Raiders of the Lost Archives (Web Exclusive)
by Thomas Doherty
If you haven’t found any good films lately, a crew of documentary filmmakers can point you in the right direction—say, to the permafrost of Northwest Canada, a shed on an old homestead in Iowa, or the basement of a newsreel cameraman’s son in Georgia. “Films beget films,” motion-picture genealogist Jay Leyda aphorized, and the injunction to go forth and multiply has been taken to heart by a dedicated band of archivists/detectives who craft motion pictures for the digital age about motion pictures from the analog age, exploiting the software of the new medium to showcase the beat-up prints and clunky hardware of the old. They are—and they celebrate—raiders of the lost cold storage vaults, racing against time to retrieve a fragile heritage before it crumbles into ashes or bursts into flames.
A cluster of three like-minded documentaries, all spellbound before the big-screen spectacle of 35mm and 16mm formats, bids to rescue the cast-off canisters from the dumpsters of cinematic history: Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time; Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne, and John Richard’s Saving Brinton; and Robin Lung’s Finding Kukan. More than weepy eulogies to a vanishing art form, each is a meditation on the hypnotic allure of photographic imagery for the optic nerve and a testimonial to the chemistry—and the history—coating the film frames.
And film, the kind manufactured by Eastman and Edison, is the operative mode. The triple bill exudes a fixation on film stock, cellulose nitrate or safety, that borders on the fetishistic: you can almost feel the erotic jolt as the keepers of the frames run the reels through a moviola, thread a projector, or caress the slickness of a celluloid strip with their fingers. Against the Platonic realm of the digital matrix, the material tangibility of too, too solid film possesses a reassuring ballast, an aura that beckons not only to the visual but to the tactile, aural, and olfactory senses. Loving montages savor the touch of the film, hearken to the whirr of the projectors, sniff the vinaigrette aroma, and bask in the heat of the projector bulbs. Films take up space in the material world and come alive within four walls; they are not beamed down into a hand held device from an ethereal realm up in the Cloud.
Of course, the retrodocs are Luddite in temper, manifestos by technophobes who stand athwart the locomotive of cinematic history, yelling “Halt!” right before getting run off the tracks. The ascendancy of a new art–technology often inspires a last-gasp backward-looking rearguard action—think of the grungy punk bands lifting a middle finger to the slick studio rock of the late 1970s or the resurgence of the vinyl LP, and even, thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy and Baby Driver, cassette tapes to drown out the autotuned anthems on Pandora and Spotify. Yet the aesthetic resistance to the digital order is grounded in an altruistic impulse. Conducting what is primarily a salvage job, Dawson City, Saving Briton, and Finding Kukan all do the hard slogging of research and restoration, getting down in the dirt to dig up as much of the stuff as possible before the images fade forever. The clock is always ticking.
Moreover, unearthing the buried footage is only part of the archeological work. The crews want also to reclaim the spectatorial experience and screen the films in an atmosphere evocative of their original showcase. “Recent times have decisively untethered movies from their theatrical context,” William Paul observed in his glance back at our lost picture shows, When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of the American Film, published in 2016. Confronting the first generation of moviegoers who may have never eyeballed a crisp 35mm print projected on the big screen, the filmmakers seek to retether movies to their four-wall birthplace. A recurrent sequence in the documentaries is the unreeling of the found film on a theatrical screen for a mirrored viewing—where the watcher watches another audience watching the selfsame spectacle.
Director/writer/editor Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time is the most vivid flashback to the motion picture past, a woozy leap through the stargate that is the one-of-a-kind Dawson City collection. Morrison seems to have set the coordinates on a time machine for a passage into a vibrant chunk of frontier-filmic history, a world that moved a century ago. As the story and the reels unwind, the lesson in film studies also becomes a curriculum in environmental wreckage, boom and bust capitalism, and Native American ethnography. The time is anything but frozen: the minutes speed by.
The tale of the Dawson City collection may be the coolest origin story in the annals of archival history. [See “The Filmmaker as Miner: An Interview with Bill Morrison,” in Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Winter 2016] Located in the far western boonies of Canada’s Yukon Territory, Dawson City experienced flush, rip-roaring times during the Klondike Gold Rush that erupted in 1897. As get-rich-quick hopefuls flooded in, the smartest entrepreneurs understood that the real fortunes were made from “mining the miners,” catering to the prospectors with goods and entertainment, including the newest version of the latter, the movies. Distributors shipped the films east to west across the vast interior of the Great White North, with Dawson City being the end of the line—an outpost so remote that the played-out, beat-up prints were not considered worth the cost of postage back East. So the reels stayed in Dawson City, tons of combustible nitrate stock stashed first in the basement of a gutted library (bad idea) and then dumped as landfill into a pit under a hockey rink. Young skaters would occasionally spot a few feet of film coming up through the ice and set it afire for kicks.
Cut to 1978, when a citizen digging into the ground with a backhoe dredged up a mother lode of film canisters and loose reels. Michael Gates, an alert curator for Parks Canada, and Kathy Jones, director of the Dawson City Museum, realized the site held another kind of gold mine; the permafrost had acted as a kind of natural cold storage chamber. With the assist of the Canadian National Archives and the Royal Air Force, the only outfit that dared transport the flammable material, a decades-long (and still in progress) work of cataloging and restoration began. The result so far: 533 restored reels, features, serials, and newsreels, mostly from the late teens and early 1920s, with 372 silent film remnants unique to the collection.
Unspooling to a synthy Tangerine Dreamy music score by Alex Samors and sound design by John Samos (I didn’t hear a Theremin on the track but it would not have been out of place), Dawson City does its namesake proud. To give a sense of the wealth of material in the junk heap—what is held in the collection and what has been lost—Morrison stitches together montage after montage of match-cut action from scores of films: silent ghosts walking in and out of doors, embracing, fighting, racing, gambling. The director is punctilious about identifying the sources of the blizzard of clips that flash by, some from extant archival footage, others unique to the Dawson City collection, but he eschews voice-overs and (excepting Gates and Jones) talking heads. Scripted supers on the screen, not subtitles or intertitles, fill in background and narrative. A synch dialogue track would only propel viewers forward and Morrison prefers they be stuck in time, back in the day.
The spectral images are haunting, as if the Civil War daguerreotypes of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner had suddenly sprung to life. Besides the Samors’s eerie sonic track, the through-a-glass-darkly effect is enhanced by the scars of a natural watermark on the Dawson City collection, a distinctive brand of white deterioration at the borders of the frame where water damage has caused the chemical emulsion to wash away.
For a film about loss, Morrison is able to draw on a surprisingly rich storehouse of visual material—early silent actualities chronicling the Gold Rush, industrial films, and retrospective feature films—notably Clarence Brown’s The Trail of ’98 (1928), from the novel by Robert Service, one of the many artists who passed through Dawson City soaking up local color. Rivaling the moving images are the still photographs of Eric Hegg, whose bleak vistas of long lines of men and pack mules trudging in the snow up the Chilkoot Pass—pictures known from Charlie Chaplin’s meticulous re-creations in The Gold Rush (1925)—showed how the pull of gold fever overpowered instincts of self-preservation. (Heggs’s glass plate negatives escaped oblivion by a twist of fate almost as serendipitous as the backhoe that saved the Dawson City collection: a couple rebuilding a cabin came across the glass negatives behind a wall.)
The residue of film history seems to be in the blood of Dawson City. Besides the archival collection, the town gave birth to a young newspaper boy named Sid Grauman and a gruff bartender named Alexander Pantages, both of whom went on to open motion picture palaces in Hollywood. The celluloid in the soil also rubbed off on William Desmond Taylor, a timekeeper for the Yukon Gold Company, who later became a prominent director in the protean motion picture industry and an even more prominent murder victim in 1922. Nor was the generative power of the Yukon limited to motion picture impresarios: just up the river from Dawson City, in the town of Whitehorse, an enterprising flesh merchant named Fred Trump opened up a brothel and founded a brand-name real-estate dynasty.
If Dawson City: Frozen Time is about the retrieval of the past through film, it is also about irreparable loss. Every spring, when the frozen Yukon River broke up, the community disposed of its trash—including excess films—by dumping the junk on ice floes and watching it disappear into the currents, tossing a legacy down the river. Sometimes, too, the community held bonfires, the nitrate stock making dandy illumination in the sun-starved winters. In fact, fire is Morrison’s apt and recurrent visual leitmotif: not just the kind set off by the highly combustible nitrate stock (“Nitrate film will spontaneously combust if stored improperly and burns fiercely and completely, even if immersed in water.”) but also the more conventional tinderboxes of warehouses, factories, and theaters that made Dawson City a pyromaniac’s dream. The city center burned down every year on the year for its first nine years, and all its major theaters, hotels, and civic centers regularly went up like torches. When history delivers a metaphor, you might as well run with it.
Where Dawson City: Frozen Time is spectral picture book, Saving Brinton is a charming family album, a heartwarming tribute to the thirty-five-year-long campaign by the indefatigable Michael Zahs, farmer, regional historian, and pack rat, to spotlight a cache of films from a site more placid and less incendiary than the raucous frontier town of Dawson City, the heartland hamlet of Washington, Iowa. Sporting a ZZ Top beard, flashing Kris Kringle eyes, and radiating boundless enthusiasm, Zahs is the prairie opposite of the grim careworn characters painted by fellow Iowan Grant Wood (though he has a copy of Grant’s Woman with Plant in his home as well as the plant featured in the portrait—not just the same species of plant but the actual plant from the picture). The three filmmakers are in full swoon over Zahs, his film collection, and his home turf. Saving Brinton doubles as a love letter to all things Iowa—square dancing, farm auctions, homemade pies, Amish baseball. When a T-shirt is glimpsed with a line from Field of Dreams (“Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.”), the exchange is not meant ironically.
Zahs’s mission, obsession, and life’s work is to preserve and showcase the collection of films, motion picture equipment, and film-related ephemera that once belonged to Frank and Indiana Brinton, a husband and wife team of pioneer exhibitors who from 1897 to 1919, while using the opera house in Washington as their home base and flagship venue, barnstormed from Minnesota to Texas putting on motion picture shows for communities waiting to be dazzled. In the days before the motion picture palace, or even the nickelodeon, the Brinton’s Ma and Pa roadshow requisitioned vaudeville venues, small-town opera houses, and sides of barns for the new kind of magic show.
Frank died in 1919, Indiana in 1951, and their legacy was nearly buried with them. Zahs came across the collection at an auction sale in 1981 and salvaged an estate he knew, somehow, was worth preserving. He kept the stash in a shed on his family farm and later a designated “Brinton room” of his house, where an understanding wife tolerated his eccentricity. Zahs also collects farm tools, old machinery, stray dogs, you name it—he is just a few degrees shy of the borderline personalities featured on TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive. The line between antique and junk is one he doesn’t so much cross as refuse to recognize. “I always saved,” he says simply.
Haines, Sherbourne, and Richard know they have a human as film-friendly as anything they will cull from the Brinton collection. A natural teacher and gifted raconteur, Zahs delights elementary school kids, and himself, during a “show and tell’ presentation of sundry farm implements from the old homestead. And not just the kids: Kathy Fuller-Seely, a film professor at the University of Texas who shares Zahs’s zeal for early exhibition practices, pores over the pages of a Brinton scrapbook with the same wide eyes of wonder. “Oh, this is cool!” she can’t help but blurt out.
Zahs is a jack-of-all-film-trades: he assembles, repairs, and hand cranks the ancient projectors; mounts screenings from the collection; gives tours of the local theater, and works pro bono as a tireless missionary for the cause. His obsessive-compulsive zeal extends to the complete gestalt of the Brinton experience, a rare attitude in a field target fixated on what goes up on the screen. The archeologist’s rule—more then, less now—applies to film no less than Roman artifacts and what makes the Zahs-Brinton collection so valuable is that (undeterred by labels like “Brinton crap”) Zahs saved every box he could fit in his truck. University of Iowa film professor Rick Altman remarks that cinephiles will always cherish “the pieces of eight and gold bars”—the precious films brought back up from the deep—but he wants to know what else is in the hold of the sunken ship. Zahs has preserved the complete wraparound of the early cinematic experience: posters, playbills, flip cards, catalogues, instructional manuals, stereoscopic slides, magic lanterns, and projectors.
Not that Zahs’s treasure chest is all filler. The lost gems in the Brinton collection are The Triple Headed Lady (1902), and The Wonderful Rose Tree (1904), a pair of heretofore lost George Méliès films. Eyeballing the former on a laptop, film programmer and preservationist Serge Bromberg is awestruck, breathless, and a little choked up. “I need a drink,” he gasps. “You want to see someone fainting?”
Zahs’s tenacity pays off: the Special Collections department at the University of Iowa and the Iowa Humanities Board adopt the orphan films of its native son. Soon, fish-out-of-water Zahs is sauntering through the cinephile big time at the Lobster Films Laboratory in Paris and the Bologna Film Festival, where he introduces the premiere of the restored version of The Triple Headed Lady.
Yet, for the hometown boy a local honor means the most, an award from the Iowa Humanities Board and a full house for a screening of a Brinton sampling at the State Theater in Washington, Iowa (billed as the longest continuously operating motion picture theater in the world, from 1897 to the present). The crowd stares in wonder at the gorgeous hand-tinted frames and gasps when an actress on screen casts off her cloak to reveal a resplendent multicolored gown. Saving Brinton concludes with a sentimental tableau of Zahs projecting a 16mm print on the side of a barn, the full moon shining over his Iowan field of dreams.
In Finding Kukan, Robin Lung hasn’t dug into a pit bulging with permafrosted prints or purchased a truckload of old films at an estate sale; her treasure hunt is concentrated on a single nugget, a film that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been searching for, unsuccessfully, for years—an elusive documentary, released in June 1941 and shot in 16mm color, entitled Kukan. Photographed and narrated by cameraman Rey Scott, it was partly a travelogue tracing Scott’s steps into the remote interior of China, but mostly a combat film of the Sino-Japanese War, a stark dispatch from the field of battle and an unabashed celebration of the spirit of “the unconquerable Chinese,” then in year four of resisting an enemy America would face by year’s end. The title translates as “bitterly persevering,” a description of the Chinese in the face of Japanese depredations, and a phrase that suits the filmmaker as well.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1905, Rey Scott was a war correspondent, photographer for Life, and cameraman for Pathé News, a roving adventurer who had spent enough time in New York, as one profile put it, to have grown a beard and learned to gesture with his hands. Between 1937 and 1939, he journeyed through war-ravaged China, hitching rides on Red Cross convoys and military supply trucks along the Burma Road, riding on ramshackle buses deep into the interior, and hopping onto carts, rickshaws, camels, horses, and boats. His camera (it looks like a 16mm handheld Eyemo) captured a stoic people fleeing and fighting a ruthless invader. He managed to smuggle out the exposed film by inserting the cans into hollowed-out bamboo poles, which his “coolies” carried past Japanese custom officials.
Even allowing for the filter of wartime boosterism, Kukan received a rapturous critical reception in its time. “One of the most fascinating documentaries ever presented,” raved The Hollywood Reporter. “A truly inspiring screen document,” agreed Motion Picture Daily. “Characterized by excellent technical work and good color reproduction under what must have been severe production handicaps, the film emerges as a keen reflection of the spirit of the modern and remade China, meeting the Japanese with fortitude and strength, molding a new country from an age-old civilization under the dread fire of bombers raining down death.” Clocking in at eighty-five minutes, not including a five-minute intermission used to pass the bucket for United China Relief, Kukan played for weeks on Broadway and in San Francisco and circulated nationwide to great fanfare. FDR hosted a screening at the White House.
The next year, with America now at war, and sensing the crucial role that documentary cinema would play in the conflict, the Academy, for the first time, honored documentary cinema with Oscars and special awards. Along with the British Ministry of Information’s Target for Tonight, Kukan was presented with a special scroll (not an Oscar statuette) by John Grierson, commissioner of the Canadian Film Board. Scott was singled out “for his extraordinary achievement in producing Kukan, the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions.”
So far, so impressive—but after V-J Day, Kukan vanished. Doubtless the Eurocentricty of the American memory of World War II and the remoteness of the early years of the Sino-Japanese War facilitated its descent down the cultural memory hole. Academy film archivist Ed Carter calls Kukan “the only documentary that’s won an Academy Award for which we have no prints, no video copy.”
Lung aims to fill in the blank, but her quest is also personal. A fourth-generation Chinese American, she is not just looking for a film but a spiritual ancestor, namely the redoubtable Li Ling-Ai, a Chinese-American woman listed as “technical advisor” in the credits to Kukan, a designation, Lung suspects, that does not do justice to Li’s guiding hand. She embarks on a six-year search through microfilm, digital data bases, and interviews with scholars and Li’s surviving friends and family to clinch her case—and, she hopes, discover the missing reels.
One look at Li Ling-Ai and you know Lung is not in thrall to racial chauvinism or feminist wishful thinking. Seen in still photographs, snippets of newsreel footage, and a revealing 1993 interview for Turner Broadcasting, when Li was a feisty eighty-five years old, Li was the antithesis of the stereotypical kowtowing Chinese female. A showboat and drama queen, she loved to be photographed, whether modeling traditional Chinese garb or swanning in Western haute couture. Neither her Chinese-American subculture nor her macro-American culture had seen anything quite like her, which fazed her not a bit. “Every Chinese thinks I’m a no-good woman,” she reflected. “Every American thinks I am an easy mark.” Wrong on both counts.
Born in Honolulu in 1908, the daughter of privilege—both parents were medical doctors—Li was a Type A multitasker: actress, dancer, lecturer, playwright, journalist, and biographer. In 1942, Sinophile Robert Ripley hired her to head the Far Eastern Department of Ripley’s enterprises; later, she co-hosted the TV version of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. In 1972, she published her main literary legacy, Life Is for a Long Time: A Chinese American Memoir. When she died in 2003, Hollywood took no note.
After Japan launched its war of aggression on China, and with the first newsreels of the assaults on Shanghai and Nanking in 1937 hitting American screens, Li determined to open American eyes to the horrors of a war well off the national radar. She also wanted to smash a cluster of stereotypes. “I was sick and tired of being called ‘Ching Chong Chinaman,’” she says—though one doubts anyone ever said it to her face.
Lung learns that it was Li who recruited Scott to make a film about Chinese resistance to the Japanese war of aggression, Li who pawned her jewelry to finance the film, and Li who shilled for it. “A producer finds the subject material, secures the financing, supervises pre-production, production, and post-production, the release, and the publicity,” points out Jenny Cho, author of The Chinese in Hollywood. “Li Ling-Ai did all of these things on Kukan.” Initially, Scott was reluctant to place himself in the Sino-Japanese crossfire. Li pricked his male ego (“I may be yellow outside, but you’re yellow inside”), which did the trick.
For the cause of United China Relief and Kukan ballyhoo, Li was never above crass hucksterism. She suckers in the Caucasian press by claiming that the Chinese invented striptease—and flaunts her gams in cheesecake photos by way of illustration. “Well,” a bemused member of Li’s family tells Lung, “the Chinese invented everything, of course.”
Lung depicts the interludes from Li’s past with clever (and cost-effective) re-enactments in silhouette, imitation radio announcements, and archival footage. She can’t help suspecting—or hoping for—a romantic link between the dashing white newsreel man and the transgressive Oriental beauty at a time when antimiscegenation laws gave such couplings the frisson of forbidden love. Alas, no Valentines between the two seem to have been left to history.
For Lung, a bigger disappointment is the end game in the search for her personal Maltese falcon. At the Library of Congress, she finds a decent 16mm color copy of the first reel of Kukan and, after tracking down Scott’s sons, she locates a VHS tape on which Scott duped a copy from a battered 16mm print in the 1980s. The source print proves to be unsalvageable, however, too cracked and faded to be a candidate for restoration work. Like an emergency room doctor, the archivists at AMPAS need to perform triage. The VHS copy will have to serve as the preservation print. The stuff that Lung’s dreams are made of remains elusive.
Yet, if not sharp enough for a gala premiere, the work copy on VHS is good enough for an eye-opening examination. Happily, Lung includes both the Library of Congress reel and the VHS copy as extras on the DVD edition of Finding Kukan—and in whatever format, Kukan is a revelation.
At first blush, Rey’s—and Li’s—documentary might be mistaken for a long-form Fitzpatrick travelogue, although without the condescending narration about colorful natives in festive costumes frolicking to a chopsticky music track. Scott surveys indigenous Chinese from the nomads of the Gobi Desert to the mandarins of the big city—none bigger than President and his stylish partner, Madam Chiang Kai-shek, who are caught serenely playing a game of Chinese chess. Scott is often seen posing among and horsing around with the locals, the shots taken, presumably, by an uncredited native cameraman. Another concession to travelogue convention is an extended sequence of Scott playing with a panda, as kawaii then as now, a good-will ambassador he takes back to America and donates to the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago.
The tourist bits are pure misdirection: Kukan is a harsh wartime documentary celebrating “the Minutemen of China,” solider and civilian alike whose “deathless courage” torments the Japanese invaders. In the course of his hard traveling, Scott discovers that the danger is not only from the Japanese: tragedy strikes when the ramshackle bus he and his Chinese crew are riding in careens off road and crashes into a ravine below. Scott manages to jump free; his crew is not so fortunate.
The centerpiece sequence, the money shots that sold Kukan in its day and confirm its historical importance now, was Scott’s filming of the bombing of Chongqing on August 19 and 20, 1940, a scoop that captured some of the most extraordinary combat footage of the Second World War. Hitchcock style, and with a literal barrage of bombs set to go off, Scott milks the scene for suspense. On the day of the bombardment, the citizens go calmly about their business and walk to their shelters as the (post-production) sound of the air raid sirens blares. “Death is around the corner!” Scott warns. “The world’s madness is a minute away!”
He is not exaggerating. Taking up position across the city on the other side of the Yangtze River, Scott has a perfect vantage on the waterfront and the downtown. The camera pans skyward to frame squadrons of Japanese planes in formation zooming in to carpet-bomb the cityscape. Huge clouds of black smoke billow into the sky and entire city blocks erupt in flame. Bucket brigades struggle hopelessly against the walls of flame, splotches of bright yellow spreading to engulf the gray buildings. In the aftermath, that very afternoon, walking among the charred bodies in the ruins and groups of traumatized survivors, Madam Chiang Kai-shek is on site organizing relief efforts. Such footage of urban carnage would become commonplace during World War II but Scott’s shots—in color and on the ground—introduced American audiences to the full force of a war that knew no civilians.
In a touching coda, Lung brings the VHS copy of Kukan back for exhibition at the original location. Rapt scholars at the Chongqing Research Center for the War of Resistance watch as an earlier version of their metropolis ignites into a funeral pyre.
Certainly, Lung will keep her eyes open for a restoration-worthy print of Kukan. For the diehard detective/archivist, hope springs eternal: films are never lost; they have just temporarily eluded discovery. “We have a new one!” exults Serge Bromberg when he first sets eyes on The Triple Headed Woman. “Every time a film is found, that’s good news.” The same can be said of the cycle of documentaries that encourages the hunt and helps spread the good news.
Thomas Doherty, professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, is the author most recently of Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2