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SAVING GRACE, HOW THE FILM FOUNDATION RESTORED THE RED SHOES AND IS PRESERVING CINEMATIC HISTORY

Marilyn Ferdinand

4/4/2013 12:00:00 AM

A barn. A warehouse. A closet at a mental institution. These locations have something in common: They all contained films or parts of films that were missing and presumed lost forever.

French film pioneer Georges Méliès’s classic short film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), an inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film, Hugo, was discovered in its most complete form in a barn in France in 2002. Japanese director Teinosuke Kinugasa rediscovered his brilliant avant-garde film A Page of Madness (1926) in his own warehouse forty-five years after he made it. Last, a pristine, unexpurgated copy of renowned Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most iconic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), turned up in a janitor’s closet at the Kikemark Sykehus mental institution in Oslo in 1981.

According to reliable estimates, at least 50 percent of all films made for public exhibition before 1950 have been lost. Move into the silent era, and the estimate shoots up to 90 percent. The cellulose nitrate film on which movies were recorded until 1950 is flammable and highly susceptible to deterioration. The medium that replaced nitrate, cellulose acetate, solved the flammability problem, but is vulnerable to disintegration, shrinkage, and breakage. All or parts of thousands of films from virtually every era have burned up, broken down, or ended up in a dumpster.

The digital age may seem to provide a greater degree of safety for the durability of our new digitally produced films. But if you have ever had a hard drive crash or a virus corrupt your files, you know that digital information is fragile, too.

Film Preservation 101

Anyone who stores a film might be considered a preservationist. Thousands of private collectors are responsible for rescuing films that were slated to be trashed, but mere collecting will not ensure these artifacts are preserved.

Film needs to be stored in a temperature- and moisture-controlled environment. Film archives all over the world maintain such climate-controlled storage facilities as a first line of defense. Transferring nitrate film to stable safety stock is a second precaution film preservationists take.

Actual restoration is a further, complicated step that many films will never undergo. Restoring celluloid films is a costly, time-consuming process that requires expert handling in one of the few photochemical labs that still exist; today, more films are being restored through digital correction, but this work is also labor-intensive.

The work also requires old-fashioned research. Film is an art form that everyone from producers to theater owners have felt entitled to alter to fit their requirements, including shortening films to maximize the number of screenings and cutting out material the exhibitor deemed inappropriate. Therefore, research must be done to find shooting scripts, directors’ notes, other preproduction materials, and any available reference prints to ensure the restoration is as complete and correct as possible.

Films also have more parts than other types of restoration projects. A black-and-white silent film may be the easiest type of restoration, with only one piece of film to correct. Sound pictures add a soundtrack to the mix. Finally, a color film has two or three strips of film that must be restored.

Martin Scorsese and The Red Shoes

Established in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, the Film Foundation helps to conserve motion picture history by supporting preservation and restoration projects at film archives. The foundation has helped save more than 560 motion pictures. It prioritizes funding each year according to physical urgency. Also taken into account is the significance of a project, whether the film is an important work of a certain writer, actor, or director, or a technical first, or whether it approaches some social issue ahead of its time.

At its core, the Film Foundation represents a natural progression for Scorsese, arguably the world’s greatest film enthusiast. Margaret Bodde, a film producer and executive director of the Film Foundation, says, “With Marty, what is so remarkable is his dedication to preservation and film as culture and an art form. He doesn’t do it as an obligation; he does it because he wants future generations to be as inspired by film as he was.”

Scorsese’s storied career gained its inspiration from the numerous films he viewed growing up in Manhattan’s Little Italy. He began amassing a film collection that now numbers 3,500 prints. He holds screenings for his production team when planning a new film. There may be a scene, a certain shooting or editing style, or a performance that Scorsese thinks will help inspire the work to come.

One film that inspired Scorsese with a model for how to shoot the fight sequences in his 1980 film Raging Bull was The Red Shoes (1948), the ballet-centered masterpiece created by the powerhouse British directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Film Foundation funded its restoration in 2006, the first fully digital restoration with which it was involved.

Working from the original film negatives, preservationists found that tiny imperfections from the shooting and original film development had been exacerbated by time. In addition, much of the film had shrunk. Colors flickered, became mottled, and showed other types of distortion. The film also showed red, blue, and green specks throughout. Worst of all, mold had done substantial damage to the negatives.

After the film underwent an extensive cleaning process, it was digitized: 579,000 individual frames had to be scanned. Colors were reregistered, scratches smoothed out, flecks removed, and color inconsistencies addressed. For UCLA restoration expert Robert Gitt, it was an ambitious first chance to see how digital technology can be applied to film restoration. Last but not least, a new filmstrip was produced.

The rapid shift from photochemical to digital production and distribution has raised concerns. Bodde says, “If a film is born digital, there should be a film output” because of the possibility of data corruption or the unavailability of playback mechanisms. The Film Foundation is working with archivists, technologists, and preservationists to raise awareness and to ensure that photochemical preservation continues.

The foundation also works, indirectly, with young people, by offering an interdisciplinary curriculum to help develop visual literacy and film knowledge. This curriculum, The Story of Movies, has been embraced by well over thirty thousand middle schools and high schools. All of this effort works to ensure that future generations know the wonder of watching Moira Shearer move through the vivid, Technicolor dreamscapes of The Red Shoes and many other treasures of our film heritage.

Marilyn Ferdinand is a freelance writer and film critic who blogs at Ferdy on Films (www.ferdyonfilms.com). She is the co-founder of the online fundraiser For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. 

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THE GREATEST BRITISH FILM EVER IS THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP

Colin Fleming

3/27/2013 12:00:00 AM

Colonel Blimp—newly re-released by the Criterion Collection—packs emotional depth and a touch of magic as it tells the story of two men's true friendship in wartime.

Britain's usually thought of as the runt of the power countries in film history. Its cinematic output trails, by a wide margin, the CVs of America, France, Russia, and Japan. There was the Kitchen Sink movement of the late 1950s, which was incendiary in its way, but before that, British films tended to fit their country's stiff-upper-lip stereotype. Which is what makes 1943's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp all the more surprising: England's greatest film ever, it turns out, is an emotional epic.

It's pretty rare that two filmmakers co-direct, co-write, and co-produce—or, at least, share a title card saying that do—but so it went with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, close friends who dubbed themselves The Archers. The British Powell directed; his Hungarian partner, Pressburger, wrote; both produced. Pressburger's scripts tend to be almost novelistic in scope, with myriad turns and characters from earlier portions returning for later bits, but with a feeling of order and concision.* Needed honing came courtesy of Powell's camera, a peppy traveler with a penchant for wonder and a bardic soul. All of this means that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is especially suited for its new release from Criterion on Blu-ray, a transfer that might be the sharpest the company has done yet.

The plot ought not to work as well as it does, considering its range, but Pressburger knew how to cram a lot of story into a short amount of space through subtle layering, making it feel almost like several films have been superimposed into one. The movie is tripartite in structure, with an intro and a reprise—with fresh parts—as a coda. The titular fellow would have been familiar to all Brits as the subject of a popular cartoon strip. But this Blimp—a.k.a., Major General Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey—is a long way from the funny pages, even if his younger self likes a good joke.

We first see him as an old man, doing training exercises in WWII-era London, and being upstaged by a Johnny-come-lately officer. Then we journey back to the turn of the century, courtesy of a tracking shot across the waters of a Turkish bath that knits the present to the past. On leave from the Boer War, Candy, as just about everyone refers to him, goes to Berlin to try and put a halt to anti-British propaganda. There he meets Deborah Kerr's Edith Hunter, a fellow Brit, and ends up fighting a duel against a man he has never met. Said man—Theo, played by Anton Walbrook—and Candy convalesce in the same nursing home after carving each other up, and become close friends. That's even though Theo announces his engagement, in broken English, to Edith, the woman that Candy loves.

The build-up to the duel is both comical and terrifying in its detail, but when it's time for the rapiers to start flying, Powell's camera simply up and leaves through the roof of gymnasium where we have sat in so much expectation. You don't need to see this, it seems to say. Let me take you over here to what is more important. The blows do not matter; not physical blows, at least. But emotional ones—and recoveries from them—are why Blimp remains cinema's most convincing testament to friendship.

A middle sequence plays out against a backdrop of World War I. There is a falling out between the two men over cultural divides, divides made all the more pronounced in wartime. Candy meets a nurse, also played by Kerr, and seeing in her the woman his best friend married, he makes her his wife. Come the third part of the tableaux, she has died, Edith has died, Theo is an alien in England in the Second World War, and Candy has been axed from service, though he does have a driver who looks suspiciously like—yep, you guessed it, there's Deborah Kerr again.

One gets used to the romantic theme, and sees Kerr coming in her various iterations. Which, of course, is exactly what Powell and Pressburger expected. There is solidity there, firm footing for the movie's principal relationship to try and work itself out. The staging feels almost three-dimensional, like you've gained ingress into your television set, with the story playing out all around you. The backgrounds of Blimp invite you to look deep and hard at them: Snow, for example, has a knack of falling when characters are inside, and viewers can direct their gaze to the window to see the descending flakes. Those details are enhanced by a most ambulatory camera; we travel through the air, through windows, through walls. The visual sumptuousness mirrors the bounty of any true friendship, and a most delicate positioning along a line where the quotidian and the magical coexist. Few filmmakers knew how deeply unpredictability factored into friendship, which in turn led to Blimp's knack for making that unpredictability visual in a way no British movie—or any movie, for that matter—has. The camera is an all-seeing eye in the world of Blimp, but we never know, exactly, what it will share with us next, so that what is really a study in friendship gains an aspect of magic that would have made perfect sense to Walt Disney.

One of Blimp's most remarkable moments—the moment that could be its Best in Show moment against any sequence from any British film—occurs when Theo sits in a threadbare room with several clerks in the background, an interlocutor in front of him, and makes his case for remaining in England, having fled Germany after the Nazis came to power. He gives his reasons. They are strong reasons. They are deemed, by the interlocutor, not good enough. He resolves to start again, prefacing his remarks by saying that in the first instance, he did not lie, but he did not tell the truth, though he will say his truth now. He does so for three of the most intense minutes in all of filmdom, in a single, uncut take, which is the cinematic equivalent of the epic—but intimate—close of Joyce's "The Dead."

The pace of his words never varies, and never has a camera felt more like a recording console. Out of that stillness, from the left of the frame, comes the kind of emotional payoff, made visual (let's just say a most unexpected fellow appears). And, frankly, any viewer needs that payoff, after that speech, in that moment, in the same way that you need a friend to pick up the phone because of whatever had just gone down in your life.

Powell and Pressburger replicated that feeling, that emotional aesthetic, in most of their best works, but not quite with the range and drama of Blimp. It is, in a sense, a cinematic White Album, with weird back corridors and asides that you think are mere asides but that lead to moments you could not have seen coming five minutes, or two hours, prior. It helps to have a capacity for wonder when you sit down with a film like this. But should you not find yourself so equipped, one will be provided, courtesy of the Archers, for the whole of this viewing session, at least. 

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Press Release: ACADEMY AWARD WINNING DIRECTOR MARTIN SCORSESE NAMED 42ND JEFFERSON LECTURER IN THE HUMANITIES

2/19/2013 12:00:00 AM

Martin Scorsese, Academy Award winning American film director, screenwriter, producer, actor, and film historian and preservationist, will deliver the 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. The annual lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

“Martin Scorsese is a scholar of, advocate for, and icon of American cinema,” said NEH Chairman Jim Leach. “He is the first filmmaker designated as a Jefferson Lecturer, but he follows in the tradition of earlier speakers like John Updike, Barbara Tuchman, and Arthur Miller in revealing a profound understanding and empathy for the human condition.”

Scorsese will present the 42nd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Monday, April 1, 2013, at 7:30 PM at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where he will discuss the evolution of his films, the art of storytelling, and the inspiration he draws from the humanities.

The acclaimed director and producer of some 50 films, Scorsese has directed such landmark works as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Departed (2006). His singular vision has helped define modern American film. Drawing inspiration from such wide-ranging sources as Fellini, Powell and Pressburger, Hitchcock, Dante, and Dostoyevsky, Scorsese is renowned for having expanded the boundaries of his art. His films, though incredibly diverse in subject and style, are reputed for their incorporation of camera and editing techniques from different genres and distinctive treatment of signature themes of isolation and tribal identity, violence and loss, guilt and redemption, faith and spirituality.

Underlying many of Scorsese’s films is a vital sense of place— in particular, a nostalgic reverence for his native New York, which he captured in meticulous detail in such films as Mean Streets (1973), The Age of Innocence (1993), and Gangs of New York (2002). He has grappled with universal questions of faith, grace, and religion in films like Kundun (1997) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). A music aficionado, Scorsese is known for both his distinctive use of music in film and his engagement with music and music-making in his documentaries The Last Waltz (1978), The Blues (2003), No Direction Home (2005), George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011) and in his 1977 musical New York, New York. Films such as Hugo (2011), The Aviator (2004), the documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) and Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (1999) display his exhaustive knowledge of and passion for film and film history.

In addition to his work as a filmmaker, Scorsese is a champion of film preservation and education. In 1990, Scorsese established The Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history by providing support for preservation and restoration film projects at leading film archives. Since its inception, The Film Foundation has helped save over 560 motion pictures and has been instrumental in raising awareness of the need for film preservation. In 2007 he established the World Cinema Foundation, which works to preserve and distribute neglected global films from around the world, particularly from countries without the financial or technical means to do so.

Martin Scorsese was born in 1942 in Flushing, New York. His mania for film dates to the Italian films he watched as a child on television or local movie theaters with his family. By age eight, Scorsese was drawing his own storyboards, his vision of humanity shaped by the view through the fire escape of his grandmother’s Little Italy apartment. Scorsese studied at Washington Square College, now known as New York University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature in 1964, and received a Masters in Fine Arts in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1966.

Scorsese is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including an Academy Award for Best Director for The Departed, which also took home the Oscar for Best Picture (2006), three Golden Globe awards for Best Director, an Emmy for Best Director for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2010) and the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award (1997.) He received the 2010 Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 67th Golden Globe Awards, was awarded the Palme D’Or and Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, won the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award, Emmys, and a Grammy Award. He was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 2005 for his contributions to cinema, honored at the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors, and awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2001.

The Jefferson Lecture is the Endowment’s most widely attended annual event. Past Jefferson Lecturers include Wendell Berry, Drew Gilpin Faust, John Updike, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Bernard Bailyn, Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller, James McPherson, Barbara Tuchman, and Robert Penn Warren. The lectureship carries a $10,000 honorarium, set by statute.

Tickets to the lecture are free of charge and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Ticket requests may be submitted through an online form on the NEH website (www.neh.gov) which will be made available beginning on March 11. The April 1st Jefferson Lecture will also be live-streamed online. Check www.neh.gov for further details.

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PRESERVATIONISTS GIVE FLICKER OF HOPE TO ENDANGERED FILMS

Terry Mikesell

1/10/2013 12:00:00 AM

With its next series, the Wexner Center for the Arts will celebrate the rescue of the odd and the unusual.

“Avant-Garde Masters: A Decade of Preservation” will begin tonight with a series of short films introduced by Jeff Lambert, assistant director of the National Film Preservation Foundation in San Francisco.

According to the Film Foundation, which is dedicated to movie preservation and restoration, half of all American movies made before 1950, and more than 90 percent of films made before 1929, are lost.

Want to see The Way of All Flesh, the 1927 movie for which Emil Jannings won the first best-actor Academy Award? You can’t; the film is considered to be lost. The UCLA Film and Television Archive has a five-minute snippet of footage.

One of the culprits is the nitrate film stock that, before 1950, was the industry standard. Nitrate film easily decomposed and, even worse, was flammable. Acetate film, which replaced nitrate, tended to fade. Not until more-stable polyester film was created in the 1990s did the problem lessen.

Plus, before the secondary home-viewing market took off, out-of-circulation movies were often treated like old magazines and discarded.

“The nitrate film was expensive to ship and dangerous,” Lambert said in a phone interview. “At the end of its run, there were often instructions to just dispose of the prints. Luckily, there were projectionists and other people who held on to them.”

Hollywood has gotten behind the preservation effort. In 1990, director Martin Scorsese created the Film Foundation, which has salvaged more than 560 movies.

In 1992, Congress became involved by asking the Library of Congress to study film conservation. The resulting report led to the creation of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

“The mandate of the Film Preservation Foundation is to deal with the non-Hollywood films: home movies, industrial films, documentaries, educational films, travelogues,” Lambert said, “things that wouldn’t survive without public support, because there’s no market incentive.

“But they’re of immense historical interest — home movies by an African-American porter on a train from the 1950s. It’s very unique to get his point of view.”

Lambert was inspired to work in preservation as a student at San Francisco State University. There, he took a film-history class taught by Scott Simmon, a film scholar who had helped restore the single surviving copy of a 1920 Spanish movie.

“It was through his film-history class that my eyes were opened to the way that film preservation could help fill gaps in film history,” Lambert said in a subsequent email.

And he takes a glass-half-full approach to the statistics on the number of films lost.

“While . . . (the figures mentioned) seem discouraging, I’ve learned to take an optimist’s approach,” he wrote. “Instead of bemoaning what we think is lost, better to think of all the discoveries there are to uncover.”

Among the restored works to be screened at the Wexner are avante-garde films such as Cosmic Ray (Bruce Conner, 4 minutes, 1961), Prefaces (Abigail Child, 10 minutes, 1981), Rabbit’s Moon (Kenneth Anger, 16 minutes, 1950), and The Velvet Underground in Boston (Andy Warhol, 33 minutes, 1967).

On Wednesday, a tribute to the filmmaking Kuchar brothers will take place.Experimental filmmaking is near and dear to Lambert, who produced the DVD set Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde, 1947-1986 and is curating the foundation’s next set, Treasures 6: Next Wave Avant-Garde, due for release in 2013.

“There’s a certain freedom that the filmmakers take, the artists take,” he said. “It forces audiences to look at film in a different way than what they’re used to.

“When you come out of an avante-garde, you look at the world differently.”

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