17 February 2010

For the Love of Film

Did you know that Orson Welles made a film before Citizen Kane high-lariously entitled Too Much Johnson? I just discovered that while doing some light, lazy Wikipedia research for this blog post, and now I intend to introduce it in every conversation I have this week. I want to stand on the rooftops and shout "Orson Welles made a film called Too Much Johnson!" When someone appears distraught or confused, I will ask "Too Much Johnson?" When the subway is crowded and cluttered and beset by panhandling musicians, I will shake my head and grumble, "Too Much Johnson." And when introducing myself, I will say,"My name is Justin, but you can call me Too Much Johnson."

Enragingly, I cannot actually watch the film. Welles stopped editing it when legal and technical complications stalled his plan to screen it as bridging segments in a theater production, and when he rediscovered the footage years later, it was incinerated in a fire at his home. That's right, folks: The fire destroyed Too Much Johnson. Sadly, this kind of story is far too common, and frequently lacks easy juvenile puns with which to alleviate the loss. Like anything else in this world, films die - whether they are burned up, misplaced, intentionally destroyed, or naturally deteriorate - and when they go, we lose them forever. We will never be able to witness most of the work of film pioneer Georges Méliès, for example, because many of his films became boot heels for the French army during World War I. It's a horrifyingly poetic image - all that fantasy and magic trodden by thousands of soldiers to reach the killing fields at the front, now buried and mouldering with them in mass graves.

Today, we read that and are stunned. "How could they?" we think. No one back then knew the value of film, which wasn't always looked upon as an art. We don't know what things we take for granted today will go on to become heralded in the future - I'm hoping that our children's children will be complaining about their Brilliant in Context required reading in their Vulgarity classes - and so while it's easy (and fun!) to be judgmental toward our ancestors, even today, we still allow our own treasured works and memories to wither and die because we never realize their true value.

Unlike people, however, we have the means to preserve films without the ensuing grisliness of the zombification process. Institutions like the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) rescue pieces of art and history before they get trashed in the dustbins of time. They can only do this, of course, with money, and so I am writing this meandering emotional appeal as part of the For the Love of Film blogathon, which is raising funds for the NFPF. Please go to this link and donate whatever you can.

What film is worth preserving? All of it, from your father's home movies of Christmas morning to the biggest piles of crap Hollywood is capable of excreting. And that's one of the aspects of the NFPF that I particularly enjoy - they go beyond traditional films and grasp something deeper. Whereas an organization like the Library of Congress generally sticks with mainstream or feature films like Casablanca and On the Waterfront when selecting works to preserve (and they only preserve 25 films per year), the NFPF is more free range, working with a variety of institutions.

In addition to the usual suspects, they've helped save footage of Marian Anderson's 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial, commercials for long-gone restaurants, political ads for forgotten issues, a staged screen test created by a filmmaking class, images of the destruction caused by the 1964 Alaska earthquake, the trailer for a lost film, ancient city guides, and a ridiculously meta Mutt and Jeff cartoon that feels like the ur-Duck Amuck. (As a proper Michigan lad, one of my favorite finds on the NFPF's website is this 1919 animated short from the Ford Motor Company warning its workers against unions. "Bolshivists are the rats of civilization," Uncle Sam says, providing ample evidence of how little political discourse has changed.) We need to do more than just preserve your City Lights, your Cool Hand Lukes, and your Dickson Experimental Sound Films. We need to hold onto these other works that exist outside of the mainstream notions of FILM.

I think of it like this: In life there are things that most people know about as fairly common knowledge - celebrities' love lives, presidents' speeches, natural disasters - whatever makes the nightly news. These things become a part of HISTORY. But then there are those happenings, events, and people that don't enter the popular consciousness - that is, the vast majority of existence - and they don't typically end up in HISTORY. They don't make it into the textbooks, they aren't examples of heroes your mother uses to make you eat your peas, they don't become posters slapped up on dorm room walls. But they are even more important in helping us understand and imagine the world as it exists for most people, and what remains of them - those brief moments captured on film - is rapidly disappearing.

These films give us a tactile sense for the past and how it was actually lived on a day-to-day basis. In a very real sense, this is how films, photographs, and recordings intimately connect us to what was, so that we may better understand where we came from, who we are now, and where we're going. They serve as portals to our ancestors, allowing us to better imagine what their lives may have been like. So please support the NFPF. Because one day, when you're dead and gone, there won't be anything left of you either but what was captured by a camera's lens.

You can read other entries in the For the Love of Film blogathon by visiting one of the host blogs (Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren). The other writers who have donated their time and talent are universally more smarter and talenteder than me, so I urge you to check them out. And once again, please donate generously here.


  1. Kids should be so lucky as to have BiC as required reading.

  2. Definitely not more talenteder. I really enjoyed this, Justin!

  3. Too Much Johnson is, without a doubt, sheer brilliance as a title. As was this post. Loved it, thanks very much for it!

  4. You can never have..."Too Much Johnson."

  5. Melies is love, thanks for the info about his film being used for shoes!

    Great post!

  6. I remember getting really angry when I read that "Too Much Johnson" burned up so many years later. At least we still have "Hearts of Age," the movie he made before that. Great post.