Category Archives: Off topic
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.
The new Harpodeon website is live. I think it was announced as “coming soon” something like two years ago, but it’s finally here.
The old site was getting difficult to maintain. It had really been designed to sell DVDs and nothing else. Downloads and streaming videos were a bolted-on feature that were awkward to use on the customer-facing side of the site and a hot mess on the back end. As physical media grows less and less relevant with each passing day, it badly needed a make-over.
The new site was written from the ground up — not one line of old code was retained — and although DVDs are still available, the focus is now squarely on the online content. It was also designed with high definition in mind. Much of the back catalogue will have to be remastered, but the last few transfers were actually done in HD already, it’s just that the old site had no means of handling anything beyond standard 480p video. And there are also some big changes that are invisible to visitors but significant to us. A lot of small things had previously been outsourced (email was handled by Gmail, for example), but all of that’s in-house now.
In terms of layout, it looks and functions pretty similar to the old site and shouldn’t take much getting used to. All the old accounts have been migrated over and should work fine. I don’t say there won’t be any bugs to be ironed out in the coming weeks, but so far so good.
And that’s why there hasn’t been a new release in two months. But rest assured, July will not be so dry. Chugging away in the scanner even as I type is What a Change of Clothes Did (Vitagraph, 1913). (And as I type now, it is available. – 7/16)
Bugs fixed (as of 7/8):
- Standard video player now works on mobile Safari. (Before it would just buffer endlessly as mobile Safari refuses to load video metadata without actually playing the video first, which is asinine but whatever.)
- “Any:” search will now return films without a known cast. (Before, a labeled search like “title:” would return them, but not an unlabeled or “any:” search, as the cast is one of the “any” fields it looks in.)
- Super minor, but fixed the issue where the “More info” button was slightly out of horizontal alignment with the “Alternate” button on the video player. (It was a few pixels too far to the right.)
Incidentally, enter 10PEROFF for 10% off all orders totaling $4.00 or more.
This blog is about silent cinema, but I’ve mentioned before that I’m also fond of books. I remember their plots well enough, but I have a terrible time connecting stories to titles. To keep them straight, I’ve been jotting down brief summaries of every book I read, and I thought recently, hey, why not post them online? So here they are.
I’m laid up for a while for medical reasons I won’t bore you with, but in short, I haven’t been able to watch many movies. I have read a lot. I read a fair amount in general – next to silent film, books are my next greatest passion – but in the last couple weeks, I’ve burned through more pages than I usually do in months. So, in lieu of film reviews for a bit, I’ve quickly written down some of my first thoughts on the books I’ve recently picked up:
The Exploits of Elaine (Arthur Reeve, 1915)
What a dreadfully dull book. I like a good mystery, but this just isn’t one. In fact, it goes out of its way to defuse anything that might possibly be suspenseful before it even gets the chance. Every time something happens to Elaine, we immediately flash back to explain what happened, who did it, and how it can be un-done, before returning to the timeline for Kennedy to save the day. The only mystery the book allows to be a mystery is the identity of the main villain, the Clutching Hand, but honestly, if you didn’t figure that out in the first chapter, I don’t know what to tell you. The Exploits of Elaine offers no surprises.
The Pearl White serial is good, though. I’m in the minority in that I don’t think it’s as good as The Perils of Pauline (1914), but it’s still a fine series. Incidentally, The Perils of Pauline novel is leaps and bounds better than this one – read it.
The Parisians (Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1873)
Ever since I picked up the short story “The Haunted and the Haunters” on a lark, I’ve loved Lord Lytton. I have nearly all of his work in my library, but I haven’t got around to reading much of it. Most of his novels are just so lengthy, it’s quite an investment to start one. I’ve previously read, in no particular order: Pelham, A Strange Story, Lucretia, Eugene Aram, Zanoni, Paul Clifford, and Night and Morning. I say no particular order, but make an exception for Night and Morning; it deserves its last place in the list. The Parisians was poised to overtake Lucretia as my number two favorite, had it not ended without resolving the plot. I can’t fault milord too much for that – he has the very good excuse of dying while writing it – but it’s terrible for the reader to be left only to guess at what became of Graham, Alain, Rameau, and especially Fox. I have to believe an eleventh hour reprieve spared Fox. I simply can’t stand that he survived the whole siege only to be killed by that wretch De Breze.
The Plutocrat (Booth Tarkington, 1927)
I’ve said before that I rank The Magnificent Ambersons as one of my favorite books, but that isn’t to say I’d place Tarkington among my favorite authors. He had a rather unpleasant right wing, anti-intellectual bent that isn’t always present in his work, but does surface from time to time. In The Plutocrat, I’m sad to say, it’s central to the story. It deals with an effete New Yorker of the artistic type, whose particular brand of art is of the gritty new school, and his disdain for the down-to-earth, congenial, proudly ignorant Midwestern businessman that chance keeps throwing into his path. There’s also a mysterious European Dark Lady stock character that the hero is enamored with who serves only to disabuse him of his lofty, romantic ideals and to drive home that Europe and the world in general is and should be subservient to America – specifically the Real AmericaTM of the Midwestern tycoon. Tarkington writes prettily enough, no matter what the subject, but The Plutocrat is a distasteful read.
If you want a book along the same lines, but without the heavy-handed straw man arguments, check out The Snob by Helen Martin.
Kindred of the Dust (Peter B. Kyne, 1920)
Didn’t I read this already? Yes, I think it was called The Valley of the Giants, also written by Kyne, two years earlier. True, the stories aren’t identical, but both are about star-crossed lovers between redwood forestry magnates in the Pacific Northwest. Really, Kyne, once was enough. The second one wasn’t even an improvement.
The Sin That Was His (Frank L. Packard, 1917)
I’m sure this novel would have resonated more with a Christian – really, the only thing I know about the religion is what any member of Western culture picks up through osmosis – but even so, it was a page turner. I read it in one sitting, in fact. A man accidentally kills a stranger, panics and assumes the identity of the new village priest, and every time he tries to ameliorate the situation, he only manages to dig himself deeper. There’s a great deal about culpability, honor, the nature of sin, and the path to redemption – I told you a Christian would get more out of it — but even on the surface, the story is enthralling.
Broken Waters (Frank L. Packard, 1925)
I mostly know Packard from his Jimmie Dale amateur detective series, which is fun if a little fluffy, but I’ve never delved too deeply into his other work. I’m rather sad about that. As a crime thriller, Broken Waters isn’t the best of the genre, but the characters were interesting, the setting (the South Pacific, a favorite of Packard) lovingly rendered, and most important of all, it maintained a sense of tension and suspense throughout the novel.