Archival Spaces: Memory, Images, History
Archival Spaces 280
Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021 Online
Uploaded 15 October 2021
This is the 40th anniversary of what is now the oldest silent film festival in the world. I attended my first Giornate del cinema muto in Pordenone in 1988, when I accepted the Jean Mitry Award in the name of George Pratt, the long-time curator at George Eastman Museum. I have attended a little more than half of the subsequent festivals, and reviewed or blogged about a third of those I attended. While last year’s festival was completely online, due to the COVID pandemic (see Archival Spaces 254), this year I have again only been able to partake virtually, even though the Festival does have a live component. Unfortunately, given problems with the link, I also missed the first online presentation, The Joker (1928), a Danish film directed by German George Jacoby and produced by the Nordisk, but shot in Nice with an international cast.
I did see the following program of mostly eccentric short films. Soap Bubbles (1911, Giovanni Vitrotti) was interesting because of its use of bubbles to insert didactic images into the frame that lead to the reformation of a bad boy. Cinderella (1913, Eleuterio Rodolfi) features many scenes of actual film production at Ambrosia studios, and thus parallels Asta Nielsen’s contemporaneous Die Filmprimadonna. Bigorno fume l’opium (1914, Roméo Bosetti) uses a host of cinematic special effects to simulate an opium dream. But my favorite was a stop-motion Italian animation, The Spider and the Fly (1913), in which a little boy pulls the wings off a fly, leading to a madcap chase, during which the courageous little fly consistently outwits the spider.
The Australian melodrama, The Man From Kangaroo (1920, Wilfred Lucas) was also interesting as an Aussie Western, starring Snowy Baker, an Olympic swimmer, boxer, and all around athlete, who plays a boxing vicar in this Aussie western in the Outback of New South Wales. Baker apparently brought former Griffith actor and director Lucas and his scriptwriter wife, Bess Meredyth, to Australia for the production of this and two subsequent films. The story is slight and the plot has several large holes, but the action on horseback and scenery make up for those deficits.
Bess Meredyth was an important scriptwriter in silent Hollywood and as Giornate director Jay Weissberg notes in his introduction, the Festival this year is focusing on women filmmakers, including the lesser known Agnes Christine Johnson, who wrote the script for Charles Ray’s An Old Fashioned Boy (1920, Jerome Storm). While Johnson had a very long career in Hollywood, her only claim to real fame may be Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise (1924) and several of the Andy Hardy films in the 1930s. Except for the bucolic charm of The Old Swimmin’ Hole (1921), Charles Ray’s work is strictly at the level of programmers, and this film with its low budget set is no exception. Indeed, it is chiefly interesting, because it was made shortly after our last major pandemic, the Spanish Flu, had waned, and is here referenced for comedic effect.
At a completely different level is Cecil B. DeMille’s Fool’s Paradise (1921), which features a script by Sada Cowen and Beulah Marie Dix., two more prolific women writers. Starring Conrad Nagel, Dorothy Dalton, and Mildred Harris, the melodrama about an unsuccessful blind poet moves from the gritty oil fields of West Texas to the exotic Kingdom of Siam with lavish sets and costumes throughout. DeMille takes the saying love is blind literally in a tale of a man chasing an illusion of womanhood because its suits his vanity, while ignoring the real love of a woman willing to sacrifice all. Interestingly, there are no real villains in the piece, even if Theodore Kosloff’s Mexican saloon proprietor skirts a nasty racial stereotype, but is sympathetic in his unrequited love for Dalton.
A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher (1948, Yun Dae-ryong) is an anomaly in the Pordenone program, a silent film produced in Korea after World War II and the end of Japanese occupation, when the lack of sound film equipment forced filmmakers to shoot 16mm without sound. The film concerns a kind-hearted teacher who takes a poor orphaned student under her wing and is repaid years later when as a public prosecutor he pleas for acquittal in a murder charge, in which she is falsely accused. While a somewhat annoying and over-talkative narrative, voiced by Sin Chul, Korea’s lastbyeonsa (benshi), adds melodrama, the film’s images are perfectly legible. Indeed, the street scenes of Seoul before the Korean War utterly destroyed the city have historical value in and of themselves, while the acting is effective, especially Lee Yeong-ae as the young teacher. Given the sophistication of Korean films and television in the last decade, this is an exciting find.
Phil for Short (1919, Oscar Apfel), based on Clara Beranger’s proto-feminist script, starts out like a Griffithian melodrama with a nosy, church-going matron trying to clip the wings of Sapphic free-spirit Damophilia Illington, Phil for short, who farms in pants and dances à la Isadore Duncan in flowing Greek gowns. Like Duncan, her choreography comes from Greek art and her father. But this is a comedy of woman’s empowerment and agency, so when her father, an impoverished Greek professor dies, and she is threatened with marriage to a man twice her age, she seeks refuge in the arms of a younger Greek professor, who is a misogynist. After more complications, she turns him and all ends well. Apfel’s film is a mixture of archaic film style and modern feminism with more than a few gay winks. Two years later, Beranger would script William de Mille’s Miss Lulu Betts (1921), a masterpiece of feminism, discovered in Pordenone years ago, and then became the director’s steady screenwriter and wife.
Ellen Richter was a hugely successful actress in Weimar Germany, who with her husband Willi Wolf, produced lavishly crafted comedies and adventure films, yet fell out of film history, because her films were popular entertainments. A self-assured young flapper with short hair, the actress teaches the stodgy burghers of a hypocritical small town a lesson in Moral (1928, Willi Wolf) they won’t forget, after the “Morality Society” disrupts her theatrical revue with noisemakers and demand she be driven out of town: she films them as they surreptitiously visit her for a “piano lesson.” Although based on a pre WWI play (1909) by Ludwig Thoma who made a career of satirizing Bavarian provincial life, the film references contemporary politics in that Nazi thugs were known for upending film and theatre performances with just such noisemakers. Another delight in this expensive UFA studio production is seeing Berlin’s famous “Tiller Girls” troupe in an extended clip, which popularized synchronized dancing – the Tiller Girls had originated in London in the 1890s – and became the model for the Rockettes.
Maciste in Hell (1926, Guido Brignone) is the 13th and last appearance of Bartolomeo Pagano as Maciste, and is considered one of the best, after he first appeared as Axilla’s slave, a secondary character in Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), before becoming a hero in subsequent films. Italy’s sword and sandal epics from the pre-World War I period had put the country on the cinematic map, giving the world feature length films for the first time, and Maciste all’ Inferno still clings a bit to that aesthetic with its tableau-like framing, lack of dynamic editing, and posed acting. Based on the costumes, Maciste is now living in a Biedermeier version of Italy – shades of Caligari and The Student of Prague – and travels to Hell after he and his female neighbor are harassed by a contingent of devils, dedicated to taking their souls. It is the insane sets, imaginative costumes, and riotous make-up of Hades, tinted in red and other hellish colors that make this film such a pleasure, complimented by a truly wonderful new orchestral score by Teho Teardo.
We can credit Ellen Richter’s rediscovery to Oliver Hanley and Philipp Stiasny, young German film historians no longer beholden to the intellectual prejudices of the past. Like many other absent Pordenone regulars, I regret not seeing more of the Ellen Richter films, shown at the Festival live. But hopefully next year.
Archival Spaces 279
L.A. Rebellion Project – 10 Years On
Uploaded 1 October 2021
Tomorrow the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ newly opened Academy Museum begins a seventeen-film series, “Imperfect Journey: Haile Gerima and His Comrades” (2 October – 14 November) which is being presented in conjunction with Gerima becoming the Museum’s first Vantage Award winner. The program will include all of Haile’s films, beginning with Sankofa (1993), films of his comrades Shirikiana Aina, Julie Dash and Ava DuVernay, and his students at Howard University, Malik Sayeed,, Arthur Jaffe, Bradford Young, Raafi Rivero, and Merawi Gerima (Shirikiana and Haile’s son). To see Haile Gerima, the most radical black nationalist of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers so honored by the bastion of a formerly racist institution like the Academy is something probably neither he nor the governors of the Academy would have dreamed of fifty years ago, when Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Jamaa Fanaka, and Billy Woodberry first entered UCLA’s film school.
But after in September-December 2011, UCLA Film & Television Archive organized its massive 58-film retrospective, “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” conceptualized by myself in co-curatorship with Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Allyson Nadia Field, and Shannon Kelly, the L.A. Rebellion began entering the mainstream after having with a few exceptions fallen out of film history. That program also included a symposium and was followed by a book publication (2015), a touring program throughout the United States and Europe (2012-15), and the publication of a three DVD teaching set (2015). Furthermore, several programs in 2013 and 2015 presented new restorations, especially of women filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, including Ijeoma Iloputaife, aka Omah Diegu, Stormé Bright, Jacqueline Frazier, Imelda Sheen, and Alile Sharon Larkin.
It all began with a very modest idea to participate in the Getty Foundation funded “Pacific Standard Time” exhibition of post World War II Art in Los Angeles. I had met Billy Woodberry in 1984 at the Berlin Film Festival and shown his work in Rochester at George Eastman House. The Archive had also preserved a number of Charles Burnett’s films, including Killer of Sheep, which was subsequently named to the National Registry of American Films. When we wrote our first grant application, we thought we would show the work of eight to ten UCLA film students; by the time we were finished, we had identified 50 student filmmakers. Shortly after receiving initial funding, Professor Allyson Nadia Field joined the faculty of UCLA’s School of Film, Theater and Television. Since she wrote her dissertation on African American uplift films of the 1910s, it was only natural that she join the curatorial team. Just as serendipitously, Professor Jacqueline Stewart, at that time a member of the Cinema and African-American Studies faculty at Northwestern, asked me whether she could spend a year at UCLA Film & Television Archive and in the Moving Image Archives Program, learning about film archiving. Jacqueline not only kick started the whole project as part of her “internship” work for the Archive, but became a vital member of the curatorial team.
In the almost twelve years of my directorship of the Archive, the L.A. Rebellion project in all its phases was one of my proudest achievements, maybe because we were dealing with a living generation of filmmakers, and not just restoring the work of those long dead. Some like Haile and Shirikiana, Billy Woodberry, Jamaa Fanaka, Ben Caldwell, Jacqueline Frazier, and Ijeoma Iloputaife remained friends, although we lost Jamaa in 2012. Some filmmaking careers have since even been reinvigorated: Billy Woodberry has been on a tear, producing a number of award-winning films, including And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (2015); Julie Dash is slated to direct an Angela Davis bio-pic after completing two shorts and four television episodes (Queen Sugar, 2017); Barbara McCullough competed her long awaits Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot (2017); Zeinabu Irene Davis premiered her documentary, Spirits of Rebellion: Black Cinema from UCLA (2015); Charles Burnett as directed several shorts and the massive three hour documentary, After the Lockdown: Black in LA (2021); S. Torriano Berry continues his amazing productivity with a new documentary of African American life in Iowa.
Not only did many of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers travel with the touring program, as they had done in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when their work was being celebrated at a host of European film festivals, if not in Amerika, L.A. Rebellion films continue to be shown in retrospectives in the last five years at New York University, St. Mary’s College, Indiana University Cinema, MUBI, The Smithsonian, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Chicago Film Society, Barcelona, the TCM Film Festival, Rio de Janeiro, Athens (Greece) Avant-Garde Film Festival, The Broad/ Art + Practice, among many other sites. Furthermore, the L.A. Rebellion is now part of the standard film curriculum at many American universities, including courses at the University of Chicago, Williams College, University of California Irvine, San Francisco State University, University of Pittsburgh, and the Baltimore Youth Film Arts.
In 2017, Charles Burnett received an Honorary Award from the Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, one of the first indications that the Academy was trying to bring filmmakers of color into the fold. Expanding its membership in 2019 to include many women and person of color and hiring Jacqueline Stewart as chief artistic and programming officer in 2020 were two further steps. Julie Dash’s Illusions and Daughters of the Dust, as well as Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Angerand Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts are now all on the National Registry. At the moment, filmmaker Khadijah Louis is in pre-production on a film about her grandfather, Jamaa Fanaka, my “friend for Life.”
Archival Spaces 278
Amazing Tales Online: Library of Congress’s Paper Prints restored
Uploaded 17 September 2021
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been hosting screenings and special Zoom webinars, an extension of their in person “Amazing Tales” program during the festival, where film archivists report on preservation projects. On 29 August, SFSFF hosted two women from the Library of Congress who have been restoring the so-called Paper Print Collection at the Library, Megan Holly and Erin Palombi. Moderated by Archivist Kathy Rose O’Regan, and with a cornucopia of visuals in their PowerPoint, Erin and Holly presented a history of the unique paper prints and their most recent restoration, utilizing the newest digital tools.
The paper print collection came into being at the end of the 19th century, due to the U.S. copyright law which made it impossible to register films, since they had just been invented. However, since one could register photographs at the Copyright Office, film producers almost immediately began putting films on paper rolls – either whole films or single images of every scene- in order to protect themselves from piracy, which was a huge problem in the early days of cinema. Indeed as some historians have noted, piracy was the film industry’s business model. The first copyrighted film was Thomas Edison’s Record of a Sneeze [Fred Ott’s Sneeze], copyrighted 7 January 1894. Finally, with the passage by Congress of the Townsend Amendment in 1912, films could be copyrighted, though some producers did continue to send paper prints until 1917. As a result, virtually every American film made between 1894 and 1913 existed in a paper print, although a major gap exists between late 1894 and October 1896, and other prints also disappeared over the years. Nevertheless, given that 75% of American films made during the silent era have disappeared, due to nitrate decomposition, the paper prints constitute an amazing survival rate. Ironically, the paper prints were completely forgotten until 1942, and would have been completely lost, had not two employees at the Library, Howard Walls and Theodore Huff, discovered a dusty room filled with thousands of film rolls.
I first heard this amazing story when I published Gabriel M. Paletz’s seminal piece, “The Paper Print Collection and The Film of Her,” as founding editor in the inaugural issue of AMIA’s The Moving Image (Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001), and, then, followed up with Charles “Bucky” Grimm’s “A Paper Print Pre-History,” in Film History (Vol. 11, No. 2, 1999). I won’t go into the details, because they are now a matter of public record, but will note that Walls and Carl Louis Gregory built an optical printer and began copying the paper prints on 35mm film in the 1940s. Unfortunately, funding was lacking, so the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences eventually got involved and forced out Walls, hiring Kemp Niver who copied the paper prints onto lower quality 16mm film, for which he won a special Academy Award in 1955.The situation is more complicated and worthy of a detective story, including the fact that Niver started out as a body guard in – ahem – private law enforcement.
In any case, what film historians saw over the next fifty years from that early period were often dupey 16mm prints from the Niver collection. Now, two L. Jeffrey Selznick School graduates, Meghan Holly and Erin Palombi, have begun digitizing these invaluable documents of film history. In explicating the restoration process, the archivists note that after placing rolls on plastic cores and in acid free archival boxes, they prepare the rolls for scanning, by removing all extraneous objects, dirt, then repairing tears, using heat-set tissue, which is a long-fibered repair tissue that activates between 176°F and 194°F. The tissue is coated on one side with an acrylic adhesive, allowing the tissue to be attached to the non-emulsion side of the paper, allowing the rolls to be automatically advanced through the scanner.
The films are then scanned with a Stokes scanner – especially built by Stokes Imaging , Inc. – at the Library in 2K, creating 16 bit TIFF files. The archivists noted that they had experimented with 4K, but that at that resolution, the image picked up all the imperfections on the surface of the paper, making images less legible. I have noticed a similar phenomenon when silent films are scanned at 4K, revealing the previously invisible wood grain on the sets. In any case, after scanning, digital image stabilization, clean-up and contrast tools are utilized to produce high quality images that almost approximate the original films, as exemplified by The Fatal Hour (1908) and The Ingrate (1908), two early D.W. Griffith Biograph films previewed. As is proper in today’s restoration technology all interventions and actions are documented for every print.
The new results are remarkable and certainly belie the “fractured flickers” reputation of such early material. Unfortunately, while many paper prints are now available for viewing on line, many were restored in the late 1990s with a previous generation of digital tools that did not include image stabilization. Hopefully, these Spanish-American War actualities will be rescanned in the kind of quality Holly and Palombi demonstrated with their new restoration efforts.