May 15, 2011

What happened at Celebrating Orphan Films?

Celebrating Orphan Films: a co-production of UCLA Film & Television Archive, NYU's Orphan Film Symposium, and Los Angeles Filmforum.
What happened on the first night, Friday, May 13, when these offbeat orphan films were projected on to the big screen at the Billy Wilder Theater? Some idiosyncratic morning-after descriptions.


in the projection booth at the Wilder Theater
 Progress, Indeed (Jim Bittl and Russell Sheaffer, 2010) 
     In the excitement of the kick off, Chris Horak called the session to order, and before we realized it, we'd forgotten to show this trailer from the 7th Orphan Film Symposium.  So we showed it after an intermission, and, indeed, it played well again, seeing John Wayne introduce clips of animation by Helen Hill, Jodie Mack, and Danielle Ash. The timing of its editing is spot on.

Madison News Reel (ca. 1932)
Recently declared a "cult film" by David Bordwell, we got the 35mm print of this short short only in the nick of time. There was some weird something about insurance that delayed getting it from Maine to Hollywood (ok, Westwood). Sean Savage (Academy Film Archive) delivered his deeply researched decoding of the film after we watched it cold. It's enigmatic qualities always are maximized when served cold. But, as Mr. Savage indicated, even explaining what one can about this truly uncanny compilation film of unknown provenance and vintage, mysteries still linger. For me, this film is evidence of how creative and uncliched the work of amateur filmmakers can be. 

The Augustas (1930s-1950s)
Presented/narrated by Heidi Rae Cooley (University of South Carolina), this time with her home-town parents in the house. Each time she shows this beautiful film with her digital-age examination of place, space, location, dislocation, tagging, data and metadata, the tight presentation of live voice and projection gets more polished. I'm starting to get it, the theoretical analysis, that is.  

The “Iron Horse” in Hollywood (Fox newsreel, 1925)
Introduced by Mark G. Cooper (University of South Carolina) watching this on a big screen made much more detail discernible. Unlike my DVD preview experience, this time it was obvious that several of the 'cowboy' performers had TOM MIX stitched on the back of their shirts in large letters. An important thing to think about given The Iron Horse was a Fox production, directed by John Ford, whose mythos of the American West is linked to Tom Mix. This footage was shot in front of Grauman's Egyptian Theater (where the LA Filmforum screens these days). Boy, there is no mistaking Sid Grauman in photos or footage. No one else had that hair cut.

Brother and Sister Motorcycle Act (Fox Movietone News, cinematographer Al Brick, 1931)
Staged and shot on a back road in Hollywood, Putt and Dessie Mossman.  I noticed that Brother Mossman rides an Indian make of motorcycle. And that he rides it "cowboy style," according to the announcer we hear (and oddly see on screen). "Just a little fun with Sister." A fine catchphrase that stood up well after subsequent screenings.

Light Cavalry Girl (1980)
"They'll be the hit of the festival," as Uncle Max said of the Von Trapp Family Singers in that famous non-orphaned film. And indeed, as we had hoped, there was much buzz about this short documentary. It enchanted those who I heard speaking about it later. Yongli's introducion to the film was, in a word, perfect. She made an artful set of animated Keynote slides, which culminated with us hearing a recently recorded telephone greeting (in Chinese) from the 81-year-old director of Light Cavalry Girl, Jie Shen. 

Two enlightening facts Yongli conveyed.  (1)  The women in this Chinese military unit appeared in the film without permission of their superior officers, so they were subsquently broken up as a unit and sent to a mundane policing duty. (2) Jie Shen believes that the film print we screened may be the only one in existence! And my question (3) weren't these cavalry girls riding Indian motorcycles too?

 UFOs (1971) and Galaxies (1974) by Lillian Schwartz, were both presented with viewers watching through Chroma-depth 3-D spectacles. It worked. Oohs and aahs. 

Robert Abel promo reel (1970s)
Tony Best (UCLA) gave a most excellent presentation of this reels compiling dozens of animated logos, stations IDs, commercials, promos, etc. made by Abel & Associates. One thing I appreciated was Tony giving a long list of the TV and ad industry terms for all the varying types of short-form productions. This bodes well for Orphans 8 -- Made to Persuade -- next year.

And Then They Forgot God (1971)
L.A.-based writer Paul Cullum and the irreplaceable Mark Quigley (UCLA) replicated the pitch-perfect intro to this existential Chrisitan humanist Lutheran drama and their down-a-rabbit-hole search for the title and then for a print. The colors in this surviving thing, even after color correction, are so washed out it's arty. And hearing a slight reverb in the sound track made for a subtle eery extra effect. Adam West as the prosecutor is Kafkaesque. Paul and Mark devined that his teledrama was the work of writer-director Sy Salkowitz, best known for the TV series Ironside. That on-screen credit was absent from the battered 16mm print the duo purchased, but it was on a print in the Billy Graham archive. So Mark was able to place it tactfully onto the video transfer we watched.  Evidence of how orphan films can be saved when Methodists, Catholics and Lutherans work together with Jews and evangelical Baptists.

Muzak (1972)
Reserve Film and Video Collection empresario Elena Rossi-Snook serendipitously popped up in L.A. from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. She pluck this little gem from obscurity and brought it to our attention at an AMIA screening in 2010. Although it stands on its own as a curious and ambiguous mini-profile of the minds who were running the Muzak corporation, this film couples oh so nicely with And Then They Forgot God.  A 1971-72 present future in which people are diminished and manipulated by a distrubing, almost Borg-like apparatus.

What happened on Saturday, May 14, from 10am to 11pm at "Celebrating Orphans Films"?

More on that soon. . .  .