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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

5/21/2021 2:00:00 PM

When I got the news that Norman Lloyd had passed away at the age of 106, I called my friend Bruce Goldstein. Bruce and Norman had become close over the years, and they talked once a week on the phone. “How much longer can he go on, I wondered,” said Bruce. “But still, I’m very sad.”

I was sad because Norman lived through all of that history and was ready, willing and absolutely able to transmit it to the very end. I have a photo from eight years ago of Norman, 97 at the time, standing with my son Andrézj, who was 15. We were backstage at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, where Norman was going to do an onstage conversation before a screening of Hitchcock’s Saboteur at the TCM Film Festival. In the photo, Norman looks like he’s in his 70s. And when he spoke, it was like listening to someone in their 60s. His answers were clear and concise, and he was as sharp as a razor. Here was a man who had no time for misty nostalgic wandering—he was still alive and there was too much to experience.

Norman Lloyd saw Babe Ruth play at Yankee Stadium. He acted with Eva Le Gallienne and Joseph Losey at the Theater of Action and the Federal Theater Project, which led to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company, where he played Cinna the Poet in the company’s 1936 production of Julius Caesar in fascist dress. He was cast as Fry, the villainous saboteur in Saboteur, which began a long working relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, and it was Hitchcock who brought an end to Norman’s “gray list” period in the 50s when he hired him as an Associate Producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Norman worked with Jean Renoir and for Chaplin, and became close friends with both. He produced the first staging of Brecht’s Galileo. He directed the lovely Mr. Lincoln for television and hired Stanley Kubrick to direct 2nd unit. He acted right up to the end, in television and in films.

One final word, about Saboteur, restored by the Library of Congress with help from The Film Foundation. I wrote a little about that film last November, around the time of Norman’s 106th birthday, and I find myself going back to it a lot. The film seems richer every time I look at it, and so does Norman’s performance as Fry, a great joint creation between director and actor: a quietly contemptuous Fifth Columnist who nonchalantly starts a blazing inferno in a California airplane factory, fights tooth and nail to sabotage a battleship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, wolfishly responds to Priscilla Lane’s phony come-on at the top of the Statue of Liberty (I love his reading of the line, “Sounds cozy…”), and then elicits our sympathy as he hangs onto Robert Cummings hand and watches the stitches of his jacket pop one by one. What an amazing resourceful actor he was.

And what a life he led.

- Kent Jones

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SABOTEUR (1942, d. Alfred Hitchcock)
Preserved by the Library of Congress with funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Foundation and The Film Foundation. 

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

5/10/2021 10:00:00 AM

The cinema is a human gesture. Plenty of windy and pretentious language has been spewed about how much seeing films from cultures other than our own expands our horizons too. This is true enough, but only really meaningful when the film in question is an artistic creation as opposed to an officially sanctioned cultural sampler. Not a film that is intended to represent the culture in question, but a film brought into being by someone who could not rest until they had given cinematic form to what they saw and felt. Of course it ends up embodying the world from which that artist sprang, among many other things.

Martin Scorsese has often spoken of the shock he felt when he saw Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali for the first time, because it was about the lives of the people who were always in the background of Hollywood and British films. But it was also a shock of recognition of a different kind: here was a film made by a young first-time filmmaker emerging as a full-blown artist. For Scorsese, who watched the entire Apu Trilogy straight through, the revelation began with that remarkable close-up of Apu’s eye opening wide when his sister comes to wake him up, and the cut to a closer shot spurred by the burst of music. For my own part, I will never forget the experience of seeing Jalsaghar (The Music Room) for the first time when a package of Ray’s films, going through a first round of restoration presented by Merchant/Ivory and partly funded by The Film Foundation, played on the arthouse circuit in the 90s. That film is a musical experience, but it also takes us deep into the strangeness of cultural connoisseurship, of a central figure who lavishes every last cent on beauty (and the status of presenting it), which he cultivates to the point where it becomes a spiritual malady.

This is the centenary of Ray’s birth. And at this very moment, the country of his birthplace is on its knees. To read the stories about what is happening in India, to see the images, to comprehend the statistics, is heartbreaking, humbling, and perplexing: what do we do with the great distance between us?

To watch any film is a small thing, meaningless in and of itself. But when we watch one by a great artist like Ray, we might just find ourselves passing, at odd intervals and small moments, through all the layers of reproduction and form and presentation necessary to the art of cinema, and feeling the human presence on the other side of time and the world.

- Kent Jones

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PATHER PANCHALI (1955, d. Satyajit Ray)
Restored by the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project through a collaboration of the Academy Film Archive, the Merchant-Ivory Foundation and the Film Foundation. Funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 

APARAJITO (1956, d. Satyajit Ray)
Restored by the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project through a collaboration of the Academy Film Archive, the Merchant-Ivory Foundation and the Film Foundation. Funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 

APUR SANSAR (1959, d. Satyajit Ray)
Restored by the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project through a collaboration of the Academy Film Archive, the Merchant-Ivory Foundation and the Film Foundation. Funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 

JALSAGHAR (1958, d. Satyajit Ray)
Restored by the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project through a collaboration of the Academy Film Archive, the Merchant-Ivory Foundation and the Film Foundation. Funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 

 

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

4/23/2021 9:00:00 AM

I grew up in a small city in New England that had not one but six movie theatres on its main drag. Two of them were real movie palaces, built in the 20s. One block up was a spacious but more modern theatre, where I saw The Godfather, Chinatown, The Long Goodbye and several hundred other films when they opened. Across the street was a one-time legitimate house with an interesting seating plan. A few blocks in the other direction, tucked into the basement level of a shopping mall/office complex/Hilton tower/parking garage (which, I’m told, was often cited as a textbook example of urban renewal gone haywire), was a tiny 150-seat house that tended to specialize in arthouse films: that’s where I saw Day for Night, Scenes from a Marriage and A Woman Under the Influence. Directly across the street, within the local museum, was a theatre that operated only during the summer and also specialized in arthouse releases—I remember seeing the early 70s New Yorker release of Ozu’s Tokyo Story there with my parents.

At one point in the early 80s, a multiplex opened on the west side of town—lousy prints badly projected on poorly tended screens, just what we were all clamoring for. Appropriately enough, the quality of the filmmaking got dumber. And one by one, five of the six independent theatres shut down. The biggest of them was left untended by the owner and had to be demolished. It’s been replaced by a red-brick “park” with a little sign commemorating the existence of the theatre. The other palace is now a senior center, and the marquee now announces bingo nights and insurance seminars. The bigger modern house is a parking lot. The one-time legit theatre is legit once more, home to a local stage company. The tiny theatre has been gone for so many years that I don’t even know what it is now—maybe more parking. Only the theatre in the museum is still in operation. The multiplex went under years ago.

I don’t live in Los Angeles, but I love going there, and it’s been exciting to see my movies shown on different screens around town—the Aero, the El Capitan, and the ArcLight Hollywood, a truly beautiful, perfectly built cinema. Is someone going to swoop in and save the ArcLight chain? Will private individuals keep the Hollywood theatre and the Cinerama Dome alive? Will the rest of the chain be bought up and incorporated into one or more of the bigger chains, now just beginning to recover their economic footing? Or will they too become senior centers or parking lots or nothing in particular?

To those who love the cinema: it’s time to stop counting on “them” to stand up and protect the art form and the conditions in which it was meant to be experienced. At this point, we all have to come together to protect it. We have to do whatever it takes to re-open the theatres that have shuttered and to make sure the ones that are open stay that way. Everybody who’s reading this: the art form that you love needs your help.

Earlier this week, Monte Hellman passed away at the age of 91 at his home in Palm Desert. Monte was a truly enigmatic figure, almost sphinxlike at moments. His appearance was arresting: tall, wiry, always dressed in neutral colors, with an exceptionally high forehead that led to a head of hair like Einstein’s. His demeanor seemed quite close to James Taylor’s in Two-Lane Blacktop—Taylor’s driver cared about cars, Monte cared about cinema. He started in theatre, and worked his way into movies—like so many others—by way of Roger Corman. He got the chance to direct his first movie, The Beast from Haunted Cave, thanks to a tried and true Corman formula: when you’re on location shooting one movie, you might as well make a second movie (in this case, the location was Deadwood, South Dakota and the other movie was Corman’s own Ski Troop Attack, to which Beast is far superior). Monte found himself repeating the exercise twice more, the second time with back to back westerns. The Shooting was the first of Monte’s films that I was able to see, and I was enthralled—it was one of the rare instances of high expectations exceeded by reality. Monte didn’t get to make that many films. Many of the projects he developed, including Fat City and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, slipped through his fingers, and he spent a lot of time doctoring the work of other directors. He never made a bad film, and that includes Silent Night Bloody Night 3. He did make four great ones, which is four more than most filmmakers. Two-Lane Blacktop, which was effectively buried by Universal (Lew Wasserman hated it that much), along with the two westerns and Cockfighter, comprise a rich quartet. Despite their current availability they remain films that are known and loved by few and passed from hand to hand like treasures. Like Martin Scorsese and Hal Ashby, Monte was an editor, and his films have a pulse that beats silently but constantly under the story. Those four films are a part of me, and the same could be said of many other people I know.

- Kent Jones

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

4/12/2021 1:00:00 PM

In 2007, I moderated a discussion after a screening of a recently restored print of Drums Along the Mohawk. The restorations of that film and of Leave Her to Heaven, another Fox title, comprised a joint effort undertaken by Fox and the Academy Film Archive, with Film Foundation funding. The process was arduous. In the 70s, Fox decided to take all of their nitrate materials and transfer them to CRIs, from which improper YCM (yellow-cyan-magenta) separations were created, which resulted in extremely flawed prints. The rumor is that the original camera negatives were subsequently dumped into the Pacific—it may or may not be true, but they are long gone. The restoration team worked from the YCMs and color reversal protection copies, and they had their work cut out for them. As Mike Pogorzelski of the Academy pointed out in last week’s post, digital scanning remained a time-consuming process until the early 2010s. Adjusting the image for misregistration (resulting from different rates of shrinkage of the original three negatives that combined to create the Technicolor image) was arduous. I remember the result being fairly breathtaking, if not quite as stunning as an original Technicolor print. Both films have subsequently undergone a second round of restoration, performed by the same team.

Back to 2007. After screening, the estimable Schawn Belston took questions from the audience. A young man raised his hand. He had a point he wanted to make. Why, he wondered, was it necessary to go through the motions with substandard materials when all that really needed to be done was to scan a good Technicolor print and then perform a standard clean-up. Schawn calmly answered him point by point. And the crux of his response was a question: “Which print?” Fox had many Technicolor nitrate prints to look at, and not only had each one degraded differently and suffered different levels of wear, but each separate reel of each separate print had aged differently. Well, said the man, just take the best reels from the different prints and put them together. “But what does ‘the best’ mean?” asked Schawn. How could anyone be sure that all of these different reels would match? And then, what would be the guiding principle of unifying them? And, in the act of unifying them, wouldn’t you be back to square one?

Greater visual uniformity is now more easily achievable in film restoration, but the questions that Schawn raised haven’t gone away. In fact, as we get further in time from the moment when those films were created and from a common memory of the Technicolor image in general, and as it becomes increasingly easier to adjust and manipulate the images, the question of interpretation becomes more pressing. This is especially so with color films. As Mike P. points out, with black and white “there’s only one light source that can be changed,” whereas with color “you need to assign a value to the yellow channel, a value to the cyan channel and a value to the magenta channel.” The changes in film stocks add a whole other level to the problem. Gordon Willis once told a friend of mine that the first two Godfather films looked better than the third because the film stocks were less predictable and yielded more interesting results. The painterly manipulation of images that DPs like Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs achieved with flashing the negative, underexposure and bleach bypass complicates matters even more. And then, there’s the question of grain. As Martin Scorsese has often pointed out, most of us who grew up with grain love it, but odds are that most DPs would have gotten rid of it if they’d had the option.

There is no avoiding the necessity of interpretation. The question is: who’s doing the interpreting? When it’s people like Mike and Schawn, that’s one thing. When it’s a choice made by QC engineers in conformity with current norms (i.e. streaming platforms), that’s something else again. The first is love, the second is business.

- Kent Jones

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DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939, d. John Ford)
Restored by Academy Film Archive and Twentieth Century Fox with funding provided by The Film Foundation.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945, d. John M. Stahl)
Restored by Academy Film Archive and Twentieth Century Fox with funding provided by The Film Foundation.

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