Tuesday, April 12, 2016

More Tales from the Crypt (or, more accurately, the vaults)

When last heard from, Beverly in Movieland had just toured the storage vaults at Hollywood’s  Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study. It was a fascinating experience, but there was much more to come. After we enjoyed the musical pleasures of the American Fotoplayer (complete with auto horn and whoopee whistle interjections), we were ushered into the spacious Linwood Dunn Theater for a demonstration of what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does best.
The Academy has preserved films of many nations, everything from Rashomon to Bambi Meets Godzilla. But one of its proudest achievements has been restoring the work of the great Bengali director, Satyajit Ray. Ray’s Apu Trilogy consists of three films (beginning with 1955’s Pather Panchali) that capture life in rural India in glowing black-and-white. The films, which had been hailed by cinephiles the world over, suffered a devastating blow when the British facility in which the original negatives were stored caught fire. An Academy-produced documentary, Saving the Apu Trilogy, showed us just how badly the films were damaged: their sprockets were gone, and many sections were warped or fused together. Whole reels looked like they’d been barbecued to a crisp. The Academy poured its resources into the problem, and – with the help of a special lab in Bologna, Italy – managed to save the bulk of Ray’s masterwork.

An unexpected part of the Academy archive is its collection of home movies, which show Hollywood’s legendary movers and shakers at work and at play. We saw Gary Cooper and famous art director Cedric Gibbons on the tennis court, Marlene Dietrich socializing with friends, and Marilyn Monroe cozying up to a fluffy pup on the set of The Misfits. Early images of a sleepy Hollywood Blvd. were priceless. And the son of the great Fayard Nicholas (one of two tap-dancing Nicholas brothers) came up to the podium to introduce footage of his father hanging out with his uncle Harold, and Harold’s beautiful bride, Dorothy Dandridge.

Because the Academy is also interested in cinematic innovation, we watched a 1956 short called “The Miracle of Todd-AO,” designed to promote a new wide-screen 70mm format. Inevitably, we were taken along on a queasy-making roller-coaster ride, watched skiers swoosh down the slopes of Sun Valley, and joined in a motorcycle chase through the hills of San Francisco, more than a decade before Bullitt. The whole thing ended in an unexpected commercial for an upcoming Todd-AO release, the screen version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

I also delighted in two short films from the Academy collection, both of them featuring cats. One, made by Gus Van Sant, was a live-action short capturing a pet feline trying to chase down a patch of sunlight. The other, done in spectacularly fluid animation by Sara Petty back in 1978, shows two Siamese cats cavorting in a delightfully sinister way. It’s called “Furies,” and I could see why. Petty apparently made many animated shorts in the course of her career, but a break-in at her storage locker tragically robbed the world of much of her talent. Just one more reason that we need film archives as repositories for great works of cinematic art.

The big news for film lovers is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is finally taking steps to share its priceless collections with the public. For years Angelenos have bemoaned the lack of a serious movie museum in the town that movies built. Now construction is actually underway on L.A.’s Miracle Mile. We‘re promised an “immersive environment” that will help visitors explore the dream factory.

Bulletins as they break!  

From Sara Petty's "Furies"

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