May 14, 2012

Orphans 8: Thursday Night Event Review

by guest blogger Adrienne Henry

Over the course of the last several months NYU MIAP and Cinema Studies students have been helping to produce the 8th edition of the biannual Orphan Film Symposium. Orphans 8: Made to Persuade took place at Museum of the Moving Image, April 11 through 14. Although Orphans has begun holding smaller events between symposiums, the biannual event is the highlight of the Orphans organization and brings together activists, archivists, scholars and media artists from around the world for four days of screenings, presentations and good conversation about all forms of neglected media.

The opening night of the symposium was produced by graduating NYU MIAP student Benedict Salazar Olgado, and featured an opening cocktail hour before what was quite possibly the first ever U.S. screening of Valy Arnheim’s Die Hochbahnkatastrophe (The Elevated Train Catastrophe). The 1921 German sensationsfilm was given a wonderful introduction by Tom Gunning who explained its roots in nineteenth century adventure novels, but the real treat was the screening itself. Viewing this ninety-one year old film projected in MOMI’s 261 seat theatre with live narrator Harrison M. Beck and Dennis James accompanying the film on piano was simply a once in a life time experience.

As wonderful as opening night was, it was Thursday's programing that I found most compelling. Thursday morning had some great panels including a history of the MOMI building (once an army film studio creating wartime propaganda) and an advertising panel which was much talked about throughout the rest of the symposium. The advertising panel truly highlighted the symposium's theme of “Made to Persuade” and featured presentations on such persuasive tactics as Afri-Cola’s 1968 appeal to the strangely sensual (via artist Charles Wilp's ad campaign on German television) and Sugar Crisps’ use of the super hip Sugar Bear to appeal to the children.

Thursday afternoon’s programming started strong with Nell Cox’s 1969 AT&T recruiting film Operator, featuring a theme song by the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, a parade of beautiful young phone operators, and plenty of humorous moments between operators and callers (some real; some staged by actors). The film was so engaging that by the time I’d returned home from the symposium several links to it had popped up on my Facebook newsfeed via my fellow orphanistas. It was hard to believe anything else in the panel would blow me away more than Operator did, but the sequence of Lillian Schwartz films made at Bell Labs in the early 1970s definitely did. Schwartz made these 16mm short films using scientific equations, lots of color and movement, and some of the earliest melding of film and electronic music. Viewing the films was an experience words cannot describe. The dinner that followed was abuzz with discussions of the films and the honor of hearing Lillian discuss them. 

The return from dinner marked the Helen Hill Award portion of Orphans 8, produced by NYU Cinema Studies students Ivria Dubs and myself. The night honored the late DIY filmmaker Helen Hill with films that continue in her animation tradition, starting with a 70mm film by Danielle Ash and Jodie Mack. The duo (who shared Helen Hill Award honors in 2010) described their untitled work as having been made by both “constructive and destructive” methods. The evening continued with a camera test made by Helen herself and preserved by the Center for Home Movies. The test footage Helen filmed of her infant son, cat, and New Orleans home was intimate and heart wrenching. After learning more about Helen’s legacy, Jo Dery and Jeanne Liotta were presented with Orphans 8 Helen Hill Awards. Several of their pieces were showcased. Dery’s animations and mixed-media works often feature animals prominently, as was the case with Echoes of Bats and Men and is whimsical with a touch of melancholy. Liotta’s sequence started with Blue Moon (1988) the first film she ever made. NYU’s MIAP program recently finished restoring the Super 8 film and its audiocassette soundtrack. While it differed greatly from her recent work, which leans heavily towards the scientific it was extremely interesting to see her evolution as a film maker.

The final film of the evening was The Florestine Collection, started by Hill before her passing in 2007 and recently finished by her husband Paul Gailiunas. The film begins as an exploration of a collection of dresses Hill found in the street in New Orleans but evolves into an ode to Helen, the amazing artist and activist. An emotional end to the day's programming.

Overall the symposium presented a chance to see media artifacts that few have the chance to see, projected in a beautiful space surrounded by passionate cinephiles from diverse backgrounds and professions. If you weren’t fortunate enough to attend the event I highly recommend trying to get your hands on the forthcoming Orphans 8 DVD, which will feature several of the titles shown at the symposium. You should also go ahead and book your plane tickets for Orphans 9, but until then you can curve your Orphans cravings by checking out more coverage of the event at the links bellow.