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FILMMAKER STANLEY KRAMER'S LEGACY TO BE REMEMBERED WITH CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION

Bryn Elise Sandberg

8/8/2013 12:00:00 AM

A newly restored version of Death of a Salesman will be the first in a series of films shown as part of a centennial celebration of the life and work of postwar American cinema director-producer Stanley Kramer, who would have been 100 years old on Sept. 29.

Kramer died in 2001 but many of his movies have survived the test of time. He was a champion of social issues and was oftentimes called "the moral compass of Hollywood." The series is fittingly named Champion: The Stanley Kramer Centennial.

Among the films being screened at the Billy Wilder Theater in the Hammer Museum in Westwood from Aug. 9 through Sept. 29 are The Defiant Ones, The Caine Mutiny, On the Beach and High Noon.

Shannon Kelley, UCLA’s head of public programs, selected the films that he believes summarize and highlight significant aspects of Kramer’s career. Though they may not be the films frequently associated with his legacy, Kelley calls the line-up “fresh.”

The series is a joint effort by The UCLA Film & Television Archive, The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, The Film Foundation, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Kramer’s widow Karen Sharpe Kramer.
“I’ve done individual celebrations of Stanley’s films for many, many years, but with this celebration – the culmination of a hundred years – there will be different film festivals and tributes to Stanley all over the country,” said Sharpe Kramer, Kramer’s third wife.

Sharpe Kramer has screenings planned through November in New York, Kentucky, Palm Springs and Catalina Island, among other locations.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program kick off the celebration Friday when Larry King joins to help host the evening featuring the newly restored version of Death of a Salesman. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Arthur Miller who at the time of its release in 1951 was critical of Kramer's version, mainly because it cut some of his dialogue from the play.

Produced by Kramer in 1951, Death of a Salesman was released by Columbia Pictures and was considered a box office flop. That is one reason it never received a home video release. However, it was nominated for five Academy Awards and won four Golden Globe awards. Columbia Pictures' distribution license expired in the 1960s and the rights reverted to Kramer and later his estate.

Five years ago HFPA member Philip Berk, a longtime fan of Kramer's work, approached Sharpe Kramer and discussions began about doing a restoration of his version of Death Of A Salesman. “It’s one of the great treasures of film,” Sharpe remembers Berk saying to her. “It needs to be restored.”

Berk spoke with The Film Foundation founder Martin Scorsese about the idea and he agreed that it deserved to be restored. While he was HFPA president, Berk advocated for the restoration and the HFPA gave a grant of $120,000, working on the project with The Film Foundation.

Grover Crisp, executive vp of asset management, film restoration and digital mastering at Sony Pictures Entertainment, oversaw the restoration of the film as an independent project. The work was done at Colorworks, a company owned by Sony.

Crisp did a 4k scan (ultra high definition) of the original camera negative, restoration work and color correction working closely with colorist David H. Bernstein to ensure that the proper density and contrast was achieved. Some of the image cleanup was done at Prasad Corporation, an outside vender selected by Colorworks.

The audio was restored from the original 35mm magnetic soundtrack at Chace Audio. Despite some scratches and tears on the film’s original camera negative, Crisp says Death of a Salesman was in average condition. The whole project took less than six months to complete. Over the last few years, Colorworks has also restored Lawrence of Arabia, Taxi Driver, The Big Chill and On the Waterfront.

During his lifetime, Kramer made 35 movies, which were nominated for 85 Academy Awards and won 16 in total. He is remembered as a filmmaker with a definite point of view who wasn’t afraid to ask serious moral questions about race, war, politics and other controversial issues through his films.

“Stanley was the among the first to do a lot of things with subject matter,” said Sharpe Kramer. “He was even given the first (permanent) star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”

“Kramer made his films with such introspection and honesty that viewers could have a soul searching experience while being entertained,” said UCLA's Kelley.

Kramer attributed his passion for moral causes to his own hardships early on in his life. Born on September 29th, 1913 in Hell’s Kitchen, New York and abandoned by his father at a young age, Kramer suffered in poverty.

He entered New York University at age 15, where he won a writing contest that landed him an internship at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. He then became a screenwriter and set builder at MGM, later graduating to editing. After producing training films in the Army, Kramer launched his own company.

“Some of the films that Stanley made 50 years ago are even more relevant today,” said Sharpe Kramer, who is a producer herself.She is currently trying to launch a modern-day remake of the 1952 movie High Noon, Kramer’s last independent production.

Sharpe Kramer hopes to finally see ancillary market distribution for Kramer's Death of a Salesman, now that it has been restored. She says it will "resonate with an audience which is why the distribution is so important.”

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HITCHCOCK, FINDING HIS VOICE IN SILENTS

Dave Kehr

6/25/2013 12:00:00 AM

Alfred Hitchcock may be the most famous film director who ever lived — a favorite of both the pleasure-loving public and theory-addled academics; the subject at once of bizarre biographical fantasies (now available in both book and movie form) as well as of some of the most significant critical thinking of the last 50 or 60 years.
Most of his films remain easily accessible through home video, whereas the work of many of his contemporaries has been allowed to sink into commercial obscurity. Thirty-three years after his death, his image is as instantly recognizable as that of Chaplin or Einstein. Like them, he has lent his posthumous prestige to an Apple computer campaign.

And yet there’s a significant portion of Hitchcock’s work that has been neglected: his earliest features, made from 1925, when the 26-year-old Hitch made his debut as a director with the melodrama “The Pleasure Garden,” to 1929, when he partly reshot the silent thriller “Blackmail” to add dialogue and sound effects, making it the first British talkie.

But now, Hitchcock’s silent films are back as “The Hitchcock 9,” a traveling program organized by the British Film Institute that will arrive in New York on Saturday on the newly installed Steinberg Screen of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.

Though the nine surviving Hitchcock silent films have long been accessible in variously compromised forms (a 10th silent feature, “The Mountain Eagle” from 1926, is missing and presumed lost), they are being shown here in versions as definitive as modern technology and curatorial know-how can make them. Two seem completely reborn: Thanks to 20 minutes of restored footage and a vastly improved visual quality, “The Pleasure Garden” now feels like a fully realized film rather than a promising sketch; and “The Lodger,” Hitchcock’s third film (1927) and his first to join the subject of crime to the mechanisms of suspense, has been filled out with missing shots and returned to a reasonable approximation of the form in which it was first seen, complete with the atmospheric color tinting of the period.

But every film here has benefited to some degree, including the 1929 “Manxman” (the only one of the nine to exist as a complete camera negative, ready for printing) and the 1927 “Easy Virtue” (the only one for which no 35-millimeter material exists at all — only soft, narrow-gauge prints made for home screenings). Innumerable instances of dirt and scratches have been removed, intertitles have been reconstructed and jittering images have been stabilized.

This ambitious, roughly $3 million program originated in the cultural celebrations organized around the 2012 London Olympics, and was financed through a combination of private funds (including support from the Film Foundation, in the United States) and public donations solicited through an aggressive “Rescue the Hitchcock 9!” campaign.

If this unusually public initiative had a secret agenda, it was perhaps to reclaim one of England’s most famous expatriates for the old country — to re-establish the essential Britishness of a filmmaker who made his last British feature in 1939 and became a United States citizen in 1955. And it is true that, if Hitchcock made his masterpieces in America, the essentials of his themes and style were established long before he left for Hollywood.

The opening scene of “The Pleasure Garden” seems almost like a clip reel of Hitchcock motifs to come. In the opening shot, chorus girls are seen descending a spiral staircase (both staircases and spirals will become recurring images, as, for example, in “Vertigo”); a middle-aged man uses a pair of opera glasses to get a better look at a blond dancer in the line (immediately summoning James Stewart in “Rear Window,” using a Telephoto lens to spy on his neighbors); the blond dancer (Virginia Valli, the film’s imported American star) turns out to be not a remote, inaccessible erotic object but, beneath her blond wig, an approachable, down-to-earth woman with dark hair (establishing a dichotomy that goes right down to Barbara Harris and Karen Black in Hitchcock’s final film, the 1976 “Family Plot”).

But in other, no less interesting ways, these films represent the road not taken. At this early point in his career, Hitchcock was still experimenting with different genres and different styles, varying his approach film by film as he discovered what he had to say and refined how he wanted to say it.

Only two films of the “Hitchcock 9” are thrillers in the manner that would come to be associated with him: “The Lodger,” his first resounding critical success, and “Blackmail” (1929), his last silent film and his first to master the delicate dance of shifting subjectivities and transferred audience identification that would give his greatest work its moral and emotional force.

In between, we find a boxing picture (“The Ring”), a public school story (“Downhill”), a rural comedy (“The Farmer’s Wife”), an adaptation of a Noël Coward society drama (“Easy Virtue”), a proto-screwball comedy centered on a ditsy heiress (“Champagne”) and a stark, almost neorealist treatment of adultery in an isolated fishing village (“The Manxman”).

The young Hitchcock, as he would be throughout his life, was a passionate filmgoer and a judicious magpie, who filed away images and ideas for later development. When the seminal London Film Society was formed in 1925, Hitchcock became one of its earliest and most assiduous members, absorbing the latest work from France, Germany and the Soviet Union.

While the influence of the German films of the Weimar period is immediately obvious in the dark, shadowy imagery of “The Lodger” (subtitled “A Tale of the London Fog,” it’s the story of a working-class family that comes to believe their new roomer is a serial killer), the film’s rhythmic editing patterns belong to the Russian school of montage, as exemplified by that Film Society favorite, Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin.”

While “The Lodger,” “Downhill” and “Blackmail” are all highly formalist films, Hitchcock also explored the more naturalistic, actor-centered style favored by the American studios.

“The Farmer’s Wife” is a somewhat protracted comedy of contrasting provincial types (a widowed farmer pursues a series of variously unsuitable potential mates, unaware that his loyal housekeeper is in love with him) that could have been made by Henry King in Hollywood; “Champagne” is a star vehicle for Betty Balfour, at the time Britain’s most popular comedian, that plays to her bubbly image while placing it in a more sinister context (cut off by her millionaire father, she becomes a flower girl in a louche Parisian nightclub).

The single most consistent — and striking — stylistic element in these films is Hitchcock’s vigorous use of what might be called the confrontational close-up, in which an actor looks directly into the camera’s lens and addresses the audience as if it were another performer in the scene. These moments of forced subjectivity — we are, almost literally, put in the place of a character in the film — occur in contexts as benign as a simple conversation and as menacing as an attempted rape.

Beyond their immediate dramatic purpose, what you feel in these shots is Hitchcock’s eagerness to implicate the viewer in the action, to shake us out of the comfortable position of the detached voyeur and plunge us into the exigencies of the moment. It is here that Hitchcock, so often mischaracterized as a sadistic manipulator, reveals his deep humanism. He insists that we feel the compulsion of the killer, the passion of the adulterer, the irrational shame of the unfairly accused, before we make an easy moral judgment and push them away.

Hitchcock’s use of the confrontational close-up diminished with the coming of sound; perhaps he felt that, with the added element of spoken dialogue, the technique became too obvious. He would find other, more subtle and more psychological, ways of achieving the same effect. But the device remained in his arsenal: When Mrs. Bates looks up and out at us at the end of “Psycho,” she does so with the same, sudden, discomfiting intimacy with which the Lodger regarded the camera in 1927. And neither one of them would hurt a fly. (For a complete series schedule: bam.org/film.)

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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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