In New York, BAM, Film Forum, and Anthology Film Archives are playing forgotten masterworks, unavailable on DVD, in pristine prints: this past week has surfaced prints of Elia Kazan’s America, America at Film Forum, Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die and André De Toth’s Man in the Saddle, Norman Rockwell with guns, at BAM, and an entire retrospective to Ulrike Ottinger at Anthology, where upcoming are long overdue retros of Roger Corman and Jerry Lewis. In most cases, it’s been decades since these films have been shown in New York.
Meanwhile, MoMA slugs on with deliberately disposable movies designed to draw families and indie teens who have already seen them: a Spike Jonze retro of his music videos and films; an upcoming Tim Burton retro the museum’s been working on for years; a just-completed “Recent Film Acquisitions” display of the films MoMA’s added to its private collection, including a Lord of the Rings film, Little Children, Casino Royale, Wedding Crashers, three Baz Luhrmann films, and amidst these recent date-films, one classic, William Wellman’s Night Nurse. Such has more or less become the standard fare–less discoveries, less classics, more stuff you got too busy to see in theaters–since Rajendra Roy took over the film department in 2007. To date, Roy’s own major exhibitions have included a Pixar retro, a Bourne trilogy retro, and a tribute to Mike Nichols.
One-for-you, one-for-me, seems to have become the attitude among MoMA’s curators. Amidst the dribble, MoMA this month is also programming something of a no-wave video retro, a retro of the long-overlooked avant-garde filmmaker Andrew Noren, an annual series of recently restored films from around the world, and a few unknown Hungarian films personally programmed by Bela Tarr. These should be good.
But meanwhile, MoMA’s also programming what should be the most important retro of the year, anywhere: an “auteurist history of film,” a history of the canonical films from MoMA’s gargantuan collection, probably the leading collection of silent and experimental film in the world. A comprehensive survey of the most important films ever made, at least through 1929, the retro is a weekly course in history, art, and entertainment, and you can imagine some kid Orson Welles (who watched Stagecoach at MoMA 40 times in preparation for Citizen Kane) discovering Griffith and Chirstensen alongside new films by Costa, Straub, Rivette, and other underground alt-favorites, and, eying the throughline, seeing some possibilities for cinema’s own dubious future. Here are films that rarely screen, that MoMA has the best (often tinted) prints of in the world, and that are the equivalent to film as Homer and Virgil are to literature. MoMA’s decided to screen the series in the afternoons, at 1:30, when only retirees and bums can come in, and in their smallest theater. Not just an insult to the filmmakers, who are dead anyway, and their constituents, who are close to it, it’s an insult to MoMA’s own collection that they used to show off every night, with only the costs of shipping to pay. Families won’t bring their kids to Griffith; he certainly won’t appeal to the ethnic minorities MoMA spends increasing time with its new programming attempting to court.
Artists are attennae of the race, and critics and programmers are the transmitters. MoMA’s problem, at least, is that it shows a lot of movies and a lot of them are masterpieces, and if pandering to one audience means rewarding another, everyone comes out happy. Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade, however, has started exploiting its audience under the premise of a “film society” showing films, when VHS-standard beta tapes–with runny colors and video grain that can hardly keep up with a moving image–have become their standard, in the past few weeks, for $11 tickets. For a 1960 film retro, Walter Reade showed Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, which had a brand new print made for an Oshima retro last year–that played at WR–on film, but in a decades-old totally-red faded print. These things happen. But Walter Reade’s Chinese films retro of about 20 films featured all but five or six on beta, with no notification until a note was pasted on the box office near the end of the retro right under the friendly warning that no refunds will be accepted for any show. WR’s simultaneous Guru Dhatt retro of about 10 films featured every single one on beta–with no notification at all–even though there have been recent Dhatt retros featuring only 35mm prints. The programmers of the current Horror series have obviously done their best to secure prints of the films (and the line-up is a top-notch compilation of bottom-drawer films, many unavailable on home video), yet Cronenberg’s The Brood, which has screened recently in New York in 35mm, was shown on a dismal beta without warning, and Argento’s Phenomena, shown on film, was listed as the original 110 minute version, but played as the completely nonsensical 80 minute distributor’s cut.
These are all minor complaints, but these are also major films. In many cases, they may not been available on film–in which case, there’s no reason not to show another film to fit the theme (“Red China,” “Horror”) instead. In many cases, the beta is probably cheaper, for shipping costs alone (international shipping charges can run hundreds of dollars per film). But financially the cost should ultimately be to Walter Reade, also under the new management of Mara Manus and, like MoMA, increasingly skewing to new exotica, when audiences realize they’d be better off staying at home and watching a DVD instead. What is needed first is some transparency as to what, at least, the policies are; MoMA, at least, only screens movies on beta when film is absolutely unavailable, but still refuses to publicize the format. Any customer, even one duped into thinking he’s gonna see a decent print, is a good customer.