Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Getting Your Hands on Louise Brooks

Despite my more than occasional posting of images of silent-era actress Louise Brooks, I haven't seen that many movies in which she appears or stars.  The DVD and Blu-Ray market never found the conversion of silent films profitable, and the legal streaming market hasn't caught up with the massive backlog of what has been preserved (Netflix currently has four Brooks films, one of them is streaming - and that fifth one is a doc, not a Brooks movie).

Why this is, I don't know.  I don't know how Netflix and other companies make the decision to stream films, but I am familiar with the incurred cost that comes with taking up bandwidth, at least when it comes to AWS.   I assume the math is complex.

TV.  Why you no stream this at me?

For years Amazon has offered some iffy transfers of Brooks movies, and Pandora's Box was released some years ago in a beautiful set by no less than Criterion.  But the other films?  Most went for upwards of twenty dollars, which is a lot to pay for a movie that I'm not even certain isn't in the public domain, and which invariably have some remarks about the poor quality of the transfer in the user comments.

But the power of The Duke is a force to be reckoned with.

In her final credited performance (acting, not appearing as herself in a doc), Louise Brooks had returned from Europe and wound up appearing in an early matinee-type movie with a young John Wayne.  At this point, nearly unrecognizable and, of course, actually speaking, Brooks was no longer the toast of Germany/ Austria/ What-have-you, but a bit player in a wonky genre muddle-fest probably really meant for kids.  Probably thanks to legion John Wayne completionists, Brooks' final performance is now out on Blu-Ray in the schlocky and always poorly reviewed Overland Stage Raiders, an installment in the Three Mesquiteers series 1930's-era-mash-up-Westerns.

I do wonder when and if, and, indeed, who will eventually package up films like those featuring Brooks, and who will make them available for streaming viewing.  It currently seems nobody's responsibility, in particular.

Not that shockingly, some of these films are starting to pop up on YouTube.  The Canary Murder Case, for example, is available.  YouTube is backed by Google, and that's a step in the right direction for digital preservation and distribution, as it does seem like that's fairly secure for the time being and can provide anyone access - if you want to watch a mid-res item on your computer or hook your computer up to your TV (I've not done this).  With the disintegration of network TV and the rise of specialty outlets like I see available on my Roku, it seems like someone could figure out how to make these films highly findable and accessible.  It just isn't obvious at the moment.

It seems somebody out there was restoring Beggars of Life, one of Brooks' movies I've wanted to see for 15 years, but the film is only available on YouTube in an incredibly shoddy print transfer .  The new print hasn't found distribution for some reason, and it doesn't seem like the 35mm print struck at the time made it out aside from a few rare screenings.

Leaping forward 15 or 20 years in film history, it's taken the efforts of folks like The Film Noir Foundation to recover and restore some lost gems - but that preservation is limited by funding and access - and doesn't guarantee wide distribution.  Frankly, living here in flyover space central I'm not all that privvy to restoration efforts of silent era (or any era) film as screenings and lectures on this sort of thing isn't nearly as popular in my area as, say, small scale docs or Monster Squad reunions at The Alamo.*

I'd reiterate what I said when I was in San Francisco in January - you people are doing it right out there.

I need to catch up on the work of archivists like Caroline Frick who have been out there first hand pulling films off death row and getting them back in front of audiences.

Especially when you have a star as iconic as Brooks, it seems like that's a fairly good starting point for going back and determining a preservation and distribution (working in digital libraries, I see the two as one and the same).  But one also assumes it wouldn't hurt if an eccentric millionaire with a Brooksie fetish got involved and made it happen.

As much as I hope these alternative outlets and new media distribution channels are setting themselves up to make this all a possibility, it's also hard to ignore the big guns in the room.  If its not finding its way to Netflix, Amazon Streaming or other mainstream channels, it could get lost in the shuffle.  Silent era film, especially very early silent era, is often thought to be destroyed or rumored to no longer exist, and then suddenly you'e watching a cut of Metropolis with an additional half hour that was thought lost but was sitting in a vault in Argentina.

Anyway, this is a very long way of saying I went to Amazon to look into prices on a Louise Brooks movie and was totally shocked that Overland Trail Raiders was on Blu-Ray.

*there's a continuum and a place for all of it out there somewhere, but I wish Austin would build an audience like Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and other places where I routinely see screenings of prints (PRINTS) of movies I'd like to see.

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