Archive for Masters of Cinema

Physical Media Storm

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2023 by dcairns

Here’s what we’ve been up to —

There’s the Sid Furie box set I’ve told you about — all the films are good but it’d be worth buying for THE BOYS IN COMPANY C alone. I’ve written two video essays for this release, one on Furie’s politics in these films, particularly sexual politics. This was my first time working for Imprint and it could not have gone more smoothly.

Less smooth was my first job for Radiance, but it turned out fine in the end. The essay is on Damiani’s HOW TO KILL A JUDGE and the Damiano Damiani-Franco Nero set comes out next month, which leaves me wondering why we were slaving on it over Christmas for a January delivery date. But such is the business.

And semi-finally there’s Buster Keaton’s THREE AGES, coming soon from Masters of Cinema. This one exploded from a single piece into four, as Fiona became a full-on Keaton obsessive so her part of the work grew to be as big as mine, and then we came across a charming essay Keaton wrote, or dictated, in 1924, and then actor friend Steven McNicoll put us in touch with Keaton devotee Ian Lavender, of Dad’s Army fame, and I interviewed him and that became another piece. All huge fun to think about and do.

We’re now in the thinking stage for the next one — there IS a thinking stage, I swear. Can’t tell you about it but it’s a classic — fair to say it sits higher up the cinephile hit parade than any of the films mentioned above.

All these projects were done with a new collaborator, Laura Wiggett, a recent graduate from the film course I teach on, and a joy to work with. She’s immediately been offered more work by Radiance, which is nice to see.

The Sunday Intertitle: The China/Vinegar Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 14, 2023 by dcairns

It’s a fraught business, speculating on the authenticity of intertitles, as we saw last week. I feel I’m on safer ground this time, but we’ll see.

Lobster pulled off the impossible when they restored the ending of HARD LUCK, a short Buster Keaton referred to as possessing the biggest laugh-getter of his career. Buster dives from a high board, misses the pool, and crashes through the earth, emerging years later with a Chinese family.

Accounts exist of how the stunt was performed, with Buster plunging into a carefully prepared hole, filled with sawdust and covered over with cardboard to simulate the poolside.

But sometimes between the twenties and the forties, the sequence went missing, evidently one of the few shorts not located in the safe James Mason found in the house he’d bought from Natalie Talmadge, Buster’s divorced wife (unless the house had an in-between owner, but I don’t think it did — by the thirties, the house was a white elephant, because nobody could afford it).

The gag was brought back to my attention at HippFest this year, when somebody remembered it as a rare example of Buster using animation (cf the elevator crashing through the roof in THE GOAT and the dinosaur in THREE AGES). This struck me as odd — Buster wouldn’t use special effects for anything he could possibly do physically, and anyway, we had the account in Rudi Blesh’s book.

Ace editor Stephen C. Horne and I pored over the shot, and he concluded that the figure of Buster which leaves the edge of the diving board is real… on its way down, however, it loses much of its form and flexibility. He becomes a sort of rigid brushstroke, arcing through the air. Yet the dusty impact looks detailed and real, if a little blurred.

Our conclusion was that the shot has been rather aggressively restored, to the extent of carving Buster’s outline from a vortex of nitrate decomposition. The immobile figures at poolside seem to have been cut and pasted from the start of the shot: they don’t follow Buster’s descent, which is what they’re supposed to be interested in. If we look at the following shots, showing Buster in Chinese attire, the damage is extreme, with the film warping and weaving like a belly dancer’s torso, so it seems plausible that extensive repairs were done on the dive itself.

I emailed Serge Bromberg at Lobster to ask about this, and he replied promptly, in the sense that he emailed me back without delay, but in another sense he didn’t reply — he didn’t answer my question about the extent of the restoration.

Regardless of how much creative reconstruction was done — and I can agree that making the shot readable had to be a priority — there’s something else that was done that I think was a mistake: the sequence has two rather suspect intertitles:

Since Buster prided himself on using as few titles as he possibly could, it seems inconceivable to me that he would have accepted these clunky and redundant statements. It SEEMS obvious to me that these were written when the film’s ending was lost, in order to make the film feel vaguely complete. Of course, as we’ve seen, judging the authenticity of title cards based on the style of writing is a dicey business. If these titles were also found on the ending Lobster recovered, that would be strong evidence for their authenticity. If they weren’t, why would Serge’s team have included them? Well, assuming the recovered ending came from a foreign print, it might not have had accurate intertitles to use as a basis.

But these lame bits of commentary smack of later authorship to me. One is a self-spoiling announcement preceding the jump, a lumbering kind of approach to screen narration that went out of fashion shortly after the Edison FRANKENSTEIN. You won’t find another example of that elsewhere in Keaton’s oeuvre. And the other, though slightly more credible, is unnecessary and weird, filling in for something visual that Keaton could have shown if he’d wanted. Again, there are no examples of Keaton using title card as a substitute for something too difficult to represent. One can imagine a title used instead of action for humorous purposes, but this one isn’t even trying to be funny.

The “He’s gone so far…” title seems less obnoxious, but I still think it’s doing more harm than good. The phrasing is awkward (a bad translation?) but also it forestalls the obvious inference that Buster is dead. The film starts with Buster trying to commit suicide so raising the possibility of his demise here is structurally useful. And Keaton, who ends COPS with his character’s gravestone, wasn’t someone to shy away from darkness. The transition from “He’s dead” to “He fell through the earth to China” is much funnier — because more sudden — than what we get when a title informs us that “He’s gone so far we can barely see him.” (Also: “we”? That’s rotten dialogue. Why would one member oif the group inform the others of what they can see?)

Couple of bits of info gathered online:

“HARD LUCK has been restored by Lobster Films in collaboration with Film Preservation Associates, from a 35mm safety dupe negative and a 24mm ozaphane Cinelux print in the Lobster films collection. Some short fragments were added from a nitrate print from the Cineteca Italiana, a 35mm safety fine grain from the Cinémathèque Française and a 9.5mm print from a private collector. Intertitles are reconstructed according to the font of the time, based on translation of original French cards.”

Well, “the font of the time” is likely a bit of a porky pie, according to Shadowplayer Alex Kirstukas’ analysis of MOONSHINE’s titles. Lobster seem to use approximately period-looking fonts rather than the real thing. And it seems ALL the source prints were foreign, so we’re not going to get the exact wording.

“First reconstructed in 1987 by Kevin Brownlow & David Gill.”

The 1987 cut.

This could be when the now-redundant titles crept in, I think, as Brownlow & Gill had the impossible task of reconstructing a film whose ending was missing. Adding these lines would make it appear that the film was over, sort of, and would represent the absent jump.

Ah-hah! YouTube holds the answer!

The title “From the Raymond Rohauer Archive” suggests the origin of the offending titles. Although the second now appears as “He is so far away you can hardly see him,” which at least is better than Lobster’s phrasing. It makes sense that Rohauer, who was famous for swapping titles in order to assert copyright, and not for his comic genius as a writer, would be the man responsible. And that Lobster, who seem to be a little unreliable with intertitles, would make the mistake of porting the Rohauer cards over. There would be no reason to mistrust their authenticity apart from the fact that they’re BAD.

What remains unknown is whether the Brownlow and Gill Photoplay restoration used the same titles.

Another weird thing is that the first version I could find on YouTube doesn’t have the first, particularly wrong title, but my Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema does. Somebody else had become suspicious… And here’s a 2001 version, also from Lobster, with more variant intertitles. You’d think, if authenticity had been achieved, it would be more stable.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2022 by dcairns

From Criterion, Terry Gilliam’s THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, from Masters of Cinema THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI in 4K.

For Criterion, I got together with ace editor Chase Barthel to make a video essay charting the long and one would have to say STORIED history of Baron Von Munchhausen from real-life figure to literary character, illustration subject, movie star and even radio dialect comedian. Huge fun to do, allowing me to mess about with Mssrs. Méliès, Cohl, Zeman and Von Baky, as well as Cruikshank, Rowlandson and Gustave Doré.

CALIGARI is an upgrade from the earlier Blu-ray and ports over my earlier video essay edited by Timo Langer.

Another, smaller (but choice) Criterion announcement to follow soon.