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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

3/12/2021 10:00:00 AM

A few days ago, a Tweet appeared claiming that Pepe LePew, a character from the late 40s intended to be a parody of a continental seducer (and widely understood as such when I was a kid), contributed to rape culture…which was reported in the press…which was followed by the removal of an entire scene with Pepe LePew from a forthcoming film…which prompted claims from the studio that their decision had nothing to do with the Tweet and that they were planning on doing it anyway.

This crazy series of events got me thinking about a tendency that came into being a long time ago and that has expanded and broadened over the years and become a standard way of understanding ourselves within what we call the culture. That is: the tendency to see all human beings as either sponges or receptacles or combinations thereof, open to receive every ideology delivered in disguised form by means of this or that movie or song or book or cultural product. It is now regularly spouted as a truism by television commentators and podcast hosts, pop stars and journalists, politicians of every stripe and late night emcees, academics and authors, and—based on personal observation—average citizens in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Right now, there’s an obsessive amount of energy directed at images in popular culture, and in older movies in particular. As targets, old movies strike me as the very lowest of low-hanging fruit, particularly when you isolate certain characters or incidents, freeze them in place and out of time, and strip them of nuance, irony and context. Or, as the director of Punisher: War Zone did in yet another Tweet, dismiss all older films out of hand because they “rarely hold up” and are “racist and sexist AF.” As Charlie Brown would say, *sigh*.

It certainly gets a lot of attention to point an accusing finger at Pepe LePew, but wouldn’t that energy be better spent keeping the public focused on the horribly high volume of sexual harassment complaints filed by women in the fast-food industry, or by hotel and motel housekeepers? And if we’re just talking about images, surely the commercial and fashion industries deserve more attention than they’ve gotten.

Do the majority of people, particularly those of us who know and love cinema and its history, really take all old movies literally and uncritically, and swallow their conventions whole? Hardly. One can love a film enough to see it in all its dimensions, and that includes reflections of the culture as it was and no longer is. I love My Darling Clementine, but I wouldn’t dream of making a film exactly like it and I don’t know anyone else who would. There are countless visual and behavioral grace notes in that film, embedded within an idea of the country as it once officially interpreted and chose to picture itself and no longer does. Rebel without a Cause is close to my heart, not despite the pathologically caricatured parents but because of them: those crude character conceptions cater so shamelessly to certain attitudes of the time that they have become historical artifacts, and they have the paradoxical effect of setting off the many beauties of the film to even greater effect. Shadows is a great American film, but I don’t know any modern filmmaker who would follow John Cassavetes’ lead in casting an Italian-American actress as a light-skinned African-American character—in fact, Cassavetes himself probably wouldn’t, either. And that’s not to slight Leila Goldoni’s performance in the film, which is stunning.

From a practical point of view, as any parent can tell you, the most expedient way to direct attention to something is to hide, banish, or forbid it. You can bet that as we speak, Pepe LePew cartoons are being viewed all across the country.

Outside of outright cultural genocide, all efforts to edit or efface the past are ultimately doomed to failure. The best thing we can do is to learn from the past, and to constantly look more and more closely at it, without sentimentality, and see it more and more fully.

Which is one of the reasons that film preservation is so vitally and crucially important. Actually, make that: essential.

- Kent Jones

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MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946, d. John Ford)
Preserved by UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Museum of Modern Art in cooperation with 20th Century Fox. Funding provided by American Movie Classics and the Film Foundation
.

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955, d. Nicholas Ray)
Restored by Warner Bros. in collaboration with The Film Foundation. Restoration funding provided by Warner Bros, Gucci, and The Film Foundation

SHADOWS (1959, d. John Cassavetes)
Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with Faces Distribution Corporation with funding provided by The Ahmanson Foundation, The Film Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

 

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SOLEIL O FINDS THE LIGHT OF DAY

Kirk Michael

3/4/2021 4:21:00 PM

“Soleil Ô,” one of the many lost or nearly lost films that Martin Scorsese has helped pull from obscurity as part of the World Cinema Project, reveals Mauritian writer/director Med Hondo as furiously political but also furiously creative. Originally released in 1967, explanatory text confides that the film was found, “in the audiovisual archives of the Paris chapter of the Communist Party.”

And the story itself is as wild as its rediscovery, with no strict narrative progression but many arresting scenes. Take an early sequence where a group of African migrants are baptized into the Christian faith and piously carry wooden crosses around the churchyard… only to break into military formation, flip the crosses the other way, and use them to practice sword fighting.

It’s hard to know the names of individual characters (no one is properly introduced) but for the most part we tag along with our unnamed African protagonist (Robert Liensol) as he searches for work and lodging in a hostile Paris. Our man is a trained accountant but he never gets the chance to interview for any jobs listed in the newspaper. He recurringly meets a Black street sweeper, whose wry smile shows how far we are from the French promise of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The larger group of fellow migrants serves as a sort of chorus, joining our hero whether he finds himself in a cathedral or cramped apartment for a meeting of communist revolutionaries.

Hondo himself does the voiceover narration and it’s filled with aphorisms like, “I am bleached by your culture but I remain a negro.” He made the film in a period when African immigration to France was ramping up, with some 300,000 migrants entering the country each year. In a series of coy interview-style scenes we see White women muttering, “There are too many already,” before suggesting the government might have to “herd them like American Indians.” They also giggle over base assumptions about the sexual prowess of Black men and Hondo displays his brutal humor when he overlays a meeting of our hero and a White woman with a soundtrack of barnyard noises. Later, a White barfly says, “I love negro spirituals” in the same way that Bradley Whitford’s liberal dad said in “Get Out,” “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could.”

Hondo’s cinematographic choices also fascinate — even some seemingly simple two-shots of dialogue are complicated by many pans and zooms, with the camera archly landing in uncomfortable closeup as an interlocutor insists only the “most useful” migrants should come to France. Sometimes we get improvised, neorealistic shots of neighborhood life interspersed with a pastiche of ecstatic fantasias, as when a Black man playing a soldier dies only to be resurrected by a single franc note.

While “Soleil Ô” can sometimes bewilder, you’re pulled along by its scruffy charm. After a truly audacious ending, a title card promises “To be continued.” Unfortunately, there’s no sequel available to watch, although the brutal legacy of European colonialism is ongoing.

“Soleil Ô” is streaming on the Criterion Channel. Not rated. Running time 1:48.
Visit www.criterionchannel.com

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

3/3/2021 3:00:00 PM

I note that the Wikipedia entry on Tunes of Glory—a 1960 adaptation of James Kennaway’s novel (Kennaway also wrote the screenplay) directed by Ronald Neame and restored by the Academy Film Archive in collaboration with The Film Foundation, Janus Films, and MoMA with funding from the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation—identifies the film as a “dark psychological drama,” a quote from a brief article in TCM’s database. This little turn of phrase, innocuous as it might seem, perfectly embodies what Martin Scorsese calls the “devaluation of cinema.” Such quick, encapsulating descriptions are nothing new of course, but now they’re pervasive, employed as marketing tools and “critical” summations and categories on streaming platforms. Every film now, old or new, is imagined to be reducible to a basic essence, easily describable and thus dismissible. This is the attempted consumerization of the filmgoing experience: every viewing occasion tailored to your tastes and needs.

I use the word “attempted” because, of course, there’s always the simple matter of choice. This is true of so many aspects of the social media/streaming world. I remember a conversation with a younger friend a few years back, who complained about how easy it is to get caught up in Tweet wars. She went on for a bit, and I suggested that she simply drop it—get off of Twitter. For her, it was unthinkable. “You have to participate,” she said. Actually, you don’t.

On the internet, a friend explained to me many years ago, 300 words is a tome. 300 words is not even close to enough to describe the experience of Tunes of Glory. Dramatically speaking, the film is a war of nerves between an upper crust Colonel, newly arrived to lead a Scottish regiment (Kennaway himself had served with the Gordon Highlanders) and a hard-drinking working class major who has come up in the ranks and led the regiment through most of WWII after the death of their colonel in battle. Discipline and tradition and breeding vs. camaraderie and relaxation of rules and hard knocks. Who will break, the delicately constituted Colonel or the beloved and violently impulsive Major? But that's just the bare bones of the conflict. The movie is something else again, a vivid tapestry of reactions and counter reactions that find physical expression in the cloistered world, visually and psychologically, of Scottish military life, and it reaches an astonishing pitch through the acting of John Mills as the Colonel and Alec Guinness as the Major, who cuts an alarming figure with his ginger brush cut, a swaggering, needling, hard-drinking, unruly braggart, who is finally unleashed and dangerous. (Mills and Guinness were supposedly offered each other’s eventual roles and swapped.) Dark? Hardly—the action plays out in vivid color and is emotionally vibrant and electrifying. Psychological? Sure, but again, that’s just the starting point. I saw Tunes of Glory for the first time myself not too many years ago, and I was overwhelmed. For those who choose to actually watch it rather than consume it, you might have a similar reaction.

That’s 505 words, and it doesn’t even scratch the surface.

- Kent Jones

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TUNES OF GLORY (1960, d. Ronald Neame)
Restored by the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation in collaboration with Janus Films and The Museum of Modern Art. Restoration funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

 

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

2/25/2021 4:00:00 PM

The cinema is widely and commonly recognized as a popular art form, but its presence and the breadth of its history in different areas of the world varies wildly. The art form itself is often identified with this country, because ours has been the most spectacular, the most widely exported, and perhaps the most sheerly dynamic in relation to the development of the century: as André Bazin once observed, American society has told itself its own developing story and mythology through its cinema. But the cinemas of Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, China and Japan have been forceful presences in the history of the art form for just as long, and Indian cinema has been a powerhouse. In other parts of the world, production has been fitful, in Africa most of all. Africa is a big continent and there are obviously exceptions, including Egypt and, to a lesser extent, South Africa. But in general, getting a film made in Africa has long been, and continues to be, difficult. With the exception of the quickly and massively produced titles shot on home video equipment that started coming out of Nigeria in the late 80s, African cinema is basically one film at a time, each one financed and produced under unique circumstances. The preservation of African cinema has been especially problematic for just those reasons.

The African Film Heritage Project was launched in 2017, a closely coordinated effort between The Film Foundation, the Cineteca di Bologna—where the effort is spearheaded by the formidable Cecilia Cenciarelli—UNESCO (whose “General History of Africa” project is now in its 7th decade and in preparation with its 9th, 10th and 11th volumes) and FEPACI (Pan African Federation of Filmmakers), which launched a crucial survey of all African film archives. The aim of the AFHP is to locate the elements (mainly in European archives) and then restore and preserve African titles selected by a group of African filmmakers and scholars in coordination with FEPACI. Thus far, AFHP has restored Med Hondo’s Soleil O, which was completed not long before the filmmaker’s death; Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina’s Chronicle of the Years of Fire from Algeria, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1975; Timité Bassori’s 1969 film La Femme au couteau from the Ivory Coast; Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa’s Muna Moto from Cameroon; and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Contras’ City from Senegal. Pre-dating the formation of AFHP, the World Cinema Project arm of The Film Foundation restored Trances and Alyam Alyam by Ahmed Al-Maanouni from Morocco (I focused on Trances a ways back here); Mambéty’s Touki Bouki and Ousmane Sembene’s Borom Sarret and Black Girl, three foundational films from Senegal; and Shadi Abdel-Salam’s Al Momia also known as The Night of Counting the Years, and The Eloquent Peasant, from Egypt. The scope of all these linked initiatives and the dedication behind them is deeply moving, a titanic collective effort to reclaim history on multiple fronts. The majority of these films are revelatory on many levels—for westerners with limited exposure or even knowledge of the fact of Africa’s multiple cinemas, and for African audiences and film students as well. For Aboubakar Sanogo, FEPACI’s North American secretary, this is a crucial element. “The young African filmmakers are at a really important crossroad,” he told Mark Cosgrove. “There has never been more of a passion for making films than now in terms of sheer numbers…What they don’t have access to is the history.” The ultimate goal is that “no African filmmaker can take a camera without seeing a Med Hondo or Sembène or Cissé.” It’s a noble goal for Africa and its cinemas, and a real example to millions living on wealthier continents throughout the world who harbor the sadly mistaken belief that history can be either ignored or discarded or re-molded like a lump of clay. Which always ends in humiliation, disgrace, or tragedy.

- Kent Jones

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SOLEIL O (1970, d. Med Hondo)
Restored by Cineteca di Bologna at L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in collaboration with Med Hondo. Restoration funded by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation and The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project.

This restoration is part of the African Film Heritage Project, an initiative created by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO – in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna – to help locate, restore, and disseminate African cinema.

CHRONICLE OF THE YEARS OF FIRE (1975, d. Mohammed Lakhdar–Hamina)
Restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and Cineteca di Bologna at L’Image Retrouvée and L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratories. Restoration funded by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

This restoration is part of the African Film Heritage Project, an initiative created by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO – in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna – to help locate, restore, and disseminate African cinema.

LA FEMME AU COUTEAU (1969, d. Timité Bassori)
Restored by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. Restoration funded by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

This restoration is part of the African Film Heritage Project, an initiative created by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO – in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna – to help locate, restore, and disseminate African cinema.

MUNA MOTO (1975, d. Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa)
Restored by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. Funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

This restoration is part of the African Film Heritage Project, an initiative created by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO – in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna – to help locate, restore, and disseminate African cinema.

CONTRAS’ CITY (1968, d. Djibril Diop Mambéty)
Restored in 2020 by Cineteca di Bologna/L'Immagine Ritrovata and The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project in association with The Criterion Collection. Funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

This restoration is part of the African Film Heritage Project, an initiative created by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO – in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna – to help locate, restore, and disseminate African cinema.

TRANCES (1981, d. Ahmed Al-Maanouni) 
Restored in 2007 by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Ahmed El-Maanouni, and Izza Genini. Restoration funded by Armani, Cartier, Qatar Airways and Qatar Museum Authority.

ALYAM ALYAM (1978, d. Ahmed Al-Maanouni)
Restored by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with Ahmed El-Maanouni.  Restoration funded by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project.

TOUKI BOUKI (1973, d. Djibril Diop Mambéty)
Restored in 2008 by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and the family of Djibril Diop Mambéty. Restoration funded by Armani, Cartier, Qatar Airways and Qatar Museum Authority.

BOROM SARRET (1963, d. Ousmane Sembène)
Restored in 2013 by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory and Laboratoires Éclair, in association with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, and the Sembène Estate.  Restoration funded by Doha Film Institute.

BLACK GIRL (1966, d. Ousmane Sembène)
Restored by Cineteca di Bologna/ L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with the Sembène Estate, Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, INA, Eclair laboratories and the Centre National de Cinématographie. Restoration funded by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project.

AL MOMIA (1969, d. Shadi Abdel-Salam)
Restored in 2009 by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, and the Egyptian Film Center. Restoration funded by Armani, Cartier, Qatar Airways, Qatar Museum Authority and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. 

THE ELOQUENT PEASANT (1969, d. Shadi Abdel-Salam)
Restored in 2010 by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, and the Egyptian Film Center. Restoration funded by Armani, Cartier, Qatar Airways and Qatar Museum Authority.

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