Obscure Objects of Desire

Even in a world choked with film festivals, Cinecon stands out as a true grassroots creation. It was launched in 1965 not by academics or self-promoting industry professionals, but by a cadre of hobbyists, collectors of rare celluloid, as a gathering of the faithful at which prints from the members’ own hoards could be screened. The founders included collector Tom Seller, and Sam Rubin, former editor of Classic Images magazine, the film collector‘s bible. Critic Leonard Maltin and UCLA film-preservation officer Robert Gitt have also been associated with the festival over the years.

Cinecon’s profile has risen sharply since the 1980s, from furtive fringe event to established cultural landmark. ”When home video and cable TV came along,“ suggests Michael Schlesinger, vice president of repertory sales at Sony Pictures (and longtime Cinecon board member), ”the studios began to realize that the collectors had done them a service by rescuing thousands of obscure films, which were suddenly valuable properties again.“ Most of the films shown at Cinecon now do not come from secret stashes but are loaned by the studios themselves. Members have steadily won friends in major archives around the country by donating substantial sums (not to mention hundreds of rare prints) to film-preservation efforts.

But while Cinecon has grown into a sizable annual celebration of movies and movie idols from the silent and early sound periods, obscurity is still its watchword. According to author and film editor Bob Birchard, who organized this year‘s session, which unfurls over the Labor Day weekend in Glendale, ”We like to say that this is the festival for people who have seen everything, and who now want to see the rest.“ Even when familiar names appear on the Cinecon roster -- Raoul Walsh, Douglas Fairbanks, John Ford -- they tend to be represented by off-center or apprentice efforts.

This year, the late horror pioneer Tod Browning will be present in spirit in The Mystic (1925), a thriller about a con artist posing as a psychic that does not star Lon Chaney. Comedian Harry Langdon cavorts in The Chaser (1928), one of his rare flops. And Walt Disney will be around, too, but not with a Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck cartoon. Instead, as a wry companion piece to a Jackie Coogan garment-district comedy, The Rag Man (1925), Cinecon 35 will be offering an educational short from the Disney vaults, the girls-only public school hygiene item The Story of Menstruation (1946).

The pursuit of cinematic obscurity for its own sake may seem a slightly cracked enterprise, Birchard admits. ”All the films we show are in some way interesting, and some of them turn out to be exceptional. But a lot of them just remain interesting.“ This should not, however, be seen as a flaw in the Cinecon agenda. Focusing only on the most celebrated films has obvious advantages, especially for ordinary fun-seeking moviegoers. But skimming off the anointed classics, which are exceptional by definition, creates a distorted impression of the day-in, day-out norms of film production. ”Usually moviegoers only get the high points,“ Birchard says. ”Seeing a broader range of films puts all films in perspective.“

Then, too, even marginal movies give us a glimpse of the broader culture of their period. At Cinecon 35, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Champagne Charlie (1944), with Stanley Holloway, offers a sketch portrait of the British music-hall tradition, made when some of the great old performers were still spry enough to cut a rug. Indeed, the current vogue for pre-Code Hollywood films from the early 1930s can be traced back 15 years to some influential Cinecon programs. These crisp little pictures display a range of fast-talking American archetypes and gritty urban settings that were virtually swept from the screen after 1934.

In some cases, the cultural implications of Cinecon‘s shows have been hard to swallow. One of the festival’s 20 celebrity guests in 1997 was the notorious Third Reich director Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will, Olympia), and some press accounts made it seem that the event had been staged entirely in her honor. Schlesinger insists the festival was taking note of Riefenstahl‘s filmmaking skills and of her role in movie history, no more or less: ”She has been a guest at many other festivals, from Lincoln Center to Berlin, without triggering this kind of outcry.“

It is possible to find evidence of naivete (or worse) in the stubborn failure of Cinecon’s defenders even to grasp what all the fuss was about. But it‘s worth bearing in mind that over the years Riefenstahl has become a flash point for film scholars arguing either for or against a morally neutral purist attitude toward the art of film. Historian Kevin Brownlow, for instance, has come down firmly on the side of film for film’s sake -- a position that can be seen as offering a moral free ride not just to Nazi sympathizers but also to cinematically gifted Soviet propagandists like Sergei Eisenstein. But given the character of the Cinecon project, with its tunnel-vision film-freak perspective, it should have been easy to predict which side of this vexed question it would embrace. The festival was launched in the ‘60s as the film-buff equivalent of a comic-book or trading-card convention, which is the source of both its strength and its occasional lapses. Although it’s staggered out into the daylight in recent years, Cinecon‘s movie-mole roots are still plainly visible.

Cinecon 35 will take place September 2 through 6 at the Red Lion Hotel and the Alex Theater in Glendale. Call (800) 317-9177 for information, or visit the festival’s Web site at www.mdle.comClassicFilmsCinecon35.

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