FilmWatch Weekly: Archival treasures, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kurt Vonnegut, and more

Most of the films made before 1950 are lost. A tenacious group is working to rediscover them, and bring them back to public view.

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A frame from the restored short film “Bobcat-A-Go-Go.”

In today’s digitized, cloud-computing world, it’s hard to imagine data truly being lost. (You have been making regular backups, right?) From big-budget epic features to every last TikTok video to security camera footage, most film and video made in 2021 will be around virtually forever, unless steps are taken to actively destroy it.

That’s a stark reversal from the way things have been for the vast majority of the time since cinema was invented. The well-known statistics are staggering: an estimated 50 percent of American films made prior to 1950 have been lost, and up to 90 percent of all silent films are forever gone. And that only covers movies made for commercial release, where at least some economic basis for preserving them existed. As film technology became more portable, cheaper, and more user-friendly, an uncountable number of home movies, ethnographic studies, industrial films, and other so-called ephemera were created. These can sometimes offer truer glimpses into life as it was in the times and places they were made than even the most realistic narrative features or verité-style documentaries. But little to no effort was generally made to preserve these ostensibly disposable works.

That’s where the Association of Moving Image Archivists comes in. These unheralded heroes of film history strive to save and restore examples of even the most seemingly mundane strips of celluloid (or Betamax tape, as the case may be). The AMIA held its national convention in Portland back in 2018, but it hasn’t been able to hold similar in-person gatherings in the last couple of years, for obvious reasons. Instead, this year the organization is offering, as part of its virtual conference, a one-night-only public roadshow screening, on Thursday, November 18, of some of its members’ recent projects.

The clips included were originally made as long ago as 1897 (a minute-long clip of dancer Blanche Deyo, shot on early 68mm film) and as recently as 1984 (a breakdancing competition that aired on a Baltimore public access channel). Some showcase the possibilities of then-new technology, most strikingly a brief, wonderfully vibrant color film process invented by Hungarian animator Gyula Macskássy in the 1930s. Some capture moments in history that might otherwise go unrecorded, such as a student protest in 1973 Thailand, daily life for a Dine (Navajo) family in 1960, or a variety show in 1934 Peoria, Illinois. Some were intended for specific audiences, including a highly charged demonstration of a Tesla coil and a bizarre industrial trade show film called “Bobcat-a-Go-Go.” And other are pure fluff: The legendary animator and historian John Canemaker appeared in 1960s TV commercials to pay his college tuition, and five of them are here.

Most of the segments are introduced by an archivist who worked on it, which provides valuable context and allows these normally anonymous figures, who spend much of their lives huddled over fragile celluloid wearing latex gloves, to take something of a well-deserved public bow. (Screens Thursday, Nov. 18, at the Clinton Street Theater.)

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Three other notable new films “open” this week as well, but all are almost exclusively available on streaming services:

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time: If you recognize the name Robert B. Weide, it’s probably from the end credits of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, for which he served as producer and director on its first several seasons. He’s also an experienced documentary filmmaker, and this effort (co-directed by Don Argott) is the culmination of almost forty years of fandom and effort. As a novice filmmaker, Weide sent a letter to Vonnegut, his literary idol, who amazingly agreed to the idea of a documentary about him, the filming of which began in 1988 and continued intermittently until Vonnegut’s death in 2007.

Robert Weide and Kurt Vonnegut in “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.”

Unstuck in Time serves as a tribute to both Vonnegut’s hugely influential literary career and the deep friendship that developed between Vonnegut and Weide over the decades. They say never meet your heroes, but in this case it seems to have worked out swimmingly—Weide wrote and produced the 1996 film adaptation of Vonnegut’s Mother Night, and was mentioned by name in Vonnegut’s novel Timequake. In fact, as Weide relates, he initially worried that their burgeoning friendship would impact the documentary he was making, but eventually felt the opposite: that making the film might tarnish the bond between the two of them.

Full of invaluable archival footage, including childhood home movies and selections from several of Vonnegut’s memorable public speaking gigs, this is clearly a valentine, but one that it’s hard to be resentful about. Vonnegut is one of those figures, like Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Molly Ivins, who you wish were around to comment on the apocalyptic insanity of the day, but are also glad they don’t have to witness it. “What are people for?” Vonnegut asked in various ways, and the best answer is that they are for doing what he did. (Available to buy or rent on demand starting November 19; also opening at the Salem Cinema.)

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tick, tick…Boom!: For all his accomplishments and accolades, it’s almost surprising that this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature-film directing debut. It’s an adaptation of a one-man show by playwright Jonathan Larson, who tragically and suddenly died just before his Rent became a groundbreaking theatrical sensation. This earlier work was inspired by Larson’s struggles to mount a science-fiction musical called Superbia which he had been working on for years, and his anxiety at having failed to make his mark as his thirtieth birthday approaches.

Andrew Garfield in “tick, tick…Boom!

Andrew Garfield, though not known for his vocal chops, gives a convincing performance as Larson, whose professional and artistic struggles affect his relationships with both his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp), an aspiring dancer, and his best friend and roommate (Robin de Jesus), who abandoned his acting dreams for a successful career in advertising. As Larson fights a powerful case of writer’s block while trying to compose a crucial second-act song for Superbia, he works the Sunday brunch shift at the Moondance Diner while the raging AIDS epidemic takes its toll on the community around him.

The movie’s first half is an energetic wonder, capturing the bohemian bonhomie of the starving-artist class in early-90s New York. Cutting between a stage performance of tick, tick…Boom! (in which Garfield/Larson is accompanied by Vanessa Hudgens and Roger Henry) and the anxiety-laden events that inspired it, Miranda keeps things moving briskly. An inventive staging of the song “Sunday” has the diner’s fourth wall opening up to allow the action to move out into the street, for instance. If the second half surrenders at times to the maudlin, it’s somewhat forgivable knowing that Larson was spookily prescient in his mania to get as much done as possible at a young age. (Oh, I almost forgot to mention the bizarre but oddly moving cameo by Bradley Whitford as Steven Sondheim!)

But it’s Garfield’s performance that makes or breaks it, and, judging from the footage of the real Larson that plays during the closing credits, he captured the piercing gaze, determined posture, and peculiar head-tilts of the playwright in his performance. More than that, he captures the passionate impatience of youth in a way that makes you realize it’s something we could always use more of. (Streaming on Netflix starting on November 19; also playing at Century Clackamas Town Center.)

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Prayers for the Stolen: This harrowing drama, Mexico’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is set in an isolated mountain village where the residents live under the thumb of a drug cartel and the collusive Federales. Nine-year-old Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González) lives there with her mother, Rita (Mayra Batalla), spending much of her time playing with her two best friends and feeling the stirrings of her first crush. Rita does her best to protect Ana from the violence around them, digging a hole for her to hide in if kidnappers ever come and cutting her hair short so she can pass as a boy. (The “stolen” of the title are the girls and young women taken from the village by human traffickers.)

Marya Membreño in “Prayers for the Stolen.”

For all that, director Tatiana Huezo’s debut fiction feature isn’t all grimness and despair. There are moments of both narrative and visual poetry–Dariela Ludlow’s subtly handheld cinematography is lyrical without delving into cliché. There’s a five-year time jump at one point, after which teenaged Ana is played by Marya Membreño. Her re-casting (as well as that of Ana’s two friends) is so adept that you almost don’t notice it at first, although Rita’s efforts to hide her daughter from the cartels’ notice become more difficult.

Prayers for the Stolen feels utterly authentic, surely due in part to Huezo’s documentary background. There are no easy victories in Ana’s story, but the bond between mother and daughter provides each with the strength necessary to make survival possible. (Currently streaming on Netflix.)

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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