On Lost Films

Posted by @ 10:24 pm on July 10th, 2011

I formerly suffered an unhealthy obsession (if I’m honest it’s still around, but it’s certainly depleted) with the conceptual implications of lost films. ¬†As a self-termed “archaeologist” of obscure media, discovering the possible existence of an artifact (mostly, for me, films/books/zines, photographs of art-events, etc), researching everything about it, and then possibly unearthing details to add to a collective knowledge base on said artifact is, well to be blunt, a really fucking awesome feeling.

A couple of days ago at Big Other, Amber Sparks posed the question “What lost film would you love to see?” The question found me immediately excited, because it was something that had managed to escape my head-space for a while. There’s any number of reasons why a film might be lost; if it was shot in the early days of cinema, the chemicals used to process the film itself could have deteriorated the celluloid, leaving nothing. It’s possible that the film was never completed, but screened to producers in an incomplete state, leaving a mark on an individual. The only copy of a film (smaller budget films) could have burnt in a fire, destroyed in some sort of natural disaster, or literally just misplaced.

What’s so enticing to me is the idea of a film that leaves such an indelible mark on the audience. Films that leave haunting memories recounted on message boards decades later. I’m obsessed with finding these remnants, accounts of a narrative that has long been intertextually adapted into a daydream. The idea of what’s been forgotten mixing with a romanticized/idealized version of what was actually seen. The artifact affecting an individual’s reality, challenging the way we store narratives in our own lives.

As an aficionado of “cult” films from Europe, specifically of the period from ~’65-’84, there are a number of films that I’ve read about that I’d love to see. A lot of these films just failed to make enough money to remain important, or were never completed for similar reasons. Rooting yourself specifically in a niche that often finds itself financially nonviable can be frustrating, because of how little care is shown the artifacts that haunt you.

In 2007 or so I found myself specifically obsessed with the Italian film director Alberto Cavallone. At the time it was really only possible to get two of his films; the more notorious BLUE MOVIE, and SPELL (L’uomo la donna e la bestia). I found the latter more satisfying, but the former held a specific hold due to its utter nihilism, an unrelenting intensity carried via isolation, abstracted tableaux, and specifically an alien tone. Descriptions of Cavallone’s other films struck me as specifically aimed towards my taste; abject, perverse, intellectually stimulating, and above-all demonstrating an ideological drive that refused to be tainted by the film industry itself.

Cavallone’s career was marred by problems; a lack of recognition, financial, etc. Like many genre film-makers of the 70s who had a specific, shall we say, vision (Jean Rollin, Jess Franco, Jose Benazeraf), he ended up shooting porno to make money to shoot the films he wanted to. What’s amazing about a lot of these visionary director’s pornographic films is that they end up being just as beautiful and strange and the “straight” films these men were making, but they’re filled with scenes of fucking.

The Italian critic Roberto Curti had written an article in English on Cavallone, mostly dealing with Blue Movie, but also mentioning biographic details that were out of my reach due to the fact that I can’t read Italian. I contacted Curti and asked him if he would be interested in writing a longer, over-arching article on Cavallone’s career for my then new film website (which I’ve linked above). The article mentions a film that had recently been found after being considered lost, and Curti had attended a screening.

The film in question was Blow Job, and in the article Curti calls the film “metaphysical and elusive,” and describes the plot in detail. It became my holy grail, all the more because it seemed attainable. A few years later, as I found myself less obsessed with film, the film popped up on a tracker. I kind of flipped out, amazed–not only was this lost film sitting in front of me waiting to be download, but a fan had also produced English subtitles for it.

I downloaded the film immediately and watched it that night. While the film itself is good, it was nowhere near the perfection I had constructed in my head based on Curti’s description and my own desire to discover some sort of “Ur-Film” that would perfectly cater to my specific interests, maybe help to explain them. I found myself slightly disappointed, but the experience itself took on weight.

It’s not anything significantly revelatory or even shocking to discover that often, it’s the hunt that’s the fun of a thing. Regardless, the trajectory of the experience itself is always notable, at least for me. As more and more media finds itself being dispersed through digital channels, free, away from the confines of a systematic capitalism to keep it away from those who can’t afford it, lost films keep popping up in various places. A 21st century freedom brings us gifts. Digital anarchy is proving more historically relevant in many cases than concrete, institutional film-foundations. Not every film is stored in an archive somewhere, there are many films (and books, and records, and ______), that someone is judging irrelevant for the future. I’m earnestly thankful that it’s getting easier for an individual to make their own decisions about what they like.

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