News

Defogging Wanda

Ross Lipman

3/25/2019 12:00:00 AM


In early 2007 the UCLA Film & Television Archive received a call from Hollywood Film and Video announcing that the lab was, sadly, closing—and clearing its vaults in two days’ time. Anything left was doomed to the dumpster. The next morning a group of us arrived to see what we could salvage.

Walking through the musty basement, dank stairwells, and narrow aisles was like walking through a shuffled deck of cards: artifacts from the 1950s to the present lay atop each other, in seemingly unknowable order. The only light came from a few incandescent bulbs hanging irregularly amid the dark corridors of shelves, casting a yellow glow that dropped quickly into shadow. Aging equipment was everywhere, some still functional, some showing years of rust, dust, and corrosion. Puddles of oily water lurked underfoot reflecting sickly rainbows, and the smell of old chemicals and mold hung in the air.

The films lay about in differing arrays, long forgotten by their makers: B, C, and D movies, industrial films, commercials, printing tests, and the stray experimental short. We began making piles to save in our collection.

In one aisle, buried in a large stack on the floor, I found some 16 mm reels labeled “WANDA. Harry Shuster.” Who on earth was he? Surely this couldn’t be the classic independent film by Barbara Loden? Her name was nowhere to be found on either the boxes or the leaders. Taking no chances, I kept the oddity apart from my other discoveries; in fact, I took it back to our lab in my own car.

Immediately unspooling the reels on my workbench upon arriving, I realized we’d uncovered a piece of history. It was that Wanda—and no less than its original camera rolls. Harry Shuster, as I’d guessed, was the film’s producer. One more day and it would have gone to landfill.

But how to fund a restoration? Enter The Film Foundation, which has saved so many classic works over the years. In coincidental great timing, they’d recently begun a partnership with Gucci, whose express aim was preserving works by women visionaries. And so our work commenced.

At that time digital restoration was advancing rapidly but had not yet overtaken photochemical printing in archival practice. Thus our work would be on good old-fashioned film, at least initially. We began as Loden had herself, with a blow-up to 35 mm. But our route quickly began to vary. The exact stocks she used no longer existed, and their “official” replacements were problematic, increasing contrast and distorting color.

A crucial component of Wanda’s production, as I found in the camera rolls, was its Kodak Ektachrome ECB (7242) film stock, which has a unique color palette completely unlike Eastmancolor negative, Eastman Commercial film (ECO), or Kodachrome. In a stroke of luck, the bulk of the film was on this, and unfaded.

After extensive testing at Cinetech Laboratory we decided to avoid Kodak’s designated internegative, a holdover from a previous era that was not optimized for printing from projection-contrast film. To reduce contrast, we instead printed the reversal camera rolls to a low-speed negative camera stock and used pull-processing to reduce contrast—as I’d successfully done on a number of past titles. It’s interesting to note that in the intervening years, Kodak abandoned the interneg I nixed in favor of the camera stock. But this was years before that took place, and the result was stunning color.

Ironically, this led to what might strike some as an archival quandary. While the new color closely matched the original rolls, it was in fact much better than the old distribution prints, which apparently looked awful. To quote an early review in the British journal Films and Filming by Gordon Gow:

For the first couple of minutes, I thought it was all a ghastly mistake, this terrible muzz-colour . . . But soon it became obvious that Barbara Loden meant it to look messy, as if real life had been recorded perchance by an amateur photographer with cheap film and poor laboratory facilities.

It’s a nice interpretation. But was it valid? In Film Journal’s Summer 1971 interview with Loden, I found this:

Ruby Melton: The color in the film often has a washed-out, grainy effect and the lighting is sometimes very dim. Were these effects intentional?

Barbara Loden: Unless you have your own laboratory, it's difficult to control the quality of the color. In our original print the color looked extremely good, but later prints made by different labs were not such good quality.

Another question that arose was aspect ratio. 1.85 was clearly written on the leaders of an old 1970 distribution print in UCLA’s collection, as was common with 35 mm features at the time. Yet others disagreed. A pre-restoration French DVD release by Isabelle Huppert, Ronald Chammah, and Gemini Films chose the 16 mm native aspect ratio of 1.33, while the U.S. pre-restoration Parlour Pictures DVD release chose 1.66, in dialogue with the film’s cinematographer, Nick Proferes.

To get to the bottom of the matter, I consulted Proferes directly. He told me that Wanda had been shot on a 16 mm Auricon hand-modified by none other than D. A. Pennebaker to a wider aspect ratio. In those days Super 16 was coming into popularity as a low-budget option that offered a wider aspect ratio, 1.66, when blown up to 35 mm for theatrical exhibition. Rather than re-outfit his company with Super 16 gear, Pennebaker literally hand-filed his camera’s aperture plates to something near 1.66 for the shooting of his concert film Sweet Toronto.

Yet I had the original camera rolls in my hands, and it was clearly 1.33, on double perf stock that would have precluded a 1.66 or Super-16 shoot. To be sure I wasn’t delusional I also checked with Pennebaker himself, who said quite certainly that Proferes hadn’t used one of his modified Auricons on Wanda. My guess is Nick used it on another, later film.

1/4

In this slideshow, one can compare 1.33 and 1.66 versions of the same shots. The 1.33:1 samples are scanned from the restoration blow-up internegative, and the 1.66:1 samples are from a prior DVD release, which was transferred from an old internegative. The samples illustrate how Wanda was shot safely for both aspect ratios. While the majority of the film has headroom suggesting widescreen intent, problematic moments arise. Note as well the qualitative difference between the sources. Both are only one printing generation away from the original 16 mm reversal camera rolls, but the restoration negative has substantially finer tonal detail. The old internegative also exhibits color pollution in its grain pattern.

The above shot is in 1.33:1—classical composition with Barbara Loden’s head vertically centered and fully depicted.

2/4

1.66:1—cropped. 1.66 framing was likely intended (and successful) due to the vertical frame level of Loden’s eyes and her position frame right, but the shot is less balanced than the 1.33.

3/4

1.33:1—Loden is fully framed within the shot.

4/4

1.66:1—cropped, with Loden’s head cut off. This shot features extensive motion that the camera tracks, but due to the unpredictability of action, it occasionally loses track of important compositional details. It’s still successful at 1.66, as the pillow in Loden’s shirt and Michael Higgins are the intended points of emphasis, but the framing results in a slightly distracting awkwardness.

The question returns then: how should one frame it? In looking closely at Wanda, it became apparent that all ratios worked well. My ultimate assessment was that Profores shot Wanda with both Academy format and widescreen exhibition in mind, as was sometimes done at the time. But none of the ratios worked for the whole movie. Virtually all shots had plenty of headroom and are most pleasing at 1.66, suggesting widescreen intentions—but there were moments of exception where both 1.85 and 1.66 proved problematic. To do the highest quality widescreen release in either of those formats would have required numerous framing “repos,” or re-positionings—something Loden hadn’t done at the time. In its native 1.33, many shots had copious headroom, but also a kind of classicism, with no invasive boom mikes. Further, Nick told me he had no widescreen guides in his viewfinder, so the camera’s 1.33 frame was his only visible guide while shooting.

At the time of the restoration, our workflow itself dictated which ratio we would choose. The project mandated true archival preservation to 35 mm film, and to save all picture information. We thus opted for a 1.33 preservation negative to make sure nothing was lost. That method prohibited repos, so our “safe” recommended projection aspect ratio was the classic 1.37/Academy ratio. Projectionists and venues could of course opt to vary from that if they so chose, by simply changing their projector plates.

The restoration premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. Nick was one of the guests and confirmed he thought the Academy ratio worked wonderfully. Our choice was in a sense validated years after the restoration was completed, when I came across an earlier interview with Nick. In the 1991 documentary I Am Wanda, he clearly states, “we had no idea of blowing it up.” Was this prior memory more accurate than his later one? It seems likely, but in the end the images tell their own story . . . and with so many conflicting accounts, I like to think the jury will always be out.

The MoMA screening was a huge success, with lines around the block, Sofia Coppola introducing, and—so I heard—Madonna incognito in the audience. Years later, we digitized the film for TCM at Modern VideoFilm with ace colorist Gregg Garvin, and I was delighted when Criterion picked it up for distribution in 2018.

Nowadays it’s common to digitize but rarer to complete photochemical stages of restoration. Wanda’s restoration journey was hence fortunate to encompass both analog and digital editions. The current release retains the Academy aspect ratio and color grading, but has, happily, applied further digital cleanup, eliminating excess dirt and scratches we’d been unable to address in our earlier work.

Today the film looks better than ever. It belies the oversimplified maxim that a restoration must look like the old viewing prints rather than its source, a notion that holds better for Hollywood titles than independent works. The film is now recognized as an American classic. Tracing Wanda’s trajectory, from its original release in shoddy prints, to the 2010 35 mm restoration that brought it back, to the Criterion digital release today, is to see a lost masterpiece arise from a fog.

All images courtesy of Marco Joachim, UCLA Film and Television Archive, and The Film Foundation/Gucci.

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Jane Fonda, Thierry Fremaux, Alexander Payne Advocate to Save Classic Films at HFPA Restoration Summit

Pat Saperstein

3/10/2019 12:00:00 AM

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association rallied a roster of film world heavy-hitters Saturday at the Ace Hotel’s United Artists theater in downtown Los Angeles for the organization’s first Film Restoration Summit devoted to celebrating classic films and the urgent need to put more resources into saving them.

Naturally, the importance of preserving the big-screen experience was a major theme, but the event was mainly dedicated to celebrating films that have been brought back to life through the efforts of organizations such as Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the UCLA Film Archive.

The HFPA has donated $6.5 million to such efforts since 1996, going toward 125 restoration projects.

Panelists Jane FondaThierry FremauxAlexander Payne, Sony’s Grover Crisp and UCLA’s Jan-Christopher Horak came together to discuss the necessity of stepping up preservation efforts, particularly for silent, independent and international films. A restored print of “A Fistful of Dollars”  screened after the presentation.

HFPA president Meher Tatna pointed out that as many as half of all films made before 1950 have been lost, and recalled that the organization has supported restorations such as Ida Lupino’s “The Bigamist” and Satjayit Ray’s “Apu” trilogy. The panel was moderated by Sandra Schulberg, whose IndieCollect organization works to preserve independent films.

Fremaux took the stage saying it felt bizarre for him to talk about the history of cinema at this moment because he’s in the middle of selecting films for Cannes. “I hope I won’t get confused and give you the Cannes opening night film,” he joked, “which by the way we don’t have, which is a problem.” The Cannes director also heads Lyon’s Institut Lumiere, devoted to preserving and screening historic films.

He gave audiences a quick refresher on the beginnings of cinema, throwing a bit of shade at Thomas Edison, whose early works were viewed on the small Kinetoscope viewer, as opposed to Louis Lumiere, who was the first to champion projection on a big screen.

“It’s still what we love, being together to watch images on a big screen. Maybe the revenge of Thomas Edison is called Netflix,” he quipped. Fremaux screened a number of fascinating location-shot films from the Lumiere brothers, shot in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some restored with help from the HFPA.

Fonda, who was honored at the Lumiere film festival last year, admitted that she’s no expert on the issue of preservation. She joked that being asked to be on the panel might be “to punish me because my favorite ex-husband colorized much of MGM’s film library.” Ted Turner was a pariah for the colorization debacle, she recalled, yet she pointed out that he actually preserved the MGM library, which led to the creation of Turner Classic Movies.

“We can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been,” she proclaimed. “Perhaps we ought to put as much into saving film as we do into making it.” Later, as panelists called out the need for her Oscar-winning “Coming Home” to be restored, she almost looked like she was on the verge of pulling out her checkbook.

Crisp, who is executive VP of asset management, film restoration and digital mastery at Sony, explained how the advent of increasingly sophisticated digital techniques means that some films are restored repeatedly — “Easy Rider,” for example, is on its third restoration. Fonda quipped that the filmmakers may have been “too stoned” to properly care for the original film elements.

To provide a visual example of the huge difference restoration can make, Horak screened faded, murky scenes from Westerns that were brought back to vibrant color in the restoration process.

Payne described himself as a “Bologna geek,” not because he’s fond of processed meats but because he’s a regular at the Italian preservation-oriented fest, which he encouraged everyone to attend. The HFPA asked Payne to select a film he wanted to see restored, and he recalled a mentor’s words, “Always save the silents.” So he chose the 1926 Douglas Fairbanks movie “The Black Pirate” as the organization’s next restoration project.

“There aren’t a lot of contemporary directors who are film buffs, who go out to see old films,” Payne said.

Payne later reflected on the small screen vs. big screen debate. “I think if there’s no theatrical experience at all, then it’s TV. I’m kind of with Thierry Fremaux on that. But the flipside is, Netflix has opened up such an ocean of creativity to filmmakers.”

Fremaux said it’s also important to save cinemas, not just films, and gave a shout-out to Quentin Tarantino and his New Beverly Cinema. “We are here in this wonderful theater,” he said, gesturing at the gilded detail of the 1927 auditorium. “Cinemas are in danger — in Rome, there are no theaters in the city anymore.” He recalled Tarantino’s insistence that “Pulp Fiction” be shown at the festival’s anniversary screening with a 35mm print.

Fremaux said later that it’s his generation’s responsibility to preserve the culture, and then teach it to younger people, the way filmmakers like Scorsese and Tarantino are doing. “Then it will be their role to pay attention.”

“You have to be sure that the great classic films can be seen anytime, anywhere,” Fremaux said. “With DVD, but also in a movie theater.”

Even people who are great chefs at home love to go to restaurants, and sports fans flock to stadiums even though they watch sports on TV, he pointed out.

“The next great adventure,” Fremaux said, “is silent cinema. It’s full of treasures, all over the world.”

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‘The Juniper Tree’ Trailer: Feminist Fairytale Stars Baby Björk in Her Feature Film Debut

Jude Dry

3/4/2019 12:00:00 AM

Exclusive: A new restoration of Iceland's black-and-white fairytale from 1990 gets its first-ever New York theatrical run courtesy of Metrograph.

Before she was known only by her first name, and long before her awe-inspiring performance in Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” proved that musicians can sometimes out-act even the best actors, the beloved and enigmatic Björk made her feature film debut in a black-and-white film called “The Juniper Tree.” Based on a witchcraft tale from the Brothers Grimm and directed by Nietzchka Keene, “The Juniper Tree” premiered in competition at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately, the fantasy arthouse indie never received theatrical distribution, making a new 4k restoration and re-release especially enticing.

As evidenced in IndieWire’s exclusive trailer for the new restoration — featuring stunning cinematography of Icelandic vistas and Björk’s already-honed onscreen naturalism — it’s clear that this vintage work deserves renewed attention.

Per Metrograph’s official synopsis: “Björk, then still the frontwoman of the Sugarcubes and not quite yet an international superstar, plays a woman fleeing with her sister from the persecutors who put their mother to the torch for crimes of witchcraft in this debut film by the late Nietzchka Keene, an evocation of medieval life full of harshness, fervor, and free-floating terror, with DP Randy Sellars capturing majestic, often otherworldly Icelandic landscapes in breathtaking black-and-white, returned to original luster thanks to a new restoration. Experimental filmmaker Pat O’Neill provides the dream sequences to this ravishing rediscovery, a feminist fairy tale that evokes Bergman and Tarkovsky while being at the same time unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”

The new restoration was done by the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation. Arbelos Films will premiere “The Juniper Tree” at Metrograph for a one-week exclusive theatrical engagement from March 15-21, with a national expansion to follow.

’Neill provides the dream sequences to this ravishing rediscovery, a feminist fairy tale that evokes Bergman and Tarkovsky while being at the same time unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”

The new restoration was done by the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation. Arbelos Films will premiere “The Juniper Tree” at Metrograph for a one-week exclusive theatrical engagement from March 15-21, with a national expansion to follow.

And here is the first look at the new poster, courtesy of Areblos Films:

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Martin Scorsese and the African Film Heritage Project Are Bringing Four Vital Films Home

Michael Nordine

2/23/2019 11:00:00 AM

The restorations are screening on their home continent for the first time.

The African Film Heritage Project has announced that it will screen restorations of four African films on their home continent for the first time as part of the 50th anniversary of the Pan African Film Festival of Ouagadougou. THE AFHP is a partnership between the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI), Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, along with its affiliate archive the Cineteca di Bologna, and UNESCO. The movies in question are Med Hondo’s “Soleil Ô” (1970), Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamima’s “Chronique des années de braise” (1975), Timité Bassori’s “La Femme au couteau” (1969), and Jean-Pierre Dikongue-Pipa’s “Muna Moto” (1975).

The AFHP will also present seven African films previously restored by Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, including work by the likes of Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Mambety, Shadi Abdel Salam and Ahmed El Maanouni.

“I can’t tell you how really deeply inspired and excited I am by African films; ‘Yeelen,’ ‘Touki Bouki,’ ‘Trances,’ ‘La Noire De…,’ ‘Al Momia,’ ‘Bamako,’” said Scorsese in a statement. “I keep going back to these pictures and each time the experience is richer. My appreciation just keeps growing for the talent, the power, and the wisdom of African cinema. Many thanks to FESPACO for its truly amazing work, and here’s to 50 more years.”

“Through it, African filmmakers have chosen to be the lucid, critical and empathetic conscience of their continent, and indeed of the world itself. They have refused to be cynical about the world. They have put their faith in and cast their lot with the human, offering a genuine cinematic humanism, rooted in resilience and optimism in the coming of better futures.”

FESPACO takes place from February 23 to March 2.

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