Thursday, February 18, 2010
Preserve and Report
[Today's post is intended as my contribution to the gala, week-long Film Preservation Blogathan, which is going down at the Self-Styled Siren's joint and Ferdy on Films, two glittering jewels in the crown of the blogosphere. Click here to donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation. The "commercial" for the Blogathan at the top of this post is the work of Greg Ferrara.]
Has anyone pinpointed the moment when it became general knowledge among people working in film that the fruits of their labor wasn't going to just wash away with the passing years? It's been a while now since we entered the second century that will be permanently preserved, visually, for future generations, and pretty soon we'll be entering the second one that will also leave behind a permanent record of how our world sounds. Old movies provide a documentary record not just of the surface of things but of the collective fantasies, daydreams, and shared delusions of the times in which they were made; if nothing else, the crummiest old commercial flick--say, a Monogram Western designed to occupy the double bill's lower half-- records what a bunch of people with a back lot and access to stunt men and horses thought would divert some bored ticket buyers trying to get their minds off the war in Europe.
Of course, the movies made by talented people with singular imaginations serve as more than that, which is why we care about them on a level beyond sociology and nostalgia. A great movie blows the cobwebs out of your ears like nothing else. But for those of us with an interest in sociology and a susceptibility to nostalgia, the peculiar properties of movies makes not just second-tier entertainments and even films that, as entertainment value goes, count as mediocrities or worse, seem oddly fascinating and even valuable in a way that, say, the short fiction in a turn-of-the-century issue of the Saturday Evening Post isn't. When you talk about seeking out and preserving lost or threatened films, people automatically think about vintage silents and ancient newsreel footage, but because the idea that old movies that had outlived their cultural moment might still have money to be squeezed out of them is relatively new, and the idea that footage that is unlikely even to generate revenue might be worth holding onto is newer still, there are some movies that were made and well-received within hailing distance of my birth that I've never been able to catch a glimpse of or hear a holler from, which for those of us who were born into the home-video age can seem almost like a calculated insult.
Anybody ever seen James Blue's The Olive Trees of Justice (1962) or The Crazy Quilt (1966), Funnyman (1967), or Riverrun (1970), the early features of John Korty, a San Francisco-based director who played mentor to the '70s movie brats before disappearing into the world of made-for-TV movies? (He made The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Go Ask Alice.) Me neither--and I'd like to. These, like such marginally better-known, or at least easier to find, films such as Irving Lerner's Murder by Contract (1958) and Robert Kaylor and William Richart's Derby (1971) (to name two that made it to DVD last year, the Lerner as part of the five-disc set Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1), were indie films before there was an audience for indies, let alone an indie film "movement." (They were, in fact, made before anyone concocted the term "regional filmmaking", the Granola-flavored label that critics used to stick onto independently produced movies before some marketing genius started calling them "indies".) These films and their cousins, from the now Criterion-approved freakhouse flick Carnival of Souls to early works by Philip Kaufman (Goldstein and Brian De Palma (Murder a la Mod), which were made outside the studios and spottily distributed long before such guerrilla activity was a badge of hip, can now be given a second life on small steel cylinders designed to be played on one's home appliance; in many cases, whether they get that afterlife depends on whether the mice have gotten to those film cans that, long ago, the director asked his mom to stick under her bed for him.
Luckily, such outfits as the Orphan Film Symposium (who have been good soldiers in helping to keep the work of my late friend, Helen Hill, alive) and Milestone Film and Video (who did stellar jobs with Charles Burnett's 1977 Killer of Sheep and Kent Mackenzie's 1961 The Exiles) have set an example by showing how much good a properly motivated group of people can do for the right movies. But if any budding film preservationist is in need of a heroic example towards whom he can bend his knees and say a prayer before rising to his feet refreshed and emboldened, I would whisper but one name: Henri Langlois. Co-founder, public face, and beating heart of the Cinémathèque Française, Langlois was an archivist-enthusiast who could teach any movie geek worth his salt much about passion, priorities, and (as every photo of the man I've seen proudly boasts) personal style.
There was a great movie to be made with Langlois as its hero, though we probably lost any hope that it would be made by the right people when we lost both Chuck Jones and Robert Morley. (As it stands, Jacques Richard's excellent documentary, Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque--augmented by Richard Roud's book A Passion for Films: Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque Francaise-- may have to suffice.) Laboring away at the collection from 1936 until his death in 1977, Langlois was the film freak as sacred monster, a man who turned his archive into both a private lair and an incubation chamber for a new generation of converts and enthusiasts who, of course, would go on to shape movie history as fans turned critics turned directors: the French New Wave. When Langlois's job was in trouble, angry geeks took to the streets to protest, and Francois Truffaut (looking like a teenage Moonie with a bad haircut) and Jean-Luc Godard (signaling the importance of the occasion by the practiced insouciance with which he attacks his cigarette while his sidekick Truffaut is flapping his gums) took to the airwaves to explain it all for you:
Langlois's position was in jeopardy because he had managed to work the last nerve of André Malraux, then the French Minister of Culture. (Feel free to take a minute to turn that one over in your head. People were screaming at each other in the streets because of a dust-up between the author of Man's Fate and Anti-Memoirs and Jean-Luc Godard's supplier. Can you imagine the closest thing that might be comparable to that which is imaginable in America? Palin vs. Letterman, maybe? It's easier to picture a battle between Mothra and MechaGodzilla, which, in this fantasy, dominated C-SPAN for a day because Mothra had recently been appointed to the President's Council on Physical Fitness.) It is important to concede that Malroux was not without grounds in thinking that Langlois was notm in bureaucratic terms, an ideal custodian of an important cultural institution, or for that matter, the first man you'd nominate to hold the keys to your apartment during your vacation and water your Chia Pet. Under his stewardship, the Cinémathèque was a notorious hotbed of clutter and what we partisans choose to call sn eccentric management style. Langlois is reported to have kept a massive sack stuffed with a lively mixture of different international currencies and to keep dangerously flammable nitrate stocks piled in the sunny courtyard. There were haphazard screenings of classic films with mismatched dialogue tracks and subtitles, none of them in the original language, and program notes that were written in a language not spoken by any tribe yet discovered to reside on our planet. In the book Midnight Movies, J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum recount an anecdote about how Langlois once sent a New York curator a copy of the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney silent The Unknown a decade after the request had been made, explaining, "There were all these cans of film labeled 'Unknown', and we had to open every one..."
So, as public servants go, Langlois was not someone whose window you'd want to approach if he were working at the D.M.V. But, as Pauline Kael wrote of Elliot Gould's Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, he was the one who cared! Not only is that probably the most important quality in a custodian of culture, but I'm not sure that it doesn't go hand in hand with being a little nuts. People who care about film preservation aren't ready to let yesterday's daydreams, manifestos, wild boasts, off-the-cuff wisecracks, hairy-eyeball fantasies and beautiful visions dissolve in the mists of time, and they do their work in a culture that's defined by an entertainment media that boils everything down to which movie earned the top grosses last weekend and a mass audience that knows that box office trivia better than it does the authentic cravings of their own brains. Godard would describe Langlois, at the end of his supremely well-spent life, dying "like an elephant." Don't tell me that trying to find a working 3-D print of Top Banana isn't a noble thing to devote your life to.