I generally avoid talking about my local exploits on the Dr. Film blog, because I know I have to pitch for a national or international audience. I don’t get enough local traction to stay in business! However, this is a special case, and it touches on a lot of ideas that are universal. A lot of it deals with how we perceive and build audiences.
When I became a full-time film geek in 2004, I had no idea how I was going to do it. I went to various places and told them I would like to run a film series. I got the same guff from most of them:
“We only want to run movies from the last ten years.”
“Indianapolis audiences are not sophisticated enough to support classic films.”
“You can only do something like this in Carmel (the rich suburb north of Indianapolis), where people support the arts.”
“If we’re not getting 50 or 75 people, then we’re not getting enough, and we’ll shut it down.”
These arguments annoyed me. Frankly, they still annoy me. I got several places to give me a chance, but they shut me down after a few shows. They didn’t know how to promote it, and they didn’t get enough people, and they just stopped.
Even more annoying were the places that would start having me do shows and see some limited success, then going with this idea: “Eric charges us, so we can download stuff from archive.org and just run that instead of having him here, and then we save money.” Without exception, those have died out too.
I’d like to think it’s because of my smiling face, but the reality is that people don’t want to leave the house anymore, and you have to give them a good reason to do it. What I’m giving them is a special show, some history, and a behind-the-scenes introduction. I try really hard not to run junk prints, and I always run on film, usually material that’s not just super easy to find elsewhere. Either that, or I’ll run a long version or a Technicolor print that you can’t see at home. In short, they’re seeing a curated movie series. And people respond to that.
People also respond to seeing films in an audience setting. I think that this is an endangered art form. We’re perilously close to losing the audience experience and replacing it with sitting in front of our 60” screen. That has advantages: no rude patrons, phone conversations, etc, but older films (and especially silents) were designed as a participatory shared experience. The Marx Brothers films, to name just one example, are timed for audience response. There are dead spots you’ll find if you watch them alone.
So in doing this work, I’m not only preserving films, but I’m preserving a way of watching films. This is a critical thing for me. I put the message, “Go out and see an old movie,” as the last title in the Dr. Film pilot. Yes, I believe in it that strongly. I can’t tell you the number of times I watched a movie with an audience—one I’d seen before—and it came alive for me, whereas is just sat there like a lump when I saw it at home.
As I continued doing film work, I moved more and more toward preservation and less and less toward doing movie shows. Movie shows are just too hard. The venues don’t want to deal with me, and you’re just spitting into the wind most of the time. I get tired of the same arguments, running Wizard of Oz and Casablanca to the exclusion of anything else.
There’s a fear that arts organizations have, and a certain cynicism. The fear is they can’t attract an audience, and they have to run only a sort of “best of” for a film series. The cynicism is that they don’t think the audiences are smart enough to deal with anything else than a “best of.” I continually am amazed at the idea that no audience will embrace anything older than the 80s. I call it the “Let’s run Ferris Bueller” mentality. It’s one reason I have steadfastly refused to run anything newer than Star Wars when I pick the films. Why? Because you can see those films easily, and you know them. Why run them again? (OK, it might be nice to see an occasional one in an audience setting, but not all the time, please.)
I’m in the business of selling a special experience, something you can’t easily get at home. I’m sure that Ferris Bueller is running somewhere 24/7 on some channel. I don’t need to show it to you again. I will run a “war horse” occasionally, but it’s got to be a special case: I got a nice Technicolor print of Singin’ in the Rain and those are holy grails for film geeks. It doesn’t look like that on video.
That fun in recapturing the thrill of a theatrical performance keeps film series alive. On the other hand, what kills a film series is inconsistency: you run too sporadically, and people don’t find you. You also have to promote it correctly or people won’t find you either.
And that brings me to why Garfield is so special: they put up with all this and stayed with it. They promoted properly, and they were willing to deal with the slowly rising curve of audiences finding us. A number of other people have approached me about doing film series: a place in Carmel told me they could only run films that were related to “the great American songbook,” another couple of places started off with me and then decided to run a selection of all Disney classics, and another place set up a beautiful film theater (in part at my direction) and instead runs The Goonies and Ferris Bueller from Blu-ray several times a year. I see it as a waste of potential and an assumption that audiences are ossified into the 80s. People are and more diverse than this. (For the record, I loved Ferris Bueller but The Goonies makes me gag.)
When I started at Garfield in September of 2009, we had four people. It was a selection of shorts. When we ran the first feature, Our Town (1940), we had four people again. The director at Garfield Park Art Center at the time, Tom Weidenbach, told me that he was impressed that I’d picked an appropriate movie for his Day of the Dead celebration and wanted to stay with this. It was incredibly brave. For the next several months, we struggled with low crowds, but we stayed with it.
“Staying with it” for so long has allowed me to run a wide variety of films. I’ve run westerns, musicals, crime dramas, comedies, great films, and terrible films. The oldest film we ever ran was The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots from 1893 or 4 (depending on your source) and the newest was Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger from 1977. That showing of Sinbad was the most popular in terms of one-off attendance, but we got repeated requests to re-run certain titles: the record is The Great Rupert (1949) which we’ve run three times (and we still have some requests to repeat it again). I love to run silent films (we always have a live score) because I think silents are great with an audience and so few of them are ever seen.
Today, we’ll get a consistent audience of 30-50 people at a Garfield showing. That may not seem fantastic, but for an Indianapolis showing, it’s great. There’s an unfortunate local cultural bias that no art happens south of Washington Street in Indianapolis, and it’s just not true. Now that the Red Line buses stop near the park, I’m hoping attendance goes up.
We upgraded screens a few years ago, thanks to donor Scott Keller and metal sculptor/designer Todd Bracik. I bought new projectors from a place in Florida, and they’re regularly maintained (often because they BREAK) by a guy in Detroit. And we’re shooting for year 11 for 2020!
Thank you to all the directors of the Garfield Park Art Center who supported this through the years:
You helped make this the longest-running classic film show in Indianapolis.
Q1: It’s been a long time since you’ve written a blog. You’re still on Facebook periodically. What are you doing?
I’ve been working on things. I’m hoping to get King of the Kongo going someday soon, but it’s been a problem. I’m working on some other projects too. I’ve hit a ton of roadblocks, and I’m even hitting some now. It’s been frustrating. (If you’re a newbie, King of the Kongo is a project I’ve been working on since 2011. It’s the first sound serial, and I restored three chapters of it before I discovered that there is better material out there and it can be upgraded.)
Q2: What’s the deal with King of the Kongo? Why not just release what you have?
I was on the cusp of doing just that last year when Steve Stanchfield convinced me to make one last run at the 35mm. There’s a 35mm at the Library of Congress, which is kind of a mess, but mostly complete. I’ve looked at it and it’s really nice for the most part. There’s even a lot of original negative in it. The 35mm has what’s called a donor restriction on it, meaning that the donor regulates who has access to it, even though it’s held at the Library. Confusing? Welcome to my world.
Q3: Well, we’re your supporters. Do a Kickstarter and get it out there.
It’s not that simple. Doing a quick budget run on it made me realize that it was going to cost more than I could raise on Kickstarter. We needed to pay the donor at Library of Congress a large access fee and that was a bugaboo. She named a fee and then I had to scramble to find ways to raise that money.
Q4: Did you find some?
Yes, the Efroymson Fund very kindly awarded me a grant last year, but then I had trouble raising the donor and then I’ve had trouble with some of the intricacies at the Library of Congress. They’re great, but it’s a process. There’s been lot of red tape I’ve had to get through in order even to start this. I was considering starting another Kickstarter to raise even MORE money.
Q5: Are you going to?
Not right now. It’s not just super easy to do this work. You have to get a lot of people on board, you have to get grant agencies on board, etc. There’s no way that I could recover the production costs of King of the Kongo without getting grant money or Kickstarter money to do it. It just doesn’t make sense. If some of the arrangements I’ve made fall through, then yes, I will do another Kickstarter, but we’ll see.
Q6: Well, there’s another organization that’s wanting to release it, and they’ve been putting out flyers…
Yes, I know about that. It’s one of those things that bugs me. I would have liked to work with these guys, but they seem to think I’m the bad guy for some reason, and that I want lots of money. I can’t imagine why anyone would think I want lots of money for a project like this, but they seem to. It’s sad, really.
Q7: Well, why not pool resources and work with them, just swallow hard and do it for the good of film preservation?
I’d like to, and I did try, but the response I got was being trashed personally and professionally in letters and public forums. I cut people a wide swath, and I don’t care if you trash me personally to my face, but when you take it public, and you damage my reputation in ways that cost me money, I draw the line. I actually get criticism for being TOO WILLING to work with some people, but these guys, no. I can’t. I honestly wish things were different.
Q8: So when it Kongo coming out?
I have no idea. It will come out when it comes out. I’m right now waiting for some scans to start trickling in. This has become a really epic project that seems to have a life of its own. The good news is that, unless we find more sound, this will be probably close to the end of it, because we found a lot of original negative.
Q9: What other projects are you working on?
Well, I was trying to get a disc out with some of my really rare animation films on it. I’ve been working on that since the first of the year. The project seems to have stalled and I’m not sure when it will come out, if at all.
Maybe. But I can’t do a Kickstarter until I know that I can actually do this project. Otherwise, I risk raising funds for a project I’m not sure I can deliver.
Q11: Anything else?
Yes, I’m working on getting some Lupino Lane films ready to release. I’ve been working on some scans I got from Library of Congress. Thad Komorowski has been doing some work for me even this week on it. I’ve got to get some technical hurdles fixed on this one before it comes out, too. Otherwise, it won’t be good enough.
Q12: Why not just release what you’ve got?
I may have to, but I really try to make these things look as nice as possible. One of the problems I have is that I’m willing to take on projects that are a little less commercial and where mint condition materials do not survive. (I’m attracted to these projects, because I know if I don’t do them, then no one else will.) This opens me up for criticism about doing sub-par work. The Lupino Lane films, by and large, survive in choppy 16mm 1920s Kodascopes and copies of choppy 1920s Kodascopes. They will never look fantastic, but they should look a lot better than they do.
Q13: Why do you care about the criticism? Just do the work!
I have to care about it somewhat, because people jump in and trash you and then you have the reputation for turning in 3rd-rate work, which hurts your sales. In a lot of cases that I work on, perfection isn’t an option, and it’s not even close to an option. Little Orphant Annie has sections in it that look kinda soft. They always will. There are a couple of shots where I have to cut to inferior material right in the middle of a scene, because footage was missing in every other print. But it’s complete and in order, and I’m proud that we were able to get that accomplished. It’s as good as that film can look now. I still have 400 copies of Annie sitting in my living room and I can use the space, so I need to worry about the criticism a little bit.
Q14: Why do you do a long blog occasionally instead of what Seth Godin says, doing a short blog often?
Seth Godin would faint at my marketing practices. I write blogs when I can (right now I’m inspecting a print of The Front Page as I write this), and it’s in chunks. I also have a visceral reaction against the flippant, now, now, now, short, short, short mentality we’ve developed as a culture. I like to take my time and develop things. That’s why I love the folks who’ve read this far. Thank you. (BTW, you can listen to the podcast and hear us spoof ourselves and Seth Godin a little bit.)
Q15: Speaking of Annie, why haven’t you sold it to TCM? Wouldn’t that help you?
I don’t think it’s going to happen, guys. It was in the hopper a bit over a year ago, but it dropped off the radar when Filmstruck died. I’d talked to them about a number of other projects, too. It was just the wrong time. And I’m not sure the right time is going to happen again. I’d like to be wrong on this.
Q16: Why haven’t you tried getting funding for King of the Kongo through TCM or releasing it through Kino?
Who says I haven’t? Kino was very positive about this project and wanted to help, but the numbers just didn’t make sense. TCM was just plain not interested. I suspect that if I can get it out there, then TCM may perk up, but right now I’m a super-niche releasing guy and I have only one major title in my hopper. I’m beneath their notice, and, frankly, I probably should be. I’ve got to get more product out there in general, and I just haven’t. (I’m not averse to going through places like Kino in general, and they released my prints of two major titles last year for their Outer Limits sets. They’ve been winning awards, too, including the Rondo and Saturn awards. However, unlike me, Kino is not just plain nuts, and they can’t go releasing projects willy-nilly that no one will buy!)
Q17: Didn’t you say something about a blu-ray of Ella Cinders and some restored footage?
Yes, it’s in the hopper. I’ve located multiple prints of the Kodascope and we should be able to create stunning material on it, and there will be no cut footage, but maybe stills. If I had a staff of 5-6 people and a budget for scanning, I’d be on that right now. There’s script for the complete film and an original score that survives. But I can’t get to it just now.
Q18: Well, we support you! We know that it would be easier to get more films out of you if you had more cash coming in. Why don’t you do a Patreon so we can support that?
I’ve been considering this, but the bugaboo I have is that I need to provide something monthly or quarterly to Patreon subscribers, and I have no idea what that would be. These things are like earthquakes. You may not have any action for years, and then suddenly everything breaks loose. If any of you have ideas on how to do a Patreon successfully and keep subscribers happy, I’d love to hear it!
I honestly love you guys for the support I’ve had. We’re in a best of times, worst of times Dickensian conundrum these days. In terms of the access and technology to present these films, it’s the best of times. In terms of the marketability of the films, it’s pretty awful. Markets are drying up faster than we can fill the void. That’s why I love you guys so much. You’ve supported my work through a failed TV pilot, into a blog and now into a weird podcast and restoration work. It’s been a wild ride!
One of the things I get asked frequently is if I’ve seen the worst film ever made. The given answer, since The Golden Turkey Awards came out, is that the worst film ever made is Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). That’s not a great picture, but the worst?
Being a film historian, I’m also supposed to know the greatest film ever made, and I don’t know what that is either. There’s no such thing as a perfect film. They all have problems. For example, the worst cutting continuity I’ve ever seen is in The Ten Commandments (1956), which is considered a classic. There are more mismatched cuts in that film than I’ve ever seen. It leaves Plan 9 in the dust, and Plan 9 isn’t very good.
I’ve often said that Plan 9 isn’t even the worst Ed Wood film. It’s not the worst Bela Lugosi film. There are films with special effects that are not as good. It’s not particularly ambitious and it manages to miss most of its goals, but it hangs together as a film.
The most charming thing about Plan 9 is the tin-eared dialogue that Ed Wood manages to infuse in the proceedings. It’s the kind of dialogue that an actor can’t read at all, even though it may look OK on the page. It forces the performances to be wooden and strange, and it makes them funnier than they should be.
(Aside: Filmmaker Larry Blamire is an ace at imitating and spoofing Ed Wood-style dialogue, and people have criticized him for it. I’ve read numerous clueless reviews that accuse his films of trying to be bad. They are not trying to be bad. They are spoofing the style of movies from the 1950s. They’re taking it a notch higher and making it funny. I can’t understand why people get this with Airplane! (1980) which spoofed the deadpan over-the-top style of airport disaster movies, but they often miss it with Blamire’s films. End long aside.)
Plan 9 is basically trying to be a mixture of The Day the Earth Stood Still and a zombie/walking dead film. It contains the dire warnings from the aliens and the ghoul trappings from other pictures. The special effects are bad, the dialogue is bad. The editing is world-class terrible, but not the worst I’ve seen. (See the article I wrote on this years ago). But the script itself isn’t too bad. The concept is OK. The actors do a decent job, although not spectacular (Mona McKinnon is a special exception… she’s awful.) The sets are passable, although they look cheap, because, well, they are.
But if you want to see a worse Ed Wood film, watch Glen or Glenda. There are large swaths of it that don’t even make sense. You could cut Bela Lugosi’s scenes out of it and never know they were gone. If you want to see a film with worse acting in it, geez, there are a lot of them. If you want to see a film with worse special effects, how about Robot Monster (1953), which has a few shots of the “space platform” that are truly laughable? Or maybe The Lost City (1935) with a few shots of a model ship that wouldn’t fool a five-year-old.
The thing I admire about Ed Wood, and I truly do admire it, is that he got these films made. He got them released. It’s a difficult thing to do that. For every one film that is made, there are a hundred that were started and not finished. For every one not finished, there are probably 10,000 that were never started. There’s a big part of me that scoffs at people who say they could have made a better film than Ed Wood. My answer is the same as what I often say when people criticize my own work: “Yes, but you didn’t.”
I’m not trying to defend Ed Wood here. His films are pretty bad, but he made it through meetings with stupid producers, financing people, editors, actors, cinematographers, lighting guys, studio renters, effects guys, and all the other people you have to deal with, and he did it. And not only did he do it, but he did it with almost no money. It’s an admirable thing that he could do it at all.
I’ve been going through the work of director Bud Pollard lately. (Full disclosure: I’m considering doing a Blu-ray of his Alice in Wonderland  and the surviving footage of The Horror .) Bud’s films are every bit as bad as Ed Wood’s. The acting is, in general, worse. The sound recording is worse than Wood’s. The makeup is inexcusable. The cinematography ranges from decent to terrible. But Pollard did this 25 years before Wood did, and he got all of this done when it was a lot harder technically to make a sound film at all. On one level, you’ve got to respect the achievement.
Alice is, however, still laughably bad. The lead actress has a wig that would embarrass even William Shatner… one person ran out of the room screaming when I ran it and another told me it gave him a headache. But still, Pollard got this made. For what it’s worth, The Horror or at least what survives of it, is much worse and has even more problems… and it’s not entirely clear whether that was released or not.
The bottom line is that all of these films are entertaining. They may not be classics, but they’re fun to watch. It’s enjoyable to see what these guys did with no money and how they worked with it. I respect this immensely. I love to sit through a “bad” film now and then just to see how they’re put together. It’s one of the reasons I restore things like King of the Kongo. I know no one else will touch them.
Then there are the films that are made with a cynical intent to cash in on something. The 1967 Casino Royale is a fun mess, but a misfire intended to exploit on the James Bond craze. 1950’s Rocketship XM loses points with me for being an attempt to seize the publicity around Destination: Moon. It’s a decent enough picture, though. Then there are things like Weird Science and My Science Project, both intended to ride the wave of PR that was to be generated by Real Genius (1985). Real Genius tanked because those two films preceded it into release and made everyone think it, too, was junk.
Another case in point: Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1951). This movie is terrible. I mean, it’s really, really terrible. Apparently, the motivation was to use these two guys (Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo) who had an act imitating Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and to put them in a faux Martin/Lewis film. The hope was that Paramount and Hal Wallis would see the film and pay to have the negative destroyed, which it wasn’t. I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of Martin and Lewis. Their comedy seems a little desperate and forced to me, and I know it’s a minority opinion. I like the way their movies are made, and I respect the performers a lot, but I just don’t find them especially funny.
Mitchell and Petrillo, on the other hand, are painful. Petrillo looks almost like a clone of Lewis, but he’s nowhere near as talented on any level. Mitchell is a decent singer. I can give him that, but he has no comic timing at all. Poor Bela Lugosi looks sick and doesn’t understand what he’s doing in the film. Frankly, I don’t either. The bottom line is that this is a train wreck. It’s not really even entertaining. You just watch it with your mouth open.
But, for me, the bottom of the barrel are these films that should really be tons better than they are. A lot of people will tell you that Ishtar (1987) is terrible, which it isn’t. It was handled by a director (Elaine May) who was used to shooting lots of footage of ensemble players, and when she had to do that with a picture that required action and had two expensive stars in it, the movie went over budget. But still, there are a lot of laughs in Ishtar. It’s full of good moments and clever repartee.
How about The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)? This is an awful film. With uneven special effects, and terrible performances, topped off by in incomprehensible script. The 1932 Island of Lost Souls is pretty good. The 1977 remake Island of Dr. Moreau isn’t very good, but it’s light years ahead of the 1996 version. The newer film stars a bloated Marlon Brando having an attitude attack about being in a film at all, with Val Kilmer having an attitude attack about being upstaged by Brando. The film had a troubled production history, with bickering stars and directors, finally being helmed by none less than John Frankenheimer, who should have known better. You’ve got a boatload of top talent in this film, and it adds up to a complete mess.
Another total loss: Battlefield Earth (2000). OK, this movie is awful. I suppose the special effects are decent-ish, but John Travolta and Forest Whitaker are over the top in the worst possible way. The script is a total disaster, full of improbable coincidences and plot holes you could pilot the Titanic through. Director Roger Christian has had an undistinguished career as a director (although he’s a top art director), but I get the feeling that this film was going down the tubes before they ever called him.
And ultimately, I find these less excusable than Ed Wood’s pictures. These guys had everything. Money, actors, cinematographers, screenwriters, top studios, and they still couldn’t make a decent film. You wonder what Wood could have achieved with similar funds. It certainly couldn’t have been worse, and maybe it would have been entertaining.
I’m going to be discussing a bit more about this in some upcoming blogs. It’s easy to make fun of a bad movie, but it’s really hard to make one. It’s like those painful assignments you used to get in social studies class. You’re thrown together with people who have to work in a group (in this case, it’s all the actors and behind-the-camera people you need to do the work.) If you happen to get a group of all of the smart kids, you can do well. But if you get one kid who screws up and doesn’t do his job, the whole group can look bad. Even then, sometimes the smart kids make a bad project, and the kids who sit in the back and sleep come up with a winner once in a while. You just never know.
I’ve gotten some feedback about the podcast that I would like to address here. I always have to say that when every side complains, I have to be doing something right, because you can’t please everyone, but you certainly can annoy everyone.
First, let me tell you a little about it. I guess it hasn’t really been properly introduced here. It’s at https://podcast.drfilm.net
For those of you who may not have been following this long-term, I started this as a TV pilot years ago (2008-2010). I utterly failed to get anyone to take the pilot seriously, although I sure tried. The intent was to share rare films from my collection and do it in a humorous way as kind of a tribute to the 1950s movie hosts. The one thing that succeeded was the PR that I put out on Facebook.
But no one ever read the web page, and they thought that I personally was trying to promote myself as Dr. Film. Dr. Film was always supposed to be a character, not Eric, and that made it a little strange. My genius marketing skills at work.
And then I started the blog, in hopes to reawaken interest in the pilot, which failed as well. Ultimately, the blog became a forum to discuss film issues that I thought were important, and it veered away from the concept of Dr. Film.
Oddly, the blog got a little play, and so I wanted to keep it going, and the Facebook page is a great forum for discussing issues that not many other people discuss. We discuss lost films, restoration issues, and copyright stuff, things that aren’t often fodder for other places. And that’s cool.
I thought seriously of shutting down the Dr. Film web page and just moving it over to other sites, since the pilot was a non-starter (I still like the pilot, but that’s apparently just me.)
But several people told me I was crazy. They said, “You have a trademark that people know NOW, and you’re wanting to throw that away? Why would anyone do that?” Of course, it’s a crazy way to have acquired a trademark, but hey, what are ya gonna do?
And then people told me that I needed to have a podcast. “No one reads blogs anymore, dude,” they said. “You need to get with the program and do a podcast.” And I went out and listened to podcast after podcast and I thought to myself, “I can’t really add anything to what’s out there. I have nothing to distinguish the podcast.”
I thought back to the origins of the Dr. Film character. I know that my voice and “manner” tend to sound pompous and condescending, particularly when I’m “acting,” so I designed Dr. Film as a pompous character, knowing that I could play that! I decided to go back to the character’s roots and play from there.
I added some back story and made Dr. Film a film superhero, with his alter ego being me. So there’s a difference between Eric and Dr. Film (finally.) And Dr. Film stands for real film history, quality presentations, and non-stupid stuff.
And I brought back Anamorphia, who keeps Dr. Film stable and cuts him down to size.
I probably can’t do a Dr. Film show TV show anymore (I have too many restoration gigs now, and I’d have to finish those before I could even think of shooting anything), but I can do an occasional podcast.
So if you’re a fan of the blog, with serious issues discussed, then stay here, and you’ll continue to see them. I’m going to make an effort to do more of them, but I’m working behind the scenes on a lot of stuff that I can’t really tell you about. Not yet at least.
I realize that there are a lot of you who are disappointed at the silly tone of the podcasts, and they are actually a good deal sillier than the Dr. Film show. I’ve gotten several complaints that the Dr. Film character is negative. Well, he’s not supposed to be a character you like. He’s intended to be obnoxious.
I’m hoping to make a show that appeals to a different audience and one that uses newer technology than what the blog relies on. It’s still tackling serious issues, but in a light-hearted way, and, oddly, we’re doing it in a 1940s radio sort of approach.
The shows we do that are the weirdest and most “out there” seem to be attracting the most listeners, and the straight interviews, which I will continue to do, seem to be more like medicine that people need to get through to the weirder and funny stuff.
This is partly why I’ve resolutely refused to put the blogs on the same page as the podcasts. They’re not the same thing. I know that some people are telling me that they don’t listen to podcasts and would rather have CDs, and others tell me that they only stream and don’t want blogs. It seems like two different markets to me.
So if you’re interested in what we’re doing in a purposely bizarre podcast, please listen in. If it bugs you, if it seems too frivolous and not serious enough, then it’s not for you and stay here on the blog.
Is this marketing genius, or marketing foolishness?
I have no idea. I make this up as I go along. If you want a marketing genius, call Seth Godin.
This is a real departure for the Dr. Film blog, and we’re not going to do this very often, but, well, just this one time.
an interview between Dr. Film and his alter ego Eric, about Eric’s new book. If you haven’t followed the podcasts,
Dr. Film is Eric’s utterly hostile, completely film-centric alter-ego.
Dr. Film: Hi, Eric, nice to see…er… be you.
Eric: Nice to be you, too.
Dr. Film: I hear you have a new book coming out.
Dr. Film: Well, it’s about film, right?
Eric: Nope, not really at all. There’s only one section in it that has a film
reference. It’s a joke, that only film geeks will get. It’s called “Pardon Me
While I Have a Strange Interlude.”
Dr. Film: Then why are you wasting our time with something
that’s not about film?
Eric: Because I already have an audience here, so I might as well.
Dr. Film: I see. So tell us about the book.
Eric: It’s called A Fearful Thing to
Love. It’s a weird science-fiction/horror sort of story about a young woman
who’s turned into a vampire. But not your standard vampire. It’s also a romance
and sort of a science-gone-wrong story.
Dr. Film: Wow. So it could be a movie.
Eric: Well, I hadn’t thought of it as a movie. I suppose it could be. It
would probably be expensive, since some of it is set in 2091, some of it during
WWII England, and some of it in late 1600s France.
Dr. Film: So she lives a long time.
Eric: Yes, a very long time. It’s been compared to the Twilight Zone story Long Live
Walter Jameson, by Charles Beaumont, but others have found elements of The Andromeda Strain and other things in
it, except those aren’t about vampires and this is.
Dr. Film: OK. What made you write this?
Eric: I got tired of reading the standard vampire story about curses and evil
and stuff, and all the religious trappings. I get that out of the way early in
this one, and it doesn’t come up again. This is more like an unfortunate
Dr. Film: How is it that people who have known you for years
have never heard you talk about this?
Eric: Because there’s nothing more boring that an author
talking about a book he hasn’t written, unless it’s a filmmaker talking about a
film he hasn’t shot. People write
you off really quickly; they can’t be part of your vision because they haven’t
seen it. It’s like the people I
used to see at Star Trek conventions asking me if they’d like me to read their
story about Mr. Spock. NO! RUN!
Dr. Film: So is there a lot of sex and violence in the book?
Eric: Some. Not what you’d call a lot, and it’s not explicit, except some at
the beginning. It’s more a character study and an exploration of ideas.
Dr. Film: OK, you have a female vampire, so that means we have
to have lesbian scenes with hot chicks in it, right?
Eric: (looks at audience) I’m sorry, folks. He’s a
politically incorrect idiot, but what are you going to do? I see that’s what
you’re expecting. Well, this is written to go counter to your expectations. If
you’re looking for Stoker or LeFanu, or even Hammer’s Countess Dracula, you’ll be disappointed.
Dr. Film: I’m trying for the hard sell and you’re making it
tough here, dude.
Eric: Think moody, think more Outer
Limits or maybe a lighter version of Charles Beaumont or Lovecraft, and
you’ll be closer to what this is.
Dr. Film: Well, that’s something, I guess. How is it that you
have time to do this with all your film work?
Eric: Good question. I didn’t. I get calls and emails all the time so it’s
impossible to concentrate on something like this. I gave up writing seriously
in about 1990 or so, because I just wasn’t producing the results I wanted. I
worked on this during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years for the last
several years, the three days of the year that no one pesters me.
Dr. Film: What made you dig it up after all these years?
Eric: Easy answer. I’ve been pestered relentlessly by Glory-June Greiff, my
co-conspirator on the Dr. Film show, to do something with this. She liked it
better than I did.
Dr. Film: So does that mean you have more fiction writing that
we haven’t seen?
Dr. Film: What is it?
Eric: Let’s see how this one does.
Dr. Film: No hints?
Dr. Film: A sequel to this one?
Eric: Not in the works, no.
Dr. Film: So this is a different sort of vampire story,
written to counter your expectations. What else can you tell us about how it’s
Eric: It’s deliberately structured to go counter to the standard English
teacher way of laying out a novel. It’s not in 3 acts, but rather 5. And
instead of escalating action and danger, it has less as the story progresses.
And the last act is almost a comedy, with a happy ending.
Dr. Film: A happy ending in a vampire story? That’s weird.
You’ve still disappointed me that there isn’t a lesbian scene in it.
Eric: I didn’t say there wasn’t a lesbian scene. There is one, but not with
hot chicks, and there’s absolutely no sex in it.
Dr. Film: You have a lot to learn about marketing.
Eric: Spoken by the genius.
Dr. Film: Does this mean that you’re going to be doing less
Eric: Not necessarily. It just means I’m not a one-dimensional cliche
character like you are.
Dr. Film: I represent that. What sort of film work do you have
Eric: That’s more of a question for you, isn’t it?
Dr. Film: I suppose it is. Well, there are two projects that
may be coming up soon, but I can’t tell you about them.
Eric: Yeah, I can’t either. But maybe soon. I had some time with no film
projects and I put it into getting this and the podcast done.
Dr. Film: Those podcasts are cool.
Eric: Yeah, you would say that.
Dr. Film: We get a lot of requests to restore more film. Why
aren’t you doing that?
Eric: Because our dear market isn’t strong enough to support the sales of
these films, and a TCM sale fell through when Filmstruck collapsed. If I’d sold
more copies of Little Orphant Annie, I’d be
working on more film projects.
Dr. Film: So the fact that you’re doing this book is because
you didn’t have enough work otherwise?
Eric: I suppose you could say so.
Dr. Film: Does that mean that you’re going to be polluting my
sacred film space with promoting your junky book?
Eric: No, I would never do that to you. I know how it would hurt you. If I
write a film book, then that’s another story. I’m planning one; it’s about
Dr. Film: Well, is there a place that people can go to discuss
OK, I’m going to start this off by warning you that if you’re a whiny type of person, then there might be spoilers here.But I don’t think it’s possible to spoil this film, because it’s really a character study more than anything else.And we know the ending from the first shot, because it’s given away.The point is not plot surprises, but rather where the characters go.
I personally think that this is the kind of thing you might want to read before you see the film, so you get some of the references, but your mileage may vary.
The Other Side of the Wind is an experimental film.That shouldn’t surprise you, because pretty much every Orson Welles film is an experimental film.That’s part of his appeal to me, which is that you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get when you watch one of his pictures.I’m a sucker for something different, and that’s what this is.
It’s ostensibly a spoof of reality-style documentary pictures that were very popular in the late 60s and early 70s, and it goes out of its way to make it incredible (as in not credible) and over the top.There are scenes in this that no documentary filmmaker would ever have taken, but we go with it, because, well, it’s fun, and it’s a dramatic device.
A lot of people are saying that the protagonist here, Jake Hannaford (John Huston), is a semi-autobiographical Orson Welles.He isn’t.He’s a semi-biographical John Ford.Welles was a huge fan of Ford’s, and Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Ford extensively about this time (and a little earlier).Ford became a huge pain in the butt because he stopped cooperating with people and just gave stupid answers to interview questions.
Further, there’s a recurring theme about whether Hannaford is gay or bisexual and deeply closeted.This was the case in real life with John Ford, according to many people who knew him.Maureen O’Hara spoke about it in her autobiography (not that she was exactly unbiased).
There’s another deep parallel that a lot of people will miss.FW Murnau is brought up early on and then dropped.But if we know Murnau, he was also a gay (or maybe bisexual) director who was killed in a car accident eerily like the one in The Other Side of the Wind.
The parallels go further… they keep saying that Jake Hannaford had made silent films, and so did Murnau.Murnau was always on a quest to make films with few or no intertitles, a purely visual experience.The film-within-a-film in The Other Side of the Wind isn’t really a John Ford film.It’s a MURNAU film.Symbolic, lyrical, slow-moving, and silent.
It’s also a fun contrast to see the documentary-style footage of Hannaford in cut-cut-cut in-your-face editing style while the film-within-a-film is slow, with few cuts and deliberately paced.
It’s a little bit of cinematic bravura that reminds me a bit of Mozart’s A Musical Joke.By listening to Mozart dissect what doesn’t work in a composition, we learn just how intimately he did know what worked.Welles is the same with directing.He knows how all the styles work, how the different approaches are handled, what silent films are, etc, and he can seamlessly play with them.
The Stranger is less a film noir than it is a German Expressionist film.Too Much Johnson is a silent picture shot just the way those were shot, often in open air with bright sunlight and poor reflection, even in the “indoor” sets.Welles gets this; he always gets the feel right.
If the cut-cut-cut style of The Other Side of the Wind is annoying, then it’s supposed to be.It’s pretty clear that Welles found it annoying, too, and that’s the point of it.Dialogue is given in little snatches and bits of background.If you aren’t paying close attention, it will just wash over you like so much tidewater.There’s a lot in it, and attention is rewarded.
Ultimately, the film is really about directors being crazy and in a crazy world, with incredible stresses and conflicting artistic demands.Hannaford wants to be artistic but can’t afford to finance his own work, which we all know is not really commercial (at one point, the projectionist running the film is told the film is out of order, and he asks, “Does it really matter?”)
What’s missed a lot here is just how intensely Welles is talking about directors.Most of the cast is filled with directors.Norman Foster (as Billy Boyle) was not just an actor, but a director for many years, only returning to acting for this part.He was a long-time friend of Welles’ and almost walks off with the picture.Peter Bogdanovich is another co-star, another director just coming into his own when the film was shot.Henry Jaglom, director.Dennis Hopper, actor-director.Curtis Harrington, director.Claude Chabrol, director.The cast is littered with directors, and not always playing themselves.
Much has been said about the ethics of finishing this movie without Welles, knowing fully that there was a lot of it that was shot that didn’t make it into the final cut.Look, I’m a stickler for doing things right.This feels like a Welles film.They did it right.Is it perfect?I’m sure not, but Welles left behind 45 minutes of the film that he’d cut and extensive notes.This isn’t the first time a film was resurrected from raw footage.I remember Sherlock Holmes (1922) and Oliver Twist (also 1922) were brought back this way.With collaboration from so many people who worked on this and knew Welles, I’m inclined to give this a pass.
There’s also some controversy about Oja Kodar.People say that she’s the equivalent of Susan Alexander, the talentless singer raised to stardom in Citizen Kane.I don’t think that, given her performance in this film, we can settle that question. It’s clear that given the way Welles shot her, very carefully, that he loved her.Her reactions are on the money, but is that Kodar or Welles?It’s hard to say.I noticed that facially she reminded me of Agnes Moorehead on more than one occasion, just in the way she reacted to things.That may be coincidence or direction!There’s a lot of Oja seen here, much of it unclothed, but she has no dialogue.Welles regarded her as a collaborator, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
One bit of autobiography and wish-fulfillment does creep in to The Other Side of the Wind.John Huston decks Susan Strasberg, who is playing a mock Pauline Kael. Kael had written some scathing things about Welles (you can look it up; I won’t go into it here), and I’m sure Welles relished the thought of getting back at her, at least cinematically.
I think we’re seeing the death of classic cinema. I really do. You’ve heard me rant about this before. We’re seeing that the only 5 great films that everyone wants to see are Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, and Wizard of Oz. After that, the Godfather films are OK, and then Cinema begins with Star Wars.
I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t know what can be done. One of the main arguments, which I absolutely hate, is that these movies are no longer culturally relevant and are such relics of the past that they should no longer be seen, because no one cares. Nor should they care. The 5 movies listed above (I refer to them as the Holy Quintet) are exceptions because they have passed the cultural litmus test of history.
I hate that. I know I said that, but I wanted to accentuate that I hate it.
You can argue that TCM keeps cinema alive, and to an extent, they do. But they only keep some cinema alive, and they only have 24 hours a day. I have also complained, with some validity, that they show Casablanca too much, whereas they could show a lot of other stuff and do classic cinema a lot more service.
But then if I owned Casablanca, I’d show it a lot, too. It’s a fine picture, but it’s got to bear the burden of representing most films made before 1977.
There’s a vast array of silents (TCM only shows silents 4 times a month, at midnight on Sundays), B pictures, cartoons, serials, short comedies, and such that never get seen. That never will be seen. Stuff that’s fun, entertaining, and would even, dare I say it, “educate” people. The collectors have some, the archives have some, and the studios have some.
There’s always archive.org. I don’t like it. 90% of it is junk with terrible compression rates and bad quality. It fosters the idea that all old movies look bad. Then there’s YouTube, which, well, is pretty much the same. That’s not to mention the fact that piracy on both sites is rampant. I had to alert Kino to a site that was bootlegging Seven Chances with Bruce Lawton’s commentary and my color restoration on it. YouTube took it down, but the same guy got a new address and put it right back up. He put ads in it.
But it’s free!
Netflix isn’t the answer. Why? Because increasingly it takes movies (and I mean even recent ones) off the server and replaces them with binge-watching TV shows. They started off kinda cool, but died away quickly.
I had a lot of hope for Filmstruck (and, full disclosure, I was working on a deal to supply them with some silents and other materials), but AT&T killed it. Why? It wasn’t making enough money. (And, yes, that means that the deal is off.)
You see, no one sees classic films.
So no one watches classic films.
So no one buys Filmstruck.
So AT&T cancels it.
The saving grace about TCM is that it was stipulated in the sale to Warners that TCM had to stay on the air as a commercial-free classic film network. And that keeps it on.
This is causing me to want to ramp up a service that I’ve wanted to do for some years. I think of it as a public service, because it would provide a venue for NON-SUCKY transfers of films that TCM doesn’t show, which, let’s be honest, is about 80% of everything.
And I know you’ve heard me talk about this before, too. But I back-burnered it because I was busy with other projects, like Little Orphant Annie and King of the Kongo and the Milan High School games.
TCM has kind of the right idea with its educational program advocating The Essentials (again, full disclosure: I don’t have cable, but I travel extensively [I have a collection of half-used hotel soaps to prove it] so I see them on the road fairly often.) But I see TCM as almost a graduate-school of film with the very top echelon of films. They don’t offer a lot of things that people don’t know anymore.
What were the major studios? What’s a cartoon? What’s a serial? How were they shown? Why did these get made? When did color start? Did silents always have music? These are questions that people ask constantly.
How do I know? I hear these questions all the time. People are interested. I’d love to have a streaming service that housed forums where historians talked about things like this. It’s not out there. It’s going away.
I used to complain that when I worked at classic film houses, they would run all fifties all the time. Then, the boomers got old and stopped coming, and we skipped the 60s and 70s, so it’s all 80s all the time. One place I know shows Ferris Bueller and The Goonies several times a year. They say it’s “hipster-friendly.” But the hipsters don’t know any older films, so why the heck would they come to see them? A lot of them don’t have cable, and so they only see bad quality on YouTube, if they even have knowledge enough to search for it.
I would have started my streaming service a couple of years ago, but I had another problem. I do a lot of tech, but I can’t do it all myself, and I have a tech guy who needs paid. I have a grant writer who is trying to move into other things and won’t return my calls or emails, so basically I have to find another grant writer or be rude and obnoxious to the one I have.
This project is too big for just me; I’d love to have it as a cooperative among film collectors, archives and even studios that will play nice (accent on the play nice.)
But I need $ to get it going, and it’s a chunk too big for Kickstarter. I’d like this to be a public interest 501c3, because, increasingly, I believe that classic film is being culturally neglected and needs a champion out there to make it accessible. I’d like to have a free section and a paid downloads section.
Actually I have a pretty detailed plan for it, if I could just get anyone to care. I’m notoriously bad at marketing (as I’ve pointed out many times), but I really think we’re at a time when culturally we NEED something like this.
Or else it will go away. Like Filmstruck did.
Anyone got any ideas? Let me know. My email is up at top, and the comments will be open for a while, plus you can always start a discussion in the Dr. Film group.
I have a lot of failed, or to put it charitably, incompletely successful projects (if you don’t believe me, I have 400 copies of Little Orphant Annie to sell you), but I don’t want this to be one of them.
When I decided to do a preservation of Little Orphant Annie, I also decided to start my own video label. It was a calculated risk, and it remains to be seen if it pays off. I’ve done much work for major labels, including Shout! Factory, Kino, Flicker Alley, etc, and I’ve helped smaller labels including Cartoons On Film, Undercrank, and Thunderbean. But Annie was different. It was my baby. I’d gotten it through numerous hurdles, and I really didn’t want it to be announced as NEW RELEASE FROM XXX VIDEO! PRODUCED BY ZZZ and with restoration by some dude named Eric.
Besides, none of the other labels wanted to release it anyway. Well, some of the smaller labels would have been willing, but then it would have been the same thing, and I didn’t want to do that. Now, many of you will be out there saying, “That Eric is just a credit hog and wants to get his name out there. What a ham.” Well, in a way that’s true, but overall it isn’t.
You see, I do a lot of film work, and preservation especially, but no one knows who I am. Well, some of you do, particularly if you read this blog, but in general, I’m an unknown quantity. That works out very well for me in some ways, because I’m the guy who likes to stand in the corner at parties and eat black olives until everything is over, but it doesn’t work out for me in other ways. By staying unknown, it reduces my chances to do other, more interesting work. There has to be a compromise between me standing silently in a corner and me being a ham who just has to be in front of an audience all the time. It’s a tough balance to find.
So Annie was my first shot at this. If you’ve been following me on Facebook, then you’ll know that it was the first of two giant preservation projects that I did starting in 2016 that have only recently reached fruition. The other one was the Milan Miracle Basketball films, which are the original game films of the David-vs.-Goliath basketball championship in Milan, Indiana that inspired the movie Hoosiers (1986). In both cases, the films needed preservation, and no one else had the immediate capacity to do it. If I hadn’t done them then, it would be too late for at least some of the elements by now.
I had to do a bunch of research on the DVD and Blu-ray formats. This is why I sometimes put polls up on my Dr. Film Facebook page. Some people do on-demand DVD publishing, which is easiest to do, and takes the least up-front money. But you can’t do Blu-ray discs on demand through Amazon, so that put the kibosh on everyone who said, “WE WANT BLU-RAY, NOT DVD!” Of course, then there were the other folks who told me that they didn’t want to buy a Blu-ray player, because their old TV works just fine, thank you, so could you put it out on DVD?
Thunderbean and Cartoons On Film have a good answer for this. They make combination packs of DVDs AND Blu-rays, both of which are functionally identical. That way, if you buy the package, there’s a disc for whatever your use is, and it saves the publisher from having to do separate art for the Blu-ray and the DVD boxes, because they are different sizes. That said, I guarantee that at shows I’ll still get people that tell me that they want one or the other and that this disc won’t play in their system.
Then there was the next problem. Everyone told me they want commentary tracks. Well, OK, the DVD software I’ve used for years doesn’t support commentary tracks, and it also doesn’t support Blu-rays at all. So that meant I had to learn a new software package, which I thought was OK.
Except it wasn’t. In order to get a software package that would do DVDs, Blu-rays, and support commentary tracks, I had to use a piece of software that is so horrid I shall not name it. Versatile it may be, but user-friendly it is NOT. I also learned the Blu-ray is a Sony monopoly, so every disc professionally pressed has to go through a Sony employee for approval. This is why Blu-rays cost so much. High-demand ones are fairly cheap, but the first run of them is expensive because you have to pay for the Sony guy. This is why Harry Potter Vs. Spider-Man’s Avengers is only $3 while Little Orphant Annie is expensive.
I thought that on-demand would be a lot cheaper for raising seed money, and if it didn’t work out, then I wasn’t out the minimum Blu-ray order of 1000. Many people told me, “It’s a boring old silent film! It isn’t even that good! You’ll never sell 1000!” Others said I would probably sell them, but it might take a while.
I thought I’d also try to do some on-demand to see how that went, too. Toward that end, I remastered the Dr. Film TV pilot we made in 2008. If you’ve followed the blog, then you know that we tried to sell this to TV for years and no one cared, and the blog and Facebook page were made to promote the show. The irony is that we tried to sell a show that no network wanted to buy, but we succeeded in selling the blog and Facebook pages, so we’re still marketing Dr. Film, even though there isn’t a show in the works…
There was no reason to release Dr. Film as a Blu-ray, since we shot it in standard-definition. Glory-June Greiff and I sat down and recorded a commentary track in which we discuss what went in to making the pilot and how we really didn’t understand how to market it. If you decide to buy the DVD, then make sure to listen to the commentary track, because it’s probably even more fun than the show.
My strategy is starting to work! I have been approaching archives to see if they’ll work with me on my next restoration project. Instead of hearing the phone click in my ear, I’m now hearing, “Oh, yeah! You’re the guy who did Little Orphant Annie! That was cool!” So those doors are opening. That means I can start to do more things now.
My last task, after the restoration was done and the Kickstarter thank-yous sent out, was to pick a name for my label. I sweated over this. Dr. Film is a bit silly, but some people know it. Others know me only by my own name, which is important too. I ultimately decided that I’d be Eric Grayson (Dr. Film) to cover both bases. Yeah, it’s kinda lame.
Maybe you have a better idea for a name. I’m always willing to listen. You’ll find me at the next film restoration gathering. I’ll be the guy standing in the corner eating black olives. Come and say hi.
Many of you know that James Cozart passed away on March 25. I can’t say that I knew him well. I can say that I knew him, and that he was one of the most fascinating people I have ever come across. James knew more about film than anyone I ever met. He knew more in his little finger about film than I know in my whole body. And he was wonderful in putting it together into a whole picture. He knew different film stocks, different color processes, different sound recording techniques, even the way different studios sounded internally.
But James wasn’t wired the same way most of us are. If you want the classic absent-minded professor, it was James. Not that he was senile or anything, far from that. But he was focused so much on his work that he sometimes would miss the big picture. He would tell me things that I found hilarious, and I would laugh, and he would look at me, not understanding what was funny. If you had a problem with a film that he could help with, then he was so dedicated, so giving, that he would sometimes work on things to the detriment of his personal life. I know this because I caused some of these to happen, so I became careful when I asked him questions.
I can’t really spin a good narrative about James. I miss him a lot, and was saving some questions for him for Columbus Cinevent. What I can do is give you some of my favorite Cozart stories in a non-linear fashion. It’s not the best way to do this, but it’s the only way I can.
For those of you who don’t know, James was a fixture at the Library of Congress since at least the mid-70s. I don’t really know when he started. (Update: Cynthia tells me that he started in 1984. Shows what I know.) He was always in charge of quality control at the labs, making sure that what came out looked good, and he was picky about it. We all have him to thank for that. He worked on literally hundreds of films, but because he worked at an archive, he didn’t take credit for his work. It’s very possible that no other person ever worked on restoring as many films as James has. Let that sink in for a moment.
I was at the Cinecon in 1995 sitting next to Ted Larson (now also sadly deceased), and we were listening to Sylvia Sidney have an attitude attack about her career. She’d written off the whole group, because someone who made up the program book listed her as Silvia Sydney, prompting her response “I’m not even here!” She was further upset that they wouldn’t let her smoke in the theater at UCLA, because it was a nitrate screening. “Nitrate, schmitrate,” she yelled, as they started her film, Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936).
Years later, I was discussing with James the change in carbon arc projection that occurred in 1940 or so, and how Technicolor changed the balance of the colors to accommodate the change in the color of the carbon arc. James said that the early prints would look yellowish today to balance the older bluer arcs. I mentioned the screening of Lonesome Pine (I hadn’t even been aware that Cozart was there, but he was.) I said that this print didn’t look yellow to me, at which point James politely interrupted me.
“That wasn’t a 1936 print. That had a Realart logo on the front of it, which would have made it a 1948 reissue print. Still nitrate, but balanced for the newer arcs.”
“James, you remember a screening from 15 years ago with a logo that couldn’t have been on screen for more than 5 seconds.”
He looked at me, surprised, and said, “Well, yeah!”
I was discussing with him the ways he’d spliced zillions of films over the years. Jokingly, I told him, “James Cozart is the kind of guy who doesn’t know where his own shoes are, but if you asked him where he spliced a film 20 years ago, he could tell you within 10 feet.” He looked at me seriously, and said, “No, I think within 5 feet.”
Later on, when one of his co-workers found me alone, she laughed and told me confidentially that James occasionally came in with mismatched shoes. I’d had no idea that was true.
Back in the early 90s, one of my first encounters with James was when he put out an APB for flickery old silent films. He described the special kind of flicker, saying it was Kinemacolor. I remembered that I had some of it in an old Castle newsreel. I sent it to him so that the Library could copy it.
He wrote me back, saying that this was Kinemacolor, but he remembered seeing the footage before. He thought it was in an old Warners newsreel.
After months, he found the newsreel and printed that instead. He restored the color to it and showed it at the next Cinesation.
I asked him if I could get a print of the material. He told me it was impossible. I reminded him that I’d helped, and that I’d be happy to pay for the print. He then went on to explain archive procedure, and I learned a lesson then: too much red tape for me. That’s why I don’t work at an archive.
But remember this. It will come back again…
A few years ago in Rome, NY, I was discussing with James some of the films he’d brought. He then started to describe this rare nitrate that the library had been given, which he was inspecting.
He had, just a couple of nights before, been locked into the building in Culpeper, VA. The Library of Congress has a strict security procedure and they close the doors, shut out the lights, and turn off the elevators at a certain time.
James had been in his office inspecting this print, which he’d gotten at 2pm, and then at 8pm (which was at least 2 hours after closing), they’d shut off all the lights.
He had to call security and tell them that he was still there, so he could get out.
I laughed, and he looked at me again, with one of those looks that meant he didn’t understand why this was funny.
“You didn’t eat, drink, go to the bathroom, call anyone, or even look out into the hall for six hours, because you were looking at that film,” I said.
“And you don’t understand why that’s funny?”
We were in Osgood Indiana seeing a theater called the Damm Theater, which was really its name. This was a treasure trove of wonderful stuff, and it was when the Library archives were still in Dayton Ohio. The family that owned the theater, the Damms, had never thrown anything away, and so the place was full of antiques.
I contacted James and said that he needed to see this place. Osgood isn’t that far from Dayton, so he agreed to come and spend the day.
James identified pieces of projectors, Vitaphone disc players, and glass slides, all stuff that even I didn’t recognize. We had dinner with the Damms and we all seemed to enjoy ourselves.
The owner, Bob Damm, had some health issues, and he died a few years later. It was after the Library had moved to Culpeper. I spoke with his widow, and by happenstance, the next day, we met James in New York.
We’d just attended a screening of a print of Starevitch’s The Mascot and I’d noticed that the Library of Congress print had some footage in it that my print didn’t have… but my print had some footage in it that theirs didn’t have, too!
I mentioned this to James, and he started to ask me some questions about the film.
Before I got started, I told him about Bob Damm. Yes, he remembered, and there was a cursory, oh, sorry.
“But tell me about the soundtrack of your print… is it English or French?”
That would have offended a lot of people. They would consider it mean and inconsiderate. But I smiled. It was just James. That’s just how he was. He was seeking out material for a restoration! James couldn’t be mean if he tried. It just wasn’t in him.
We were in the parking lot with James’ wife Cynthia a couple of years ago and she told us that it was their 40th anniversary. James was a few feet ahead enthusiastically carrying a DVD player he’d found.
I scooted up and congratulated James.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “But did I tell you about this DVD player? It plays all the regions, and breaks out the copy guard, and you can directly access the MPEG layers on it.”
If I’d been Cynthia, I’d have smacked him. But she understood better than I did. I looked at her and smiled. She shrugged knowingly.
James was a supporter of a television museum in Ohio. I’ve never been to it, and I’m not even sure which one it is, but he would restore TVs and donate them to the museum. One year at the Columbus Cinevent (it was the last year they had it in this hotel, so it would have been 2014), someone broke into James‘ car. By this time, the hotel was getting to be in a rather poor neighborhood and several people had cars that were vandalized.
James told me that they’d broken the front window and stolen his cell phone. But he was confused, because there was a fully restored 1949 television in the back seat worth $3000 that they just left.
I mentioned that this TV was probably 80 pounds and more than they wanted to carry.
“Yes, but the cell phone didn’t even have the charger with it. I can’t find the charger. How much good can they get out of that?”
I didn’t think much of it until the next day. He came up to me and said, “I found the charger. It was in my suitcase, inside my shoe!”
Glory burst out laughing. He didn’t understand why.
Remember that story about the Kinemacolor? Well in the ensuing years, I have become a rambling film historian, and I do a show on old color processes in films.
I decided that I was going to FINALLY get a print of that Kinemacolor footage even if I had to do it myself. So I did it myself. There’s an amazing amount of documentation online, so I ordered a scan of my old Castle newsreel and went into Photoshop to recreate this effect manually, in preparation for putting this back onto film.
But it didn’t work. It looked funny and yellow. I couldn’t understand it.
I emailed James and told him what I was doing. Probably three lines in an email, just asking what was wrong.
The next day, I got a seven-page letter back. He explained that Kinemacolor was shot with different filter than they used to play it back, so if I simply changed the filter color then it would all work out, which it did.
But it took seven pages of detailed documentation to tell me this. By the way, it was terribly interesting and very pertinent, but seven pages? That was James. He had to be complete.
I did a restoration on King of the Kongo, and I’d consulted with James a little on it. This was before the days when we had all the tools like DropBox that we have now.
I uploaded the huge file to one of my servers, but Earthlink kept slowing it down due to traffic. Eventually, it would time out and you couldn’t get to it at all.
He emailed me and said that he’d figured out their throttling algorithm, and that if he’d get up at 3am, it wouldn’t slow down until 6 and he could get it.
I told him to wait on it.
“Why?” he asked.
“James, it’s Christmas Eve,” I said. “Spend some time doing something else.”
We did a screening of Kongo at Syracuse Cinefest, and I knew James would have something to say. Nothing about the film, nothing about the sound I’d worked on, only this:
“I saw that before on the computer, but when I saw it on the big screen, I noticed that the white areas had halos around them. Who did that scan for you? They didn’t use enough bit depth.”
It was the last time I used that company for scanning. He was right.
I mentioned Leni Riefenstahl to James one time, and he told me that he’d spoken with her.
“Yes, I threw out some film she made.”
“I was working at a lab and she’d had the film developed, but she never paid for it and never printed it, so we sent her a letter, and she didn’t respond, so we threw it out.”
“She called and started yelling at me in broken English, and I told her it was lab policy. I just handed the phone to my boss. I didn’t want to listen to that.”
The topic of Astoria (NY) studios came up once (I’m not sure why), and he perked up and said, “You can always tell a movie that’s shot there, because the sound is bad.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the ceiling is some sort of glass vaulted dome and it reflects the sound back downward, so there’s a bad echo in it. You can always hear it when you’re watching a movie.”
“I’ve noticed the films there don’t sound that great, but I thought it was because of the early sound process.”
“No. When I was with the military in the late 50s, I helped design a sound baffle in there so we could shoot in that studio and make the sound come out right. I think they took it down later.”
James famously never knew if a film was any good. He only knew if it was rare and he knew if the print quality was good. He couldn’t identify the actors in the films by seeing them. He told me that he didn’t register faces well. If it was really a terrible movie, then he’d know how bad it was, because the actors weren’t good, but sometimes a great movie went past him.
Ultimately, I realized that he wasn’t seeing the same film the rest of us saw. He saw a collection of actors, frames, effects, gamma changes, and little flaws that may or may not have been fixed. And that was OK, because he enjoyed that. He could tell you what sort of film stock was used in the original, what lab was used, etc, etc. He knew all of it.
He told me once about Victory (1918) that had a scene in it with Lon Chaney falling off a ledge. He said that in the nitrate, if you looked really closely, there was a thin wire on Chaney’s ankle that stopped his fall before he broke his neck (there’s a similar scene in Chaney’s West of Zanzibar.) James then told me that this was un-seeable on the DVD issue because they had duplicated the nitrate poorly.
The catch? He couldn’t even remember that it was Chaney in this scene, so he referred to him as “the actor.”
While we’re on the topic of Chaney pictures, he was watching The Scarlet Car (1917) and there’s a scene in it that has the headlights of a car in a key scene.
James was really interested in this since he knew that the color of headlights in those days wouldn’t register on the sort of film they had in 1917. So he watched the nitrate over and over to figure it out. Finally he noticed the lights flickered a bit. AHA, he thought! AC wiring. He looked, and you could just barely see the long extension cords being run to power the headlights so that they showed up in the film.
James usually rented a van to drive up to Capitolfest in Rome NY, so he could save shipping expenses on the films. They are in big, sturdy cans, and not a lot is going to hurt them. Anyone else would just have thrown the films in the back of the van and moved on.
Not James. I helped him pack the films in the van a few times, and he always put the films in the seats and fastened seat belts around each can.
I’d visited Bruce Lawton’s grandfather in 2004, and he had a print of Baron Munchausen that we watched. It broke in one section, and Bruce’s grandfather just took out the frames and handed them to me.
A few days later I visited Rome NY for the first time at the Capitolfest, and James was there. I handed him the frames without saying anything.
“Agfacolor from the 1940s!” he exclaimed. “But wait, this base isn’t triacetate, and it’s not nitrate either. I need to take this to the lab and examine it.”
I never did find out if he figured out what it was.
You’d think that James only understood film, but he was a technology master. He worked on lawn mowers, television sets, cobbled together computers from pieces, and understood and used digital restoration technology.
Sometimes ignorance bugs me. I just can’t help it. And I try to let it go, but I can’t do it, because it just builds up and gets worse, so I have to confront it.
Several years ago, I was at the Syracuse Cinefest (now defunct) premiering King of the Kongo, Chapter 5. There were some students in the crowd who came in late and missed my scintillating introduction, and I happened to bump into them on the way out, and I heard their conversation.
“Dude, like I don’t understand what the big deal was on that serial thing. It wasn’t even like restored.”
OK, well, I knew what the big deal was. It was the first time the soundtrack had been heard with the film for something like 80 years, which was cool, and the picture was restored. A lot. But, rather than be a whiner boy, which no one likes, I pursued his reasoning. I asked him what he meant by restored.
“You know, it didn’t look real good. Have you seen the Blu-Ray of Casablanca? They really restored that. This one didn’t look like that. He should have restored it.”
My further contacts with people have cemented the idea that most people have. To be restored, a film has to look like the Blu-Ray of Casablanca. This, apparently, is the gold standard of restoration. Anything less is sub-par.
Further, since digital restoration techniques are magic, this means that if one were willing to put in the time and money on it, all movies that are restored could look like Casablanca, and they all should. It’s simply laziness on the part of restorers who have not put in the required resources to clean up the film.
I heard this again earlier this year with some films I didn’t work on. Universal (bless them) restored several Marx Brothers films, including Cocoanuts, AnimalCrackers, and Horsefeathers. Now, Universal had been lagging the field in doing restorations, but their work for the last 5-6 years has been astounding, so I’m a huge supporter of their efforts. But apparently I’m not in good company. I started to see people dogging Universal’s efforts right out of the gate:
“Cocoanuts is not restored. There were always sections of picture that looked bad, and these sections still look bad. They lied when they said they restored it.”
And worse yet:
“How dare Universal claim they restored Horsefeathers! There is a splicy section that’s been there since the 1930s and it’s still choppy! They didn’t restore it at all!”
So let’s back up. Cocoanuts had several reels where dupe sections were made badly in the 1940s because the negative was rotting, and they had only poor copies. Those reels have not been replaced with better ones, but Universal did what they could to clean up said reels, rebalance the contrast, and match what they could.
Horsefeathers was censored for reissue, and certain things were considered too risque for post-Code audiences. Paramount, who then owned the film, in its wisdom, took the censored footage out of the original negative. In order for this to be found, someone would have to find an original issue 1932 nitrate print of Horsefeathers that is in good enough shape to use. It’s not impossible, but unlikely. Universal cleaned up the footage as best they could, but the missing footage remains. (Let’s give Universal credit and admit that they found a great deal of missing footage from Frankenstein that they diligently restored from discs and alternate prints sources for years. For some time, you could pick up a new issue of Frankenstein, and they’d patch in a scene of Maria getting dumped in the water, or Frankenstein yelling in the lab, or Edward Van Sloan injecting the monster, etc.)
On the other hand, someone did find original nitrate material for AnimalCrackers. Apparently the BFI had a near-mint dupe negative of the film that contains about 4 minutes of footage that was also censored for reissue. And, to top that off, it’s about two generations better than what Universal was working with for this title, so the picture is greatly improved. There was nothing but praise for Universal on this one, which was quite deserved.
But why trash them for the other films? They did the best they could.
I know I sometimes sound like the Monty Python 4 Yorkshiremen sketch, but when I first got to be a movie fan, the prints we often had were terrible, and we felt lucky to have them. The studios didn’t care, the foreign archives didn’t care, and the only people who did care were the collectors, who were being raided all the time by the studios and the archives.
I get a little more confused when I consider that every 18 months, it seems like a new restoration of Metropolis takes place. Each time, footage is inserted that hasn’t been seen in years. The last restoration incorporated some footage from a South American 16mm dupe print that looked like a steam roller flattened it, and then sandpaper was run over it for cleaning. No one seems to complain about this, but poor Universal gets the lynch mob called on them for not finding 5-6 minutes of footage. How is this fair?
The idea that I can see AnimalCrackers with 4 extra minutes of footage is enchanting to me, but so is the idea that I can see detail in Horsefeathers and Cocoanuts that I’ve never seen before. OK, I’d like to see better material, but it just plain doesn’t exist.
Let’s hit some of the myths here:
MYTH 1: Digital restoration techniques are like magic. If you spend enough time and effort on something it can look like Casablanca.
FACT: This is completely untrue. It’s also putting an unfair burden on Casablanca as the standard-bearer for restoration. The original negative for Casablanca still exists, and backup copies of it, made carefully over the years, are stored around the world. Not to trash the people who did the restoration (which is excellent), but they had a lot more to work with than the Universal did with, say, TheCocoanuts. There was one print of that made as a backup, poorly, in the 40s. That’s it.
Digital techniques are wonderful, but they can’t bring back stuff that isn’t there. When detail is lost in a copying process, it’s gone. I can take dirt marks out, some degree of scratching, splices, and I can rebalance the contrast a little, but if the sharpness is gone, it’s gone.
MYTH 2: The original negatives of just about all the films ever made are stored safely in a salt mine in Kansas or New Jersey, and the studios are just too lazy to go get them.
FACT: There are some salt mines that do have BACKUPS in them, but not original negatives.
I’m working on a restoration of Little Orphant Annie (1918) right now, and it’s going to look worse than King of the Kongo did. With Kongo, we had a 16mm duplicate print, which was copied from a deteriorating and splicy 35mm positive.
With Annie, we have a 16mm Kodascope that’s been censored (they took out some of the scarier scenes), but is more-or-less complete. We have reel one and three of a second Kodascope, which is much darker. We have a 35mm that was about shot when it got scanned, and we have two different reference prints on video from various sources.
And you know what? I assembled a rough cut of all the footage in the film, and I had to use scenes from every one of these prints. Each one had a shot that was different or in the wrong place. I will never, ever get these to match seamlessly. It can’t happen.
On the other hand, you’d get to see some 5 minutes of footage that you’ve never seen before in any other print. Does that mean Little Orphant Annie is restored? Yes, to the best of my ability with the materials that currently exist. If you gave me a million dollar grant to fix it (which I would welcome!), there’s only so much I can do to clean it up.