On the Critic-Proofing of Artists, and the Irresistible Allure of Flaws

This is the first post I have made on this blog in quite some time.  The manuscript of my upcoming book, Sidney J. Furie: A Filmmaker Works the Angles, has finally been submitted to my publisher and I am moving on to finish editing on my two features, Ezer Kenegdo and Raise Your Kids on Seltzer.  More to come on the blog soon, including Aaron Hollander's long-awaited article, a survey piece on the horror genre.

I realized something about myself over the course of writing my first book -- that I, in many ways, strive to be the champion of the un-championed and under-championed when it comes to my study of film.  Fair enough, you say, but why is this such an epiphany?

I feel that identifying as such gets regularly equated with being a contrarian.  I actually do not see myself as a contrarian, but if you wish to label me thus, I suppose it is not so far off, in a way.  In conversations with people about film over the years, though, I find myself immediately peeved over the fact that there are some directors I am not free to openly criticize, filmmakers with works to which I am supposed to feel beholden -- or, works that I am cornered into blindly admiring to suit the expectations of canonists.  As someone who routinely (and religiously) consults Andrew Sarris's milestone text The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, and as one without hesitation in valuing Sarris's work over Pauline Kael's in their infamous schism, I still cannot help feeling that, in many ways, Sarris pigeonholed auteurist study, and became too much of a taste-maker for his own good, inadvertently or otherwise.  He deserves credit most of all for importing the auteur theory of France to America, but he also did his part in critic-proofing many directors he used to make his case.

I enjoy playing a game I invented called the Auteur Game, i.e. coming up with a pithy statement that encapsulates a given director's work when it comes to theme and approach.  We often play it on my movie sets, at lunches and the occasional downtime between takes.  For instance, Norman Jewison: "Easy-to-package, easy-to-digest messages, often with a salt-of-the-earth ethnic angle (Jews in Fiddler on the Roof, Italians in Moonstruck, Russians in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!  Bohunks and Eastern Europeans in F.I.S.T.)"  It is also rather fun to consider what Sarris might have written about filmmakers who arrived on the scene after his book was published in 1969.  A good one for Ted Kotcheff (Wake in Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Weekend at Bernie's): "Renders stories about often reckless social climbers, or less specifically, people looking to break out of some kind of trap, in whatever degree of comedy or tragedy."  Who knows what Sarris would have made of Paul Thomas Anderson or Richard Linklater?

When the spirit moves me to check into a book about Hitchcock, I first turn to the chapter about Topaz (1969), one of his major flops.  In my recent reading of Jared Brown's biography on Alan J. Pakula, the very first thing I did was open to the chapter on Dream Lover (1984), Orphans (1987) and See You in the Morning (1989), to see what Pakula possibly had to say about three of his biggest misfires.  This to me is more of a window into the soul of an artist.  It says much more than any masterpiece (and the holy-holies and hosannahs that a masterpiece incites) can ever say.  When I look at any book on Joseph Losey, I first turn to the chapters on Modesty Blaise (1966) and/or Boom! (1967), two of his most embarrassing flops.  I also place great value on self-critical directors, and was delighted to discover that Pakula spoke frankly about what he perceived as drawbacks, even in his hits.  That's real.  That's the good stuff, and I do not care that anyone else may think I'm misguided in this approach.  I learn the most as a filmmaker and as a film scholar from excerpts like these.  I can faintly hear a Hitch cultist protesting, "Hitchcock had no need to call out his own cinematic flaws!"  What a pity -- we might have learned something more incisive about the man's art!  Instead, we just have people making vacuous Hitchcock homages without understanding what they mean.  A flop, a bomb, a misfire, or whatever you care to call a perceived failure, is an index, one that emboldens and guides deeper study.

I am not denying the fact that figures like Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford and others have the right to be called masters, definitive ones at that, but when I am to accept them as infallible demigods and when I am nothing but obliged to stand back in awe without being given the courtesy of looking at their respective corpus with a real critical eye, one that I feel might truly get to the heart of them and what they are about, as individuals as well as artists, I start losing interest in them.  I will try to divert a conversation about Hitchcock to a conversation about something or someone else.  If I cannot discuss them in this way, what worth are they to me?  Kubrick has likewise positioned himself as untouchable, I believe partly because of the personal mythologies that have built up around the man as a recluse, an eccentric, an iconoclast, an obsessive, a...genius (though, I still emphasize that I love Kubrick's work, flaws and all, and revisit his pictures at least once a year).  In certain cases, it would seem that this critic-proofing centers around the cult of the personality.

But, as Mozart says in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, "Come on now, be honest!  Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules?  Or Horatius, or Orpheus...people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!"  This is not to equate Hitchcock or Kubrick with Hercules or Orpheus, or to equate my contenders with hairdressers.  What I look for in true artistry, however, are beautiful flaws, ones that canonists are often eager to claim do not exist in works that they deem beyond reproach, despite lame protestations on their part that this is not so.  Sarris was among this breed, though his writings are deserving of praise and were rightly groundbreaking in their time.  There is also Jonathan Rosenbaum's text Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons to perpetuate these tendencies.

[from Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (1999)]
David (Hugh Grant): What type of paintings are you interested in buying for your collection?
Frenchy (Tracey Ullman): Uh, Rembrandt, Picasso, Michelangelo.  You know, the boys.
David: [sarcastically] Uh huh, yes.  I'm afraid I might be out of Michelangelos at the moment.

My Sidney J. Furie literary project has been met with as much intrigue and applause as it has met with cold but courteous dismissal.  It is interesting to note that the personalities in the film world that originally mattered the most to me are the ones who ultimately saw the value in it when I finally met or made contact with them.  (Intuition is a funny thing.)  The detractors, who shall remain nameless, are people who, in the ensuing time it took to write the book, were keen to write the umpteenth piece that worships one of "the boys" (Hitch, Hawks, Ford, et al.).  I can cite at least three examples, and I would do so here if I didn't have to fear retribution, even the meager variety brandished by scholars, aesthetes and film snobs.  To me, it just spells ignorance and obstinance.  Thankfully, I found a leading publisher and a series editor who found the project ripe with potential.  I was also consoled by this thought: Who in the U.S. took Howard Hawks seriously before Peter Bogdanovich's famous Hawks monograph?

Let us take, for example, more recognized directors whose careers often took left turns.  Case study number one: Robert Altman.  Whereas Altman is certainly beloved, and no one will begrudge him his successes and the advancements he made in the form, he still has not ascended the canonical heights the way that "the boys" have.  For every Nashville (1975), there is an O.C. & Stiggs (1985).  For every McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), there is a Beyond Therapy (1987).  This is not to mention other written-off works in Altman's wildly scattershot, but seductively fascinating, oeuvre, like Quintet (1979), Popeye (1980), HealtH (1980), Ready to Wear (1994), The Gingerbread Man (1998), Dr. T and the Women (1999).

However, the truth in my case is that I would rather watch any of those films in lieu of seeing Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Psycho (1960) repeated times, just because of how beautifully flawed all those films are, and how ready and enthusiastic the Altman fans are to discuss these flaws.  If I told Hitchcock cultists that The Birds (1963) is a horrendous piece of shit (as I believe it is) and Hitch's worst film by far, I would be ostracized and ridiculed, even if I were to specifically, respectfully and responsibly remunerate why I believed such a thing.  Same with Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), another work I find wildly overpraised.  Or Ford's The Searchers (1956), though I know for a fact that I'm not alone in this sentiment regarding that particular film.

Altman's work has a vulnerability when put under the critical microscope.  That to me is attractive, because it more fully reveals the man who is behind and beneath the work.  What makes his work most worthy of note is that Altman strikes an assured balance of quality and vulnerability (in which case, it often appears that a given work teeters on the edge of falling flat on its face, yet somehow doesn't).  This is part of what makes him one of my personal filmmaking masters.

Case study number two: Woody Allen.  People run hot and cold on Woody, and this has been so from the very outset of his career.  Like Altman, for every hit, there is a flop, and though he is a stalwart in the form and style he has established for himself, he is nonetheless still erratic and unpredictable.  However, in lesser appreciated works like September (1987) and Celebrity (1998), for all their faults, I get more of a sense about the truth of him as an individual than in many of his other films, by sheer virtue of the fact that most discard them as failures.  I personally don't think Celebrity is nearly as bad as folks make it out to be.

With Sidney J. Furie, I had to contend with folks who had only a memory of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Ladybugs (1992) and his string of direct-to-video quickies, rather than the works as I deem as so-called "masterpieces," including The Leather Boys, The Ipcress File, Lady Sings the Blues, The Boys in Company C and The Entity.  It was a case of selective memory, and this was enough to cast him out of the "cool kids club."  That said, I dislike using the word "masterpiece" in really any case.  It makes me very uncomfortable, because it tends to negate a work, to strip it of its individuality, as I discussed above.

I happen to know someone who wrote and published a book on one of "the boys," and when last year I e-mailed him to discuss George Cukor, another favorite director of mine (one who was having a retrospective in New York at the time), he responded: "Strangely, I prefer Cukor to Hitchcock and many other higher rated directors.  I never say so publicly.  But I much prefer his subject matter and his humanism."  This comment was wholly unsolicited by my own feelings, and we had not even been discussing them when he brought it up.  This, dear readers, is what I mean by the critic-proofing of artists.  There is such a thing as sacrilege in film conversations, but it pays to be irreverent.  Here we have a thoughtful film scholar and cineaste who is silenced into canonist submission.  So, I'll just say it.  Hitchcock is great, but flawed.  There, I said it.  Before anyone gets sore or sour, and if you haven't guessed by now, here is my point: A substantive discussion of film should not consist of a flood of adulation, an oohing and ahhing at those who rest at the top of some ad hoc food chain.  Sure, a biographer or the author of any work must insure that a work will sell, and that there will be interest, and canonical directors are certainly ones readers know.  Who wants to invest in a work of such scale if it will only see an audience of one?  The focus, however, has skewed to the point where "the boys" have the monopoly, and the rigidity of canons becomes obstructive and, in many ways, destructive.  To quote Carol Burnett in Alan Alda's marital dramedy The Four Seasons (1981), "When you call me perfect, I cease to exist!"

Teaser Trailer of Upcoming Feature Film

Daniel Kremer's upcoming feature film Raise Your Kids on Seltzer is in the editing stages, with a projected mid-2015 film festivals release.  The film tells the story of a pair of married retired cult-busters whose lives are thrown into turmoil when they receive a disturbing letter from the father of an ex-client of theirs.  When they take a new cult-busting job after years of inactivity, all hell breaks loose. Starring much of the San Francisco Bay Area cast of Ezer Kenegdo, which is still in post-production, Raise Your Kids on Seltzer is a very unusual motion picture "for those who'd rather not drink the Kool-Aid."

Cool Sounds from the Vaults: A Cinematic Detective Story

Previously published in Filmmaker Magazine on June 23, 2014.

Having a “Scorsese moment” could mean many things. If you walk into a bar feeling like the flurry of activity around you is grinding into slow motion and you hear the Stones playing on the nearby stereo, that qualifies as a Scorsese moment. Check. If you’ve just taken a few moments to assert or reassert your machismo while standing wide-eyed in front of a mirror, that could also be a Scorsese moment. Check. Or, if in standing your ground during an intense argument, you say something colorful but no less inspired…and, yes, generously laced with four-letter words, ’nuff said. Check. There are other varieties of this as well, but chances are that if you’ve lived in New York long enough, you’ve had at least one such moment.

I recently had what I like to call “my Scorsese moment.” I do live in New York, but it did not involve any of the scenarios I recounted above. The iconic director is known, perhaps secondarily, for his burgeoning involvement with film preservation and restoration. In 1990, he founded The Film Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the protection of film elements festering carelessly in vaults that are deteriorating with age. Prior to that, he oversaw many individual restorations, including one for one of my all-time favorite films, Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Recently, as chairman of the Cannes Classics committee, he rescued Ted Kotcheff’s excellent Wake in Fright (1971), while simultaneously his World Cinema Project rescued unsung international films like Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (1973). He is among the elite few of those in power who have the wherewithal to recognize what should be obvious — that our cinema past is part of our broader cultural heritage and that it is in grave danger. Because of this, he has committed himself to tirelessly insuring cinema’s magical permanence. You might say he is a motion picture archaeologist.

Every filmmaker and cineaste, it seems, has a pet film and a pet filmmaker they champion and wish to see given their due. Scorsese, in some respect, is the ultimate righteous man of the cinema. He wants to see respect given to most any pieces of old celluloid that sit in vaults, whether they are widely appreciated or neglected and forgotten.

Granted, my recent Scorsese moment only involved preserving a single film, relative to the countless number of preservation projects he has undertaken (often simultaneously), but the detective work that surrounded the process, and the dogged perseverance I was forced to maintain throughout, made me respect and applaud Scorsese even more for his prodigious efforts. When I met him briefly about two years ago, the very first thing I made sure to do was express my deep gratitude for what he does on behalf of film lovers who find our cinema past vital and important.

For the last year and a half, I have been writing the first book on filmmaker Sidney J. Furie, a manuscript that is both biography and monograph. The book, detailing the life and career of the director of The Ipcress File (1965), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), The Boys in Company C (1978), The Entity (1982) and many others, is currently due for publication from University Press of Kentucky’s Screen Classics Series in the fall of 2015. This is the same press that published Nick Dawson’s wonderful book on the similarly shafted Hal Ashby, who had also been scantly covered before its 2009 publication.

It has been a labor of love and an ultimate expression of admiration to a filmmaker who has been a hero of mine from age eleven, making my first amateur Hi-8 films by mimicking shots from The Ipcress File, which showed one day after school on Bravo (in its early/mid-’90′s incarnation, when old movies were shown and before reality TV took them over). Over the years, it actively pained me to see Sidney forgotten, maligned and marginalized, as I came to equally appreciate his other work, especially his British New Wave classic The Leather Boys (1963). While writing the book, I became quite close with the 81-year-old Furie. He became a friend and mentor. I have had a number of discussions with him, both taped and untaped, about his career and his films, which I believe, when seen collectively as a body of work, are a treasure trove for those who value auteurist analysis, despite his befuddling skill as a genre chameleon who turned to helming direct-to-video action films beginning in the ’90s. As he himself told me, “Making a movie, any movie, is my golf. It’s what I do to enjoy myself.”

Throughout my coverage, there was one film that stuck out, both because of its “cool” title, its subject matter and its status as a true pioneer effort. A Cool Sound from Hell, shot in Toronto in 1958 and released in England in 1960 shortly after Sidney’s arrival there, is the story of a small Canadian branch of the Beat Generation, starring Anthony Ray, one of the lead actors in John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959) and the son of Nicholas Ray. Having won the Canadian Director’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, Sidney has rightfully been recognized as one of Canada’s cinematic forefathers in that he mounted two independent feature-length film projects in a time in Canadian history when there was neither an easy way to make such projects nor a way of getting the final products seen inside their native country. Canada imported films from the U.S. and England, but neglected and outright rejected their own product, or what little there was of it.
“I remember in 1957 taking my first Canadian feature, A Dangerous Age, to a Canadian distributor,” Sidney recalls. “He looked at it and said, ‘Throw it in the garbage. It will never play in a Canadian theater. Just forget about it.’” A year later, the film picks up excellent reviews and good press on England’s Odeon circuit, with the Evening Standard proclaiming, “Only 24, but what a filmmaker!” This became habit with Canadian cinema. In 1965, Don Owen’s first independent feature Nobody Waved Good-bye had to play to good reviews in the U.S. before returning for a contained, no-frills release in its home country. Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road (1970), had to suffer some of the same slings and arrows before becoming Canada’s first big hit.

As Canadian film writer Martin Knelman aptly asks in his book This is Where We Came In: The Career and Character of Canadian Film, “How can one explain that Canadians have been content to exist for most of the twentieth century without films of their own, while living next to a country whose movies have culturally colonized the world?” Thankfully, things have gotten a bit better there since Knelman’s frustrated and frustrating question was posed. Sidney once told the British press, “I wanted to start a Canadian film industry, but nobody cared.” As the old joke goes, why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the middle.

False Leads

A Cool Sound from Hell as a missing piece of Sidney’s career and as a piece of Canadian film history fascinated me. What also fascinated me was the fact that, in 1958, Anthony Ray was shuttling between New York City and Toronto to make Shadows and A Cool Sound from Hell respectively. There seemed to be an odd kinship between these two pictures.

In doing an extensive search on Google, I was (as the Brits would say) gobsmacked when I discovered that a DVD was selling at Best Buy that claimed to be A Cool Sound from Hell! I ordered the disc for $20 and exclaimed, “Well, that was easy!” Three weeks later, the package arrived. Opening the padded envelope revealed a badly designed disc entitled “Cool Space Stuff,” an hour of generic NASA footage with bad Muzak playing in the background. What the hell was this?! Talk about the air going out of your tires! This defeat revved my engines even more to actually find the film…somewhere.

I ordered the same disc that claimed to be A Cool Sound from Hell on the Barnes & Noble website, thinking that perhaps a shipping error had been made. Again, my hopes were dashed and my resolve was heightened. More space shuttle launchings and bad Muzak. Caveat emptor! I just dismissed it as a strange computer error at the distribution company. Sidney and I have long considered it an incredibly odd red herring. Up to the time of the publication, this falsely represented DVD is still being sold on both vendor websites.  The Library of Congress, while listing the film, only held a record of its previous existence and cited it in a survey of jazz in films (ironically, yours truly has the same kind of Library of Congress listing, and my first feature is cited in the same survey). The Canadian National Archives, while having restored and housed a print of Sidney’s first Canadian indie A Dangerous Age, had nothing whatsoever on A Cool Sound from Hell. “How typical of Canada,” a prominent Canadian actor friend of mine told me in a cynical tenor.

The cards were stacking more and more against me and my quest. Sidney’s friend Paul showed me a book about Canadian filmmaker Don Owen. Owen played a bit part as a poet for Furie, and in his book, A Cool Sound from Hell was referred to as lost. Director Ted Kotcheff, when discussing Wake in Fright‘s restoration, mentioned that an acquaintance of his from the Toronto International Film Festival, who specialized in films shot in Toronto, could not locate the film either. Other sources, including a site called Canuxploitation, likewise used the word “lost” to designate its status. It had vanished without a trace, clouded by decades of disinterest that made forgetting a foregone conclusion. I became more and more crestfallen.

Despite everything, I became determined to find A Cool Sound from Hell, and I was miffed because these bad discs being sold made a substantive Google search more difficult. I hit up various friends on the video grey market (i.e. bootlegs of older, unavailable titles) who had often sent me ultra-rare stuff in the past. No go. My best friend (and cinematographer) Aaron, who has always been the best audience throughout this literary project vis a vis my Furie yammering, then mentioned that he had a friend named Frank studying documentary cinema at the British Film Institute.

Aaron and I had seen a wonderful BBC documentary called Hollywood U.K. (1993), a comprehensive four-part program that examined the British film industry in the 1960′s. In the third episode, titled “Strangers in the City”, series narrator Richard Lester (yes, the filmmaker) discusses Sidney Furie’s arrival in England and how A Cool Sound from Hell had been featured as a double-bill with Karel Reisz’s block-busting hit Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). An old British Pathe newsreel of the theater showing both films accompanied Lester’s voice-over. Emblazoned over the theater entrance was A Cool Sound from Hell, in large letters. I remember wanting to jump into the newsreel, Purple Rose of Cairo-style, and buy a ticket.

“No,” I told Aaron, “BFI seems like a bureaucracy to me, and it’s a longshot that they have it.” For some reason, I was quite doubtful about the prospect. I think perhaps I had begun to lose hope, having passive-aggressively thrown in the towel. When he persisted, I emphasized, “Why would they have it? The original distributor, Galaworldfilm, is obscure and long defunct!” Frustrated with my strange stubbornness on the matter, he implored me to reconsider. When it took me awhile to respond, Aaron took it upon himself to contact his buddy and get a BFI contact with whom I could consult. When I got the e-mail address of a woman at the BFI National Archives named Lynn, I decided to give it a shot just for kicks and giggles, not expecting anything. In this life, we usually always like to be right about things. But in this instance, was I ever glad to be wrong!

Discovery and Excavation

On May 1, 2013, we received a response from Lynn: “Dear Daniel Kremer and Sidney Furie, Thank you both for your enquiry. The BFI holds a master picture and sound negative only – for the title A Cool Sound from Hell (1959). The cost to access the negs and to digitise to produce viewing material (DVD) will run into several hundreds of pounds. I’m attaching an application form for you to return – should you wish to continue, and I will then obtain a quote for you for the work involved.”

Despite her caveat that things would be expensive if we wanted to undertake digitizing and preserving the film (it ultimately wound up costing quite a few thousand pounds), I was thrilled that the negative still existed, in whatever shape. When Sidney told me to spark the whole thing, Lynn responded to my e-mail by reiterating the considerable cost and by mentioning that a DVD already appeared to be available for purchase in the U.S. “I would therefore assume this would be a far more preferable option for you.” She was referring to the space shuttle disc with the Muzak. I fumed for a few moments about the red herring and reasserted our need.

Once we got the ball rolling, we were asked for proof of copyright and documentation. This is something we could not provide, for obvious reasons. Sidney financed the original film under the banner Caribou Productions with the help of his father, who invested in his second film when the first paid off. He sold the film to a B picture distributor Galaworldfilms on a ten-year lease. Now, we were being asked to provide proof that the copyright rested back with Sidney, a forty-some-year-old document that would have never existed in the first place. Paper trails can be difficult to navigate, let alone one that finds you in the dark, dense forest without crumbs.

I replied in kind, “You must understand that this film is over 50 years old and Caribou Productions was established for the sole purpose of producing A Dangerous Age and A Cool Sound from Hell. It was not a formal production company, had no formal office, letterhead or paperwork. Additionally, it is also highly doubtful that Sidney or Kenneth Rive’s defunct companies possess still existing and/or readily available documentation to support such claims, nor would it probably exist under the aegis of any other outfit or company. The film has literally lain dormant for decades, with no outside interest.” Sidney told me that he would sue if it meant getting the materials back into his possession. Around the time, I read with great interest about how William Friedkin had to sue both Universal and Paramount, not for monetary gain but just to discover who owned the rights to his film Sorcerer (1977). Friedkin’s film, recently crowned a rediscovered masterpiece and given a wide re-release, was caught in a legal stalemate while awaiting its own restoration…and meanwhile, the film elements weren’t getting any younger.

Sidney himself responded to this inconceivable request: “Isn’t a biographer wanting to see a lost film the very purpose for which the BFI was formed? I realize that you need to be vigilant about protecting the donations that you hold in trust, but if a filmmaker who wrote, personally financed and directed a film can’t get access to that film for a biography of that filmmaker’s life and career, than what is the purpose of even holding the materials in the first place? The last thing I want to get into is who gave you the materials to begin with. I certainly didn’t authorize it and I never gave my permission as the copyright holder for anyone else to give it to you. The UK distributor certainly had no legal right to do so. Of course, I’m glad you have it at all. I only mention that if you want to stick to legalities, it works both ways.”

Sidney is one of the most passionate personalities I’ve ever encountered, and that facet of him had come out in fine form. Yes, we were both eternally grateful that the BFI held the materials, but never bargained about having to fight to see it once it was located. Our pleas seemed to do the trick for the BFI, and, after weeks of back-and-forth on this point, the inspection of the elements was mounted.

In the meanwhile, to get into the mood of mounting a preservation project, I started reading Ronald Haver’s book about the detective work surrounding the restoration of George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954). That film had been cut down by a meddling Jack Warner from its 182-minute premiere length to a release version of 154 minutes, much to the horror of the director, who always harbored resentment and hurt about what had been done to a film to which he felt close. In 1983, Haver took it upon himself to find the missing pieces of the 182-minute version and, through a great deal of detective work, premiered a 176-minute version the day after Cukor’s death. I was rapt by Haver’s account of the false leads, the heartaches, the leg work and the time and energy that went into the restored cut of A Star is Born.

In the middle of reading this, we received news of the inspection. The condition of the 35mm mute dupe negative was noted as “ok,” i.e. slightly shrunken and bearing some scratches. The pH acetic level on the film tested at P1, thankfully the lowest level. The bad news was that the magnetic sound track and one of the 35mm reels had gone missing. A search was about to be conducted in the BFI’s vaults. Without the sound and a missing part of the story, what use would it all be?

Finding Hell’s Cool Sounds

Months passed as the BFI folks searched for these missing elements. Sidney and I remained hopeful, but were prepared for the worst. At this point, I was prepared to shell out just to view what existed of the soundless reels. I worked away on the book, interviewing various actors and crew members with whom Sidney worked over his more than 55-year career. I watched other films that I knew had been excavated and preserved, but whereas I was grateful for the salvaging of these other films, I pined to see my own restoration project fully realized. It was part idle dreaming, part envy, part compulsion, part something else. Scorsese probably suffered worse battle scars in this endeavor than what we’ve had to withstand, I thought.

Sidney told me during this waiting period, “Don’t get your hopes up too much. It’s not really a good film, but it’s important for you to see for the book.” I hoped he was just being modest or underselling it for some other reason. In any case, good or bad, it was an important piece of film history. This was a true grass roots independent production, written, produced, financed and directed by Sidney, shot in 10 days, on little money and resources, on the streets of Toronto. It predated many of the other films labelled as independent filmmaking landmarks. Even if it didn’t win medals and statuettes for quality, that counted for something in my book. As Sidney told me in our original taping sessions, “It was just me, the cameraman, the sound man and the actors on Dangerous Age and Cool Sound. It was extremely intimate.”

We received good news in the fall of 2013. They located both the magnetic sound track (a revised mix track dated June 29, 1959) and the missing reel, both having been misfiled under the title “Beat Generation.” The magnetic track had tested with dangerously high acetic levels, but they transferred the audio to a digital WAV file with minimal damage. When a Canadian donor (who shall remain anonymous) stepped up to the plate to finance the preservation/restoration project, we were ready to go, and I was ready to inspect the elements myself: 6,267 feet of film, translating to a relatively modest 72 minutes of screen-time.

In something of a cosmic moment, Lynn sent us a list of development, post and telecine houses in London from which we had to choose to have the film’s work done. Near the top of that contact list was the name Tony Ray, who worked for a post-house in London called Dragon We, of course, knew it wasn’t the same Tony Ray as the actor in the film, but it caused Sidney to exclaim, “It’s a sign! An omen! That’s our man! Take our stuff to Tony Ray!” We had a laugh, one that made both of us feel oddly fulfilled, that perhaps the aggravation was about to pay off.  The lost film of one of my favorite filmmakers was about to be restored! To me, it was a privilege akin to a Monet enthusiast discovering a painting of his no one ever knew about. We’d come a long way from making annoyed returns to the Best Buy website, and unsuccessfully confronting cheap DVD companies about false product information.

Is It Any Good?

Just a few days ago, I finally received the spec DVD of the BFI’s work on A Cool Sound from Hell, after over a year of false leads, copyright entanglements with a non-existent paper trail, missing reels and mag tracks, the minutia, the waiting, when patience was in short supply and eagerness was in surplus. As Yiddish would have it, I had a case of year-long chronic schpilkes, or “pins and needles of anxiousness.”

Does the film measure up to expectations I might have had for it? As expected, it is not a perfect film. It is, in many ways, the work of a filmmaker still growing and discovering his voice. Against the likes of Kubrick’s similarly flawed Fear and Desire (1953) and other blood-sweat-and-tears debut features, it holds up remarkably well, however. It certainly merits being called an item of fascination, as I would actually consider a few scenes and sequences real standouts (especially the “late-night jazz-blasting motor rave” sequence) because they exude a vigor, a raw ambition, an exuberance, and a glorious youthful impetuosity often present in the best filmmakers’ less-than-perfect debut films, even though this was Furie’s second. I have provided three video samples from the film to consider vis a vis. The film also treats the city of Toronto much like a character in the film, and one could easily write a paper just about its extensive use of Toronto locations.

Upon seeing the film for the first time in over half a century, Sidney found himself flabbergasted. Shortly after viewing it with his wife Linda, he phoned to tell me how grateful he was that I helped to dig up the film, then expressed how proud he was seeing it today. “I was a crazy kid making A Cool Sound from Hell, and it’s written all over every frame,” he said, recounting scenes and moments where he perceived the general influence of On the Waterfront clearly overtaking his 25-year-old self. It was emotionally overpowering to him. The next day, he reiterated his feelings to me in an e-mail: “Indebted to you for pursuing Cool Sound. Seeing it really inspired me.” By inspired, he means concerning his upcoming film project, the first he has written solo since 1961′s During One Night, his first British independent film. He claims this will be his final film. I don’t believe him for a second, because he’s got too much spunk, even for me as a 29-year-old. He says this will be his swan song and a return to personal filmmaking on a shoestring budget, with my own usual crew of young filmmakers, including my usual cinematographer, helping him to achieve it.

The people reading this article are, no doubt, film lovers and buffs, at least to some extent. An impassioned appeal is in order. Preservation has become imperative in an age when digital processes have overtaken photochemical ones, and as elements decaying in vaults face an obliteration that is often deliberate. Yes, deliberate. Recently, on the phone, Ted Kotcheff recounted to me the story of his old editor’s visit to Pinewood when they were in search of the Wake in Fright negative. While leaving the archives that day disenchanted with the chief archivist’s nonchalance, another man standing next to a lined-up row of film cans asked if he recognized any of the titles on the cans. When he did not, the man informed him that these films were slated for demolition, to be burned and discarded, never to be seen again. Later, the last remaining source of Wake in Fright was found in a warehouse in Pittsburgh, in a bin marked “For Destruction.”

There are many grandstanding speeches in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men about the importance of preserving cultural heritage, and how the job of art historians and their comrades is just as important as the job of the soldiers fighting the battles. I’m not making a claim that Clooney’s sanctimonious adventure flick is making a sweepingly original statement, but I cite it perhaps because it is more fresh in the collective consciousness. Although simply a nice little yarn of a movie, it did express a startling and immediate reality, most of all, for our cinematic cultural heritage, one that Scorsese strives to make permanent. With many film prints and photochemical sources comprised of elements that disintegrate, deteriorate and/or remain on the shelf indefinitely while people stuck on the outside of the vaults yearn to see even more obscure titles in the best way they can be seen, the clock is ticking.

As a single person lacking the resources that organizations and committees have at their disposal, I will continue to seek ways, even in small strides, to insure the permanence of filmmakers’ visions. Scorsese, bless him, cannot be the only one doing it. If possible, have yourself a Scorsese moment that doesn’t involve an inspired insult or slow-motion daydreams with an oldies soundtrack. Easier said than done, but I recommend having one that might be everlasting.

A very big thanks to the anonymous donor, and to the British Film Institute, and everyone there who helped us uncover this neglected film. Thanks to Aaron Hollander and Frank Verano, who suggested I contact the BFI. Thanks to Martin Scorsese for the inspiration. And Sidney, ditto.