The Museum of Modern Art’s “To Save and Project” Series Gives Classics New Life on the Big Screen

Rebecca Pahle 01/03/2019

Friday, January 4 sees the kick-off of the 16th annual edition of To Save and Project, the Museum of Modern Art’s annual series of newly restored features and shorts. If the term “film preservation” brings to mind silent films creeping up on their centennials (no shade there—silents are great), those perusing this year’s lineup may be in for a surprise. The 50 features and shorts being screened this year span almost a century, from the teens (Changing Hues: Color Innovations in British Silent Cinema and the two-part Great Victorian Moving Picture Show) to the 1980s.

That latter category includes two films—Buddies (1985) and Cane River (1982)—that exemplify one of the missions espoused by Josh Siegel, curator of MoMA’s Department of Film. “There are a great many independent films, particularly by traditionally marginalized groups—whether LGBTQ or African-American or women filmmakers who never got their due—that are still very much in danger of disappearing.”

Written and directed by Arthur J. Bressan Jr., the raw and exceptionally moving Buddies is one of the first films to tackle the AIDS crisis. (Bressan himslef died two years after the film’s release of AIDS-related complications.) Cane River, meanwhile, is the sole film of Horace Jenkins, who wrote as well as directed this love story about two African-American young adults, one from the lighter-skinned, more affluent side of their Louisiana community, the other from the darker-skinned, poorer side. Joyous and vibrant, the film found an early champion in Richard Pryor but failed to secure much by way of a theatrical release. The new 4K restoration of Cane River has its New York premiere on Friday, January 18, with an additional screening on the 31st. Put simply, the film is a revelation, which makes it all the more sad that Jenkins died shortly after completing it.

Among the films directed or co-directed by women this year are Ida Lupino’s Never Fear (1950), Márta Mészáros’ The Two of Them (1977), Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980), Chantal Akerman’s Histoires d’Amérique: Food, Family and Philosophy (1989), Safi Faye’s Fad’jal (1979), and Raymond Phelan and Doris Wishman’s Nude on the Moon (1961), a bit of exploitation camp where a couple of astronauts stumble upon a nudist colony… on the moon.

The older films you’d expect to see at a preservation-themed film festival are still represented. There’s the early Ernst Lubitsch film Forbidden Paradise (1924), starring a delightfully risqué Pola Negri as a Queen who seduces her lady-in-waiting’s fiance. There’s a new English translation of F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) and, skipping forward a decade, Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Fernando de Fuentes’ The Phantom of the Monastery (1934), and that same year’s Finishing School. A Ginger Rogers comedy, Finishing School is the only feature directed by screenwriter Wanda Tuchock, one of only two women (along with the prolific Dorothy Arzner) to direct within the Hollywood studio system in the 30s.

While some of the films in To Save and Project’s 2019 lineup are available through home video, Siegel stresses that “even though you may know these films, you may not be able to see them in quite this way.” “Quite this way” meaning restored, in a theater, absolutely gorgeous. Siegel cites the surreal 1961 thriller Night Tide, starring Dennis Hopper as a sailor who falls in love with a woman who just might be a killer mermaid. “Night Tide may be somewhat well-known, but I don’t think it has ever looked as good as it does now, because of the digital work that’s been done on the original camera negative and fine grain master.” Also high on the list in terms of gorgeous visuals is the Soviet drama Fragment of an Empire (1929), with cinematography by Gleb Bushtuyev and Yevgeni Shneider. The new digital restoration, by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and EYE Filmmuseum in partnership with Gosfilmofond of Russia, gives us imagery that’s nothing short of striking, its play of high contrast against urban architecture calling to mind the decades-later The Third Man.

André De Toth’s Crime Wave (1954), starring Sterling Hayden, represents both the importance of screening restorations theatrically and one of the main difficulties of doing so. “It’s not an unknown film,” Siegel explains. “It’s actually a beloved noir film. But it became clear from talking to various people who’ve done noir series that it is exceedingly hard to get ahold of this film” in 35mm instead of a “crappy 16mm print.” MoMA, because of their close relationship with Warner Bros., was able to get the 35mm—and their sole screening of the film, on Saturday, January 19th, may be “your last chance to see a brand new print struck from the original camera negative.”

No matter how well-known, no matter how old or young, films—particularly the high-quality versions that MoMA screens—are in danger of disappearing if they’re not taken care of and if the studios that own prints don’t make them accessible. Even MoMA itself, Siegel admits, has films in their archives that, before he started To Save and Project sixteen years ago, were shelved away instead of shared with the public. “A film like Forbidden Paradise, or last year’s Rosita—we’ve had the best materials on these Lubitsch films for decades, and only now, partly because of digital preservation techniques, have we been able to make them more widely accessible here in this festival, but also at festivals abroad and with any luck theatrical runs.”

Argues Siegel, “The situation in some ways as is as perilous now as it was in the 1950s, because people have the illusion that because [a film] was made digitally it is infinitely reproducible and storable, and that if you simply put something on a hard drive, putting it in the freezer, it will still be intact in even 20 years. With the change of technologies that have rapidly accelerated over the last several decades, I think that we’re looking at potentially another disaster situation where a great many independent films are lost to us forever. And that, coupled with the vagaries of distribution platforms and the uncertainty of where things are going, makes it doubly the case.”

Still, Siegel cites the increase of independent cinemas across the United States as cause for optimism. “I do hope that we can bring some iteration of this festival, or just MoMA preservation more generally, to these other cinemas across the country. I think it’s part of our mandate, our mission at this museum.”

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