Writing recently in the UK Guardian newspaper, prompted by the rediscovery of two lost Peter Sellers comedy shorts from the 1950s, Xan Brooks expresses his fascination at “the idea of the films that get lost; that vast, teeming netherworld where the obscure and the unloved rub shoulders, in the dark, with the misplaced and the mythic.” He notes: “Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation estimates that as many as 50% of the American movies made before 1950 are now gone for good, while the British film archive is similarly holed like Swiss cheese.” The British Film Institute has a section on its website dedicated to the 75 most wanted British films, asking members of the public as well as collectors and archivists to “check attics and cellars, sheds and vaults” in search of Alfred Hitchcock’s second film as a director, Errol Flynn’s screen debut, three early works by Michael Powell, and seventy others. Although such attic searches would obviously be extreme longshots, success from such measures wouldn’t be unprecedented; as Brooks notes, if not for the storage room of a Norwegian psychiatric hospital, the world wouldn’t have as complete a version as we do of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of the most highly prized films in history.
Where’s Parsifal (and who cares!?)
I entirely share Brooks’ fascination with this aspect of cinema, of how it reminds us that even the swaggering industrial stomp of the blockbuster is built from the most fragile of commodities, transient successions of images; if we can shut out a film by closing our eyes, then why shouldn’t the world send it into non-existence by turning its head. Many of the lost films date back to more haphazard times – the missing Powell movies for instance were 1930s “quickie” efforts that by all accounts barely seemed to count for much even as they were being made, so it’s not hard to see why everyone forgot to think about posterity. But others belong to the 60’s and 70’s, and the most recent is Where’s Parsifal, a reportedly bizarre 1984 comedy featuring Tony Curtis, Peter Lawford and Orson Welles (one commentator on the Internet Movie Database suggests the film can actually be found on ancient Australian videotapes, but maybe that’s no better than being lost in an attic).
Of course, momentary buzz aside, it’s a bit strange to be excited by (for instance) the rediscovery of a lost Peter Sellers film unless you’ve actually seen all the Peter Sellers films that are already available, which I imagine not many people have. For virtually any star or director you can name, a lot of the material that’s not actually lost might as well be, given how difficult it is to access. I’ve written before how the Internet has been a source of wonder in remedying some of this, albeit only in a rather chaotic way. I was recently startled when Peter Watkins’ 1977 film Evening Land recently popped up on Mubi.com, as I’d read in the past on Watkins’ own website that “The only known surviving 35mm copies of this film (two) are in the archives of the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen. On rare occasions they may be loaned out to other Cinematheques, though their quality is not the best.”
Since then, he provided an update that the film was released on DVD in France, but nothing suggested it would be available here any time soon. The Mubi print seemed to derive from a Toronto-based distributor which has worked with Watkins in the past, Project X Distribution, but its website hasn’t been updated since 2009. As I watched the film (the quality of which looked fine), I couldn’t help thinking its reappearance might be that of a phantom, capable of being snatched away at any moment.
I wrote about Watkins here several years ago (you can find the article at http://torontomovieguy.blogspot.ca/2012/04/peter-watkins.html) noting among other things that “his critique of mass media malignity becomes ever more relevant as the standard of our public discourse grinds relentlessly into greater trivia, shrouding the mass erosion of quality of life and prospects for sustainability.” Evening Land fits entirely into that theme, taking what’s usually termed a “docudrama” approach to depicting the (fictional) upheaval after a Copenhagen shipyard signs a contract to build hulls for French atomic submarines: the workers’ rights to strike and to other means of public protest crashes into the immense governing interest in maintaining Denmark’s industrial base and its place within Europe (defined at that pre-expansion point by what we now think of as the old Europe). Watkins crams a lot into the film, and one can easily get lost within it, but that’s a deliberate strategy too I think, mirroring how the populace misses the incremental shifts that gradually shift the nature of power and influence. Hindsight tells us that democracy didn’t crash as rapidly as Watkins clearly expected it to, but if he was a pessimist on the timing, maybe that only speaks to the self-preserving refinement of the influences he diagnosed. It’s shocking that his work isn’t better known and more consistently accessible.
The Amorous Misadventures of Casanova
Talking of Tony Curtis, I recently watched another film from his fading star period, one which might surely have gone the way of Where’s Parsifal and yet somehow survives, a mind-boggling 1977 European mishmash called The Amorous Misadventures of Casanova, among other things (shifting titles are a common feature of such misbegotten projects, as if limply throwing darts at a target without a bullseye). Sometimes it’s called Some Like it Cool, which exactly points to how Curtis trashes his legacy here. He plays both an aging Casanova with performance problems and a younger lookalike; the film sends them on a strenuously intertwined plot of mix-ups, usually involving the bedroom; much of the time, you have the impression of merely watching a tired man delivering his anachronistic quips, propped up by a conveyor belt of boobs.
And yet (that’s right, even for a farrago such as this you can find an “as yet,” if you’re a true optimist) by its very nature, the film embodies a kind of joy in cinema that’s extinguished now, a faith in the notion that the very presence of a Star, doing some vague version of what he’s always done, is inherently magnetic; and in the allure of pretty titillation. I don’t think it can ever have been entirely true, because such films never seemed to do much for the career of anyone who appeared in them, but the notion persisted for a long time, before being gradually killed off by home video and then the Internet and the new attitudes that came with them. Watching The Amorous Misadventures of Casanova, I kept wondering how anyone thought that what I was looking at was good, but I suppose that’s the wrong question – no one thought it had to be good, it just had to be. And how easy then for such a film, maybe ten years or even a day later, to cease to be.