Variety lights

Pub date August 5, 2009
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


If Jean-Luc Godard is right that film history is the history of the 20th century, the film preservationist surely occupies a privileged seat of knowledge. Steve Erickson implied as much in 2007’s Zeroville, his surrealist novel centering on a "cineautistic" film editor who gives new meaning to Freud’s concept of "screen memories." But by and large the preservationist’s labor is beyond public view. UCLA’s prestigious moving image archive is trying to change that with a touring program of highlights from its biannual Festival of Preservation. In an e-mail exchange with Jan-Christopher Horak, the archive director wrote that "When I became director 19 months ago, it seemed that all the work was wasted if we only showed the films in our theatre in Los Angeles."

The Pacific Film Archive screens 14 of these restorations during August, one of which showed at the Castro Theatre in May. Head archivist Ross Lipman reintroduced the eager crowd to John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), veering comfortably between technological details and dishy anecdotes. Several of Cassavetes’ original collaborators were in attendance, and it was clear that Lipman had joined their ranks in his material intimacy with the film. I was fully expecting to be wowed by seeing Mabel and Nick Longhetti’s tumult splayed across the big screen, but the revelation was in the soundtrack: the dynamic see-sawing between nonsense whispers and splitting screams made the film a physical experience.

Restorations can bring our attention to previously unseen (or unheard) aspects of a film, making it more complex than we first realized. Dial the formal elements up too much, though, and you have the aesthetic equivalent of a juiced ballplayer — many critics felt this line was crossed in the brightening of R.W. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and the soundtrack facelift performed on Orson Welles’s Othello (1952). Nitrate is time-sensitive and costly to preserve, and since the number of titles is so great, the choice of which film to preserve is bound to be polemical.

"While UCLA has traditionally focused on Hollywood films, given our geographic location, we have become increasingly interested in independent and avant-garde work," Horak explained. This shift has resulted in its tremendous success with restorations of Killer of Sheep (1977), The Exiles (1961) and the early films of Kenneth Anger — a set of work that, when taken together, brings wider attention to Los Angeles’ rich tradition of what scholar David E. James calls "minor cinemas."

The PFA picks are delightfully eclectic, but the common thread of this mostly American set is independence. From early avatars like Edward Curtis (1914’s In the Land of the Head Hunters) to Poverty Row auteurs like Edgar Ulmer (1948’s Ruthless), political outliers like Joseph Losey (1951’s The Prowler) to those filmmakers who gave indie cinema a name of its own (Cassavetes and John Sayles), "Secrets Beyond the Door" weaves a multitude of independent traditions. *


Aug. 7–30, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249,