DOC NYC closed its most recent edition last night with another guest of honor. Kevin Brownlow, the renowned silent film historian, preservationist and documentary filmmaker, presented his 2004 documentary, “Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic,” and was on hand for a mid-screening Q&A session with DOC NYC’s Artistic Director, Thom Powers.
Brownlow is perhaps the most esoteric name on the list of honorary recipients of this year’s Governors Awards from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. While Jean-Luc Godard stole the headlines when the recipients of this year’s Honorary Oscars were revealed, Brownlow’s inclusion was given the proper attention in this year’s DOC NYC program with a seven film retrospective series that culminated with a pair of personal appearances from the filmmaker.
The recognition is warranted for the author of numerous classic books on silent film history. His interest in the subject led him to undertake several restoration efforts of important classics such as Rex Ingram’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921), Raoul Walsh’s “The Thief of Baghdad” (1924) and Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” (1927). Brownlow extended his vast knowledge of film history to filmmaking, directing over a dozen documentaries on stars, directors, and studios of Hollywood’s celebrated past.
“Film is my religion,” he told the audience at the IFC Center, “and there so many great pictures.” His interest in cinema and the people behind it influenced him to seek out a career as a filmmaker.
“I set out to become the second Orson Welles but something went wrong with this ambition,” he explained. That ambition led him to a writing career, where he would research and document the careers of his favorite filmmakers. Brownlow’s rigorous research gave him the reputation of a definitive and dependable authority on silent cinema. This work ethic is visible in all of his films, relying on an eclectic collection of resources – from archival material to interviews with some of today’s most famous directors.
Some of the biggest challenges in Brownlow’s career have come from his restoration projects. He cites his experience with MGM’s 1925 silent epic, “Ben Hur,” where he worked to restore the film’s Technicolor sections to their original brilliance. Brownlow highlighted his working relationships with film and university archives in order to facilitate his work. Archival access is central to Brownlow’s work, an approach echoed by contemporary projects like The Orphan Film Symposium, which co-sponsored the director’s appearance at DOC NYC.
Despite being one of the leading authorities in film preservation, Brownlow appeared unsure to prioritize a single issue of film preservation above any other. Ever cautious to not overlook any aspect, the film historian sat back and reflected, “I’m not sure, I’ll have to think about it and let you know.”