Friday, October 14, 2011

Potpourri of trashed film

"Saved From Extinction: Classics and Curiosities"


Dave Kehr

October 13th, 2011

The New York Times

Film preservation takes many forms, some perilously close to Dumpster diving.

When the director Joe Dante was assembling his epic-length mash-up, “The Movie Orgy,” in the late 1960s, he scoured the East Coast for castoff footage — educational films, commercials, TV shows, forgotten drive-in features — that would lend itself to being creatively re-edited.

“Back in the day,” Mr. Dante said, “there were lots of mom and pop 16-millimeter rental sources, often attached to camera stores. When the prints became too tattered, they were often junked, in pieces. If you knew the guy behind the counter, sometimes he’d just give the stuff away.”

Working with Jon Davison, a friend and fellow student at the Philadelphia College of Art, Mr. Dante massaged his found material into a hilarious metamovie in which five or six stories seem to be going on at once (giant grasshoppers invade Chicago, as flying saucers attack Washington), constantly interrupted by prom night dos and don’ts, stomach-churning commercials for laxative pills and disturbing excerpts from children’s television shows (including a stuffed cat and mouse who perform “Jesus Loves Me” on piano and drums).

In the wild juxtapositions, the outlines of two future careers are apparent: Mr. Dante’s as a director (“Gremlins”) and Mr. Davison’s as a producer (“Airplane!”).

Sponsored by Schlitz, “The Movie Orgy” toured college campuses for years, in a constantly changing form that varied in length from three hours to seven. Mr. Dante will introduce a four-and-a-half-hour version on Friday evening to kick off this year’s edition of the Museum of Modern Art’s annual festival of film preservation, “To Save and Project.”

Forty years later, Mr. Dante’s one surviving, hand-cut copy of “The Movie Orgy” was itself in need of rescue, so a digital video transfer was made at the Post Group in Hollywood.

“The film is composed of so many different film stocks, we had to constantly ride focus and sound levels when we projected it,” Mr. Dante explained, “so digitization seemed the way to go. It took lots and lots of resplicing and perforation repair to get it through their system.”

There are similar tales of persistence and resourcefulness behind the more than 35 films in this year’s festival, though each posed its own set of problems.

“I think the funky condition actually contributes to the fun,” Mr. Dante said of the scratches and dust spots that invade “The Movie Orgy,” but a different kind of restoration was required for “Hoop-La,” a 1933 Fox film that was Clara Bow’s last feature. Working from nitrate material in its archives, MoMA was able to return the black-and-white film to a close approximation of its radiant original visual quality. The results can be seen on Sunday and Wednesday.

Movies made in color offer an additional set of challenges. Schawn Belston of 20th Century Fox’s film library will introduce a series of films that were photographed in the studio’s notoriously unstable DeLuxe process but that have been restored to their initial luster. They include Walter Hill’s brilliantly terse 1978 thriller, “The Driver.” (Mr. Hill will be present for the Nov. 5 screening.) The director Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker will introduce a Technicolor restoration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1943 “Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” on Nov. 7.

And on Nov. 11 the French restorationist extraordinaire Serge Bromberg will present a stunning hand-colored version of Georges Méliès 1902 “Trip to the Moon,” followed by the world premiere of “The Extraordinary Voyage,” a new documentary on the film’s creation by Mr. Bromberg and Eric Lange. (For those seeking to make connections between past and present, Mr. Scorsese’s coming film “Hugo” is partly a tribute to Méliès.)

And then there’s a wide selection of films that we’re lucky to have at all. Among the rediscovered rarities are Victor Trivas’s 1931 German antiwar film, “No Man’s Land” (next Friday and Oct. 24), which, thanks to the French Film Archives, has survived, despite Josef Goebbels’s orders to destroy all copies; a 1947 Russian version of “Robinson Crusoe,” filmed in a 3-D process that earned the admiration of Sergei Eisenstein (Oct. 29); and two programs of early European comedy shorts selected from the collection of the EYE Film Institute of the Netherlands (Oct. 30).

A strong Italian selection includes Ettore Scola’s 1970 comedy, “The Pizza Triangle,” and Elio Petri’s 1961 crime thriller, “The Assassin,” both starring Marcello Mastroianni (Sunday and Thursday), and a pair of crucial works by the neglected Alberto Lattuada: the social satire “The Riviera” (Oct. 28 and 31), and a powerful reinterpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s work “The Overcoat” (Oct. 31 and Nov. 3)

This being MoMA, the festival also offers a subset of films by or about artists from other fields. The photographer Zoe Leonard will introduce the museum’s restoration of “Gabriel,” a 1976 experimental feature that represents the painter Agnes Martin’s only completed film (Oct. 28). The choreographer Elaine Summers is featured in a series of short performance films preserved under the auspices of the Women’s Film Preservation Fund (Nov. 2), and the performance artist Stuart Sherman appears in short films made in the 1970s (Nov. 10). The graphic designer Saul Bass will be honored in a Nov. 14 program co-presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and featuring Bass’s Oscar-winning short from 1968, “Why Man Creates.”

Just as things seem to be winding down, the festival segues neatly into an 11-film retrospective of the work of Jack Smith, the underground filmmaker and performance artist who discovered whole new shores of personal expression with his lyrically overwrought celebrations of Hollywood melodramas and Orientalist fantasies. Mario Montez, one of Smith’s regular performers, will initiate the proceedings with a screening of Smith’s best-known film, “Flaming Creatures,” on Nov. 13.

As organized with excessive generosity by Joshua Siegel, an associate curator in MoMA’s film department, this year’s edition of “To Save and Project” is a movie orgy in and of itself.

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