In a city bursting with monthly repertory programming, the Museum of Modern Art’s To Save and Project series stands out as an annual must-attend event for cinephiles. Curators Dave Kehr, Katie Trainor and Ron Magliozzi pick the latest restorations that either premiere at the museum or have been making the rounds on the festival circuit earlier in the year. For its 17th edition, MoMA supplied viewers with a typically mixed bag of moving images: a series of nights, as well as an accompanying installation, devoted to home movies; restorations of two horror films experimenting with colour (Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Masque of the Red Death); and rare screenings of international works (The Scar and The Woman with a Knife).
Every TSAP draws attention to barely known filmmakers and little seen films. Classic Hollywood director William K. Howard got the spotlight in 2015 and 2018. Last year, Cane River (Horace B. Jenkins, 1982), a regional film long thought lost, played at the Museum, and then went on to screen theatrically in select US cities last February. This time, MoMA highlighted Louis Valray, a complete enigma with a handful of movies to his name; they chose two complementary works: La belle de nuit (1934) and Escale (Thirteen Days of Love, 1935).
La belle de nuit initially plays like a straightforward love-triangle romance: Parisian playwright Claude reconnects with Jean, whom he saved during the First World War. Jean falls for Maryse, Claude’s actress wife. When Claude learns of their one-night stand, he impulsively leaves, going to Marseille. This is where the story takes a sharp turn; resembling Vertigo avant la lettre, Claude stumbles upon a prostitute, Maïthé, who looks uncannily like Maryse, and has her go to Paris, so that Jean will become enraptured by her (Véra Korène plays both of the film’s female leads). The icing on the cake being that once Jean discovers that she’s a streetwalker, he’ll be mortified, revealing his puffed-up morals and the whiff of misogynism in the movie. Aside from the conveniently “happy” ending (Claude and Maryse embrace), Valray is bold enough to portray his characters in an unflattering light: Maryse was either naïve to miss Jean’s passes or wanted the affair to happen in the first place; Claude transforms into a conniving, vengeful man. Meanwhile, Maïthé, a mere pawn, is left alone by the end, without a job and nowhere to go.
The story is one thing, and La belle de nuit’s style is quite another. Valray effectively combines the artifice of Claude’s bourgeois quarters – his roomy office and bedroom – with a hard-bitten realism accorded the film by shooting on location (Marseille’s ports, the narrow alleyways, fleets of sailors). He favours economical long takes, pointed camera movements and unusual shot compositions (the upper half of a writer’s head is seen in close-up at the moment Maïthé becomes attracted to him). Plot seems like mere window dressing, for Valray frequently suspends narrative to capture the mood and atmosphere of a scene using a flow of details. His fascination with Marseille’s seamy nightlife, for instance, is readily apparent by how much time he devotes to capturing the first bar Claude hangs out in: prostitutes and sailors locked in arms, dancing to French waltzes; the onlookers seated at tables arrayed with various bottles and glasses; an impromptu song given to an attentive crowd. It’s these prolonged moments that make the film quite unlike anything else made in France at the time.
Escale, Valray’s next film – his last feature – covers similar sleazy territory, but with lesser success. It’s another doomed love triangle, though this one doesn’t have La belle de nuit’s perversity. A sailor falls for a woman, and the feeling’s mutual on her end, but unfortunately she’s seeing a cruel, jealous racketeer – a Rudolph Valentino lookalike with sharper features. What taints the film the most, as J. Hoberman points out on his blog, is Féral Benga’s role. Renowned during his lifetime, the Senegalese model and dancer played an angel in Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of the Poet (1932) and was the subject of a Pavel Tchelitchew portrait. In the film, he’s reduced to a nearly naked, always smiling manservant.
IMDB says Valray’s next movie was Voyantes et mediums, a short comedy he made in the late ‘40s. After that, from what information is available, Valray gave up filmmaking to work in radio and for the aluminium company Pechiney. If there ever was a subject for further research, it would be the mysterious Valray, whose movies exude a beguiling style and the feel of bacchanal nights.
Discovery is a key ingredient for To Save and Project, whether it’s unearthing unrecognised directors like Valray or filling in the gaps of an auteur’s filmography. In the latter category, MoMA screened George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park (1973). Commissioned by the religious Lutheran Society organisation to make a movie about ageism, Romero went above and beyond, delivering such a bleak metaphysical allegory that the group shelved the project altogether. To soften the blow, Romero adds a cautionary introduction and wrap-up epilogue by the lead actor, who walks through the eerily desolate park while talking to the camera, recalling the announcer at the beginning of Frankenstein (1931). Yet nothing can really prepare you for the whirling terror that follows: a series of incidents in which the lead observes, then is subjected to all sorts of cruelties. Park employees forbid the elderly on rides, subject them to seeing tests and berate them for their lousy bumper car driving. In one episode, a young couple has their fortune read: he dies in a slum apartment, she begs for money to hospitalise him. In another, a freak show’s main attraction are… old people! Abetted by Romero’s kinetic editing, the neglect, humiliation, verbal and physical abuse is unrelenting. The film will frighten you into caring about seniors.
The only scary thing about Nationtime–Gary is that it took 48 years to finally see William Greaves’ complete recording of the National Black Political Convention. A 60-minute version has only ever been shown because, as MoMA’s program notes mention, it was too incendiary and radical for televised broadcast. Held in Gary, Indiana, in a high school gym, the three-day event gathered delegates across the US to propose a “National Black Agenda”, and a third political party that would have government representatives concentrate on the interests of African-Americans. The organisers – Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, Michigan congressman Charles C. Diggs and poet Amiri Baraka – tapped Greaves to shoot the convention.
Rather than a tidy, coherent illustration, Greaves opts to shoot the event as a medley of varying discourses proposed and disputed by the speakers and audience. Quick cuts and robust camera movements give the doc a present-tense urgency, as Greaves records a cross-section of pop and political icons: Dick Gregory jokes (“I ain’t seen black folks this happy since 1956 when a pickup truck ran over Governor Wallace’s hound dog.”), Isaac Hayes sings “I Stand Accused” and Reverend Jesse Jackson delivers a staggering speech, punctuating it with the famous call and response (“What time is it?” “Nation time!”). Voiceovers by Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte provide contextual glue holding the shots together.
For those who are only familiar with Greaves through his meta-non-fiction whatsit, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), Nationtime reveals a different side. This is the “journeyman” filmmaker making hundreds of works, the many of which were intended to raise awareness or advance black causes. While Symbio is a landmark in avant-garde cinema, Nationtime is an essential record of a historical landmark, one that captures the climate of the time and the tenor of African-Americans infuriated by an incompetent government.
Genre excursions, auteurs lost to time, and crucial visual documents of era-defining moments – there’s something for everyone. Year after year, To Save and Project is a highlight of New York repertory programming. The 17th edition is more of the same then, with MoMA’s curators plumbing the medium’s depths for films left behind. In their hands, film history – living, changing – becomes palpable.
To Save and Project: The MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation
9-22 January 2020
Festival website: https://www.moma.org/calendar/film/5188