Category Archives: Off topic
(Read the title in a spooky voice. Maybe imagine lightning booming in the background.)
Now let us bring up the specter of the gray market. A print of a film is in the public domain or it isn’t. There are no shades of gray there. We’re not involving donor restrictions if you’re sourcing from an archive print — that’s another matter entirely — but if you possess a print of a film unencumbered by copyright, that print is yours to do with as you see fit. The film belongs to everyone and that includes you — that’s the very concept of the public domain.
The “gray market” does not exist. It’s a term invented by publishers to discredit resellers, especially those legitimately buying items cheaply in one market and reselling them in another market that the publisher is trying to price-gouge. Think buying a textbook in East Asia and reselling it in the US, where the same book retails for a hundred times more. This is perfectly legal as the courts have ruled numerous times. It is the right of first sale, as expressly defined by section 109 of title 17 of the US Code. All the publisher can do to legitimize their price inflation is to try and tarnish the resellers by linking them to black market bootleggers and counterfeiters in the minds of potential buyers. That’s what the “gray market” is.
Now there are orphan works where the trail of ownership has been lost and nobody is quite sure who the film might belong to. Releasing these films is sometimes referred to as “gray market” but it isn’t. It’s simply piracy — black market — but it’s banking on the fairly safe bet that whoever does own the film has no idea that they do and will not pursue the infringement. Harpodeon does not deal in orphan works, but I personally have no issue with pirating films in this case — there’s zero chance you’ll see them otherwise.
There are those who won’t watch releases from Grapevine, Alpha, etc. — including Harpodeon, of course — because they’re “gray market” distributors, and frankly, that’s idiotic. Their videos are no less legitimate than those from Kino and a great deal more legitimate those from Edition Filmmuseum. Now, Alpha’s image quality ranges from passable to you’re not even sure if there’s a picture beneath the murk and avoiding them in that case is understandable. Granted, several of our videos are sourced from very poor prints — that’s why we try to be upfront about the quality and why we provide screenshots and video clips to give an unvarnished idea what the print looks like. There are those that want perfection and would rather have nothing than fall short of it. They usually get nothing. Far be it from me to call them wrong, but when it comes to rare films, I’ll take what I can get and be happy it’s available at all.
You’ll see this idea frequently in old Usenet discussions but there are those that cling desperately to it still that one who restores a film then has some copyright claim on it. To begin with, there’s a question of what “restoration” means. In some cases, it means a great deal of work assembling disparate elements and working backwards to find what the original release must have looked like. It can mean nothing more than cleaning and transferring the film, with the cleaning either done chemically/mechanically to the film before the transfer or digitally after. Some “restorations” don’t even bother with the cleaning bit: restoration can simply refer to finding a definitive print and copying it. And let’s not pretend, “definitive” in this case often means “the one we have”.
For all our post-HD releases and the later SD releases as well, we chemically clean the film itself, transfer it, disassemble it into its individual shots, stabilize the image of each shot, diminish or remove the flickering, adjust the levels, diminish the grain where it’s become excessive from multiple generations of copying, sharpen it, tint it where the tints are known or can be confidently guessed, and then reassemble the film. Particularly distracting damage (e.g., a torn sprocket hole on 9.5mm, which leaves a heavy scratch up the center of the film) is painted out frame by frame. If the titles in the master are replacements (all Excel prints from the 1930s, for example — they didn’t use the original Selig titles) or if they’re badly cropped (example of what I’m talking about from The Juggernaut) or illegible, then the titles are re-created to more resemble the originals. When we have several prints of a film, all of them are transferred and combined in the chance that one print has more or longer scenes than another. When you’re dealing with old film, absolutely no two prints are identical.
Of course, the more slavish your restoration work is to bring the film back to its original release form, the less eligible for copyright protection it becomes. That’s where the old Usenet argument falls flat on its face. There may be a great deal of labor involved in restoring a film but no creativity at all. Copyright protection is about promoting creativity. If your goal is a copyrightable work, then you don’t want to restore anything, you want to transform it into something new. For silent films in the past, that was commonly done by replacing the titles with your own or by Raymond Rohauer’s old trick of rearranging the scenes to tell a slightly different story, but that’s mostly fallen out of favor nowadays. The “special content” copyrights you see claimed on public domain titles refer only to original content, i.e. the score.
The definitive case on photographic copyright law in the US is Bridgeman v. Corel (1999), which found that “a photograph which is no more than a copy of a work of another as exact as science and technology permits lacks originality. That is not to say that such a feat is trivial, simply not original.” The last line is a reference to Feist v. Rural (1991), which established that labor and skill are immaterial to copyright and a collection of uncopyrightable material remains uncopyrightable no matter how much work went into it. Simply put, “the sine qua non of copyright is originality.” This was expanded upon in Assessment Technologies v. Wiredata (2003), which found that a work based on public domain material that nevertheless meets the threshold of originality for copyright protection still has no claim on the underlying public domain material itself. Further, any attempt to assert such a claim is considered an abuse of process, forfeiting whatever intellectual property case they might have had and simultaneously opening themselves to countersuit. They cannot prevent anyone from extracting the underlying public domain material for their own use, or for undoing whatever transformative process made the work original in order to access the public domain material. Cases like Bridgeman v. Corel have been brought several times since with the exact same outcome, as in Meshwerks v. Toyota (2008), which found again that “reproductions do nothing more than accurately convey the underlying image” and are ineligible for copyright.
This is for the US copyright law, elsewhere may vary. Canada is more or less the same with regard to creativity (see Tele-Direct v. American Business Information (1997)). From my little familiarity with EU law, I know that whatever their objective for copyright is, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense and isn’t at all consistent. I wouldn’t be surprised if labor is considered there, even if it isn’t transformative, particularly if such a ruling would be protectionist to a member country.
As for what is transformative, the bar is rather high. Bugs alone may deter copying but are not transformative enough to qualify for protection. That’s doubly true if the bug is blurred or blacked-out in the copy. But really, you stop caring so much about your films being “stolen” when you accept that they were never yours to steal. Rohauer didn’t give a damn about film beyond his ability to monetize and litigate it. Don’t be Rohauer. If you want to get into releasing silent films, get into it because you want to release silent films, and don’t expect to make a dime.
It’s been two months and I can say a bit about how this has affected us:
As for search order and recommendations, I can’t see any difference. There’s been no change at all in viewership numbers, either in general or for specific titles.
As for royalties, I can’t say yet. At the same time Amazon rolled out their other changes, they also eliminated royalty estimates for Amazon US. Amazon UK and Germany still report them — presumably because they’re legally mandated to, I can’t imagine any other reason — but they make up a negligible number compared to Amazon US. For the US, you don’t know what you’re going to get until it shows up on your bank statement, and Prime payments are massively delayed. I’ve only just gotten my royalties for January. It will be another few months yet before I know what I made in April, but I think my prior estimate will be correct. We consistently get about 14,000 minutes streamed per month by Prime subscribers. With a 33% pay cut, that’ll work out to about $13.
As for the video removals and Amazon’s statement that they will not reconsider them… yeah. Just submit them again, unchanged. With only one exception — the 1911 version of Romeo and Juliet — that’s worked for me. One thing to say here: Prime has zero ability to distinguish one video from another if they have the same title. Amazon generally distinguishes products by UPC, which is not without its own problems. It’s a common scam to buy legitimate products and return counterfeits, which Amazon then freely mixes in their warehouses. That’s one of the reasons Amazon has become about as reliable as a sketchy flea market. Prime videos, though, have no UPC. You might think they’d go with a combined key — like title, date, and studio — but no, it’s just title. Now, that leads to conflicts, and conflicts seem to be resolved based on which side is bigger. If you’ve got a video that, say, shares a title with a Disney film, maybe clarify it by adding the date in parentheses. That should take care of most problems you’ll encounter.
Oh, and did I break this story? While Amazon’s intentions have been clear at least since February, there seemed to be nothing about this specific purge until Natalie Jarvey’s article in The Hollywood Reporter a couple weeks ago.
Pioneer Trails is fast on the way. It will also be available on Blu-Ray/DVD with a couple other Vitagraph western shorts as a bonus.
Amazon Instant, I mean Amazon Video, I mean Prime Video, I mean… whatever it’s called this month, has been gearing up for another retooling.
Their sorting and recommendation algorithm, which at the moment does not seem to exist — video are not ordered in any way that I can discern — is now going to be based on engagement. And we certainly know from Google that that’s never led to extremism. Amazon’s idea of “engagement”, though, seems to be less about reinforcing topics until you’ve created a dangerous echo chamber than it is pushing the mainstream. That’s not what engagement means, but what do I know? Specific examples they give include the film having an IMDb page and a recognizable star. Now, again, what do I know, but IMDb pages are user-created. It has a far lower barrier of entry than even Wikipedia. You’d think Amazon would be aware of that, what with them owning IMDb and all. I’m not terribly certain what qualifies a star but I’m sure Amazon isn’t being ambiguous on purpose.
Prime royalties, meanwhile, which started at 15 cents an hour, then dropped to 6 cents, will now be dropped to 4 cents. (Or raised to 10 cents, if your black-box-no-you-can’t-see-it engagement score is high enough. I’m going to go out on a limb and say roughly 100% of accounts will see their royalties drop, plus or minus 0%.)
None of that ordinarily would concern me. If the roughly $20 I make a month from Prime subscribers drops to $13, what of it? It’s already dropped from $50. That’s just Amazon being Amazon. As I’ve said before, I really only care about getting the films out there, and if I make a bit of money to get more films out there, all the better. Prime, its warts notwithstanding, was one of the best streaming services left for old films. I mean, Netflix has almost none left. And that’s the issue now: with its push for the mainstream, Amazon has begun purging non-mainstream content. Already five of our videos are deactivated, regardless of their ratings, reviews, or retention rates. I expect that number will climb.
Nothing I can do about it, I’m afraid. Amazon pointedly has no appeal process and will not disclose their reasons for doing anything. I was speaking recently to someone who lamented that we didn’t sell much physical media anymore. The simple reason I gave was that nobody wants it — DVD sales have fallen precipitously in the last few years and Blu-Ray was always dead in the water. People, by and large, prefer streaming, but that does put both the customer and the seller completely at the mercy of the streaming service, which might go out of business tomorrow or might decide it no longer wants to cater to you. So Amazon goes the way of Netflix.
Oh, hint for the next episode… ah… Cullin Landis… Alice Calhoun… runaway… stagecoach… you know, it’s Pioneer Trails.
I haven’t posted anything here in a long while, for reasons good and bad. To name one of the good ones, I’ve got my harpsichord back after it being in storage and dragged up and down the eastern seaboard for the last five years (and back up again — thank every god past, present, and future that I’m back home in Maine), and it’s been a great deal of fun getting back into playing it. I love the harpsichord above all other instruments. To name another, there’s Emma, my new cat. She’s the first pet I’ve had in, what, twelve years? Thirteen? Good little while, anyway. And I’ve been working on my first Blu-Ray. What else would it be but The Juggernaut?
It’s funny to imagine how much of the silent era survives because of one person, and it’s funny to imagine how little celebrated they are for it. The person I’m talking about now is John Griggs. Griggs was an actor, mostly on the radio but he featured in several TV series in the 1950s and ‘60s. Griggs was also a film collector, which wasn’t a terribly safe hobby in those days. Remember, the prints were only rented to exhibitors — they remained the property of the studio. The studio may not and usually did not care if they ever got them back once they’d finished their run, but if instead of destroying them someone were to take those prints home and watch them themselves — then the studio had a problem. Police raids of film collections were not infrequent. Griggs flirted even closer with disaster, as he not only collected the prints, he made copies of them onto safety film stock.
I believe he began collecting in the ‘30s — at a time when the majority of silent films still existed — but by the ‘60s, he’d started selling 16mm and 8mm reduction prints of the titles in his collection that had lapsed into the public domain, distributing them under the name Griggs-Moviedrome. I have several of those releases and they’re a lot of fun. TCM not long ago aired Salome and there was much rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth on the Internet that it wasn’t the five-reel restoration made from the George Eastman House print. What they showed was the three-reel Griggs-Moviedrome version, complete with his endearingly crude hand-drawn title cards. I’ve got a print of that Salome and I’ve always cherished it. Similarly, I have prints of both the original release of The Heart of Texas Ryan and the Griggs-Moviedrome version, and I greatly (and I mean greatly) prefer the latter.
On his death in 1967, John Griggs’s collection became the Yale Film Study Center archive.
The Juggernaut, or at least the two known surviving reels of it, survives because of John Griggs and only because of him. Griggs somehow obtained original nitrate positives of the two reels. From these he struck a 16mm reduction negative to preserve the film, which was already beginning to decompose and wouldn’t have lasted much longer — reel two, especially, is in rough shape. A handful of 16mm prints were made from this negative. One now rests at the Yale archive. One was bought by fellow film collector Karl Malkames. When Malkames died in 2010, at least parts of his collection were broken apart and sold piecemeal. His Juggernaut is now my Juggernaut.
(Edit: I originally had Bob Monkhouse here, as he died not so very long ago, his collection was broken apart as well, and I’ve got a few prints from it, but the Griggs Juggernaut came to me by way of Malkames. I’ve checked the info card I’ve got stuck in the can just now to make sure.)
If it’s not obvious why that acquisition was such a coup, let me step back and explain a bit. Film is spoken of in generations. The image imprinted on the film running through the camera — the camera negative — is the first generation. The release prints struck from the camera negative are the second generation. Griggs’s reduction negative duped-down from the release print is the third generation. Prints struck from Griggs’s negative, such as Yale’s or Malkames’s, are then the fourth generation. I’ve said before, the picture quality gets worse and worse with each successive generation. There are more common sources. Blackhawk, for example, released part of The Juggernaut in the late ‘60s on 16mm and Super 8mm for the home market, retitled A Plunge Through the Trestle, but those were at least eighth and more probably tenth generation prints. To get a fourth generation — of which there are likely fewer than ten in existence — that’s something.
So what was I saying? Oh yeah, John Griggs, great guy — it’s a shame he isn’t better appreciated. Also, watch out for The Juggernaut on Blu-Ray soon.
Our 2017 reconstruction of The Juggernaut is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD. Amazon only at the moment, until the website is reconfigured to handle Blu-Rays. We’re the 63,798th best seller! Can we crack the 63,797th place? Tune in next week to find out that we probably haven’t, no.
You may have noticed the “now playing” video didn’t change when it should. Well, those watching on YouTube. The website is all automated and can get around all on its lonesome but YouTube, I actually have to put up and take down now playings.
The short answer is that I was in the Intensive Care Unit on Saturday, and the long answer is that I was discharged today. So that’s nice. Miss Rovel (1921) is mostly scanned, too. That’s also nice.
A Further Delay
I’m sure you’ve already noticed the meager number of posts as well as the slowed number of videos released as of late. I’ve been a bit ill and am rather a bit more ill now. Not to sound too dramatic, but what the immediate future is I really can’t say and the delay may last quite some time longer.
The computer that I used to control the film scanner has finally given up the ghost. I don’t remember when I got it, but it’s old — eleven, twelve, maybe thirteen years. It was a very nice machine when new, and while it had been long supplanted as my daily driver, it fulfilled its reduced role as scanner controller quite well.
Its behavior had been getting increasingly more erratic and unpredictable this past year, but I’ve always been able to patch it up enough to keep it going. This last failure, though, was catastrophic. I’ve taken it apart and gone over it and diagnosed the likely issue, but fixing it would mean replacing the motherboard and that would cost more than the whole system is worth.
And so I’ve decided to replace it with a new or new-ish machine. No data was lost — the drives are fine, and even if they weren’t, everything to within the last 24 hours was backed-up. The loss is more psychological — I tend to become foolishly attached to things. I was sorely tempted to fix it even if it would wind up costing three times the price of replacement, but I just can’t justify that. Not for that machine, anyway — I would, have, and will do it for my first PC, which is still chugging along after 26 years. It’s really the Computer of Theseus at this point: the case is original, the RAM sticks are original, several cables are original — everything else has been replaced at least once from half a dozen different donor machines.
That’s partly the cause of the delay in output, but as for why work has stalled on the two films that had already finished being scanned and processed and only await being scored — remasters both, the Sheldon Lewis Jekyll and Hyde and Ben Hur (1907) — I just chalk that up to my general laziness.
Wait a minute, you might be saying — I’ve already done a review of Station Content. Yes, I have, and I won’t be reviewing it again. This will be more of a textual reconstruction. The original, feature-length release of Station Content, as I’ve said before, is presumed to be lost. What survives is a roughly one-reel abridgment. So what is missing from the story? Not a lot, really. Station Content seems to have been a film that lent itself well to abridgment:
Kitty (Gloria Swanson) was originally from a large city (an eastern city, likely New York, but contemporary reviews are contradictory). She marries Jim Manning (Lee Hill), who’s the master of Cybar Station. Cybar is a remote, isolate place somewhere in the southwest. She’s too preoccupied to be culture shocked — she’s about to have a baby. The baby takes ill shortly after its birth and dies before the doctor arrives. Kitty is sure the baby would have lived if they weren’t so far out in the country.
Jim had promised her that he would soon be promoted to a more urban station, but months have passed and no promotion has materialized. Kitty’s resentment grows with each passing day. Her only friend is the conductor of the express that stops at the station. A train wreck ahead delays the express one day. Kitty and the conductor spend the time at the piano, where Kitty sings songs that remind her of happier days before she’d ever heard of Cybar. Aboard the delayed train was a theatrical manager (Ward Caulfield) who overhears Kitty singing and is impressed. He tells her that he’s casting a musical revue (or maybe an operetta — again, reviews are contradictory) and she’s got a place in it if she wants it. Kitty tries to discuss the matter with Jim, but he shoos her away, saying he’s too busy. That night he finds a letter on the table: Kitty has left him.
Some time later, Stephen Morton (Arthur Millett) attends Kitty’s show. After the curtain call, she finds him waiting for her backstage, come to ask her out to dinner. Morton is the president of the Pacific Railroad — Jim’s boss. Morton is also married, but he and his wife (Nellie Allen) are estranged. To quote one review, he proposes that Kitty might “fill the void”. Kitty is reluctant. No need to answer now — he’ll be at his ranch in San Francisco, he says. If Kitty decides in his favor, she need only knock at the door.
Kitty is tempted — very tempted — and goes so far as to book passage to San Francisco, but her train is delayed and she misses her connection at Lone Bridge. The station might as well be Cybar for how isolated it is, but the family there seem quite content with their lot (Fay McKenzie is the baby, I don’t know who the parents are). The husband, however, is ill from overwork. In the morning, the train to San Francisco pulls out of the station, but Kitty isn’t on it. She knows Morse code and has volunteered to take over for a few days so that he can recuperate.
Jim, meanwhile, has at last got his promotion — too late for it to make any difference. He boards the train for his new job in San Francisco. Also on the train is Stephen Morton on the way to his ranch. A great storm breaks out that night. The track-walker rushes to Lone Bridge Station with news that the bridge has been struck by lightning and destroyed. He tells them to telegraph Victorville to stop the train, but the train — Jim and Morton’s train — has already left. Kitty pleads with him to go out, cross the canyon, and warn the train, but he refuses — it would be certain death in this storm, he says. Kitty takes it on herself to do so.
Braving all the dangers, Kitty at last makes it across the canyon and flags down the train in time before collapsing from exhaustion. She’s carried on board. When she wakes, Jim is the first man she sees. She asks forgiveness, but Jim insists there’s nothing to forgive — the fault was his for ignoring her. Morton, realizing that he has his answer, feigns ignorance and Jim never knows what might have happened if Kitty hadn’t missed her connection.
Really, aside the opening sequence with the death of Kitty’s baby and Jim’s failed promise of promotion, the abridgment conveys the entire story at a fifth of the length of the original. Even the adultery subplot, which it never directly mentions, is pretty heavily implied, despite the addition of the “I know a director in California” business. The most curious change is shifting the Lone Bridge illness from the husband to the sister-in-law, although that does provide an easier and quicker excuse for why he disappears from the film.
There are a number of contemporary reviews, all favorable. Several report that the working title of the film was The Prodigal Wife and that it better suited the story than Station Content, but curiously, the review in Variety says it went the other way: that the working title was Station Content, but it was released as The Prodigal Wife. I would say the majority opinion is probably right, but the Variety review is very detailed in its plot summary, and at least for the footage that survives, it’s more accurate than any of the others. It’s obvious that the reviewer actually saw the film, which may seem like an odd thing to say, but many reviewers didn’t — they just went off the publicity information provided by the studios. So who knows?
Another big question is Diana Carrillo. Carrillo played a Native American woman. It’s a big enough role to make the cast list (the couple Kitty meets at the other station seem like major characters and they don’t make it), but not a single review mentions her and I don’t have any idea where she fits into the story. She’s briefly visible at the start of the abridgment, sitting in front of the station weaving a basket. She’s also featured on one of the film’s lobby cards doing the same.
Amazon Instant is dead. Long live Amazon Direct.
This is a long tale of intrigue and woe that has nothing to do with film reviewing and probably isn’t of interest to anyone, so I’ve hidden it behind a “read more” link.
This isn’t a review, but I know I haven’t posted much recently (for various reasons neither here nor there) so I thought I’d just comment on something exciting to me.
Around nine years ago, I bought four bobbins of the 9.5mm Pathé Baby version of J’accuse (1919). Since then, I’ve been picking up more when and where ever I could find them. At last, I’ve assembled the entire film. Actually, with the duplicates resulting from buying so many incomplete sets, I’ve got nearly two copies.
At 840 feet, it’s considerably abridged from the theatrical release (which wasn’t even available on video when I started the collection). If it was run straight, 840 feet works out to around 28 minutes, but J’accuse has notched titles so it’s actually a bit longer than that. The original Pathé Baby projector could only handle a 30 foot film bobbin, which is just a minute of footage. Even if a film only has two or three intertitles, text would quickly eat up almost all the runtime. To save film, the Baby had a unique system whereby a little arm feels along the edge of the film as it passes through the projector. When it encounters a notch, it stops advancing the film for a few seconds — holding the picture on the screen. This way, titles could be reduced from several feet down to just a couple frames. Later Babies doubled the max capacity to 60 feet, and at last Pathé ditched bobbins for conventional reels that could handle several hundred feet of film, but J’accuse is an early release. 30 feet with notched titles generally becomes 50 feet with running titles, so it’s probably closer to 45 minutes long.
The whole notch system was a trade-off. With notched titles, the projector by necessity could only use weak lamps that threw small, dim pictures. More powerful lamps burned too hot and would melt the film if it was held in the gate for longer than a fraction of a second. The Baby’s lamphouse is really not much more than a flashlight.
There is an edit of the film that cuts out the whole ghost sequence at the end (before the 2008 DVD was released, I believe it was the most commonly available version on video), but the Baby edition retains it. I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, but it seems like most of the Baby’s severest abridging is towards the start of the film.
Abel Gance and George Lucas have a bit in common — both being rather notorious for continually revising their films. It’s difficult to say what the “definitive” version of J’accuse would even look like. It’s certainly not the Baby release, but even the DVD is still missing as much as six reels’ worth of footage if by “original” you mean Gance’s earliest cuts of the film. The Baby version at least retains the three-epoch structure of the theatrical release, which the pre-2008 video didn’t.
Of all the Gance films I’ve seen, J’accuse remains my favorite. It may be heresy for me to say so, but Napoleon requires rather more patience than I’m willing to give. It has some spectacular and expertly constructed sequences, Napoleon does, but the road between them is a slog.
As for the delay in releasing a new video: the film scanner broke after transferring An Old Man’s Love Story. It was an easy fix, but I had to wait for a replacement part to arrive from Singapore, which took over a month. The primary scanner broke, I should say — I have four. The print I’m scanning now is a bit too shrunken to run through a standard movement, and the machine I’m talking about is one I built myself specifically to handle shrunken and badly damaged film. Here’s a hint for what’s coming out next. It’s an HD remaster of a very old title in the catalogue involving a washerwoman who gets stiffed by one of her customers.
Other news that may or may not be of interest: we’re trial-running putting the “now playing” video on YouTube as well on the homepage of our website. If it goes well, we’ll keep doing it. If it goes really well (viz., if the ad revenue matches the sale price), then maybe the now playing videos will cease to be a limited, one-at-a-time thing and the entire now playing catalogue will be made available.