There may be no greater magic in cinema than achieving the intangible out of the tangible. Yet, we’ve all seen movies filled with blood and fog that aren’t scary, or yawned through a car chase or fight scene because it didn’t quicken our pulses. Mood, atmosphere, or whatever you want to call it is a slippery quality that requires a lot of cinematic elements to fall into the right place in the right sequence. When visuals, sound, pace, and dialogue are working together in unison, as they are in John Hancock’s 1971 film, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, the resulting atmosphere immerses the audience in the experience of its characters and the world they inhabit.
The story of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH focuses on a married couple who have moved out of New York City and relocated to a rural town in nearby Connecticut. The titular Jessica, played by Zohra Lampert, is recovering after a stint in a mental health care facility. Her husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman), is a former symphony cellist; and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) has tagged along to help them work in the orchard adjacent to their Victorian-style farmhouse.
The townspeople they encounter largely consist of standoffish older men, but the trio find a similarly aged woman named Emily (Mariclare Costello) squatting at their house when they first arrive. She provides a friendly warmth that slowly morphs into something potentially more sinister and supernatural as the film progresses — though Jessica’s unreliable perspective casts ambiguity over much of what the audience observes.
The most basic and immediate visual aspect that informs the atmosphere of a film is the physical setting, expressed through its locations. For LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, the filmmakers chose a cluster of towns in southeastern Connecticut, partly out of the quality of the locations but also due to film’s producer Bill Badalato’s familiarity with them. After befriending Charles Moss, Jr., during their time at a commercial company one summer, the pair discussed collaborating on a feature film. When Moss, Jr., and his father pooled together some financing later on, the wishful chatter began to take on a real shape. With a finished script and Hancock in the director’s chair, the team started discussing locations.
“My wife and I had a weekend house in Chester, Connecticut,” Badalato recalled via email. “We loved the area and shared our feelings with John [Hancock] and the Mosses. After a preliminary scout we all agree that this was where JESSICA should be filmed.”
The Chester locations added solid production value to a modestly budgeted film. The filmmakers utilized a storefront near the intersection of Main Street and Maple Street for the “in town” visits. Featuring a front porch with an overhang and a plain, white paint job, the unremarkable store recalls the humble notion of “Anytown, USA.” The store’s unassuming appearance juxtaposes well with its elderly clientele, whose increasingly hostile behavior towards Jessica and company remains a mystery until the final act.
Just a short drive away is the Pattaconk Reservoir, surrounded by the lush green trees of the Cockaponset State Forest. It was used to great effect for various water scenes, some playful and one that’s truly menacing (and features one of the more memorable shots of the film — a ghastly Emily wading out of the water and onto the beach). Other locations we see in the film were purely serendipitous. According to both Hancock and Badalato, the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry crossing was an unexpected but beneficial discovery that they were able to use as something of a narrative bookend.
Essex, a 15-minute drive from Chester, provided the farmhouse’s interiors via the Dickinson Estate (a 19th century mansion once owned by witch hazel mogul E.E. Dickinson). In discussing the importance of location scouting, Hancock noted that “noise, too, is a tremendous factor… the absence thereof.” The house was a perfectly quiet set for more dialogue-heavy scenes, and its interiors were visually compatible with a farmhouse exterior that was, in reality, located three miles away in Old Saybrook.
Large, old Victorian houses have been woven into the American horror lexicon as inherently spooky in everything from “The Addams Family” and 1986’s House to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. “That scary house exterior was a real find,”Hancock said. “I’d hate to see the movie without it.”
The Victorian-style “old Bishop House,” with its distinctive tower, is one of the more consistently striking visuals in the film, mostly framed in long shots against an overcast sky at dusk or bathed in a dreary fog. Originally built in the 19th century, it still stands to the present day. “Given the period houses, beautiful foliage, and picturesque country lanes, the Old Saybrook area is ideal for filmmaking, especially the horror genre,” Badalato added.
Like a number of places in New England, the Connecticut towns chosen by the filmmakers offered the ideal blend of rustic features and grand, historical homes that resonate both visually and thematically for many fans of horror film.JESSICAperformed well commercially during its original theatrical run but has gained even broader appreciation among fans who viewed it on cable or home video releases over the years. At least part of what may have fueled its renewed popularity as a hidden gem is genuine and sustained fan interest in its locations. From message boardthreads to blog posts and guided YouTube visits, fans have connected online to puzzle together where various Jessica scenes were shot (and from what angles) and how the locations have changed since they appeared in the film. From where does this interest originate? And how does it affect how viewers connect to films they love?
While the filmmakers always move on, the locations they leave behind remain. In a recent interview about his decades-long fascination with visiting film locations, Horror’s Hallowed Ground creator Sean Clark likened the feeling of going to a location to that of reconnecting with other parts of one’s past. “To me the feeling of visiting a famous filming location is much like revisiting your childhood home or school,” Clark said. There’s a familiarity in visiting filming locations–as if you’ve been there before. And if it’s a location from a film you’ve cherished for years, it may even feel like a place in which you grew up. The mixture of these spaces feeling foreign and familiar simultaneously is both fun and strange.
It also seems that film location hunting–particularly among those in the horror community of film viewers and filmmakers–has been largely rooted in two things: access to fellow fans on social media networking platforms like Instagram and Facebook and a desire to physically connect with films by way of meeting talent at conventions and, of course, visiting the geographical places where films were shot. Much like memorabilia collectors who bring pieces of films home with them (e.g., screen-used props, memorabilia, and fan art) in an attempt to get closer to the films they love, location hunters appear to be trying to establish a deeper, tangible connection to certain films by stepping directly into the places where they were shot.
Today there are so many ways to connect with people who share similar interests. For location enthusiasts, Instagram has become a vehicle for the quick and easy sharing of film location photographs while other online social networking services like Facebook allow for more in-depth discussion about these places and how to reach them. If you’re someone who isn’t able to actually travel to the film locations of your dreams, odds are there are others who can, and not only that; they’re likely to post their findings on social media. This was the genesis behind Clark’s desire to start HHG in the first place. In that same interview Clark revealed that the reason he started HHG “…was to be able to share these locations with those that are unable to go see them for themselves and to help others to go see them if they are able.” For some fans and location hunters, it’s not enough to merely see a photograph or watch a video of someone else in a location. Part of the thrill seems to also be in stepping into the physical locations themselves.
There’s a kind of out-of-body experience the moment you step onto what was an active film set–a real, tangible space–that you’ve explored and gotten to know from afar. Stepping into a film location can almost feel like stepping onto a live set. You can hear the faint echoes of actors reading lines and can fantasize hearing the sound of a director yelling, “Cut!” and feeling the buzz of crew members bustling about. It’s as if there lies a dormant energy that is suddenly awoken when a fan comes into contact with it.
For some people–like New England-based filmmaker Stacy Buchanan–film locations in the New England area, in particular, possess a haunting quality due to its dark and storied history. “I can’t remember the last time I walked into an old New England building and didn’t immediately feel a sense of historical foreboding,” Buchanan said. “New England locations make good settings for horror films because they’re loaded with history, often a dark history. This is the place where the country began…” A place with a complex history dating back several centuries is bound to carry with it plenty of filmmaking fodder–in terms of not only atmosphere and style but also in stories and infamous legacies. “And with that legacy,” continued Buchanan, “come the legends and myths and tales that evolve over time and influence the stories we now tell on film.”
There’s a third element to film location hunting which may not apply to all location hunters but that most certainly does to some: mourning the passage of time. Each time I visit a film location, a melancholy feeling overwhelms me. Some hunters, however, actually enjoy seeing the evolution of landscape. “I actually like seeing that a little bit of change has taken place over time,” James Gelet, a prolific film location hunter and freelance editor, told us. “Not to the point where it’s unrecognizable,” he continued, “but seeing a little bit of evolution is pretty cool.” Gelet was profiled in a Boston.com article where he discussed at length the genesis of his film location fascination. Regardless of which way you lean, one thing is for sure, and that is locations nearly unrecognizable today are a reminder that the passage of time is inescapable. Thankfully, though, these places–regardless of changes–are immortalized in the films we’ve watched and continue to watch as the years march.
If fans can evoke the feeling they had when first watching a film by visiting its filming locations, this begs the question: Do the filmmakers themselves ever revisit these same places? In reference to the old Bishop House, Hancock remarked that he “drove around the area several years ago without finding it. I wish I could see it again.” It was interesting to hear that even a director can feel an urge to revisit the places in which he or she made films — places in which they are at their most creative and challenged.
On the contrary, due to his personal connection to the area that preceded the filming of JESSICA, Badalato has resisted any revisits. “The Old Saybrook area is a place of many heartwarming memories both personal and professional, and somehow I feel I need to keep everything as it is in my mind of one of the best times of my life,” he said.
A spooky scented candle. A black-and-white photograph of a man emerging, phantom-like, from a cloud of steam. A hand-drawn word search. An enormous chromolithograph of the puppet-like false head of a pre-Incan mummy. A screen-printed, articulated paper robot with chicken legs.
This unlikely assemblage, holding court with dozens of other colorful items in glass-sheathed museum cases at the Providence Public Library in Providence, RI, tells a larger story about the library’s approach to visual research, collaboration, research-based art, and the role of historic collections in a digital world. Juxtaposing old and new, source material and derivative product, our current exhibit is the culmination of more than six months of creative collaboration between the library and local artists, makers, and library users.
How Did This Happen?
How did the Library get our (collective, bibliophilic) hands on so much research-based and collections-based art?
Some of the items–such as futuristic fashions on miniature dress forms–were created during library programming, as part of our annual exhibition and program series; others–such as an illustrated series of rainbow portals bursting forth from household objects–came from independent artists who frequent our Special Collections; and the majority–such as a comic strip featuring 19th century German geologists Wilhelm Reiss and Alphons Stübel–stemmed from our annual Creative Fellowship.
The Creative Fellowship offers funding and support for a local artist to perform research in our Special Collections and to create new, derivative work. Our 2016 Creative Fellow, Walker Mettling, a Providence-based storyteller, illustrator, and one of the forces behind the Providence Comics Consortium, went above and beyond in creating and instigating a veritable avalanche of artwork. Walker spent months combing through Special Collections, occasionally honing in on certain gems (scrimshaw featuring a stylish lady, etching of a bear getting stabbed in the mouth, distressing-by-modern-standards book of nursery rhymes). Some of these discoveries led to new illustrations from Walker’s hand, while others became “research assignments” that he created for local artists, asking them to visit Special Collections, view a designated item or items, and then to use that research as the basis for a new comic or illustration.
Walker consolidated the products of these assignments into a tremendously large-format, color (risograph!), Special Collections-themed comics newspaper called The Providence Sunday Wipeout, which was released during a storytelling event at the library. After the release, he collected drafts, notes, color separations, and other documentation of his and his artists’ processes.
In each of our cases during this exhibition, we juxtapose historic and contemporary objects in the hopes of capturing both the research and artistic processes, both inspiration and derivation. While research-based art can breathe new life into research materials, our hope is that by illuminating both process and product across time, we’re also tapping into the human-ness of the creators and the ways in which we relate to and interact with archival objects.
Why Research-based Art?
The city of Providence is creatively fertile, and the library, in its central location, exists in close proximity to AS220, Trinity Repertory Company, the Rhode Island School of Design, and other creative communities. By tapping into local performance, printmaking, comics, storytelling, and writing, we hope to offer a service (i.e. inspiration, research support) to our local community, to bring new users into the Library (and especially Special Collections), and simultaneously to document contemporary creative work as it unfolds, which is essential in accurately reflecting the city’s history. We think a lot about our role as the Special Collections in a public library, which needs to be responsive to and accessible to the variety of people our library serves, while also documenting elements of local history that may not be captured elsewhere.
Through open creative research hours, research appointments, and ongoing relationship-building with artists, we try to cultivate a research experience that is participatory and immersive, where an artist can surround him- or herself with remnants of past visual worlds and the seeds of new ones. We feel (and we’re certainly not alone in this) that there’s something special about physical materials, that which can be touched, felt, and smelled. Through repeated visits to the library, researchers form intimate relationships with research objects, which work their ways into ideas, sketchbooks, studios and homes.
Lots of places are doing amazing work along similar lines, and we’re paying close attention! We’ve been inspired by places that integrate creativity seamlessly into their library missions, like the Hatchery at the Glasgow School of Art (what a great name!); by community-driven archival projects like the Interference Archive; and by community-based art projects like Fun-a-Day and PARK(ing) Day.
You can see the exhibition at the library during our regular open hours, from now through August 15th. Artwork is on display in the Rhode Island Room on the 1st floor of the library, and in hallway cases on the 3rd floor of the library.
You can buy (super limited!) copies of the Special Collections-themed Providence Sunday Wipeout comics newspaper through the library or at Ada Books. Beautiful candles printed with historical images can be purchased through the Burke & Hare Co. website.
Filmmakers of all walks of art in Boston are coalescing around a single desire: to launch a broader conversation about our wants and needs as artists. Recently, at the 2016 Independent Film Festival Boston, there was a panel entitled All For One: Film Co-Ops and Collectives convened by the LEF Foundation. The panel was recorded and can be viewed here. It was held in the Somerville Theater micro-cinema, an instrumental location for many film related organizations. The panelists were Liane Brandon (Co-Founder of New Day Films) Jesse Epstein (Founding Member of the Film Fatales Boston Chapter), Eric Gulliver (Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the The Non-Fiction Cartel) Robert Todd (Founding Member of the AgX Film Collective and Artist-Run Film Lab) with moderation by Anne Marie Stein (Dean of Professional and Continuing Education at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and former Executive Director of the Boston Film and Video Foundation). That last part of Anne’s title is important – as it became fodder for the discussion as example of prior times Boston has tried to come together on this front. It was a lively discussion that touched on broader points about what motivated each group, how to sustain oneself, and ultimately why Boston is a tough town to organize.
The panel discussion evolved into a lively discussion with the audience. Helpful suggestions emerged along with fruitful recommendations. There was an energy in the room; one could sense the topic resonated with many attendees and panelists. At the end of the event, the conversation was far from over. Inspired by the Film Fatales meeting format, a potluck was suggested for a follow-up to the panel. The new analogue film collective AgX would host and all invitees would bring the food. Rob Todd of AgX (and also of Emerson College, perhaps the most tireless filmmaker I’ve ever encountered) took the initiative and organized the details.
The First Potluck
The first potluck to continue the conversation was held in Waltham at AgX’s Moody Street warehouse space and was open for anyone who wanted to attend. 15-20 attendees sat for a group dinner, surrounded by classic film equipment perched like spectres. One forgets how large equipment used to be! The revived detritus was a warm encouragement towards the spirit of meeting: we were trying to repurpose something also. Filmmakers, media makers, educators, curators and interested parties came to voice input and participate.
All of the excited voices joined in this single conversation that reiterated a larger message: we need more conversations like this. There are many efforts happening across the Boston media landscape, but they’re all happening separately. Indeed, the word “silos” kept being repeated. I heard numerous group names I didn’t even know existed. This night was mainly an introduction and brainstorming session, and a helpful one at that. The potlucks are an attempt to formalize some efforts that might overlap (i.e. with screenings, resources, or networking opportunities). Genevieve Carmel of the LEF Foundation, AgX, and The Non-Fiction Cartel had this to say about the night:
“…Saturday was a really meaningful first gathering…that set some basic needs and shared some initial ideas about creating more common forums of sharing information and getting a wider circle of filmmakers together regularly.”
I was glad that former members of the Boston Film and Video Foundation were there. Being the founder of one of these local collectives means that I’m curious as to what came before and what was beneficial about it. Sure enough, the consensus weighed in that media equipment is cheaper these days, information is more decentralized and physical spaces may not be as important as they used to be. There was agreement, however, that face-to-face interaction is paramount. This meeting of strangers and friends, a nascent community, seems to benefit from organic growth. Perhaps in formalizing something new in the digital wilderness it will, in fact, require it.
The next potluck to continue the conversation will be happening on 8/11/2016 in Jamaica Plain. Contact Gulliver.email@example.com for more details.
Stretching over 20 acres with more than 400 vendor spaces, the Hollis Flea Market (established in 1964) in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, purports to be the largest and oldest flea market of its kind in the Granite State. The outdoor market is so busy, in fact, that according to the official website, “we need two Hollis police officers to direct street crossings.” While the market offers countless options for vintage fashion, antiques, and novelty handmade items — on a recent visit we spotted a toilet seat fashioned into what appeared to be a four-string bass — a rust-colored barn on the outskirts of the market’s main drag is of particular significance to media-heads. [Authors’ note: John scouted out the location first, nearly two years ago, and urged Matt to visit, remarking in an August 2014 text that he’d “never seen anything like it.”] More than 400 miles and a hundred purchases later, this characterization still holds up.
The “Tape Barn,” as we’ve affectionately come to call it, really consists of two distinct entities, neither of which references the VHS format at all: Murphy’s House of Books and Ruth’s Book Barn. The main proprietor of both of them, Mark Murphy, has been a vendor at the Hollis Flea Market since 1998. Just three years later, he began a business relationship with another vendor, an elderly woman named Ruth, and integrated his book inventory with her movie inventory to help her with the weekly rigors of maintaining her vendor space. By 2004, this full collection of books, DVDs, and VHS tapes was moved into the barn as it exists today. More than 15,000 VHS titles adorn its shelves — most were purchased from private collectors over the years as video stores went belly up — with an additional 25,000 titles (Mark’s estimate) residing at Ruth’s home as overstock.
On any given Sunday from May through October, Mark and one or more of the Barn’s other workers can be found moving stack after stack of crates full of tapes to more than a dozen outdoor tables for easier access. The barn itself is appropriately simple, with only daylight to brighten your view of the shelves, and more than a few cobwebs to add a uniquely woodsy touch. There are three narrow, floor-to-ceiling aisles to navigate that extend about 20 feet back from the entrance. Unlike your favorite video rental store, which likely arranged titles by genre and displayed the front box covers, the Barn’s tapes are ordered alphabetically and show the box’s spine text, the way libraries shelve books. (A stiff neck is a common symptom of scanning the shelves over extended periods of tape-digging — the bottom shelves are the absolute worst in this regard.)
And, as most repeat visitors will likely discover, it’s not just them who feel the aches and pains from tape-digging at the Barn. Occasionally, as a result of being exposed to New Hampshire’s seasonal elements (wind, rain, snow) tapes will emerge each spring a little worse for the wear. Ultimately, it comes with the territory when you’re dealing with a grassroots project such as the Barn. With such a massive inventory and the lack of a staff, it’s not surprising that addressing preservation issues and performing general upkeep of every tape is essentially an unachievable goal. For the avid tape-digger, however, the questionable condition of some of the tapes is less a deterrent as it is an added element of intrigue and perhaps even excitement. The issue of ongoing preservation of their inventory is something that may continue to plague the keepers of the Barn while simultaneously grabbing the attention of like-minded collectors and admirers of the medium.
The patrons with whom we’ve shared this unique space seem to be film fans like us — people in their late 20s through their early 40s who have defined tastes in genre films, perhaps horror or direct-to-video action — with some material nostalgia for the VHS format itself. More important, most of them probably hold the notion of serendipitous discovery in high regard; stumbling upon an obscure or even a personally sentimental title in the “wilds” of a flea market or vintage store is somehow more satisfying than getting a used copy from an Amazon seller, or winning an eBay auction. In discussing her fondness for flea markets in a prior exchange with John, makeup and special effects artist, Stacy Still, articulated this idea, saying that “as a massive tape collector, I’m always on the hunt for new tapes, ones that I remember fondly from my childhood at the video store.” There are few people for whom the act of poking around a cramped and dusty barn to simulate the past experience of video store browsing still holds appeal, but there are even fewer places that provide this opportunity in the era of media streaming.
The Barn is just one of several remaining VHS treasure troves of which we’re aware, but unlike Scarecrow in Seattle, WA, or Movie Madness in Portland, OR, it doesn’t have a well-lit brick-and-mortar location to sell its wares. Its staff isn’t comprised of film buffs with a fondness for 1980s slashers or 1970s kung fu epics. Instead of engaging customers online through a dedicated Twitter feed or even a website, Mark relies on a local Craigslist post that he periodically refreshes throughout the market’s open season. Many VHS enthusiasts will visit the Barn and see a collector’s paradise; its selection, trade-in policy, and prices ($3 a tape or four for $10) really can’t be beat. Despite the breadth and depth of his inventory, it’s not evident that Mark shares the same enthusiasm for the format or the nostalgia that his patrons often do. (He owns “a few” VCRs and acknowledges that interest in VHS persists because “not everything is on DVD,” but also says that his books might actually outsell the tapes.)
With a presence at the Hollis Flea Market spanning nearly 20 years, and more than a decade of selling VHS specifically, it’s unlikely the Barn will be going anywhere anytime soon. (Ever try to sell out an inventory of 40,000 tapes? Not an easy venture.) It’s difficult to gauge Mark’s plans for expansion or advancement — he alluded to creating a searchable image database for his titles — but the beauty of the Barn is its simplicity. There’s magic in its dusty floors, in the awkward positions in which you need to contort your body to see certain rows, and in the pockets of crisp air near the back wall on a warm July morning. For purely selfish reasons, we don’t want any changes at all, because we’ve never seen anything like it.
John’s purchases from The Barn:
-Aberration (1997, Artisan Entertainment)
-*Batteries Not Included (1987, MCA Home Video)
-Blood Link (1986, Embassy)
-CHUD II (1988, Vestron Video)
-Circuitry Man (1989, RCA Home Video)
-The Club (1994, Imperial Entertainment Corp.)
-Code Name: Zebra (1990, Star Classics)
-Count Yorga, Vampire (1970, HBO Video/Orion)
-Cutting Class (1988, Republic Pictures Home Video)
-Cyborg Cop (1993, Vidmark)
-Dark Breed (1996, PM Entertainment)
-Dark Universe (1993, PRISM Entertainment)
-Death Drug (1986, Academy Home Entertainment)
-The Dirt Bike Kid (1986, Charter Entertainment)
-The Dive (1989, M.C.E.G Virgin Home Entertainment)
-Eat and Run (1986, New World Video)
-The Evil Within (1994, A-Pix Entertainment)
-The Expectant Father (1993, Video Treasures)
-Florida Straits (1986, Orion Home Video)
-Forgotten Warrior (1986, Monarch Home Video)
-Freddy’s Nightmares: The Series (1991, Warner Home Video)
-Gargantua (1998, 20th Century Fox)
-Ghosts That Still Walk (1986, Interglobal Video Promotions)
-A Gnome Named Gnorm (1994, PolyGram Video)
-Graveyard Story (1992, Goodtimes Home Video)
-The Haunted Lantern (1997, Asia Pulp Cinema)
-Jack Frost 2 (2000, A-Pix Entertainment)
-Jaws of the Alien (1988, Star Classics)
-Kuddly Kittens (1990, MNTEX Entertainment)
-Little Monsters (1989, MGM Home Video)
-Lobster Man From Mars (1990, IVE)
-Meridian (1990, Full Moon Entertainment)
-Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983, MCA Home Video)
-The Meteor Man (1993, MGM Home Video)
-Mr. Nanny (1993, New Line Home Video)
-My Mom’s a Werewolf (1988, PRISM)
-My Uncle: The Alien (1996, PM Entertainment)
-Planet of Dinosaurs (1993, EDDE Entertainment)
-Playing Dead (2000, Academy Entertainment)
-Prehysteria! (1993, Paramount Home Video)
-Project: Alien (1989, Vidmark)
-Proteus (1996, Vidmark)
-Psychic Killer (1975, Embassy)
-Psycho II (1983, MCA Home Video)
-A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987, Warner Home Video)
-Screamers (1980, Embassy)
-Shallow Grave (1990, Paramount Home Video)
-Short Circuit (1986, CBS Fox Video)
-Spaced Invaders (1990, Touchstone Home Video)
-Stepmonster (1993, New Horizon)
-Strange Invaders (1983, Vestron Video)
-The Surgeon (1993, A-Pix Entertainment)
-The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986, Media)
Matt’s purchases from The Barn:
-Abraxas (1990, United American Video)
-Angel of Fury (1992, Imperial Entertainment)
-Anguish (1987, Key Video)
-Bad Blood (1981, Academy Entertainment)
-Band of the Hand (1986, Columbia TriStar Home Video)
-BrainWaves (1983, Embassy Home Entertainment)
-Cage 2 (1994, Summa Video)
-The Carpenter (1988, Republic Pictures Home Video)
-The CBS/FOX Guide to Home Videography (1983, CBS FOX Video)
-Chinatown Connection (1990, Southgate Entertainment)
-Cut and Run (1985, New World Pictures)
-Dead Tides (1997, Live Home Video)
-DeepStar Six (1989, IVE)
-Double Blast (1994, Vidmark)
-Dragonfight (1990, Warner Home Video)
-Eye of the Eagle (1987, MGM Home Entertainment)
-A Fight for Honor (1992, York Home Video)
-Fist Fighter (1989, IVE)
-Free Spirit: The American Biker (1991, Visual Entertainment Group)
-The Joy of Natural Child Birth (1985, MCA Home Video)
-Laser Mission (1989, Platinum Disc)
-The Legend of Gator Face (1996, Lions Gate)
-Link (1986, Home Box Office Home Video)
-Making Contact (1985, Anchor Bay)
-Merlin and the Sword (1986, Vestron Video)
-Mindfield (1989, Magnum Entertainment)
-The Moon in the Gutter (1983, RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video)
-Nightflyers (1987, IVE)
-Ninja Enforcer (1976, New Pacific Pictures)
-Ninja Mission (1984, Media Home Entertainment)
-No Retreat, No Surrender (1986, New World Pictures)
-The Playroom (1989, Republic Pictures)
-Raw Courage (1984, New World Pictures)
-Rock House (1988, Coyote Video)
-Rooftops (1989, Avid Home Video)
-S.A.S. San Salvador (1983, Vestron Video)
-Sudden Thunder (1990, AIP)
-A Taste of Hell (1973, Star Maker Video)
-Thunderground (1989, SGE Home Video)
-Torment (1986, New World Pictures)
“‘Do we want to preserve this art or keep it alive?’ The former approach treats a work of variable media like a musical recording, locking in time some masterful performance. The latter approach treats the work more as a musical score, the same piece open to future iterations. Because these works don’t self-record, self document, or exist in a stable medium, preservation is an interpretive act. Both recordings and scores are valuable resources for the future: recordings keep the radical performative intentionality intact for future exhibitions, and scores keep the patina of history and provenance intact for future research.”
– Richard Rinehart, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, in Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach, 2003
A chilly rain misted the eager faces of those waiting in line outside Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, NY on Saturday, October 3, 2015, yet the weather would not diminish the current of excitement bubbling across the crowd. The second night of a three-night concert run by Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) had been sold out for months, yet hopeful fans walked down the line of ticket-holders, a finger in the air, inquiring to anyone and everyone about extras.
Who was this act with such a fervent draw? Some new Pitchfork-blessed hipster rock act? Hardly. You would not hear JRAD on the radio, or likely know of their existence were you not part of an extended scene of post-jam music fans known as the New York City Freaks. The grassroots, decentralized NYC fan group (and accompanying listserv) had ultimately been responsible for launching the band in 2013, when JRAD played their first show at the Freak’s 13th annual private party, the Freaks Ball. JRAD is a Grateful Dead cover band, for all intents and purposes—but to describe them as merely such ignores the reality that the band is, in fact, a super group. Some musicians in its lineup have played with members of the Grateful Dead—including Joe Russo—yet none of these musicians are known primarily for that work. Russo (drummer) and keyboardist Marco Benevento have long been musical collaborators, known under the moniker The Duo, under which they have been touring internationally, performing progressive, instrumental jazz-funk/experimental music for over a decade.
Both Russo and Benevento are notorious in the NYC club scene, creating new and one-off projects weekly when not on the road. When I lived in New York City from 2004-2006, their current incarnation was Bustle in Your Hedgerow, a rock/jazz fusion group performing all instrumental Zeppelin covers, featuring searing garage-psych guitarist Scott Metzger (RANA), and Dave Dreieitz of Ween on bass. Their shows were frenetic—intimate, raucous events that engaged the entire audience in a surreal time- bending encounter.
Now here I was, ten years later, waiting outside Brooklyn Bowl to see this new Russo/Benevento/Metzger/Dreiwitz amalgam, and the anticipation amongst my fellow fans was palpable. Brooklyn Bowl, which opened in 2009 by Peter Shapiro (longtime NYC Freak) is a green-constructed bowling alley and concert venue in the heart of Williamsburg, was named the best rock club in the country by Rolling stone in 2013. The club now boasts locations in Las Vegas and London, and is known among music fans to support top-quality audio and lighting concert experiences in a non-arena/non-theater setting. In layman’s terms—the room sounds great, with space to dance, and the ability to get up as close to the stage and performers as you desire.
JRAD did not disappoint that October Saturday. The first set featured nearly ninety minutes of non-stop music. The band weaved in and out of Dead classics like “The Other One” and “Truckin,’” performing favorite covers like “Dancin’ the Streets,” featuring the vocal styling of Jersey-indie starlet Nicole Atkins, harkening back to a 1970s-era Dead with Donna Godchaux on back up vocals. While the idea of a Dead cover band may sound tired and cliché, JRAD transforms the music into a palette both fresh and contemporary—teases of Radiohead, electronica-tinged jams—this is not your dad’s Grateful Dead. It is as if Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Stevie Wonder’s band decided play Jerry Garcia tunes. It cannot be understated what phenomenal musicians these are—and for many Deadheads, (at least those whom I know who are mostly under the age of 50), the Grateful Dead shows they saw—mostly in the 1990s—were during an era in which the band, and especially Jerry, were declining. JRAD never puts on a subpar show for its audience, and because of that, the audience gives back, adding to this collective, vibrant live experience.
Of course, this live experience is mediated and enhanced by technology, unifying the immaterial with the material world. Liveness, a quality identified in mass media presentation studies, has seeped its way into computing, digital humanities, and user experience work recently, highlighting the intersection of human and technical in contemporary culture. “The study of liveness has . . . focused primarily on the experience of liveness, through which performances, art or entertainment are lived” (Schofield, et al, 10), and can also be understood in terms of concurrent computing processes which require continued progress amidst a cooperative ‘give-and-take’ arrangement of shared activity.
These connected concepts of liveness pique the archival mind: in terms of the October 3rd JRAD show described—can that quality of shared, collective exchanges, be preserved or captured? What aspects a live concert experience can be archived? Should any remain in the ephemeral realm? When art exists as a temporal event, what role does media materiality play in articulating and recording the “artifact?” In the Variable Media essay, “Performance Art Festival+Archives” by Thomas Mulready, the author discusses the challenges to accurately representing the original performance once it is over, pointing out that photo and video often fall short, prescribing limited perspective and scope (Mulready, 35). Using the JRAD performance event as a case study, I examine the parameters around archiving cultural activity, how the process both creates digital memory and shapes collective memory, and how it can move us “from a spatial notion of archives” to one in which “time-criticality” (Parikka, 54, 59) connects the ephemerality of human experience to that inherent to technology’s material constructs of code and algorithm-based structures.
I would assert, while never completely possible, the enhanced potential for interactive, digital encounters with media—including aspects of Drucker’s performative materiality concepts, Whitelaw’s generous interfaces discussed earlier in the course, and Parikka’s interpretation of Ernst’s operative media archaeology cited here—offers the preservation and cultural heritage communities exciting avenues for exploring ways to document and share the myriad instances of “liveness” in human activity. What would this entail exactly? Ippolito’s seven evaluative variable media criteria provide a good framework, albeit in an alternate order.
Reproduced. One of the benefits of the jam-band/Deadhead scene is its fans’ attendance to (and obsession with) high-quality, transparently sourced recordings of ALL live performances by the artists in their aesthetic canon. The Internet Archive’s Live Music Archive (LMA) includes a Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Collection of 156 live concert recordings of the band (and other Duo performances), including the JRAD show from October 3, 2015. New York Freak and audiophile/sound engineer at Brooklyn Bowl, Peter Costello recorded many of the shows (with help from partner/fellow freak Eric McRoberts) and gave permission to the LMA to host the digital collection.
Detailed source information about the equipment used to record and transfer audio are listed on each shows’ page within the collection. Among snobs in scene, Costello is considered to produce some of the highest-quality recordings. It should be noted that concerts recorded in other locations have different creators, thus there is some disparity across the collection.
The Live Music Archive is a partnership between IA and “etree.org . . . a community committed to providing the highest quality live concerts in a lossless, downloadable format.”
The LMA includes non-commercial concert recordings by “trade- friendly” artists (those that allow/promote free audience recording and distribution of said recordings), thus working to archive music that would otherwise not make its way into the cultural record. Etree.org is notorious for its strict audiophile (and metadata) standards, and functions under a system of self/community-policing to ensure only the highest-quality recordings are used as “seeds” for downloads and subsequent copies. These community-developed standards align with audio preservation standards, allowing for only lossless format uploads, and encouraging preservation-level 24-bit audio.
In a 2000 article from the International Journal of Digital Libraries, “Methodologies and tools for audio digital archives,” the authors identify two types or approaches to audio preservation (which share striking commonalities with the concepts of emulation versus migration): “(1) the sound preservation of audio history, and (2) the sound preservation of an artist” (Orio, et al, 203). The Costello/McRoberts JRAD recordings (like most contemporary non-commercial audio recordings in this subculture) are matrices of a soundboard recording and microphones recording from the stage. I would classify this approach as aligning with the second preservation type listed above, as it is a mix of both what goes through the artists’ inputs and the live version of the sound they hear onstage (and version heard through their monitors), and efforts to reproduce “with the intent of obtaining ‘the live sound of original performers,’ transcending the limits of a historically faithful reproduction of the recording” (Orio, et al, 203).
A Type I approach to audio preservation aligns more with a classic Deadhead taper ethos which glorifies the raw, unedited recording captured by a taper embedded in the audience at a show (though this version is certainly still mixed and minimally processed after transfer for best sound output). I posit—which method comes closer to capturing the “liveness” of the event? For instance, the Costello/McRoberts recording includes snippets of the deejayed music playing over the PA before and after the show, and at set break, but it does not capture the raucous funk dance party that seamlessly extended from the band’s closing strains, led by beloved New York-based, New Orleans- inspired DJ Cochon de Lait. For nearly two hours after the official end of the show Benevento, Dreiwitz, and Russo joined audience members on the dance floor in a unique, memorable merging of the audience/performer boundary, yet this part of the cultural event is missing in the high quality soundboard matrix recording.
Another example: towards the end of the first set, around 5:45 into the timeless classic “Fire on the Mountain,” the band dropped out to allow keyboardist Marco Benevento to carry the crowd along on an expansive solo, delving into Gershwinian moments of bliss for over 3 minutes, until the band finally rejoined leading into a triumphant conclusion. I was standing on the floor only 10 feet from Benevento at the time and can still acutely recall the complete, ecstatic sense of jubilation that exploded across the crowd at that moment. In a review of the show by collection creator, Costello, he affirmed my experiential memory, noting “I’ll spare you all the hyperbole, but I want to add one final thought: I’ve worked at Brooklyn Bowl for nearly 6 years, & I have never heard a crowd react louder in their appreciation for a band than the reaction tonight to Marco’s solo in ‘Fire on the Mountain.’”
Does the LMA recording of the show share this “perpetuation of the sound . . . as it was initially reproduced and heard by the people of the era” (Storm, 27)? At the close of the song, the recording clearly captures bandleader Russo’s acknowledgement of the singular, cultural anomaly that had just occurred, as he extols extemporaneously, “Marco- fucking-Benevento, Jesus Christ. Where did we even find this guy?” Yet at the very moment when the crowd erupted, the recording barely hints at the ridiculous decibel achieved by applause and cheering; and, while the concert’s archival record on LMA includes a typically meticulous setlist (best practice in Deadhead fan culture), it fails to mention the solo or crowd response.
We must ask, what is the archival object the LMA is actually reproducing? The collection item includes extensive encoded metadata, files in various formats, and even image files of the concert-run poster, but this is ultimately an audio archive. The LMA FAQs pragmatically explain their reasons for only collecting audio materials, stating, “…unlike audio, where we actually have a shot at archiving the vast majority of any given band’s live concerts (in very high quality format), video is scarce and, unless made by the artist (in which case, it’s typically for commercial purposes), is not of particularly good quality.”
Performed. As the Variable Media questionnaire discusses, cultural heritage materials that involve explicit performance add many complexities to the preservation paradigm. In a proposed collection archiving the sound recording of JRAD 10/3/15 that also attempts to curate and preserve its “liveness” and broader existence as a temporal, reflexive cultural event, I would suggest adding images of the paper set lists (and any notes) used by the musicians onstage, any recordings or notes (or emails/messages) surrounding the process of planning for the event, and extensive photographic and video information providing evidence of the band setup, audience positioning, lighting, etc.
Installed. A live music event might not be viewed traditionally as an installation piece, but in fact, the technical parameters—ranging from lighting patches, input lists, to hospitality riders and security provisions—all comprise of the historical record. These elements can be viewed as both contextual information, and as components of the artifact’s media archaeology. In Parikka the author describes how “modern technical media are media of mathematical codes, and in their execution they become processes defined by patterns of signals unfolding in time” (59). Thus, the liveness of the concert experience is an amalgam of organic, human interaction with mechanical, computer- generated activity. Documenting the event would require documentation of the unique technical parameters, including the computations required to support the live production’s digital technology.
Contained. While the contained criteria does not directly related to the JRAD preservation plan, if ephemera or non-digital materials were added to the object—the paper set list, printed photos or posters, a Russo drumstick, a signed t-shirt—concerns regarding long term storage and maintenance of these items would be useful.
Networked. “Society in the digital age has become increasingly organized around the various ways to organize and diversify the intertwined or networked processes of production and consumption,” Deuze and Blank write in the recent piece, “A Life Lived in Media,” addressing the interconnected way we interact and exist both with and within media in contemporary society (11). Thus, the infrastructure supporting these networks becomes paramount, such as when working to preserve variable media requiring streaming digital content. If video were added, the bandwidth and storage needs would increase exponentially. Further, if we were to attempt to capture the full live experience, multiple viewpoints would be necessary, with professional and audience-sourced footage, offering a web of perspectives. I would also suggest creating a network with other fan sites and social media, expanding the collection items to include links to tweets posted during and after the show, photos shared, reviews written, and connections to the likely numerous other audience-sourced recordings, each of which would offer a unique aural reproduction of the concert.
The LMA culls metadata from MusicBrainz, a crowd-sourced recorded music metadata silo that provides records using an abstracted model, which offers a lot of potential in the future climate of Linked Open Data. What if our set list and audio/video files included in the digital JRAD collection hyperlinked to song or artist-listings with rich bibliographic information? For example, Nicole Atkins is identified on the LMA show page for 10/3/2015, but the user has to separately Google her to source any further information. What if this data was all networked to our proposed archive? What if you could also immediately connect to the lyrics of each song, and recordings of the same by other artists, including The Grateful Dead? The possibilities are limitless, if the not the technical capacity at this time.
Encoded. In the same respect, while the robust technical and descriptive metadata provided by the LMA is all encoded (and downloadable in that form), if we were to design and develop a rich, interactive archive of the concert experience, all additional media would need to be encoded. In the Orio piece referenced earlier, the authors present several tools for insuring the integrity of audio preservation—including digital fingerprinting and watermarking, digital image processing techniques applied to recording grooves, and the process of audio alignment, where algorithms are used to compare two alternative performances of the same work. If such a technique were applied to recordings of a live music culture where countless versions of the same song exist, the data re-use potential in musicology alone would be immeasurable.
Duplicated. One could certainly re-stage the concert event from October 3, 2015, but ultimately, any real duplication would be impossible. The very nature of a live, collective concert experience is one in which the audience and temporal components are as integral to the creation of the cultural object as the band on stage. Indeed, the ethos of Deadhead subculture centers on this notion that “being there” is the primary fan experience—though I would note, the advent of simulcast technology has challenged and expanded this principle, and is something I hope to investigate in future research.
The Internet Archive and LMA focus considerable energy and intellectual resources on storage and preservation. The IA is quite transparent about its data curation approach, stating the process includes “parsing, indexing, and physically encoding the data . . . stored on DLT tape and hard drives in various appropriate formats, depending on the collection.” In terms of preservation, IA describes the familiar practice of ‘many copies in many places,’ and long-term migration plans utilizing their own custom Petabox system in lieu of tapes. The reviews in the comments section indicate preservationists and archivists alike have lauded this system. In addition, the IA states they “will be collecting software and emulators that will aid future researchers, historians, and scholars in their research” to address long-term issues surrounding format and software obsolescence.
However, for the JRAD 10/30/15 show (or entire JRAD collection) hosted in the LMA, only audio, image, and metadata files are included in preservation planning. While the open access archive’s ingest allows for user-sourced contributions, the media formats are limited, and thus, the preservation scope as well. The simple upload of several files would become a much more complicated process if incorporating the other media elements discussed above that document the “liveness” of the cultural event. It should be noted that IA and the LMA have recently launched an initiative with Columbia University and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona to “run their code on the music collection to help their research and to provide new analyses that could help with exploration and understanding.” Other projects involve pilot runs with generating audio fingerprints, and use of image files showing the audio spectrum of a given musical record—both of which could prove highly applicable to the proposal discussed herein.
What is the digital object when dealing cultural materials such as these? Can our original model of content + metadata contain such content complexities? And are long- term storage systems prepared to handle the layered needs of variable media such as these? These dilemmas reflect the cross-disciplinary nature of cultural heritage archives which aim to document the artists’ works, and the cultural setting in which the same exists. The temporal and operational nature of computing means our cultural record now exists as electronic signals and calculations. Parikka points out, “archives are not even spaces any more but addresses: a necessary precondition for any data retrieval is addressability” (58). The existential idea of all information, all bits of culture being simply pointers to a location, is rather breathtaking, in my opinion. GLAM professionals face monumental challenges in the arena of digital preservation, certainly, but what an exciting time to be involved in cultural heritage curation.
Hook, J. D., Schofield, G., Taylor, R., Bartindale, T., McCarthy, J., & Wright, P. C. (2012). “Exploring HCI’s relationship with liveness.” In Extended Abstracts of the ACM International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (pp.
2771-2774). Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). 10.1145/2212776.2212717
Internet Archive. (2014) archive.org
Ippolito, Jon. “Method: Accomodating the Unpredictable: The Variable Media Questionaire.” (2003) Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, and The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, Montreal.
Mulready, Thomas. “Perspectives: Performance Art Festival+Archives.” (2003) Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, and The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, Montreal.
Musicbrainz. (2014) musicbrainz.org
Orio, N., Snidaro, L, Canazz, S., & Foresti, G.L. “Methodologies and tools for audio digital archives.” (2009). International Journal of Digital Libraries. Vol. 10, 201- 220. DOI 10.1007/s00799-010-0060-6
Parikka, Jussi. “Operative Media Archaeology: Wolfgang Ernst’s Materialist Media Diagrammatics.” (2011) Theory, Culture & Society SAGE, LosAngeles, London, NewDelhi, and Singapore, Vol. 28(5): 52-74
Rinehart, Richard. “Perspectives: Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive.” (2003) Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, and The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, Montreal.
S, Jim. “Joe Russo Almost Dead Brooklyn Bowl “Fire on Mountain” 10/3/15.” YouTube.
In a dark theater lit only by the black and white images flickering on the screen, an undergraduate punctuates the air with a baton, leading an orchestra in a musical composition they created to illustrate the silent film narrative projected overhead. As their segment hastens towards its close, they literally – and surreptitiously – pass the baton to the next student conductor, the audience barely registering a change in command.
The students in question comprise the BSFO, a revolving orchestra that has been balancing on this wire for over five years now. Boasting the only bachelor’s degree program in film scoring in the United States, Berklee attracts some of the best and brightest musicians, growing from 40 majors in the early 1990s to around 400 in present day. And out of those 400, five to seven of the top composers are selected to enroll in the Scoring Silent Films class. From there, students have a single semester to compose an original score for a silent film commissioned by the Coolidge Corner Theatre in nearby Brookline. Mirowitz himself constructs the thematic materials and overall structure of the film score, then divides the film up into 15 to 18-minute reels. Each student composer is assigned one reel to orchestrate.
“We end up with a 400 to 700-pages long score, then we rehearse with the band for a week, then we premier, then we tour” says Mirowitz. “It’s composing for movies, but kind of on steroids.”
The course began almost six years ago, when the Coolidge Corner Theatre reached out to Berklee about commissioning a score for their Sounds of Silents series. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership.
“They contacted us and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if Berklee students did a score?’ And I said ‘Yeah! I can make a course out of it.’ It was such a success, we kept doing it,” recalls Mirowitz. “I’ve been doing music for 40 years, and this is the only thing I know people will always go crazy about.”
The relationship has spurred great success after 11 features. In 2013, the BSFO received a Special Commendation from the Boston Society of Film Critics. They have performed at illustrious venues such as the Boston Pops and the Kennedy Center. Last year they were invited to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, who then recommended them to the Murnau Stiftung, a foundation chartered to preserve the work of director F.W. Murnau, as well as other German films produced between 1900 and 1960. The BSFO are now negotiating to provide the official score for their latest offering, the North American release of the 1925 E.A. Dupont film, Varieté.
“It is a really amazing movie. It was extricated when it came out, and things were cut because of controversial elements like breasts and a rape scene. You couldn’t really understand everything that was going on,” Mirowitz explains. “The new release has all the materials back in it, and the movie is very textured. It is bracketed, told in flashback – there is jealousy, redemption – it’s got everything. And our composition reflects that – we even have accordions. It’s a great score.”
Due to their accomplishments and growth, the BSFO have changed the structure of the class this year. Instead of producing one score in one semester, they have extended the class to cover two semesters. But having more time and the brightest minds does not ensure easy achievement. Film scoring is still fraught with many inherent challenges, such as precision timing alignment with frame rates.
“In silent film scoring, frame rates are a huge issue. Until sounds began to be integrated into film, frame rates could vary anywhere from 18 to 24 frames per second, and it is all on celluloid. And now you have to play it back on modern projectors, which run at 24 frames per second, so sometimes the film will be running on a different speed than the score you wrote for it,” explains Mirowitz. “I used to be devoted to celluloid, but now I am a big proselytizer for making digital version of the movies, if they are at the correct frame rate.”
Even into their sixth year, the BSFO cannot always anticipate this dilemma, sometimes leaving them reworking whole compositions in the final weeks leading up to their performance.
“For Varieté, the work print we were using to write with was running at 25 frames per second, but it turns out the film actually runs at 24 frames per second – the DVD from Europe was running fast, so our score was initially minutes off by the end of the movie,” says Mirowitz. “We wrote for a month before realizing it was different, and then we had to get a new work print made. And it doesn’t have subtitles, so we are relying on my German – which isn’t great!”
As a horror fan and overall film nut, I know firsthand how exciting it can be to visit the filming locations from your favorite movies. From Martha’s Vineyard, where JAWS was filmed, to the alleyways of Georgetown, where much of THE EXORCIST took place, to the original Michael Myers house in South Pasadena, CA, these movie locations have and will likely always be popular destinations for film fanatics.
With all of the recent buzz about theNOSFERATU remake (with David Lee Fisher in the director’s chair and monster regular Doug Jones slated to play Count Orlok himself), I thought it might be fun to give Dread Central readers a glimpse into my own history and fascination with NOSFERATU (including the 1979 Werner Herzog remake, NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE). And what better way to talk about a film than to journey to where it was made.
I first saw F. W. Murnau’s 1922 German Expressionist horror film Nosferatu (aka NOSFERATU, EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS) with my mother back in the early 2000s. The copy we had at that time was the remastered DVD edition hosted by David Carradine with music by Type O Negative(!). Admittedly, I’m not much of a metal fan, but no doubt the booming sounds from Type O Negative (particularly the vocals by late frontman, Peter Steele) helped to burn a lasting visual and audible impression on me.
During and since those first viewings, I’ve dreamed of visiting the land where the film was shot so I could walk in the steps of Count Orlok himself and surround myself in what has always felt to me like an otherworldly place – something out of a dark and twisted fairy tale. Finally, in late 2015, I got my chance…and it was an unforgettable experience.
The majority of NOSFERATU was filmed throughout Germany – though Murnau did shoot several scenes in what is now Slovakia. (The Slovakian exteriors were supposed to represent the Transylvanian countryside). Within Germany the production spent much of its time in the far north, specifically the towns of Lübeck and Wismar – both of which are gorgeous Hanseatic cities nestled along the Baltic Sea.
While traveling through Germany this past November, I spent two days in Lübeck tracking down the places seen in this iconic, German rendition of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA (much has been written on the history of the conflict between Murnau and Stoker’s estate) – from the Salzspeicher, or salt houses (buildings used to portray Count Orlok’s home in the fictional town of Wisbourg), to the historic home of Hutter and Ellen, the film’s supporting actors. Thankfully, during my trip I was able to hunt down more than just these two locations, all the while fulfilling a dream I’ve had since those days of first experiencing the film with my mother and, of course, Peter Steele!
I recently had the opportunity to catch the theatrical premier of a new film by director Peter Flynn, THE DYING OF THE LIGHT, at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA. No, this wasn’t the 2004 Nicholas Cage film of the same title, instead it was a thoughtful, beautifully shot, and timely documentary. It dug into the transition of movie houses across the country from film to digital projection, told through the eyes of the people who arguably know the subject most intimately, the projectionists themselves.
To show the evolution of movie theaters and film projection over the past half century, the film gives viewers a personal tour of a few movie houses around the country with the projectionists who used to work there as our guides. We see the ruins of the Michigan Theater, a movie palace turned parking lot in Detroit, the struggling but still opulent Lansdowne Theater in Pennsylvania, and even the digital setup at the Coolidge. Seeing these old and abandoned movie houses is like looking through a time machine. You can easily imagine families dressed in their finest being ushered to their seats to see the weekly show. These movie houses were built to be a destination and not a casual venue as we think of them today. Projectionists were trained in the art of the perfect show: opening and closing the curtain with perfect timing so that the audience never saw the white screen and transitioning reels flawlessly so no one ever knew there was a man behind the curtain were both key to ensuring the film ran without a hitch. By these standards, in some ways the digital transition has provided the ultimate movie going experience: today when you arrive at a theater, the show is already playing in the form of trailers and advertisements that have been preprogrammed, even before the show really starts. The audience will never get a chance to see the blank white screen.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film was the unearthing of forgotten projectionist booths across the country. Most booths were and continue to be hidden from view, at the back of the house (or even hidden behind the screen as is the case at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA), and behind unassuming doors. Most moviegoers will never even notice them, aside from the flickering light over their heads while seated or the small windows along the back wall of the theater, so in some ways it’s unsurprising that when the filmmakers trekked their way up the flights of stairs at the ruins of the Victory Theater in Holyoke, MA, they found the projectionist booth largely untouched, aside from some animal carcasses and a thick layer of dust. It’s not all gloom and doom for the art of film projecting however. With last winter’s release of, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, on 70mm film, the local Boston Light & Sound suddenly had an order for hundreds of 70mm film projectors. To fill their order, co-founders Chapin Cutler and Larry Shaw resurrected and restored projectors that were headed for the landfill.
The projectionists themselves seemed to be split about the future of their profession with the dawn of the digital age. Some embraced the transition as just another advancement in film, much like sound and then color were in their dawn, while others viewed digital film as a threat to their livelihood and that of small-scale movie houses. Unsurprisingly, digital film doesn’t require any hands on work during projection, so movie houses can grow exponentially and play more and more films without the need to hire more projectionists. Meanwhile, nostalgic projectionists mourn the loss of the tactile experience of projecting a film and film geeks worry about the loss of quality in the transition from 70mm film to digital.
Regardless of their outlook, all projectionists seemed to mourn the loss of the presence of the hulking body of the projector itself in their booths. For the time being it seems that theaters are making a compromise of sorts, by investing in new technology and retaining film projectors for special screenings. So, the next time you decide to see a movie pay attention to how its being projected, and thank the projectionist on the way out!
After a successful and thought-provoking New England Archivists spring meeting in Portland, ME – and with spring on the way! – we thought we’d share a film from the Northeast Historic Film collection. This film was recently uploaded to NHF’s YouTube page.