enterprise, I realized that I had found something very special. This was around 1987 and Paramount had just released the pilot on home video using color footage from “The Menagerie” with the trims inserted from a 16mm black and white work print. When I inspected the footage, I found that it contained all of the trims removed in editing the two part episode. We contacted Gene Roddenberry’s office at Paramount and made arrangements to return the one-of-a-kind film directly to him.

Q7. Most collectors have a holy grail of collecting, something that they hope might be out there but they haven’t found yet.  Do you have something like that?

Yes, I would love to find the last missing Lippert 3-D short, Bandit Island with Lon Chaney. It had a limited 3-D release in both polarized and anaglyphic versions in the fall of 1953. One side survives in the 1954 feature The Big Chase but I would love to find the missing side. I tracked down all of the lab records and the 35mm materials were last accounted for in 1954. The only hope for its survival might be a 35mm release print in private hands.

Q8. You’ve long been an advocate of good, strong 35mm projection.  With the advent of good digital projection, do you still feel as strongly about 35mm?

I certainly do. Digital has a clean but somewhat unnatural look to me, especially if it’s been tweaked and scrubbed clean of natural film grain. Plus, there is something special about watching an original 35mm print that was screened theatrically when a film was first released. I often wonder how many thousands of people sat in a theater watching this very same print for the first time on the big screen.

Q9. I seem to recall that you were once working on a restoration of another short-lived process called Perspecta.  Tell us about Perspecta and why that was interesting.  Can you give us a short list of important titles that were released in Perspecta?

I was very good friends with the late Bob Eberenz, the gentleman that worked with Robert Fine in developing the system for MGM. Bob had restored a 1954 Fairchild integrator for me and hearing those films with the original panning and gain control was quite a surprise. Even though it’s still a mono signal, the effect of fullness and left/center/right separation could be very convincing.

I presented an all-Perspecta show on April 26, 2002 at a 1928 movie palace on a fifty-foot screen. We ran Forbidden Planet plus MGM shorts, cartoons and a promo reel. The Fine and Eberenz families were in the audience and it was a very special evening. After the show, I had people tell me how convincing the Perspecta sounded when spread across that big screen.

About ten years ago, Bob and I approached several studios and offered to preserve their Perspecta tracks to a new master so they could be utilized for home video. Unfortunately, none were interested.

Some of the noteworthy films in Perspecta include High Society, Bad Day at Black Rock, This Island Earth, Away All Boats, White Christmas, To Catch a Thief, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, East of Eden and The Barefoot Contessa.

10.  I’ve been asked questions by ignorant reporters all my life.  This is the question I always want to give people: What’s the most important question that I should have asked you but didn’t?  Once you tell me that, please answer that question!

Oh, I don’t know, how about asking if I’ve had any regrets in doing this work?

To that question I will answer, absolutely. Everybody makes mistakes and I’ve made some doozies. But all in all, I’m proud of what’s been accomplished. There’s a renewed and growing interest now in Golden Age 3-D and I’d like to think in a small way, I’ve played a part in that revival. With the technical availability now to master the original left/right elements in HD and align and correct any registration issues, we can truly make these films look better than ever before. That presents a very exciting opportunity to restore and preserve the filmmakers original stereoscopic vision.  I hope to have an ongoing involvement in bringing vintage 3-D material to Blu-ray.

I’ve had a great time chatting with you Eric, thank you so much for your interest in my work.

Sammy and Me

When I saw that the Classic TV Blog Association was having a blogathon about horror movie hosts, I knew I would have to get involved.  The whole reason this blog exists is because of a horror movie host.

Let me transport you to a long-ago time in the early 1970s.  TV stations stopped broadcasting at 2 or 3 in the morning.  Cable TV was almost unheard of.  Infomercials did not exist.  In a big market, there were maybe 5 or 6 stations that you could watch.  In the evening, after the news, you could either watch Johnny Carson or an old movie.  That’s about all there was.

In those days, we didn’t have the cultural illiteracy about old films that we have today.  Films were literally suffused into the air.  We saw them all the time.  It was nothing to see a film 30 or 40 years old, even in prime time.  Black and white?  No problem.  We knew the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Boris Karloff.

Since films were so commonplace, there was some need for brand recognition.  In the 50s, when Screen Gems released the first package of Shock Theater to television stations, someone hit on the bright idea of having a horror film host.  I don’t know who it was.  Someone will tell you it was Vampira, others will say it was someone else.  It doesn’t really matter.

By the 1960s, almost every market had one.  In Indianapolis, my home town, it was Sammy Terry.  (You get the joke?  It’s a pun on “cemetery.”  OK, subtle it isn’t.)  By the mid-70s, most of these had died out, but a few survived.  Elvira and Svengoolie are two of the more known ones that have made it all these years.

Sammy Terry worked for WTTV, our local independent station.  WTTV was something of an anomaly.  It was technically a Bloomington station (about an hour south of Indianapolis), but they sneaked the transmitter northward to hit Indy.  That could be the subject of a blog entry in itself.  WTTV’s transmitter never worked quite right.  There was always snow in the picture, in a predictable pattern.  As a kid, I always suspected that it was my dad’s makeshift antenna that didn’t work, but when we got cable, I noticed that WTTV still didn’t come in quite right!

In those days, a TV section came every week in the local newspaper.  It was important.  TV wasn’t endlessly repeated, and there was no way to record it to watch later.  If a movie or a show came on that you wanted to see, you’d have to schedule your life around it.  WTTV, lacking both ratings and network affiliation, was like a window into the past, using outdated equipment and techniques well after the other stations had moved on.

One day, I was scanning that section and I saw that Sammy Terry was running the 1931 Frankenstein with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff.  Now, in those days they marked all the black and white shows with a B/W sign.  Just why they did it, I didn’t know, but at least you knew if a movie was black and white or color.

I noticed that Frankenstein was not listed as a black and white program!  Could it be?  Did they even have color film in 1931?  I had no idea.  The whole concept fascinated me.  Luckily, I had someone to ask.

My grandmother was staying with us at the time.  She was profoundly overweight, in ill health, and she had cataracts that needed surgery.  In those days, cataract surgery was a big deal.  You had the surgery and it took 6 weeks to recover, and there were all sorts of problems with it.  Today you’re in and out and stapled in half an hour.

Grandma was not able to live by herself (which she normally did) during the recovery period.  I knew if anyone would know about color films of the time, she would.  She and I were really the only people in the family interested in the arts and movies.   Grandma loved the movies.

She’d seen Frankenstein, but she couldn’t remember if it was in color.  I asked her if it could have been in color.  She said it was possible, because there were some early color processes at the time, but she didn’t remember.

Well, that was all I needed.  I went to ask my mom if I could stay up and watch Frankenstein that weekend.

Well, mom was harried.  She was under a lot of stress taking care of grandma, and she did one of her typical stall tactics.  “Well see,” she said.  “If you behave.”

This is code for NO.

In all honesty, I can understand where she was coming from.  It was on late, and she didn’t want to deal with all that hassle, and worse yet, I was a sensitive kid who scared easily.  The idea of me staying up late was ridiculous.  She knew I’d have a fit if she outright said no, so she tried to stall me.

It didn’t work.

I behaved myself admirably all week.  I wasn’t going to give her an out.  I was planning to shove it back in her face on Friday night.  And that didn’t work either.

“Eric, you have to go to bed.  It’s late, and I don’t want you staying up that late.  You’ve never done it before.”

“You said I could if I behave, and I did.”

I knew the battle was lost, but intervention was around the corner in the form of my grandmother.

“Sister,” she said (she often called mom “sister” because she is part of a set of twins.) “I heard you tell Eric if he behaved that he’d get to stay up.  He’s been talking about this all week.  You should let him see it.”

“Mother,” countered my own mother, “I need to get to bed.  I can’t stay up with him and watch it.”

“That’s fine,” Grandma said.  “I’ll stay up with him.”

Remember, I said that grandma was the only other person in the family who really “got” movies.  That was great.

Mom reluctantly agreed, laid a lot of ground rules, but the hour was late and she was tired.  She didn’t have the energy to fight.  HAHA!  It was going to work.

Grandma sat on our green couch and cautioned me that if I got overly upset about this then she’d send me off to bed and that would be it.  She folded her hands over her giant belly and waited for the movie to start.

I think I had seen parts of the Sammy Terry intro before, because it looked a little familiar.  Sammy wore a cowl and was made up with greasepaint, looking a bit like Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Played by local performer Bob Carter, there was always something avuncular and silly about Sammy, and he didn’t scare me at all.

I still remember this after all these years.  I’d worked myself into a tizzy about seeing this, wondering if it could actually be color.  I knew the time was nigh.  Sammy (or someone) had fashioned a poster for Frankenstein, done very cheesily in a hand-drawn way.  At the bottom someone had penciled in this tag line: “In Horro-Color!”

WOW!  Could it be?

It was my first Sammy Terry intro and I just wished he’d shut up and run the movie.  I don’t think my grandmother even lasted through the first 10 minutes of the show.  By the time the film started, she was gently snoring, with her hands still folded in front of her.

Well, as you probably know, the film was in black and white after all. (Of course, this sparked a lasting level of curiosity in me, because I have a long demonstration about the history of color in the movies that’s one of my most popular shows.)  I eagerly sat through the movie, color or not.  I was delighted.  The film had a weird rustic feel that I found to be really cool.  I sat quietly through the end of the picture, woke grandma up, and we both went to bed.

She created a monster.

I was hooked.  I wanted to keep watching Sammy Terry and see more of those films.  I had to.  Grandma gamely stayed with me on most of them, still usually falling asleep.  She had one eye done, 6 weeks recovery, and another eye, 6 more weeks recovery.  By that time, I was a hopeless addict.  She went home, but I kept watching Sammy.

I discovered that my parents didn’t care too much as long as I didn’t make a lot of noise to wake them up.

I discovered that the local bookstore had a new book by film historian Denis Gifford that gave a great history of these movies.  Mom had picked it out, and she had it wrapped “From Grandma” for Christmas that year.  I recently found the 8mm home movie of that Christmas, showing me unwrapping the present.  I still have the book.

That’s me (on the left) with my grandmother and sister, Christmas 1973

I seldom missed Sammy Terry, and I went on to catch the Saturday night offering on WTTV, which was called Science Fiction Theater.  In the summertime, WTTV had another film host showing Summer Film Festival which consisted of more mainstream films.  I loved it too.  WISH Channel 8 had host Dave Smith with another show called When Movies Were Movies.  I loved it too.

It got so that in the summer I was up until 3am most every night.

Sammy was still a special favorite.  I loved his silly jokes and weird introductions, his hairy spider (named George) who interrupted the proceedings periodically.  I even loved the stupid gaffes that we’d never see today.  The Sunday paper listed one film as Sammy’s show for the week, but the Friday paper listed another film.  That night, Sammy’s intros were for the film in the Sunday paper, but they ran the film listed in the Friday paper!  OOPS.

My grandmother died in 1975.  She was a special woman and I miss her to this very day.

WTTV canceled Sammy Terry in about 1976.  I was outraged.  I started a petition to put him back on the air.  But the times had changed and they didn’t want to go back.

They finally relented and brought him back in the early 80s.  The film package wasn’t as good as it had been, but it was still fun to see Sammy back again.  There were fewer Karloff and Lugosi pictures and more gut-laden Hammer films.

Then, in the mid-80s the world changed again.  When cable became widespread, the studios discovered that they could make more money from a cable film showing than from the local stations, so they pulled all the old films.  As historian Jim Neibaur has said, it was like they decided to make one station the repository for all the old films and they filled the rest with infomercials.

Sammy Terry was gone.  Bob Carter continued to play the character at live shows and in the occasional special.  I met him a few times.  He ran a music store close to where I lived.  Seemed like a nice guy, but it was never more than a passing encounter.

Mr. Carter has been in ill health for the past few years, so he has not been so active.  His son is carrying on the Sammy Terry tradition.  I haven’t seen him yet, but I wish him well.

Of course, I started to miss that late-night experience I had so loved.  I collected videotapes of my favorite movies.  Then 16mm film.  Then 35mm film.

I’m not on TV (not yet, at least), but I carry film projectors to run film shows wherever I’m wanted.   I got to run a movie with WTTV’s cartoon show host, Cowboy Bob, and WFBM’s Three Stooges host, Harlow Hickenlooper.  It was freezing cold, and with the two of them there, including me and an assistant, I think we had 6 people in the audience.  Oh, well.  I had fun anyway.

And that still doesn’t bring the story to a close.

One of the things that dogs me about new technology is how we throw out the whole of the old to embrace the new.  We often don’t fully appreciate the magic of what we had until it’s gone.

The old horror hosts and the movie hosts in general helped us appreciate films made before we were born.  It was just part of who we were.  Now, all you have to do is channel hop over Turner Classic Movies and you’ll never see them at all.

It’s no disrespect to Robert Osborne or Leonard Maltin to say that they’re not the same as the guys from the old days.  They are preaching to the converted.  You don’t watch them unless you specifically want to see an old film.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes we look at old films as either obsolete relics or unapproachable HIGH ART.

There is little appreciation for film as an art form today.  That’s why I created Dr. Film.  It’s a deliberate throwback to the old hosted-film format.  Dr. Film isn’t specifically for horror films, although we will show them. It’s got the poverty-induced sets and goofy jokes that all the hosted-film shows had.

What’s different about Dr. Film is that its purpose is to subtly educate (and I hope it is very subtle).  I hope it’s just strange enough to catch an errant viewer asking, “What the heck is THIS?” before he flips the remote one more time.

No, this doesn’t mean I regard the new Sammy Terry as competition, because he’s not doing the same thing.  Nor do I regard Svengoolie or Elvira as competition.  I embrace them all (I’d particularly like to embrace Elvira in that tight dress, but I digress.)

I always think that a rising tide floats all boats.  And I think that the movie host is something we’ve lost and that needs to return.  I think we all miss them, even if we don’t know it.

Dr. Film isn’t really competition for anyone, because the show hasn’t made it to the airwaves.  In all honesty, it probably never will.  But I’m still in there trying, because I’m trying to save a part of our past that I miss.

Instead of tilting at windmills, I’m saving film.  I might just as well be trying to save Fizzies, Burger Chef, and handmade chocolate sodas.  Hey, maybe it’s a lost cause, but someone has to do it.

Taking the Picture No One Likes

I’m bad at marketing.  I’ll be the first person to tell you that.  I can fix your computer, but I couldn’t convince you to buy one.  Some people are just built that way.

When I shot the pilot episode for Dr. Film, I thought that people would be jazzed about it, that they’d put it in the DVD player, watch it, read the material I sent, and we’d have a deal.

I sent it everywhere I could find an address.  I had some printed material that I’d prepared explaining what the show was.  I thought it was fine.

Of course, no one responded.  Not one.  They didn’t even say that they didn’t like the show.  I then discovered a fundamental truth of life (although I knew it before, it was really hammered home):

People will flock around to tell you what’s wrong with a failed project, but while you’re working on it, they say nothing.

My friends agreed that I’d screwed up by not having a slick cover color folder for the show.  Then the consensus was that no one would read all the material I sent, so it needed to be cut down.

But then the last part was that I needed to spiff it up with ART!  I was told that I needed to push the idea that we’re dealing with classic film!  Emphasize the characters!  Emphasize the interaction!  In the show, they’re never in the same shot!  Have them together!

Wow.  All great ideas.  I’d never thought of them.  Of course, no one thought to tell me this before I sent all the material to all the TV stations.

I couldn’t hire an artist.  Artists need to eat three times a day, so they can’t work for free.  And since I didn’t have any money to give them, hiring an artist was out, out, out.

OK, that’s fine, say I.  I have some experience in this.  I may not be the greatest artist in the world, but I think I can get the job done.  Hmm, the show’s characters interacting.  In the same shot.  Emphasizing film.

There’s another problem. In the show, Dr. Film and Anamorphia never are in the same shot for very practical reasons: a) I only had one camera and b) Anamorphia is an elaborate (not digital) special effect.  Dr. Film isn’t a special effect at all, and so they can’t be in the same shot together.

I got an inspired idea.  Anamorphia is so named because she’s anamorphic: she’s squeezed horizontally, like someone who survived an Edgar Allan Poe torture, unlike Glory, who plays her.  Just for one shot, I knew I could get them together, but only if I lined them up just right.

I’d give Glory an extra large reel of 35mm film, with a diameter twice as large as a regular reel.  Then, I’d shoot her dead on straight ahead, and I’d be standing next to her.  The math would work out so I could squeeze her in a photo program and it would make the wide reel look like a regular one!

How would they interact?  Well, in the show, the characters are always bickering about how long-winded and boring he is about film.  She’s gotten frustrated with his verbose habits and wraps him in the film he’s been talking about too much. He’s angry, she’s angry, that’s consistent, PERFECT.

By this time, it had been over a year since we’d shot the show.  But that’s OK, we thought, no one saw it in the first place, so we can still send it out with the new slick paper brochure!  I needed help, because I couldn’t shoot it myself: I’m actually in the shot.  I talked to my sister about it.

ACK. Glory is shorter than I am, and my sister is shorter than I am.  My sister had the idea of shooting outside to make sure we could get lots of light.  That made harsh unflattering shadows, but there was a worse problem.  Due to the widely varying heights, nothing lined up, and I looked like a giant slug being wound up by a tiny silkworm.  It was ridiculous.

Glory complained that the reel I’d found for her was actually full of real film!  This was a problem because a 3000’ reel with film on it is heavy, and she had to hold it very still, and straight horizontally, to get the shots.  Not a good idea.  She was pretty sore by the end of the shoot, and I don’t blame her.  Especially since the pictures were utterly unusable.

Upon reflection, I remembered that Glory (a historian) had just written a National Register nomination for a building with a large stage.  If we could use it, then we could stand on the stage, and have a photographer stand on the main floor, thereby solving the height issues.

I also decided I’d be seated, which helped equalize the height differential.  I found an empty reel, and that made it a little easier for her.  The building owners allowed us to use the stage for a few hours.  I brought in lights, tripods, everything.

It was HOT!  The lights were in my face all the time, and I was wrapped in disintegrating film.  I used a vinegary print of From Russia With Love so I wouldn’t ruin good film!  It smelled terrible, and as I was sweating, it dripped dye on me.  Wonderful.

We spent about 2 hours shooting.  My friend Greg shot the pictures this time.  (My sister couldn’t get off work!)  Greg tried really hard, but 99% of the pictures were junk.  There was one picture in the whole bunch that looked OK.  It was very dark, even with all the light we had pouring on us.  It was just a hard picture to shoot.

I’m not going to show all the raw pictures, because I’d had Glory stand closer to the camera (to keep me from overwhelming the shot).  This caused some focus issues and makes her look unusually large in the raw image.

I worked on equalizing the exposure and applied the anamorphic factor, and got this:

Suddenly, voila, we have art!  Dr. Film and Anamorphia in the same shot!  I used the picture for the new brochure and spruced it up.  I thought it looked pretty good.  We ran it by some design people.  They liked it.  I cut the text down to 8 pages, with lots of color pictures.

Guess what?  This will surprise you.  No response.  Apparently no one even bothered to look at it.

Discouraged?  You bet.  I was about ready to give up on the project.  We’d thrown time and money at it, and no one cared at all.  We weren’t even interesting enough to warrant a polite, “HEY! Buzz off, willya?”

But Dr. Film also seems to be The Project That Never Dies.  There are always a few people who have been unfailingly encouraging, to the point that some people are in my face saying, “It’s a great idea!  Don’t give up on this show!”  (I’ve never actually been sure why this is, but it seems to be.  Most of the rest of the world looks at Dr. Film with a cold indifference.)

I installed a blog on the web page, the one you’re reading now, updated the site, and went from there.  The blog, as you can see, has been a rip-roaring success, attracting email from Viagra shippers the world over.  With no real web traffic and only a tepid response to the blog, I was ready to shut the project down again.

Several others suggested that Dr. Film was too long.  The feeling was that we needed cut it down and make it in 30 minutes, based on the attention span of modern audiences.  This is where I draw the line.  I have a two-fold argument with this: a) there are so many interesting movies out there that don’t get shown that I hate to CUT them to something shorter.  b) A 30-minute show is actually more work than a two-hour show!  Why?  Well, I have to go through more material, cherry-pick, and edit.  More narration to explain what’s missing.  More shooting.  More work.

The whole idea of Dr. Film has always been to make an economical show that appeals to an admittedly small demographic.  Since a 30-minute show means more time, it also means I’d have to charge more money, which I think is more of an impediment than the difficulty in clearing a two-hour slot.

Glory and I talked to publicity people and they told us that there was probably no hope for Dr. Film since no one responded.  Once again, I was ready to shut the project down and move on to other things.

Remember I said Dr. Film just never seems to die?  Well, I had an idea.  You see, I don’t believe anyone who matters has ever watched the show and given it any sort of chance.    I have a feeling that it’s off the beaten path, consequently under the radar.  I don’t think it mattered what sort of picture we had.

I realize that Dr. Film is an unconventional project.  I know that there is a niche market, but we have to reach it.  My idea was to draw upon on word-of-mouth support and an internet community.  If we have a vibrant Facebook group, a bunch of advocates for the show, a successful blog, then people have to notice it.  Someone floated the idea that “Support Dr. Film!” t-shirts would be a great idea.  A way to build the community feeling.

That’s fine, I thought!  I’ve got art for shirts!  We’re set!  I’d designed a shirt for a convention showing, and I still had the files!

Then, just as I was ready to submit the design, a couple of people, all generally supporters of the show, told me how much they hated the shirt.

WHAT?

They hated that same picture I’d literally sweat over for hours.  And hate was the word.  It was repulsive.  One guy told me he’d never wear the shirt because it looked like a bondage scene to him.

I have to tell you that I never thought of this.  Knowing the characters, and knowing that there is not a spark of anything between them, it never occurred to me.  Not once.

OK, so what should we have instead?  This is where I get frustrated.  Once again, people can’t seem to tell you what they like.  It’s the old joke, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like!”

Some ideas were in direct contradiction to other ones.  I wanted to scream.  Actually, I did scream.  I thought we were about done, and suddenly, I was back at square one.  I often marvel about how I’ve come this far on Dr. Film with nothing to show for it!

Ernie Kovacs once called Edie Adams and told her that the show opening wasn’t working, and he didn’t know why.  He was joking about being tired and working overtime.  Edie told him that the audience didn’t care how tired they were or how hard they worked.  They only cared whether the show was funny or not.

Edie was right. It makes no difference how we got to the t-shirt design and how we took The Picture That No One Likes!  It only matters that we came up with a design that people seem to like.  On the other hand, it’s a great story and it makes a great blog entry!

You note I’ve not spoken about what I thought personally?  Well, I don’t like the new design (even though I did it.)  I like the other one better.  I don’t think there’s enough art in this one.

But, clearly, I have no idea what I’m talking about!

PS: I haven’t had a chance to take redo the art for the brochure, so you can still see it here.

 

Why I’m Just Mean

Many years ago, a friend of mine disciplined his 5-year-old girl.  She reacted with disgust at not being able to do whatever she had put her mind to doing.  As one might expect with a 5-year-old, tears were immediately forthcoming and she burst out with a loud pronouncement:  “You’re just mean!”

I thought of that again the other day when I got involved in an argument on archive.org.  It was only a third-hand argument, and, frankly, I can’t do anything about it, but it points up a problem that I keep encountering, and it’s one that makes me “just mean.”

I’ve long hated the kind of collector who collects things just so other people can’t have them.  I particularly believe that film is an art form that depends on being served up socially, and someone who squirrels away prints just so no one else can see them is, I think, somewhat messed up.  This is why I do every thing I can to ensure that films I have are accessible to people.

That’s another problem.  I have a lot of films that are in “copyright hell” that no one can legally watch, and some of them are languishing with no one to show them or even (in a few cases) preserve them.  I keep these prints.  Others may be public domain but of a nature that no one will ever want to see them.  These include bad pictures, shorts of an odd length with no stars in them, and sometimes even films that are of only historic/academic interest.

I keep these prints, too.  I hope someone wants to see them someday. But I’m crazy.  You knew that.  I keep these prints and I mend them, resprocket them, throw camphor in with them, patch them, put them on new reels, etc.  It takes money.  And, as you all know, I am a film professional, which means that I make a “living” (not much of one, hence the quotes) from doing film shows, presentations, and lectures.

Film exhibition is a strange thing.  Rare films doubly so.  There may be an area that really wants to see a particular film and has wanted to for years, but they just can’t seem to find it.  I got a job recently in Vevay, IN playing a print of The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1935) just because the author of the book came from that same town.  It didn’t matter that the film had virtually nothing to do with the book.  They wanted to see it.

That film is available freely on archive.org, which is fine, since it’s in the public domain, and it had an impact on how many people showed up.  Despite the fact that I had a nice print, showed a cartoon, and showed it on a big screen, it was “contaminated” by being free on archive.org.  Only 15 or so people showed up.  It’s sad.  (I could do a whole separate posting on how theatrical exhibition is being killed by inferior material shown at home, but that’s for another time.)

I have to face the fact that I can put on a better, nicer, sharper show than archive.org can put on, but the fact that I have to charge in order to keep solvent is a hindrance to me.  That’s why I rely on a few profitable films that keep me floating above water.

These are films that are generally not very available, in the public domain, and have some niche market for them.  These are films that I run over and over again.  I refer to them as “the pantheon.”  They pay the bills for the other, less marketable, films in my collection.

Alas, I have to guard these films jealously.  No one seems to care that I lavished time, care, and hours of work into preserving some of these films.  All they care about is seeing it free on archive.org.  Many years ago, I was also involved with a video company that specialized in getting good copies of public domain titles into the marketplace.

I learned my lesson on that one, too.  Ever buy material from Alpha Video?  Well, probably 1/3 of their catalog is material that got copied from my collection.  Sure, it’s public domain, but my copies were and are nicer.  I was charging $10-$15 for copies, and they’d make DVDs blasted (poorly) off VHS copies of copies and throw them at Wal-Mart for $1.  At the time, I couldn’t even buy blanks for that price.  The power of cheap blew away the power of better quality.  Ack.

So, in response, I started doing live film shows.  These are infinitely more satisfying, because they’re with an audience, you can see the quality difference, etc.  Amazingly, if you factor in costs of media, I make more money from 2-3 successful film shows than I did in a year of selling video copies of the same film.  Extra points: as I accrue more rare titles, Alpha doesn’t get them.  I can still show them.  I get eating money.  Yay.

At this point, a lot of people will already chime in and claim that I’m “just mean” for not putting these on video.  A couple of years ago, a woman who called me worse than that for not releasing a film with questionable copyright on video.  Yes, I have the only copy, and no, no one wants to preserve it because of rights issues.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to break the law to make the film available.

I also point out that I am more than happy to rent out films from my collection, to do backyard parties or film shows, etc.  I have never told anyone to buzz off if their request was legal.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to shoot myself in the foot by putting it on video.

A while back, there were 3 people who asked me for a copy of a particularly rare film.  I won’t go into specifics, because that will draw attention to that title, and not to my overall point.  These people had some good reasons that they could use a copy.  I made some, and asked them not to make copies of that title.  I nicely explained that doing shows of this film helps keep me preserving others.  They all politely agreed.

So, then, it was a great surprise to me to find that someone had uploaded it for free use on archive.org.  It was from my own transfer and my print.  I recognized my handiwork.  It was also 2-3 generations removed from what I’d done, so yet again a degraded copy is competing in the marketplace with something I have in a better copy.

I carped about it, and said that, once again, I’m too nice.  I should tell people to buzz off when they want video copies.   It’s already had an impact: I used to get 4-5 shows on this title per year, and I’ve only had one (non-paying) in the last year.  I just can’t compete with free.

A friend of mine leaped to my defense and posted a shame-on-you response on archive.org.  The vitriol that this caused amazed me:

“There is no copyright on this movie. No one owns it. No one has the right to keep others from watching it.

“Anyone who has a digital copy can—and should—share it with others.

“XXXXXXX is the one who should be ashamed for viciously and mindlessly attacking the uploader.

“Another who should be ashamed is XXXXXXX’s friend, who attempted to keep this film out of the hands of the public, and who, by so doing, increased the likelihood that the film would be lost forever.”

WHAT??????????  ARE YOU KIDDING ME????????  Well, that caused me to have Popeye syndrome:  “I’ve had all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more.”

I wrote this in response:

“Uploading low-resolution copies of material at archive.org is not a way of preserving films. Neither is the practice of uploading books a replacement for the books themselves. It may be useful, but it’s not a preservation. I intend no slam at the wonderful service archive.org is. Google isn’t a replacement for librarians, either.

“(the film in question) is preserved at The Library of Congress and a pristine 35mm print exists that anyone can rent out. The original camera negative survives. It is not in danger of going away. There are two senses of the word ‘own’ here: in one sense I do not own the intellectual rights to these films, because they have expired rights. In another sense, I may in fact own the best surviving prints of them.

“I need prove to no one that I stand for preservation and availability of films. I have donated films to every major archive, and I’m an archive source for TV and DVD. Many films from my collection have already been bootlegged and appear here for free, often in embarrassingly poor copies. I was not provided any remuneration for the hundreds of hours I put in preserving these films, transferring them, and making them projectable. Many of these are films that I preserved myself and would not have been available had I not rescued them.

“The vast majority of films in my collection are not marketable and few people care enough to see them… When a film is free on the internet, it drastically cuts down the audience that will pay to see it projected theatrically..

“I’d be happy to make more films available on archive.org, and even make good direct-from-film transfers of them. When someone comes up with a way for me to do so without compromising both my means of income and my ability to preserve films, I’ll do it. The gas man needs to be paid, even if he may agree that what I do is cool and worthwhile.

“Perhaps you still feel that I should be ashamed, but I am not, because I’ve done more for film preservation and availability than most people you will ever meet.”

You’ll note that I did not resort to profanity even once.  I’ll admit I sure thought about it.

I’ll close with some more thoughts here.  I love old films, and I love showing them.  I preserve material that no archive and few collectors care about.  I also know that I will lose all control and all income from them once they’re on the internet.  I further understand that I can only be in so many places at once doing shows.

The whole idea of the Dr. Film show is to let me do the same sorts of things that I do in live shows, but to share them with a wider audience.  I fully realize that they’ll be bootlegged nine ways from Sunday all over the internet once they air, but at least I can be paid once for my work before it gets shared all over the net.

You want to strike a blow for film preservation and availability?  Help me get Dr. Film on TV somewhere…anywhere. (Contact your favorite TV provider and send them our web page address!)  I guarantee you’ll see oddball films that you haven’t seen before, and usually from the best prints that survive.  Strike a blow against the third-rate free films and help me do it a little closer to “the right way.”

Still, if I come to your town, please show up anyway.  OK?