Extras: 152 page book with Production Notes
That’s the view we have to take with aging elements of the fragile motion picture art. Too often we even lack the context to know it as it was experienced by the audience for whom it was made. "Treasures from American Film Archives" offers an assortment of fifty rarities from 1893 to 1985 that dwell in obscurity. Yet these films have an inner life that still stirs if we are prepared to meet them halfway.
"We Work Again" (1937) ostensibly documents Roosevelt’s New Deal success. More valuable in hindsight is the tidbit it records of Orson Welles’ notorious so-called "Voodoo MacBeth," his all-Black staging of the play he sets in Haiti. Welles at twenty-one enjoyed his first commercial success with this show, neatly dovetailing his Shakespeare predilection with the exigencies of the Works Project Commission.
"Rose Hobart" (1936) is a notorious amateur experiment by James Cornell cobbled mostly from scraps of a 1931 jungle melodrama. There’s no denying a certain fascination in the image flow, but its obviousness does not convince me that Cornell engaged the artist’s muse, only that he stumbled upon an association between shots that in competent hands would be a tool, not an end in itself. Curator Scott Simmon’s program notes gossip that when artist and sometime filmmaker Salvador Dalí attended the 19-minute show’s debut, he throttled both Cornell and his projector. Simmon submits evidence that Dali struck out in jealousy. Fat chance!
Thomas Alva Edison is not only credited with inventing the movies, he was its principal life force through its initial two decades. Here we see Edison’s first commercially shown film, a simple half-minute of a blacksmith at work in 1893.
We take for granted certain conventions that simulate nighttime or what the indoors looks like before someone turns on a light. "The Lonedale Operator" has scenes of both types. Since lighting techniques to effectively convey darkness were beyond the capacity of cameras and film stock of the day, Griffith’s solution was blue tinting.
Were I to choose one single entry to represent the whole, it would be Edison’s "The Land Beyond the Sunset" (1912). Griffith’s aura as undisputed ’father of film’ tends to distort our view of movies as he came to them, of how he advanced them and of what his contemporaries accomplished taking alternative approaches. Edison had no hand in the direction of his films, yet he was their co-author as surely as the sculptor Bernini orchestrated Rome’s last great facelift.
It’s a simple linear progression, never cross-cut. What makes "The Land Beyond the Sunset" so poignant is its palpable depiction of a child’s world of brutal poverty. It never resorts to posturing. Whatever potential for mawkishness it shares with D.W. Griffith – even in his greatest films! – this simple film’s understatement and thoughtful handling elevates it to an elegy.
Edison the innovator did not take well to direction contrary to his own bent. But even if he conceded change later rather than sooner, "The Land Beyond the Sunset" demonstrates that he adapted admirably throughout the motion picture’s turbulent first twenty years of evolution. It is a fitting tribute to his own sunset as the single most dominant force in the movies.
A rare exception to the worthiness of selections is something called "Composition I (Themis)" (1940), with geometric shapes arbitrarily animated. Limited expressivity in color use, effects and texture offer what little value it has. At least this trifle contrasts with another abstract piece called "OFFON" (1968) by Scott Bartlett. Bartlett’s use of the medium makes OFFON compelling, though it should carry a health warning, the way it accelerates the heartbeat involuntarily beyond the comfort level.
Much of this collection is ephemeral, extinct now in all but our collective memory. Yet better than many a more mainstream effort, this compendium gives us insight into conditions and the spirit of our age. We can learn a lot about values and social perspectives from every one of these films. We need only succumb to rhythms foreign to us or beauty in its rawest state, as in 1905’s fascinating "Interior New York Subway."
Each item has illuminating on-disk background notes by Simmon. Where appropriate, there are also sections on musical accompaniment by musical curator Martin Marx, then on preservation and/or further reading where applicable. A handsome 152-page illustrated guidebook with identical information provides a welcome alternative.
The greater portion of the movies here requires musical accompaniment. It’s a massive challenge and Marx makes a persuasive case for his artistic choices. Occasionally he’s able to reinstate the score originally created for an item. More often, he composes accompaniment legitimately reflecting how it was originally heard. However thorough his accounting, Marx omits mention of some waggish musical interpolations – during the Hindenberg sequence, he paraphrases the mildly disguised phrase, ’Fools rush in!’
From its inception, DVD took up the banner from LaserDisc in restoring some measure of dignity to movies that once swayed the world. Though often battered, they at least reclaim some of the respect they deserve when we observe the subtle texture and tone of the film stock of the day, correct the projection speed and acknowledge (even if sometimes waywardly) that music and movies went hand in glove right from the start.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" (1928) is pristine so I was disappointed that, of all the titles here, it should exhibit edge enhancement. Many other of these films are far more problematic to compress effectively for DVD, yet most replications here are heartening indeed. No compression credits are given so it’s unclear whether individual museums commissioned their own MPEG2 transfers or if they were all done by the same production house.
Beyond a certain point, you may feel the need to clear the palate as you might in sampling a succession of fine wines. The good news is that whether sipped or binged, what’s here is vintage. The bad news is it could seriously compromise addictive personalities – one taste leaves a ravenous craving for more.