The second annual HFPA Restoration Summit culminated with the screening of the newly restored print of Federico Fellini’s Roma. The pristine print has been brought back to life by the world-renowned labs at Cineteca di Bologna which, as Gianluca Farinelli, the Cineteca’s founding director explained in his introduction, had an object to restore the original brilliance of the film’s color as filmed by Fellini’s long-time DP Giuseppe Rotunno, while also preserving the “sense of fragility” inherent to 35 mm film.
The object of the Summit, on the other hand, is to illuminate the effort that goes into restoration with presentations that are informative and entertaining while showcasing the organizations whose crucial work the HFPA supports in this field (over 125 films have been restored to date.) In that spirit, this year’s Summit, presented at the historic Egyptian Theater in association with the American Cinematheque, opened with a far-ranging master class on early cinema by the noted restorer, impresario and “film adventurer” Serge Bromberg. With characteristic verve, Bromberg presented clips and played piano accompaniment while regaling the audience with historical anecdotes on Chaplin, Keaton, Méliès, the Lumière brothers and other pioneers who invented a new art form of cinema ex novo. The never-before-seen clips, which the Lumière brothers filmed for the 1900 Universal exhibition on experimental 75mm stock, literally had the audience gasping.
Czar of Noir Eddie Muller joined the fun with a special presentation of the new 4K print of El Vampiro Negro. A classic of Argentine noir, The Black Vampire is a remake of Fritz Lang’s M transposed to the shadowy streets and alleys (and sewers) of Buenos Aires. It is the last of a series of Argentine film noirs restored by Muller’s Film Noir Foundation with HFPA support.
Day one of the Summit also featured a screening of the 1972 documentary FTA in a version beautifully restored by IndieCollect, the organization founded by Sandra Schulberg and devoted to the preservation of independent movies. As Schulberg has repeatedly noted, independent movies are a crucial component of American cinema’s collective heritage and one that is even more vulnerable to loss and degradation. FTA which was produced by Jane Fonda in 1972 follows a tour of US military installations by a company of performers headed by Fonda and Donald Sutherland whose blend of cabaret and agit-prop was designed as a sort of antidote to the patriotic, official fare usually offered by USO performers like Bob Hope. Coming at the height of the anti-war movement, the film features interviews and discussions between the performers and enlisted men and women as opposed to US engagement in Vietnam. It captures the energy and eloquence of that movement and its widespread within military ranks. Above all, especially through the performances themselves that effectively turned the theater audience into an extension of the crowds in the film, it illustrates well the value of preserving film as irreplaceable historical, political – and emotional – a record.
Schulberg’s IndieCollect has been at the forefront of this important work and is an invaluable partner for the HFPA’s preservation program, allowing restoration efforts to extend to neglected films by Queer and African American filmmakers. That was illustrated by the presentation, in the Summit’s second day, of two films: William Greaves Nationtime and Melvin Van Peebles’ Story of a Three Day Pass. The first is a never before seen record of the African American political convention held in Gary Indiana also in 1972. The “gathering of tribes” sought to bring together eminent representatives of the civil rights and black liberation movements to seek a political, non-partisan expression to the movement reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Attending luminaries and entertainers included a young Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Betty Shabazz, Dick Gregory and Sidney Poitier (also supplying the narration). It is another invaluable record of singularly turbulent times which resonates especially strong in a time of renewed social and political turmoil. And once again its principal value is in how it showcases the passionately articulate participants who reach out through the years as in a celluloid time capsule, seemingly crying: “We were here!”
Story of a Three Day Pass was introduced by Mario Van Peebles who explained that this was the first film completed by his trailblazing father. The younger Van Peebles, a successful actor, and director in his own right (New Jack City; Panther) told the audience of his father’s early career in the military, of the scandal provoked at the time by his marriage to a white woman and his move to Paris to pursue his artistic dreams. It was in the French capital that Melvin shot Pass the story of a black US serviceman who falls in love with a French woman – a story with autobiographical overtones for which Van Peebles also composed the original score. He would go on to become a seminal auteur of African American cinema with films like Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback Badasssss Song.
Farinelli’s Fellini presentation concluded the two-day showcase underscoring how film preservation is – and needs to be – a global effort, extending to movies from around the world. The choice of Fellini was particularly apropos this year as the first West Coast celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Italian master. The presentation that preceded the film touched on many underlying aspects of Fellini’s artistic vision and the style that continues to influence filmmakers to this day. A preeminent Fellini scholar who happens to hail from the same Italian region, Farinelli was uniquely positioned as a tour guide to the director’s underlying influences. These included rarely seen clips from the Bologna vaults such as the 1927 silent film Maciste All’Inferno which Fellini personally credited as his principal inspiration – a clip flickered to life on the big screen to the notes of a live piano.
Contemporary newsreels were shown to have inspired famous Fellini scenes (a statue of Christ being delivered by helicopter at the beginning of La Dolce Vita), and rare footage from the set showed his unique method of working with actors, much as marionettes who would often be dubbed in post-production. It was an illuminating multi-media lecture that also showed how Fellini’s dream-like and pictorial imagery was always a metaphorical (and “anthropological”, in Farinelli’s word) representation of the historical and human foibles of Italy he loved. Roma, the film which in many ways most resembles a personal diary, was a fitting culmination of an illuminating evening.
As Eddie Muller remarked, the necessary last step of restoration is an exhibition of the preserved films in front of audiences. It is a mission that the Hollywood Foreign Press takes to heart with the Summit.
See you next year!