‘The Real Indies: A Close Look at Orphan Films’ takes in strays
Lost works, home movies, industrial films, abandoned technologies and other assorted cinematic ephemera all fall under the umbrella of miscellany known as “orphan film.” The strange mix of the odd and slightly sad gets its own festival at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood this weekend.
“The Real Indies: A Close Look at Orphan Films,” presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in partnership with New York University and the Orphan Film Symposium, begins Friday night with the West Coast premiere of the restoration of “Portrait of Jason,” Shirley Clarke’s powerful 1967 hybrid of documentary and fiction, followed by a full day of screenings and talks on Saturday.
The series provides a strong introduction for anyone who has not yet adopted an interest in what preservationists and archivists refer to as orphans.
“It actually makes some people uncomfortable,” said Randy Haberkamp, managing director of programming, education and preservation at the academy, “but frankly it’s the best term that kind of states the case: This should be saved, this should be celebrated.”
Among the other selections will be Jon Boorstin’s playful Oscar-nominated 1974 short “Exploratorium,” a rare 1964 film by Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, a never-before-seen 1969 short by “Wayne’s World” director Penelope Spheeris and a 1978 film made by critic Jim Hoberman.
“In this case it wouldn’t be so hard for a newcomer to sit down and enjoy the program,” said Dan Streible, founder of the Orphan Film Symposium. “That certainly isn’t the case in some instances; oftentimes there’s a new sensibility you have to get into.
“If you’ve never experienced anything like this before, but there is anything of the movie lover or history buff in you, this often turns people on to new ways of seeing film and they often want more after they experience it,” Streible added.
“Portrait of Jason” — Hoberman called it “an orphan blockbuster” — is part of Milestone Films’ ongoing Project Shirley to restore the work and legacy of American independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who died in 1997. The film will be followed by a panel discussion including Robert Fiore, assistant to Clarke during production, and Dennis Doros, president of Milestone Films. (The film will also play at the New Beverly Cinema from May 17 to 23.)
“Portrait of Jason” is on some level just that, a portrait of a gay African American hustler named Jason Holliday, the only person to appear on-screen as he talks and talks, doling out stories in one nonstop session that was filmed from 9 at night to 9 in the morning. (The film itself runs 105 minutes.) As he reveals himself to Clarke’s camera, it comes out that much of what he says may never be quite as it seems, giving the film a razor-edged sharpness as he drinks and smokes and talks, a nonstop party of one.
Despite the fact that the Museum of Modern Art had done its own restoration on “Portrait of Jason” in 2000, that version was made from multi-generation elements and had some missing footage. After tireless sleuthing, Doros uncovered an earlier print of the film on a reel that had previously been thought to include only outtakes, as well as a pristine vintage print tucked away in an archive in Sweden. A sentence of dialogue cut off in original versions of the film because of a mistimed reel change was added back in.
“I had no idea how difficult it would be to do ‘Portrait of Jason,’” Doros said, adding that what he expected to take a few weeks took more than two years. “I kept thinking next week, the next phone call. It was far more complicated from Step 1 to the end than I expected. I always think it’s going to be right around the corner and there are a lot more corners.”
The weekend’s orphan film series celebrates not only rare and rediscovered films but also unusual or outmoded technologies. Saturday starts up with a program of large-format films created for the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair, including 70mm projection, followed by a program on small-format films, including amateur gauge color home movie footage of baseball great Satchel Paige. Noted archivist Rick Prelinger will also present a preview of his work in progress on home movies, “No More Road Trips?”
A recent addition to the weekend is a tribute to the filmmaker Les Blank, who died last month. Also showing will be a program of recently discovered silents and films with rare views of Los Angeles, as well as a series of films made for and sponsored by corporations, including two short films by Saul Bass and one by Ray.
The Saturday evening program will feature a short with Bing Crosby that is the only known surviving film of a process called Auroratone, as well as a short using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc format. There will be a 1970 short made by the author Peter Biskind and one of only a handful of films made by Hoberman.
Hoberman’s “Mission to Mongo,” made up of postcards found in New York City’s Chinatown, wasn’t officially lost, but the known copies had badly deteriorated until a prime print was uncovered in the projection booth at the Queens Museum of Art.
“I certainly was not disturbed to have this film called an orphan film,” Hoberman said.
Spheeris was working with the academy on finding materials relating to her “Decline of Western Civilization” music documentaries when archivist Mark Toscano came across a short — with a name unprintable here — she had made while a film student at UCLA.
Noted Spheeris, “This is hard to admit: I forgot I made that movie.”
The seeming hodge-podge of the orphan film program — from major works to movies their own makers don’t entirely recall — gives the weekend event a sense of true discovery. Pretty much anyone will find something they have neither seen nor even heard of before.
“The thing about this stuff is the film is one part of the story, but the journey of it and the discovery of it is the other,” said Habercamp. “The person who for one reason or the other said, ‘Hey, we need to look at this.’ These are the people to me that are kind of heroes. Cinema-archaeologists, so to speak.”
‘The Real Indies: A Close Look at Orphan Films’
Where: Linwood Dunn Theater, 1313 Vine St., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Friday; all day Saturday
Price: $3 to $15
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