By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Chuck Jones’ “Hell-Bent For Election,” from “Saved from the Flames,” Flicker Alley, 2008]
There are movie lovers, and then there are cinephiles the latter tribe can be discerned from the population by an ardor for cinema that runs beyond the requirements of mere entertainment. The average moviehead needs to be enthralled in a conventional, narrative way while cinephiles find the celluloid moving image itself, and its historical legacy, epiphany enough. If you know the names Mary Ellen Bute or Slavko Vorkapich, then you’re one of the anointed obsessives, and something such as the new three-disc set from Flicker Alley, “Saved from the Flames,” could be your idea of a gold mine. A scattershot collection of “orphans” scatterings of film that, by definition, profit nobody, and so are therefore only salvaged and restored by cinephilic charities and archives the set is distinguished from the magnificent “Treasures” series of DVDs put out by the National Film Preservation Foundation in that most of the films have not been “restored” via a laboratory, but are simply digitally spiffed-up prints of films residing in two collections: U.S. distributor Blackhawk Films (which used to be a public domain VHS factory) and France’s Lobster Films.
In the viewing, it hardly matters. Here in a case is the melancholy luster of cinema the entering into a past at once captured as if in amber, and simultaneously forever lost to time. The substantial helping of French silents offers one surprise after another the shocking chutzpah of Segundo de Chomón’s “An Excursion to the Moon” (1908), which steals every one of its images, sets and compositions from the Méliès film made six years earlier; the Bizarro World alternate versions of key Lumière films, including a reworking of “Card Party” that features working class chums sipping wine instead of stuffed shirts swilling beer; footage of serpentine dancer Mme. Ondine performing inside a cage full of angry lions from 1900; sound films from 1900 and 1907, a filmed 1939 performance by Django Reinhardt, and so on.
The American-made films also have plenty of historical juice we get the Fox Movietone newsreel of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 take-off; Ub Iwerks’ immortal “Balloonland” (1935); the infamous MGM-produced fake newsreel story “California Election News #2,” anonymously aimed at scotching Upton Sinclair’s 1934 bid for the governorship; a sampling of WWII-propaganda “soundies”; D.W. Griffith’s outlandish 1912 anti-cocaine melodrama “For His Son”; and a richly colored copy of Chuck Jones’ fiery, luridly surreal FDR campaign cartoon “Hell-Bent for Election,” which hit theaters in 1944 and makes contemporary campaigning seem mild-mannered, at least in terms of iconography.
But two preeminent eye-poppers are generally European. In 1938, stop-motion animator George Pal went to Holland to make a Philips Radio “broadcast” party film, which was intended to advertise the hardware, but instead packed more Spanish-flavored, rainbow-colored, cranked-puppet song & dance fun into five minutes than Disney did in a decade. Still, the climactic set piece of the program is a montage of censored silent film clips, kisses and hugs and amorous glances separated from their films à la “Cinema Paradiso” by an unknown projectionist in Brussels, the remnants of an old school habit of squeamish prudery that, just as in Tornatore’s film, is transformed by time into a bewitching suite of movie love.
For story, coming at you like a stampede of wildebeest, Lars von Trier’s “The Kingdom Series Two” (1997) continues his 1994 saga with this nearly five-hour sequel (total of “Kingdom”-ness: almost 10 hours, for those sick days when already feeling sick is not quite enough), in which the titular Copenhagen hospital, still haunted by ghosts and omened by Downs syndrome dishwashers, is beset by (or still beset by) Satanic cults, suicide-sport interns, voodoo, homicidal medical experiments, badger obsessions, drugs, and, most nuttily, a giant mutant baby (the son of Udo Kier from the first “Kingdom”) played by… Udo Kier. One could only wish that American television shows would, or could, replicate Von Trier’s agenda here to just keep ratcheting up the devilish invention and horrifically consequential story ideas and do so with von Trier’s exhaustive measure of satirical intelligence. The squirrelly, dingy video look of the show may not seem as sui generis as it did in the ’90s, but here’s to being grateful for such a ridiculously generous helping of malevolent narrative nonsense, and to hoping someday for a “Kingdom Series Three,” in which the cliffhangers can finally fall and the world can finally end.
“Saved from the Flames” (Flicker Alley) and “The Kingdom Series Two” (Koch Lorber Films) will be available on DVD on January 22nd.