EDDIE MULLER – On the Slow Death of 35mm – An Interview with the “Czar of Noir”

sean-martinfield-18-august-2011
Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

NOIR CITY celebrates its 10th Anniversary this year at the Castro Theatre. The festival stretches out for ten days and promises to be the most exciting and varied season yet assembled. The season opens with a double-bill of San Francisco-based thrillers: Dark Passage (1947) starring the dynamic team of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) filmed entirely on location in The City. Many in the audience will pine for the unobstructed and long-gone panoramic views, the new-comers will be shocked at how the location sites have changed. Has it all been for the better? How has the unavoidable influence of power and greed effected the look and feel of San Francisco? Who decided that vast amounts of its surviving Victorian architecture should be destroyed in favor of what is there now? The City wept as the wrecker’s canon ball smashed through the ultimately opulent Fox Theatre on Market Street to make way for the brash constructs that occupy Fox Plaza. For the world of movies – especially as it effects San Francisco and its amazing variety of film festivals – how we experience them and, in the end, where we experience them – the future rests on a predictable fault line. Make way for a Hero, Eddie Muller. We talked about his astonishing ten-year success story of Noir City and how he will negotiate the on-coming juggernaut of change.

lauren-bacall
LAUREN BACALL (As “Irene Jansen”): Why don’t you get dressed.
I’ll wait downstairs and sort of get a fresh impression.

Sean: How did you assemble this particular roster of films?

Eddie: It’s never really one thing. There are so many factors you have to take into account – the availability of the films and then our efforts to find films that are not available. That drives everything for us. Can we resurrect something that’s not been seen in a long time? Very early on, Anita Monga – my co-programmer and co-producer of the festival – taught me a very important lesson: you have to realize there are always new viewers for the films. Sometimes, when you become a real aficionado, it’s easy to say, “I don’t want to show that. Everybody’s seen it.” Then you have to realize that’s not true. I’m assuming a lot of people in their late teens and early twenties will be coming to the festival who were just kids when we first started. They didn’t know they had an interest in these things. That’s why I’m going to show Naked Alibi and Pickup – films that have not been seen at all – and others such as Gilda and Laura. I’ll show Thieves’ Highway and Dark Passage again because they’re such great “Old San Francisco” movies. Another big factor, right now – and I can’t stress this enough – this may be the last time you get to see these films in 35mm on the big screen.

gloria-grahame
GLORIA GRAHAME – a border town girl, “Marianna”

Sean: You mentioned this fact during the Christmas screenings of the Deanna Durbin films. In 2012, this is as perplexing to me as when I learned of the damage to the original negative of my favorite film of films, Lawrence of Arabia. Or farther back to 1969 when I worked at the M.G.M. auction and heard about the Key Sets of stills that were plowed into the ground simply because whoever was in charge didn’t know what else to do with them. What is the rationale behind the deliberate loss of a 35mm film?

Eddie: It’s the economics of the Industry. That’s the answer. In this culture, it is necessary for private individuals such as myself to campaign and lobby for the preservation of things that they believe have value when that value is questioned by the people who actually own that stuff. For me, it is no different than when you look at a spectacular piece of architecture and wonder how that building could be falling apart. Well, the person who owns it obviously does not see the same value in it. They may say, “I hope the building does fall down so I can get the insurance money and then build something there that will make me money.” The same thing is true with movies. If Naked Alibi was a picture that people wanted to make money with, then they would preserve it. But there isn’t a way to make money with it. That doesn’t mean the film is without value or that people don’t want to see it. Fourteen hundred people are going to come to the Castro Theatre to see Naked Alibi. So, I’ve created a situation where the film has value. That’s why I’m able to get Universal – God love them! – to strike a new print. They said, “Eddie has shown over the years that people will come to see these movies. So, yeah! We own that film, let’s make a new print.” That’s exactly how it should work. But, it doesn’t always work that way.

Sean: How much did it actually cost Universal to make a new print of that film?

Eddie: I don’t know exactly, but if an original negative is in good condition, it will cost thousands of dollars. Not tens of thousands, but thousands of dollars. There is a difference between a restoration and a preservation. With a preservation you’re just printing from existing material without improving or enhancing it in any way. If the original material in the negative and the soundtrack are in good condition, you can just make a print of that and make it available to be screened. If that negative does not exist, then you have to go out and do a restoration which is making a new inter-negative from positive elements so that you can then make prints in perpetuity. When we restore films such as The Prowler or Cry Danger, we don’t have the negative. So, we’re actually making a negative from the positive elements we’re able to find. We’re going in and enhancing the soundtrack when it needs to be enhanced, cleaning it up when it needs to be cleaned up. If we have two or three prints, we’re making a composite of the best parts from each of them and creating a new negative. That’s much more expensive. That can go from $40,000 to easily up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars – if it’s a color film. The Film Foundation spent half a million dollars restoring The Red Shoes. That was a Technicolor film and they just obsessed over it. You’re never going to make that money back. You can’t make that money back. For instance, in this festival, we funded a preservation print of Three Strangers.

peter-lorre
PETER LORRE (as “Johnny West”): Don’t ever get mixed up with a Chinese goddess.
That’s the worst thing that can happen, the very worst.

Eddie: Warner Brothers did not have a screenable print of that film. I felt that was ridiculous. We should be able to show that film to an audience right now in 35mm. It was not on their agenda to do that. They did not see the value of making that 35mm print. I see the value. The Film Noir Foundation spent the money. We’ll show the film – three times, on Saturday, the 28th. In one day, at the Castro Theatre, we will probably pay for the cost of making that print. It will then reside at the UCLA Film and Television Archive so that people can have access to it. It’s still owned by Warner Brothers, of course. They have the rights to the film, but now there’s a 35mm print that exists. There is the possibility that, at some point, Warner Brothers may preserve the film themselves – for their archive. But they don’t have that now. I felt that now was the time, that we can make that money back, and I want people to see that movie now. I want that film back in circulation now.

Sean: What film do you want to invest in next?

Eddie: I have several I’m working on and trying to get done. It can be very frustrating. The demise of 35mm is a real factor right now. It’s infringing upon our efforts because there aren’t enough laboratories to do the work anymore. In southern California there are so few laboratories that are actually restoring and preserving film that they all have a backlog. When I was trying to get something done at Universal they said, “We would love do that for you, Eddie, but we’re preserving a bunch of our own films right now at three different laboratories in L.A.  We’ve got them backed up for months. You can’t get that thing printed. It won’t be for another six months before we can even think about making a print of that film.” This is the reality, Sean. What more do you need to know other than Kodak filed for bankruptcy the other day? That says it all. When Kodak files for bankruptcy – do I need to explain that the future of film is done? It’s going digital.
Sean: It must be minor news to the world, I haven’t heard a word about it.

Eddie: It’s been brewing for a while. It’s a major concern. The thing I want to stress is how incredibly essential San Francisco is to the success of the Film Noir Foundation. It’s because of the people of San Francisco and the Castro Theatre – which holds 1400 people – that the economics makes sense for us. I explain this to people overseas and they are mystified. “You have to hold a film festival to get the prints made?” But, it works. It’s a very Capitalist answer to a very Socialist problem. It’s our film culture, we should be preserving it. But, there is no central film archive in this country. It’s the studios. The studios own this stuff, they own the rights to the movies. If they choose to have a film become extinct, then that is going to happen unless there is some economically viable alternative. That’s what the Noir City film festival is. It is economically viable and the people of San Francisco will fill that theatre. When that happens, I can justify spending the money to make new prints of these films – even if they are only shown at my festivals which are also held in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, and Washington, DC. It’s not costing me money. Yes, I’m a non-profit. But like a lot of non-profits, I’m not here to lose money. At the worst, I will break even. As long as we keep making money, we can keep making film prints and preserving them. Going forward, we have to figure out how valuable this is when it’s no longer about the film.

Sean: Do you mean, afterwards – when there are so many films that have been rescued?

Eddie: The question is – will there be film laboratories that can do this preservation and restoration work? Will the venues where we show the films succumb to the economic pressures and say, “It’s no longer viable to have 35mm projectors in the venue.”

Sean: During my recent interview with film historian Dale Kuntz for the Deanna Durbin screenings, he mentioned the problems he’s having trying to find people who can service his 16mm projectors.

Eddie: Absolutely! There was a 16mm projector in the Castro Theatre for the first five years of Noir City. That was an option, as a back-up, in case something went wrong. I always had a collector somewhere. There have been three occasions in our history when we needed that projector. When we scheduled Repeat Performance, a really rare film from 1947, Joan Leslie came as our featured guest. The film that was shipped to us was not projectable because they had not cared for it. But I know a private collector here in the Bay Area, Peter Conheim, who has a 16mm print of it. He drove the film straight to the Castro and that’s what we screened.

Sean: I’ll bet he was totally thrilled.

Eddie: Yes. The thing is – today, that projector is no longer at the Castro. It’s not economically viable for them to show 16mm. I have to say, I agree with them. If the alternative is we have to put our money into a new DVD projection system as opposed to upkeep on a 16mm – of course they’re going to do that.

repeat-performance-1947
REPEAT PERFORMANCE (1947) – Joan Leslie as “Sheila Page”

Eddie: The studios are the ones driving this onto the theater owners by saying, “Spend the money on making the conversion to digital. Because, in a year, we’re not going to send you films. If you haven’t spent the money on making the conversion, you won’t be in business.” It really is an amazing phenomenon. There is a lot of money being made by venture capitalists who are loaning the money to theaters to pay for the digital conversion because they do not have the money to do it themselves. If they want to remain theaters, they have to make that conversion. It can cost between $125,000–$150,00 to install that digital system. Theaters don’t have that money. The movie business is terrible right now. There are a lot of sharks out there who are saying, “We’ll loan you the money.”

Sean: Sounds like organized crime to me.

Eddie: And it’s happening with the blessing of the studios because they want that digital conversion to happen. It is the natural evolution of the business. It doesn’t make sense to put films in cans and then ship them around the world anymore when you can do it through the Internet. It does seem archaic, right? But it doesn’t mean that films should be allowed to disintegrate and disappear. Film is still the best preservation medium there is – far surpassing digital. Digital is not a preservation medium because it is way to volatile. If you have something short-circuit, it can erase everything on the hard drive. You can lose a digital film way-easier than you can lose an actual film. It makes sense to have a 35mm in pristine condition even if eventually everybody’s going to see it as a digital product. I’ve come to terms with this. I will readily admit that in the past few years I was combative about it and opposed to the digitization of all this stuff. The writing is on the wall. I cannot win that argument. Now the mission is to preserve as much as we can on film, in the time we have, so that as much exists as possible – in as good a condition as possible – for that eventual digital future when that’s how people are going to see these things.

patricia-neal
PATRICIA NEAL (As “Leona Charles”): Speaking of coincidences, I live in Number Seven.
My friends just kick the door open.

Eddie: Another thing that has grown out of the success of this festival – which is not something I’d imagined at the beginning – is that it’s no longer just about preserving films. It is about the film-going experience. As you see digital make these in-roads, the Number One thing that describes the Digital Revolution is “convenience”. It is very convenient. You can see movies that you thought you would never see, sitting home at your desk. That is convenience. But what is lost in that is the communal movie-going experience. I still believe that movies like this offer people a reason to go out and share the experience with everybody else. I continue to believe that watching a movie in a movie theater with an audience of like-minded people is the best way to experience a film. And the people of San Francisco agree – because they come out and support the experience of this festival.

afraid-to-talk-1932
AFRAID TO TALK (1932) – Eric Linden as “Eddie Martin”

Eddie: Another aspect of the festival that I think is important – and where I go a little against the grain is the old debate. “What is Film Noir? What are the qualifications?” I have very specific ideas about it. And on occasion, when asked to express those ideas, I will do it in a very forceful and definitive manner. But, as a Showman, I totally get the value of the elasticity of the term. It allows me to present things to a large audience that wouldn’t otherwise be seen unless I was including it under this definition of “Noir”. So, no one has discussed Okay, America and Afraid to Talk in the context of Film Noir. I’m taking the opportunity to present these extraordinary movies – that were made pre-Code – which feel exactly like Film Noir. And I say – “So, how does this effect your interpretation of Film Noir?” Afraid to Talk is Film Noir. There are no two-ways about it. It looks and feels like Film Noir. The point of the movie is Film Noir – an innocent man is railroaded by corrupt politicians colluding with gangsters. It was made in 1931, it could easily have been made in the ’40s. I really want people to see those movies. So, this is a very important part of what we do at the festival – to expose a whole new generation to films such as The Maltese Falcon, Laura and Gilda, which they may have never seen on a big screen.

rita-hayworth-and-angie-dickinson
RITA HAYWORTH and ANGIE DICKINSON

Eddie: Everybody needs to understand Rita Hayworth. If the kids don’t know who Rita Hayworth is, then show them Gilda on the big screen and they’ll get it. “Oh! Now I understand what a Movie Star is!” And this applies to Angie Dickinson as well. Films from the ’60s, like The Killers, is an obvious re-make of a classic Film Noir, so it qualifies. But Point Blank is something very different and what people are going to get out of it is that there are certain common themes in these films. By juxtaposing films from the ’40s with those of the ’60s you can really see what changed culturally. This is what a Femme Fatale looked like in the ’40s and this is what that character is like in the ’60s. This is the way Burt Lancaster would have played the role in the ’40s, this is the way Lee Marvin does it in the ’60s. On Monday night, the 23rd, I’m showing Gilda from 1946 with The Money Trap from 1965. It’s going to be a shock for people to see Rita Hayworth and Glen Ford in their sexy prime and then see them twenty years later in middle age. The Money Trap is very poignant. When Ford and Hayworth are on screen together, the subtext is clearly their history together – “We had a thing once.” And they don’t look good. Hayworth is, like, “I’m playing that part!” She’s not made-up, she isn’t glamorous, she’s a drunk – you know? It’s very powerful to see those films back-to-back.

Sean: Even if you don’t know the Hollywood History of it all, the performances remain highly nuanced and layered with content – which keeps the films vibrant and vital.

Eddie: That’s what we aim to do!

rita-hayworth
RITA HAYWORTH (As “Gilda”): Hate is a very exciting emotion. Haven’t you noticed?
Very exciting. I hate you too, Johnny. I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it.
Darling…

The NOIR CITY Nightclub
Swedish American Hall , 2174 Market Street –within walking distance of the Castro Theatre.
Swinging lounge tunes, torrid torch songs, classic burlesque, and a helping of neo-noir rock-and-roll is the bill of fare Saturday night, January 28, 2012, as the NOIR CITY film festival breaks out of the majestic Castro Theatre to present Everyone Comes to Eddie’s, a swanky, sexy, and slightly sinister soiree in which the Swedish American Hall is transformed into a vintage 1940s-era nightclub. The one-night special event is an added celebration of NOIR CITY’s 10th anniversary. Cocktail attire preferred. Tickets for the show, a fundraiser for the Film Noir Foundation, are priced at $75 each. Admission includes hors d’oeuvres and one complimentary cocktail. No-host bar. NOIR CITY Passports do not grant party admission. Separate ticket required. Click here for ticket information: The NOIR CITY Nightclub.

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