Tag Archives: orson welles

The tragedy of lost films (and what you can do)

This is kind of last minute, but I very quickly want to give as much support and gratitude as I can to the wonderful folks who are currently running the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, the Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn of Ferdy on Films. The blogathon is nearly over, and I’ve sadly been kept from posting anything by the stresses of 7th week, but I can’t overemphasize how noble and important of a project this is. The purpose of “For the Love of Film” is to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation, whose raison d’etre is pretty much right there in its name. (I’ve dreamed of volunteering for the NFPF for years, but Minneapolis isn’t exactly a Mecca of film preservation.)

Imagine that you’re Burgess Meredith in the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” You’re the last person on earth, and you’ve got all of mankind’s collected work at your fingertips. Let’s say your glasses didn’t break. But what if the library started on fire? Would you do whatever it took to get a fire extinguisher or a hose, anything, to quench the flames? OK, this may be a strained analogy, but my point is that film preservation is essential to preserving our collective identity.

Film is such a young art, but already it’s produced so many sublime and beautiful masterpieces, works which literally improve us as human beings and the world we live in. Yet tragically, this hasn’t always been acknowledged: during the days of the Hollywood studio system, for example, before the public even knew of such a thing as “art cinema,” filmmaking was regarded first and foremost as an industry. This is how Thomas Edison treated it, and this is how it was viewed by the men who controlled it over the following decades. At that historical moment, despite the fact that Hollywood was exporting countless great works of art, film just hadn’t acquired the necessary approval from the broader artistic and intellectual communities.

Granted, I’m oversimplifying a little, but I’m trying to hastily spell out some of the reasons why film preservation is so very fundamental. Because it was this dominant attitude toward film as nothing but a transient form of entertainment that helped lead to the ongoing crisis we face as cinephiles. Our cultural heritage is literally decomposing. Imagine (yes, more hypotheticals) if you learned that a vault somewhere in Vienna contained thousands of pages of sheet music, with a few lost Mozart symphonies in there somewhere, and the paper was slowly rotting away, so that much of the music was already unreadable. Would you be a little concerned? I can’t overstate the gravity of this situation.

Already, so much – far too much – has been lost. If you want to make me cry, force me to peruse a list of lost films; it’s like gazing over a memorial to lost lives, experiences, sacrifices. Just think about Theda Bara, the beguiling, vampy sex symbol of early silent cinema. Her very image is intriguing, she’s one of the first true movie stars, but out of her whole prolific career, only four feature films remain; barring an archival miracle, no one will ever see her legendary Cleopatra in its entirety. I want to see Cleopatra. I can’t, because it hasn’t been preserved. Donating to the NFPF at least ensures that future generations will be able to enjoy the films of other silent starlets.

I’ll mention a few other tragic losses, cautionary tales about the fragility of film: consider Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), an expansive masterpiece of intense psychological realism. Of course, we’ll never see the whole thing, because some janitor decided to throw away a huge amount of its running time. This is just a sample of how one person’s brief carelessness can harm all of humanity; the NFPF works to overcome the effects of individual carelessness. (Luckily, janitors have redeemed themselves, since legend says that one recovered Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc in a Norwegian insane asylum.)

Another classic example of negligence depriving us of great filmmaking is Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. A failure when first released, RKO’s apathy toward it eventually led to about an hour of footage being irretrievably lost. As it is, Ambersons feels so potent, so full of the same layered storytelling that defined Citizen Kane, with great performances from Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, and Agnes Moorhead – what could that extra hour have added? How would it have changed our perception of Welles’ talent?

(It’s worth noting that a couple months ago, I had a conversation with my advisor, a Cinema and Media Studies professor, in which he happened to mention, “I was in Madison recently and ran into David Bordwell, and we happened to talk about The Magnificent Ambersons…” to my quiet awe.)

It’s so frustrating; it’s as if James Joyce had, in his fit of rage, thrown the manuscript of Ulysses into the fireplace, and then Nora hadn’t rushed to salvage it. Except in this case, it’s all thanks to the studio’s short-sightedness and penny-pinching. This also counts as a great lesson for anyone in any period of history: don’t pretend to know what will or will not end up being historically important. Rash actions, based on hubris like that, has lost us so many would-be classics, ones that never lived to see the light of the present day.

I can’t talk about lost films without touching on the holy grail, perhaps the most desired and most sorely missed film out there, and one to which I feel a personal connection: Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). How many times as a child was I entranced by photos of Lon Chaney, Sr. as the Man in the Beaver Hat; how many times did I contort my face in an attempt to mimic his? Sure, as with Greed, there’s a reconstruction by Rick Schmidlin (whose work I admire), but it’s just not the same. The reconstruction gives an outline of what London After Midnight may have been like. But I can never experience firsthand chills from seeing Chaney’s pseudo-vampire in motion, the essence of cinema (La Jetée notwithstanding).

We’re fighting a war. It’s a war against time, fire, mold, decay, and apathy. It’s a war against lack of funds and space. Think of these lost films as a few of the higher-profile casualties over the years, though rest assured, there are thousands and thousands more. If you want to learn more about some of the success stories of film preservation, and the endless tally of losses, look around at the lists on the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Film. You can find out all about the technical reasons that films decay (an area where I’m pretty lost myself), as well as great film preservationists, porn preservation, and so much more. These collected posts are an amazing accomplishment, providing glances into areas of film history that are usually off limits to all but the most dedicated researchers. To everyone involved: thank you!

(Also, DONATE to the NFPF!)

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Machine men with machine minds

It’s been a while since we’ve posted anything – between the Independence Day weekend and Ashley’s pinched sciatic nerve, it’s been difficult to find time for writing. So I figured I might take a few minutes to go over whatever it is I’ve been thinking about lately. We’ve watched a fair amount of (very good) movies; it’s nice to be able to go back and rewatch beloved classics. Since I’m so preoccupied with watching films I haven’t yet seen (and checking off lists, always lists), this is an opportunity I don’t often get.

And, well, I think all in all repeated viewing is important to understanding and loving film – after all, it’s a very visually and aurally dense art form. So it’s good to be able to watch movies from all time periods, regions, styles, genres, and directors, but at the same time, occasionally it’s good to do some deeper viewing, possibly paying attention to aspects of the work you haven’t noticed before. Beside that, it’s just fun: the two of us are sharing movies we love with each other. What’s more romantic than that?

Among the movies we’ve watched have been, as I mentioned the other day, The Third Man and White Heat. This is going to be short, so I don’t really have time to jump into a full-blown exploration of the two films’ many nuances and significances, but I might as well just touch briefly on the thoughts I had while rewatching.

The symbolic recursion of man within man within man

With The Third Man, every other line in the first half of the film seems to be a clue, a subtle hint to the mysteries Holly spends the rest of the film furiously unraveling. The way the film so carefully traces the effects that Harry Lime had on those around him reminds me of some of Orson Welles’ other contributions to film: say, for example, Citizen Kane, which asks if one word can really sum up a man’s life, or Touch of Evil, which concludes with Marlene Dietrich asking, “What does it matter what you say about people?”

Of course here we’ve instead got the direction of Carol Reed, filling in the darkness and disorientation, as in his earlier films, Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, where the confused protagonists (a dying IRA operative and an ambassador’s young son, respectively) wander through situations just as undecipherable as Holly Martins’ stay in Vienna. Between the nonstop canted angles and the blissfully idiosyncratic, often incongruous zither music, it’s a decidedly off-balance film – the truth is always behind another shadow, another corner, or as Calloway says, “We should’ve dug deeper than a grave.” And the film always keeps a very British sense of dark humor about the whole affair.

Martins: A parrot bit me.

Calloway: Oh, stop behaving like a fool, Martins…

I think The Third Man forms a great contrast with the other film on my mind, released the same year, Raoul Walsh’s White Heat. Both contain blithely smiling villains. But while The Third Man coyly clings to secret after secret, layer after layer, White Heat is blunt as hell. (I wonder if I could draw a parallel between Walsh and Samuel Fuller, in that both seem to trade in subtlety for raw brutality.) In the first 5 minutes, we’re introduced to our weirdly sympathetic, totally psychotic central character, Cody Jarrett, a mercilessly hands-on gangleader played by veteran actor James Cagney.

Cagney was returning to the gangster movie a decade after having helped define it with roles in Warner Bros. films like Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces (both opposite Bogart), and of course the grapefruit-smashing iconography of William Wellman’s The Public Enemy. His performance as Cody Jarrett, though, drops the relatively well-intentioned rags-to-riches element of these Depression-era films for a delusional but brazen figure fixated on the support of his mother and her dreams of him going to the “top of the world.” Jarrett doesn’t just want to be well-off and have his best girl by his side; instead, he’s consumed with id and despises his best girl (played with sluttiness and self-interest by Virginia Mayo).

The film is filled with one weird turn after another, from the scorching of gang member Zookie with steam from a train engine (the first of many symbolic images of “White Heat”) to Jarrett’s transferred devotion to partner-in-crime-but-actually-police-informant Vic Pardo, played by frequent noir straight man Edmond O’Brien. It almost reminds me of the way black holes curve space-time: Cagney’s white-hot performance seems to skew the whole film in bleak, slightly disturbing directions. So here we have an interesting way that two films are similarly effective: The Third Man‘s driving force is powerful through his absence, while White Heat‘s makes his mark through an overwhelming presence.

Finally, since you can never embed too many videos in one blog, here’s a climactic excerpt from another movie Ashley and I watched recently, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It’s a great artist’s first sound film, and a passionate paean to human freedom.

I’m not sure when there’ll be more writing forthcoming from either of us, but we’ve both got plenty of ideas stewing in our heads (both collaboratively and individually), so more eventually.

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