Jun 30, 2008

Painters Fading...

Painters Fading

I met a lot of nice colors.
-- Robert Rauschenberg,
on studying with Josef Albers

Color fading is one of the most heartbreaking signs of the impermanence of the motion picture medium. Few things are sadder than a once-glorious color film turned monochromatic pink or red.
-- Stephen Prince, Film Quarterly (Spring 1999), book review of
James M. Reilly's Storage Guide for Color Photographic Materials

Yesterday, at the Harvard Film Archive, I saw a screening of the documentary Painters Painting (1972), part of HFA's Emile de Antonio's America series. The 16mm print came from the Museum of Modern Art’s circulating collection. Apparently MoMA’s 35mm print is not circulating, because of its faded colors. If the 16mm copy is any indication, the 35 must be quite faded indeed. And color fading is a wee bit important for a film showing off hundreds of painted canvases. The interviews, roughly half of Painters Painting, were shot and released in black-and-white. While color fading might not seem like a problem for b&w, in fact this monochromatic footage was a faded-rose-and-white. (HFA dutifully advised moviegoers of the problem. But they all chose to stay and they all stayed to the end.)

Of course restoration of this film is not MoMA’s responsibility. It only purchased copies for the museum’s collection. The originals/masters are elsewhere. No doubt at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, where “de” left his things – lots of things. The collection description says they have “Negatives, outs and trims” for Painters and other films. Perhaps there are also prints at the George Eastman House, where de left copies of his films (in case of nuclear attack on Madison, Wisconsin – no lie). Or perhaps the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the film was shot, had the foresight to buy a print and to keep it in cold storage. Or maybe New Yorker Films has material from its role as the original distributor of 16/35 prints in the 1970s. There might even be a print of
Painters Painting at the National Archives, since the U.S. Information Agency circulated the film overseas for several years. (A delicious contradiction: a U.S. government agency distributing the Marxist filmmaker’s work worldwide as a celebration of American exceptionalism, while the executive branch was surveilling and harassing him because of his political activities.)

Painters Painting DVD is due out in September 2008. Its producers no doubt know where all the prints and elements are and which are in best condition. If ever a film cried out for high-quality color reproduction, this is it. It was only ten years ago that Mystic Fire Video issued a VHS version, sold as Painters Painting: The New York Art Scene, 1940-1970. And in 1996, de Antonio protégé Ron Mann released his Voyager CD-ROM version of Painters Painting. Sadly -- but not surprisingly – the once-beautiful disk won’t play on my computer anymore. It was designed at the time of Mac OS 7 (first introduced in 1991). Ditto for those marvelous Our Secret Century CD-ROMs that Rick Prelinger produced with Voyager in the 1990s.

Ron Mann is also responsible for the 4-DVD boxed set
Emile De Antonio: Films of the Radical Saint (HomeVision-Image Entertainment; street date, July 8, 2008). The saint subtitle is unsuitably hagiographic for the devilish de, but it's good to see In the Year of the Pig (1968), Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971), Underground (1976), and Mr. Hoover & I (1989) being released. The VHS versions that MPI Home Video released in the 1990s were underwhelming. MPI retitled the works, and, in some, intercut late ‘80s video footage of de Antonio talking about the film you are watching.

And what of Rush to Judgment, the Warren Report rebuttal that de Antonio made with attorney/author Mark Lane in 1966? Last year I saw (fifth hand) an e-mail from Mark Lane asking where he could get a “master print” of Rush and its outtakes [er, rushes] so as to digitize and put it (sell it?) on the web. He authored the RTJ best-selling book (actually ghost-written by Ben Sonnenberg Jr.), but one wonders what rights Lane holds on the film, which is copyrighted in the name of Judgment Films Corp. In any case, no plans for a DVD release. Ditto for In the King of Prussia (1982), the no-nukes activist video made with the Berrigan brothers and the rest of the Plowshares 8, plus Martin Sheen.

Now that de Antonio’s Point of Order (1963) and In the Year of the Pig have been restored by Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, perhaps Painters Painting can be next in line. If these other prints and negs have fading problems too, maybe Wisconsin can work with the Warhol Foundation, UCLA, and others to restore the film.

Or will films be consigned to high-definition video versions by then? Come to think of it, these new DVD releases are not HD.

Watching aged and well-worn 16mm prints can have its pleasures, once one accepts the fact that it’s not gonna look/sound like what it might have been. For the
Painters Painting print, the wear worked well visually, in an almost perverse way. Those vertical scratch lines that run down the images of so many 16mm prints were in abundance. However, since the first reel was devoted to painter Barnett Newman talking about his striped canvases (“it’s not a stripe, it’s a zip”; “it’s not a stripe, it’s a streak of light”), it was almost like someone had given Barney the print and asked him to do his thing to it. Kinda like Robert Rauschenberg erased a de Kooning drawing. Also, near the heads and tails of reels, some conspicuous spotting was visible. Blue polka dots. Kinda like Larry Poons (who’s also in the film) was given the print after Newman and asked to do his thing to it too. I once saw this “effect” on a classroom print of Night and Fog (1955), and it added something positive to the aesthetic of the film, which opens with decaying prison camps, failing memories, fog.

Ironically, the least faded shot in
Painters Painting was in the end-credit sequence, in which we see cinematographer Ed Emshwiller filming the crowds at the Met’s New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940-1970 exhibition.

Dreaming of a glorious restoration.

And let’s see the outtakes while we’re at it. I can’t imagine that there is not an audience eager to see unedited sequences of Andy Warhol talking in his contrarian fashion about his work (“Brigid does all my paintings”). Or the excellent interview with Louise Nevelson that was completely cut from the film. Or the sight and sound of curator Henry Geldzahler talking in that cavernous echo-chamber that is the Met.

Ron Mann at Sphinx Productions in Toronto handles licensing rights to most of the Emile de Antonio films. Video copies can be purchased there too.


Emile de Antonio and Mitch Tuchman's book Painters Painting: A Candid History of the Modern Art Scene, 1940-1970 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984) can be found, used, at prices ranging from $8 to $75.

Henry Geldzahler's exhibition catalog, New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970 (E. P. Dutton, 1969) is available second-hand, priced between $4 and $85.