Wednesday 3 January 2018

My Collection (4) - Sydney's Supercinephile Barrie Pattison records The End of a Love Affair.

"the only copy the country"
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I was doing a training course and one of the class was practicing film splicing with some frustration. He muttered “This old brown film. It’s too shrunk to join properly.” I walked over and offered “Oh, amber tinted Twenties original …” before I realised that he was practicing splicing on the only copy of The Covered Wagon in the country.

As I gathered up the other reels, I volunteered “Yes, old brown film - it won’t join properly. I’ll get you some nice new Cinesound newsreels to practice on.”  The guy who was running the operation noticed this and asked “You want that, don’t you?”  I nodded vigorously. He said: “We got another three in the cupboard”.  Thus was born my career as a movie collector.

Up to that point I’d always thought having copies of movies was hopelessly indulgent for an individual. My position on the subject changed abruptly. I later realised that I’d been converted to the point of view of Jerome Hill who made The Sand Castle and came from a wealthy family with their own screening room and prints. “What a privilege to be able to know films by heart”.

Porta Portese, Rome
Once bitten, I found myself scouring flea markets round the world. In Rome’s Porta Portese I spotted a stack of 16mm. and unspooled one reel on the table. It was a map of Italy and I decided it must be some old travelogue, while the next reel was a fabulous new cartoon scripted by Cesare Zavattini. I scooped that up but later, back in the Salvation Army hostel, I realised that it also had maps. I had one of its two reels and the boat left the day before next week’s market. I called every English language business I could find in Rome and nearly got the switch girl at the Canadian embassy to get and mail the missing reel to me for the other half of the hundred lire note I offered to send her.

James Cruze
London’s Petticoat Lane had a shop with sweaters with a lot of good wear left in them and lengths of plastic piping in the window. I thought it would be a waste of time but old habits die hard and I went in and wanted to know if they had any movies. The man there reached under the counter and brought up a Tom Mix one-reeler. I nodded vigorously one more time and asked if he had any others. He turned round and called out “Muvver, bring out them filums!” and an eighty-year-old woman emerged with a four-foot stack of prints. I invested my life’s savings in those and had a profit in a fortnight - a unique tinted copy of a Kathakali Dance film, a prized Laurel and Hardy, twenty minutes of James’ Cruze’s Pony Express. Cruze is a big man in my collecting as you can see. I had a unique pre-restoration copy of his Salvation Nell there for a bit.

I was once asked to locate a bootleg copy of one of Roman Polanski’s films for the director and I found myself in possession of the only known sub-titled print of La BĂȘte Humaine. The London NFT had to get an untranslated sixteen millimeter from France for their Renoir retrospective. I landed it because I was apparently the one who recognised Satan Was a Woman as the English language title, in a list of Monogram cheapies with Wally Ford.

Porte de Clignancourt flea market
Such events were wide spaced. More character-istic was the time I found a stack of two thousand foot 35 mm. cans in the Clignancourt market marked Les Enfants de Paradis and shook them only to realise they were empty.

In Europe film collecting is more the preserve of  movie freaks. The overwhelming bulk of  film trading is, I discovered, in the ‘States. Career dealers produced multi-page lists, mainly of Sixteen Millimeter films. Hollywood personalities proved to be among the buyers and trader magazine “Big Reel” was for sale at the Universal Studios Commissary.

Barrie Pattison's archive (1)
With the large vintage cowboy fan element, I was often dealing with traders whose priorities were supporting the troops and bringing people closer to God. This didn’t stop some going in for rip-offs when the internet removed the threat of being blackballed for unethical trading by the aforesaid “Big Reel’, till then the only major conduit. There were honest and thoughtful collector-traders also. Some became good friends.

My dream of an impressive collection was realised by dealing. The sales covered the purchases. I did feel an obligation to act responsibly with film and, when I acquired material I thought might be unique, I offered it to the relevant archives. The Imperial War Museum, the BFI, the Welsh Film Archive and the Chicago Edison Museum have material I provided.

My coup was locating Theda Bara’s first film. A friend of mine had an early Safety-base copy of Frank Powell’s 1914 The Stain and I’d done some research on it. He’d said he was bequeathing me his collection but he died before he got around to that and his material was auctioned off. Local collectors, celebrity critics and archive reps milled about bidding up Sixteen Millimeter prints of Wheeler and Woolsey comedies and no one showed any interest in The Stain. I bought it for twenty-five dollars.

It proved to be the last copy in the world. I managed to get George Eastman House and Hagefilm interested in restoring it and it became the centrepiece of a Theda Bara retrospective at Pordenone - five out of a forty film career. When I ran it at the Melbourne Film Festival, I explained why this one survived when her Cleopatra, her Juliet, her Camille were gone - the films that the William Fox company built its fortune on. Without Theda Bara there would have been no Tyrone Power, no CinemaScope, no Marilyn but the company gave her so little importance that the materials were lost or let rot.

Theda Bara, early publicity shot
The Stain was still about because one of Bara’s fans acquired a print when it first circulated and kept it under his bed for forty years leaving it to my friend who kept it under his bed for forty years till I got it and had it restored. There was an unbroken chain of people who valued it, contrasted with the apathy of  industry control.

While I always had the feeling that I was indulging myself buying film copies with my unreliable income, the collection did pay off a few times. Without it I would not have been able to mount the courses and events I presented.  Commercial and institutional collections tend to ignore areas where I’ve specialised. My Maury Dexter programs would have been impossible. I couldn’t have done my day on the work of Bob Stevens though he was the busiest director in America in the sixties with episodes of the major series - Hitchcock, Twilight Zone and his own Moment of Fear which stopped me in my tracks when I was working in live TV.

The collaboration with Brett Garten at the Chauvel Cinematheque was particularly valuable. Our Fred Zinnemann or UPA cartoon events used material from four different collections. After eight years, I’m still waiting to hear back from ACMI on my proposed western season. I offered my program on William Cameron Menzies (creator of the role of Production Designer, inventor of Batman, force behind Gone With the Wind) to ARC in Canberra, pointing out the enormous cost of putting that together from conventional sources, and was told they were already familiar with his work having watched The Whip Hand on ABC TV. I felt that did not compute.

"more on DVD..." Barrie Pattison collection
... and then of course it all fell apart. VHS had been a distraction, a pipe line into ethnic sources and not much else. However, DVD offered a medium approaching Sixteen Millimeter quality, compact and a fraction of the price. The range of titles and kinds of material exploded. In a couple of years I had more on DVD than I had on film after fifty.

The dynamic changed too. I rarely got material I’d already seen while with the pricey film copies I'd only bought titles I knew.

It took me a while to realise that I’d been wiped out. I was seeing the end of Sixteen Millimeter film, something which had been a center piece of my life. I’d watched it, shown it, bought it and sold it, done productions with it for about as long as I’d been shaving, and now it was gone. For a while there it was nice acquiring the top quality prints that people were dumping at a fraction of what had been the going rate. I still have a few significant items that have not been digitised but you never know how long those will remain unique.

I know people who claim to have ten thousand disks. I’m struggling to do justice to a lot less than that. The buzz is still in finding and acquiring material. The moment when you have to choose one to actually look at is intimidating, particularly when ten minutes in you start thinking it looks like turning out less satisfying than the one you left on the shelf.

The Barrie Pattison Archive (2)
It’s hard to knock DVD which has delivered the early films of Sam Wood (my least viewed blog entry), Heinosuke Gosho dramas, Damiani thrillers and Simon’s Cat but there remains a feeling of loss. Movie traders had physical contact. They didn’t crouch behind their TVs. People who had their own prints had been a self-selecting elite, a Brahmin caste. No more.

This goes with the feeling that the days of the dedicated movie enthusiast are behind us.

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