"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Missing

A few years ago there was a story about a recording of the two string quartets by the major 19th Century French composer Saint-Saëns. Had this been a recording of the Beethoven, Shostakovich or Mozart quartets there would have been barely a flicker of interest in anything other than the quality of the performance and recording themselves. However, what made these recordings noteworthy was not only that the compositions were of very high quality but that these were the world premiere recordings. In the classical music industry these days an eye is kept open (especially by labels like Naxos and Chandos) for rare and unusual recordings to give a disc a unique USP. Lost and/ or previously unknown works do appear, not least because many of the major music archives still haven’t been catalogued thoroughly and have centuries of manuscripts residing in them. After centuries of European wars, private sales, clearances, thefts or simply mislabelling things have inevitably been displaced but what made the episode of the Saint-Saëns quartets more peculiar was that these were not lost works they resided in the archives, people knew they existed, but for over a century nobody had even played them let alone recorded them. As a musicologist noted on the radio at the time, this was terribly sad… they were simply neglected.

We all know about the missing episodes scandal that has left many of the Hartnell and most of the Troughton episodes of Doctor Who lost for all time; the same goes for the four missing first series Dad’s Army episodes, virtually all of The Likely Lads and the missing episodes of Quatermass. Many aficionados know that a vast amount of early cinema has gone forever (about 80% of all silent film), not least of all because it was filmed onto highly unstable, highly inflammable nitrate stock, films such as Murnau’s illegal 1920 Dr. Jekyll adaptation Der Januskopf or Chaney’s turn in 1927’s London After Midnight. And how tantalizing is a 1920 Roumanian film entitled ‘Drakula’? But these are gone. Probably forever. Maybe one day someone will look in a can and find cause for their heartbeat to quicken as they open a mislabelled can and find… who knows? And so we should be thankful for anything that survives from the era when films were considered throwaway. Of course, sometimes films do come back, a mini-masterwork The Most Dangerous Game (made back to back with King Kong), Boris Karloff in The Ghoul and perhaps the best example being a pristine, full length print of Carl Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion Of Joan Of Arc from 1928; long thought lost, it was discovered in a Norwegian mental asylum!

However, as with the Saint-Saëns quartets, there seems to be another category: the neglected film, works that are known to exist and yet seem to be languishing in limbo, unreleased on disc or tape, unbroadcast on television. The EU did have a scheme to make sure that certain classics of European cinema remained on catalogue (EVE) but this seems to have long since gone and it seems more likely that a film (or television programme) will be released if it comes through a smaller company. Even the classic, Witchfinder General was apparently not going to be released on DVD because the rights had ended up with Sony Pictures who had decided on a policy of not releasing films over a decade old because their profit margins would be too small- and I do realise that profit margins are a large part of the problem- which is peculiar when you consider how they kept telling us we were coming into an era of greater choice. We must be grateful to companies such as Network, Eureka, Artificial Eye, Tartan and Redemption-Salvation for throwing light through some nigh on forgotten classics but there are so many more…

Among the films and television programmes that seem to have fallen through the cracks and I would like to see appear on DVD in the UK include…

• The Student Of Prague (1913 and 1926 remake) (Essential early horror works.)
• Genuine (1920) (Footage from Robert Wiene’s film was placed on the end of the NTSC and some Pal tapes of the same director’s The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari- known to exist in its entirety.)
• City Girl (1930) (Murnau’s third American film- of four- and the only one unreleased.)
• The Naked Spur (1953) (the only one of the Anthony Mann-directed James Stewart Westerns not available on DVD- bizarre!)
• Fear And Desire (1953)(Kubrick’s first feature, withdrawn by the director)
• The Colossus Of Rhodes (1961) (Sergio Leone’s credited directorial debut- it may well be terrible but without a release- how would anybody know?)
• The Big Gundown (1966) (Sergio Sollima’s first Western)
• Privilege (1967) (Peter Watkins’ first feature film. Rights owned by Warners- I think- who have no interest in a release)
• Poor Cow (1967) (Ken Loach feature film briefly released since disappeared)
• Up The Junction (1968) (the film version of the BBC play)
• Run Man Run (1968) (Sergio Sollima’s third Western)
• Gladiators (1969) (Peter Watkins’ second proper feature film)
• Leo The Last (1970) (The film John Boorman directed between Hell In The Pacific and Deliverance; won him Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival.)
• Deep End (1970) (Apparently a classic from the end of the sixties from Jerzy Skolimowski and said to be Jane Asher’s greatest role.)
• Face To Face (1976) (Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar- and Bafta-nominated, Golden Globe-winning classic. Unavailable.)
• Bloodbath Of Doctor Jekyll (1981)(Euro-auteur Walerian Borowczyk’s grimmest film. Rights issues)
• Chinese Boxes (1984) (Chris Petit’s fourth feature with Will Patton and Robbie Coltrane)
• Drowning By Numbers (1988) (Peter Greenaway)
• The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989) (Peter Greenaway)
• Prospero’s Books (1991) (Peter Greenaway)
• The Baby Of Mâcon (1993) (Peter Greenaway)
• The Pillow Book (1996) (Peter Greenaway)
• Dracula Rising (1993) (Not the most widely known Corman production but effectively the companion to his Frankenstein Unbound)
• Se7en (1995) (Seriously! This modern classic is currently unavailable at HMV online!)

(I have not included any films that remain unreleased for actual censorship reasons. That’s a different subject entirely…!)

And from television wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have releases of amongst others…
• 1984 (1954) (controversial Orwell favourite saved for posterity by the Queen- I kid you not- but even Royal Appointment isn’t enough to command a DVD release!)
• Up The Junction (1965) (the acclaimed BBC Wednesday Play)
• Ghost Stories For Christmas: The Stalls Of Barchester (1971); Lost Hearts (1973); Treasure Of Abbot Thomas (1974); The Ash Tree (1975) (The BFI released two- Whistle And I’ll Come To You and A Warning To The Curious and then… stopped.)
• No Man’s Land (1978) (classic filmed version of Pinter’s play with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson sits languishing in the BBC’s vaults)
• The Muscle Market (1981) (pre-Blackstuff Play For Today)
• A Very Peculiar Practice (1986, 1988, 1992) (early Andrew Davies: first series released briefly; second series and one-off special… nowhere to be found)
• The Woman In Black (1989) (much sought after chilling Nigel Kneale adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel- apparently the rights are now owned by Universal and they refuse to release it- because they think they may do a big-screen version at some point in the next century.)
• Mother Love (1989) (chilling Bafta award-winning Diana Rigg starring 4-parter)
• Chimera (1991) (scary as hell, proto-genetics story)
• Blackeyes (1989) (controversial Dennis Potter classic)
• Lipstick On Your Collar (1993) (the final Dennis Potter shown during his lifetime- starring Ewan McGregor)
• Karaoke (1996) (the first part of Dennis Potter’s posthumous flourish- filming arranged so quickly that rights were not properly sorted out)
• Cold Lazarus (1996) (the second part… same reason for lack of release)

Then there are some that were available briefly and have long since returned into rights limbo: The War Game, Culloden, The Stone Tape…

I can’t help thinking I have merely scratched the surface and that there are plenty more classics (and curios) which have been lost under the welter of Star Wars re-issues, Ed Wood and Jess Franco releases.

Perhaps the thing that first made me interested in the rights and releases issue was the intriguing case of Johnny Got His Gun, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s sole directorial outing and pacifist film from 1971. The rights were bought by Metallica solely so they could use extensive footage in their promo for the track One They had no interest in making the film widely available and so the film languished in obscurity. A couple of years ago the film got its DVD release. Until then this was all you could see of the film…

…I haven’t yet bought a copy!

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