Now that half the population seems to be filming the other half at any given moment, now that YouTube uploads 24 hours of new video a minute, how do moving image archivists decide what to save?
I’m thinking about that because I just went to the seventh Orphan Film Symposium, a biennial orgy of watching and discussing neglected, mostly un-copyrighted moving pictures from around the world. Going to Orphans is like standing behind a favorite uncle’s shoulder as he rifles through his old treasures in the attic: Some stuff is purely wonderful, some is strange enough to be fascinating, and some doesn’t interest you nearly as much as it does him.
The films and videos shown at Orphans, all shorts or excerpts, don’t always last as long as the talks that precede them. Each gets an introduction, sometimes from the filmmaker but more often from the archivist who cataloged, studied, and restored it. The presenters talk about how and why the films were made, placing them in artistic and historical context.
The symposium is just the exclamation point that punctuates an ongoing exchange among its participants, showcasing some of the work they’ve been engaged in since their last meeting. A collegial vibe unites the 300 or so arty-academic preservationists, curators, filmmakers, professors, students, and assorted other film buffs. They’re predominantly American, but there’s a large and growing contingent from other countries—including 17 of this year’s presenters.
You get a sense of their sense of this community in symposium director Dan Streible’s affectionate introductions of the people introducing the films, who may be half-jokingly described as “the world’s most famous film archivist—for the last two years, anyway” or “the world’s leading expert on 17.5mm film in Europe before 1910.” You also see it in things like the thank-you gift Streible got from the group, a clock in the shape of a frog to commemorate the star of Ro-Revus Talks about Worms, a funky educational short starring a rubber hand puppet in the shape of a bullfrog that has become the Orphanistas’ unofficial mascot.
So what do they preserve? Mostly newsreels and other commissioned short films, advocacy films, home movies, underground or experimental films, and short animations, plus a smattering of outtakes, raw footage, and other equally noncommercial odds and ends. There’s even some vintage porn, most of which looks touchingly innocent by today’s standards.
The politics of the orphan films are solidly liberal-lefty. Most date from the first half of the 20th century, but some are older and many are newer, a few even brand new. Two young women won this year’s Helen Hill Award for recently completed work, Jodie Mack for Yard Work is Hard Work, a whimsical mixture of animated and filmed footage that sends up the notion of marriage as the land of “happily ever after,” and Danielle Ash for Pickles for Nickles, a stop-motion film about Brooklyn’s rapidly changing storefronts.
Most orphan films are by and about people you’ve never heard of, but even archivists aren’t immune to the star factor. Streible, who teaches cinema studies at New York University, says he’s looking for things that have “kind of a wow factor.” That often seems to translate to neglected works by well-known artists, like the intermittently interesting Warhol factory films screened this year, or Henri Cartier-Bresson’s first film, With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. Made by Cartier-Bresson and Herbert Kline in 1938 to raise funds for Americans wounded in the fight for republican Spain, Abraham Lincoln Brigade is a beautifully composed mixture of dignified individual portraits and group shots that vibrate with idealistic energy.
Some of the orphans are interesting mostly for their historical significance, like Tales from Tamiment, a promotional film from 1932, and a remarkably clear partially restored version of the seminal A Trip Down Market Street.
Shot in 1906, A Trip Down Market Street records the view from a cable car moving down San Francisco’s Market Street to the Ferry Building, then surveys the scene to the left before ending. As the streetcar makes its leisurely way down the street, pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, and early automobiles cross in front of it seemingly at random, since the streets are too new and the traffic too slow to require lanes or laws, let alone lights. It’s a mesmerizing view of a thriving city just before the earthquake of 1906 changed everything. The Orphans screening was accompanied by a moody score, which seemed to foreshadow the coming quake.
Tales from Tamiment is a jauntily captioned silent portrait of a Socialist summer camp in the Poconos in the early ’30s. Its energetic, apparently unstaged footage showed campers participating in a wide range of physical activities, competing in a beauty contest, mugging for the camera, or just hanging out. The spontaneity, collegial close-ups, and gently self-mocking humor made it feel surprisingly contemporary, despite a range of tints that made it look as if it had been left to seep in a series of pots of differently colored teas.
Episode 4 of Orson Welles’ Sketchbook, a slyly subversive and deliciously entertaining tale, is a reminder of how much surveillance we’ve come to accept in these terrorized times. Part of a series Welles recorded shortly after the end of WWII, it starts with him sketching a line drawing, marker squeaking on the page. Then he shows us the drawing and starts to spin the rambling story that goes with it, facing the camera or looking down as if lost in thought. Welles’ orotund voice draws us in as he slides from one masterfully told anecdote to the next, winding up with a rant about the then-new practice of demanding documentation and personal information when people cross national borders. “There’s something about being ticketed and numbered that gives a man a feeling of being a piece of baggage or a convict,” he says before calling on his listeners to refuse to go along with this outrageous invasion of privacy. You can see it on YouTube, divided into parts (one and two).
The Cry of Jazz, a 1959 film, anatomizes a volatile junction in the racial evolution of the United States. The film was introduced by a very enthusiastic Jonas Mekas, who called it “a masterpiece” and remembered seeing it first when it came out, in “a busy, very busy time” for New York independent filmmakers. The only film ever made by composer Edward Bland, who shot it on a shoestring, it’s aggressively uncinematic, essentially an essay captured on celluloid. It starts painfully slowly, the only action a stiffly acted and worded argument between an uneasily biracial group of jazz fans in Chicago. But it warms up when one man commandeers the discussion, carving out a coolly intelligent case for how the structure of jazz mirrors the barriers faced by black people in America. Bland illustrates some of his points with documentary footage shot in segregated Southside Chicago, but unlike the well-meaning white liberals who made One Tenth of Our Nation, a 1940 documentary also shown at Orphans, he doesn’t focus only on deprivation and hardships. His focus is on how black Americans faced with “a futureless future” react by making the most of the now, so he shows supple dancers jitterbugging, beautiful young men striding down the street with rhythmically asymmetrical steps, and other vivid examples of people making the most of a moment.
Other orphans are notable mainly for their artistry. Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin of CalArts are conducting inventive experiments with the medium of film, exploring how digital compression affects the 35mm image by digitalizing iconic film sequences and then taking out the key frame. They showed five of their short films at Orphans. The originals they started with were always clearly recognizable, yet their footage looked entirely new. Galloping cowboys and Indians from The Searchers dissolved into and out of the background as if birthed by the earth, breaking up into pixilated squares of color that flowed past the stationary background. The dancers in a floral-themed Busby Berkeley bit devolved into purely organic shapes, their individual bodies disappearing into the larger pattern. And, in the pair’s most interesting experiment, Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity, a mandala-like meditation on a hallway in which metronomically timed changes in focal length create a sense of movement, is converted into pure lines of bright white dancing on a black background. It’s an utterly stripped-down abstraction, nothing but light, dark, and movement—and yet, almost magically, it clearly evokes the original.
let’s just kiss + say goodbye: This witty 1995 Robert Blanchon film pieces together nonsexual bits of gay porn films, often scored to the 1976 song that gives the movie its title. Absurd, badly acted, and patently staged, these encounters somehow add up to a poignant sideways look at the specter of death that was then stalking the gay community (Blanchon died of AIDS in 1999.)
A scene from a Warhol factory film showing Warhol with a clueless reporter. A mirror image of the one in Don’t Look Back where Bob Dylan spars with reporters, this shows Warhol as bemused as Dylan was contemptuous. He deflects a series of dense questions by spacily admiring the light reflected onto the ceiling by a giant disco ball, gently inviting his interviewer to join him. The reporter winds up on the floor next to Warhol, clutching his mike as they stare at the ceiling.
A didactic German short from the early ’30s about how to create a soundtrack by drawing soundwaves directly onto celluloid.
A kitschily vivid excerpt from 1908’s The Life of Christ in which Jesus moves soulfully through the stations of the cross while actors in colorized clothes emote in the background with the stylized gestures and expressions that dominated during the silent era.
The 80 films shown at Orphans 7 spanned almost the whole history of filmmaking, providing a crash course in filmmaking technique and the creative process and teaching us something new about our shared history.
I left Orphans—just after midnight on a Saturday night—feeling grateful to the people who save all those frozen moments in time, making sure they come to life for at least one more audience. Film is a shark that must keep moving to stay alive, but without archivists and preservationists and historians to keep track of where we’ve been, how would we know where to go?
The House Next Door’s coverage of the 2008 symposium.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. (For a brief but happy time in the ’80s, while studying screenwriting at UT-Austin, she reviewed movies for the Austin Chronicle, the Texas Observer, and Third Coast magazine at the same time.) She is now a regular contributor to The House Next Door and the movie reviewer for TimeOFF, the weekly entertainment supplement for about a dozen newpapers in Central Jersey. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play.