Feast of Restoration: An Abundance of Discoveries Live Again on MoMA’s Screens


The fourteenth edition of “To Save and Project,” MoMA’s august rescue mission, arrives with the usual bounty; showcased this year are forty-plus newly restored (many digitally) features and shorts from thirteen countries. After sampling the titles available for preview, I plan to make return trips to West 53rd Street in the next few weeks for more cine-gorging, to catch the films not available by press time.

As in previous iterations, TSAP ’16 boasts a handful of pre-Code rarities, such as Tom Buckingham’s Cock of the Air (1932), a frothy Continental romp centering on Parisian stage goddess Lilli de Rousseau (Billie Dove), whose décolletage proves so distracting to various heads of state assembled in the French capital that she is asked to leave her homeland as a “patriotic duty.” She fulfills it by heading to Italy, where she seduces — and bedevils — military pilot Roger Craig (Chester Morris), a libertine unaccustomed to being told no. The erotic push-pull between these two supremely self-regarding individuals is illustrated with kinky touches: Lilli’s fondness for donning a suit of armor and Roger’s attempts to disrobe her with a can opener; his predilection for wearing nothing but a perilously secured towel around his waist and for administering some light s/m on his beloved. Lewd violence also pops up in John Ford’s The Brat (1931) in the form of a lengthy, class-clashing tussle between a peewee Gotham street urchin (Sally O’Neil) and a lithe, soignée aristo (Virginia Cherrill).

Other types of battles — of wills — surface in the MoMA series. Completed early in his career — a decade before Hitler: A Film From Germany (1977), his notorious Gesamtkunstwerk — Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Romy: Anatomy of a Face (1967) reveals his fascination with outsize individuals and their myths. This hour-long, made-for-TV documentary about Romy Schneider, the Austro-French gamine, twenty-seven at the time, finds its subject chafing at her celebrity — and being put on the defensive by the director. In Romy‘s first half, Syberberg tracks the star on a ski holiday in Kitzbühel, the luxe Austrian resort town, silent footage that is accompanied primarily by the sounds of Schneider’s off-screen colloquies with the filmmaker. The sight of the actress seemingly carefree in a gondola lift clashes with the creeping anxiety in her voice. “I have lost this burning ambition,” she laments, only to mock herself a few minutes later: “This is so typically German, the famous ‘sky-high rejoicing’ or ‘despair of death.’ ”

For Romy‘s second part, sound and vision are in sync: In between cigarette puffs and sips from a Champagne coupe in a fireplace-lit room, the actress shows flashes of rage at Syberberg, who’s still off-camera; she becomes especially tetchy when he asks about the films she made as a teenager and when he wonders, with just a hint of disdain, which roles she might like to play onstage (“But I can’t make my debut with Shakespeare — that would be madness!”). A biting dissection of the labor and dissembling required to become a legend, Romy reminded me of another chronicle of a German-speaking screen deity, Maximillian Schell’s Marlene (1984; not in TSAP), in which Dietrich refuses to be photographed.

Near the end of Romy, the star, her hair a bit mussed, appears slightly in her cups; at the beginning of Andy Warhol’s Drunk a/k/a Drink (1965), the subject — far-left documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio — is already blitzed. Unseen for more than fifty years, Warhol’s project originated at the Russian Tea Room with de Antonio’s reluctant proposal for a collaboration: He’d drink an entire quart of scotch in twenty minutes while the pop artist’s camera rolled. The stout documentarian sits on the Factory’s filthy floor, looking mischievously into the lens while adding more ice to his tumbler of J&B. Silent at first, de Antonio grows ever more garrulous, the torrent of words pouring out of him — some in French, some in Latin — decreasing in coherence while increasing in combativeness. “Anyone who isn’t paranoid, I’ll give them a karate chop across the neck. I want ice. I want soda. I want reality. Is there any reality left, Andy?” de Antonio bleats near the end of the first 33-minute reel. By the second (and final) one, speech is impossible, as is the ability to sit up; lying on his back, twitching, and mumbling unintelligibly, de Antonio looks and sounds like a giant toddler trying to fight off a nap.

A Warhol-scholar friend recently described Drunk a/k/a Drink as “an alcohol snuff film,” and there are moments when witnessing de Antonio’s growing helplessness becomes excruciating. The pope of pop considered the film part of a trilogy with his Sleep (1963) and Eat (1964). Yet with its emphasis on its subject’s extreme, almost unbearable vulnerability, Drunk a/k/a Drink suggests a diptych with Warhol’s Blow Job (1964; not in the series), which features a 35-minute close-up of a man who’s being fellated below the frame, his face contorting into grimaces of agony and ecstasy as he climaxes.

Some oral servicing makes it way into TSAP, too: In Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus (1979), a phantasmagoric marvel of lysergically colored hand-drawn animation (and other elements), the spring vegetable is deep-throated before transforming into a cascade of water, a flow of shiny candies, an explosion of stars and firecrackers. Before looking at the lineup for “To Save and Project,” I shamefully had never heard of Pitt. MoMA’s invaluable series ensures that her work, along with that of so many others here, will be discovered (or rediscovered) for years to come.

‘To Save and Project: The 14th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation’
November 2–23