Feb 20, 2010

Orphans 7, AMIA@20

Here's a reciprocal archival shout-out to Orphan Film Symposium partner, the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Thanks to new (as of this month even) AMIA President Wendy Shay the first new-style AMIA Press Release (2/15/2010) prominently announces the 7th Orphan Film Symposium coming up in April.

Here's a clipping from page one. If you are new to uh-ME-uh doings, theirs is a website worth visiting: AMIAnet.org.


Feb 15, 2010

Edgar Ulmer's Orphan Films

In 1934, at the age of merely thirty, Austrian director Edgar Ulmer saw the release of his second feature film, The Black Cat. Starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the film was a tremendous commercial success for Universal and won much critical acclaim for Ulmer. At this point, with his career seemingly on the rise, it would have seemed unlikely that the word "orphan" would have ever accompanied any of Ulmer's films.

And yet, for Ulmer, his life and career took something of a detour. During this time, Ulmer stole away the wife of producer Max Alexander, which may not have been that big a problem except Alexander was the nephew of Universal studio head Carl Laemmle. Effectively an outcast in Hollywood, Ulmer would start directing ethnic films, setting himself on a course that would result in one of the most diverse crop of films ever to come from a single director. He helmed a number of Yiddish-language films, some educational films, and during the 1940s released a wildly diverse and impressive series of films for PRC, including his most famous film, Detour (1945).

Not surprisingly, a career with so many different types of films made for so many different types of audiences and studios resulted in a great many orphaned films. During the late 30s and early 40s Ulmer directed a series of at least eight educational films for the National Tuberculosis Association. Long forgotten sponsored films, Devin Orgeron found a tremendous amount of information on these Ulmer TB orphans, presenting his work at the fifth Orphan Film Symposium (and publishing it in the forthcoming book Learning with the Lights Off).

Still, there are a great many other orphaned works in the Ulmer oeuvre, owing to the fact that few of his films were made for big Hollywood studios. Luckily, the director's daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes, has done a tremendous amount of work towards saving Ulmer's orphaned films. As she put it in a September 1997 interview in Video Watchdog:

So the materials are coming in, but now comes the point where I have to find a way to invest in the preservation of "orphaned films." The ones that are owned by majors -- The Black Cat (1934), The Man From Planet X (1951), and so on -- are being maintained and utilized on video and laserdisc, and they [presumably] be preserved. But all the other films -- including Detour (1945), Her Sister's Secret (1946) and Bluebeard (1944) -- are orphaned films. To get the material up to first grade quality becomes a very important mission.
To this end, Arianne Ulmer Cipes started the Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corp., an organization that has done much to presere Ulmer's more famous films. Still, as Orgeron's research shows, there is a great amount of work yet to be done in regards to preserving the tremendously diverse output of the director. While many of his films fail to transcend their meager budgets and oft-times mediocre stories, just as many manage to rise admirably above their modest origins, owing to the creativity and resourcefulness of their director.

If the totality of Ulmer's career is to be assessed, it can only be done so by measuring all his films, both the famous pictures, and the forgotten ones.

-Ben Strassfeld

Feb 13, 2010

A New Trip Down Market Street

In today's media-saturated environment, audiovisual glimpses of daily life are ubiquitous. Flashback to the earliest days of the moving image, and much of what remains feels fragmented by comparison: minute-long mementos recording everyday life (the Lumière films), staged performances (Edison kinetscope loops), or bits and pieces of curiosities. However, as windows into the past, their range is finite. That's precisely why the captivating film known by the assigned title A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire -- a single, unbroken shot of San Francisco circa 1906 --  holds onto its place as a vital piece of film history. Depending on the projection speed it unfolds  between ten and fifteen minutes.

The Library of Congress on-line version (digitized from a print deposited by the AFI in 1972) is catalogued as 533 feet long. Transferred at 15fps it runs 10:38. The longer running time comes from renowned film collector Rick Prelinger, who found a previously neglected 35mm print, which he has also used for Prelinger Archives's first venture into HD transfer. At the Internet Archive, the trip lasts 13:52.

The camera operator behind this long take is left unidentified. One historian recently posited it was a man called Jack Kuttner, others question that verdict. Another historian suggests that advertisements of 1906 point to the Miles Bros., a nationally prominent, San Francisco-based film company of the time. (See Melinda Stone's essay, "Five Moments on Market Street, 1905-2006," at SF360.org.)

Whoever the cinematographer was, his[?] project succeeds precisely because he manages to stay invisible. As the static camera stares unblinkingly at the street ahead, the cable car on which it rests slowly drifts through downtown San Francisco, aimed at The Ferry Building in the distance.

The silent footage makes a lively affair, as we watch the bustling metropolitan scene grow animated with colorful details. Horse-drawn carriages and buggies compete with automobiles for space on the crowded road, while men and women adorned in formal [everyday?] dress wander through the frame. Occasionally children dart across the street, vanish and reappear. The freedom of movement creates a retroactive sense of suspense, as we realize that nobody adheres to any discernible traffic laws. Pedestrians wander aimlessly through the streets, occasionally pausing to mug for the camera.

Whenever media archaeologist Prelinger has screened the footage using the recently uncovered 35mm print, as he plans to do with a further restored version at the Orphan Film Symposium, viewers discover a wealth of details, including passing advertisements and even license plate numbers. Over time, the footage develops a hypnotic rhythm, turning a naturalistic snapshot into something with far greater meditative value. Noticing this transcendent quality, avant garde filmmaker Ernie Gehr stretch-printed the footage for his 1974 found footage work, Eureka.

Time has validated A Trip Down Market Street more than anything else. The film offers a precise geographical survey -- so precise that in 2005 filmmakers Melinda Stone and Liz Keim mounted their own cameras on the back of a truck and recreated the footage shooting a contemporary Market Street. (Their resulting DVD gathers several other archival films shot on that location as well as new and recent productions.)

The original is more informed by change than familiarity. Much of the urban landscape on display vanished during the April 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. As a result, Market Street functions as a record of the past forever haunted by the future.

  At the Orphans 7 screening, April 10th, Rick Prelinger will introduce the screening of his new 35mm print. A A new, original musical soundtrack is being composed and recorded by the NYU program in Scoring for Film and Multimedia (thanks to Ron Sadoff).

-- notes by Eric Kohn and Dan Streible

Feb 11, 2010

Czech prints: "The fall from the bicycle always ends in wheat."

While at the NCSU Prague Institute last summer, Marsha Orgeron and Devin Orgeron asked film historian Jiří Horníček of the National Film Archive of the Czech Republic (Národní Filmový Archiv) to show them some unique films. Their collective favorite was a driver safety film:

            Nevíme dne [We Don’t Know When . . .] (1946)
            35mm, sound; Czech narration;14 minutes
            directed by Bohumil Vošahlík.

Thanks to these three (and NFA director Vladimir Opěla) we'll get to see this print, plus two 16mm amateur films made in Czechoslovakia: The Soldier’s Story (1934) and [The First Hours of the Occupation] (1968), with Jiří Horníček presenting them.

The final challenge of presenting these films at the symposium is somehow getting English translation for the non-Czech speaking audience of viewers.  How to get a transcription of the narration in Czech to begin with? (Jiří! -- who even provided an audio file of the soundtrack to Nevíme dne). 

How to get these words translated in to English? Knowing that a 1946 driver safety film is likely to contain words and constructions that Google Translator can not accurately translate, we had to find an expert. Quickly. 

After all, the Google translation includes phrases such as this one:

Nekázeň cyklistů způsobila už hodně zla a mnoho škod.
Insubordination cyclists have caused a lot of evil and a lot of damage.

Granted, there is also the sheer poetry of this sentence:

Pád z kola nekončí vždycky v pšenici, často pod blatníky. Jezděte po okraji a hezky za sebou. 
The fall from the bicycle 
always ends in wheat, 
often under the wings. 
Drive along the edge 
of a nice behind.  

But probably not real accurate.

Enter Alice Lovejoy, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Colgate University and recently PhD from Yale, who just happens to be writing a book about the "Czechoslovak Army film studio from 1919 to 1970." She even recognized the voice of the narrator, and the army cinematographer! Talk about the right person for the job.  I'm very grateful for her pro bono translation. 

Whether we then turn that into a printed document or live performance or (ideally) projected subtitles remains to be seen.   

54 days to go….

Feb 10, 2010

Amateur film shot at the Ginling College for Women in China (1930)

As part of a panel on women amateur filmmakers of the 1930s, Melissa Dollman, archivist at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, will be showing and discussing amateur films shot by an American couple working in China as educators and Christian missionaries.

Below are excerpts from her proposal to present the films at the upcoming Orphan Film Symposium.  

Three reels of silent 16mm film were given to the Schlesinger Library by the Thomson family in 1981.
Lengths: 446', approx. 200', and approx. 300'.
Condition: When inspected at the Harvard Film Archive, no work was needed. No vinegar; good splices. No header/leader. No edge code.
Years shot: R1, 1930-31; R2, 1931; and R3, 1937-38.

Margaret Cook married James Claude Thomson, a chemist and nutrition expert in 1917. That year they departed the United States for the University of Nanking, where he taught, and remained there until the communist takeover of China in 1949. During the Japanese war the university was moved to Chengtu on the Tibetan border. Margaret Cook Thomson was a teacher and missionary for the United Presbyterian Church.

James and Margaret Cook Thomson's home movies depict children's birthday parties, snowball fights, and excursions, most of them shot in the households of fellow white, upper middle-class families -- except these activities take place in a suburban Chinese neighborhood.  In between shots of the Thomson kids at play, we also see local Chinese farmers setting out in the mornings with their wheel barrels down country roads, local Chinese children, a market square, and other scenes of daily life.

We also view moments at the children's Quaker kindergarten.  We don't, however, find in these films much intermingling of the cultures, save for the Thomson family's (beloved) Chinese governess.  

There is also footage of writer Pearl Buck, who was a family friend.

The Thomson children's oral history also details how their parents' positions as visiting foreign professors forced them to flee Nanking for a time during the massacre of 1937, a period captured on film as a pleasure trip to the Great Wall and religious sites.

I will focus on the roll of film shot at the
Ginling College for Women.  As the intertitles (not done for the other two films) state, the footage contains shots featuring 

   "Ginling students heading out for church," 
   "Scenes from the Outdoor Spring Field Meet," 
   "Winter Indoor Gymnastic Work," 
   "Smith-Ginling meeting at Ginling," 
   "Ginling Faculty," and 
   "Smith Building in the Spring," among others.  

The "Smith-Ginling" intertitle refers to the collaboration between Smith College (Margaret Thomson's alma mater) and Ginling.  These scenes illustrate, among other things, international collaborations between women's colleges, the work of American Christian missionary women, and how the Ginling school at one point made history for horrific reasons during the Nanking massacre.


More reports on the other panelists and pioneering women filmmakers in this space soon. But there's nothing like seeing the films projected.

Dan Streible