MoMA's 'To Save and Project' series unearths more film gems

ScreenerBlog

The 14th edition of the Museum of Modern Art's indispensable “To Save and Project” series (TSAP) runs this year Nov. 2-16. A survey of restoration projects from around the world, TSAP is an opportunity to explore the problems and possible solutions facing our cinematic heritage. The program also intersects with contemporary issues in unexpected ways.

The centerpiece of this year's TSAP is a 4K restoration of Night of the Living Dead (Nov. 5 & 12), undertaken with the participation of director George Romero and Image Ten, the film's original production company. Romero will attend the Nov. 5 screening.

For MoMA film curator Josh Siegel, co-organizer of the festival, Night of the Living Dead is an example of what TSAP does best: showcase work in danger of disappearing.

"It's a film that's been brutally abused over the last 48 years," he says by phone from his office. "This restoration is like seeing it for the first time. We were fortunate that Romero and Image 10 were able to hold onto the original camera negative all these years. The problem was, they didn't have any financial incentive to work on it, because they had lost the copyright to the film."

Siegel points to films in the public domain (like Night of the Living Dead), amateur films, home movies, films from developing countries, and especially independent films as being most at risk.

"Preservation and restoration is an unbelievably expensive process," Siegel notes. "Very few institutions can afford it. And for independent filmmakers, it's even more critical. Their pieces are often on hard drives that are literally deteriorating and costly to replace. So we always encourage independents to reach out to us so we can help them preserve their work now."

This year's TSAP highlights several of these at-risk categories, notably a program of Suzan Pitt's animated shorts (Nov. 14), "Orphans at MoMA" and the New York debut of Andy Warhol's Drunk (both Nov. 19).

Siegel admits that film preservation may seem too expensive to casual moviegoers. Universal's recent King of Jazz restoration was rumored to cost a million dollars.

"Do you know what Netflix's annual budget is for acquisitions and production?" he asks. "Five billion dollars a year. A year. So you can complain that the money spent on King of Jazz might have been used elsewhere, but the truth is it's chump change."

Siegel hasn't been convinced that crowdsourcing is a viable means of raising preservation funds, pointing out that contributors will gravitate to titles and filmmakers they know, instead of more challenging work.

"Face it, it's hard to raise production funds for experimental or independent filmmakers, let alone preservation money," he argues. "That's one of the reasons why we've been working with Twentieth Century Fox to systematically go through our nitrate collection of Fox titles to make sure we preserve unique materials. Like The Brat or Wild Girl. We try to include one or two of those titles a year in the festival."

This year's TSAP has works by master filmmakers like F.W. Murnau and John Ford, Murnau represented by his earliest surviving feature Der Gang in die Nacht (The Dark Road, Nov. 13 & 14), and Ford by the rarely seen romantic comedy The Brat (Nov. 6 & 17). The Murnau piece hints at the director's later mastery of mood and atmosphere in works like Nosferatu. The director would return to similarly bleak storylines in his Sunrise and Tabu.

The restoration of The Brat brings back into circulation every extant John Ford sound film. It's minor Ford, but as New Yorker critic Richard Brody pointed out after a screening, even minor Ford beats most filmmakers.

While the source material, a Maude Fulton stage play, shows it age, Ford clearly relished the opportunity to push sound technology, especially during an opening scene set in a Manhattan night court. It's filled with long tracking shots, daring overhead angles, and the tangents and digressions that would mark Ford's later storytelling. Just as Alan Mowbray stops the Wyatt Earp story in My Darling Clementine to deliver a Shakespeare soliloquy, in The Brat, Lena (Louise Mackintosh), a Broadway star well past her prime, turns her court appearance into performance art as she intones Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strain'd" to beat a shoplifting rap.

The festival opens with two Howard Hughes productions presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Cock of the Air (Nov. 2 & 6) restores some footage censored by the Hays office. A vehicle for the millionaire aviator's former mistress Billie Dove, it's a subpar Lubitsch knockoff set in a European Neverland of addled aristocrats and ugly Americans, champagne and plunging necklines.

Previously available only in dupe copies, The Front Page (Nov. 2 & 6) has been restored from a print found in Hughes' personal collection. Lewis Milestone employed a freely roaming camera and innovative sound techniques in adapting one of the great American plays to the screen. By happy coincidence, a new production of the Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur masterpiece has opened on Broadway.

Siegel thinks of the festival as a "deep dive" into archives around the world, a chance to flesh out lacunae but also to rediscover forgotten or little-known filmmakers.

Like Irvin V. Willat, who helped get Thomas Ince's great antiwar Civilization to screens in 1916. Willat directed the heavy-breathing 1919 melodrama Behind the Door (Nov. 20 & 21), a movie that simultaneously lionizes and condemns Germans during World War I. Restored through efforts by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Library of Congress and Gosfilmofund of Russia, the movie finds sailor Otto Kruger (played by Hobart Bosworth) giving up the sea for taxidermy when he falls for banker's daughter Alice Morse (Jane Novack, in real life some 30 years younger than her love interest). Both end up victims of a fiendish submarine commander played by Wallace Beery.

Several films in the festival deal with war and its collateral damage. Lights Out in Europe (Nov. 3 & 20) is a nonfiction look at Hitler's rise, written by James Hilton and directed by Herbert Kline.

"Only one print existed, and that was in our collection," Siegel explains. "We weren't even aware of it until Douglas Slocombe mentioned in an interview that it was a film that he had shot and always wanted to see." (Slocombe later shot films like Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

The extremely rare Die Russen kommen (The Russians Are Coming, Nov. 3 & 7) was reconstructed from a work print by East German director Heiner Carow's wife and editor, Evelyn. It deals with the closing days of World War II as the Russians advance on Germany.

In Die Letzte Chance (The Last Chance, Nov. 20 & 22), escaped POWs and refugees struggle through the Italian Alps for safety at the Swiss border. Shot on location, employing Italian, English, French and German dialogue, and starring real-life POWs, it is a remarkably polished and exciting production that deals directly with the same issues troubling Europe today. How many refugees can a country take in? What causes racial and religious hatred?

Boundaries, refugees and exploited workers also figure into works like Geschicte der Nacht (Story of the Night, Nov. 11 & 22), a wordless tour of Europe shot in black-and-white. Director Clemens Klopfenstein will introduce the Nov. 11 screening.

"I would add the Paul Meyer film Déjà s’envole la fleur maigre (From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom, Nov. 7 & 22) from Belgium," Siegel says. "In Neorealist fashion it focuses on Sicilian migrants in Borinage working as coal miners, as well as Greek and Yugoslav refugees. Think of the migratory patterns of North Africans to Italy now. You only have to look back to 1960 to see this all happening before."

Other films to look out for: Felix Feist's long-lost disaster-epic Deluge (Nov. 21), in which tidal waves unleashed by West Coast earthquakes destroy New York City; Robert Aldrich's brutal Depression-era saga Emperor of the North (Nov. 5 & 9) with Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine; and King Hu's Shan zhong zhuan qi (Legend of the Mountain, Nov. 4 & 9) in a three-hour director's cut.

And on Nov. 13 and 16, the festival will screen Jago Hua Savera (Day Shall Dawn), filmed in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1958. A stirring, sympathetic account of exploited fishermen, the movie links back to Murnau's Tabu with its extraordinary cinematography and heartfelt performances. Jago Hua Savera startled Western viewers when it screened at this year's Cannes Film Festival. A film this sophisticated and emotional should find a much wider audience. (It was also dropped from the recent Mumbai Film Festival due to political pressure.)

And it's movies like Jago Hua Savera that help make “To Save and Project” one of the pivotal film-going events of the year.