Memory, Images, History
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Blog posting written by Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
Driving down the L.A. freeway to Westwood in a persistent drizzle, I was wondering whether audiences would melt away for our screening of Jack Hill’s COFFY (1973), starring Pam Grier. The Director-Screenwriter had agreed to participate in a Q & A between a double bill which was to end with CLEOPATRA JONES (1975), both films a part of a film series I was curating with my colleague Allyson Fields for the Billy Wilder Theater: “Paint It Black: Revisiting Blaxploitation and African American Cinema in the 1970s.”
COFFY was the mega hit that initiated the cycle of blaxploitation films featuring super strong African American women, a cycle primarily carried by Pam Grier, but also including Patricia Dobson (CLEO JONES), and Vonetta McGee (THOMASINE AND BUSHROD, 1974), while Haile Gerima (BUSH MAMA, 1975) and Jamaa Fanaka (EMMA MAE, 1976) provided self-conscious critiques of the subgenre from the independent fringes. Pam Grier’s gun-slinging, hard-loving, overly sexualized “mamas” offered an antidote to the pliant sex kittens of SUPER FLY (1972) and other films of that ilk. Yet, despite its liberal, anti-racist and proto-feminist intentions, COFFY was an AIP exploitation film and is consequently riddled with overt sexism (large doses of nudity) and unconscious racism, including a profuse use of racist epithets and visual stereotypes.
Back when I was Director of the Munich Filmmuseum, which operated an art cinema seven days a week, I was interviewed by the largest Munich paper, which on the morning of the article’s publication plastered newsstand poster boards with my quote: “Kino ist ein Pokerspiel” (Film programming is like a poker game). You never know what is going to hit and what is going to miss… When I got to the theater, my worst fears proved substantiated. The audience was small. Nevertheless, I soldiered on and looked up Jack’s credits to prep for my intro.
Ten minutes before show time, my cinema manager, Tim, asked me to come into the lobby, where I found Pam Grier waiting. I’m too old to faint, but my faced betrayed such astonishment that her press agent had to take a picture of my befuddlement, as I stammered what a huge fan I had been for decades. So, about fifty lucky audience members got to see Pam Grier give an energetic and entertaining intro to the film and her recently published autobiography, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts. Far from being the ghetto child of her films, Pam grew up on a range in Wyoming, where she learned to hunt, fish and do a man’s job. She’s a cancer survivor, which she says has changed her whole outlook on life. She took a couple questions, in which she stressed the value of education, then disappeared into the misty night from which she had come.
After the screening of COFFY, Jack Hill’s opening remark on stage was that he wasn’t sure he had discovered Pam (which he did when he cast her in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, 1971) or she had discovered him. He’s a UCLA man, a fellow student of Francis Ford Coppola and a Roger Corman alumnus. Hill corrected an error in her supposedly “ghost written” autobiography, namely that COFFY was originally written for a white actress, which it wasn’t. Hill specifically wrote the role for Pam and characterized her as one of the hardest working actresses he knows, but also noted that there was still a large amount of racism around the studios and that producers resisted casting an African American woman in the lead. She was a professional from the moment she walked on the set as a novice.
So the bottom of the bill started horribly late, something you try to avoid in the cinema business, but a select audience had gotten a real show. Driving back to Pasadena on the freeway, as the drizzle started again, I decided that for me personally as a film historian-programmer, getting a hug from Pam Grier was a moment to remember, like the time Audrey Hepburn pecked me on the cheek or a nearly 100 year old Lilian Gish sat with me during a screening in a red velvet dress that could have been as old as she.
Monday, September 27, 2010
Post written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
My dad was a concentration camp survivor, incarcerated in Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg. A great uncle of mine was executed by the Nazis at Plötzensee in 1941. As a child growing up in Chicago, I wasn’t aware of these facts, but I did know that leaving food on your plate lead to major family crises and spoiled food in the fridge meant my mother had hell to pay.
Not surprisingly maybe, one of my careers has been as a Holocaust scholar, writing not only my dissertation, but also numerous essays and reviews about the cinematic depiction of the Nazi terror. As a graduate student, I free-lanced as a film archive researcher for films, like Edgar Reitz’s HEIMAT, searching for images of war and persecution. How does one depict the Holocaust in images without exploiting audiences or succumbing to a tourism of evil? How real are images of the Holocaust?
These questions arose again watching Yael Hersonski’s new documentary, A FILM UNFINISHED (2010), which rightly questions the veracity of archive images that have been used repeatedly in Holocaust documentaries. Some of these images come from an unreleased documentary, shot by German Army Propaganda Company cameramen in the Warsaw ghetto in May 1942, simply called “Das Ghetto,” and discovered after the war in the archives. Hersonski argues that these moving images are tainted, because they are a) staged, and b) cut together to make the ideological point that wealthy Jews were exploiting poor Jews. While both facts are undoubtedly true, the filmmaker’s larger argument runs into trouble.
Hersonski analyzses each reel of the film, intercutting the hour long original documentary with interviews of Warsaw ghetto survivors, as well as wholly fictional scenes of a German cameraman being interviewed for a court proceeding and more obviously fictional scenes of the Jewish mayor reading from his diary, which ends with his suicide, as the deportations began in June 1942. Although based on court transcripts, the “post war” footage has not been identified fictional in the film. The oddly cryptic remarks by the cameraman reinforce the notion that this perpetrator not only denies culpability, but is also engaging in a cover-up. And while this may again have been true, it is not proven through the recreation.
The filmed interviews with survivors are also problematic, because the director has decided to capture his subjects while they watch the original footage from THE GHETTO. Since these survivors are all at least 80 plus years old, the “memories” they reproduce are naturally only descriptions of the footage they have just seen. In other words, they corroborate the truth value of the footage, even though it is virtually certain that these survivors were not direct witnesses to the filming; instead they probably felt pressured to “bear witness” as the last survivors to the Holocaust. Or is the point that the survivors continually look away, because the material is too grim to bear?
Does shooting multiple takes actually negate the truth value of documentary footage, when in fact documentary filmmakers going all the way back to Louis Lumière have shot multiple takes and directed their “actors” to move through a scene? Does it matter that the original edit was ideological, if individual shots have been repurposed in a wholly different manner? To her credit, Yael Hersonski keeps pointing to film as a constructed medium, cutting away to the projector, to the reels in the archive, to the process of film construction, so we understand that all images are ideologically ambiguous without context.
Finally, even if the original footage was staged, the images were shot in the Warsaw ghetto, as others have testified. Thus, we see real people who are dying of starvation or are already dead and lying in the street. The horrific images of corpses sliding down a shoot into a mass grave also cannot be perceived as anything but real. Is their truth value really lessened by the knowledge that it was the perpetrators holding the camera? For me, the actual epiphany was that these shots of mass graves in Warsaw in 1942, shot before the systematic annihilation of European Jewry in Auschwitz, was not the work of Allied cameramen liberating the camps, as I had always previously supposed.
Finally, it is clear to me that the Nazis suppressed the film, just as they shelved a similar film shot in 1944 in Teresienstadt and known for decades as THE FÜHRER GIVES THE JEWS A CITY, because the last thing Joseph Goebbels wanted the world to see was visual evidence of genocide.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive, UCLA, Los Angeles
Held in Hollywood at the Academy Film Archive’s Linwood Dunn Theater, the 25th iteration of “The Reel Thing” proved to be as innovative and thought provoking as the first, back in October 1995. Indeed, thanks to its two originators and tireless organizers, Grover Crisp and Michael Friend, both of Sony Pictures, “The Reel Thing” has provided us with a seamless documentation of the technological revolution of moving image archiving from the mostly analog era of the mid 1990s to our decidedly digital present in 2010.
That bridge from the analog to the digital was illustrated most convincingly at “The Reel Thing” (2008), when “First Sounds” software programmers digitized charcoal voice recordings, which not even their inventor could playback. Suddenly, through digital technology we clearly heard a voice from an analog imprint, a “phonautogram,” recorded in 1857, thus pre-dating Thomas Edison’s first sound recordings by decades. Check out the website at firstsounds.org
At The Reel Thing just ended, another technologist proposed to capture the electronic data from magnetic media, e.g. 2” Quad video tapes, without using a conventional tape head that puts stress on the tape, but rather by “reading” data on the tape. Possibly more importantly, if this technology proves to work (actual results are still forthcoming), it would eliminate the need to archive all videotape hardware, presently required to access obsolete tape formats. I’m filled with utter admiration at the way Grover and Michael seem to effortlessly wrangle professional colleagues at the cutting edge of new preservation and archiving technologies.
Initially organized as a pre-conference event at the Toronto AMIA conference, “The Reel Thing” has been a part of every conference of the Association since then, but has also traveled to Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, and Bologna. The Association of Moving Image Archivists, but especially its brave office staff, have been an incredibly important support for what is essentially a volunteer effort on everyone’s part.
I can’t remember how many Reel Things I‘ve attended over the past twelve years, but enough to know that every visit has paid off. The consistently illuminating reports from the mostly for profit world of studios and commercial preservation vendors, have shown me the challenges of a technological landscape, which I’m forced to negotiate from the perspective of a poor, non-profit archive. The intellectual exchanges between a community of like-minded but not always agreeing practitioners have been just as important.
The opening night this year featured a 4 K digital projection of an 8 K scan of Dr. Zhivago (1965). Two further evening screenings of new preservation projects, Fantasia (1940) and The Fly (1985) were supplemented by a midday screening of an early Frank Capra silent, accompanied brilliantly by Alan Stark, normally a mild-mannered technologist. On the more serious side, a significant number of presenters discussed ever more efficient algorithms for digital clean ups or faced specific problems in the digitization of films from degraded film preservation masters. Other highlights: Ralph Sargent, whose career goes back decades, gave two extremely informative lectures on the history of optical film sound and early videotape recorders, respectively. Rita Belda discussed Columbia’s historical exhibition strategy in the transition to sound film, as reflected in surviving nitrate elements from 1928-31. Theo Gluck and his team of preservationists introduced a whole program of Disney digital restorations. And Andrea Kalas discussed innovative survey techniques at Paramount to assess the condition of movable digital media. Not the most exciting of topics, especially to outsiders, but certainly just as necessary for our field, if we are to successfully preserve ever more moving image media in the digital realm.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive
Last the Fall I wrote a blog about my professional mentors who had influenced me while I was a student. Since completing my PhD. more than 25 years ago, I have become a mentor to many of my own students. They are in many ways my proudest accomplishment. Publishing a book or restoring a film has nothing on the emotional kick I have gotten watching some of my students grow, develop, and succeed. I’m incredibly proud of them, like a mother hen with her brood.
Two of my former students are now themselves moving image archive directors with PhDs. Claude Bertemes has been the Director of the Cinémathque Luxembourg since 1997. He took a seminar with me as an undergraduate thirty years ago when I was at the beginning of my teaching career, myself still a doctoral candidate. He recently confessed to me that he was not very happy with the grade he received in my “Photography as Communication” seminar. Hayden Guest was my student at the School of Theater, Film & Television at UCLA ten years ago; He’s been Director of the Harvard Film Archive since 2006, where he has revitalized that institution. One of my interns, Dr. Sabine Lenk, was Director of the Düsseldorf Filmmusuem. And I guess I can take credit for training Dott. Paolo Cherchi Usai, whose illustrious film archive career spans three continents.
Among my UCLA Moving Image Archives students, many are ensconced in various film and digital archives, including: Karen Barcelona (Academy Film Archive), Gillian Borders (UCLA), Robert Dirig (Art Center Pasadena), Melissa Dollman (Schlesinger Library, Harvard), Zac Fink (Film Technologies), Dave Gibson (Library of Congess), May Haduong (Academy Film Archive), Benji Harry (Cooperstown), Steven Hill (UCLA Film & Television Archive), Leah Kerr (Mayme Clayton Library), Chris Lane (MGM), Oki Miyano (Kurosawa Project), Stephanie Sapienza (LA Filmforum), Amy Sloper (Harvard Film Archive), Julio Vera (Academy Film Archive).
There is a whole cohort of former graduate students from the University of Rochester who hold a special place in my heart. All of them took my film historiography seminar in the early 1990s, and are now themselves professors.
We’ve tried to get together regularly at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference: Mark Lynn Anderson is a tenured professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of numerous articles and the forthcoming Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920's America. Mark Betz is a lecturer at King’s College, London, and recently published, Beyond the Subtitle: Remapping European Art Cinema (2009). Heather Hendershot is a Professor at Queens College, presently the editor of Cinema Journal, and the author of Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation before the V-Chip (1998) and Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (2004). Amanda Howell is senior lecturer in media studies at Griffith University in Australia and has written widely on popular film and music. Laura U. Marks is Dena Wosk University Professor in Art and Culture Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and internationally known film programmer. She is the author of The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (2000) and Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (2002). Maggie McCarthy is an Associate Professor of German at Davidson College, and edited Light Motives: German Popular Film in Perspective.
Then, there are my more recent UCLA students, many of whom have now completed their PhDs. and have gotten their first or second teaching jobs: Jun Okada is an Assistant Professor at SUNY Geneseo; Michael Baskett is an Associate Professor at University of Kansas; Paul Macolm is a film programmer at UCLA Film & Television Archive; Ross Melnick is spending this next year on a post doc at Emory University; Qi Wang teaches at Georgia Institute of Technology. Lindy Leong is teaching at SUNY Purchase. Others completing their PhD.s include Snowden Becker (co-founder of Home Movie Day, UT, Austin), Emily Carmen (UCLA), Andrey Gordienko UCLA), Bill McClain (USC), Doron Galili (University of Chicago), Mary Samuelson (UCLA), Pauline Stakelon (UC Santa Barbara) and Noah Webster (UC Santa Barbara).
Sorry, if I forgot anyone.
Am I bragging? You bet I am.
I do hope to see a lot more students make good before I hang up my mortarboard.
Friday, July 2, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive
21 June, 10 AM, which happens to be 1 AM (California time), according to my body clock, and I’m standing in front of a group of eager film students. We are doing a one week academic seminar in and around PEOPLE ON SUNDAY to prepare five German film students (from the IFS) and five American film students from UCLA to spend the next five weeks making a film, which will be a portrait of Cologne, the way PEOPLE was a portrait of Berlin in 1929.
We start with an initial discussion of the film, made by Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer, Robert and Curt Siodmak, Eugene Schuefftan, Fred Zinnemann, and Seymour Nebenzahl, all of whom were exiled from Germany in 1933 and had high profile (or less substantial) Hollywood careers. Along with Prof. Dr. Gundolf Freyermuth (IFS) and Dr. Lisa Gotto (IFS), we discuss the incredible modernity of MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG, given its non-plot and hand-held camera, its amateur actors and documentary views of a vibrant city.
Next, I lecture on German speaking Jewish exiles in Hollywood, in order to provide a context for the week’s work to follow. As I told the students, over 1500 writers, directors, producers and other film workers were forced to leave Berlin, due to Hitler’s anti-Semitic blacklist. Interestingly, neither the German nor American students had any idea that some of Hollywood’s most famous directors were German born.
Screening Robert Siodmak’s CRY OF THE CITY (1948), starring Victor Mature, we see a film noir, but also a city film about New York. As we discover, Siodmak actually remade a shot from PEOPLE ON SUNDAY in CRY OF THE CITY. A productive discussion follows about the film’s moral ambiguity, so unlike American classical Hollywood narrative and so much like German films from the 1920s.
Our second day starts with my seminar on the history of the Weimar film industry, in order to place the production of PEOPLE ON SUNDAY into the proper historical context for the students. I’m surprised that most of the German film students know as little about Weimar cinema and history as the American students. Prof. Freyermuth lectures on documentary film, fiction film and what he termed “faction” film, the hybrid form that we are seeing with ever increasing frequency in the digital age. Lisa Gotto screens Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR (1945), a classic film noir which fits into our thread on the makers of PEOPLE ON SUNDAY.
Wednesday’s lectures start with my presentation on American film noir and the role of German émigré directors, like Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Edgar G. Ulmer in creating that genre. In fact, we can see a direct connection between the crime films of the German Expressionist cinema and the American private eye movie in the work of these directors that goes beyond high contrast lighting and oblique camera angles to an atmosphere of dark fatalism and despair.
Gotto then lectures on the role of the city and urban space in not only German films, but also American films from the 1940s to the 1990s, ending with a recent rap video. Next, we screen Bill Wilder’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948), a film that takes place in Berlin after World War II and features many location shots of Berlin in ruins.
On my final morning, Prof. Freyermuth lectures on stereotypical images of Germany and America, as found in the autobiographies of German émigrés in Hollywood. This is important for the students, because German American teams will have to work together on their films of Cologne in the coming weeks, so they need to know what kind of cultural prejudices each side is bringing to the project. Next, I lectured on German and European avant-garde films from the 1920s, since PEOPLE ON SUNDAY must be seen not only in the context of the Weimar film industry, but also in the context of the avant-garde, since it was made and released expressly as an independent and avant-garde film.
In the afternoon, we screen Billy Wilder’s ONE TO THREE (1961), another film about Berlin, but produced at the point when the Berlin wall was being constructed. It is a screamingly funny comedy about a Coca Cola executive in Berlin, winning the war the way we know best: with American consumer goods.
Now the students have to discuss their ideas for projects. I can’t wait to see the films.