This weekend, UnionDocs hosts two nights of screenings in conjunction with the annual Orphan Film Symposium. Cullen Gallagher, L Mag critic and junior éminence grise, is curating Saturday evening’s screening; by way of an introduction to the films, he took time to answer a theoretical FAQ.
So what is the Orphan Film Symposium, and what’s its connection with this weekend’s screenings at UnionDocs?
Dan Streible founded the Orphan Film Symposium in 1999 as a meeting place for all those interested in the preservation, study, exhibition, and celebration of “orphan films,” which are broadly defined as films that don’t have a proper copyright home, or have suffered some other sort of neglect relating to preservation or distribution. This encompasses a broad range of films: industrial, educational, scientific, home movies, and unidentified films, to name just a few. In anticipation of the 7th Orphan Film Symposium this April, which takes place here in New York City at the Visual Arts Theatre, UnionDocs is hosting two special programs. On Saturday, January 23 at 7:30PM there is a Robbins Barstow tribute, followed by a post-screening discussion with Streible and film scholar Jennifer Blaylock; and on Sunday, January 24 at 7:30PM is Orphan Films as Documentary, which Streible will also be present at to discuss the films.
What have you gotten out of the Symposium in years past?
I was at the 6th Symposium in 2008 and it was a blast—some truly wild and exciting discoveries were being presented, everything from newsreel footage of Lana Turner grilling a steak over the radio (yes, the sound of sizzling steak was broadcast overseas for American soldiers fighting in WWII) to lovingly handmade films by Helen Hill to Insight (a Paulist public access television series in the vein of The Twilight Zone). It’s amazing all of the great stuff that is being brought to light, all of which makes you really start to reconsider what we think we know about film history. Some of the highlights from past symposia will be featured on Sunday at UnionDocs, including three films by James Blue (The School at Rincon Santo, Evil Wind Out, and Letter from Colombia), who was an accomplished experimental filmmaker hired by the government to make these three short propaganda films. Another film to watch out for is Madison News Reel, a truly bizarre and wonderful film from the early 1930s that was found in a barn in Maine and has since been compared to Joseph Cornell.
Who is Dr. Robbins Barstow, whose tribute you’re curating?
Dr. Robbins Barstow is an amateur filmmaker from Connecticut who began making home movies in 1932 and continues right to this day—that’s 78 years and counting, an incredible body of work for any artist. He’s a really gifted storyteller who instinctively understands the medium of film. His narration, which he used to perform live with screenings, is warm and intimate, and his editing inventive and playful. We’ll be showing four short films: Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge (1936), Youth and the Future (1943-44), Disneyland Dream (1956), and Making “Disneyland Dream” (2009). His films are very diverse—Tarzan is a whimsical narrative shot in his backyard with family and friends; Youth and the Future is a political film that dramatizes one of FDR’s wartime “Four Freedoms”; and Disneyland Dream follows his family across the country to the recently opened theme park. In 2008, Disneyland Dream was named to the National Film Registry, a prestigious list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” that includes Citizen Kane. It’s exciting to see Barstow’s name up there alongside Orson Welles and all the other luminaries, as it speaks not only to Barstow’s considerable achievements, but also to the growing awareness of home movies’ cultural importance.