From Softcore to Lubitsch: To Save and Project 2019

The Museum of Modern Art's festival of film preservation offers a typically eclectic range of films, fiction, documentary and experimental.
David Cairns

It's already started! Look lively! The To Save and Project festival of film preservation at New York's Museum of Modern Art offers a typically eclectic range of films, fiction, documentary and experimental, united in their importance and the fact that they've recently been restored and preserved. Think you've seen Murnau's Faust (1926)? Both versions? (Every shot was filmed with two cameras to provide two negatives.) Well, what about this new restoration, which incorporates never-before-seen intertitles in verse written for the film but removed before release due to the scenarist's objections?

Other films are far less familiar. George Griffin explores the history and philosophy of animation in Lineage (1979), a mixed-media mini-masterpiece that moves from scribbles on celluloid through line animation to manipulated live action shots and early computer graphics. The visuals never stoop to merely illustrating the voice-over, nor do they distract from it. Instead they take wing, riffing on the ideas and having fun. Highly communicable fun.

(Griffin's film, which he's introducing, is accompanied by a whistle-stop tour of British animated shorts from 1906 to 1994 which contains a few masterpieces and some extraordinary oddities. WWI science fiction fantasy Ever Been Had?, pictured below, is required viewing.)

A retrospective of Barbet Schroeder's documentary work reminds us that, like Werner Herzog, he has always made factual films in parallel with his fictive output, and the two inform one another. Though focussing far more on the interview format than Herzog, Schroeder has certainly notched up a similarly impressive roster of subjects, from General Idi Amin to Koko the talking gorilla (recently deceased, alas). Perhaps best of all is Terror's Advocate (2007), profiling the undoubtedly smart, sly, and seductive Jacques Verges, who acted as defense counsel for a dizzying variety of terrorists (Carlos the Jackal), dictators, Nazi war criminals (Claus Barbie), and serial killers. He gives a very good account of himself: Schroeder is not convinced, and he lets us know this only by the tiniest of hints.

Doris Wishman's Nude on the Moon (1961) proves, if it proves anything at all, just how diverse this program is. Wishman's softcore seediness plays with all its original technical limitations lovingly preserved, transporting us to another world: not the moon, but the erotic subconscious of America before the sexual revolution. The photography is rudimentary and frequently a bit out of focus, but the color is gorgeous. Wishman's stylistic choices were usually motivated by production constraints, particularly the need to make sound film without a sync camera, which would usually result in irrelevant cutaways inserted each time the dialogue was about to go out of whack with the lip movements. But here she has a planetoid full of topless telepaths, and her "astronauts" keep their snorkel tubes in at all times, so no close sync is required. See it and fail to believe it.

On a (much) more elevated plane of sexual shenanigans is Ernst Lubitsch's long-unavailable Forbidden Paradise (1924), a crucial refinement of his Hollywood craft, starring favorite players Pola Negri and Adolph Menjou. The restoration is terrific, but has to deal with missing shots, and Lubitsch, unlike Wishman, did not shoot unnecessary filler: everything lost is essential. The clever work by MoMa and the Film Foundation restores the ruptured narrative clarity by duplicating shots and other trickery, but can never achieve the original seamlessness of Lubitsch's decoupage. But it's a joy to at last be able to see this crucial work. Present and correct: Ruritanian kingdom; lusty empress; cunning aide; dopey male lead; doting innocent; doors (and keyholes). On the big screen, this will get big laughs with the smallest of effects, glances, smiles, the twist of a mustache.

Lubitsch and Wishman both explored romantic and sexual love without going "all the way." Jenni Olson's Blue Diary (1998) leaves its central characters completely offscreen. As the voice-over describes a one-off encounter she wishes could be something more (“the melancholy story of a dyke pining over a one-night stand with a straight girl”), we are shown merely empty streets and STOP signs, creating both tranquil distance and a sense of loneliness. You might need a hug afterwards.

This is the merest smattering of a selection of the work on offer: full menu here.

To Save and Project runs January 10 – 31, 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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To Save and ProjectTo Save and Project 2019F.W. MurnauGeorge GriffinBarbet SchroederDoris WishmanErnst LubitschJenni Olson
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