Wednesday 10 June 2020

Making the ABC Great Again - Cinephile and collector Barrie Pattison has some suggestions including the need for a National Cinematheque

Barrie Pattison's private film archive
Editor's Note: This essay follows and responds to earlier posts by Ben ChoBarrie Pattison and Geoff Gardner  suggesting that the ABC might do something for cinephiles and plunge us back into the entire J Arthur Rank film library, the rights to which it has held in perpetuity since some time in the 1980s. Click on the names to read the earlier thoughts.

Raw Data.

So my Cinema Papers coverage of the Rank library and its career as late night filler
 on the ABC have proved irretrievable (see Geoff Gardner's earlier note links above). No surprise. Movie enthusiast activity in this
 country has a way of pouring into the sand. Think the cancelled Lillian Gish Tour, the
 tipping of the Amalgamated library, the demise of the National Film Theater and Cinema Papers
 itself, pushed into the hands of operators who rapidly ran them into the ground. 

Theda Bara
When the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art sprang a leak, the first thing it threw overboard was George Miller’s Cinematheque. Channel Forty Four died with a wimper. The Sydney Film Festival gave up on its silent movie events. I didn’t even get an acknowledgement when I offered them The Stain (Theda Bara’s first film, found here and restored using best industry practice) Now the National Film Lending Collection is under fire. Add your own entries to this list.

Equally appalling is the silence of the enthusiast community who have never worried
 about anything beyond their own lecture hall screenings or their VHS collections.When the French government messed with the Paris Cinémathèque it started the May‘68 riots. When the Australian government wiped out the NFTA, I phoned the
 minister’s office and asked what sort of a response they had. The clerk on the case
 told me “You’re the only one we’ve heard from". Of course destroying serious film activity has consequences. Read all those pieces
 about spending millions on local production that no one wants to watch. You detach
 the engine and it’s hard to be surprised if the train won’t move.

Now there is a bright patch in all this gloom. Every so often the system hiccups andwe get a rush of raw data.

The big break was twenty years of Asian film late Twentieth Century. Sydney had six cinemas running it at one stage. The purpose built multiplex in Melbourne outlasted them -  better access than in Hong Kong itself with double features creating a demand
 for films back to the forties. This could have produced a wave of original research.
 John Hinde did put out a book and Fatal Visions waded into Chinatown screenings, but that and a few term papers were pretty much it. 

I remember asking the editor of
 Filmnews why the Chinese films that were running ten minutes walk from the office
 were only covered when one of its people saw them in overseas festivals. 

Equally fortuitous were the TV bundles - mainly on the funded channels though the
 commercials did once get through an impressive Frank Capra batch. This mainly worked for British film. Down the years, the ABC put out the Ealing bundle a couple
 of times. London Films continue Alexander Korda’s efforts in keeping his work in

There was even a small batch of Australian thirties restorations on the ABC including
 Frank Thring’s 1932 sound version of The Sentimental Bloke.It wasn’t promoted and I have yet to meet anyone who watched them. 

Though they might seem random, even these sources were not unmediated. Ann Hui’s1990 Song of the Exile  (poster left) never got the second week of its run and the same year’s
 Wayne Wang/Spencer Nakasako Life Is Cheap ...  but Toilet Paper is Expensive was taken off by Valhalla after four days - two of the best productions Hong Kong ever generated didn’t reach their target audience. A succession of early Hungarian movies on SBS came to an abrupt halt when community figures declared those romcoms and detective stories were fascist propaganda. I never did see Andre de Toth’s Semmelweis
 advertised but not shown. That would have been a real good time and place for David and Margaret to assert their anti-censorship credentials. 

Art department reference for the decors of
the British
 Jew Suss
The ABC buckled under the ridiculous complaint over the screening of LotharMendes’ 1934 Jew Suss/Power confused with the Nazi film which was made as a
 corrective to that one’s pro-Jewish stance. Neil McDonald observed that the protestors had succeeded in suppressing Mendes’ film where Adolf Hitler failed. 

, recently, when the Corp. put to air a curious batch of  public domain movies, which included a beautiful copy of the Edgar Ulmer Bluebeard, they ran D. W. Griffith’s famous Birth of a Nation, an even hotter button title, continuously reviled by American black sources.  Remember the way this one gets stick in films by Melvin Van Peebles and Spike Lee. No one here even noticed.

Brit DVD Cover
The Rank bundle was different. For one thing it was bigger and it contained a large number of Gaumont British productions, a few going back to the late twenties. Most
 of these were never shown even in their source country in the time I was there. Some have since made it onto DVD. I wouldn’t describe them as an unbroken string of
 masterpieces. It’s hard to imagine another set of circumstances that would produce a
 public broadcast of  Leslie S. Hiscott’s 1931 Night in Montmartre with the floorboards creaking as the camera moves and one of its Oxford accented Apaches
 intoning the line “Let me take you away from all this” possibly for the very first time.

However, these did provide a revealing and likely cheap glimpse into movie history -  and of our British heritage. This last presumably made them attractive to the ABC.

 Now a new generation are looking back on those small hours shows with nostalgia.Well they could do worse than give the films another run, though I can’t help feeling
 they had their turn in a spot where a great deal of more important material could have played. 

Title card, Escape
If we really want to reach into forgotten British Cinema, StudioCanal have
 another library reaching back as far Basil Dean’s 1930 Escape, a John Galsworthy 
 adaptation which was the first British sound film (Hitchcock’s Blackmail was a
 retreaded silent). Personally I’d be delighted to find myself raking the embers of
 Empire on small hours TV one more time, even if there was still no one to discuss them with afterwards. 

However, I do know this is not what ought be happening. An informed cinematheque
 circuit should be airing the masterpieces (presumed or genuine) of film and the audience it creates should be lobbying for the best material to play on air in slots
 better than 3 a.m. It would be satisfying to watch that change the local scene in the
 way it surely would.

“Ranking the Treasures” the coverage of the Rank Library showings is in Cinema Papers 127, October 1998, page 28 on. 

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