Untangling Many Threads

There’s a reason Harrison Ford makes $25 million dollars to play Indiana Jones. Ford is one of the most underrated actors out there, and he has a rare ability to wrench emotion out of a badly written scene, which happens often in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. He also adds humanity into the action scenes and makes them more plausible.

Consider a brief moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones has just stayed up all night rescuing the Ark of the Covenant from its resting place, escaped a nest of snakes and saved his girl from a bunch of mummies. He’s exhausted. The Nazis are about to load the Ark on one of their flying wing airplanes and Indy has to stop them. A giant of a man (Pat Roach) comes up to fight him. Jones waves him off for a moment and then stands up, falling to his knees again, and then stands up to start the fight. His body language tells us that he’s exhausted and is summoning the last bit of energy he has.

It’s just a little slip of a moment, but it tells us a lot about Jones and his character. I’m sure it wasn’t in the script and was just a bit of business that Ford added.

It’s this humanity that made Indiana Jones a popular character. One review noticed that the “de-aged” Indiana Jones in the first part of Indiana Jones V was obviously CGI because it didn’t move like Ford. “Harrison Ford acts with his whole body,” the reviewer said.

So we already know what artificial intelligence, CGI movies will be like, because we have them now. A little plastic, very staged, and kind of lifeless. And we know already what artificial intelligence scripts will get us. All we have to do is watch Batman Vs. Infinity Wars Part 6: A New Beginning to see what that will be like. Those scripts are basically written are by committee, which is really what artificial intelligence is, and any sense of individual expression has been carefully squeezed of of them. The producer wants to hit the main points he wants and then move on. He’ll keep hiring other writers until he gets his way.

We don’t blame the producer for this, but we should. Let’s remember that the job of the producer and a studio head is not to create good movies. They want to create profitable films. If they happen to be good, too, then so much the better.

This is why you can almost predict what a movie is going to be before going into the cinema. This is especially prevalent in Disney pictures of late. We have a new lead female character, strong and assertive, a panoply of supporting characters of different races, and we try to erase the old lead characters from the story. This is what happened in the Star Wars post-quels. We killed off Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker. And only Luke had a fitting sendoff, but even that was unnecessary. Leia’s death was more understandable in the wake of Carrie Fisher’s actual demise.

This is why it’s entirely plausible that the new Indiana Jones film was going to end with the death of Ford’s character and his replacement with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character. I know, it’s been denied in the press by no less than director James Mangold, but if you watch the film, you can see that it was set up in just that way, and test audiences hated it, causing a reshoot. It’s not just that Indiana Jones died, but the death was pointless and, for heaven’s sake, do we have to do this SAME PLOT AGAIN?

Indiana Jones V is actually better than the Disney Star Wars series, because it does manage to have something to say and it uses its characters well. Disney’s Episode VII was almost a direct remake of Episode IV. Episode VIII was at least strongly influenced by Episode V, and Episode IX was an even closer remake of Episode VI, to the point that they even had a clone of the same villain. The philosophy and charisma of the older characters is completely gone.

But they gave the fans what they wanted, they hit on all the key points, just as their Indiana Jones film did. Instead of snakes we have eels. Check. Nazis. Check. Fight on a plane. Check. Ancient booby-trapped temple. Check. It’s all there, not all that great, but it goes where you expect.

And this is the antithesis of art. The idea of art is to be self-expressive and do something new and challenging. Instead, Hollywood wants to sell us a Big Mac. When it came out, Star Wars was new and challenging. Empire Strikes Back took it deeper. Indiana Jones was a fun diversion from standard action pictures. But now it’s a Big Mac.

Let me explain. Let’s say you’re driving long distance at 11pm. You’re hungry. You can stop and get Stevie Acropolis’ Custom Gyros or get a Big Mac. But you’ve never heard of Stevie Acropolis and you don’t know what his Gyros is like. It’s unknown. The Big Mac is maybe not the best thing in the world, but you know what it is, and it will get the job done. It’s food, but it’s not art. It’s a commodity.

Producers want to make films a commodity. They want them to be exactly predictable and fall within certain guidelines. Artificial Intelligence and writing-by-committee does this for them. This is why they are trying to get rid of those pesky artists.

That way we can have paint-by-number scripts (there’s a book called Save the Cat! that basically rolls out a formula for scripts, something that makes me gag) and avoid paying those “greedy” actors. And the producers get what they want, right?

But you see, the problem here is not the “dire warning from the future.” It’s already here. Indiana Jones has underperformed at the box office. Mission Impossible Part Whatever isn’t doing that well. Disney is complaining that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not making the money they expected. There are actually rumors that they may sell it off. Those scripts might not have been by AI, but they might as well have been. And some of the actors were AI.

Warners is having similar problems, and their CEO is an accountant bottomliner just like Bob Iger. It’s not about art. It’s about commerce.

The problem here is less the pandemic, less the doomsayers’ “DEATH OF CINEMA” and more that the audience is getting sick of Big Mac movies.

And so telling actors and writers that they are irrelevant is exactly the wrong thing. We are at a crossroads of art and commerce that the producers are trying to win. Now, I’m not going to go all “union or die” on you, or all the “producers should be respected because they’re the money people.” What I am going to say is that a steady diet of cinematic Big Macs gets old after a while.

Years ago, about 1/3 of the Twilight Zone episodes and another 1/3 of the Star Trek shows were warnings of what would happen if computers replaced people. Most of those were silly speculations and overly paranoid. Most of the jobs computers have taken or replaced were the kind of repetitive jobs that, at least in the long term, are not particularly missed.

But art is the great human expression. They are the stories we share and tell ourselves. All AI can do is mimic what it’s seen. Coming up with a new idea or a new trend is not what it’s good for. It’s not going to come up with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” or Harrison Ford stumbling from exhaustion, or a wonderful script like Being John Malkovich. And we need those. They provide our joy and humanity.

So the producers are ultimately going to lose this fight, because we need the art. The creative people are going to win. They are producing the goods we need and the producers are just expensive gatekeepers.

And if you don’t believe me, look what’s already happened in publishing. You essentially can’t get a book out through a major publisher anymore unless you’re an established author. And you can only get established now through self-publishing. That’s where movies are headed. You can rent out a theater for your movie (already happening) or do something on YouTube.

The producers and studios will be irrelevant. The publishers already are. After all, the producers are really only there to make sure $$ happens and to say NO.

AI is really good at that. Maybe AI should replace studio heads and producers, not artists.

The Passion of Dr. Film

I published an update on the status of King of the Kongo recently that detailed how we’re out of money on the Kickstarter project.  Many of you wrote and suggested I start a GoFundMe to keep going.

I’m hesitant to do that because I know that GoFundMe campaigns are often perceived as “cash grabs,” and I don’t want to be seen that way.  But let me tell you how you can help.  I’ll do it by relating some long, boring stories, just the kind of stuff I’m famous for!

Like Napoleon, I am fighting battles on more than one front.  I hope that’s the only thing I have in common with Napoleon!  One of the fronts is a battle for a bit of respect in the marketplace.

A couple of times in the last year, I did restoration work on some films.  I didn’t do the entire restorations, only consulted, but they were films I thought were important.  I really am doing Kongo full time, but still, occasionally, things come my way that I can’t entirely ignore.  I was hoping to release at least one of those on video on the Dr. Film label to increase its visibility, but I got the same response from both folks, to wit:

“You’re not important enough to release this.  We want to go to a more important seller to sell this film.”

Well, that’s pretty insulting, but I get it.  They want to get the maximum exposure from the biggest audience.  However, both films are what I’d call “marginal” in the marketplace, things that wouldn’t sell a lot no matter who releases them.

One of the reasons I want to start a non-profit organization is to be able to release such “marginal” films without taking a bath on them.  Places like Kino or ClassicFlix have to be wary of the fact that many of their titles won’t clear a profit.  But that doesn’t make them less important to release.  They need to be seen!

The problem here is that a lot of these films aren’t popular because no one has seen them—and no one has seen them because they’re not popular.  It’s a circular conundrum, but it’s death for many lesser known titles.  They need someone to champion them in order to get the audience that they deserve—or indeed, any audience.

The popular legend is that I’m obsessed with King of the Kongo to the detriment of all else.  I’m not.  I’ve got several cards up my sleeve.  I’ve wanted to start my own independent DVD label for some years. It wasn’t enough to release Little Orphant AnnieAnnie suffers from a couple of problems: people incorrectly think it’s related to the comic strip and the musical, and there have been so many crappy transfers of it in the public domain that it’s got a bad reputation that it certainly doesn’t deserve.

I was hoping that Kongo would be the key to keep the label going.  When we started it, I had no idea the serial was in such bad shape.  I figured we’d be on it for six or eight months and then release it.  But that was impossible. 

See, I told you that I wanted to start a label that people took seriously.  If I had released Kongo on a just-good-enough-to-watch basis, it wouldn’t have helped that goal. When I got reviews in from some of my other work, two reviews really bugged me.  I don’t take a lot of criticism seriously, because I know they are only opinions, but sometimes a serious but wrong opinion will sink a film.  One of the reviews was Fritzi Kramer’s review of Little Orphant Annie, which is still the first review you see of Annie on IMDb.  Fritzi’s review is flippant and dismissive, and it hurts the film.

I have no problem with being flippant and dismissive, because I do that all the time.  But in the case of Fritzi’s review, it has made a lot of people leery of buying the film or giving it a chance.  I hear it all the time when people talk about it.  “Movies Silently said this was an awful movie!”  And she never even bothered to watch my restoration! Rather, she saw only some of the awful out-of-sequence prints that were already out there.  It’s hurt my chances of starting a label.  Suffice to say, I will not be sending her a review copy of King of the Kongo.

The other review that bothered me was David Pearson, who likes to follow me on to various sites and complain that I don’t know what I’m doing about restoration, and that if they’d only hired him to restore the color scene from Seven Chances, then it would have been perfect.

It’s true the color scene was in rough shape—even after I’d finished it—but he complained that it looked awful.  A couple of other people told me that same thing.  One of them even claimed he almost shut off the disc because the color scene looked so bad.  This was a project I was proud to work on, but it annoyed some people. The problem was (as I have said many times) that there was not enough time to make the color scene look perfect, and I did the best possible in the extremely short time allotted–or it wouldn’t be color at all.  That doesn’t matter.  Perfection is the only goal.

I learned a couple of things from this:

  1. People will sink your work for reasons that are ridiculous and unfair.
  2. People expect visual perfection from restored films even if perfection is difficult or impossible.

So imagine me sitting with a disk full of Kongo material late in 2019.  I’d paid nearly half my grant money just to access it.  And it looked AWFUL.  We didn’t know that when we inspected it–it was impossible to discern on a rewind stand.

If I had released it with the same level of restoration that we gave Annie, which is what I’d budgeted for, it would have been terrible, and the David Pearsons of the world would have been all over me like Sydney Greenstreet on Elisha Cook.

I can’t give the grant money back.  I spent it.  I’ve got to trudge forward or else I have nothing to release.  And I know that I need it to keep my label going.  That’s why I have continued with this seemingly endless project.  That’s why I’ve had to invent new ways of fixing damage in order to accomplish anything.  It’s why I’ve needed to buy computers for massive processing power. Now, you know some of this if you’ve been following my work (and listening to me “whine” as some people call it).  

But Kongo isn’t coming out for a while yet and I’m out of cash again.  Yes, I got screwed over big time by the professional lip readers and a few other things, too, but we were in there trying.  I’ve been busting my butt on this for years now.  Frankly, I’m wearing out helpers and annoying consultants, but believe me, I really want to get this done!

So how can you help?

Let’s not do a GoFundMe.  Instead, buy some copies of Little Orphant Annie.  Buy some copies of the Milan films.  Buy some copies of Cinema Gems.  Heck, if you’re adventurous, buy a copy or two of my novel, A Fearful Thing to Love. 

That’s not me just being greedy for cash.  It does help me keep going, but it also sends a signal to people that I’m serious about this work and we’re a force to be reckoned with, not just some crank to be ignored.  It honestly helps me more than a GoFundMe would. (And frankly, I don’t say no to donations, but they are not, as yet, tax deductible.)

Also, if you’re in that delightful group that already has copies of all this stuff, then do me another favor that also helps me: tell a friend or two about this.

And that goes to the second battle I’m fighting.  Remember I said I’m fighting a battle on two fronts?  The first is for respect.  The second is for an audience.

I went to hire an artist to help illustrate some of my work a few weeks ago.  I already had a short DVD opening movie that I created.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s here: https://youtu.be/EWYLD4slues  

I showed it to the artist, a film fan.  He watched it blankly.  I told him that it was a spoof of 2001.  He told me that he never watched movies that old.  They were boring.

(I’ve since been told that my DVD intro is too long and boring anyway.  Everyone’s a critic.)

The point here is that the audience for old films is dropping off at a frightening rate.  Author James Neibaur subscribes to the theory that these films are just so old that they are no longer of interest to most people, and that when we started loving them, they were much newer than they are now, hence more relevant.

On a related note, people have told me that it’s a miracle that grown-ups will even watch movies 100 years old and something of an indulgence that others even let us do it at all.

The other theory, which is the one that I subscribe to, is that we covet what we see, to paraphrase Hannibal Lecter.  For example, Laurel and Hardy are irrelevant today not because they are old, not because they are black and white, not because they aren’t funny, but because we don’t see them anymore.

The same goes for all of these other films I want to share.

My goal has always be to save AND SHARE films.  I want to win both battles: I’d like to get Kongo done so we can move on to other projects, and I’d like to start the non-profit with part of our goal to educate audiences and share more films.  I want to educate that artist that old does not equate to boring!

Frankly, I look at the local offerings in RedBox and note that they are hawking DVDs that no one has heard of.  Sure, we know a half dozen new releases, but I keep wondering why there aren’t classics in there instead of 35 movies that feature Bruce Willis for 5 minutes.  

That’s my passion: to save and share.  Kongo is only part of it.  If you want to help, go to www.drfilm.net and click on SHOP!

You Can’t Run That

In 2019, I inherited a bunch of 16mm and 35mm film, a huge cache of film that frankly made me sad to receive.  Their owner, Chris Jacobs, was a collector and film professor who taught early film and filmmaking.  He died an unfortunate death of leukemia a few years ago.  I’d spoken to him a few times and he wanted to sell me all his collection, but I couldn’t afford it.   A little later, he passed on, and I was told he wanted me to have his film.

Chris was one of those guys for whom the adage, “Still waters run deep,” was written.  Always very soft-spoken, very unassuming, he was nonetheless quite friendly and willing to help if I needed something for a show. With a heavy heart, I made two epic trips to North Dakota to pick up loads of film.  Not only was it unsorted–made worse by the mad dash to load the prints, which were in a basement, into a rented SUV–but the reels had suffered through two floods. Things were missing, unlabeled, stained, you name it.

I have spent many hours going through this collection, missing an old friend, finding things that I never knew were there.  As with anything, much of it is stuff no one would want, things that only Chris liked, and then there was the rest of it.

It’s a treasure trove of early silent films.  Not anything that would be extremely valuable… most of it is already on video.  But then he’s got Kodascopes of 1920s films.  Kodascopes are original 1920s prints (on safety stock).  Nothing spectacular, mind you, but fascinating stuff.  Educational value and just plain COOL value.

I’ve been sifting out the coolest stuff and slowly running it at conventions and sharing it with others.   I think that’s what Chris would have wanted.  And then one day I found THE FILM.

The Birth of a Nation (1915).

It’s not especially rare.  You can probably find it on archive.org if some do-gooder hasn’t removed it.  But I’d never had a film print before and I thought this would be a perfect chance to run this landmark film.

And then I thought to myself, “You can’t run that.”

You see, The Birth of a Nation is an extremely racist film.  When I say extremely racist, I mean it.  I’m not even going to recount the plot here.  It’s not nice.  But it’s also a good film.  As they said in the New Yorker, “the worst thing about The Birth of a Nation is how good it is.”

It was made by DW Griffith of Louisville, Kentucky, a guy who was raised in a racist society after the Civil War.  Racism was so natural for him that he didn’t understand anything else. 

But, like so many things, the racism is baked into it, and so is the contradiction.  What do I mean?  Well, we’d like to cast Griffith as a one-dimensional racist, evil to the core.  But he wasn’t.  How do I know?  There were home movies shot at Griffith’s funeral in 1948.  One of the mourners there was Madame Sul-Te-Wan, an African-American actress who appeared in several of Griffith’s films.  She is weeping openly at the funeral.  Griffith was her friend.

That’s certainly not enough to exonerate Griffith, but, like so many things, life is more complicated than “Cancelled” or  “Not Cancelled.”  There’s a lot of nuance in between.

Besides being racist and offensive, The Birth of a Nation is also one of the most important films ever made.  No superlatives here.  Our world looks differently today because of The Birth of a Nation.  Really.  Not only did it change the face of cinema, but it changed the way cities look.  It helped kill vaudeville.  You can’t overstate it.

Griffith was racist and a friend to African-Americans.  Birth of a Nation is racist and important.  I get pretty passionate about these things.  You’ve heard me rail about them before.

Thomas Jefferson was a hugely important man and a racist slave owner.

Bill Cosby supported all kinds of important African American projects and he’s a convicted felon.

There’s good and bad in all of these things.  If I laugh at Bill Cosby, then I’m not condoning his behavior.  If I admire Thomas Jefferson for his writing and architecture, I am not condoning racism.

If I talk about the brilliant structure of The Birth of a Nation, I’m not condoning its message.

Yes, Birth of a Nation sparked riots, inspired the Ku Klux Klan to reinvent itself in my home state of Indiana, and it also proved that feature-length motion pictures could enthrall audiences for two or three hours.

That’s huge.  Since the days of the 1890s, movies were put into 1000-foot reels.  This size of reel could run 10-15 minutes depending on the projection speed.  It was a convenient length to ship the old combustible nitrate stock.  A projectionist could travel from city to city and be a part of a vaudeville tour, where all of the acts were about ten minutes.  Cities had buses, interurbans, mule cars, a lot of public transportation.

At every major stop, there was a Nickelodeon.  For ten minutes, you could duck in to a small shop, a projectionist would run a movie, it would be over, and they’d empty out the place for the next crew.  Bigger Nickelodeons would have two or three shows.  There were maybe three dozen of these in my home town of Indianapolis when Birth of a Nation opened.

If you want to see what this was like, watch DW Griffith’s Those Awful Hats (1908), which shows a typical setup, a flat floor with uncomfortable seats, and a piano player.  Why have comfortable seats?  You were only going to be there for a few minutes.  Why would you have a sloped floor?  If you couldn’t see over someone’s hat, you could just stay and watch the film again.  It wasn’t a big deal.

Universal Studios, which started in 1912, based its whole business model on this idea.  They continued a release schedule of almost 100% short films until 1917 or so.

But Birth of a Nation is TWELVE REELS.  You were sitting there for at least two hours and closer to three.  OK, it wasn’t the first film this long.  The Italians were doing films like Cabiria (1914).  The Germans were doing it with things like The Student of Prague (1913).  These films made it to the United States, but they weren’t mainstream.

Suddenly, when Birth of a Nation broke onto the scene, we had an American film that covered recent history (it was based in the Civil War, a time period no more removed from 1915 than the Vietnam War is to us.)  It was thrilling, with clever, innovative chase sequences, realistic action and accurate reconstructions of historic events.  It made $11,000,000 in 1915, more than $315 million dollars in today’s cash.  This is probably a gross underestimate given the bookkeeping at the time.

Nickelodeons didn’t want to run a film like this.  No one wanted to sit in stiff chairs in a flat room for three hours.  But the big vaudeville houses, well, that was a different story.  All they needed to do was to put up a big screen, throw some projectors in where the spotlights were, and ZOOM, you’ve got a movie theater with comfortable seats and a raked floor.

It started to kill vaudeville.

It started to kill the market for most film shorts.

It made people sit up and take notice of a new art form.

Theaters sprang up that were built exclusively for motion picture exhibition, something that was new.   Instead of going to any street corner for a film, you’d go downtown for an evening’s entertainment.

President Woodrow Wilson allegedly called Birth of a Nation “history written with lightning.”  Yes, there were lots of protests.  It was considered racist from the start.  DW Griffith was so upset by this reception that he made a followup film called Intolerance (1916), similarly innovative, that called for tolerance and understanding.  It played to expensive road shows with a traveling orchestra.  Griffith toured a lot of the midwest in it.  It was a cultural event.

So you can see why I’d want to run a landmark film like Birth of a Nation.  But in today’s hyper-sensitive environment, I’d be afraid for my safety.  The right way to do it would be to have a cultural historian, an African-American historian, and a film historian introduce the film.  In fact, that’s really the only way to do it these days, and I would encourage that kind of dialogue.

I’m a big believer in this sort of thing.  A lot of these films don’t make a lot of sense if you don’t see them in context.  We tend to see films through our own modern lens and it’s valuable to see them in the same way that they were seen in their day.   It helps our understanding.  It helps our empathy.  It helps us know where we came from.

But I can’t run it.

I’m not sure why we can stand up for books but not films.  When people wanted to ban Slaughterhouse Five or Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn, there were huge protests.  But ban Birth of a Nation and the world is with you.

I think some of this is that films are not considered real, important art.  I’m not sure why this is.  Older films are particularly not considered real, important art.  They are expendable, like the Sunday comics.  People like me who want to preserve these things are not only irrelevant, but sometimes foolish.

I recently had a conversation with a group that openly censors old films.  If there’s a scene that might be considered offensive, out it goes.  Given the fact that censoring film prints is hard, they’re moving to all digital, which is easier to, let’s call it what it is, bowdlerize.

The rationale behind this is that old films are considered “societally irrelevant” and that we need to have the widest possible audience.  Running a controversial picture is not in the cards, because we’d be fragmenting an already microscopic audience.  One of the show sponsors said that we should all be thankful that we have any audience for our “little film hobby” at all.  How patronizing that is.

The only reason that films are “societally irrelevant” is that no one sees them.  No one sees them because we don’t know how to present them properly.  Since we don’t present them properly, audiences don’t understand them and they react poorly.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Presenting sanitized films simply shows us a world and a history that never existed and that doesn’t make sense.  The great example of  this is Leave it to Beaver.  It was never intended to reflect reality.  No one really lived in that world, and we seem to believe it represents an idyllic past.  Political hacks have used clips of the show to invoke sort of fictional nostalgia.

A few years ago, I ran The Thing (1951) followed by The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).  I carefully explained that the latter film is the liberal reaction to an alien invasion: the military people are stupid, the aliens are misunderstood, the scientists are heroes, the government is powerless.  On the other hand The Thing was the conservative reaction to an alien invasion: the military people are heroes, the scientists are wishy-washy and too intellectual, the alien is deadly, and the government is trying to do the right thing but is still powerless.  I don’t think you understand these films unless you know that they’re made only six years after WWII and in the middle of a Communist threat.

You can run them without this background, but the audience won’t be as engaged.  With The Birth of a Nation, the distance between us and the film is greater, and the need to provide context is increased.

And I still think I should run Chris’ print of The Birth of a Nation somewhere.

It’s a Wonderful, Mad Future

I’ve often studied the way smart people are portrayed in movies.  There are trends.  In the 1920s-40s, we had the frizzy-haired mad scientist who dreamed up amazing inventions in his Ken Strickfaden-charged laboratory.  In the 1950s, we had the manly macho scientist (often Richard Carlson or John Agar) who was calm, visionary, and took control of the situation.

Since the 1960s, it’s been Jerry Lewis-style geeks.  Eddie Deezen has made a career out of playing this stock character.  He’s loud, socially inept, smart, and no one likes him.  This isn’t to trash Eddie: he does a great job of playing a stock character, but what are you gonna do with a stock character?  Lon Chaney Jr. was great as Lennie, but they asked him to do variations on it for the rest of his life.  Same with Eddie.

This is why I particularly love a film called Real Genius (1985), which is one of the few movies since the 1950s to depict smart kids as smart kids.  The smart boys get the girls, and the girls are smart, too.  There is social ineptitude, but it’s real, not cartoonish.  The characters are all well-drawn.  But Real Genius was an anomaly, and we went back to the loud geek cliche.

So I came with trepidation to this new movie, Welcome to the Future.  It’s an indie film, and Sturgeon’s Law applies: 90% of everything is junk. In the world of indie films, 99% of them are junk.  And this is about smart people who go to conventions.  So I expected the worst.  I expected to last 5 minutes and have to turn it off.

But one thing saved it: Larry Blamire liked it.  Larry, for those of you who read here often, is one of those guys who makes indie films that are in that 1/2 of 1% that are very good indeed.  So I thought, well, if Larry liked it, I’ll give it a shot.

Now, I know that a lot of you rib me that I don’t like any movie made after 1934.  Some will rib me that I don’t like any movie shot in color.  A lot of you don’t think I will see modern films at all.

And I like modern films.  I just don’t like films that suck.  I don’t like films that are the same old thing.  And yes, I don’t like comic book movies these days because THERE ARE JUST TOO MANY OF THEM.

I’m happy to report that Welcome to the Future does not suck.  In fact, it extra strongly does not suck.  It’s got some of the cleverest screenwriting I’ve seen in several years.  Really.  And it’s about smart people, geeks, and there’s not a single Eddie Deezen-style stock character in it.  Well, maybe one.

Welcome to the Future was actually shot at a Comic Con.  The logistics of doing such a thing are so daunting that I would never attempt it.  How they got a usable soundtrack and intelligible dialogue are beyond me.  It doesn’t look like much of it is overdubbed, and if it is, it’s amazingly well done.  But enough about the technical stuff.  I know it’s my favorite part, but not yours.

The movie is essentially about Gene (Leon Morgan) and his pal Mike (Frank Bonacci, also the screenwriter and director).  Mike’s girlfriend Taylor (Concetta Rose) is frustrated with him because he keeps ignoring her, and Mike seems to think Taylor is, well, it’s a plot point.

Gene is prone to panic attacks for some strange reason and has trouble dealing with certain topics.  We eventually learn why.  Enter Angry Cliff (Christopher Ryan) and Rod (Mike Bocchetti), and we’ve rounded out the main cast.

Rod is the most Eddie Deezen-like in the cast, but he’s much more believable than the stock character.  Rod simply is so deep into his fandom and his own little world that he can’t really cope with other people.  He can have conversations, but he obsesses about characters like Boba Fett and has few contact points with reality.  Mostly he just sits silently.  I’ve met people like Rod.

Angry Cliff is upset that people and things aren’t going his way.  He’s nearly as obsessed as Rod, but he feels alienated from mainstream culture and hates the newbies that have invaded his world of geekdom.  I’ve met people like Angry Cliff.

Gene looks at it a different way: the mainstream has invaded geek culture because the geeks won.  Mike isn’t so sure.  He especially hates the fact that some people are dressed as characters from the film Xanadu, a position I find completely defensible, but you all know I hate disco.

Welcome to the Future hits all of these notes and still captures the love and joy that these characters get from their fandom.  It also touches on some other stock characters: the drunken, out-of-work actor (Craig Geraghty) who’s been in some movies that the fans like but doesn’t get the whole fan thing.  The classic-era artist (Jack Piccinni) who’s too old and out of it to care anymore, only egged on by his wife, who seems to be holding on to their last source of income.

These characters are all real, and they resonate well here.  Bonacci’s script doesn’t talk down to us or condescend to his characters.  It’s talky: there’s a lot of discussion, but there needs to be.  

Gene’s character gets a good story arc and has some redemption toward the end.  He doesn’t reject geek culture but rather learns to share it and distance a little.  Rod is beyond any sort of redemption, and Angry Cliff probably is, but Mike doesn’t seem to be.  

I get the feeling that there is more to the story of Mike and Taylor after the end of this film.  Sequel?  I’d watch it.  I think Mike has some more character growth in him.

I guess one of the reasons I like this so much is that I relate to the characters so much, and there seems to be very little of these kinds of people in regular media.  The only note Bonacci seems to miss is a typical person I seem to find at every convention.

I’m speaking of the people who are so obsessed with fan culture that they wrote their own book/screenplay/comic book about something.  At Star Trek conventions, this person is almost always female and has a story about Mr. Spock.

If someone up to you and says, “I wrote this story about Mr. Spock,” you should always politely run in the other direction.  It will save you an hour of discussion.

This is a manifestation of the fact that a great number of these people are actually closeted artists who can’t quite get to their own art.  They express it by over-loving others’ work.  They may be too untalented, too antisocial, too unlucky, or just plain too scared to succeed at creating their own works.

I think most of the characters in Welcome to the Future are frustrated artists and creators, if they’d admit it to themselves.  They’re archetypes that I believe.  And that makes this all the more real.  I recommend it.

After all, I wrote this story about Mr. Spock.

The Canonical List of What’s Going on with Kongo 11/6/21

I have every frame of film the Library of Congress has scanned.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other reels of clips.

I have an entire reel of clips from a second archive .

There’s a reel of material from Bob Monkhouse in England that I do not have scanned yet.  It contains some footage I can use.

I have a complete 16mm print in my collection, but the quality is iffy.  All of the 16mm prints are like this.

The goal is to have as much of this sourced from 35mm as possible.

Chapter 1 R1:

The sound version is completely missing in 35mm.

We have the sound version in 16mm.  I have scanned this.

We have the camera negative for the silent version, and we have the credits and tag from other materials.  

About 2/3 of the reel can be found in the silent version in identical shots.

A bit of the sound footage in the clip reel we just had scanned.

We do not have sound for this reel.  We have the script for the two dialogue scenes and will have to have lip readers help out.

Restoration just started.

Chapter 1 R2:

We have camera negative on this.  It’s in fair shape.  Bruce Lawton is helping me go through it now.

We do not have sound for this reel.  We have the script for the two dialogue scenes and will have to have lip readers help out.

Restoration not started.

Chapter 1 R3:

We have a print and negative on this.  Bruce Lawton is helping me go through it now.

We do not have sound for this reel.  We have the script for the two dialogue scenes and will have to have lip readers help out.

Restoration not started.

Chapter 2 R1:

This is missing the cliffhanger resolution from the previous chapter, but the previous chapter is using footage from a different camera.  Replacement footage has  been scanned from 16mm.

Some footage from Bob Monkhouse in 35mm will cover this better.

Restoration only barely started.

Chapter 2 R2:

Have print and negative.  Print is a little short in end tag.  Two brief sequences removed that exist in negative.  Long goofy piece in beginning of reel set in Africa has insert sequences rotted in negative.  Sequence in here can be used to fix a damaged section in Chapter 10. Lots of film and camera jitter.  Looks like it was shot this way.

Restoration only barely started.

Chapter 3 R1:

Not examined closely yet.

Chapter 4 R1: 

Have print and neg,  mostly looks in good shape.  Not examined too closely yet.

Chapter 4 R2:

Tinting starts last half of R2.   Tint has caused rot in print.  Focusing on this because it’s got a lot of issues and it’s going to cause problems.  We have no backup except 16mm.

Chapter 5 R1:

Graded and awaiting stabilized.

Chapter 5 R2: Awaiting grading and stabilization.

Chapter 6 R1: Awaiting grading and stabilization

Chapter 6 R2 graded and stabilized.  Awaiting de-dirting.

Chapter 7 R1: graded and stabilized.  De-dirting in progress.

Chapter 8 R1: Pretty well finished; needs some touch-up, but we just found more footage, which needs to be replaced.  Yet more footage in Monkhouse.

Chapter 8 R2: Pretty well finished.  Maybe a little bit more to be done on ending.

Chapter 9 R1: Pretty well finished.

Chapter 9 R2: Pretty well finished, found more footage in LoC reel.  Needs to be replaced.

Chapter 10 R1: Nearly finished, but found footage in Monkhouse, LoC Reel.  Needs to be replaced.

Chapter 10 R2: De-dirted, extensive line removal and de-flicker in progress.  Stabilization upgrade running now.

General comments:

The negatives in this are usually rotting and starting to mottle. Location footage is almost always going in the negatives.  Fortunately, there’s a lot of repetition and a lot of backup.

The prints are almost always edited, with little bits that were found to be exciting that got excised.  For example, the entire opening of Chapter 7 was excised from the print and put into Robert Youngson’s Days of Thrills and Laughter, so that had to be rescued from the negative, which isn’t in wonderful shape.  The dinosaur scenes in several chapters were cut out.  I’ve managed to find all of them except Chapter 10, which we had to rescue from 16mm.

I keep finding better footage of a lot of stuff, particularly Chapter 10.  I had originally had about a 3 minute section that was replaced from 16mm.  Then a piece showed up that was cut into Chapter 9… why, I don’t know.  In August, the Library of Congress shipped me a clip reel that had another minute in it.  In mid-September, I got reel from another archive with still more footage in it.  I think we’re going to end up with just the dinosaur scene from Chapter 10 replaced.

Here are the questions I keep being asked—

  1. When is this going to be finished?

I don’t know.  I’d like to think we’re about at the halfway point.  It may not seem like that but because of the pandemic and my needing to get upgraded computers, we were slowed immensely.  The fact I’ve now been through every chapter but 3 is a nice fact, and I’ve identified pretty well what needs to be done.

I was hoping for end of this year but maybe early-mid next year.

2) Why is it taking so long?

The film is in bad shape. As you see, bits are missing and need to be replaced.  It’s not a simple process.  We’re doing this at 4K which takes longer.

We’ve also had 2021 be the year of bad health for everyone.  Amongst my family and the people who are helping me do this, we’ve had one death, three cases of cancer, a case of sepsis and gangrene, and a broken leg.  

I’m having trouble getting people to do dirt removal.  Two of my assistants hate it so much as to almost refuse to do it, taking forever to get it done.  One other guy is so overbooked that he can’t do it.  Two other people are on the docket for doing it, but one just had an apartment fire.  

Yes, I can do it myself, but I’m busy sorting out bits of what parts of the film go where.  This is stuff only I can do.  Others can do de-dirting.  Almost every day I set up a render in the morning that takes all day, then head out to a coffee house and do correspondence, mostly on this project, for the rest of the day, sometimes a second render, sometimes visiting some of the guys helping me.  There ain’t room for more.

3) Didn’t you get a grant to do this?

Yes, I did, from the Efroymson fund.  We blew through the money by having to buy new computers.  I don’t regret that; they were needed, and they are being used, but I’m out of cash and frankly my helpers are all telling me that their trade for “new computers in exchange for work” isn’t really working out in their favor.

4) I thought you got an NFPF grant to restore this.

I got two NFPF grants to restore chapters on 16mm and I did do those.  The negatives are on file at Library of Congress.  But we discovered that there were 35mms after those were done.  When I did the NFPF grants, the 16mms were the best we knew of.  Let’s be clear: there was the negative in the camera, then there were master prints, and the 16mms were badly copied onto a 16mm dupe negative and then printed.  The 16mm negative also has clunky splices in it (particularly in Chapter 8 for some reason)

5) Are you just being anal retentive to get every frame?

No.  Most of the time that stuff is missing, it’s a good hunk of at least a minute. In chapter 10, almost 3 minutes are missing and were replaced from 16mm, but we’ve found nearly all of it from 35mm at this point.  Bear in mind that when we have sound, it’s best to have every frame because that keeps things in sync.

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:


“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.”


“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.