The Tipping-Point Teeter-Totter

In 2012, I was lucky enough to get to see Napoleon (1927) in a rare theatrical run in Oakland, Ca.  It was a wonderful experience that I’ll always treasure.  Even better, I got to have dinner with Kevin Brownlow, an unexpected benefit.  I had been struggling just to continue doing the work I was doing and, as often happens, was at the brink of giving up.  But I thought, hey, maybe this is all starting to work out.  I was excited.  And, as usual, something happened to bring me back down to earth.  A friend called me just before my plane left and told me his computer had crashed.  He wanted me to come right over and fix it.  I told him I couldn’t, because I wasn’t even in town.  I hate fixing broken computers.  It was my old job.  Maybe I had taken a step into the larger world, but I wasn’t there yet.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about a tipping point in his book where an idea starts to take off like wildfire.  The principle is that you add a little bit to it slowly and nothing happens, but suddenly, unpredictably, the whole thing goes viral.  I realize I’m taking Gladwell out of context, but then again he probably would take me out of context as well.  For years, I’ve been trying to get the idea of classic films to tip.  I’ve also been trying to tip the idea that I’m a viable person to do this kind of work.

And it does tip.  Except it tips backwards too.  I guess I’m right on the edge.

Now before we go on, let me warn you that this blog will be another in my series of blogs about how I’m trying to market what I do.  I know some of you hate these… it’s like a Meg episode of Family Guy.  So if you’re one of those, click past this one.  And before you ask, “Why are you writing about this stuff when you should be working on King of the Kongo?  Well, I am working on King of the Kongo even as we speak.  I’m rendering three reels of it in different programs! 

Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), WKRP’s head of cheesy, in-your-face marketing.

I never quite get the idea of marketing and I see those who are successful at it are much more ME ME ME LOOK AT ME than I can stand to be.  It just bugs me.  I think of Herb Tarlek on WKRP in Cincinnati.  If you don’t know that reference, stop now and watch a bunch of episodes.  It was a great show.  I’ll wait.

It’s occurred to me that I’m trying to sell a concept (older films) that’s tipping away from relevant while I’m trying to tip myself toward relevance.  I’d like to see both of those tip toward relevance, but what are ya gonna do?

There’s an increasing idea in society that movies and music are “free goods,” meaning that there’s an unlimited supply and we don’t have to pay for them.  Sorta like air is a free good.  We all need it, we all want it, but we don’t pay for it.  Movies are getting like that.  So the idea that I can introduce and discuss movies is rather like tuning an air guitar.  What’s the point?

This was brought home to me the other day when I got an email from a guy I often hire to do scores for me.  He’s a local fellow, a very good pianist, and he shows up on time.  All good things in my book.  He asked me what the run time on the 1925 Ben Hur was.

I told him I didn’t know off the top of my head.  He said that he needed to know in order to get an estimate on how much to charge a local non-profit organization.  He and I had run Little Orphant Annie there and he did a live score.  Except I didn’t know they were running Ben Hur.  They hadn’t told me.  They only wanted an accompanist.  I can imagine the staff meeting.

Lest you think I’m being cynical, I’ve actually been in those meetings before and many times I’ve heard the results reported to me.  These all end up in one of two ways:

ONE:

“Let’s hire Eric.”
“Eric’s films are making money!  Let’s do more!”
“Wow, we’d make even more money if we didn’t have to pay Eric!”

“Let’s download stuff from archive.org.”
“Oh, no one is showing up now.  I guess they are burned out on movies.”

“I guess movies don’t work here.”

TWO:

“Let’s hire Eric.”
“We hired Eric to run cheap films because we didn’t have any money.”

“Eric is bringing in crowds.”

“Wow!  Now we have money!  Let’s run popular stuff!”

“Eric specializes in classics and older stuff!”

“Who cares?  It’s Disney and Harry Potter from here out.”

The idea of showmanship, the idea of getting a print of something and running it on a projector, the idea of showing quality old films the right way is lost on these folks.  The problem here is that what they’re doing is ultimately self-defeating in either case.  People won’t support old films unless they look good, unless they can’t see them elsewhere, and unless someone gives them the inside scoop of what they’re seeing and what they’re looking for.

I’ve often said that if a movie is more than about 15 years old then you need to give it some context before you show it.  People just don’t get it.  And that’s what kills these shows.  I know people are cheap and they don’t see the value in what I add, and that’s fine, but what I’m doing is often what saves those shows.  I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but without that extra oomph, people are just going to stay home and download the film from archive.org for free.  They need something special to show up.

None of this is particularly new.  I’ve seen it for a long time.  I am only now slowly being seen as a film expert (one of the things that helped me do that is to quit doing projection-only jobs as much as I can… for whatever reason projectionists are seen as societal idiots!)

What is new is that this syndrome seems to be getting worse and that people are more blatant about ignoring me for doing shows.  They ask for “an old war horse picture that people know” and there are only so many times you can run Phantom of the Opera for Halloween.

It has gotten me cynical to the point of not really pursuing live shows much these days.  That’s too bad, because I enjoy doing them and I think the audiences agree.  It’s always the money people I have to hassle with.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I like to work with small non-profits.  I like to help get them going.  I like the chip-in can-do spirit that many of them have.  That’s a sword that cuts on both edges, though.  When I work for them for small cash, it tags me as a low-rent not-very-good act.  When I help them get successful, I’m left in the dust.  I’m remembering Ernie Kovacs’ dictum of “Charge them through the nose or else they won’t think you’re any good.”

And before you think that this is relentlessly negative, it’s not… because I said the balance is flipping (remember that?)  Some of you are probably aware that I’m doing a series of articles for the magazine Classic Images.  I have always liked CI, glad to support a place like this.

But it was funny… they approached me very carefully and asked me to write for them, as if I were some “superstar” in the film world.  It’s great to be considered that way, and I appreciated it, but I don’t take myself very seriously.  I thought, “Are you kidding?  My accountant laughs at me!”  But Classic Images was quite serious.  They’ve treated me respectfully.  I loved it since I’m so often given a brush off.  Later, another venue changed management and asked me if I would “consider” letting them premiere King of the Kongo at their theater.

Whoa!  This was the same place that a couple of years earlier had said, “Oh, yeah, if you want to run your boring old movies here, we can talk, maybe.”  I realized that somehow, somewhy, my reputation/awareness/brand recognition had suddenly changed.

I’ve been working on this very thing for years.  You see, you can’t just put yourself out there as a film expert.  People don’t care.  You have to be “known” as a film expert, and this is hard.  I always struggle with this, because, as I’ve said before, I’m the guy who likes to sit at the back of the party and eat ripe olives while talking to no one.  Alas, in order to be known, in order to actually get work, I can’t do that.  

And it’s paying off.  If I knew what I was doing right, I’d do more of it, but it’s happening.  It’s happening without me turning into Herb Tarlek, which I just can’t do.  I can’t tell you how exciting it is.  After being told NO consistently since 2004, it’s moved to “well, maybe,” and occasionally “hey, help us out!”  That’s real progress.  That doesn’t mean I still don’t get ignored a lot, but it’s gotten better.

I’m not exactly sure why this happened.  I’m not exactly sure when it happened.  It’s a great thing to see, because now when I talk to these places, I don’t sound desperate for a job.  And, in fact, although I can always use cash, I really need to get some of this work off my plate, so I’m not as anxious for a cheapie film job as I had been.

I think maybe it’s the work with King of the Kongo that’s putting me over the edge, although I’m not sure.  Little Orphant Annie should have. I thought it was a good restoration, and a fun film, but the nasty review by Movies Silently is killing it.  It’s the first one you see on IMDb.  (I keep hearing people tell me they didn’t want to see it because of this review.)  Well, I’m not sending her a review copy of Kongo, because next to it, Annie is Lawrence of Arabia.  My goal is not to release good or bad films.  My goal is to release stuff that’s been ignored and is hard to find.

So Kongo is getting me recognition, and I haven’t even released it.  I’m now employing 3 helpers with no money.  It’s a weird world, folks.  I’m an unknown success, a manager with no company, a businessman with no business, a label with only two releases, and a guy who has too much work to do but no money coming in.

What I do is a contradiction of a contradiction, and I realize that for what it is.  I know that no one else quite does what I do, and so it’s hard to quantify.  Shows?  Sure.  Restorations?  Yeah.  Articles?  OK.  I have so much work backed up here that it will take me years to get through it all.  King of the Kongo has proved to be so much of a challenge that it’s taken way longer than I would have anticipated.  But it’s an odd combination of a rare film and one that people want to see, so I guess it’s getting some interest.

I seem to be right at the tipping point, but it’s still back and forth.

Has this taught me anything?

Yes.  I don’t charge enough for small non-profits.

Yes, Virginia, I do see new films

One of the things I get asked a lot is this: “Don’t you ever watch NEW movies, you know, color, sound, made in the last ten years?”  Well, yes, I do.  You’ll note I have an aversion to superhero movies, so you won’t see any here.  Since I get this question a lot, here are some of my cranky opinions on movies made in the last 10 years:

The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy:

The Force Awakens: an uncredited remake of A New Hope.

The Last Jedi: A truly brave attempt to do something different with the franchise, with nice peppy writing and something less predictable than we are used to.  Naturally, everyone hated it but me.  Rian Johnson is someone to watch out for: talented.

The Rise of Skywalker: an uncredited remake of Return of the Jedi.

I was afraid that Disney would wimp out and do only easy stuff for mass audiences, shying away from real storytelling.  I was right.  They cloned the Emperor?  Gimme a break.

The Star Wars spinoff films:

Solo: A decent script, it’s too slow, and it’s one of the few films I’ve ever seen that I thought had lousy cinematography, so bad that it distracted from the film.  There, I said it.  Cancel me.

Rogue One: Well, I suppose it was OK, but I wouldn’t say it was fantastic or anything.  One wonders why the Death Star plans are stored in some crystal citadel and this universe has no technology to copy any files electronically.  Amazingly, they can send holograms, but they can’t send data.  Oh, and a huge thumbs down for rubber-plastic Peter Cushing, who looks nothing like Peter Cushing and sounds even less like him.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: I really wanted to like this.  I didn’t, but I really wanted to.  The problem isn’t that it’s bad.  The problem is that I liked it better when they called it Brazil, to paraphrase David Spade.  It’s the old “unreliable narrator” thing that Gilliam does so well, except he’s done it too much now.  Of note: Adam Driver should be in every film that’s poorly written (like this or the Star Wars films).  Driver has that ability, like Harrison Ford, to get some deep meaning out of ill-conceived dialogue.  He’s great in this.  The cast is actually almost all very good.  It’s just that the movie isn’t.  It’s beautiful, there’s a lot to look at and see, but in the end, it doesn’t do enough with the characters and it just doesn’t hold water.

In a World…  I get tagged on Facebook as the most racist, sexist, misogynist person who ever lived.  It’s not true, but it’s funny, so I go with it.  One of the reasons that I can prove it’s not true is that I loved this film.  Lake Bell directs and stars, and she does a masterful job.  It’s a cheap little indie film, but boy does it work.  In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle in that it simply presents its own reality and lets us draw our own conclusions.  It doesn’t try to drive home a message and instead gives the audience enough credit to think on its own (please note this Spike Lee.)  This film delves into the world of professional narrators, but it’s also Bell’s commentary on her own life.  This is an excellent picture.  I’m looking for Bell’s other film, but apparently it tanked and it’s not widely available.

Knives Out: This was a welcome break for me, because I’ve never been too keen on Daniel Craig as James Bond.  Craig doesn’t match the physicality of Bond in my opinion, so I always think I’m watching a James Bond knockoff.  In this film, I loved his performance.  He’s perfect.  This is a modern riff on “who killed the cranky old guy in the old spooky house.”  These have been done to death and they’re hard to do in a fresh way.  Director/writer Rian Johnson (hey, I just mentioned him earlier!) does a fantastic job with a wonderful cast.  This is one of my favorites of the last few years.

1917: I’m supposed to love this film.  Everyone complains about long-take subjective films like Lady in the Lake (which I loved) and Rope (which I liked).  This film doesn’t work for me.  It moves too fast and unflinchingly and the whole thing feels like a protracted gimmick.

Yesterday: I know a lot of people hated this one, but I liked it.  The central idea is that a guy wakes up after an accident to find that he’s the only one who remembers all of the songs by The Beatles.  The criticism is that a world without The Beatles would be even more different than it’s projected here, but that’s overthinking the premise.  They give no time at all as to why this event happens, because they want to focus on the events.  It’s funny, it’s poignant.  There’s a heartbreaking scene in which we see an elderly John Lennon painting by the seashore.  I was drawn to this because I am a longtime fan of Richard Curtis, the screenwriter (you’ll find I often watch a film more because of the screenwriter than the cast).  

The Farewell: Again, this was a wonderful story just giving us “here is my reality, here is what I am experiencing… you make your judgment.”  Wow.  This is ostensibly about a grandmother with end-stage lung cancer, but it’s really a story about clash between Chinese culture and American culture, about traditional Chinese culture and what it’s becoming, and it ends up being so thought-provoking that I can’t recommend it enough.  We think we understand China and what they’re doing.  We don’t.  Things are changing so fast there that I’m not even sure the Chinese understand it themselves.  The grandmother is not told about her condition because the family doesn’t want to upset her and cause her to give up the fight.  The American wing of the family thinks this is stupid and the Chinese wing wants to maintain tradition.  A coda: the real-life grandmother is still alive at this writing, but she now knows the story.

The Incredibles 2: A loving riff on 1960s films that works well.  Michael Giacchino’s “almost-John-Barry” score is a highlight.  He clearly loved Barry’s work, and I loved hearing the tribute.  The premise is a blast, the execution fun, and even though it’s a by-the-books “Save the Cat” sort of screenplay, I’ll give it a pass.  I liked the first one, too, but it’s a little older than 10 years.

Anomalisa: I’m a big fan of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.  This is a bizarre story, told in stop-motion with a sort of puppet.  Kaufman breaks screenwriting rules constantly, and I love him for it.  We’re never sure we actually like the protagonist and he never gets the “Save the Cat” standard “Howdy” moment.  But the cold alienation of being alone in a slick urban hotel… that’s portrayed so elegantly here.  The basic premise is that this guy is so out of it that everyone sounds and even looks mostly the same to him.  Then he meets Lisa, who has her own voice, different from all others. 

Bill and Ted Face the Music: OK, I have to admit that I loved the first two Bill and Ted movies and particularly the second film.  Any movie in which the heroes have to play a game against Death and they choose Twister is automatically three stars.  This sequel, almost 30 years after the last one, is welcome.  Again, this all comes down to screenwriting, and with Chris (son of Richard) Matheson and Ed Solomon at the helm, we’ve got a good one.  This hits all the right notes; it moves a little too fast because they want to squeeze all the old characters in it, but it’s not predictable, and seeing Death (William Sadler) return is worth the price of admission alone.  Sadler is one of those actors who should have been and still should be a bigger star than he is.  I could see him in some action films a la Liam Neeson.

Stan and Ollie: This is a movie with bad history, some questionable writing, and I’m still recommending it because the performances in it are so good that you just have to love it.  OK, maybe they didn’t nail the offscreen Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, but they sure nailed the onscreen versions of them.  Biopics are hard to do well, and this one is only partly a success, but enough of one that I say you should have fun with it.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Well, I really wanted to like this film, too.  Tarantino is kind of hit-and-miss for me.  There are a lot of things about this that I liked.  The performances are great.  The scenery looks and feels just like 1960s LA.  I’ll even take the fantasy that “this is the way I wish the Manson family and Sharon Tate had turned out.”  But this movie is too long.  I mean, it’s really, really, really, really too long.  And there’s some history in it that I just don’t go for, namely that “badass” Brad Pitt was able to hold his own against or even beat Bruce Lee.  Amazingly, Lee’s character is spot-on in looks and dialect, but asking us to believe he’d be challenged into a fight with the likes of Pitt’s character is just goofy.  (Lee wasn’t the kind of guy who would pick a fight or respond to the kind of bullying Pitt gave him.) Then there’s the 45-minute scene at the Manson ranch that seems to go on FOREVER, only to culminate with “Oh, hey, that’s Bruce Dern.”  Well, OK, it’s Bruce Dern.  As much as this is a lot of fun, it’s like ordering a slice of cake and getting the whole cake.  “Well, OK, it’s good, but I didn’t really WANT all that.”   I liked the way that Tarantino milked the scenes at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds, but this goes too far.  I felt like I was watching the Director’s Cut and I desperately wanted to see the official release version.

John Carter: Everyone said this was a bad picture.  It’s not.  I don’t know why it got so roundly panned.  It moves too fast.  Like so many modern films, it’s desperately allergic to its own plot and moves to get past it as quickly as it can.  That said, it’s fun, it feels Edgar-Rice-Burroughs-ish, the effects are good, the acting is good.  I guess Disney wanted to kill it!

The Lone Ranger: Again, I don’t understand the negative reaction from this one.  Johnny Depp in a strange, overwrought performance?  Did you guys not see the Pirates of the Caribbean movies?  Isn’t that what you expect?  Johnny Depp “culturally appropriating” Native American culture?  That’s what actors do.  It’s their job.  Harrison Ford is not Han Solo or Indiana Jones.  Part of the reason we go see Star Wars Part Xxviii is that we hope someone has bribed Harrison Ford to be in a cameo.  Same with Depp.  We go see him to see what he’s doing with a part.  Lone Ranger isn’t the greatest picture ever made, but it’s fun, and it’s got a great joke.  It’s made of up little parts of other movies as cute references.  If you’re a film geek (sign me up), it’s fun to watch this picture just for the jokes.

The Last of Robin Hood: Gee, Errol Flynn being played by Kevin Kline?  What’s not to love?  A lot.  I am second to none when it comes to loving Kline’s work, but he doesn’t really get Flynn.  He seems to be playing someone playing Flynn.  He’s not haggard and flabby enough for Flynn at that time, and Kline never gets the voice quite right.  He’s not bad, just not great.  The movie kind of plods along with not much of an idea on how it’s supposed to go.  Susan Sarandon is fine as the mother of Flynn’s underage paramour, and delivers an interesting performance, being confused and complicit all at once.  I wanted to like this a lot more than I did.

The Rules Don’t Apply: Plays well with Last of Robin Hood as a movie that doesn’t quite work. Warren Beatty isn’t a bad director, but the screenplay here is rambling and kinda lifeless.  Beatty seems to have called in lots of favors for people to do this film, and so there are cameos galore, but the whole thing seems rushed to get all the cameos in.  I mostly liked the picture (the attention to detail is marvelous) but it’s not as good as it should have been especially with all the talent involved.

Movies to End a Pandemic By

I get a lot of questions from folks.  What is your favorite movie?  I don’t have one.  Why do you like bad movies?  I like all movies, but I end up preserving ones that no one cares about and these are sometimes bad.

Everyone has a different taste in movies.  I personally like something different.  A formula B western or gangster picture is boring to me.  I’ll freely admit that I’m usually not up for your modern superhero pictures.  I haven’t seen Batman Vs. Infinity Wars Part 6: A New Beginning.  I don’t intend to.

I got some requests to do mostly older films and a few to mostly newer films.  I am going mid-way and on things that I don’t think many of you have seen.  Things that got swept under the carpet.  Movies that most of you have probably not seen.

Ishtar (1987) OK.  I’m right off with one of the worst movies ever made.  Except it’s not.  It cost way too much, because director Elaine May chose to work in an improvisational style and get as many takes as she could, which doesn’t work when you’re directing expensive mega-stars like Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.  While this is sort of a tribute to the Hope/Crosby Road films, it’s also more than that.  It’s a sendup of our long-standing hypocritical Middle East policy.  It’s a salute to those of us who hope we are really talented, but are less so than we’d like to believe.  I often hear the complaint that Beatty and Hoffman are terrible singers, but that’s the point.  Paul Williams has not written bad songs for them, but songs that consistently just miss the mark.  They’re not horrible, but they never quite work.  Another joke is that Hoffman plays the ladies’ man and Beatty is the oafish guy that women dislike—just the opposite of real life.  And Beatty is so good at this that he almost makes us believe it.  Worthy of mention and Academy nominations are Jack Weston as their agent who doesn’t have much faith in them, and especially Charles Grodin as the corrupt government official who lies to everyone.  Ishtar may not be the greatest film ever made, but it’s a very good one, and most people who hate it have never seen it.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) And again, I’ll get brickbats from a lot of people who think this is awful.  They confuse it with the inexcusable Space Jam, which I can’t even watch.  Director Joe Danté manages to infuse this with a lot of movie lover in-jokes that most people would never understand.  For example, Kevin McCarthy (the actor, not the congressman) wanders across the screen carrying a seed pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers while crying “They’re here!  They’re here!”  My favorite is still one in which Brendan Fraser and Daffy Duck run off the ledge of a building into a waiting airbag, thereby interrupting the filming of a Batman film.  The director comes up to them and complains, “Hey!  That airbag cost a lot of money!”  It’s Roger Corman.  Another good one: the climax is in Paris, and if you’re watching, there is a poster for a Jerry Lewis movie on every street corner.  I love attention to detail like this.  If you enjoy film geek jokes like these plus a myriad of cameos, and, oh, yeah, a lot of well-done Looney Tunes thrown in, this movie is a howl.  The only thing I can hold against it is that it derailed production of Mike Schlesinger’s legendary Godzilla film…

The Power (1968) I’m always amazed at the number of people who have never seen this one.  The Hollywood legend is that somehow producer George Pal evaporated after making The Time Machine (1960).  And MGM seems to have wanted to make Pal evaporate, and I’m not sure why.  They didn’t promote this at all), hoping it would tank and they’d get rid of Pal.  It worked.  But if you look just at the cast and crew of this one: director Byron Haskin, composer Miklos Rosza, actors Michael Rennie, Richard Carlson, Nehemiah Persoff, Suzanne Pleshette, Earl Holliman, Arthur O’Connell, and George Hamilton, you might think that this is a can’t-miss picture.  And it doesn’t miss.  It’s kind of a hybrid of The Fury (1978) and North by Northwest (1959).  The basic plot is kinda clever, too.  A top-secret research facility exposes a super-genius so smart that he could cause hallucinations, move objects, and, well, kill people.  The genius then proceeds to bump off everyone who might be able to expose him.  One of my favorite scenes is with Arthur O’Connell going into his office to retrieve some papers.  He turns to leave, and the door to his office seems to be missing, replaced with a half-wall.  O’Connell returns with a ladder to step over the wall, and now it goes to the ceiling.  Suddenly, he realizes he might not be in his office at all.  This film has a great, chilling score, nice cinematography, and some wonderful creepy ideas.  It’s been unjustly neglected.   The bad guy makes you see what he wants you to see, so you’re never sure who he is, and you’ll be guessing until the last moment.  Again, it’s not a perfect film, because there are a few goofy moments that don’t really work.  Arthur O’Connell’s parents seem not much older than he was.  Hamilton’s escape from a firing range seems a little too convenient.  Suzanne Pleshette comes off rather flat and delivers her expository lines at the film’s conclusion in the dullest possible way, a rare misfire in a stellar career.  But those are minor carpings.  There are so many chilling scenes that I forgive it all.  Nehemiah Persoff’s death is just creepy.  The crosswalk changing from DON’T WALK to DON’T RUN is unforgettable.

Hopscotch (1980) Walter Matthau had a nose for strong screenplays.  Twice he appeared in great Peter Stone films (Charade [1963] and The Taking of Pelham 123 [1974]).  This time around, he was working with Brian Garfield, best remembered for his novel Death Wish.  Garfield wasn’t particularly enamored with the violent 1974 film version, so he challenged himself to write a chase story in which no one is hurt, but there’s still tension and a sense of danger.  Oh, and it’s funny, too.  The plot is simple: A CIA man (Matthau) is unfairly railroaded by his snotty boss (Ned Beatty) and decides to quit.  Except he doesn’t tell anyone he’s quit, and he goes on a merry chase, writing a tell-all exposé of all the stupid tales of his career.  The CIA wants him stopped, and the Russians agree.  It’s a complete delight as Matthau tours Europe, always a step ahead of the people who want to kill him, taunting them with a new chapter in every new locale. With a great supporting cast, including Sam Waterston, Glenda Jackson, Herbert Lom, and two of Matthau’s kids, this is a closet classic.  Apparently, it’s been tied up with legal issues, which is a real shame.  In my opinion, it’s superior to the previous Matthau/Jackson teaming, House Calls (1978).

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) Billy Wilder is a somewhat controversial figure these days.  A lot of his films bear a certain cynicism that many find somewhat off-putting, and Scott Eyman has shown that it increased through his career.  Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of his “greatest” film, Some Like It Hot (1959), which I consider too long and too slow.  So of course I’d love a movie that’s even longer and slower.  This one was once much longer, and was shorn of about 30 minutes of introduction.  Sherlock Holmes was always, in the books and in the films, a complex plot device to solve crimes.  His interactions with other people seemed a little forced to me, because he seemed to exist only to move the plot along.  That doesn’t mean he’s not a great character, because he has a lot of writer-friendly, usable quirks.  So Wilder’s twist on this is irresistible to me.  Let’s delve into Holmes’ personal life.  Was Sherlock gay?  That’s the first part of the subplots here.  Could he fall in love?  That’s the longer story.  I won’t spoil this for you, because most of the fun of the film is watching it unfold and being just a hair ahead of Sherlock as you figure it out.  The movie isn’t perfect: a plot point involving Loch Ness requires it to be salt water, which it isn’t.  Another twist involving Queen Victoria is marred by a performance that is too comedic and over-the-top.  But there are so many other pleasures here.  Christopher Lee makes a great non-canon Mycroft Holmes, and the scene in which he slowly dresses Sherlock down for being stupid is one of his finest career moments.  He’s wonderful in this scene, and of course Mycroft gets his own comeuppance soon after.  But the culmination of Sherlock’s romance is truly heartbreaking.  For the first time, we feel for him as a person, and it’s amazing.  Some of Wilder’s films do nothing for me, including the later The Front Page (1974), which managed to waste Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett by rewriting too much of the nearly perfect original play.  (Of course, the play was murdered once again by its much-worse remake, Switching Channels [1988]). As much as it pains me to agree with him, Michael Schlesinger is probably right that One, Two, Three (1961) is another underrated gem from Wilder, whose work is hit-and-miss for me. 

Real Genius (1985) This is a film that got doubly lost in a morass of too many other pictures.  In a summer where we had Weird Science and My Science Project, both of which were lousy, this movie appeared, and it was actually funny and fresh.  Real Genius also lost because of too many “horny teenager” pictures in the 1980s.  The reason that this one is different is that it’s got a tight script, zippy direction, and a fine cast.  A gifted freshman (Gabe Jarret) is recruited to a top college, rooming with an eccentric genius (Val Kilmer) as they work on an advanced laser.  Along the way they interact with an even more eccentric genius (Jon Gries) who lives in the university’s steam tunnels, and a hyperkinetic mechanical engineer (Michelle Meyrink) who seems to be working at all hours of the day and night.  The plot twists around their duplicitous professor (William Atherton, at the peak of his sleaziness) who has pre-sold their laser research to the military for nefarious uses.  This movie marks a change in the treatment of geniuses in movies.  In the 40s, we had the strange, insanely driven mad doctors. In the 50s, we had amoral scientists but also manly Richard Carlson-like folks.  After that, we had socially awkward geeks who couldn’t function at all, becoming the focus of derision (see Eddie Deezen in War Games for an example of this sort of character).  Real Genius moves the pendulum back in the right direction, with some social awkwardness, but a lot of moral ability and cleverness thrown back in.  This is one of my favorite films of the 80s, and one that holds up on repeated viewings.  I wish there’d been a sequel… maybe there still can be.  Martha Coolidge does a marvelous job directing this picture.  I wish she worked more often.  Like Michael Curtiz, Coolidge, so they tell me, can be… unpleasant… but wow, she can make good pictures.

Hollywood Shuffle (1987) I’ve long disliked the movies of Spike Lee, because they just seem so precious and preachy to me that I expect him to pass the offertory plate before the third act starts.  I recently had to watch Minstrel Show and I thought it was too obvious and strained.  Same for many of his other films.  So before you #cancel me for being racist, let me recommend this picture, by another, I think superior, African-American director.  Again, it’s one of my favorites of the 80s.  Robert Townsend, in his first picture, does something I’ve never seen Lee do: he simply presents his reality, spoofing it somewhat, and lets us make up our own minds.  Townsend’s visual style is straightforward, but his real gift is with screenwriting and handling actors.  Like Bill Cosby (#cancelledAgain), Townsend has turned his experience as an African American actor into something universal that we can all relate to.  His character works at a dead-end job at a hot dog stand called Winky Dinky Dog, and he hates it.  I identified with it so much that I used his boss’ speech (extolling the virtues of Winky Dinky Dog) as my computer start-up sound until my real-life boss saw this film and made me take the sound off.  The legend is that Townsend needed to sell the film to a studio before the end of the month because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to pay off his credit cards.  You’ve gotta love him for that.  I also love him for some of his other films, including the wildly underrated Meteor Man (1993).  Townsend is one of my favorite living directors.  Cancel me for that, buckaroos.

Avanti! (1971) Yes, another Billy Wilder, and yes, another one you haven’t seen.  I’m not big on any of Wilder’s Lemmon/Matthau films, although (as you can see) I love both Lemmon and Matthau.  Wilder seemed to become more and more hostile toward most of humanity as he progressed in life, and this movie is an example of that.  It does destroy some films like Buddy Buddy, but for whatever reason, there’s still some redeeming humanity in this one.  A lot of it comes from the transformation of Lemmon’s character, which works, and some comes from great support from Clive Revill, who makes his second appearance on this list, with a third to show up.  Even better is Juliet Mills, who is supposed to be playing an unattractive fat woman, and manages only to be charming, while being neither unattractive nor fat.  Wilder’s sexism is on display here, with Mills being referred to as “fat ass,” which is insulting to everyone, especially the audience.  However, getting past that, there’s a nice story here, with a nervous exec (Lemmon) being forced to visit an Italian resort to pick up the body of his father, who was killed in an unfortunate accident.  Mills is there to pick up her mother, also killed in an accident.  As the story progresses, we discover that it was the same accident that killed both people and that they were together having a once-a-year affair.  Of course, this is beyond bearable for Lemmon, whose father was a family man, and the endless red tape that the Italians put in the way maddens him.  Lemmon manages to build a giddy intensity that reminds me a little of One, Two, Three without losing the effect of the slow-paced local charm and lovely photography on the island.  It’s a great contrast, and it works very well in this unusual film.  I’m not quite sure why this never got a bigger audience.  It’s very funny and holds up well despite the sexist material that we get concerning Mills.  The ending is predictable, but it’s cute enough.  I wish Mills had been a bigger star.  She’s every bit as good as her more famous sister.  Acting talent runs in that family.  

Zorro the Gay Blade (1981) Everyone remembers Love at First Bite (1979), but this one was by a lot of the same people and it, alas, had distribution problems.  It’s a pity, because it’s really a much better picture.  A rich California plantation owner dies and leaves his secret to his son, Diego (George Hamilton).  Turns out the old man was actually Zorro, and now Diego must wear the mask to battle the new Alcalde (Ron Liebman).  Diego breaks his foot in an ill-timed jump… but that’s OK, because his identical twin brother (also Hamilton) shows up to claim his inheritance, and he, too, can be Zorro.  However, the brother, Ramon, is gay, and he has a great deal of trouble impersonating his straight brother.  Now, before I get #cancelled 100 times, this movie isn’t homophobic.  Yes, the bad guys in it make gay jokes, but most of them are dispatched by the end of the picture.  Ramon is treated respectfully by all of the heroes, including lovely Charlotte Taylor Wilson (Lauren Hutton), who has fallen for the straight Zorro and is unaware of the switch.  Hamilton has a reputation of being something of an acting lightweight, but he takes on heavy duties here.  Not only is he the two brothers, but he also plays Ramon imitating Diego, Ramon posing as their lost sister, and a mysterious priest who steals the Alcalde’s horse.  He’s marvelous.  Also marvelous is the support from his mute servant Paco (Donovan Scott), and the Alcalde’s conniving wife (Brenda Vaccaro).  Hutton leaves a little something to be desired, but she’s passable.  This is a grand film in he old Hollywood tradition, best described as Bob Hope by way of Mel Brooks.  It’s also somewhat in the Michael Curtiz swashbuckler tradition, and it steals a great bit from a Curtiz picture: the score is largely borrowed from the Errol Flynn picture The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), which was written by Max Steiner.  It’s been enhanced and rearranged, but the guts of it are still there.  That makes this film feel all the more like an authentic Hollywood Zorro picture.  It’s worth seeking out on DVD if you can find it.  Apparently, the new owners, Disney, have been wanting to cancel this one for a long time.

This is What I Am Doing!

Some of you are asking what’s taking King of the Kongo so long.  Let me describe to you why in three words: it’s a mess.  The more I get into it, the uglier and messier it gets.  I know many of you don’t want to hear about this because you consider it whining, and I’ll hear about it.  I know many of you like to hear what’s going on, and I’ll hear about that too.

Let me answer the questions I keep getting:

1. Are you actually still working on Kongo?

Yes, almost nothing else.  It’s taking forever.  You’ll see why in a bit.

2.   We’re all getting older.  Are you going to release it?  

Yes, I’m hoping by the end of the year.  At the pace we’re going, that may be optimistic.  Remember that this is 21 reels of footage whereas Little Orphant Annie was FIVE reels of footage. And Annie was in better shape.

3. Why don’t you do a Kickstarter to get some extra funds to hire some help?

That’s a fantastic idea.  Right now, I’m stretched pretty thin doing all the stuff I’m supposed to be doing.  Doing a Kickstarter takes time and effort that I don’t have to put into this.  Someone wanna volunteer?  (Crickets.) I didn’t think so.

4. Didn’t you get a grant to work on this?  Use some of that money.

Yes, I got a grant to do it, and I discovered in May of 2020 that I needed two things: a) a faster computer or I’d never get it done, and b) at least two more helpers to help me get things done.  I’ve done those things.  I have three helpers now.  But the grant money only covered the cost of the computers.

Here’s what I’ve been doing:

I suspended work on Chapter 10 given some priorities.  I announced in December of last year that I’d be showing some rare Karloff stuff and we’d have Sara Karloff join us for a Zoom meeting.  I thought if I held it in March that FOR SURE we’d have enough to show.  Chapter 10 resolves all the hanging plot points: Who or what is the gorilla (aka the King of the Kongo)?  Who’s the girl’s father?  Where are the jewels?  Who’s the prisoner in the basement?  I thought that using Chapter 10 as my example was kind of a bad idea.

Given this, I thought maybe I’d try getting Chapter 9 done, since we’d gotten a good start on it.   But we had problems: my helper was bogged down in the cleanup, and there was a great deal of decomposition on the negative.  I finally told him that we’d get rid of the decomp later; just go for the dirt.  That didn’t help.  He was making no progress.

I finally figured out why.  The decomp really didn’t seem too bad until you got into it and then it was triggering all sorts of false positives in the cleanup software.  I had a backup plan: unlike Reel 1, we had a print for Reel 2 as well.  We could just use that instead of using the negative.  The print was in reasonably good shape with not too much decomp.

WRONG.  The print was missing shots all over the place.  It had been sliced apart for stock footage and then put back together with masking tape.  Each time they sliced it apart, they put it back missing a frame on both edges.  But that was OK, since two or three shots were missing entirely.  One sequence was in the wrong place.  And then the coup: there’s a shot in Chapter 9 reel 2 that belongs in Chapter 10 reel 1!  This was nice, because that shot is missing in the print of Chapter 10 that we have (minus one frame on each side of the splice.)

So in late December, after we’d already announced, I took the disks with the negative and the print, and we went through them frame at a time to figure out what had been put where, reconstructing the best shots from the best prints.  That then had to be re-stabilized and re-scaled.  Great, huh?  Turns out not.  As we were removing dirt I discovered that something looked weird.  We were accidentally cleaning up a low-res test version of this file, not the high-res version that we needed.  Late January.  Start again.

So maybe let’s get Chapter 8 going?  Well, that’s in the hands of another helper I have, and he is going through it.  Except Chapter 8 has a particularly ugly dialogue scene in it and it would require a massive amount of re-recording.  And we have the sound for R2, which looks to be edited, so that would be a sync problem.  We have the negative for R2 but alas, I haven’t received it yet, because the scanning is behind at Library of Congress, so it seemed a real waste of resources to work on this chapter that we were probably going to have to tear out anyway.  Plus the sound hasn’t even been started for restoration, so that’s an issue.

Chapter 7 we have, but it’s got a lot of decomp and hasn’t been started.

By this point, in early February, I was about to call Sara and tell her we should cancel the show.  I just did not see how we could get anything ready.  I’ve got another helper lined up, but he got COVID, and he’s got some other family illness, and he had other commitments.

So I thought, OK, let’s try Chapter 5 and 6.  Those don’t look too bad, either!  Let’s try those!  And we have restored sound for them.  Chapter 5 looked promising until I discovered that reel two is the silent version that doesn’t match the sound version at all.  The picture for the sound version of Chapter 5 reel two is not scanned yet.  Chapter 6 looked more promising.  It looked pretty good until I realized that the ending was rotted off in the negative.  OK, let’s look at the print.  Also rotted off, no cliffhanger.  Then I remembered that some of Robert Youngson’s compilation film The Days of Thrills and Laughter features the fight between Karloff and Walter Miller (I’d seen the stills).  That’s the cliffhanger I need!

So I wrote Serge, knowing he had some 35mm of this title, and asked him if he could scan it for me.  Well, the scanner place is down due to COVID, but sure, he agreed to do it.  Just to verify, I found a copy of Days of Thrills and Laughter and looked at it. Turns out that what Serge has is the beginning of Chapter 7, not the end of Chapter 6, with the same fight, but it’s the cliffhanger resolution.  Then I went back to Chapter 7 and discovered that the negative for reel one is complete, but the print is missing exactly the footage that’s in The Days of Thrills and Laughter.  Yep, it was copped from the same print I have!

OK, so I can insert the cliffhanger ending from the 16mm that I already have scanned and then just go from there?  No, bad call, because there’s a SECOND print of Chapter 6 that is in the inventory of stuff not yet scanned at the Library, so no reason to rescale and re-contrast that icky footage when that will just be replaced anyway.  And I hope that the print is in better shape than the alternate print we have.  Who knows?  Maybe it’s the silent one.  We have no idea.  But given what I’ve seen, I sure want to look at it before investing a lot of time starting a restoration.  (Interestingly, Chapter 5 and 6 are tinted, and the tinting is fading from these prints.  We intend to restore it.)

For those of you keeping score, Chapter 10 is out, Chapter 9 is questionable, Chapter 8 is probably out, and Chapter 5,6,7 are out.  And we don’t have any more complete chapters.  This is why you hear me scream.  I nearly called Sara again and said we’d have to postpone.

That’s where your heroine, Ms. Greiff, stepped in and told me that we could probably do this.  She thought I could lean on my helper working on Chapter 9 and meanwhile I could get reel 2 recorded.

I’d wanted to do the sound recording to the restored print, because it’s easier to see lip sync, etc, but she said we should just synchronize to the negative.  After all, the frame count was the same, so it should work.  We spend our time recording and my helper does the contrast fixing and de-dirting!  It could happen!

Well, for those of you who don’t follow this, each reel is one disk and each chapter is two reels (except Chapter 1, which is three).  And we don’t have discs for all the picture.  We have Chapter 9, reel one, but not reel two!

Since the music is repetitive—they use the same themes over and over, I thought, gee, we can “fake” the score by using some of the same themes.  I know they had sound effects (they particularly liked gunshots), so I found a gunshot and sampled it, then threw one in in sync with every shot.  The gorilla theme is consistent throughout: whenever the gorilla is on screen, there’s a sinister violin theme that accompanies him.  So we know what that would have sounded like.  And the close tag is the same in every chapter, so we know that.

With about a day’s work, I got a serviceable “guess” track going that sounded pretty much like an original track would have.  Except we didn’t have the dialogue scene.  OK, I have the script, so I just recorded the dialogue and synchronized it to the players.

Meanwhile, my helper is working on the same reel to get the picture cleaned up.  This is an agonizing process and takes hours.

The dialogue didn’t synchronize at all.  The actors weren’t reading the dialogue as it was written.  What were they saying?  Who knows?  I knew that Peter Jackson had employed forensic lip readers for They Shall Not Grow Old.  I watched that (not as amazing as people said, but what do I know?) and contacted the forensic lip-reader.  $200 a minute!  Not possible.

I contacted the Indiana School for the Deaf.  They didn’t get back to me.  I contacted two other deaf people.  No response.  Another one: “This is too hard… you mean you don’t have any sound at all??”  Finally, in desperation, I said, “I’ll do this MYSELF.”   I slowed it down 4:1 and blew up the lips.  The reason I thought I could do this was that I’ve already spent hours synchronizing the audio back to the video, and lip reading is a part of that.  I thought I could get it pretty close.  I finally did.  We got a few minor corrections from a friend of my new brother-in-law, who also reads lips.

I recorded the new dialogue, and it sounded like me doing strange voices.  Bad.  So I had Glory do the voice of the priest and we lowered it digitally.  It sounded like Glory doing the voice of the priest lowered digitally.  I knew that I’d had people crawl out of the woodwork wanting to do voices for this, but it turns out this is hard.  You have to get the dialogue just right and read it with the intonations that the actor did 90 years ago.  I thought I should turn to someone who’s already done this.  And let them know we need this NOW NOW NOW.

Bless his heart, Larry Blamire, actor extraordinaire, recorded the lines in about 45 minutes for me, and he got the intonation pretty close to right.  Turns out that if you use fancy equipment it sounds TOO GOOD, so we just used phones.  George Willeman from Library of Congress rerecorded the priest for me.  I remained as the hero (Walter Miller), because I can match his deadpan delivery pretty well.

The art center where I do shows wanted the video uploaded a week early, and I thought that might never happen.  I let them know I might be late, and to hold up sending links.  On Tuesday, I got a call that the final render had crashed, because it filled up a disk.  In haste, I went out to buy another disk and got it out to him.  The show was due Friday.  Rendering happened Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.  On Friday night at 10pm, I went to his house and collected the disk.

BUUUUUUT NO (as John Belushi would have said.)  A bug in SOME program had assumed I really meant a frame rate of 23.98 instead of 24.00.  This means that it helpfully repeats one out of 50 frames to convert it for me.  Except I really DID mean 24.00, so all the gunshots and dialogue I put in were off.  Took hours to fix it.  There were other problems, more technical, that I shan’t bore you with.  Bottom line: I got it done on Wednesday before the show Saturday.  A lot of people were angry that it wasn’t available until late, and that the links went out late, etc.  Couldn’t be helped.

So what have we learned?

There are a lot of people who really are generous and help a lot.  I am grateful for this beyond any measure.

This project is a technical mess.

We need a minimum of 2TB to render some of these things.

We actually CAN do a reasonable job of re-recording.

Before I do any more reels, I need to go through each reel carefully to inspect it so that we don’t waste time on alternate versions and cuts.

I didn’t get enough grant money (I am on the hook to finish this but I will be getting a grand total of $0 for any work!)

When we have original negative, it almost always has extensive decomposition.  When we have  print, it is almost always cut extensively for stock footage.  The one exception to this has been Chapter 10 reel two, which is almost all dialogue and very consumed with some looooong talking shots that I guess weren’t too exciting to extract for stock footage.

We’re working backwards, mostly because we received material that way.  Current status:

Chapter 10: R1, about 85% done, needs some decomp removed.  Restored missing shots from NFPF project, one shot from Chapter 9.  R2 in hands of helper for de-dirting. Already stabilized and contrast-fixed.

Chapter 9: R1 with extensive decomp fixed.  R2 re-rendering as we speak. Re-recorded audio.  About 98% done.

Chapter 8: De-dirting about 95% done.  Unknown extra work.

Chapter 7: Rerecorded most of audio for Chapter 7, R1.  Identified Chapter 7 R2 missing dinosaur footage.  Have sound for R2.  Have silent version of R1 and R2.  Next in line for picture restoration.

Chapter 6: Ending needs restored.  Awaiting material.  Tints need restored properly.  Sound seems good.

Chapter 5: Need R2 sound version.

Chapter 4: Have one reel.

Chapter 1: Have one reel with extensive cuts.  In contact with MoMa for possible replacement if no 35mm alternates can be found.

Everything else we’re still awaiting or has not been looked at in detail yet.

You guys know lip-readers or anyone who wants to run a Kickstarter campaign?  You know where to find me!

You Did Ask

In the Dr. Who episode Frontios, a character asks The Doctor what he thinks about a certain topic. The Doctor then tells him in a straightforward, unvarnished way what he thinks. The other character is a little put off, but The Doctor reminds him, “You did ask what I think.” I’ve been reminded of that interchange a lot this year.

Several weeks ago, my main Facebook page was bombarded with obscenities that I asked to be removed, and of course, they doubled down on more of them. This was in response to the fact that I dislike politics on my page and don’t allow that discussion. Since then, I have been inundated with questions. Why don’t I comment on current events? Why don’t I take a stand on moral issues? Why didn’t I delete that thread and block those people? So I’m afraid I must comment.

The short answer is that I didn’t delete the thread because I hate censorship more than I hate swearing. Since I’m an independent, my opinions will enrage a lot of you and help nothing. That saves most of you from reading a 2500-word rant.

I don’t discuss politics because I don’t think you want to read this stuff on my page. I come to my pages as a respite from the gawdawful complaining about every topic under the sun on Twitter and Facebook. I’d rather read about something I can affect rather than the political landscape. I’m an engineer and film preservationist. Asking me about politics is like asking your meter reader about dentistry. It may be interesting, but who really cares?

I don’t want to be entrapped in the “gotcha” culture of today, which is that we have to wear our allegiances on our sleeves, and any disagreement is tantamount to being evil. Things are too polarized and no meaningful discussion takes place. Life isn’t that way, but our culture has gotten to be. If you want to put them on your page, then fine. I may even interact with you. However, you’ll discover something important…

I’m independent. I often don’t agree with either the left or the right. I have a tendency to read as much as I can and make up my own mind. I try not to dig in my heels and be unmovable on most issues, unless you want to argue with me that The Untouchables is a really great film.

I also don’t advocate a lot because I’m not sure it helps. I learned this in the 5th grade when Channel 4 took my beloved Sammy Terry off the air. I organized a petition and got about 200 people to sign before I realized that I was just a puny mosquito pinging unheard at a double-pane window of NO. I realize that many of you disagree, and that’s fine by me.

Since I have friends, and people who pay me, on both sides of the political spectrum, I think it’s stupid to poke the tiger. Especially in these days of hyper-sensitivity. That does not mean I don’t have beliefs, nor that I won’t stand up for them.

I tend to automatically suspect people who have to parrot their ideals endlessly. If your beliefs are strong, you act in ways that support them. Teach, don’t preach (thanks, Felipe.) I used to work at a place that was “Christian” and the management operated in ways that would have befuddled Christ. And I see that today, too.

I think Jesus would be confused over the “Black Lives Matter” controversy. If I say “Black Lives Matter,” it’s now some sort of code for “I’m a member of ANTIFA and I secretly want the end of the United States.” WHAT? Or if I say, “All Lives Matter,” it’s code for “I’m actually a racist and I hate all African Americans.” There’s no winning here, only arguing. Of course black lives matter and all lives matter, and this bickering over semantics is pointless.

“Black Lives Matter” is not a code, but rather a complaint about some policemen who are out of control. To paraphrase Chris Rock, there are some jobs where we have to have 100% quality people, and being a policeman is one of those jobs. We can’t afford bad apples. No one wants to hear that we got the bad pilot on the day your plane hits a herd of geese. We all want our pilot to be Chesley Sullenberger. We all want our policemen to be Joe Friday. The world would be a better place if they were.

I don’t need to tell Facebook that I dislike jerk policemen. There’s a nasty cop in New Jersey who will testify to that. He wrote me a sucker-punch traffic ticket in 2015 and I think his ears are still ringing. It didn’t do any good. I still had to pay the ticket. I hope that, in the long-term, idiots like that are hounded into unemployment. 

I’m not going to fix these problems. If I were a mayor or Congressman, that would be different. 

But some of you think that by not posting my beliefs incessantly, I am mean and hypocritical, so it’s open season to put obscenities on my page in tag-team style. Well, sure, it may offend some of my clients, but you think it will only offend my clients who are on the “wrong side of history,” so fine, and you’re only proving how right you are to do this.

Look, I learned all the bad words, just the same as you did, but I’ve learned a few other things. Swear words really offend some people, even good people, even the people you think are on the “right side of history.” All you’re doing is making yourself look bad and trying to make me look bad in doing it. I hope it makes you feel better and more powerful, but you convinced no one of your arguments, you saved no black lives, and you changed the minds of no criminal policemen.

You’re also showing an ignorance about how culture is different in various places. About 20 years ago I was in a restaurant in Syracuse NY, and a couple there were yelling at the top of their lungs at each other, swearing, wondering if sausage came with the standard breakfast. This is normal for New York. New Yorkers will tell you that these are people being their true, genuine selves. If this had happened in Minnesota, the people would have been asked to leave. They would have ben considered rude and inconsiderate of others.

If I wanted to have discussions with only New York people, I would need an f-bomb on every page. But a lot of people take it at face value. They’re not all just “clueless red-state old biddies,” as you seem to think.  Some of them are even on your “right side of history.”

I have posted jokes, articles about science, and film, as befits my background and interests. Given the fact that I do this, it should be pretty obvious that I don’t subscribe to anti-science conspiracies that “smart people” are planning a pandemic just to make your president look bad. That’s generally a sign that your guy already looks bad and it’s being exploited by the other side.

Being pro-science doesn’t automatically make me a pinko lefty, as again, many of you seem to think. The left has its ideology that looks bad too. In this case, it’s “cancel culture.” When someone is cancelled, they are shunned permanently and no longer allowed to earn a living. If dead, they are expunged from history, their works ignored. They are unworthy of polite society. This is done by social agreement, not any justice organization.

There is a theory that right-wingers are digging up any unsavory thing on anyone they can find. This is being done to enrage left-wingers and encourage them to cancel people who might not otherwise deserve it. In this way, left-wingers look bad. 

I would politely suggest that maybe the real problem is that the left-wingers are going over the edge on cancel culture just as the right-wingers are going over the edge on conspiracy theories. Perhaps a little introspection is in order here!

One of my friends has said that he adores cancel culture. He loves the idea that all these people who have been wronged have a way to fight back.

When it applied to Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Matt Lauer, I thought OK. These people abused others and deserved what they got. But then it applied to Al Franken and I started to wonder. Then Randy Rainbow. Now it applies to dead people like Thomas Jefferson, John Wayne, and Lillian Gish. Even worse, it applies to movies and genres of movies. So any film that has racism in it, or depicts sexism, or a raft of other things, is bad. Never mind if it’s an accurate depiction of the times in which they were made.

They should be cancelled. Never shown. Permanently. 

I hate this. Let’s call it censorship, because that’s what it is. I despise all forms of censorship.

I have spent my entire life crusading against censorship. To me, the cruelest form of it is the subtlest: “We’re not going to make this available because it costs too much to release and we’ll never make our money back on it.”

I have deleted a couple hundred words here discussing just how much I have always fought against censorship. We’ll read it into the record.

Then my friend who adores cancelling talks abut how Disney (and by extension every other studio) shouldn’t ever release films like Song of the South because they are under no obligation and can do what they want. That only feeds into their pre-existing bias to lock away all films made before 2000.

He says cancel culture is a voice for the unheard. That’s true, but so is terrorism. Cancel culture is being abused and is becoming what I term cultural terrorism. Anyone or anything we want to cancel, justified or not, can be erased. See the Twilight Zone story “To See the Invisible Man,” or read the story by Robert Silverberg.

Song of the South is not worthy of being cancelled. It has much artistic merit.  It was shot by one of the greatest directors of photography who ever lived, Gregg Toland. It’s got groundbreaking special effects. It’s some of the earliest well-done combination of live actors and animation in color. Is it racist? Yes. Is it offensive? Yes, in parts. I can see why Disney won’t put it out. They don’t want to be cancelled. 

Make it available and put disclaimers at the front and end.  If you stream it, make it TV-MA, so kids won’t stumble over it. Keep Whoopi Goldberg and Leonard Maltin employed doing introductions to every possibly offensive film. BUT MAKE THEM AVAILABLE. If you don’t then surrender the copyright to an archive and let others do it.

Does this mean I’m insensitive to African Americans? NO. But we don’t get to rewrite and whitewash history. History can be ugly and undulating. Ideas and interpretations change, both for good and ill. Until we can come to terms with that, we can’t really move forward, and heaven knows we’re not moving forward right now.

Yes, I realize that it’s painful and as a society we are in distress. I’ve got a heads-up for you: we’re not going to be healed by cancelling people and erasing the past. Nelson Mandela had it right. Read about his peace and reconciliation ideas. Open up everything. Admit to all, apologize for injustices and move forward. (Oh, and stop committing injustices… that helps most of all.)

So why am I so skittish about politics but I’ll take on censorship and cancel culture? I can’t do much about politics, but I AM in a position to make films available and undo censorship, and I will continue to do that. As Carrie Newcomer says, I can’t change the world, but I can change three feet in front of me. And I am.

I will probably be always remembered (if at all) for saving a bad serial that everyone told me I was crazy to work on. They’re probably right. But it’s getting saved.

Remember, I’m racist, sexist, and politically incorrect, at least according to many of you.

I’m one of the nervous old biddies who’s afraid to confront the people who are on the wrong side of history.

You should probably put me in my place by posting profanities on my page.

As an old white guy I’m societally irrelevant.

But I’m going to remind you of one thing:

You did ask.

Current (10/26/20) Kongo Status

I cover a lot of this on my Facebook page, but not all of it. I know a lot of you don’t see Facebook, so here is the detailed, long-winded, accurate rundown of what is happening with King of the Kongo:

I now have two assistants helping me to get this done and I am spending grant money to get them faster machines.  The rendering was so slow on the machine I had that I thought it was worth spending the grant money on the faster systems and getting some help. We’re really going full smoke here: 12-core, 3.46Gz, 128GB RAM.  Even then some of it is slow.

Just so you understand some of the jargon here: each chapter is two reels (except for Chapter 1, which is three reels).  R1 is Reel 1, R2 is Reel 2.  A slug is a piece of black leader inserted into the film.  This was done to repair film breaks in order to maintain the length of the picture, because otherwise the sound would get off sync.

Chapter 9:

I started with this chapter since it looked the worst of any material I have seen so far, and I had to devise economical ways of addressing the decomposition in it.  

R1: (see video)

There was fairly heavy decomposition all through this and there were three or four shots that looked awful.  These have been improved immensely.  One shot was completely decomposed and was replaced from 16mm.

R2: In progress.  The negative has a fair amount of decomposition in it but not as bad as R1.  Fortunately, unlike R1, we have a backup R2 from an edited print.  It’s been stabilized and graded.  The gorilla assault at the end of the reel may have to be switched out with the print if we have it.

Chapter 10:

I did this chapter second because we only have a print.  There are several slugs in this one.  The nitrate print was weaving to the left and right in the scanner (it was shrinking), and is presenting a stabilization problem.  I’ve run 5 passes to stabilize it so far and it’s about there.

R1: 

There were two sequences that were edited out of the print.  The first was the entire gorilla assault that ends Chapter 9.  It’s unfair to replace this with the footage from Chapter 9 because this is shot with a different camera and is edited differently.  I replaced the footage from the National Film Preservation Foundation grant project in which I restored Chapter 10 from 16mm.  The footage isn’t that great, but it’s all there, and we’re talking about a minute’s worth or so.  There’s another sequence that was also cut, that of Lafe McKee and Harry Todd confronting a dinosaur, and I replaced that from 16mm as well.

I may try some frame interpolation to get the missing frames back (ironically, this print is the source print from my 16mm, and the missing frames in it are also missing in this 35mm!), and I am also going to try to remove some of the uglier artifacts toward the end of the reel.  Someone put cue marks in the reel so they could do a changeover and the marks are ugly and historically incorrect.  Before you ask, the missing frames were lost in during projection in 1929 and the edited sequences (which are in my 16mm) were cut for stock footage many years later.  The history of these prints is archaeology in itself.

R2:

This reel is in better shape (considering splices) and worse shape (considering projector wear).  I’ve done a fair amount of cleanup and stabilization on it already.  Steve Stanchfield is working on de-flickering it for me.  I’ll take all the help I can get!

Chapter 8:

We have a negative for R2 and a print for R1 and R2.  The negative has not been scanned yet, so is in unknown condition.  The print is in decent shape with a few splices and slugs.  We have sound for R2.  

The cliffhanger in R2 was edited out, and, interestingly, was floating around unidentified in the collection.  It was run at the Library of Congress’ Mostly Lost convention a few years ago, and I identified it as either the cliffhanger of Chapter 8 or the resolution in Chapter 9.  Turns out it is Chapter 8 and will be reunited with the source print.  I’m receiving a copy of the scan today to get it restored.

Chapter 8 has been contrast corrected and is awaiting stabilization.

Chapter 7:

R1 has been contrast corrected and is awaiting stabilization.  We have also found a “spare R1” that is proof that there was a silent version of Kongo.  I have yet to see a contemporaneous  ad that doesn’t advertise this being “in sound.”

Inspection of the rest of the prints:

At this point, we still have no material on Chapter 1,2 and 3.  This is due to COVID and the schedule at Library of Congress.  I haven’t engaged in much work on any other chapters.  Chapter 5 and 6 have tinting and that will be reproduced.

SOUND:

We have complete sound for Chapter 5,6, and 10.  We have one reel each for Chapter 4,7,8,9.  That means we have no sound for Chap 1,2,3 at all and only half the sound for Chapters 4,7,8,9.  We have the original scripts for this.

David Wood has done restoration work on 5,6,10 and also a nearly finished Chap 9, R1.  We’re doing some more experiments on cleaning this up a little better.

I have been saying I hope to get this out by end of 2020.  It won’t be finished by then, but I’m trying.  I’ve been working on this since late October 2019 and so far have gotten just 5 reels with any significant progress.  That sounds worse than it is, because a lot of that time was upgrading computers, training people how to use software, and mostly figuring out how I could do this technically!

The Road Ahead

I touched on this a little in my newsletter, and if you didn’t see that, then you’ll want to sign up for it by emailing me.  No, it’s not on my website yet.  I know it needs to be.

A good friend of mine who runs a candy shop told me that he was at an impasse once.  He either needed to expand his business or close down.  I know exactly what he meant.  If that intrigues you, keep reading.

Some of you have complained about my blogs on these topics and called them “existential whining,” and if you’re in that camp, go ahead and skip this one because it’s going to be one of those.  On the other hand, many of you follow this just to see the struggles and successes of a guy who does this work.

I have been trying to figure out just why I am not being very successful doing film restorations.  Tommy Stathes ships my products, and he’ll be the first to tell you he’d like to move some of my stuff out of his cramped apartment.

I’ve gotta tell ya, I was super disappointed in the turnout I got for the free movies I did during the early part of the pandemic.  I was getting 20 and 30 viewers for some and 80-90 at the best.  I don’t think we ever topped 100.  Then, Ben Model keeps posting that he’s getting 1000 or more!  You’ve gotta hand it to Ben. He’s been doing the longest-running free movie show during the pandemic, and people love it. This was my big clue that  I must be doing something wrong!  I mean, for heaven’s sake, I’m doing free movies, and rare stuff, during a pandemic, and I can’t get any views?  I was hoping to do a public service by doing these shows, and I thought they were good, but I eventually suspended them because they were literally more work than they were worth.  They weren’t helping my “brand,” I wasn’t getting donations, and it was taking time away from projects that DO pay.

So instead of becoming insanely jealous of Ben, which is tempting, I did what Ben does.  When Ben has a technical question, he sends me an email asking about it. I’m probably a good guy to consult with technical problems (especially if you want a long-winded answer.)

But you should never ask me about marketing problems.  Because I’m a marketing moron.  I consulted Ben, who is a Marketing Genius! and asked him for some tips. (In fairness, although Ben is really good at this, I’m way behind the curve on this kind of thing, so you can’t expect me to pull out of a dive immediately. My failures are my own, so don’t blame Ben for my goofiness.)

Ben steered me to Seth Godin, a marketing legend, and to Michael Boezi, who does his own podcast.  Now, I am frequently in the car and listen to podcasts (now even more often because I am shuttling disks between helpers working on my projects).  I started reading Godin’s blog, and I will freely admit that Godin annoys me.

I’m an engineer.  We deal in facts.  We want concrete answers.  You know, science.  Godin’s blog is all, RAH, RAH, you can do this!  Well, I don’t need RAH RAH, I need ideas!!!  If there are concrete ideas in there somewhere, I’ve missed them, because I got lost in the cheerleading.  I gave up. (I should probably reconsider this at some point… Godin annoyed me a lot less than Michael Bay has with his awful movies.)

I did a Godin spoof on my podcast.  (Please note that I also spoof ME a lot, which is one of my saving graces… like WC Fields, I make fun of everyone; no one is immune.)  Still, Boezi kind of crept in to my brain.  Remember, as an engineer, I have a pre-trained bias against marketing.  It’s not science: it’s squishy social stuff.  In fact, one of the guys who was helping me told me that I was a disloyal engineer for even listening to such a thing.  Marketing people, in his view, are evil.  They’re all Herb Tarlek.

What I like about Boezi is that he does have a fair number of concrete ideas.  I would say there’s a fairly low signal to noise ratio (translation for non-geeks: there’s not much content I find usable per episode), but that’s mostly because no one else really does quite what I do.

Wait, I hear you cry.  There are surely others.  Well, sorta.  I do high-end restorations at 2 and 4K. Many of them go back to archival film!  I go overboard on it. I focus on stuff that’s not out there, terribly damaged, or incomplete, and I do in-depth restorations of things I think are cool. In other words, if I don’t do it, it will never happen.  I know that I’m the only independent consultant goofy enough to go for National Film Preservation Foundation grants.  How do I know this?  They told me.  Yes, I’m nuts!

This is my take-away from listening to a bunch of shows, consulting with a bunch of people, and thinking a lot:

I need more product out there.  I know that I need more stuff to sell, but for one reason or another, it hasn’t happened.  This ridiculous King of the Kongo project has been on-again off-again for 8 years.  I have more projects than I can count that ALMOST happened, and I had literally given up on Kongo when Steve Stanchfield convinced me to go for it one last time.  I then thought that all my grant prospects had fallen through, but I swung for the fences and got it.  Now I’m obligated to finish it and all my other projects are on the back burner.  For notes on which projects I have going, see the end notes here.

I should blog more often and make them shorter.  Well, good luck on that.  I don’t think in sound bites, and I don’t write short blogs.  I think about things.  It’s like when Hitchcock was pressured to use a pop score for Torn Curtain, and Bernard Herrmann told him, “I don’t write pop scores.  You don’t make pop movies.”  If you want two-paragraph platitudes, I recommend Seth Godin’s blog.

I should do more podcasts and make them longer.  (Irony noted that my blogs are seen as too long and podcasts seen as too short!) The podcast is something I’ve seriously thought about discontinuing, and I have great trouble doing them regularly, but some of you really like them.  Oddly, the ones that get listeners are the ones that I do that cover stupid goofy stuff.  We sorta morphed into old-time radio sorts of things and both Glory and I enjoy that.  I guess the six of you who listen to these do, too.  The “straight” podcasts get about half the listeners (yeah, three).  No, seriously, we get maybe 50-75 listeners for an episode, which isn’t fantastic, but not bad.  The one thing I can say that is somewhat encouraging is that we do distinguish ourselves by making a podcast unlike any other film podcast.  Someone called it “the weirdest film podcast on the web!”  Who else would have a spoof of 2001 or an episode with Claude Rains playing a satanic lawyer?  We do.

My website needs re-tooling.  This is a fair call.  Boezi has several good ideas about optimizing web sites, none of which I’ve implemented.  I last updated my site a year or two ago, after learning that my text-heavy site alienated viewers.  (Just like my text-heavy blogs.)  I’m currently re-thinking this.

I need an email newsletter.  Ok, I hate email newsletters.  As I said in my first one, they always seem like they’re trying to sell me something and I HATE that.  I struggled a lot with doing a soft-sell one and I think I did it OK.  Of course, it was probably too soft-sell because I sold zero products!  But I get that it’s important for a lot of reasons, so we’ll do it.

I should sell stuff directly from my web site.  I agree.  My opinion of Amazon would not be fit for a blog that is supposed to be PG.  It might not even fit into an R-rated blog.  I don’t like them at all.  I will do this.

I take on too much work myself and need helpers.  Boy have I learned that this year.  Now I have two helpers.  But the problem is I can’t pay them anything.  I also learned that I need an uber-macho computer, so what I did was buy these guys fast computers with grant money and then have them pay the grant back in work.  It’s going OK.  The backlash here is that I need to do more work than I can pay for or that sales justify, so I’m looking at forming a non-profit.  

My own self-assessments have proven wrong and that continues.  I was thinking that I was a total loser at this stuff and had screwed up everything I’d tried.  I also thought I was reaching a sum total of NO ONE and that people didn’t really care about my work.  What’s been very touching this year is the outpouring of support I’ve gotten from a lot of you, including some cash (blush) that I didn’t expect.  (I should probably do a whole blog post on this. I did an outdoor movie show and a woman came up to me, crying, thanking me for bringing my movie shows back. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had this year.) I have also learned that a lot of people have trouble setting up web sites, Amazon stores, blogs, and podcasts.  Well, I’ve DONE all that.

It’s just that I built it and no one came.  I’ve got to fix that.  I’ll work on it.  The upshot of the candy store analogy is that I realize now that I’m not really successful here, so either I have to finish Kongo and hang it up, or I need to get some funding to have 3-4 people helping me.  Like the candy store, I have to either expand or close.

Now, just FWIW, here’s a partial list of stuff that I couldn’t get off the ground before Kongo:

The White Tiger (1923) I wanted to merge my print with UCLA’s.  No traction with UCLA.  Universal did it recently, probably without my print.  I had mine scanned for archival use and nothing happened. Thanks, UCLA.

Rocky Jones Lost Pilot (1951) I scanned this.  We only have 2 of 3 reels, but it’s cool.  I’m hoping to get a 3rd helper to get this out for me.

Willis O’Brien shorts (1915-30). I love these and they’re hard to find.  Got them scanned, no time to clean up at this point.  Considering skipping them: this got the lowest rating of any of the shows I did, even with brand new scores.  Sometimes you guys don’t love the same stuff that I love!

Lupino Lane shorts (1920s).  This ALLLLMOST happened.  I was planning to collaborate with Dave Glass on this right before Kongo showed up and then I couldn’t do it.  Some of the prints are warped in such a way that I can’t easily fix them.  I still have a bunch and it’s near the top of the list.

Ella Cinders (1926) this has never been put on Blu-ray in a good way.  I tracked several prints (original Kodascopes) and was arranging to have them scanned.  I’ve also found some stills and the original score.  I think we could do a decent reconstruction of what this was including missing footage.  No budget, no time.

Alice in Wonderland/The Horror (1931/3). Several people are pestering me about this.  I was about to get Alice scanned before the pandemic started, but we ran out of time.  There’s also a print of Intolerance of 1933 at MoMA which would be a perfect thing for triple feature.  All Bud Pollard, one of the most bizarre filmmakers ever.

Thunder Over Texas/I Can’t Escape (1934/3) Edgar Ulmer double feature!  Immediately before the pandemic, I had Thunder scanned, but I will need another print because some of it was warped fairly badly and didn’t scan well.  We had most of I Can’t Escape scanned, but not quite ready.

Dynamite Dan/The Midnight Girl (1924/5) Karloff and Lugosi before sound!  I commissioned a new score for Dynamite Dan (Kodascope) and I was never able to get Midnight Girl scanned.  I think this would be a cool one.

So you see, I had a lot of irons in the fire.  They just all got cold!

Update on King of the Kongo

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

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

THE PROJECT:

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

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

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

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

THE HISTORY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE CURRENT PROJECT:

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

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

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

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

WHERE WE ARE ON IT: 

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

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

WHAT I HAVE LEARNED:

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

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

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

WHAT I AM HOPING TO DO:

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

WHAT YOU MAY HAVE HEARD:

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

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

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

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

On Marvel and Snobbery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t matter what I think.

It doesn’t matter what you think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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