In this day and age, to watch an older movie, or really any movie, is to watch a digital copy – a file code made up of ones and zeros. That is to say, unless you’re living in a city with a thriving and dedicated film culture, you’re watching movies on non-native formats, and often in the comfort of your own home. With the gradual downturn in home video sales, there has been a steady rise in streaming services. They offer immediate access to whole libraries of films. Some (MUBI) are more curated than others (Amazon Prime). And some simply crash and burn after a few years (FilmStruck). This proliferation has caused quite a mess. For one, the quality control is spotty; a stream can pixelate an image depending on the bandwith used. You don’t know which movies are in circulation anymore. A title might appear on a site one day then vanish the next because the streaming rights expired. And what is in circulation is rather scant considering the vast history of cinema’s hundred-plus years as a medium. This has been an ongoing problem with every format change. From 16mm to VHS and Betamax, from DVD and LaserDisc to HD DVD, Blu-ray, and now streaming – there are less movies one has access to with every switch. Aside from popular films new and old – heavily featured on these sites with the help of algorithms – there are fewer opportunities for discovery.
This is where To Save and Project enters the picture. Now in its 16th year, the month-long series at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art screens the unknown and the little seen – film prints and digitially restored copies of orphans from the crevices of history. Curator Joshua Siegel, selecting titles that made a splash at the big festivals like Locarno and Il Cinema Ritrovato, goes for variety in programming. From films made by women during the Classical Hollywod era to unflinching portraits of Hollywood icons, from a gay touchstone to formally daring arthouse fare – there are many flavours to choose from.
Rescuing cinematic wonders from cultural oblivion this year, To Save and Project screened Finishing School (1934), directed by George Nicholls Jr. and Wanda Tuchock – the only woman, aside from Dorothy Arzner, with a directing credit in 1930s Hollywood. A charter member of the Screen Writers Guild, Tuchock was trained as a screenwriter. She often collaborated with King Vidor, whether working on continuity (Show People), scenario (Hallelujah), dialogue (The Champ), or the screenplay itself (Bird of Paradise). It would be interesting to see what Tuchock would have done had she directed more. For as it stands now, her only feature-length film is a perfectly benign experience. Finishing School is a pre-Code boarding school dramedy with serviceable acting and refined dialogue. Ginger Rogers, an animated and carefree supporting player, steals the show. And yet it’s women like Arzner and Tuchock that paved the way for Ida Lupino.
Actor, writer, producer, director – Lupino did it all and did it her way. After achieving a successful career as an actor, notably performing in films by Raoul Walsh, she set up an independent production company – Emerald Films, later changed to The Filmmakers – with her then husband Collier Young. These low-budget movies, completely without star recognition for the most part, tackled issues like rape, bigamy and unwed mothers – all controversial subject matter in their day.
Lupino has already earned her place in history for making movies adjacent to the studio system.1 However, in the home video and streaming era, most of her work is available, but only in subpar transfers. This is gradually changing though, and MoMA has been involved in the initiative to restore and exhibit them. Last year, it screened an HDCAM copy of Outrage (1950); this year, it’s a DCP restoration of the polio pic Never Fear (The Young Lovers) (1950).
Carol (Sally Forrest) and Guy (Keefe Brasselle) are young lovers and hoofers, a dance duo preparing for their next number. Hungry up-and-comers, their plans in showbiz are quickly dashed when Carol learns that she has polio. She enters the esteemed Kabat-Kaiser Institute for rehabilitation. Meanwhile, Guy becomes a working stiff, replacing his dance shoes for a conservative suit since he’s a real estate agent now. At first, Carol wallows in self-pity, shutting Guy out. Gradually, she integrates within the institute’s community, even testing out a relationship with one of the patients there – as does Guy with a friendly secretary at the agency he works at.
Never Fear has a threadbare thinness to the proceedings that’s partly due to Lupino’s predilection for a documentary-like quality, and partly due to the film’s low-budget. It’s a thrifty “problem film” about endurance and perseverance. Or, more specifically, as Scheib writes, it’s “about the difficulty of accepting a dependent, truncated version of womanhood disturbingly close to its most traditional limited social definition.” By the end, Carol must adjust her life plans, must reintegrate back into a society still ignorant and fearful of contracting polio.
From marginalised directors to marginalised stars, MoMA covered the gamut of Classical Hollywood outsiders. It devoted a portion of the programming to Sterling Hayden, screening: Crime Wave (Andre de Toth, 1954), featuring on-location photography in a nocturnal L.A. prowled by Hayden’s bitter cop, but also the engrossing documentary portrait Leuchtturm des Chaos (Pharos of Chaos, Wolf-Eckart Bühler and Manfred Blank, 1983) and cerebral essay film, Der Havarist (The Shipwrecker, Wolf-Eckart Bühler, 1984). Combining archival material and reenactments (three actors play Hayden!), and coupled with a steady voiceover narration, The Shipwrecker examines the knotty life of Hayden, from his seafaring days as a young man, his affiliation with the Communist Party, his career in Hollywood, the HUAC hearings, naming names, and ultimately becoming a pariah, living out his later years alone on a barge, sailing through eastern France. Once a film critic, Bühler belonged to the filmmakers associated with the magazine Filmkritik, which included Wim Wenders, Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki. In fact, The Shipwrecker feels Farockian with its clinical precision and emphasis on fragmentation. However, it’s so cold and detached that it’s dry, never really deigning to make an impression on an emotional level.
More fascinating is Pharos of Chaos, the title deriving from an unfinished novel by Hayden. While trying to secure the rights to Hayden’s autobiographical Wanderer (which eventually wound up as source material for The Shipwrecker), Bühler and Blank record the ageing Hayden living on his barge. It’s two fascinating hours of the actor in various states of altered consciousness – whether from hashish or wine – rambling about life, Hollywood, HUAC, depression and sailing. Hayden wears hippie attire, sports a mangy grey-speckled beard, and carries a can. In the midst of a topic, he tags or puntuates each word with a non-verbal sound. He commands the camera with his oversized persona. He is electrifying. However compelling Hayden is, Bühler’s voiceover narration – monotonous and deadening – unfortunately takes you right out of any sense of intimacy with the actor. Still, as a record of an illness, “a record of exactly what alcoholism is,” as Hayden says at one point, it’s uncomfortably captivating.
If Bühler and Blank’s documentary functions something like a PSA for the dangers of addiction by portraying Hayden in all of his inebriation, Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Buddies (1985) is a public announcement in narrative form. Like Never Fear, Buddies is a social problem film; it’s a film about the AIDS epidemic, one of the first of its kind seen in American independent cinema before finally filtering into Hollywood with films like Philadelphia (1993). At a time during the Reagan administration, with no real media representation and the bubbling fear of contagion from the public, the film sets out to humanise those with AIDS. It puts a face on the victims for the public to see.
Buddies is a two-hander about David (David Schachter) and Robert (Robert Willow), the former a “buddy” visiting the latter, who has contracted AIDS, has months to live, and is bedridden. What follows is the evolution of their relationship. Initially, the interaction is formal, with David expressing the naïve concern of exposure to AIDS: he wears gloves, a smock and a mask the first time he’s in the room with Robert. Gradually, they get to know one another. David is a softly-spoken Jewish typesetter working on homophobic material diametrically opposed to his sexual identity. Before being hospitalised, Robert was a gregarious, outspoken gay rights activist. The two develop a friendship with an undefined hint of sexual tension in the air.
Although weakened by a low-budget roughness, Buddies is an affecting film that balances a number of formal decisions. It combines a polished approach (the smooth voiceover narration, the deliberate delivery of dialogue by all the speakers) with a socio-political urgency speckled with melodrama. At the same time, Bressan psychologically probes with the camerawork by slowly zooming in and out on scenes, the technique turning nearly imperceptible as it is done so often that it becomes part of the film’s aesthetic DNA.
After Buddies’ short theatrical release, Bressan died of AIDS-related complications in 1987. Ever since then, his films have been unavailable, resulting in his becoming an unknown entity among cinephiles. Fortunately, more Bressan works are on their way thanks to the efforts of filmmaker Jenni Olson (her Blue Diary (1998), a tight five-minute tale of a lesbian’s doomed desire for a straight woman, screened with Buddies). Launched with Olson and Bressan’s sister Roe in 2018, The Bressan Project is devoted to the preservation and promotion of the films of Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. and will next release Gay USA (1977), a documentary assembled from footage recorded at gay pride celebrations held in cities across the U.S. on 26 June, 1977.
Beyond the current auteurs and genre standard-bearers, Korean cinema is little discussed in film culture outside of the country. To Save and Project offered the rare opportunity to screen three vintage films from the 1960s and ‘70s. The best of the bunch was Lee Man-hui’s Hyuil (A Day Off, 1968). After its initial production (it never got a proper theatrical release due to censorship), the film went virtually unseen for 37 years, that is until the Korean Film Archive found it in 2005 while preparing for a Lee retrospective at the Pusan International Film Festival, leading to renewed interest in the filmmaker’s work. Watching it, 2you can see why there was a need to go back: it is a formally daring work that seamlessly fits in with the experiments conducted in European arthouse movies made at the time.
A Day Off takes place across a Sunday, in which the impoverished Huh-wook (Shin Seong-il) meets his girlfriend Ji-yeon (Jeon Ji-yeon). On this occasion, Ji-yeon drops a bombshell: she’s pregnant. Her body can’t handle a baby and she decides to abort it. What follows is Huh-wook wandering about, trying to scrounge up enough money for the operation. The man is a bit of a louse though. He is a coward, a moody silent type who, while Ji-yeon is in the hospital, gets drunk and messes around with another lost soul.
A Day Off’s premise is simple enough, but the execution is far from it. Lee’s movie has a grasp of architecture and space like Michelangelo Antonioni, a psychogeography, mixed in with the sensory reception and memory inducement of Alain Resnais’ editing. It’s a film that occupies a dreamy, psychic state, even though the brute reality of a life decision has to be made. Hazy and melancholic, consider it a kind of sauced L’Eclisse (1962).
The other personal discovery was Fridrikh Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire (1929), one of the out-and-out best films in the series, graceously restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, EYE Filmmuseum, and Gosfilmofund of Russia. Shellshocked Filimonov (the great Fyodor Nikitin), a tsarist, finally ermeges from catatonia ten years after fighting in World War I. He awakens to a Communist Russia, traveling to St. Petersburg, ambling amid the new buildings. He’s a bit aloof but becomes an ideal soviet citizen, working in a factory and spurning his once wife, who is now married to a priggish culture writer.
Exquisite in its deliberate pace, Fragment demonstrates a mix of Hollywood and Soviet montage aesthetics. On the Hollywood side, having the action fixed on a single character and using POV and shot-reverse-shots; on the Soviet side, protracting story time and implementing match on actions and rhythmic cutting with dexterity. Combining psychological depth with daring style, Ermler made an ideologically sound film – and he would continue to do so, surviving being labeled a formalist, unlike Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, and making movies well into a Stalinist era glutted with lifeless social realist pictures.
Soviet cinema specialists praise Ermler. He “was one of the greatest masters in the history of Soviet and – I shall not shy away from saying it – world cinema,” champions scholar and archivist Peter Bagrov.3 Denise J. Youngblood says Fragment of an Empire “is the crowning achievement of Soviet silent cinema, combining as it does a strong plot and a brilliant actor with the very best of silent film techniques.”4So why isn’t it better known? Perhaps because it doesn’t feature the formal extremes of Eisenstein, Vertov, or even Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s work that attracts scholars’ attention. Fragment is a film of stylistic mixture, and the result is purely transfixing.
To Save and Project is a must for the adventurous cinephile. It’s up there with Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato for the avid cinephile to see excavated works from the sediment of cinema. Most of these movies are not bonafide masterpieces (who needs more masterpieces, anyway?), but they are essential modern inclusions to flesh out the full spectrum of film history, one that isn’t exclusively white, patriarchical and heteronormative. The series is a vital display of the depth and breadth of cinema across the world.
To Save and Project: The 16th MoMA International Film Festival
4 – 31 January 2018
Festival website: https://www.moma.org/calendar/film/5036?locale=en
- For an exhaustive, enlightening analysis of her work, see Ronnie Scheib, Ida Lupino: Auteuress, Screening the Past, 2016; originally published in Film Comment, vol. 16 no. 1, January-February 1980, pp. 54-60, 80. ↩
- Which you can do online here. ↩
- See Bagrov, “Ermler, Stalin and Animation: On the Film The Peasants (1934)”, Kino Kultura, 2007. ↩
- See Youngblood, Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, 1918-1935, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1991, p. 208. ↩