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Found Footage

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The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty
Tribulation 99
Double Take
River Madness
Swastika
The Family Album
The Phantom of the Operator
Diva Dolorosa
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Salvaged from a dumpster, haggled over at the flea market, discovered in an abandoned garden shed or captured off television screens, pieces of stray cinema show up in all kinds of movies. They lend authenticity, evoke a time period or else are manipulated to become another thing entirely. That films were regarded as so much detritus to be discarded is a shame but it is also why their re-use has proliferated. Studios sometimes recycled silent-era comedies or newsreels, adding sound (or, worse, commentary), but “found footage” was largely the domain of independents and artists in search of accessible, high-quality material. A finder’s, keepers ethos gave filmmakers permission to bend these images to their will. In 1936, Joseph Cornell created an elegy to the silent-era cinema with Rose Hobart, made from a print of East of Borneo that he’d found languishing in a New Jersey warehouse. Found footage is now so familiar as to have become a trope, from the scratched-up 16mm color “home movies” in Raging Bull to Sarah Polley’s Super-8 depiction of her mother’s past in Stories We Tell. The wistful ether such imagery stirs up has fogged up our ability to read the footage's original meaning or apprehend its new one. The art of found, or rescued, or researched or even purloined footage comes from clearing away the nostalgia to reveal something we’ve long forgotten or thought we already understood.

By Shari Kizirian

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

(1927) directed by Esfir Shub, 87 minutes

Esfir Shub’s chief task in the Russian film industry up until this point was re-cutting foreign imports and domestic features made before the Revolution to render them politically correct for Soviet audiences. She kept the “outtakes” for herself and assembled them into new films for a lark. Her curricular and extracurricular work served her well. She crafted this feature-length tutorial on why the Romanovs had to go from fragments of fiction and nonfiction films made before 1917, turning otherwise dry actualities into a dramatic visual argument on “production for use.” Amid all the collective mobilization, suffering and rebellion, Shub waits to cut until a personal moment transpires, until one in a row of swabbing sailors has a laugh or a woman on an assembly line makes knowing eye contact with a coworker. In a country short on film stock, Shub’s approach was a penny-wise way to establish a homegrown cinema while simultaneously claiming control over the Tsar-dominated past. That Sergei Eisenstein learned editing at her table seems much less important than her radical act of using scissors and rubber cement to create new meaning out of “old” films.

Tribulation 99

(1991) directed by Craig Baldwin, 48 minutes

Craig Baldwin uses his collection of celluloid orphans to subvert more recent official histories. What his 1986 RocketKitKongoKit did for the post-Belgian Congo Tribulation 99 does for the U.S.’s all-out-of-proportion response when certain “Banana Republics” voted in socialism. Against a barrage of sci-fi, monster and spy films, a relentless narrator intones conspiratorially about the United Fruit Company’s death squads and Colonel Oliver North’s gun- and drug-running scheme to fund them. Among the shameful plenty of facts there are also hilarious fictions—that Dwight Eisenhower took a meeting on a flying saucer, to name one. “Really,” Baldwin said in a 2006 interview, “the CIA was way more imaginative than any Hollywood writer. . . . What they were doing was taking fantasy and fiction and turning that into political tactics. So, God, just turn it around! I was thinking, just turn it one more time.” By conflating the actual and the preposterous, he exposes the truth as far stranger.

Double Take

(2009) directed by Johan Grimonprez, 79 minutes

Paranoia and prescience converge in this inventive narrative about the panic-rattled decades of the Cold War and the role played by the new medium of television. Who better to channel the madness of those years than Alfred Hitchcock, the showman who had menaced us with the deadly potential of the everyday: the telephone, cups of coffee, flocks of birds, the shower, mother? Scriptwriter Tom McCarthy and Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y maker Johan Grimonprez adapt a Jorge Luis Borges story about a man’s encounter with his doppelganger as armature for their cautionary tale then flesh it out with news footage of the race to space, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of Richard Nixon and their spooky foreshadows in the plotlines of Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Topaz. Hardly a didactic history lesson, the film entertains and unnerves, suggesting that we still inhabit that terrible zeitgeist of eternal doom. “It will,” says one imaginary Hitchcock to another, “end badly for someone.”

River Madness

(2002) directed by Dana Plays, 2 minutes

Remember the end of Cinema Paradiso when the boy finally watches the censored succession of kisses strung together by the projectionist? Well, this ain’t that. From Grease’s drag-racing high-schoolers to a young John Connor fleeing on his dirt bike in Terminator II, from Chinatown’s Jake Gittes zooming in on depravity to Repo Man’s Bud sharing career advice with the sushi-stealing Otto, the dry, concrete bed of the Los Angeles River has been the site of more dubious cinematic activity than Griffith Park had trees. Plays might be chiding Hollywood for overkill but she also siphons the adrenaline of these spectacles to fuel her own film. Running a taut two minutes, it packs an addictive wallop, inciting repeat viewings in the same way a hopeless romantic might continually rewind the end of the Tornatore film.

Swastika

(1974) directed by Philippe Mora, 95 minutes

German artist Lutz Becker had been searching for Hitler’s home movies ever since he’d found a photo in the Bundesarchiv of Eva Braun holding a 16mm camera. It wasn’t until later in an old aircraft hangar belonging to the U.S. National Archives that he uncovered uncatalogued cans of her color films. He and director Philippe Mora divided up the images into the years leading up to World War II and combined them with propaganda footage into a “before” portrait of Germany. Seeing Der Führer in a double-breasted suit hanging out with the usual henchmen on the terrace at Obersalzberg, taking in the view, wondering where’s the coffee, and petting the dogs, all in living color, unsettles in a way that the familiar black-and-white images of heil-ing a line of jackboots simply do not. (You can get all that in Becker’s earlier film, Doubled-Headed Eagle.) But these same men attended to their wives, goo-gooed over children and sometimes rested their heads back in a moment of gentle repose. They were flesh and blood. This film’s genius, like that of Jay Rosenblatt's 1998 Human Remains, comes from lingering over that and letting it sink in.

The Family Album

(1986) directed by Alan Berliner, 60 minutes

Five years rummaging through forty hours of “anonymous 16mm home movies” accumulated at flea markets and estate sales resulted in Alan Berliner’s first feature-length film. A collage of scenes from mostly white, heterosexual American family life in the first half of the last century, The Family Album delights and induces small measures of melancholy. There’s lots of goofy dancing that a handheld camera seems to provoke no matter the decade but it’s the found sounds that bring these images briefly, albeit incompletely, to life. Unguarded reminiscences both joyful and sad, songs belted out for only a tape recorder to hear, raunchy doggerel recited among friends, bits of news left on phone machines, proffered toasts and prayers compose a commentary so carefully paired with the visuals that, for a split second, these strangers can seem like intimates.

The Phantom of the Operator

(2004) directed by Caroline Martel, 65 minutes

When Quebec-based filmmaker Caroline Martel wanted to make a film about female telephone operators, no footage was available to illustrate what she called in a 2005 interview “the more transgressive stories”—operators’ efforts to unionize and their use of the phone to broadcast “the results of a hockey game or let her favorite subscribers enjoy a local concert.” Instead, from the myriad corporate films that do exist, Martel conjures an uber-operator, one who emerged with and is integral to the telecommunications industry. She not only manned the phone lines and assembly lines of these now ubiquitous devices but also served as a specimen in behavior research that still determines how we work and access information. She was the first mediator between us and the increasingly globalized world, and she remains so to this day. A beautiful, ingenious film, The Phantom of the Operator abstracts this female from telephone company training and promotional films, transmitting a ghostly outline of “the Voice with a Smile.” She is summoned even now, whenever you ask for directions.

Diva Dolorosa

(1999) directed by Peter Delpeut, 68 minutes

She arrives at the theater, chin tipped up and out, peeling off her cloak as if she were the show. For us of course she is, and the maker of Lyrical Nitrate reminds us why. Strong-willed, stylish, and often quite strange, the Italian divas of the early silent-film era command the screen in fashions that are equal parts Victorian ankle-length modesty and Jazz-Age brazen. Punishment surely awaited those daring such décolletage over the body of a lover’s dead brother, also a lover. But forget for a moment that it all has to end badly. These women ruled. Using ample excerpts from archived films—Flower of Evil, Tigre Real, Sangue blu, Il fuoco, etc.—Peter Delpeut distills their essence into three acts: their allure, their torment and their grim redemption. Whether she suddenly ingests a bouquet of flowers, vengefully caresses a butter knife at the dinner table, or bravely meets her fate draped in flowing veils, you can’t take your eyes off her. Accompanied by the operatic soundtrack these outsize characters deserve, they leave us wanting what had gotten them into so much trouble in the first place—more.