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Altruistic Mission Emerges from Noir City’s Dark Impulses

Noir City impresario Eddie Muller speaks on saving cinema, the downsides of digital, the genius of Joan Crawford and the folly of auteur theory.

By Beth Lisick January 19, 2012
THREE STRANGERS

Eddie Muller's Film Noir Foundation restored THREE STRANGERS in 35mm.

Eddie Muller speaks on saving cinema, the downsides of digital, the genius of Joan Crawford and the folly of auteur theory.

By Beth Lisick

When I arrange to meet up with Eddie Muller one afternoon in downtown Oakland, it’s safe to say that cocktails are implied. When someone has been called the Czar of Noir, an impresario, a wordslinger, a Renaissance man, and a “noircheaologist,” all on the homepage of his own website,  a person can wonder if he’s going to arrive at the bar in a Packard Clipper 8, step out into a fogbank wearing a trenchcoat and a fedora, and light my cigarette. Muller is, after all, not only the founder and director of the Noir City Film Festival, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this week, but very much by design its public face and poster boy. A recent profile in the San Francisco Chronicle shows him seemingly “at work” in front of a vintage typewriter in the meticulously restored former apartment of Dashiell Hammett.

Over two hours and a few greyhounds apiece, we quickly get the image thing out of the way (“There may have been a little shameless self-promotion at first” he says, for his own books, screenplays, and films) but as the festival opens its ten-day run at the legendary Castro Theatre in San Francisco, it has clearly become bigger than he ever anticipated, not just with the notoriously noir-obsessed San Franciscans, but audiences and film historians worldwide. And while the man certainly knows how to wear a suit for a photo op, he is also tirelessly engaged in the very modern task of preserving, restoring, and keeping the noir legacy current and alive.

Keyframe: When did Noir City shift to creating all these extra events for the film festival, the Miss Noir City….?

Eddie Muller: Thanks for getting right to the point!

Keyframe: They said I could ask you about anything.

Muller: Just don’t ask me ‘What is film noir?’ We started these extra events in the fourth year, when Anita Monga, who had asked me to do this at the Castro, was unceremoniously fired. We realized we couldn’t rely on the theater itself; we had to start doing the add-on events.

We are a festival as opposed to a film series. We go start to finish. It’s ten days. We’re every day. If you look at other venues these days, cinemas that are trying to survive, they’re terrified of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. We just power on through. We show some guts. When we get eight or nine hundred people on a Monday night, it’s extraordinary. People come from all over the world. I get emails: I’m coming from Sweden. I am coming from Germany.

That was also the year, 2006, that we created a nonprofit film noir foundation. It’s legitimate. It’s not just me. A nonprofit has access to films that a for-profit does not have access to. Then my innate altruism kicked in. But the altruism only came afterwards. The shameless self promotion leads everything else. Then the excitement of putting on a show. Then altruism comes in third.

Keyframe: To have something you’re so passionate about, you’re so into it….

Muller: There’s a very organic thing going on here in San Francisco. That’s the epicenter (poor choice of words, perhaps?) because the audience response is what has gotten me this recognition, so I can go to these studios and say, ‘You have this film, you may not know that you have this film, but I know you have this film, and we need to have a new print made of this. We’ll pay for it.’

THE BREAKING POINT, with John Garfield: Sure, there’ll be a few laughs here and there, but trust me, it’s soul crushing.

Keyframe: How much does it cost?

Muller: As the quality of the original material deteriorates, it gets more expensive. Things have to be fixed, enhanced. If you’re doing a full restoration, depending on the length of the film and materials you’re working with, it can be $40,000. The good thing is you’re making a new negative, so you can always get prints. The restoration saves the film.

Keyframe: What’s this year’s restoration?

Muller: We preserved Three Strangers, funded the preservation of that film on 35mm. The whole thing about ‘Why film?’ when the digital revolution is overwhelming the world…. It is something people do need to think about and be aware of. It’s funny, when I started doing this, it was important to me. I found there were a lot of like-minded people; ‘Let’s have fun and save these movies.’ But now, it’s fascinating, because I find we’re at this amazing crossroads where this amazing revolution is happening and the studios are saying, Eddie, give it up. The future is digital. You’re like Don Quixote now. Just get off the horse, and give it up.

THE KILLERS

Angie Dickinson, 'one of the boys,' appears in person to chat with Eddie Muller at Noir City X in San Francisco

Keyframe: Is there something about that that fires you up?

Muller: Absolutely. Because they’re wrong.

That’s their job is to convince me of that. I’m not angry about that. But it’s my job to say they’re wrong. Film is the preferred medium for restoration of these films. It is aesthetically correct: If it was made on film, it should continue to exist on film.  Why would you destroy the painting just because you can make a photocopy of it? We’re losing more and more venues that are able to show films. Ergo, I’m on crack. We’re losing projectionists that can show film. Why persevere?

If you lose the film of a rare title, you lose the ability to transfer it to any other medium in the future. You have to have the film to start with. I could go into extraordinarily gruesome detail about why digital preservation is really really risky. And how everything digital has to be migrated from whatever its storage medium is to another storage medium as soon as they decide the storage capacity is insufficient. Then they make everybody buy the latest version of whatever the delivery mechanism is.

Film is film. You thread it in a projector and you show it. Light goes through it. An image is projected and you watch that. They haven’t changed essentially the delivery mechanism of film, ever. It’s always been the same. But with digital, people change it every couple of years. So great, you’ve preserved all these films digitally. The only time you’re going to see it is….

It’s nice to know you have the film, residing in an archive, and in my festival, you’re going to see it.

Keyframe: How does Noir City play elsewhere? Do people do the same things? Dress up?

Muller: The first place I actually did a film noir festival was at the American Cinematheque Los Angeles, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  There’s nothing like San Francisco.

On the West Coast, the festivals take on the character of the city where they’re held. Los Angeles is a combo of hard-core film geeks and aloof industry types who are coming to look for the remake potential in some of these films. In Seattle, they will not dress up. Because, you know, in Seattle they don’t dress up for anything! But in San Francisco, forget it. People still believe in going out for a night on the town. They still believe in going to the movies, like it’s a special thing. They really appreciate how great the Castro Theatre is, and how … when it goes, that’s it. The game is over when the Castro Theatre stops showing films. That doesn’t mean my game is over, but in large measure, the whole idea of a movie palace and watching a movie with a big audience [would be over].

I really believe that not only are we preserving films, we are preserving the filmgoing experience. That’s why people will come out to watch a 65-year old movie that they’ve never heard of. Because a thousand other people are coming out too… Then it must be OK. The whole thing is wrapped up in an interesting context that doesn’t exist anywhere else. There’s a lot of film history involved; there’s a lot of scholarship involved. But it’s fun.

Keyframe: The humor that’s in these films; some of the things you’re laughing at are not intentional. Do patrons sometimes get mad?

Muller: I’ve had people get really upset that others are laughing. I had one woman come up to me at the Castro after a Joan Crawford film. (We always try to show a Joan Crawford film…. for a number of reasons. Number one: Joan Crawford is, in my estimation, a true auteur, a woman who completely controlled her own image. She picked the writers, the producers…. More so than many male directors of her era, Joan Crawford was the creator of her own films and her own image. We obviously know how that has been appropriated by the gay audience. And that’s fantastic. I’m not stupid, I’m going to program as much Joan Crawford as I can at the Castro Theatre.

When we played Sudden Fear, a woman grabbed me by the lapels and said, ‘Make them stop laughing. I love this film and it’s not funny.’

There’s nothing I can do. I’m not going to be [someone] who goes out and tells the audience, ‘Do not laugh at this movie,’ [someone] who will tell people how to experience the film. I don’t do that. It’s like: I don’t encourage people to be fools in the theater. I have on many occasions spoken and said I’m not going to ask you not to laugh, but I am going to ask you not to be an a-hole. If you’re just laughing at everything you see, guess what, everyone around you thinks you’re an a-hole.

I truly believe that a great film, you do not have to tell people how to experience the film.

The Breaking Point, with John Garfield, sure, there’ll be a few laughs here and there, but trust me, it’s soul crushing.

The ‘laughing problem,’ if you want to call it that, it’s a combination of people who take the films too seriously with people who just want to laugh their ass off because it’s so comical or out of date or old fashioned.

Keyframe: I’ve noticed that wears off after the first ten minutes. They have to get the laughs out, then they’re more into the film.

Muller: Part of the issue is, we draw really big crowds. The crowd takes on a life of its own. If you’re drawing 1,000 people to a movie theater, there are going to be a few who don’t get it. Our success is somewhat of an issue. But I think it’s a tiny price to pay to be able to watch a really old movie exactly as it was presented when it was first released with a bigger crowd than ever saw it together before. This is not a screening room we’re talking about.

Keyframe: I’m interested in Eddie Muller, the persona of Eddie Muller. You’re in all the posters…. Were you in a wife-beater? I guess that was Robert Mailer Anderson. But in the ’80s and ’90s, San Francisco went through such a retro thing. What am I saying? How much did you consciously decide on your look or, rather: Have you always dressed this way?

Muller: No, I have not always dressed this way. I make a point of saying I don’t wear vintage clothes. I wear contemporary clothes that have a vintage style to them. I’m very comfortable dressing that way. I wear suits all the time. It’s not an act. Putting ourselves out there and creating a public persona, you realize early on dealing with publishers, they want that. They make you into something. We all know what that’s like when you get inside the machine, the machine wants to put you in a compartment. I had that already, because I wrote this book set in the ’40s, The Distance. We’re going to sell this guy as the modern equivalent of Dashiell Hammett, but set in San Francisco. When I said my next book is going to be set in L.A., they said, No it’s not! You’re staying in San Francisco. The deal was, ‘Eddie you need to figure out how to sell yourself. We need you to do that, but we’re not going to pay you to do that.’ My marketing budget: Couldn’t see it; it was under a rock. I figured out how to do the shameless self-promotion and the film festivals were part of it.

Keyframe: Whatever you write, you’re known as the person who does this festival. You created this very successful thing….

Muller: When I started out there was no one marketing for me.  I had to market myself. Now the marketing of myself has surpassed my creative output. I have nothing left to sell! (Laughs.)  I’m just selling me. [But now,] I realize that … the money needs to go into perpetuating the films, not me. Because I want to have more films to show. I truly feel really really bad when a film is lost. I just don’t think that’s something that should happen. And it doesn’t happen in any other major film culture in the world. In France, it’s like a crime when a film is lost.

Keyframe: What happens to them? How do they ‘get lost?’

Muller: They disintegrate. The print of the film devolves until it can’t be projected.

Keyframe: No one’s in charge of keeping it together?

Muller: There are people in charge, but they have a budget. It’s a nonstop triage with where that money’s going to be spent. The people who increasingly have that responsibility are getting younger and younger. So their idea of film history is Revenge of the Nerds. Somebody has to point out to them that there are these films that were made earlier than that that need to be rescued. We say: I know you guys don’t see the value of making a 35mm print: I do. I pay for it to happen. The print exists largely thanks to the people in San Francisco. That’s where most of our money comes from.

Film is the preferred medium for restoration of these films. It is aesthetically correct: If it was made on film, it should continue to exist on film. Why would you destroy the painting just because you can make a photocopy of it?

This is the only film festival like this in the world. It’s a totally grassroots thing. Let’s get 1,200 people to pay $25 each; knock out the cost of the theater rental. That’s a print of a film. I can see: We paid for this. When we show this film Three Strangers on the 28th of January, it’s like a calculator in my head. We’ve paid for this print. In this one day. Then it resides at UCLA forevermore, we hope.

Keyframe: What about these films that didn’t have theatrical release here but were released in Europe?

Muller: That’s the next phase.

People always ask me: Aren’t you afraid of running out of films? The answer is I’m not. Because it’s viewers I’m now more interested in. So we will have people at this show in January who were 10 years old when we started. And now they’re 20 and they’re interested. I can recycle some things because it will be the first time someone has seen this on the movie screen and in some cases, it’s the last time they’re seeing it on the screen.

We’re closing the festival with the The Maltese Falcon. I have no qualms about saying this is the last time you’re going to be seeing this in 35mm in a theater like this. The next time, it will be shown digitally. I’m not going to argue which experience is better in the theater. I’m past that. I’m over that. I accept the reality that the future is digital. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying to preserve films in 35mm either as films, or because they’re not The Maltese Falcon.

The other thing you asked about was foreign films. That’s a direction I’m definitely going in, finding examples of films in other countries that have never been shown in this country and bringing them here. Noir has this interesting cultural exchange cachet. When I did a series in Paris last year, 40 films at the Cinémathèque Française, it was a phenomenal success. The French were so amazed that I was bringing films they not only had not seen, but in some cases had not heard of. ‘This is remarkable.’ It’s pretty cool to be the Yank who showed the French, you know, you don’t know everything. I’ve been asked to go back in 2013.

Keyframe: Where else would you go internationally?

Muller: I just got an email asking if I’d be interested in going to Mumbai. I have to be honest; that’s one of the great advantages of digital. If you have it on a DVD it’s much easier to ship.

Keyframe: Do you know Angie Dickinson [who is featured in this year’s program]?

Muller: No. But I’ve got the book on Angie Dickinson. She’s fabulous. Yes. Is it OK to say she is one of the boys?

Keyframe: I think she probably would like that.

Muller: That’s how she made her way through the ’60s, being the broad who could stay up all night and drink with Sinatra…

Isn’t it interesting that we always have actresses for our live/in person? Women live longer. The guys just don’t make it. We always wanted to have Richard Widmark… The guys are: I’m done with that. The women are far less diva-like. I thought it was funny, when she got the date for the show, we called back to make travel arrangements. She said, ‘Honey I already bought the tickets.’ …. It was: You don’t have to fuss over me. She’s very plainspoken, a straight-shooter.

Keyframe: When you watch movies set in the ’30s, ’40s, that are made now, what are things you notice that are wrong; that would never happen? Do glaring errors stand out to you when people try to re-do things in the noir style?

Muller: One thing is when they try to make it look old. It’s something in the viewers’ mind. I walked out of the movie Public Enemies, Johnny Depp. I thought for a period film it felt wrong in every way: The music was electric guitars. Mostly what bugs me is when they do an old film with a completely modern score. Sometimes it works. … But when I go to movies, I’m not a nitpicker. Tell me a good story, and I’m in. I buy the emotional throughline. But at the festival, I get people all the time who are specifically into one thing. Like a guy who is totally into the cars. He comes and reports to me after every screening what the car was. John Hodiak was driving a 1948 Buick.

I do an absurd amount of research for my own books. I remember writing a chase scene for San Francisco in 1948. I remember going back and double-checking that the streets I said were one-way streets were one-way streets in 1948. Because if you make one mistake it invalidates everything for certain people. When I do a period book, I do a timeline for when stuff is happening, and then I’ll go to that day and I’ll read the newspapers from that day. So if I have to have any incidental conversation, this is what people would be talking about. The woman in the iron lung, are they going to turn the iron lung off or not?

Keyframe: What’s your next deadline?

Muller: For a guy who’s spent a lot of his life obsessed with the past, now I have to really look at the future and say this is how the stuff I love works in the future. What form will that take? It’s a big question. I’m looking at a lot of different avenues to explore. I’m not at liberty to say what the big one is at this point. It could be really interesting. It could be a way of taking the whole Noir City concept and making it something that produces product rather than something that just exhibits product.

I wrote a manifesto for Tin House called “Noir for a New Century,” saying basically Get Over It. This is not about recreating the ’40s, it’s about taking what we love about those stories and those films and finding a way to transpose them to our culture so they’re valid for a new century.

I’m working on the novel, working on a nonfiction book that I’m working on today, working on a thing that will compare the novels to the films that were made from the novels, for the purpose of giving credit back to the writers for so much of what is famous in film noir. There’s a scene in the movie The Big Heat where Lee Marvin throws a pot of coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face and burns half of her face and she spends the rest of the movie with bandages over her face. Not only did this clearly inspire Robert Towne with the bandage on Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, but every review I’ve ever read of The Big Heat talks about it’s indicative of Fritz Lang’s propensity for violence against women. It’s in the book! And it’s better in the book than it is in the movie.

Keyframe: Is there something about your interior self that feels the need to vindicate people, uncover wrong, bring things to light?

Muller: I didn’t realize that about myself until you just pointed it out! (Laughs.) … I discovered myself in a position where I can do that. Why not? People seem to enjoy having me stand up before a movie because it helps them see it as more than just a black-and-white film. There’s a political context; someone has an interesting story that colors the film in a provocative way. When you watch the film In a Lonely Place, to know that it’s really Humphrey Bogart’s story and that his performance is so great because he’s playing himself in that movie. … This is a very personal film for him, exposing himself on camera. That whole thing of vindication: When I was an impressionable kid first getting into film, I bought the auteur theory completely, hook, line and sinker. I totally disagree with that now. After all the research I’ve done, the people I’ve met, I can attest to the fact that it’s a collaborative medium. Joan Crawford is the creator of Joan Crawford movies. All the directors of Joan Crawford movies are interchangeable. What happened with the auteur theory is that it created the cult of the director: There are certain directors that deserve that status: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles: These are directors who didn’t always write the movie, but it’s their movie. And then there is Samuel Fuller: He writes, produces, directs. But when you start getting down into the Vincent Shermans, no, these guys are for-hire directors. They’re good ones. Michael Curtiz is the best for-hire director in Hollywood history. But somebody else wrote it. Somebody else produced it. That’s a misconception that I’m dedicated to rewriting.

You will notice in the program notes for my festivals, I never credit just the director.  Every program note in every cinema in America says, The Breaking Point, director Michael Curtiz. As though Ranald MacDougall’s script is not 100 percent responsible for the greatness of that movie. And they never credit the producer. And in many cases, it’s the producer who made the film, has the final say. Picked the screenwriter, picked the director.

The myth was created in the 1960s in this country, because there were film critics who suddenly found themselves as celebrities because they borrowed this European sensibility and were the first ones to sell it to an American audience. Great. That had to happen. But there’s no reason to believe that what they’re saying is the truth. Andrew Sarris is the most guilty of all of them.

I taught a film noir class at Stanford. At the end, I said: Four Words. All you need to know, if you’re talking about narrative cinema, is there are four words that supercede everything else: good script, well acted. Great films always have good script, well acted. There are films that are well directed, incredibly fascinating, but if it’s not good script well acted, it can’t be a great film.

Keyframe: Seen anything lately that’s good?

Muller: Just saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Most of my friends hated the book so much, they said don’t even bother. But David Fincher is a great director. He makes exposition exciting. Information is just spewing out of The Social Network, Zodiac. And yet he’s able to keep you right on top of the story. Except for her, it’s nothing but talking heads. And she’s the non-talking head who’s surly and doesn’t say anything. It’s somehow dynamic and exciting and I like how he’s a very non-sensational director. People think he’s a sensational director because he directs sensational stories. But he’s not a sensational director. Dragon Tattoo has grueling violence, but it’s not sensational. He’s not going to cut away from the rape scene to make it palatable. It’s what makes the movie make sense; why she’s such a badass and wants revenge. You don’t want to watch it, but that’s exactly how you’re supposed to feel.

Beth Lisick is a New York Times bestselling author, a Bay Area-based performer, and the co-curator of the Porchlight Storytelling Series.

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