MoMA’s 'To Save and Project' series offers wide-ranging discoveries

ScreenerBlog

Now in its 15th season, the Museum of Modern Art's “To Save and Project” surveys significant film-restoration projects from archives around the world. Running Jan. 18 through Feb. 1, it's also a primer on world cinema and an introduction to film history and technique.

But the series, organized by Dave Kehr, curator, Department of Film, is primarily the chance to see landmark movies the way their filmmakers intended. And this may be your only opportunity to view these titles under such great conditions.

Like the two features being shown Jan. 21, This Is Cinerama and Windjammer. A widescreen process that used three projectors and seven "surround sound" stereo speakers, Cinerama premiered in 1952 as a way to win viewers back to theatres from television. (Attendance had dropped by about half in the previous four years.)

Inventor Fred Wallis nurtured the process through an 11-camera Vitarama system to flight simulators used during World War II. Showman Michael Todd and King Kong's Merian C. Cooper joined the project later, Todd supervising the European footage in This Is Cinerama and Cooper the inspiration behind that film's closing aerial sequence.

Today only a handful of theatres can project Cinerama at all. But with "SmileBox," digital restorationist David Strohmaier and restoration producer Randy Gitsch mimic Cinerama's curved screen without the need for three projectors. They will explain their process, as well as the difficulty in restoring Cinerama movies, in an illustrated talk before the Windjammer screening.

The opening and closing nights of this year's TSAP are devoted to director William K. Howard, an underappreciated artist in part because his work has been so difficult to see. Howard started in silent movies, and worked in every genre, from westerns to musicals to biopics, in a career that stretched over three decades.

In recent years Howard drew attention for the convoluted storytelling, heavy with flashbacks, in films like The Power and the Glory (often cited as an inspiration for Citizen Kane). But according to Kehr, Howard's style is important more for his concern for his characters, and his "insistence on mercy and forgiveness as the highest human values."

Transatlantic (Jan. 18) follows a half-dozen or so characters—among them dashing gambler Edmund Lowe, unhappy spouse Myrna Loy and home-wrecking chorine Greta Nissen—on an ocean liner to England. Howard alternates between chase thriller, drawing-room farce and proto-film noir, employing techniques that were startling at the time but have since become indispensible to film grammar. James Wong Howe's camera glides up gangplanks, down corridors, through staterooms, even descending into engine rooms in a movie designed above all to entertain.

MoMA restored both Transatlantic and Howard's Sherlock Holmes (Feb. 1) from nitrate elements. Based on William Gillette's popular play, this Holmes features an acidic turn by Clive Brook as the detective and an idiosyncratic Moriarty from silent star Ernest Torrence.

Several guest speakers appear this year. On Jan. 20, Juliane Lorenz of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation will introduce the first U.S. screening of his restored Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, an eight-episode television miniseries. Nicola Mazzanti from La Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique will talk about the restoration of Chantal Akerman's influential Les rendez-vous d’Anna (Jan. 22 & 25), a semi-autobiographical structuralist drama. And Heather Linville from the Academy Film Archive will introduce two entries.

The first, Aloha Wanderwell, The World’s Most Widely Traveled Woman (Jan. 27), follows a largely unknown filmmaker and lecturer who started her career when she answered an ad for a "good-looking, brainy young woman who is as clever a journalist as her appearance is attractive.” Over the next 20 years, Wanderwell shot dazzling 35mm footage in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America, capturing the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, army maneuvers in Siberia and indigenous tribes of the Bororos along what she called The River of Death. Along with Linville, Jessica DePrest will talk about Wanderwell with her grandson, Richard Diamond.

Linville also introduces The Racket (Jan. 28), a silent gangster thriller directed by Lewis Milestone and backed by Howard Hughes. A notorious fiddler with his projects, Hughes would later help develop Scarface. Ben Model provides piano accompaniment.

While diversity issues roil the film industry, “To Save and Project” continues its tradition of celebrating women filmmakers. In addition to Wanderwell and Akerman, this year's series includes independent and avant-garde work by Barbara Hammer, Victoria Hochberg, Peggy Ahwesh and Sheila Paige, restored by the Women's Film Preservation Fund (Jan. 22). As part of its Modern Mondays series, the Museum is screening the world premiere of a series of experimental films the artist Maria Lassnig made in New York City in the 1970s (Jan. 29). And associate curator Anna Morra introduces Ida Lupino's groundbreaking Outrage (Jan. 29 & 31), a 1950 drama dealing with rape, at the time a Production Code taboo.

Previous series have always focused attention on world cinema, and this year is no exception. Margaret Bodde, the executive director of The Film Foundation, will introduce a stunning restoration of Soleil Ô (Oh, Sun!), written and directed by Mauritanian artist Med Hondo (Jan. 23 & 30). Incidents in the film reflect Hondo's own experiences as an immigrant laborer struggling to understand an alien, generally hostile culture. The restoration enhances the film's dissociation, surrealistic flights, non-sequiturs, angry debates and dumbfounding racism, and makes François Catonné's cinematography pristine once more.

The eerie Dos Monjes/Two Monks (Jan. 23 & 31) from Mexico explores director and co-writer Juan Bustillo Oro's fascination with Gothic themes. A virgin escapes an abusive household, only to become the object of desire of a consumptive composer and his best friend. Filled with religious imagery and sexual repression, it's a fever dream of a melodrama as hypnotic as opium. Oro pulls off a daring narrative break reminiscent of Coco: A central ballad undergoes a radical shift in meaning as the film's point-of-view changes.

A centerpiece of this year's series is Police Story (Jan. 26 & 28), the film that introduced Jackie Chan to a mainstream audience. Chan had been working in the industry for two decades when he got the opportunity to direct and star in Police Story. It was the first time he could develop stunts and storylines without worrying about budgets, as he proves in the opening scene by smashing a half-dozen cars through a hillside shantytown.

Police Story was filmed at the height of Chan's skills, when he was the best physical performer onscreen, and it's doubtful that his brand of acrobatic athleticism will ever be equaled. The movie also features the slapstick farce that has been a staple of his career, delivered by outstanding comics like Bill Tung, Asian superstar Brigitte Lin and an incredibly young Maggie Cheung. The Fortune Star restoration removes the bad dubbing and choppy editing that were the hallmarks of American release prints.

Douglas Fairbanks had also reached a new level of creative freedom when he made The Three Musketeers (Jan. 19). Fairbanks became one of the industry's top stars on the basis of an all-American character he built through two dozen or so films starting in 1915. He shifted into costume adventures with 1920's The Mark of Zorro (a character he helped develop), and went all-out the next year with The Three Musketeers, splurging to an unprecedented extent on sets and costumes. It's a full-blooded and surprisingly faithful version of the Dumas novel, and it will be accompanied by a four-piece band. As Kehr notes, "You'll never see a better version. This was Doug's print."

Finally, author David Stenn introduces a fragment of Now We're in the Air (Jan. 19), a 1927 service comedy starring future superstar Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton as two sad sacks who end up in an aerial unit during World War I. Some 20 minutes of footage were recovered from a deteriorated nitrate print found in a Czech archive. It's mostly excruciatingly broad comedy of the Dumb and Dumber school, but it does offer a few minutes of young circus performer Louise Brooks in a black tutu.

The fragment will be screened before The World and the Woman, the debut feature for Jeanne Eagels, one of the most significant stage performers of her time. A late feature from the Thanhouser studio, it was adapted in part from a play called Outcast. Eagels plays a New York City prostitute who by chance finds a position as maid on an estate in the Adirondacks. Rural life and the friendliness of the locals give her hope for a new life. Then the wealthy owner arrives for the summer, forcing her out once more.

The World and the Woman takes a turn into faith-healing, a trend at the time, but what's distinctive about the film is the startlingly modern performance by Eagels. She grasped before many of her peers the power of silence, of reacting with just her eyes, of limiting movement to focus emotion. She understood how the camera worked, what it picked up and what it lost, and she used that knowledge to advance the craft of acting for everyone who followed. Eagels would later star in Rain and The Letter on Broadway, and in a sound version of The Letter before her sudden death. The World and the Woman ranks with her best filmed performances.