Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Few of My Favorite Things at Orphans 8 Symposium

Dan Streible, the mastermind behind the bi-annual Orphans Symposium, describes the event as the meeting point for archivists and scholars. As I continue to straddle the line between NYU's Cinema Studies and Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) programs, Orphans is a perfect fit for me. The past four days have been a whirlwind of activity and film screenings, networking and hobnobbing with people from around the world, all with the common interest of researching and preserving orphan films.

The entire schedule was a great collage of films and panels, but these are my top 15 programs and films of the symposium, in order of their appearance of the schedule.

1. Ad Films for Theaters, Television, and the Web
Wall-to-wall advertising weirdness, from Germany to the good ol' US of A. Annette Groschke of the Deutsche Kinematek presented a series of mod commercials for Afri-Cola conceptualized and directed by Charles Wilp. Mustachioed musclemen, lusty nuns, groovy horny chicks (including a young Donna Summer, around the time she recorded "Black Power" for Peter Thomas), and an odd prog music soundtrack, these commercials must be seen to be believed.

Leenke Ripmeester of the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands introduced the audience to the original Dollywood Studios, a producer of animation overseen by Joop Geesink. In addition to theatrical short features, Dollywood was employed by many European companies in the creation of animated commercials. In this video (in Dutch), we see Leenke at work and examples of the Geesink films she is working hard to restore.

A/V Geeks luminary Skip Elsheimer and Moving Image co-editor Devin Orgeron did a tag-team presentation on the history of Post's Sugar Crisp ad campaigns, from the three bears to the singular Sugar Bear. We see Sugar Bear go from harassing poor Granny Goodwitch to throwing Archies and Jackson 5 parties for sugar-fueled children. This is one of my favorites.

2. Operator (1969, Nell Cox)
Words almost can't express how much I love this film. Director Cox took the stage to discuss how she made her first film, an AT&T recruitment tool coinciding with an operator's strike, with a cinematographer working for free and a theme song by the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, approved by the phone company because they were a Juilliard-based group. The song later turned up on their album "Faithful Friends...and Flattering Foes", under the title 'Nel Cox'. Rather than go into great detail about the film, I advise you see it for yourself.

3. The films of Lillian Schwartz (Pixillation, 1970; UFOs, 1971; Olympiad, 1971; Enigma, 1972; Papillons, 1973)
NYU's Walter Forsberg has been the champion of the computer animated films of Lillian Schwartz for some time, and getting a chance to see her films projected in a theater, in 3-D no less, was a rare treat. Even more exciting was seeing Schwartz appear for a Q&A after the films, discussing how she tapped many upcoming electronic composers for her soundtracks and the process of creating in Bell Labs in the 1970s. On her official YouTube channel, you can see more of her films, including this one, which was scheduled but not screened.

4. The Florestine Collection (2011, Helen Hill and Paul Gailiunas)
An emotional cap to the Helen Hill Awards program, Helen Hill's final film, the one she was working on at the time of her unfortunate passing, was completed by husband Paul Gailiunas. The title refers to a cache of dresses Hill found in the garbage, the remains of a collection of clothes made by an elderly New Orleans woman. This is a beautiful love letter to the charm and creativity of Hill, who left us too soon. A small sample of what an incredible woman Hill was can be seen in this interview video.

5. A People's Convention (1948, Union Films)

Previously considered lost, this is one of the greatest finds presented at Orphans 8. It was programmed with two other very rare theatrical campaign films for Truman and Dewey (The Truman Story and The Dewey Story, respectively), but A People's Convention was the clear winner of the trio. It details a rallying cry by the Progressive Party, as state delegates and supporters of the new party and its candidate, Henry Wallace, arrive for a rousing convention. The aura of hope and excitement surrounding a change in the political landscape of the United States is potent, and this is a bona fide treasure.

6. Children Limited (1951, Children's Benevolent League)
Another film believed lost, Dan Streible undertook the search for this film after being contacted by a gentleman working for the Arc of Washington, formerly the Children's Benevolent League, the organization that produced this educational film. It is rather old-fashioned in its approach to mentally challenged children, but remains a fascinating and rare example of an educational film approaching this topic. Another film on the same subject, "Tuesday's Child", remains MIA. Keep your eyes peeled, orphanistas. An additional note: the legendary Rick Prelinger must be commended for unearthing the original Kodachrome of this film. The color restoration is stunning, and made up for the fact that a 20-minute edit of the 30-minute film was shown. The frame grabs below are not even close to the quality of the projected film.

7. The World is Ours (1938, MPPDA)
Classic Hollywood fans will eat up this marvelous campaign film, if it is made more widely available. In 1938, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) devised a marketing scheme proclaiming 1938 as "the motion pictures' greatest year". Catherine Jurca of CalTech book-ended the screening of the film with detailed discussion of the concept and why it was widely considered a failure. That said, this is a honey of a curio. An "all-American family", with Charley Grapewin as Grandpa and Anne Shirley (a 1937 Oscar nominee) as the daughter, treks to Hollywood, where they visit all the major and several minor (Monogram, anyone?) studio lots to see what incredible movies they have in store for 1938. Frankly, none of them hold a candle to the films that would be released in 1939, the year most historians regard as the true greatest year in motion picture history, but it provides for enticing clips of your favorite movie stars from the studio years. And because I can't get enough of her, a gratuitous photo of Anne Shirley.

8. The Motherhood Archives of Irene Lusztig
UC Santa Cruz's Irene Lusztig has quite the archive, one I would love to see more of. She has collected many films intended for expectant mothers, and screened two specifically dealing with lamaze. Did you know the popular childbirth technique was developed by the Soviets? One of the films was an imported Russian film, with dubbed English, quite surprising considering it was produced during the Cold War. Lusztig surely has a book or DVD in her with these marvelous films, and I look forward to hopefully seeing more of them.

9. Community Youth Filmmaking
Split over two days, this was probably the highlight of the entire symposium for me. Jay Schwartz, with an impeccably researched presentation, introduced The Jungle (1967), a gritty docudrama entirely produced by the 12th & Oxford street gang, a group of black male teenagers living in the most dangerous part of Philadelphia offered a chance to tell their story by producer Harold Haskins. These kids did everything: write the script, handle the camera, record the sound, act and block their own rough fight scenes, even record a doo wop soundtrack (the rhythmic theme of the film, pounded out on the bottom of a garbage can, is hauntingly effective). Schwartz shared the story of the mighty rise and devastating fall of the gang's film company as they took the film world by storm for a brief, shining moment before a shocking murder, in-fighting, and drugs dissolved the union. Added to the National Registry in 2009, The Jungle is a must-see, and is thankfully available on YouTube, though it isn't quite the same without a theatrical setting and Schwartz's fascinating presentation.

Elena Rossi-Snook, whom I proclaimed the winner of the Best-Dressed Orphanista Award, presented two films from perhaps the greatest overlooked collection of orphan films in New York City, the NYPL's Young Filmmaker's Foundation Collection. The subject of a retrospective at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005, the collection is available to be screened for visiting researchers as part of the NYPL Reserve Film and Video Collection. New York City teenagers, from 1964 through 1977 (after which the YFF focused on adult filmmakers), were given the opportunity to tell stories with a 16mm camera, often shooting guerrilla-style in the streets of some of the city's most rundown neighborhoods. The two films screened, 1967's The Flop and 1971's Aspirations, are the products of two wildly different types of filmmaker. The first was directed by a Hispanic male teenager, telling the tragic story of a young boy falling in with the wrong crowd, namely a drug dealer and his henchmen; the second was directed by a white teenage girl, using pop records and clever editing choices to peek inside the mind of a teenage girl intrigued by the ideas of sex and adult womanhood. Both are minor masterpieces of DIY filmmaking, and if they are indicative of the general quality of the collection, this is a tremendous untapped resource that would make for a super book and/or DVD subject.

10. Race and Rebellion
Venturing from the east coast to the west coast, Orphans 8 trekked to Los Angeles, where race is the subject for two films with almost directly oppositional politics. UCLA's Mark Quigley introduced us to Rolf Forsberg, a practically forgotten director responsible for what look to be some of the boldest and most ambitious classroom discussion films ever made. You can see one of them, Ark (1970), on YouTube in poor quality, and Stalked (1968) is available on the Internet Archive, but the majority of his work is impossible to see. Quigley screened One Friday (1973), a race war message movie starring his own infant son as a young white child venturing alone into a world seemingly devastated by whites and blacks fighting to the death. The finale of the film, a double-surprise, proves problematic in discussions of racial roles in contemporary society, problems that seem properly answered in the presentation of UCLA's Allyson Nadia Field and Northwestern's Jacqueline Stewart. Field and Stewart sent my heart soaring as they discussed their work on the L.A. Rebellion Project, aiming at preserving the films of the oft-forgotten social cinema movement centered around graduates of UCLA's film program. The film they screened, 1977's Daydream Therapy, is a rarity from political activist Bernard Nicolas, using his camera as a weapon (as Haile Gerima did before him with Bush Mama, one of many L.A. Rebellion classics). He even features his leading lady roaming a back alley in anger, first with a camera, then a cut to reveal her with a gun, creating a mirror between the two in revolutionary artistry. Therapy challenges the image of black women as maids, allowing a particularly put-upon black woman to daydream of her employer's demise before she strongly marches forward to take control of her gender, her race, her social role. One of the best pieces of news of the Symposium: a L.A. Rebellion series is coming to NYC soon!

Camera as weapon in DAYDREAM THERAPY (1977)

11. Archivo Memoria: National Memory Reconsidered
All of the films on this program were salvaged and preserved in national archives in Mexico, the Czech Republic, and Ireland. Audrey Young, representing Mexico's Cineteca Nacional, introduced the program with Cine Movil (1976), an incredible short film documenting the journey of a traveling "movie mobile" throughout Mexico. Imagine a book mobile with movies and you have the Cine Movil. Two projectionists travel in a motor home and screen 16mm prints in rural areas without a local theater. Every movie lover will love this piece, the sole survivor of the horrific 1982 fire that devastated the Cineteca. University of Minnesota's Alice Lovejoy presented three unique films produced by the Czechoslovak Army Film Studio (Crooked Mirror, 1956, a comic Army "fashion show" intended to demonstrate proper dress and attire; Metrum, 1967, an unusual and gripping look at the Moscow subway system; and Opportunity, 1956, a cautionary tale of a soldier abandoning his wife for a night in the bed of a harlot). The great surprise was Michal Bregant of the Czech National Film Archive introducing Opportunity's director, Vojtech Jasny, who regaled the audience with stories of working as a director under Soviet rule. Time restrictions shortened Sunniva O'Flynn's sampling of films from the Irish Film Archive, but the most moving and interesting was certainly 1950's King of the Tribes, an amateur home movie account of a Traveller family unveiling a deceased relative's tombstone, purchased after years of labor.

12. Progressive Education and Labor Advocacy: A Lee Dick Retrospective
The closing presentation of this program by Adrianne Finelli revealed the tragic fates of filmmaking couple Sheldon and Lee Dick, and their films are interesting, diverse projects that reveal little of the mental problem Sheldon in particular would succumb to. The earlier of the two screened films, School: A Film About Progressive Education (1939), is an intriguing look into the typical (albeit scripted) day in the life of students at Hessian Hills School in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. The students make their own furniture, do manual work on the grounds, run their own store, and find time for classes in-between, addressing their teacher by an informal nickname. It's not the Little Rascals, but it's pretty interesting to see an unorthodox school system like this in place as early as 1939. Men and Dust (1940) is essentially a protest film, outraged at the treatment of miners in the Tri-State mining communities of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. It predates Harlan County USA (1976) and isn't as successful as that film, but it is a rousing, angry, bitter short subject that deserves to be unearthed for a wider audience.

13. Human Growth (1948, Sy Wexler)
Everyone loves a good sex education short subject, and this one, produced by psychologist Lester Beck, is a doozy. Elizabeth Peterson of University of Oregon provided biographical background of this unusual fellow in a presentation with Orphans 8's best title: "You Are Getting Sleepy/Hungry/Horny...The Life and Times of Lester Beck, Filmmaking Psychologist". Ms. Peterson, please publish a book with this title. University of Oregon has made this gem available on their video archive website.

14. Poison Grain (Bill Birch)
This short news piece, photographed by American news cameraman extraordinaire Bill Birch and featuring commentator John Chancellor, is gripping and moving, as it follows the narrative of an unfortunate mercury poisoning devastating a family in New Mexico.

15. Behavior Modification and Lite
The closing program was a mix of enjoyable odds and ends, only mildly disturbed by the bulb in the 16mm projector at the venue not working. Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel's Studies of Apparent Behavior (1943), an animated film shown to undergraduates at Smith College to gauge their responses to two triangles and a sphere engaged in what seems to be a violent domestic dispute, was also re-imagined in four remakes, one on 16mm and three digital. Nico de Klerk introduced The Hands of a Stranger (1966), a moving little film produced by the United States Information Agency, an organization whose films were not permitted to be screened in the U.S., so this was a rare treat indeed. An American doctor operates on a little Vietnamese boy with a cleft palate. It's troubling that the film was likely used to justify American presence in Vietnam during the war, but it's still a heart string tugger to see the little boy happy after surgery. Soon-retiring Martha Harsanyi of Indiana University (where they apparently have an impressive film archive) introduced the most perplexing educational film success story ever heard, the cult classic Chucky Lou: Story of a Woodchuck (1948), a cheaply produced little movie about a woodchuck captured, put in a cage, and domesticated into enjoying being put in a dress. There's more to it, barely, but that's the gist of this incredible artifact. Proceed directly to this link to see the majesty of Chucky Lou:

Marsha Orgeron introduced a rarity from the Samuel Fuller home movie collection, How to Light a Cigar, shot in Belgium in 1945 and starring himself and his Army buddies in a series of skits; Andrew Lampert of Anthology Film Archives presented an off the wall video of a pledge drive by the film group, one of many similar videos in their archive (and hopefully soon to be made available on a projected streaming video site); the esteemed Stephen Parr of Oddball Film blew my mind with Sun Healing the Ultra-Violet Way with Life Lite (1934), a bizarre promotional film for a product that resembles a mini tanning bed geared to give your skin much needed UV rays. The accompanying musical score was just as deliciously weird as the film itself. The symposium closed with a Chinese documentary, transferred from the sole remaining film element in the world which resides at USC MIRC, Light Cavalry Girl (1980), an engaging little piece about a gang of lady bikers who perform stunts for the camera. Beautifully shot and edited, this was a great curtain closer for Orphans 8.

Till next year, orphanistas!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much. Great conference and great to have these excerpts.