In commemoration of my friend Tom Carson's engaging review of Mr. Davis' latest book, The Soundtrack Of My Life, I relate this anecdote.
I guess it was 1994. I had been a pop music columnist for the New York Daily News for a while, so I got asked to a bunch of music events, but by this time I don't think I had the column any more. Nevertheless, I got an invite to a very special—I believe the word "intimate" was used—private mini-concert by Carly Simon. The main reason it was special was because of Carly Simon's oft-cited reluctance to perform live. Another was that it was being held at Fez, a cozy, some might say funky, even, spot below the chi-chi Time Cafe on Lafayette Street.
Why did I go? I wasn't the world's biggest Carly Simon fan, as many readers may have inferred quite some time ago. Then again, it WAS in a sense an honor just to be invited. And there would be an open bar. And at the time I was a lot more insecure about my position relative to New York night life than I am now, so there was that. The issue of there having nothing better to do that evening may have been pertinent. I went, and I went stag.
The reason I place the show around 1994 is because her band had Doug Wimbish, of the Sugar Hill session band and further fame, on bass, and he had played on Simon's album of that year, Letter Never Sent. He sure is a good bass player. Anyway, the invite hadn't been kidding about an open bar. It was wide open, including the top shelf stuff, and I could not believe that I was sitting at a little table with a couple of people I didn't know and belting back the Macallans like there was no tomorrow. Soon enough I was feeling fine, and even singing along with some of Carly's greatest hits. "Do the Mashed Potato with a new attitude..." Aw yeah. She plays for like a half hour, 35 minutes, and then off she goes, and of course the place goes wild, clamoring for an encore. She makes the crowd wait good and long before she comes back out, and when she does come back out, she's got Clive Davis, who at the time was the head of her label, Arista, with her. And again, everybody's going nuts, and he's grinning, and she's grinning, and everybody's standing, and Carly and Clive are motioning for everybody to sit down (I myself was still sitting, swilling in my Scotch) and be quiet for just a minute. Once everyone's sitting down and shutting up, Clive takes the mic, and the first thing he says is, "I probably don't have to tell you who I am."
And the crowd lets out an appreciative chortle. And I have to tell you, I don't think my timing was ever better, because I waited just a microbeat and a half after the chortle died down and I bellowed, "Who are you?" And a couple of people laughed, and a couple of people gasped, and Clive looked annoyed and continued with his speech.
Cut to May of 1996. I had spent the late winter/early spring of that year in Dublin, Ohio, working as a freelance consultant for CompuServe, and after that I thought it would be a swell idea if I took the money I had earned and, instead of paying taxes with it, going to Paris with it. Through a series of circumstances too tortuous to be profitably related here, my traveling companion is Young Rosemary Passantino, a one-time rock critic herself, who was accompanying me on a purely platonic basis (her live-in boyfriend is even going to pick us up from Kennedy when we get back—I remember that return flight being the last time I smoked on an airplane). On our first night there we decided to visit the legendary nightclub Crazy Horse, because you haven't really lived until you've seen an elaborately choreographed stage show featuring a dozen identically proportioned nude young women. Anyway, the only reservation we could get was for the midnight show, so we had time to kill after dinner, so we went to the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysee. It was around 11:30, near closing time. I was gonna check out with some Lester Young double CD set (called Le Quintessence; I still have it, it's real good). And I notice, standing on the marble floor of the grand lobby, a familiar figure.
"Clive Davis!" I say. "What are you doing in the lobby of the Virgin Megastore in Paris just before midnight?" Clearly chuffed to be recognized, he says, "Where else is there to be?"
"Say," I ask as I sidle up to him, "you remember that nice little Carly Simon thing at Fez a few years back?"
"Sure I do. Great show!"
"It really was! And remember, before the encore, when you had a few words for the crowd and you started by saying 'I probably don't have to tell you who I am'?"
Clive looked a little wary now. "Uh-huh!"
"And there was this drunk guy in the back and he yelled out, 'Who are you?'"
"That was me! I was that guy!"
And Clive just looked at me.
"Anyway, it was great meeting you!"
After we had left, and were walking to the Crazy Horse, Rosemary was all like, "What'd you have to go and alienate Clive Davis like that for?"
And I'm like, "Oh, right, because he was ready to ask us to cruise around with him in his limo all night."
"You can't be sure of that. Maybe he wanted to hang out with some nice Americans."
Maybe he did. Who knows? If I had played my cards differently, perhaps I could have been Mrs. Clive Davis today. But no. I had to be a dick.
Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). This is how the frame appears in the current Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray disc edition of the film. Below, the image before restoration.
I first heard from James White, the British film restoration maestro, a few years back, around the time the below-mentioned ITV Blu-ray of Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus came out in Britain. White and I reconnected around last year's Christmas holidays, just as two very disparate projects in which he had a restoration hand were coming on the scene: the above-depicted version of the Dreyer masterpiece, and Arrow Video's iteration of Lucio Fulci's notorious Zombi, known in Britain as Zombie Flesh Eaters. We figured the time was right to catch up on some of the issues concerning film restoration in the brave and still relatively new but increasingly pervasive world of digital, and thus an e-mail exchange began. It took some time, but I think the results are informative, and contain news that is both heartening and distressing. If you can, you should read in conjunction with Nick Wrigley's essay "Crimes Against The Grain" in the December 2012 issue of Sight & Sound. Wrigley was one the founders of the Masters of Cinema imprint and worked as a restoration supervisor with White on the Dreyer project. The interview with White follows:
1) Film restoration seems to have pretty definitively shifted from a photochemical process to a digital and electronic one. When was the tipping point for this, and what does it mean in terms of the economics of film restoration? Not to mention the distribution of restored motion pictures?
It's certainly true that over the past decade or so, film restoration has moved from a largely photochemical process to one relying almost completely on digital technology. When I began working in this field in New York back in the mid-1990s, digital restoration was still in its infancy and most of the major projects such as those being overseen by Photoplay (Napoleon) or Harris & Katz (Spartacus, Vertigo) were being produced almost solely through traditional photochemical processes. These days, however, if someone embarks on a new restoration, they will almost always begin by scanning the best existing film materials and working in digital throughout the entire process.
My time at the BFI reflects this shift in approach. When I started working there in 2002, film restoration was still very much the preserve of the archive lab, with digital technology having little to no involvement. Restorations from that era represented the best that could have been achieved at the time, but in recent years the BFI has seen fit to revisit many of their key titles using digital tools, having seen the advantages these bring. A title like Blackmail for instance, restored last year by the BFI as part of their silent Hitchcock project, now looks amazingly improved in its digital incarnation in comparison to the prior restoration completed in the 1990s.
I don’t think there’s been a single tipping point that made this change happen, other than restoration simply mirroring the film industry at large, and its shift to using digital tools for pretty much everything under the sun. The simplest reason though, is that the tools just got better. Most importantly, the software became sympathetic to the needs of archive films and offered solutions to problems that traditional restoration hadn’t ever been able to deal with sufficiently. Issues that had always been difficult to impossible to fix - things like image stability, density issues, deep emulsion scratches, warping, registration issues, deterioration brought on by heat or moisture, and damaged or even missing frames – these could now be improved upon in a way that just couldn't be done by traditional means.
Having access to these new tools hasn't made the work cheaper, though. If anything, restoring a film has become more expensive simply because audience expectations are so much higher now. Fortunately there are so many more outlets to distribute these titles, so the economics are there to support the work. Mind you, there's definitely a limit to what most distributors can afford. A top-tier restoration like The Red Shoes or Lawrence of Arabia can demonstrate beautifully what digital restoration is capable of - these films now truly take your breath away - but the vast majority of film titles don't enjoy anything near to the restoration budgets these projects had. So while restoring the majority of film titles to a 2K/4K level might be beyond the means of some distributors, restoring a film to a very high standard in HD is often within their means. I should mention that going this route doesn't support a film's archival basis - restricting your end result to HD doesn't create what most archivists would agree is the basis for film preservation - but it does provide distributors with a format suitable for the majority of current release platforms (DCP, Blu-ray/DVD, etc).
In any case, what's encouraging is the high amount of restoration work currently going on internationally. Rights-holders of film libraries have started to see the value in restoring their titles to make them accessible for HD broadcast and online platforms. DVD/Blu-ray sales have helped create new audiences for archive titles, and the improved presentation quality has made viewers more aware and appreciative of the practice of film restoration on the whole. Back when I started, Criterion was the only company around that devoted time, attention and a decent budget to giving a film the best presentation possible on video, but now in addition to well-established labels like Eureka/Masters of Cinema, the BFI, Milestone and Kino/Lorber, you've got all these new labels like Olive in the US, Second Run in the UK and Edition Filmmuseum in Germany resurrecting lost cinema or rarely-seen classics. It's the work of companies like these that is really helping to bring new interest in film restoration. I mean, it's great when Casablanca or Singin' In The Rain gets treated to another state-of-the-art restoration, but there now seems to be an actively growing interest in discovering new films and film collections from all corners of the globe. A project like Milestone using Kickstarter to fund a new restoration of Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason is a great example of the public taking an active role in film restoration. Likewise for Distribpix's recent restoration of The Opening of Misty Beethoven - that film now looks better than anyone probably ever expected it to!
2) The tools for film restoration have evolved to the point that the lay viewer is under the impression that it can perform miracles, which to some extent seems objectively true. So let's look at it from the other end of the telescope, as it were, and talk about the things that the tools CAN'T do.
Well, as I said there’s a great amount of things that digital tools can do to repair the issues that have always blighted older film titles that we couldn’t do just a few years ago. That said, it’s important to bear in mind that in the most fundamental sense, no amount of restoration, digital or otherwise, can significantly improve the quality of the image of the film element that it’s sourced from. The issues I’ve mentioned - dirt, scratches, stability, flicker, missing or damaged frames, etc – these can all be improved significantly through the careful application of digital tools. But the basic details within that original image, meaning the film grain, the level of detail, etc – these can only be improved within the parameters of what the original element would allow.
It’s like up-rezing an image from SD to HD. An increase in detail doesn’t happen simply because you’ve added more pixels. Of course one can give the illusion of increased detail or sharpness through digital enhancement, but then it’s no longer the film you’re working with, it’s something else. I work to create the best representation of an old film possible, but that means keeping the results within the historic bounds of what that film would be able to achieve at the time – be it its film grain, the saturation of its colors, the level of its contrast, etc. A film from 1930 shouldn’t look like a film from 1950, and it most definitely shouldn’t resemble a film from 2013. Whatever tools you’re using should be done in service of what the film looked like at the time of release, not some ill-advised notion of what it could look like now. That, for me, is probably the most important thing.
Unrealistic expectations are a common source of frustration for film restorers, as often the best existing film elements simply won’t allow for a "miraculous" result. The project is only as good as the material it's sourced from, and not all films have been subjected to the same treatment over the years. Often with older titles the original negative has been lost, or is far too damaged to work from. In this case you might be relying on the next best thing, like a second-generation interpositive or fine grain element. But there may be problems with these materials as well. Often restorations have to make use of more than one element, each subjected to vastly different histories, and then it can prove a real challenge to make the overall results consistent. To put it simply, every film is different, and every restoration has its own set of challenges.
One interesting development of late has been the discussion of the differences between what we’re now able to see digitally in comparison to what was visible on a film print. The Wizard of Oz scenario is well-known – in Warner Brothers' new Technicolor restoration you could suddenly see wires holding up the Scarecrow, whereas in all previous releases of the film, they were invisible. Clearly back in 1938 Victor Fleming and his Director of Photography understood enough about the photochemical process that they could expect the wires to be invisible by the time theatrical prints were created in the printing chain, but in working digitally from the first generation elements, the wires are now there, clear as day. Likewise, I've heard it recently remarked that with Vistavision films such as Vertigo we’re now seeing a level of detail on Blu-ray that was never intended for the cinema, as theatrical prints would have been made from separate matrices reduced for printing. So how does one approach situations like these? It’s an interesting dilemma.
3) What are your favorite/favored tools, or the ones you find yourself applying more often? What have you had a hand in developing?
I can’t claim to have had a personal hand in the development of any specific software tool, but I’m fortunate that I work with such an amazing team of technicians at Deluxe Labs in London, who are always working to find new ways of meeting the numerous challenges this kind of work presents. We’ve worked together on so many projects over the years for the BFI, Eureka and most recently Arrow (Zombie Flesh Eaters) we’ve developed a great rapport together, which is crucial when you're working on archive titles.
With picture restoration there's a variety of tools at hand that benefit some films more than others. I'm always cautious about any so-called "automated" processes, as it's so easy for these tools to have an unwanted effect on film grain and detail even if applied carefully. So while it takes far longer to do, nothing works better for me than old-fashioned frame-by-frame cleanup, performed manually. It can be incredibly complicated, time-consuming work, but there's just no substitute for treating each individual frame with the utmost care. Full disclosure, though - I don't do any of the hand-on stuff myself anymore. As a restoration supervisor, I oversee all the steps of a project from the initial research and selection of film materials to the reviewing of scans to the full grading of the film to all stages of picture and sound restoration. Whenever possible we'll work with the director or director of photography (if alive and available) and we always work to deliver the highest quality representation of a film's original release within the parameters the budget and time frame allow for.
4) The two projects that were the springboards for this correspondence were pictures that seem to have almost as wide an aesthetic gulf as a temporal one: Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 masterwork The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, which you supervised the Eureka!/Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray version of, and the aforementioned Zombie Flesh Eaters, the notorious 1979 Lucio Fulci horror cult fave. In terms of materials, each one must have presented unique challenges. But there's also a question of properly serving a given film's aesthetic. I understand I'm constructing a bit of a big tent question here but I'm interested in your thoughts on all of these considerations.
One could hardly choose two more different films than those two, could they? Though I still think they'd make a great double bill! Hey, they both feature heavy doses of pain and suffering, both base the reasons for their violence in religion of one kind or another, and both really know the power of a well-executed close-up. Although it's true that only one of the films features a punch-up between a zombie and a shark...
Anyway, the fundamental criteria for me is always to present the film as close to how it originally appeared in the cinema. That means restoring the film to the highest quality possible but not employing any means to "update" or "improve" the image or the sound in some misguided effort to refashion it to fit in better with modern-day expectations. I want the results of something I restore to appear as a film artifact, not a digital one, which is why I've been using the term "preserving a film's photochemical integrity" lately.
The Passion of Joan of Arc project grew out of Eureka's interest in releasing the film on Blu-ray and the Danish Film Institute's desire to see Carl Dreyer's original Danish version made available to the public. As far as I'm aware, Gaumont are still planning to restore it themselves, but the version they eventually produce will almost surely be the French version we've all been familiar with for years. So as this stood as the only likely chance to have Dreyer's debut version seen to properly, we wanted to make sure we presented Joan in the best and most accurate representation possible.
We had the good fortune to be working from the Danish Film Institute's preservation materials, struck directly from a first generation 35mm print discovered in Oslo. This is as literally good as it gets with this film, a film we're amazingly lucky still exists in any form given the problems it faced from the very beginning. For those unfamiliar with the saga this film was put through, the story bears repeating, so I'll crib a bit from a piece written about the restoration for Moviemail last year:
"The trouble began just six months following the film's Copenhagen premiere in 1928 when the original negative was destroyed in a fire and the two original prints created from this element were subsequently lost. A new second negative, incorporating extra footage not featured in the original version, was subsequently cut together by Dreyer but this material swiftly fell victim to misfortune, and was presumed to have perished in a lab fire as well. Although fires like this were fairly commonplace at a time when highly flammable nitrate film stocks were used, the fact that the film had been destroyed on two separate occasions seemed to imply that The Passion of Joan of Arc was destined not to survive in any form.
Over the years that followed, several incomplete prints and material believed to represent the second lost negative re-surfaced; as a result numerous versions of the film have been edited together and screened for international audiences, but Dreyer’s original version remained lost, presumably forever.
Then in 1981, one of the original prints struck from Dreyer’s first negative was miraculously discovered at a Norwegian psychiatric hospital. The Danish Film Institute (DFI) immediately acquired this material, which came to be known as the "Oslo print" and created a new preservation negative, guaranteeing a secure future for the film and keeping the elements in optimal conditions for years to come. Finally, after over half a century, The Passion of Joan of Arc could finally be seen exactly as Dreyer had originally intended."
So with all that history facing you, the responsibility you bear to remain faithful to the film and the materials at hand should be always first and foremost on your mind. Given that we had a specific budget and fairly tight schedule to work by, my approach was to do the best job possible but to be wary of not "over-restoring" anything. The entire film required stabilization due to the shrinkage and sprocket wear the print had endured throughout its 80-plus year lifespan. Every join between shots required manually re-setting as there were bumps on literally every cut - a fairly daunting task for a film as creatively and heavily edited as Joan. Density inconsistencies manifested in the form of heavy flickering had to be significantly reduced. There were numerous instances of damaged and missing frames, often requiring new frames to be digitally interpolated, as well as a steady stream of heavy and light scratches throughout. Not all of these issues could be remedied completely, and some problems could only be marginally improved. If you watch the restored version of Joan, the film still exhibits quite a few of these issues, although it's now a fraction of what we started with. The important thing is that none of the work we did compromised the original photochemical look and feel of the film, and the original texture of Joan remains. Fortunately most of the feedback we've received on the Blu-ray has been very positive, so I think on the whole people appreciate this approach, even if the results aren't 100% pristine, which would be a very tall order with any film from this era.
Zombie Flesh Eaters was quite a bit different, in that it's a film that's been widely available for years, most recently in a fairly decent Blu-ray presentation from Blue Underground. But Arrow felt strongly that the film deserved better, so they decided to fund a new restoration of the film on the basis that we would be granted access to the original Techniscope negatives. A little digging revealed that these elements hadn't been made available for transfer since the film's original print run (contrary to a good deal of misinformation that's been circulating on the web), so we had a good opportunity to correct for some home-video crimes of the past and restore the film to its original release presentation.
Techniscope was a fairly popular format in Europe throughout the 1960s and 70s - it was essentially a low-budget version of Cinemascope, using two perforations instead of the standard four. After the initial negative is processed and edited, secondary elements (Interpositive, Internegative, etc) are produced by blowing up the image to fill the 4-perf frame. Having worked on another Techniscope project a couple years ago for the BFI (La Vallée, Barbet Schroeder, 1972) I knew that using the negatives provided the ability to capture a good deal more image area in the film frame than any of the other printing elements in the film chain, as the blow-up process would have forced the cropping of all sides of the image in order to fit within the 4-perf frame. So working from 2K scans of these original negatives, I was able to bring the color palette, the grain replication and all the details present on the negative back to its proper place, as well as reveal a good deal more picture area on all sides of the frame for most of the film. None of the work was exceptionally challenging, although the footage from the famed shark-zombie sequence was blighted by a lab fault that proved impossible to do anything but digitally minimize - fortunately this issue has always been a part of the film, as it was printed into every version anyone's ever seen!
The reviews we've received for Zombie have been overwhelmingly positive - considering how it was represented on VHS here in Britain for so many years, I think people were amazed to see the film looking as good as it did! That said, It shouldn't really surprise anyone familiar with Fulci's work - he's a director with an amazing eye, the camerawork by Sergio Salvati is frequently stunning, and the combined use of locations, colour, and music by Fabio Frizzi make Zombie one of the best films of its kind. That said, it does bring up something interesting in terms of your question about properly serving a given film's aesthetic. Might some viewers actually prefer the rough VHS-era representation they grew up with, complete with faded colour, horrible sound, video snow and tape damage? It certainly makes for a very different viewing experience, but one I suppose that should be treated as just as valid, as it was viewed by so many people, particularly in this country, in exactly this way.
So in a nutshell, my criterion is to represent the film in as close an approximation to how it originally appeared on screens as possible. More than being just a technical preference though, I view it as a true responsibility that I wish everyone would take very seriously. Which is why I'm disappointed when Gaumont Pathe chooses to apply a headache-inducing level of de-graining to Les Enfants du Paradis. Or when Hammer chooses to replace the original optical effects in The Devil Rides Out with new, "modern-day" digital versions. Or when so many recent restorations of classic films coming out of Italy are digitally sharpened to the point of resembling a Playstation game. Or when Pathe choose to put Le Samorai through so much image processing that each frame of Alain Delon in his raincoat and fedora end up resembling an oil painting more than anything captured on film. These are extreme examples, but there are plenty of others. Given the expense of restoring a film, practices like these should be actively discouraged, as the results will likely be the only means of seeing that particular film title for years to come. Considering the fact that the use of celluloid is quickly vanishing as we speak, and that very soon simply being able to project 35mm will be a thing of the past, it's essential that the tangible, textural look of celluloid is preserved properly and accurately.
5) Back in the late 1990s, I was at an event in New York City at which the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff spoke. In the audience was Robert A. Harris, who asked him if the lavender tint on Black Narcissus was deliberate. Cardiff's answer was something like "What lavender tint?" and hence a great error in film preservation/presentation started on its way to being corrected. I believe we first corresponded after the ITV restoration of Narcissus that you were involved in, a project that occurred even after the removal of the lavender. My question is, how important is the input of someone involved in the original work, and in the event that no survivors are around to supply input, what are the research roads you and your team find yourselves most frequently traveling?
Well first I should make it clear that I wasn't part of the restoration team responsible for Black Narcissus, although I was there in the periphery when it was happening. That restoration was produced by the archive team at ITV, with Thelma Schoonmaker and Jack Cardiff supervising throughout the process. I was fortunate enough to be invited to some work-in-progress screenings in which different film stocks were being tested to replicate the original 3-strip Technicolor look of the film. Thinking back, this served as a pretty good illustration at the time of the limitations of modern film stocks and their ability to replicate the look of older formats accurately, and the help that digital, if used with care, could provide in this regard. I was lucky enough to meet with Jack Cardiff off and on during my years at the BFI, and true gent that he was, he was always happy to answer the numerous questions I was constantly springing on him (and I certainly wasn’t the only one). I've also had the great pleasure of working with Thelma Schoonmaker, most recently on BFI's Blu-ray restoration of what Michael Powell considered his first "true" film, The Edge of the World - an amazing film, if you haven't seen it.
Anyway, there's no real substitute for having the original talent in the suite with you while you're working on these films. Unfortunately when working on older films this just isn't possible a lot of the time, so it's imperative that one has a real understanding of a film's history and the way it's supposed to look and sound. One of the alarming aspects of the expanse of digital technology is that more and more people entering this industry will have had virtually no hands-on film experience. How is one supposed to accurately restore a film if one doesn't understand the photochemical properties of the medium? Small decisions can have an enormous impact on a way of film is represented, and those decisions need to be informed ones.
I've already mentioned the importance of maintaining the original film grain structure, but grading the image correctly is just as important. From Eastmancolor to 2-strip and 3-strip Technicolor way back to Dufaycolor or the experiments of Friese-Greene, there's been so many ways to interpret color throughout the history of cinema that one needs to be very careful in how those colors are represented in any new restoration. The temptation to make the colors pop, to over-saturate, to make them much deeper and heavier than they would have looked on an original film print, is one that needs to be kept in check. Working from negatives, especially those that haven't been subjected to much fading over time, gives one a great deal of latitude when grading, and as a consequence the films can be as graded as warm or cool as one likes, so one needs to approach the grading with care. It's the same story with black and white titles. There's a tendency by some people to push the contrast on their black-and-white titles a bit too heavily, in an effort to make the image appear bolder and sharper, thereby giving it a look possibly more dramatic to the modern eye. But going this route is often incorrect, as most film print stocks from earlier years wouldn't have been able to support this look. As a consequence the tones in the grayscale often get lost and the subtleties of the original light and shade are simply "graded out" in favor of heavier contrast. Fortunately, the adoption of HD and Blu-ray have brought improvements to this area, as the higher resolution allows for proper replication of these subtleties.
My thoughts about audio are pretty much the same, meaning I'm really not in favor of presenting any film in an audio format not from its time. So 5.1 or 7.1 mixes for film originally released in mono I realize it's done as an effort to make young audiences more likely to accept these older films presented in this way, but it's historically irresponsible and about as convincing to the ear as "electronically re-channeled for stereo" was in the 1960s.
I'll give you an example of the range if choices you can be presented with. A few years ago, I was working on Terence Davies' The Long Day Closes (1992). The grading operator and I had a day to get things ready before Terence Davies and his DP Michael Coulter arrived, so we spent part of that afternoon applying an overall grade to the first couple reels. Right away we could see that the colors held in the negative were so bold and rich, that if we notched up the saturation a bit it looked just like a Douglas Sirk film! So for fun we graded the film as if it were, with bright and lurid primaries on show throughout. Now as anyone who's familiar with the films of Davies knows, he's extremely specific when it comes to color and has often used it in a creative way to evoke specific feelings for the past. So as soon as he and Coulter arrive, the first thing they tell us to do is drain all the color from the image and to start again. As with Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), Davies and Coulter had applied a bleach-bypass to The Long Day Closes giving it a carefully faded, almost sepia feel throughout. As the material we were working from hadn't been subjected to this lab process (this is traditionally done later on in the printing ) we could have very easily graded the film in any number of ways, including our attempt at 1950s melodrama. Of course we wouldn't have done this as we were well familiar with the film and it's printing history, but one could easily imagine a scenario in which the person restoring the film hasn't done his homework, or doesn't have the filmmakers on hand to show him the way, and you'd wind up with a version of the film that would be completely wrong, both historically and aesthetically.
That said, there are times when one can be too deferential when working with original talent. I'm talking about those rare occasions when a director has decided this is his opportunity to "fix" an aspect of the film he was never satisfied with, or "update" it in some way to bring into line with his current thinking. The results can often be interesting, but producing some updated version should never be done at the expense of presenting the film as it was originally released. I don't have a problem with Lucas or Friedkin or Coppola re-working their film every so often provided they allow the original films to survive intact. It's when this doesn't happen that I feel there's been an abuse of power, as somebody's personal agenda has created a deliberate distortion of a film's history. I've never subscribed to the idea that the director or any one person "owns" a film - a film belongs to history, and it's our responsibility to ensure that that history is accurately represented.
UPDATE: James White writes in, via email: "To answer Mr Kroll's question in your comments section, how these restorations are archived really comes down to the level at which they're restored. The current industry spec for archiving file-based film work is to store them on LTO5 archive tapes, which, as per good archive practice, should be cloned and the copies stored separately. If a restoration is being produced to the level of 2K/4K result, then the resolution would be high enough to justify producing a new Digital Internegative (DI), which was until recently the source for creating new restoration prints. Truth be told, there's still no better-proven long-term storage medium better than film, but sadly this seems to be happening less and less - a clear consequence of the diminishing need for film prints and the drive to go file-based for as many things as possible. That said, one should take heart that restoring a film anew would never result in the original film elements being discarded. On the contrary, the availability of a new restoration, at whatever level its been produced, would likely mean that the film elements would then be left alone and safely preserved for years to come. "
You know, I'm actually pretty high on Skyfall, but jeez, people...
I never had the privilege of meeting the cinephile and cineaste Ric Menello, who died on March 1 at age 60. (His MTV.com obituary is here; a more heartfelt reminiscence from his Brooklyn neighborhood, with links to some pertinent videos, is here.) But during the mid-to-late 1980s, I felt like I almost knew him, thanks to a couple of mutual friends, people who had studied and hung out with Ric in the film studies program at NYU. I heard stories of movie-mad students festooning their sneakers with the names of their favorite directors, of Ric’s auteur catechism (“What is Budd Boetticher?” “Budd Boetticher is an auteur.” “Why is Budd Boetticher an auteur?” “Because his films have Mise-en-scène.”) and of some unhygienic payback shenanigans involving the hairbrush of a certain stuck-up desk monitor at Weinstein Hall who subsequently went on to her own music-video-related fame. As for Ric, his relationship with one-time Weinstein Hall resident Rick Rubin led to his directing a few music videos for the likes of the Beastie Boys and L.L. Cool J. And then…not much, that people outside of the business would have heard of, until a reemergence that was bearing more and more good fruit at the time of Menello’s passing.
Mel Neuhaus was one of Ric’s oldest friends and certainly his closest. I became acquainted with Mel when he was one of the co-owners of a mail-order laser-disc outfit called Laser Island. Mel really knew his stuff and had the chops to get super-obscure items, and I was a pretty good customer if I may say so myself. (Well I recall pre-ordering the eight-disc Godzilla “Toho Death Battle Chronicles” box set with a couple of music video compilations on the side [New Order among them]; the day the ordered arrived at Mel’s place, I got shitcanned from my job at Stereo Review. He very kindly offered to let me back out, but I stuck to the plan and shelled out the five hundred bucks. Boy, was my live-in girlfriend unhappy when she came upon that receipt.) In any event, after chatting over what new goodies I was likely to buy, Mel would clue me in on stuff he was up to, for instance, collaborating with Ric on a script for a haunted-house comedy starring the Beastie Boys.
A little after the laser disc market, such as it was, dried up, Mel and I lost touch. I thought of him when I learned of Menello’s death, and dropped him a note. As it happened, he and Menello had become neighbors again over the years. It was good to make contact with Mel, although I wish I’d been spurred to do so by a happier occasion. I was glad to learn that Mel, whose dry and mordant wit was always an outstanding feature of our talks in the past, has written a novel, Gray Matter, that’s on sale as an e-book at Amazon, which I bought pretty much immediately and look forward to reading. After we both bitched and moaned a bit about how poorly the world is treating aging male cinephiles such as ourselves, we got on the subject of the late, great Menello, and I’ve reproduced much of the conversation, with some edits and shifts and compressions I deemed necessary/desirable, below.
Glenn Kenny: I remember being at Cannes in 2008 and seeing James Gray’s Two Lovers and seeing Ric's name come up as the co-screenwriter. And thinking how great that was, because I had not heard much of or about him since the excellent commentary he did for the DVD of Chabrol’s Cry of the Owl in 2002. And I was so glad to learn he’d been working more with James Gray. Because I remembered a lot of the things about him that I’d heard from you, about not just what a great cinephile he was but how funny and generous he was. How did you and Ric meet? Were you guys boyhood friends or college friends?
Mel Neuhaos: We met first year at NYU. And I remember we were at some screening, back when the school would show you movies at the Bleecker Street Cinema. That was essentially like one of their classroom presentations. And I was just sitting there, I don't even remember what the movie was. He was in front of me sitting with some striking brunette—that's what I remember. And something came up on the movie, and I made some snarky comment, and he turned around and at first I thought he was going to tell me to be quiet, but he just kind of appended it. And I started laughing. And I said, “Oh, that was kind of fun.” And a little bit later I ran into him and we just started talking and found out we were sort of on the same page. We started going to grindhouses seeing spaghetti westerns and Italian Dirty Harry ripoffs, which were all over the place back then. And just talking about movies that we loved. Frequently he said “Nobody I know has ever heard of this movie except you. “ And I said, well, yeah, man. He would come over to the apartment up in Washington Heights and we'd watch 16 mm prints, which was the only way you could collect movies in those days.
GK: I remember coming to one of your 16mm screenings in Brooklyn.
MN: Yeah, I moved to Sheepshead Bay. And screened every week. And even if he wasn’t around for that, one day a week it was just Menello day, and he would come over. Then, after that, laser discs and then DVDs, and then Blu-Rays. It was a constant. The one time that we were out of touch for a bit, because he was out on the Coast and everything, we both discovered obscure Japanese cinema at the same time. And it was bizarre, ‘cause we hadn't talked in a few months. And you know, we were the kind of guys who got kind of pissed off about sharing movies with people who had never seen them before; we'd get mad that they were seeing this for the first time. And we had this kind of “We've seen them all” attitude. But we were so stupid, because there's so much stuff out there. And I said to Menello, ”I saw some movies recently that have opened up a whole new world for me.” And Menello said, “Me too.” And I said, “I’m now into Japanese cinema, but not just Kurosawa and Ozu. It's beyond that.” He goes, “Me too.” And I said, “Like what?” And he's going, “Well directors like…”--and he started to go, “Shhhh”--and I said “Shinoda!” And he goes, “Yes.” And I said, “Goh…” and he'd finish, “Gosha.” I said, “Yes.” It was just crazy. He said, this is amazing. And we just were talking about that for hours and hours.
And eventually he came back to New York we both ended up in Ditmas Park, and Ric was only two blocks away from us. So we saw him all the time, and he became kind of a neighborhood fixture. The thing about this area is it's crammed full of artists. I mean not just writers but would-be filmmakers, musicians, painters, photographers. And we would all congregate at this place called Vox Pop. And Ric sort of became the king of this place. And you'd walk down the street, everyone would come running out of stores to say, “Hey, Ric!” My wife called him the Burgomaster of Brooklyn. And when all this stuff started to come into play for him the whole neighborhood was just so happy for him. The year that Two Lovers was eligible, everyone came to Vox Pop that morning, with Ric, to watch the live feed and see if Ric would get a nomination. This is seven in the morning. And Menello is there shaking his head, no, I'm not going to get nominated, I'm not going to get nominated. And he didn't. But everybody in the neighborhood was there to commiserate with him. Not that he really seemed to mind that much, but that was just a typical display of how the neighborhood felt about him. And at Vox Pop we had a Menello night when we showed a lot of his shorts, some of the things he and I made together. There was a promo Menello and I made in the early 80's to try to raise money to do a low budget movie. And we played it as Siskel and Ebert. We showed that and that got a lot of laughs. And then we showed this movie I helped out on with Ric and Adam Dubin called Sidesplitters which has sort of become a cult item. Lewis Black and Jim Norton are in it, playing sort of the Antichrist Abbott and Costello. And then we did a Q and A. So it was a really nice night. And I don't know, I mean I've got 41 years of stories and anecdotes and just hilarious stuff.
GK: I recall you guys were working on a script for a picture that never got made where the Beastie Boys were in a haunted house scenario. It was called Scared Stupid, riffing on Martin and Lewis…
MN: More Abbott and Costello, again, actually, as it turns out.
The funny thing about that is Ric was working for Def Jam at the time and Rick Rubin said, “I want to do a movie with The Beasties in the flavor of the Abbott and Costello movies.” And Menello and I particularly loved The Abbott and Costello Show on television, because it was—we think it's sort of surreal. Because here they were, kind of this broken-down aging comedy team…they were Abbott and Costello and they were living in this dumpy rooming house in Paterson, New Jersey run by a psycho-landlord, Mr. Fields. And except for Mike the cop, all the other tenants were either thugs or hookers. And Menello and I thought that was just the greatest concept ever. And what Menello and I would often do when we would talk about movies or shows we liked, or were working on a thing, we would always figure out what happened to these characters afterwards, or create entirely different movie scenarios involving them. And we said, you know, if Bud and Lou had only lasted as long as Gunsmoke, and that show had gone into the early 70's, we had this whole scenario planned. Lou basically stayed the same but Bud embraced the drug culture. And he kind of—you know the way older guys used to wear the paisley shirts and those long sideburns and the comb-overs to try to get chicks? Bud became that. And he started becoming a pothead ‘cause he was still living with Lou and he was just dragging on weed all the time, 24/7. And he changed his name from Bud Abbott to Bad Abbott.
MN: [imitates Lou Costello] “Bud, stop smoking that stuff.” We would just go on with that for hours. And so Menello came over one day and he said, “Let's come up with an idea for the Beastie Boys movie.” I said, “Well, if you're talking Abbott and Costello, we've got a little selection here and it's pretty much compartmentalized. You either got the service comedy, the western comedy, the whodunit or the haunted house thing.” And Menello said, “Well, it's got to be the haunted house.” I said, “You're right.” So he said, “I'm going to tell Rubin that's what we're going to do.”
And then we were talking on the phone about it during the week and I said, “I have this bizarre idea.” “What is it?” “What if you come over on Friday and instead of watching movies like we always do on the weekends or something, we just spent the entire weekend doing this script? By that I mean, what if we do the entire script in one weekend?” “You think we can do that?” “I don't know. Let's try it.” So he came over on Friday afternoon and we had already the basic outline for the plot. And we broke it down scene by scene. And then we went out to the El Greco Diner where we would always go and pigged out, and then came back and went over everything we had done. And I said, “We've got the entire movie broken down.” Says Ric, “All we got to do now is write it.” And then: “I'll be here tomorrow at 7:30 in the morning,” which I thought was amazing for Menello to say. But he showed up with reams of loose-leaf paper and pens. And the way we would do it is we always put different actors or actresses in parts, whether or not they were living or dead. This is the way we imagined who would be who. And Menello would be laying down on the couch with a pad and pen and I would be pacing the floor. And we'd become the characters. And it got to the point where we started yelling at each other in different voices. It was kind of very Norman Bates-y. But it wouldn't be Mel and Ric yelling at each other, it would be Oliver Reed and George Sanders having an argument. At one point we had the slimy lawyer that the Beastie Boys hired and for some reason we decided it was Jose Ferrer. And we just started in, and it was real vulgar, which was great. That was the thing. Saying “Listen, you motherfuckers” in a Jose Ferrer voice, that kind of stuff. We would just be breaking up laughing. And with the reading of the will… At one point Menello had gotten got a call from Rubin who told him one of the Beasties was dating Molly Ringwald, and that she wanted to be in it. So I said, all right, sure. So she kind of became the Joan Davis character. And we spent the entire day doing this. And then we said, all right, let's take a break. And we had gotten through about 80 to 90 percent of the script. And we were shocked. I said, “This is working.” He goes, “Let's get something to eat.” So we went out and we got something to eat. And we came back and kind of went through everything to see if it even made sense. And he says, “It kind of works.” And we finished up the next day. If you saw it, we had reams and reams of loose-leaf paper. Most of it had Menello's doodles of cartoon characters, and there'd be sometimes only line on a page. If you stacked up the script pages they would probably go from the floor to your kneecap. I said, “Oh, God, pity whoever has to type this up.” And Menello goes, “It's not going to be me.” I said, well, “It's not going to be me either.” He goes, “Rubin's going to take care of it. The thing is, we got it.”
And I was so shocked when a couple of weeks later he came over with a typed up script. I remember he mentioned the woman who was Rubin's assistant who had taken care of it and I said, “Jeez, she deserves a medal.” And it was actually reading funny. And I remember at the time, and it's funny that you mentioned Martin and Lewis. Because Paramount had wind of the project, and called up threatening Rubin because they said it sounded too much like Scared Stiff. And Rubin said, “What are you talking about?” And they said, “We don't want people to get the two movies confused.” And so Rubin started going, “What, you're re-uniting Martin and Lewis?” He goes, “You're talking about a movie that was made 35 years ago? What do you mean, people are going to get confused?” And I swear to God, the guy from the legal department at Paramount said, “We've got high hopes for that movie yet.”
The horrible thing about that was the Beastie Boys split from Def Jam and fell out with Rubin. And they wanted to take the script with them and Rubin said, “It's mine.” Like Daffy Duck in the Warner Brothers cartoon--it's mine, it's mine! And Menello said, “I guess it's never going to get made cause there's no way—believe me, I can't get into it, but there's no way they're ever going to get back together again.” And I said, damn. But one of the Beastie Boys at that time was getting laser disks from me. And he had talked to Ric and the idea was, “Well maybe Mel would consider working with us on some project.” There was a lot of bad blood at the time and Rubin didn’t like that idea, and nothing ever became of it anyway. I heard that that script was named one of the most wanted never-to-be-made cult movies ever. And somebody, I guess, had gotten a copy of one of the drafts or whatever, how it ended up, and was selling them on eBay for I don't know how much.
GK: Eventually the Beastie Boys had their rapprochement with Rick Rubin. They were in a completely different place as performers by that point.
MN: Yeah. I must have a copy of the script somewhere. I remember some funny stuff in there.
GK: I mentioned before, Ric’s commentary on the DVD of Cry of the Owl is really something.
MN: Well for as long as I knew him Ric would say of Chabrol, “He's my favorite living director.” And Ric wrote him a fan letter, and Chabrol wrote him back and Menello would sit there translating, with a French-English dictionary what he said. And he would correspond with Chabrol and Chabrol—I don't remember what movie it was, it might have been Story of Women or Madame Bovary, one of those pictures from around that period—Chabrol sent Ric his script with all his annotations in it. And Menello was over the moon about it. He says, “I can't believe this.” And they kind of…things happened, they lost touch.
When James Gray was at Cannes with Two Lovers he was sitting next to Chabrol at an event. And Chabrol loved James Gray. He goes, “You're the only American director I like.” And James thanks him. And Chabrol goes, “I was shocked when I saw the name Ric Menello and I was wondering, could it be the same Ric Menello who used to write to me in the 80's?” And James says, “Yes, Ric told me about that.” And Chabrol says, “Why did he stop writing?” James replied, “I don't know, I guess he didn't want to bother you. That's the way Ric is. “ And Chabrol says, “No, no, no.” He gave him his contact information. “You must tell him to get in touch with me.” So Ric was thrilled. And I said, “Why didn't you go to Cannes?” And he goes, “Well, a couple of reasons.” I said, “Well what's one?” “I don't have a passport.” “That's a good reason.”
I had been shooting footage for a documentary Adam Dubin was producing about Ric, and after I heard this story, I said to Dubin, “If we go take this movie to the extreme, this is the only thing I want to go and manufacture. Everything else just happens. But I want this to be planned. I want to contact Chabrol and tell him about it, because I'm sure he'll agree, and I want to fly Menello over to France to just--under the pretense of getting some kind of award or something like that. We'll actually film him going to the passport office to get his passport. Which will be hilarious in and of itself. And he meets Chabrol. And I want an overhead shot of the two of them walking off together, like the end of Casablanca. And that's the only thing I want to plan.” And Dubin said, “That's great.” Of course in the interim Chabrol passed away. And then the project went on the back burner for a while. But I'm glad that Adam wants to do something with it now.
The only consolation with respect to his passing is that the last three months were the happiest I've ever seen Menello. ‘Cause everything was starting to really open up for him. He has a new movie he wrote with James Gray, Lowlife, coming out in a couple of weeks. And Thanksgiving we always get together at a mutual friend's house and she does this huge layout. And he had just seen the movie and he said, “First of all it was no digital crap, it was an actual 35 mm print,” so he was all excited about that. And he said, “Do you remember when I first saw Two Lovers and I said I thought it came out way better than I thought, I really was proud of it?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “This grinds it into the dust. If I ever get remembered for one thing, I'd be happy if it was this. It was great. It looks like an epic, it moves, everything works. I'm so happy about it.” I said, “Well, that's great, Ric.” And then we were exchanging notes cause we were going to start another script at the end of this month. He had also been contracted to do a screenplay for a biopic on Jimmy Roselli, which he was working on. And the final draft went through with the producers and they greenlit it. And he was so excited about that too. He was supposed to pick up his check on Monday. And on top of that, we went to some industry Christmas party where we met a man who, unbeknownst to us, turned out to be some enormously successful producer. He kind of passed himself off as “Well, I've made a couple documentaries.” He did a lot more than that. And we met with him a few weeks ago and he was interested in having us develop a crime series for TV with him. And we're coming back afterwards and he turned to me and he said, you know, “You're the most pessimistic bastard I know after me.” And he put his hand on my arm and he said, “For the first time in my life, I'm cautiously optimistic.” And it's just--it's such a fucking shame.
I took him to some media events I was covering freelance, and they said you could bring a guest. We had a blast. And one of them was for the 40th anniversary of Cabaret and it was kind of one of those things—you know, ”You want to go?” And he said, “Yeah, what the hell, why not?” Then he said, “You think Marisa Berenson will be there?” I said, “It's possible. They said all the principals will be there.” And Menello goes, “But not Bob Fosse.” I said, “Well, if he is, I'm going to run like hell.” So we went. It was at the Trump Tower. You walk in and you look at the bottled water and they had Trump Water. It had his picture on it. We started laughing about that. I don't know if you've ever been to one of those things, but it's in a suite, they set you, 2 or 3 journalists, at each table and it's like speed dating.
GK: Yeah, I did that with Leon Vitali and Malcolm MacDowell for the Kubrick Blu-ray releases…
MN: Yeah, yeah, so you know how that works. So it's Michael York and Joel Grey and we were talking to them, and they were really nice and it was great, ‘cause you could get really intimate with these people and it was fun. And then after everything was said and done, we were really asking questions we wanted to ask them. Menello and I brought up Accident to Michael York, and he just lit up: “God bless you both.” He just started talking to us about Losey and Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker and it was just great. And then we were asking him about, we said, “We're very fond of a movie you did called Zeppelin.” And he says,” I actually like that too. I'm particularly fond of one critic's review who said, ‘It's a gas.’”
And I was talking to Joel Grey about this movie, Man on a Swing that I kind of thought was quirky. He kind of was surprised that anybody knew about it. Then he talked to Menello at another table and Menello brings it up and Grey goes, “Somebody else just asked me that.” And Menello goes, “That's my best friend. I'm his guest here today.” So we're sitting there, and then t I look over and I jab Menello in the side and I said, “I think Marisa Berenson's coming in.” Menello goes, “What?” She came in, and she looked gorgeous. And she's sitting down. And Menello’s like, “Please let her be smart.” We're talking to her. And she was great. And she was very intuitive about the differences of working with Kubrick as opposed to Visconti. All this great stuff that she was talking about. We were just thrilled. And Menello was started asking her some questions and he stopped and he says, “I just have to say this. You're so beautiful. I can't stop thinking how gorgeous you are. I just wanted to say it.” And she said “Oh, well thank you.” And she said, “And who are you with again?” And Menello goes, “Well actually I'm not even supposed to be here.” And he pointed to me and says “This is my best friend Mel and he's writing for this Examiner online or whatever, and I'm his guest. But we've written a lot of stuff together and I've actually…well, I wrote a movie a couple of years ago with James Gray. “ And she says, “Oh yes? What movie was that?” “It was this movie called Two Lovers.” And Marisa Berenson gasps, and she says, “I love that movie!” And Menello was in heaven. And he just was like, “Really?” Yeah. And afterwards he came over, he was like in a trance. And I said, “Ric, this is crazy. Go up to her and let me get a picture of you guys.” And so he goes up to her: “Would it be all right if Mel took a picture?” She goes, are you kidding? And she grabbed Menello and he was just flying. And then afterwards, he said, “I don't want you to think me being out of line or anything like this, but when the new movie comes out in the spring, James has indicated to me that he might arrange for me to do a modestly budget movie that I could write and direct.” Ric goes on, “I have no idea what it would be yet, but it's up there and I just wanted to know, would it be all right to get in touch with you….because I mean again, I don't know what it's going to be but I would love to have you involved in it if you wanted to.” And she just said, “Of course, of course.” She gave him her e-mail address and he was just…you know…he just said, “I didn't think anything could top the event we went to last night”—which was like the 90th anniversary of Warner Brothers thing, which was fun—“but this topped it.” And he goes, “This is like, everything's going. Everything's going for me. Everything. “ And I said, “Yeah. Good stuff. “
Sometimes I wonder whether the thing I'll most be remembered for as a critic will be having gone easy on proclaimed-to-be-foredoomed-by-mainstream-media Disney blockbusters. Yeah, I see that Oz The Great And Powerful Oz has been getting overall better reviews than John Carter (which you may recall, and this is central to my point, I rather liked), but still, you get my gist. I'm mixed on Oz—James Franco's casting is very nearly disastrous, for one thing—but I do insist that by the end it gets its job done. Your mileage may vary, of course, and this of course depends very much the extent to which you're invested in the job the movie proposes to do. Reviewed for MSN Movies.
Also reviewed: Christian Mingiu's entirely admirable...perhaps TOO admirable...Beyond The Hills.
All I needed was for ONE person to ask...
Afternoon in Akureyri.
The Northern Lights without a tripod.
Orkan gas station, Akureyri. Part of my "Counterfeit Wim Wenders Stills" series.
The journalist-turned-screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has, either in spite or because of his standing as something of a self-important clod, made several significant contributions to the lexicon of show business. I was reminded recently of his late ‘80s citation of his former agent, the diminuitive and feisty Michael Ovitz. Ovitz, according to Eszterhas, responded to Eszterhas’ announcement that he was leaving Ovitz and his agency CAA by telling Eszterhas that he, Ovitz, had “foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day” who would “blow [Eszterhas’] brains out.” Such colorful language. Hollywood, like so many other fields of endeavor, is full of emotionally disturbed people who often fancy themselves tough guys.
What brought the denied-by-Ovitz Ovitz pronouncement to mind was a piece that appeared on New York magazine’s Vulture website nearly two weeks ago, by one Brian McGreevy, entitled “Don’t Call Lena Dunham ‘Brave.’” I need not go into the larger substance of the piece here; I’m not a television critic and I’ve already (I think) expressed my opinions on the use of the word “brave” as applied to performers, artists, what have you. What struck me was what came after McGreevy’s largely sensible exhortation that Lena Dunham’s public persona does not necessarily line up with Lena Dunham’s function as a creator or artist. “Lena Dunham is not weak,” McGreevy warns the reader. “Lena Dunham will cut your throat in your sleep.”
“She will do no such thing,” I laughed. I laughed even more because prior to his fulminations in this vein (and there are a lot of them), McGreevy included a clause reading “as a producer.” What has McGreevy produced? According to his bio below the piece, he has executive-produced a Netflix series based on a book he has written.
I know that David Foster Wallace once made mild fun of Susan Faludi for referring to a porn movie set as an “ecology,” but reading McGreevy’s piece I myself found myself contemplating a cultural ecology in which an individual with precisely one producing credit to his name feels sufficiently confident to swing an inflated rhetorical dick around like he’s Mace Neufeld or something (I’ve actually met Mace Neufeld and I doubt he’d stoop to anything so vulgar, or unnecessary). A cultural ecology in which the Internet arm of a major publication will pay probably-not-that-good money for the inflated rhetorical dick swinging. And most of all, a cultural ecology in which consumers are expected to be pleased to be told that Lena Dunham will cut their throats in their sleep.
“[A]ll art is a product of shameless opportunism that deserves to be applauded,” McGreevy continues. “[Dunham] is a woman who has risen through a masculine power hierarchy to become one of the most important culture-makers of the 21st century without compromising her artistic identity, and is fucking a rock star, this is more or less as baller as it gets.”
The unfortunate adolescent quality of McGreevy’s language aside, we are, once again, quite a long way from the ethos of our old friend Andrei Tarkovsky, who once wrote: “Ultimately artists work at their profession not for the sake of telling someone about something but as an assertion of their will to serve people. I am staggered by artists who assume that they freely create themselves, that it is actually possible to do so; for it is the lot of the artist to accept that he is created by his time and the people amongst whom he lives. As Pasternak put it:
“Keep awake, keep awake, artist,
Do not give in to sleep…
You are eternity’s hostage
And prisoner of time.
“And I’m convinced that if an artist succeeds in doing something, he does so nly because that is what people need—even if they are not aware of it at the time. And so it’s always the audience who win, who gain something, while the artist loses, and has to pay out.”
Call me crazy, but I see a pretty straight line connecting a skepticism toward the “difficult” in art and “We Saw Your Boobs,” a production number I’ll admit to having missed during its initial broadcast, and still haven’t caught up with. Hostile, ugly, sexist: these are the words that The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson uses to describe Oscar host Seth MacFarlane’s schtick as host of the ceremonies. I have to admit my reaction to some of the outrage (not Davidson's, I hasten to add), in part, is to say, in my imagination, and now here, to a certain breed of multi-disciplinary pop-culture enthusiast, well, you picked your poison, now you can choke on it. It’s all well and good to make “fun,” “irreverence,” “FUBU” or any number of related qualities the rocks upon which you build the church of your aesthetic, or your worldview. But you might want to remember the precise parameters of the choices you made on the occasion that they bite you on the ass. Not to mix metaphors or anything.
Also published on the Internet around two weeks ago, on the website Buzzfeed, was something I guess is referred to as a listicle, entitled “What’s The Deal With Jazz?” in which the author, Amy Rose Spiegel, expressed her immense disdain for the musical form in digital rebus style. She takes immaculate care to only lampoon the white, and rather hackish (per conventional wisdom), practitioners of the form, until the very end, in which she allows “But really, the worst part of despising jazz is when people say ‘No, no, you just haven’t heard the good stuff! Blah blah blah Miles Davis Charles Mingus blah blah blerg.’ Actually, I have. I have, and I hate it.”
Now all this is arguably ignorant, arguably hateful, arguably racist. It excited a fair amount of disapprobation in my circle on Twitter, where it became clear that some of the people complaining about it were friendly with the piece’s “editor,” to whom I myself expressed some displeasure, and she in turn expressed displeasure that I was making it “personal.” Call me crazy, again, but I can’t see too much of a way not to respond “personally” to such a piece. Plenty of people in the “conversation” allowed that, well, Buzzfeed DOES do great things, but that this wasn’t one of them, and that it was regrettable. I see it completely the opposite way. I see “What’s The Deal With Jazz?” as absolutely emblematic of Buzzfeed and all it stands for, just as I see the charming piece called “Django Unattained: How Al Sharpton Ruined A Cool Collector’s Item” as absolutely emblematic of the site Film School Rejects. I know I’m possibly coming off like Susan Sontag yammering about how a million Mozarts could not cancel out the fact that the white race is the cancer of civilization. I’m aware of the good that is out there. But let’s face it: Robert Fure, Amy Rose Spiegel, and tens of thousands of others are eager to bulldoze it, and the Jeff Jarvises of the world are happy to let them do it, if only because it will prove their theories about the Internet to be correct.
In 1998 a couple of writer friends, who I’ll call K and L, made me the gift of a personal introduction to a man I’ll call D, whose work as a journalist and an artist I had long admired. Our first dinner was at a steakhouse on Tenth Avenue, after which we went to see P.J. Harvey at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Great show, you shoulda been there. Anyway, during the course of the dinner conversation, K was talking about how he had recently seen the movie Belly, a kind of hip-hop gangster movie starring DMX and Nas and directed by Hype Williams. K described his discomfort with the movie and some of its depictions, but was having trouble articulating that discomfort. D, a person of exceptional perspicacity and directness, and someone who had been something of a professional mentor to K in the past, cut to the chase.
“Did you find it morally objectionable?”
K thought this over for a bit. It was clear that he did not want to seem prim. It was also clear that trying to bullshit D wouldn’t do.
“Yes,’ he said. “Yes, I found it morally objectionable.”
D smiled and cut into his steak and said, “Well then you should say: ‘I found it morally objectionable.’”