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What are orphan films? Movies about orphans?
That’s what the Motion Picture Academy’s director of NY programs and membership Patrick Harrison thought when he first heard about Orphan Films Symposium organizer Dan Streible‘s work with rarely seen, previously neglected cinematic works, or orphan films. Now, years later, Streible’s New York University Orphan Film Symposium and the Academy have partnered together on the New York screening series, “The Real Indies: A Close Look at Orphan Films,” which kicks off Friday night with the Halloween-appropriate Spider Baby and continues throughout the day on Saturday.
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Although the films featured have rarely been seen and are thus not well-known by the public, many the figures behind them are or are worth learning about.
The opening night film is a newly restored 35mm print of cult horror-comedy Spider Baby, written and directed by Jack Hill, which was selected as a festive pick for Halloween, Harrison tells The Hollywood Reporter. Saturday highlights include the films of adventurer Aloha Wanderwell Baker, who documented her exotic travels in the 1920s, and a documentary about Rosie the Riveter, both in the Pioneering Women Session; the commuter-focused film Necrology, part of the Experimental Views Session; and The Making of Pelham One Two Three, Chris Columbus‘ 1980 NYU student film I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here and NYC Street Scenes and Noises, eight minutes of unedited newsreel footage from 1929, all part of the Visions of New York session.
Baker traveled across four continents, starting at age 16, learning filmmaking along the way, Academy film preservationist Heather Linville, who’s worked to preserve Baker’s films, tells THR. She would then present her films as they were shot, essentially working as an independent filmmaker and distributor.
“So they would travel in one country, shoot some exotic footage, edit it together in another city and present it there,” Linville says of Baker’s films. In her later years, Baker served as an archivist or conservator of her collection, donating material to the Smithsonian, the Academy and other Institutions, with the Academy receiving her first batch of film in the 1970s and recently receiving more of her material from her estate. Many of Baker’s films haven’t been seen in years even though she had previously presented them, and, Linville notes, they feature past glimpses of the pyramids in Egypt, China in the 1920s and an indigenous tribe in Brazil, capturing the tribe’s culture and customs on film for the first time.
“Her footage is important in many ways from a historical standpoint, an ethnographical standpoint and for film scholars as well,” Linville, who’s also working on preserving short World War II propaganda films that were produced by the U.S. government in collaboration with Hollywood studios, she says.
Linville is also set to discuss her work preserving Baker’s films at Saturday’s screening.
The late Standish Lawder’s Necrology, from 1970, is another little-known work. But Harrison cites it as one of the most interesting titles in series. The film, which consists of a continuous shot of commuters riding an escalator in Grand Central Station, presented in reverse, provides a look at “how we travel and how New Yorkers move through their days,” Harrison says.
Another orphan film that captures a specific part of New York is NYC Street Scenes and Noises, consisting of raw newsreel recordings, starting in Times Square, where sound levels were being measured, and moving down to what is now Ground Zero.
Streible says there’s a “time-machine quality” to the footage that survived in “almost pristine condition” because it was stored in an archive for more than 80 years.
“Every time it’s shown in public it gets amazing buzz,” Streible says. “Experimental filmmakers like it, documentarians like it, almost everyone who sees it is amazed by how film is able to capture the world in a way that other media just hasn’t been able to do in the past.”
Streible adds that showcasing orphan films in this way helps remind people of some of the “exciting,” “aesthetically great,” “entertaining” films that have been forgotten. Orphan films also include forgotten works by known filmmakers, like Columbus. And as Harrison points out, “if you’ve never seen a film then it’s not an old film.”
“If you’ve never seen it, then it’s a new movie to you,” he adds.
“The Real Indies” runs from Friday-Saturday at the Academy Theater at 111 East 59th Street in Manhattan. More information about the schedule, films and tickets is available here.
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