By Julian Ross
With the recent announcement of a partnership between Eye Film Institute and the National Film Preservation Foundation to preserve early American films previously considered lost, the Orphan Film Symposium found a welcome temporary residence in Amsterdam for their first voyage out of the United States. Now in its 9th edition since 1999, the Orphan Film Symposium has been a biannual gathering of archivists, academics and artists under the auspices of NYU’s Dan Streible for the purposes to share and discuss projects related to “orphan films”. Rather than the legal definition of “orphan films” as films without a copyright holder, the symposium opts for an inclusive categorisation that encompasses a range of works that are neglected to varying degrees. Although the loose approach doesn’t help clarify a definition, it certainly gives visibility to works forgotten, unknown or set aside from the privileged space reserved for film history and allows for welcome diversity. After all, orphans each have their own stories to tell and individual histories to share distinct from other narratives of neglect. And it is these stories that made the event special.
Dutch-animator Maarten Visser was one such film orphan whose abstract animations have been a subject of a preservation project at the Eye Film Institute. Donated by his family after his passing in 2009, over fifty short films made from the early 1960s shot in his spare time between teaching classes as a teacher of Old Languages made their way to Eye’s collection. Apart from a handful of festival and private screenings, Visser had kept his films to himself yet will most likely be posthumously revered as a visual poet on par with Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren, both of whom he greatly admired. Visser arranged mosaic stones onto a grid-like alignment and the patterns painted onto the individual cubes together create waves onscreen. Despite the artisanal approach made explicit with the lines that individually separate the stones, the patterns are set in motion with such fluidity that the result is tranquil, sitting itself somewhere between swimming textiles and raining pixels. Although originally silent, Eye recognised the potential for Visser’s work to evoke a range of moods by commissioning students of NYU’s Film Scoring Program to produce two versions of original film music for each film. Although their assertive characters mostly caused distractions, the music accompaniments at least highlighted the timeless nature of Visser’s films – visual poetry with enunciations that vary depending on the reader.
Eye’s Chief Curator Giovanna Fossati who introduced their restorations of early colour films also implemented comparative analysis in describing their forthcoming Color Fantastic project. Fossati showed two restoration versions of A Pretty Dutch Town (1910), a portrait of Dordrecht in the Netherlands, one with stencil-colour and the other digitally enhancing the original tinting, proposing the effectiveness of digital restoration. Digital restoration of colour was also the strategy embraced by Deutsches Kinemathek for the restoration of 1930s Gasparcolor Films (1933-41). Gasparcolor involved three colour-separation exposures and was a subtractive colour separation process that produced rich colours but the density of the filters and low sensitivity of the film stock meant it was better suited for animation, which included works by Len Lye and Oskar Fischinger, whose film Pink Guards on Parade was shown newly restored and edited according to the magnetic soundtrack found in Academy Film Archives. Whereas Deutsches Kinemathek looked at to fixing errors, the independent project by Walter Forsberg & John Klacsmann found creative potential in mistakes. A Technicolor dye transfer printing error was used as a site of uncanny resurrections of ghosts that haunt a B-movie Western in Technicolor NG (2014) presented by Walter Forsberg & John Klacsmann themselves as a 16mm live projection performance (see details here). If accurately processed, the colour transfer involved transferring subtractive dyes in succession onto a single strand print stock but misprints produce ghostly colour-shadows that haunt the characters on screen. Forsberg & John Klacsmann heightened the print’s unnerving characteristic by distorting the audio with voices stretched into eerie echoes.
The subject of decay was on the back of our minds with the screening of Fox Movietone’s Egyptian (Whirling Dervishes) Dancers (1928), introduced by Bill Morrison, whose landmark film Decasia (2002) used part of the news-film to bookend his film on the poetry that can be found in nitrate deterioration. Yet Eye’s restoration project ‘Hacking Bart Vegter’ showed it was not only film stock that required archival attention with their preservation of computer-based abstract animations by Bart Vegter. An electronic engineer who worked for Shell and Philips, Dutch animator Vegter used self-written programs to produce shifting patterns of dots, lines and colours that float and flicker in psychedelic motion (fragments of Vegter’s work can be viewed here). Eye unearthed an incomplete project by Vegter that he had been working on before his passing in 2011 that recalled Colors (Cory Arcangel, 2006), a dissection of Dennis Hopper’s Colors (1988) into rows of pixels that are individually vertically stretched onscreen (see here). The presentation at the symposium by glitch artist Evan Meaney also confirmed that digital is most certainly not a safe terrain by demonstrating its own particular set of fragilities and decay processes based on codes that could be even more cumbersome to restore than film stock. Apparently Meaney is working on a digital diversion of Morrison’s Decasia that, although on what means and how was left unclear, seemed to involve continuing the process of resurrection onto a digital platform.
Bill Morrison premiered an orphan of his own archive, La Trochita (Narrow Gauge) (2014), a film edited from Super 8 footage from the 80s and 90s he recovered after he went into his basement to save his films in the aftermath of flooding caused by heavy rainfall in New York last May. The bulk of the footage was shot on a narrow gauge railway in Patagonia, Argentina, that Morrison was encouraged to visit after attending a film festival in the area. The poetic travelogue is sensual in its resurrection of personal memory as Morrison sifts through material he had forgotten he had shot to recollect images that once were and feelings once felt. The presentation coincided with the Helen Hill Award held in memoriam of the animator Helen Hill whose own films were a subject of her own rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans (see her DIY filmmaking manual Recipes for Disaster here). The award was presented to Werner Nekes who showed Start (1966), restored by Eye and Deutsche Kinemathek, that he described to have been made out of a desire to see the screen as a field onto which he can walk. Reminding me of David Halls’ Vertical (1969, watch here), Nekes’ Start plays with our perceptual assumptions to remind us of illusionary nature of onscreen depth – something Nekes is clearly also invested in for his collection of optical toys. Nekes was also present at the event to chart the history of seeing and technology from the 16th century to pre- and early cinema by talking through a selection of these he brought with him that ranged from pull-out books, beehive paintings and Marchel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema flat disks that were made on a limited run of 500 so buyers can spin it like a LP onto a record player. Other formats experimented before the standardization of audiovisual media were showcased with Paul Spehr’s introduction to Biograph Films, “an orphan of the form,” with the 68mm format now unused but once popular in the 19th century for the enormity of its image. The most remarkable obsolete formats was the first Polish amateur film camera in the form of OKO (1914), a 12cm film with vertical and horizontal perforation where one row of frames delineated one second.
An engagement with pre-cinema toys of perception corresponded strongly with the theme of the symposium, ‘The Future of Obsolescence,’ that was tackled by Thomas Elsaesser in his keynote speech. According to Elsaesser, one primary role of the archive was to chart the history of perception in ways that allow for plural entry points beyond the ordering the past favoured in the causal narrative of history. As succession and sequence continues to be privileged in a capitalist system, Elsaesser championed obsolescence as the ‘badass rebel’ as it enters a new currency where retro and vintage are revived as the avant-garde for today’s future. Elseasser cited film as an ‘obsolete’ form revived and appropriated in recent museum installations as one incarnation resulting from the climate of reclaiming the discarded. Elsewhere in the symposium, theme of obsolescence was most poetically evoked in Fox Movietone’s self-explanatory Radio Bonfire (1929) and most innovatively stated in the Argentine amateur animation group the Can Can Club’s charming Teclopolis (2009) where a vision of a keyboard-city inhabited by discarded objects are attacked by computer mice yet new media forms fail to survive a natural flood (watch here).
The discarded film as an unexpected site of creativity was discussed in Matt Soar’s Lost Leaders Project where film leaders are used as raw material for short film and interactive online experiments (see here). Soar has been collecting the physical beginnings and ends of film reels that, although usually concealed from the audience, provide us with valuable insights into the material production with markings and notes handwritten by the film processers. Karen Cariani of WGBH Archive also called attention for the restoration of outtakes, where she cited their discovery of an outtake involving Barack Obama giving a public speech during a protest calling for hiring women of colour into tenure positions at Harvard Law School. Similarly, Columbia’s TV documentary series Yuupari, shot on 16mm between 1980-83, presents in their outtakes as much as the episodes themselves the displaced communities and languages of Columbia since its reconstitution in 1991.
Our travels across the South America continued with Argentine amateur films preserved, documented and screened by the collective ARCA (see here). The group presented a little gem that was an adaptation, Little Red Riding Hood (1933), made by Jorges Mendez Delfino with his daughter as the young girl and his dog as the Big Bad Wolf, followed by a Super8 remake made by the daughter with her own child thirty years later. The group also showed one of Argentine Gustavo Givo’s expedition films with exquisite colour documenting his travels to Antarctica, Dogs Parachute into Antarctica (1963). And yes, dogs did parachute into Antarctica.
World travel was also at the core of the expedition films (1922-50) by Aloha Wanderwell Baker. Aloha had joined traveler Walter Wanderwell as a teenager on his world travels to become the first woman to have travelled around the world. With allegedly 11 languages under her belt, Aloha had filmed her travels for with both her first- and second-husband that were used as documents for lectures she gave on the road. Although she later scratched out the soundtrack in fear her voiceover may taint her image as a relic from a colonial past, some have survived to disclose precious insights into the sound and sights of one approach taken for ethnographic film. The naivety underlining the treatment of racial identities was also unavoidably present in the Eye’s premier of a recent restoration of East is West (1923). With music accompaniment provided by Stephen Horne’s remarkable multi-instrument sounds, the film follows a Chinese girl who discovers her true identity as a white woman to the delight of her fiancée’s family. Although ideologies such as these are horribly outdated, the most obsolete presented at the symposium, the restoration of such works were, although painful, discussed as nevertheless necessary – better remembered than forgotten.
Sadly mostly neglected in the symposium were the film archives of Asia, whom we know are doing some heroic work in the field. Despite many of their films being in a sorry state of decay, the Philippines were thankfully represented in the programme as the only Asian contribution. With production numbers equaling Hollywood and Bollywood at its peak, the ongoing projects of the National Film Archive of the Philippines is to repatriate their B-movies from Hong Kong and restore what they have available (only five titles have apparently survived before the Second World War). A nation with a scattered sense of identity dispersed across the many islands, a recent restoration project has focused on the fragments of work by Henry Francia, an exile who temporarily resided in New York before returning to the Philippines. His experimental film On the Way to India Consciousness, I Reached China (1968), a highlight of the symposium, is a riveting assortment of footage documenting performance art, bohemian life and conversations tied together with a voiceover that quietly ponders on identity as the film slips its audience into subjective realms that itself is unsure where it is heading.
The first Orphan Film Symposium in Europe concluded with an announcement of a major discovery at the Eye Film Institute of a British silent film Love, Life and Laughter (George Pearson, 1923), featuring Betty “Queen of Happiness” Balfour, that had long been considered lost (see here). Taking a leading role in the Europe-wide FORWARD project, Eye Film Institute seeks to put in place an audiovisual registry of orphan work and have become leaders in their rescue initiatives. With 20% of its collection recently revealed as orphans, there is a lot of work ahead for Eye Film Institute. On the occasion of Orphans 9, they showed strong promise that such works will be in safe hands.