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Bing Crosby on Acid? 10 Films Plucked from Obscurity at the 8th Biannual Orphan Film Symposium

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire April 17, 2012 at 12:09PM

Every two years, a group of film geeks -- archivists, preservationists, historians, filmmakers and cinephiles -- get together to share films, videos, and other moving-image material that has gone unnoticed for years. NYU Professor Dan Streible is the mastermind behind the biannual conference that gets these "orphans," or once-forgotten films, at the Orphan Film Symposium. This past weekend, the event was held at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The theme was persuasion, with a lineup that focused heavily on educational films, industrial films and advertisements. The Orphan Film Symposium is an event better experienced than summarized (mark your calendars now for the 2014 installment at Amsterdam's EYE Film Institute) and some of the films are difficult to explain in the short space here.  But to give a taste, here are 10 great Orphans moments. In the 1940s, Bing Crosby lent a tune to an auroratone -- a film with psychedelic images and soothing music that was sent around to WWII soldiers who returned with shell shock. Film collector Robert Martens found "When the Organ Played 'O Promise Me'" in his grandfather's film collection and uploaded it to YouTube.  Eventually, a YouTube user explained to him what the film was used for at the time. A print preserved by Film Technology Co. was shown at Orphans' closing night.
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A still from Cecil Stokes' Bing Crosby auroratone.
A still from Cecil Stokes' Bing Crosby auroratone.

Every two years, a group of film geeks -- archivists, preservationists, historians, filmmakers and cinephiles -- get together to share films, videos, and other moving-image material that has gone unnoticed for years. NYU Professor Dan Streible is the mastermind behind the biannual conference that gets these "orphans," or once-forgotten films, at the Orphan Film Symposium.

This past weekend, the event was held at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The theme was persuasion, with a lineup that focused heavily on educational films, industrial films and advertisements.

The Orphan Film Symposium is an event better experienced than summarized (mark your calendars now for the 2014 installment at Amsterdam's EYE Film Institute) and some of the films are difficult to explain in the short space here.  But to give a taste, here are 10 great Orphans moments.

In the 1940s, Bing Crosby lent a tune to an auroratone -- a film with psychedelic images and soothing music that was sent around to WWII soldiers who returned with shell shock. Film collector Robert Martens found "When the Organ Played 'O Promise Me'" in his grandfather's film collection and uploaded it to YouTube.  Eventually, a YouTube user explained to him what the film was used for at the time. A print preserved by Film Technology Co. was shown at Orphans' closing night.

"The Big Red One" scribe Sam Fuller shows "How to Light a Cigar" in a 1945 film blending fiction and documentary made with other soldiers while in Belgium.

A recently restored film made by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel as a psychological test that asked subjects to narrate the feelings of simple shapes -- two triangles and a circle -- that go through an often hilarious "fight."

The Indiana University Libraries' Rachael Soeltje and Martha Harsanyi showed off one of the university's highest selling self-produced "educational" films, "Chucky Lou: Story of a Woodchuck" (1948), whose educational value (but not entertainment value) was brought into question.

Film historians Allyson Nadia Field (UCLA) and Jacqueline Stewart (Northwestern) presented UCLA's archive of films and ephemera from The L.A. Rebellion Project. The L.A. Rebellion, which produced films by film students of color in the late '70s/early '80s in Los Angeles, included Charles Burnett ("Killer of Sheep") and Julie Dash ("Daughters of the Dust"). From the collection, they showed Bernard Nicolas's 1977 first-year-of-film-school tribute to Black Power, "Daydream Therapy."

From the archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, historian Mark Quigley showed Rolf Forsberg's bizarre 1973 classroom discussion film "One Friday" about an imaginary siege by black nationalists on a lily-white suburb. Also from the ELCA archives was Frank Tashlin's mash-up of the tale of Jesus being pegged to the cross with the impending nuclear holocaust in 1947's "The Way of Peace."

When UC Santa Cruz prof Irene Luzstig became a mother, she became obsessed with culling eBay for historical films and video tapes about mothering. In her presentation at Orphans, she showed a series of films from around the world in the mid-20th century that told the history and methods of the Lamaze Technique. These films included to varying degrees the influence of Soviet practices on Dr. Lamaze's methods.

Lillian Schwartz's "Olympiad."
Lillian Schwartz (1973) Lillian Schwartz's "Olympiad."

New York Public Library librarian Elena Rossi-Snook presented two examples from The Young Filmmaker's Foundation Collection, which is housed at the NYPL. After showing two quite fantastic works from young filmmakers in the collective, which came from 1964-1979, Rossi-Snook admitted she hadn't told the now older filmmakers that their early work had been shown to the Orphans audience.

"The Florestine Collection," the unfinished film of animator Helen Hill, known among the DIY community for her self-published how-to guide "Recipes for Disaster," was shown with voiceover and added scenes provided by her husband Paul Gailiunas. The film is a celebration of New Orleans told through Hill's experience finding a pile of moldy dresses piled on the sidewalk. Through interviews with the family and friends of the then-deceased former owner of the dresses, Hill crafts a story that also celebrates this woman, her personality and her craft.  The film went unfinished after Hill was shot dead in her home by an intruder.

After recently restored prints of her computer animation was shown at last summer's Flaherty Seminar, animator Lillian Schwartz (who did most of her work from within Bell Labs, despite rarely being employed by the company) is a true revelation. Five of her films, from 1970's "Pixillation" to 1974's "Galaxies," were shown to a captivated crowd.  Schwartz, who was in constant contact with the Bell Labs scientists, often collaborated with them to animate their findings. She also was a co-developer of the computer language she used to do her animations. Schwartz also discovered recently that by using a 3-D viewing technology developed in 1990, her films acquire amazing depth; she now prefers her films to be viewed while wearing 3-D glasses.







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