Orphan Film Symposium reveals hidden wonders

ScreenerBlog

There he is, perhaps the greatest mind of the 20th century, sitting in a rattletrap flivver with his wife, apparently driving past Niagara Falls. No, they're speeding down a city street at a breakneck pace. Somehow they're flying over an airfield. Now their car's in a nightclub with dancing showgirls.

It's all part of a gag reel put together at Warner Bros./First National soundstages in Los Angeles to celebrate a 1931 visit by Albert and Elsa Einstein. The two sit placidly through the three-minute clip, sometimes glancing at the camera, sometimes smiling at the incongruous scenes back-projected behind them.

A celebrity everywhere he went, Einstein, who couldn't drive and who at the time didn't speak English, was uncomfortable with attention. He agreed to be filmed only if Warners wouldn't try to publicize his visit. As newspapers reported at the time, the studio gave a copy of the film to the Einsteins as a souvenir, then destroyed the master negative.

Never screened for the public, it disappeared from view for over 80 years, until archivist Becca Bender discovered it in a home-movie collection stored at Lincoln Center. Wednesday night, April 11, it received its premiere during the 11th Orphan Film Symposium at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY.

The biennial symposium is an opportunity for archivists, historians, academics and filmmakers from around the world to meet and discuss problems and trends in film scholarship, and not incidentally to watch the latest restorations from museums and archives like the Library of Congress, UCLA, EYE and Cineteca Nacional México.

This year's edition, like the ten previous, focused on films, video and ephemera that are hard to categorize. Shorts, features, educational films, industrial films, travelogues, propaganda, animation, public-service announcements, commercials, religious programming, trailers, home movies, even computer programs—the symposium treats them all as equally important parts of our moving-image heritage.

These are films that have largely been discarded or abandoned, hence the "orphan" umbrella. Rights may have lapsed, companies dissolved, ownership become uncertain, or families might lack the funds to store and preserve their holdings. Who is responsible for the hundreds of titles distributed by Thomas Edison's studio back in the early years of the 20th century? Or newsreels from Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists?

Even films that have been archived properly may be hard for the public to see, like the hundreds of commercials, live-action shorts, corporate films and non-"Sesame Street" television shows made by Jim Henson. Karen Falk, director of archives for The Jim Henson Company, and Craig Shemin, president of The Jim Henson Legacy, showcased some of his work on opening night, including his Oscar-nominated 1965 short Time Piece and a slew of eight-second commercials for companies like Wilkins Coffee and Kern's Bread. An uproarious ad for LaChoy Chow Mein preceded outtakes and end-reel gag shots of Henson and colleagues like Frank Oz sabotaging sets and puppets.

Falk and Shemin are trying to make these films accessible through YouTube channels and the official Henson website. But Shemin pointed out the problems he faces restoring material like "Youth '68," a live-action documentary Henson made for NBC TV. Since the original master videotape is missing, it's been difficult to reassemble Henson's interviews with musicians from The Mamas & the Papas and Jefferson Airplane. Reconstructing Henson's video effects has also been frustrating.

On Friday night, Chen Biqiang of the China Film Archive showed a restoration-in-progress, Laogon zhi aiqing (Laborer's Love, or Romance of a Fruit Peddler). A 20-minute short directed by Zhang Sichuan in 1922, it is the earliest surviving Chinese feature. A romantic comedy set among Shanghai street vendors, it is a delightful, sophisticated piece that uses characters and slapstick action similar to those found in Asian films to this day.

Paula Félix-Didier, director of the Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken in Buenos Aires, and one of the people instrumental in restoring an expanded version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, came to the symposium with André Levinson, from the Universidad de Buenos Aires. They screened La Fiera Domada, a reconstruction of the 1916 William S. Hart western The Aryan. Produced by Thomas Ince and shot on location by renowned cinematographer Joseph August, it is a fascinating western with a troubling, violent storyline in part about sexual enslavement. With stunning close-ups of Hart and his co-star Bessie Love (in one of her first major roles), The Aryan predicts the western anti-hero that became a mainstay of films by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. The version released to South American markets has puzzling inconsistencies that the archivists are still untangling.

Dan Streible, director of the symposium and associate professor of cinema studies at New York University, noted how the treatment of orphan films has changed over the years. "When people began to pay attention to orphan films, most archives' policies were conservative," he said before Friday night's screenings. "They wouldn't want a copy of something in their archive circulating the world without some oversight as to how it was being used.

"But now everyone has a YouTube channel. Big institutions and small institutions. Movie consumption today is so heavily driven by instantaneous digital access. In a weird way, all these rediscovered orphans, like the Einstein movie, have an immediate audience."

Funding is a constant problem for archivists and filmmakers alike. The Einstein film, for example, was found with some 150 home movies from the Godowsky family. Leopold Godowsky, Jr., a musician and inventor, was the son of a famous pianist and composer who had befriended Einstein. The scientist appears in some of the home movies, along with Arturo Toscanini, Leon Trotsky, and Godowsky's wife, Frances Gershwin, the sister of George and Ira. On top of that, Godowsky and his partner Leopold Mannes invented Kodachrome, adding to the movies' cultural and scientific significance.

No one would want to see these movies lost, but who should pay for their scanning and preservation? Or for those shot by Walther Barth, who worked for Agfa in Germany and Binghamton? His depiction of pre-Nazi landscapes is both artful and chilling.

Complementing Barth's films were those shot by Robert Gessner, an author and screenwriter who toured Europe and the Middle East in 1934. Introduced by Lindsay Zarwell, an archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Gessner's films documented the rise of anti-Semitism for the American public. Two years later, he wrote about the Nazi threat in Some of My Best Friends Are Jews. Zarwell describes the restoration progress on a YouTube short, while some of Gessner's films can be screened on the Holocaust Memorial Museum's website.

The earliest film shown at this symposium was a Selig release from 1898, Something Good—Negro Kiss. In it, Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle, members of Brewer & Suttle's Rag-Time Four, share an affectionate kiss in a single shot noteworthy for its lack of racial animus. Dino Everett screened it on a hand-cranked Pathoscope projector from 1918, while pianist Steven Horne accompanied the movie with one of Suttle's compositions, "That Creole Gal of Mine."

The newest film was Love in Dimension 150 by Brooklyn-based animator Danielle Ash. Taking a 70mm print of John Huston's The Bible, Ash manipulated the film with bleach and then hand-scratched animated figures onto Huston's Adam and Eve sequence. Ash estimates that she worked on some 5,760 frames. In true orphan fashion, the film was screened once and may never be shown again.

Ash is currently animating sequences for The Girl with the Rivet Gun, a documentary about women in the workforce during World War II. And on May 5, HBO will be screening the premiere of her animation for "Sesame Street," a counting film on the number four.

Some of the best-received films during the Jim Henson segment the previous night were his own counting films, especially his bright, pulsating short on the number eight. Ash built cardboard cutouts for her film, while Henson painted on glass and film, added stop-motion and time-lapse cinematography, and threw in a wonderful pratfall to top it off.

One of the things that makes the Orphan Film Symposium so valuable is how it ties together artists, cultures and formats over generations, like Henson and Ash. Or Angela Murray, a traveling lecturer and camerawoman, with Stevan Labudovic, a cinematographer who shot footage for Yugoslavian strongman Josip Braz Tito. Mingling a whimsical short like Blackie the Wonder Horse Swims the Golden Gate with work by more famous filmmakers like Todd Haynes helps viewers grasp a wider world of moving images.

The next symposium will take place in 2020.