Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Film Preservation Mob

The past week's big event in the blogosphere has been For The Love of Film: the Film Preservation Blog-A-Thon. It's not been "just" another Blog-a-thon devoted to a single film, filmmaker, genre or film subject, but a celebration of archivists and historians who have kept our cinema heritage alive and in many cases brought it into the light after long periods of darkness. The genius of the two co-hosts, Farran Nehme, a.k.a. the Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy On Films, has been to turn hordes of opinionated chroniclers into crowdsourced fundraisers for the National Film Preservation Foundation, whose offices are located here in Frisco, right on Market Street. Please donate to this terrific cause. If you're unsure of its worthiness, then reading the great number of arguments in favor found at one of the Blog-a-thon hubs ought to set you straight. To sweeten the deal, four random donors will be awarded one of the DVD sets the NFPF has produced in the past few years; I've delved into both collections myself and would love to have either in my personal library as reference copies for dozens of films that I've had the pleasure of watching in cinemas (such as The Godless Girl and Hamfat Asar), and/or that I hope to view in that manner one day (such as Redskin and Fake Fruit Factory).

I find that a common misconception among the general public regarding film preservation is that transferring the information in a film print to a digital storage device such as a DVD is the same thing as preserving it. It's a tough myth to shatter in a world where computers are supposed to solve all our problems. My fellow San Francisco Silent Film Festival researcher Rob Byrne (who you can follow on twitter) wrote in a 2008 essay on film preservation called Amazing Tales From The Archives (one can read the full text here):

A properly stored film printed on modern stock can last 100 years and more, while retaining far higher fidelity than a digitized copy. In contrast, over the past 20 years video formats have changed multiple times, leaving behind obsolete equipment and inaccessible media. So while digital reproduction is an obvious choice for home viewing and posibly for public exhibition, it is not the solution for preservation.
You may have read, elsewhere in the blog-a-thon, or somewhere else entirely, that the last step in the preservation process is presentation. Which is to say that the effort that goes into finding elements, researching proper technical specifications, and making photochemical or digital "fixes" to the materials at hand (if it's not too far decayed, that is) is not spent simply for a restored film to sit pristine in a vault somewhere, but to be accessible to future audiences. Whether that means striking exhibition prints for festivals, museums and archives, and the remaining repertory theatres to show, or simply making a DVD available, it's an integral piece of film preservation even if it's not equivalent to it. Interestingly, a film called Cry Danger has closed the circuit, making presentation the first step in preservation as well as the last.

At Noir City 8, last month's festival of film noir here at Frisco's jewel of a presentation venue, the Castro Theatre, the audience was reminded in very palpable ways of the relationship between archives and the ideal presentation of both the "classics" and of little-known gems. The first Saturday night's double bill of films written by William Bowers and directed by Robert Parrish could be exhibit 'A'. The first film was the dark and witty Cry Danger, a film which had shown in 16mm prints at previous Noir City festivals, but which was finally given the full restoration treatment, paid for by the proceeds from last year's Noir City. Festival director Eddie Muller goes into detail on this in his own contribution to this week's blog-a-thon. The audience loved seeing the film in its 35mm glory, and hearing Muller pry stories about the making of the film from Richard Erdman after the screening. And when the festival was over and the votes were tallied from the festival passholders to bestow this year's noir lineup with Noir City's own "Roscoe Awards", Cry Danger did pretty well, picking up nominations for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Erdman).

Cry Danger's double-bill-mate, the Mob, didn't fare so well in the "Roscoes" to my disappointment and surprise. I thought Broderick Crawford gave one of the festival's most memorable and well-judged performances as a New York City cop forced to go undercover as a transplant from New Orleans, going so far as to quaff the (according to Bowers' script, at any rate) Big Easy barstool signature, white wine and beer, in order to get inside the crooked crevices of the longshoreman milieu controlled by Ernest Borgnine's gang- or is it Borgnine's gang after all? Muller announced before the film unspooled (boasting that more tickets had been sold to that show than to Avatar in Frisco that evening- and this was when the James Cameron film was still weeks away from losing its #1 slot on the national box-office charts) that the 35mm print of the Mob was shipped fresh from the lab. It looked it. The deep deep blackness of the screen contrasted with the bright white lights shining through the emulsion with as much clarity as I've ever seen in a black-and-white film print. It must have augmented the experience that I was sitting in the balcony just under the projector, which traced the motion of a vehicle's headlamps from the back of the giant theatre to the screen in front of us with distinct beams stretching over my head. It was an unexpected 3-D effect without the need for special glasses or a $4 surcharge!

Other Noir City screenings that week highlighted other connections between preservation and presentation. According to the Czar of Noir, the rarely-seen Robert Siodmak film Deported was screened as much as a way of checking the quality of the only known print, as for its entertainment or historical value. "Bad Girls Night" was an excuse for Muller to briefly interview Grover Crisp of Sony Pictures on how he got into archiving, and what it's like to be involved with keeping the legacy of one of the classic Hollywood studios (in this case Columbia) alive in the modern era. The audience was treated to two delerious programmers featuring Cleo Moore; I think I'm one of the few in the house that liked the low-budget One Girl's Confession by Hugo Haas more than Women's Prison, which had a great cast including Ida Lupino but less authorial style than the Haas picture. Both films have in the weeks since the festival been released on a pair of two-disc DVD sets along with favorites from Noir City festivals past (Night Editor, the Glass Wall) and hopefully future (Two of a Kind?)

Another particularly intriguing restoration angle was provided by the Noir City Sentinal Annual #2, a collection of articles and images bound in a handsome volume and available at the festival as well as online. I had to buy myself a copy, not only for the multiple articles on the great director André de Toth, whose Pitfall and Slattery's Hurricane were highlights of my festival week (though the latter film doesn't really gel its spectacular scenes together into something unified, for reasons well-explained in one of the aforementioned articles), but also for Eddie Muller's interview with Paula Felix-Didier and Fernando Peña, the Argentinean film historians who were instrumental in bringing the near-complete cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis into the global view. His interview illuminates aspects of this "amazing tale from the archives" that I have not seen stressed in media reports on this watershed restoration elsewhere. And I'm thrilled that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has announced its plan to bring the "new" Metropolis to the Castro Theatre this coming July, with the Alloy Orchestra providing a musical score updating the version that launched the ensemble's silent film-scoring career in 1991.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Noir City is its complete lack of corporate sponsorship- although the festival partners with other non-profit groups like the fledgling San Francisco Film Museum, which set up camp on the mezzanine one evening to take mug shots (including mine!) of the masses. It's a festival that survives, nay thrives on the support of its donors, its volunteers, its connections in the preservation community, and of course on its loyal audiences. Restoring Cry Danger was just the beginning- actually it wasn't the beginning, as funds from Noir City helped restore the print of the Prowler that will be playing the Joseph Losey series that's a centerpiece of the March-April Pacific Film Archive calendar. But as long as audiences support this festival and its satellites around the country (currently in Seattle) it will continue its preservation mission one film at a time. Next up for the Cry Danger treatment, according to Eddie Muller's closing-night sign off? Too Late For Tears.


  1. Brian, thanks so much for the mention of our effort. I'm going to include this post in the blogathon, with your permission. It has information that should belong in the "archive" we've created.

  2. Of course! I'm glad you find it valuable. I'm even gladder that you organized this terrific event.

  3. "Gladder"? Gladder?!! Heh.

    Great write-up, Brian, with evident traces of your ongoing collaboration with the Silent Film Festival.

  4. Thanks, Michael. You've made me gladder still with your own 'thon contribution on Lola Montès, since I missed that PFA presentation myself. What a film to see on the big scren though!

  5. Brian: Thanks for the interesting write-up. I'm glad you quoted Rob Byrne's article about preservation. Film is the way to preserve film.

  6. I really ought to have quoted Byrne with more fanfare; I understand he recently completed a degree in film preservation, and was in some (small?) way involved in a major restoration project: Abel Gance's J'Accuse, which then screened at Pordenone and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

  7. Computers will not solve all our problems, but they can solve a lot of them. Especially when it comes to archiving. And the best thing about its data archiving platforms is that it is an 'active' archive, an accessible archive that can be ran through and looked up in an instant, without pressures of travel and distance. And because of the fact it's an 'active' archive, instead of a kind of 'dead' one, stuck in a salt mine somewhere, the paradigms of data preservation are changed: it can be passed on and stored simultaneously, with the active sharing among agents being the process of preservation itself. Think of all the possibilities this raises for film preservation.

  8. Thanks for the comment, but I'll believe it when I see it. And I think a better choice of words in your last sentence would be "moving image preservation".