Friday, March 24, 2017

Death and Decay

Martin Scorsese made some rather oblique remarks about the ongoing decline of cinema in an Associated Press interview featured in an article in Quartz:

“Cinema is gone,” Scorsese said. “The cinema I grew up with and that I’m making, it’s gone. The theater will always be there for that communal experience, there’s no doubt. But what kind of experience is [cinema] going to be? Is it always going to be a theme-park movie? I sound like an old man, which I am. The big screen for us in the ’50s, you go from Westerns to Lawrence of Arabia to the special experience of 2001 in 1968. The experience of seeing Vertigo and The Searchers in VistaVision."(1)

Scorsese went on to blame the widespread use of CGI and the pall of Superhero movies, using the now-familiar complaint that studios are averse to taking risks of any kind. The trouble is, we've been listening to filmmakers make the same complaint that Scorsese makes for almost a century.

But is Scorsese talking about the technical innovations that have changed the way we experience films today or is he talking about the quality of the films themselves? In his essay, "The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema," Godfrey Cheshire pointed out that all the while the physical medium of celluloid film, the tangible reels of film that one could hold in one's hands, was disappearing, a certain kind of filmmaking was disappearing with it - the kind of filmmaking that flourished for about forty years in the middle of the 20th century, that produced everything from Fritz Lang's M to Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers.(2)

If Cheshire was right, and several other observers have come to the same conclusion, it is intensely sad. But the advances in film technology seem to me to be of secondary - even incidental - importance. I have always believed it was a little conceited to complain that fewer people go to the movies any more. The films that I was drawn to watch when I was a teenager weren't being screened in first-run movie houses. I found them in mostly run down art houses in the seedier parts of the city, or on college campus auditoriums - wherever I could find them in the lost years before home video. When I watch films now on DVD or on a tablet, at least I'm in complete control of the experience, which is far more conducive than leaving it to the whims and all of the inconveniences of an art house screening.

There is an unforgettable scene in Jean-Jacques Annaud's otherwise disappointing film adaptation of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in which a monk (played by Sean Connery) is scrambling inside a labyrinthine medieval monastery to save as many ancient books, most of which exist in only one copy, from a fire. The scene made me mindful of the fact that we owe it to a bunch of religious hysterics that we now possess as much of classical Greek and Roman texts. Countless other texts exist only in the form of tantalizing rumors. We know, for example, the stories of Odysseus's and Agamemnon's return from the Trojan War. But there were probably several other "returns" that haven't come down to us, simply because no one during the well-named Dark Ages thought enough of them to copy them down.

A millennium or two later, a somewhat similar fate awaits another medium - that of the motion picture. And it is happening not over many centuries but in only a few lifetimes. The statistic may sound alarming, but it is a fact that nearly half of all the films made since 1894 until now have been lost. As I explained in a previous blog post about Henri Langlois, "Though it is a little surprising that the idea of preserving films took so many years to take shape, it is not at all surprising that so few people cared about the fate of films that were no longer in circulation. For the vast majority of films, then and now, there was a kind of planned obsolescence, at least in the positive print, just like any other manufactured goods. Because there were so many films in circulation, and a limited number of venues to exhibit them, they were allowed a limited run in which they could be viewed, and then they were either destroyed or shelved with the intention of eventual destruction."

The real problem arises when you try to apply some valuative measure of what is worth preserving and what is not, simply because you cannot hope to preserve everything. Langlois could make statements like:

"Since like everybody else, I was full of silly prejudices I missed out on incredible things. Salome with Theda Bara was for sale. I thought, 'Fox, Theda Bara, American spectacle...who needs it?' Now the film is lost forever. It was probably quite good. From that point on, through trial and error, I saw that people, intent on triage, who think they have taste, me included, are idiots. One must save everything and buy everything. Never assume you know what's of value."

But by now triage is unavoidable, even if it is anathema for a scholar that someone should be there to decide which films, based on aesthetic criteria, should be preserved. While I have serious doubts that Fox's Salome was worth preserving (even for its historical value), there is no consensus among film critics about what is deserving of preservation.

In a 2015 essay written for Harper's, David Thomson ingeniously intertwines the fates of four films either mutilated by producers or cleverly unreleased or unfinished to illustrate how films and their makers become legendary and how much of the legend is nothing but fantasy.

The problem is, the four films that Thomson uses to illustrate his thesis - Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, Vertigo and The Other Side of the Wind - are either fragmentary shadows of what-might-have-been masterpieces or victims of misplaced critical overkill. The first two were hacked to pieces by producers, with only rumors left to remind us of how great they were, while Vertigo wasn't in circulation for decades and The Other Side of the Wind neither finished nor released.

Having seen Vertigo more than forty years ago, I read the news of its expensive and painstaking restoration with mixed emotions. It was done by the same team - Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz - that restored Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus and My Fair Lady. These four particular films, for me, beg the question: who decides what old films crying out for restoration get restored? They obviously aren't critics, since the choices are of a surprisingly uneven worthiness. It resurrects the image of a tonsured monk choosing one centuries-old parchment from a pile of ancient texts and copying it down before it crumbles into dust or is consumed by vermin.

In his Harper's essay, Thomson wrote:

During his last fifteen years, Welles was making a feature film, The Other Side of the Wind, about a movie director, played by John Huston. When Welles died, the shooting was close to complete, but the ownership of the film was as dismayingly confused as most of his affairs. In the three decades since, there have been several attempts to resolve rights and to finish the film as Welles would have wanted. It has become another legend, by virtue of being lost.

But now we may be closer than ever before. The labyrinthine legal issues are said to be resolved. The picture needs to be cut and finished. There was a dream of opening it at the Cannes Film Festival this May [2015] — Welles would have been a hundred on May 6, 2015. Still, as of April, there was no editor on the project, substantial funds were required for postproduction work, and no one had yet agreed to release the picture. How good could the film be? The script is very long; the fragments shown so far do not cohere; most of the actors are gone, so reshoots are impossible. More than ten years ago, I saw a couple of passages, completely out of context. One was a sex scene, more candid and arousing than anything else Welles ever put on film. It was striking, but it didn’t seem to be from a Welles movie.

Welles did leave some instructions behind, but he also said the subject might be dated and that he had thought of turning it into an “essay film.” Yet our anticipation demands something complete and impressive. Or could this great rumor remain unreleased — not exactly lost, but magic still, an attraction that is forever coming but never quite here?

A few weeks ago it was announced that Netflix was going to finance the completion of Welles's The Other Side of the Wind. An editor has been appointed and it will be supervised by, among others, Peter Bogdanovich. Finally, movie savants who have fantasized about this unfinished "masterpiece" will have a chance to be vindicated. Or not. “Like so many others who grew up worshipping the craft and vision of Orson Welles, this is a dream come true,” said Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer at Netflix. “The promise of being able to bring to the world this unfinished work of Welles with his true artistic intention intact, is a point of pride for me and for Netflix. Cinephiles and film enthusiasts around the world will experience the magic of Orson Welles once again or for the very first time.”(4)

It is a good thing that we will at last be able to see a great artist's last work. But what can we expect? We've all been waiting for decades to see it and have been subjected to rumors that are tantalizing but frustratingly vague. The Welles fan will no doubt find much in it that will reaffirm their faith in the man's genius. The Welles skeptic will probably be affirmed in his skepticism. One thing is clear: there is no way The Other Side of the Wind as a finished project can ever live up to its hype as an intangible, fleetingly-glimpsed legend. As David Thomson concluded "Could it be that the best way to preserve film culture is to make sure that at least a few great movies stay on the other side of the wind?" There is a reason why it has never been finished, and I think the reason is obvious: it isn't any good.

Stanley Kauffmann, who was only one year younger than Orson Welles, followed his career as it unfolded, and had this to say on the occasion of Welles's death in 1985: "To have watched Welles through the years, to have seen his career as it happened, bit by bit, instead of in retrospect, was to become dourly aware of the Heraclitus tag: character is destiny. He was a man for whom everything was possible, absolutely everything, in the worlds of theater, radio, film, television. He could have been a major changer and shaper of our performing arts. But in the middle 1940s the spoiled child took over. He had overcome plenty of difficulties before then, but about that time he seemed to assume that the world now owed him a smooth path and that he would pay the world back for its refusal to pamper him by giving it only virtuosic arrogance."(5)

Kauffmann's longevity (he was 97 when his last review was (posthumously) published in The New Republic) gave him the authority to tell us that there are more superb films being made in any given year than we know about, that if you asked the makers of these films why they made them, they would tell you that if they hadn't they would've died. With this kind of compulsive creative drive in people all over the world, how can anyone who tells us that cinema is dead be taken seriously?

(1) "That's a Wrap: The movies are dead, according to two distinguished moviemakers," by Adam Epstein, Quartz, January 04, 2017.
(2) Godfrey Cheshire, "The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema," The New York Press, December 30,1999.
(3) David Thomson, "Legends of the Lost," Harper's Magazine, June 2015.
(4) "Netflix to restore and release unfinished Orson Welles film," The Guardian, 14 March 2017.
(5) Stanley Kauffmann, "How Orson Welles Survived Hollywood," The New Republic, November 12, 1985.

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