Friday, January 4, 2013

Will She Get Over It?

I don't know who the "she" is in the film's title, nor what it is that "she" needs to get over.  At least as of this writing, I've have not seen this film.  And yet I'm in the process of restoring it.  This has happened more than once (see my post on Gary Beydler and Venice Pier).  In my experience of working on the restoration of experimental films, this isn't the norm, but it's not totally unusual.  And in the case of Mike Henderson's films, it's quite common.  Will She Get Over It? is a ca.1971 film made by Mike with students in the class he was teaching at UC Davis at the time.

Before I get to this film in particular, I thought I'd say a little bit about restoring something I haven't seen.

First of all, the main reason for this to even occur is that there is no extant print of a given film.  For example, there may only be the original picture and sound masters, or an internegative.  So there's no way to very easily watch the film before working on it.  In some cases, I've had a print, but only a print, i.e. the film only survives as a single print, and although I trust the Pageant 250S 16mm projector I generally use here for quick viewings, I usually feel it's just not worth risking it.  This was the case with A.K. Dewdney's film Wildwood Flower (1971), which only survived as a single distribution print, and which I did not screen before using that print as the source for the film's preservation.

Of course, preserving/restoring something that you haven't seen involves a bit of curatorial chance-taking, but if the filmmaker is a known quantity (artistically/historically speaking), and/or I have it on good authority that the film is significant in some way, I don't consider it all that risky, especially if it really doesn't cost that much to do the work (as with Wildwood Flower).  I discuss this a bit in the aforementioned post on Gary Beydler, but with Dewdney's film, the same held true.  Dewdney had made a few films that I had seen, and felt were fairly remarkable (especially his masterpiece The Maltese Cross Movement (1967)), so I trusted him as a filmmaker.  Additionally, the print of Wildwood Flower had shown at Light Industry right before I got it, and a trusted friend who had been at the screening had spoken of how much he'd liked it.  That was enough.


Mike Henderson may not be a name familiar to many in the experimental film world, even among the very experienced and prolific viewers among us.  This is partly because Mike is known much more as a painter and blues musician.  (If you search him out online, you might find a different artist named Mike Henderson and a different blues musician named Mike Henderson.  The way you'll know if you have the wrong guys is that those guys are white.)

Here's a short piece about Mike from KQED, if you're curious to learn a bit about him.

Like so many other things, I got turned onto Mike's work because of Robert Nelson.  I was teaching a class at Cal Arts in Fall 2006, and one of the sessions was themed on humor.  Bob had suggested I look at Mike's film Dufus (1970/73).  I already knew about Mike through Bob, and the two film collaborations they had done (King David (1970) and Worldly Woman (1973)).  I had also seen Mike perform (with William Wiley on harmonica) at a reception for Bob at San Francisco Art Institute in 2002.  But I had no idea he'd made other films.

Turned out the Film-makers' Cooperative had two of his films - Dufus and The Last Supper (1968-70).  I rented Dufus, showed it in the class, and we were all pretty knocked out by it.  Immediately after that class, I called Mike and asked him about his films.  Soon after, I was visiting the Bay Area anyway, and we made plans for me to drop by his place to talk more about it.  We met up, had a good long talk, and I was thrilled to discover that Mike had not just made those two films, but also a few others.  He gave me a reel of four prints to check out back in LA - the aforementioned two, plus The Shape of Things (ca.1981) and Down Hear (1972).  Two other films - Too Late To Stop Down Now (1982) and Ducks Are No Dinners (1983) - were listed as being on the reel too, but were absent, so I could only be tantalized by those fantastic titles.  (Mike has a talent for titling, and many of his film and painting titles are packed with wonderfully implicit narrative suggestion.  Two of my favorite painting titles of his -- both abstracts -- are All You Do and She Worked For Years.)

Dufus (1970/73, 16mm, b/w, sound, 7min.)
Back in LA, the reel blew me away, especially the incredible Down Hear.  I had a few more chats with Mike, told him I really wanted to restore these films, and not too long after, visited him in the East Bay again.  Already excited to see those two other films missing from the reel, I was further surprised to learn that he had actually made more in the neighborhood of TWENTY-FIVE films, once we started digging them out of his basement.  I kept finding cans with new, unfamiliar titles on them like Harvey Hog (1970), Just Another Notion (1983), How to Beat A Dead Horse (1983), Will She Get Over It?, and more, and Mike kept saying, "Oh yeah, that's another one, I'd forgotten about that one..." and laugh his inimitable laugh.

To cut to the archival chase:  Although a number of Mike's films survived as originals plus prints, many survived only one way or the other - as ONLY an original or ONLY a print.  Of the films mentioned in the last paragraph, both the originals and a print of Down Hear survived, Harvey Hog and Will She Get Over It? survive only as originals (no prints), and Just Another Notion and How To Beat A Dead Horse survive only as prints (no originals).  This is a fairly representative sample that you could extend across his whole filmography.

Part of Mike's sensibility - to just get in there and MAKE things, don't worry about your hangups, don't be afraid of failure - led him to try all kinds of ideas in filmmaking.  And thankfully, he had no formal filmmaking training.  Bob Nelson just told him to get a camera and get someone to show him how to load it and how to make a correct exposure.  Aside from maybe a few other pointers from people about how to splice and where to get your films printed, that was it.  He learned the bare minimum he needed to know to actually make films, and then proceeded to create a singular body of independent film work that intertwines complexly with his painting and music, having perhaps more in common with those two disciplines than with other films.

From a technical/production standpoint, all of Mike's films (except one) were constructed in the same very basic way.  They were shot on reversal film (he used both black and white and color), spliced with tape on a guillotine splicer as A-rolls only, and the sound finished on 16mm fullcoat magnetic film.  Mike's mag soundtracks were often created not on regular dubbers with a mixing console of any kind, but on a 16mm projector with recording capabilities that his friend Michael Rudnick owned.  These two elements would then go to (usually) Monaco Lab in San Francisco, and an electroprinted reversal print would be made.  (Electroprinting allowed filmmakers to get an optical track on their print directly from the mag, bypassing the creation of an optical track negative.  For filmmakers who were only planning to make a couple of prints, this was cheaper, although the sound quality was often not as good.)

Sometimes, the splicing tape Mike used was cheap and shitty.  Sometimes he didn't even use proper splicing tape, but cellophane tape.  It didn't matter - whatever stuck the two pieces of film together and got it through the printer would work fine.  He shot cheap and outdated stock sometimes too.  And the prints were barely timed, usually just a one-light, but that was OK because Mike had learned how to make a good exposure.

In the case of Will She Get Over It?, a few of the things I've mentioned above are at work.



No print survives, or at least we didn't turn it up at Mike's place when we looked.  I only have the original tape-spliced b/w reversal A-roll, and the 16mm mag.  I know how they sync up because they have hole punches in their leaders, but that's it.

The tape splices have problems, as with a lot of his originals.  There are two different kinds of splice problems that Mike's originals tend to have:

1. The film ends have separated somewhat under the tape splices, like this:
original picture roll for Will She Get Over It?

This is not a huge problem, but it still needs to be dealt with.  Not only would printing this original as-is mean that you'd see a distracting, clear splice-line at every cut, but the improper pitch of the perforations at the stretched splice would create instability in the printer, leading to the creation of little jumps at each cut, possibly with brief focus issues in the few frames immediately before and after the splice.

2. Tape splices have dried up and crystallized on the film (emulsion and base), and tarnished the silver of the black and white image, like this:

original picture roll for Will She Get Over It?

As you can see from the above pictures, Will She Get Over It? has both of these problems.

So basically, I had to take apart, clean, and redo every single splice in the film.


The splices that were merely stretched were easy to fix.  Just pull off the tape splices, hand clean the adhesive residue with film cleaner, and resplice them with new tape so they join better.  


The splices have also usually left adhesive residue elsewhere too, where they rested against the preceding and subsequent winds of film.  This had to be hand-cleaned as well.

As I mentioned above, Mike's technical aesthetic was in some ways rough, though it's very much the roughness of someone who knows what he wants to express in a direct way, and doing what he needs to do to express it, without worrying about procedure, rules, or standards.  It's actually kind of punk, in the way that raw country blues is also punk.

As I also mentioned, Mike spliced these films in a very simple way using tape on a guillotine splicer.  Traditionally, in production and preservation, a splice (especially a tape one) is meant to be as invisible as possible.  Mike's splices are not invisible.  They're also not self-consciously visible either.  They're just there, and they don't care.  So I decided the best way to resplice all of these cuts was to do the same thing, on a guillotine splicer, not worrying about making it perfect.  I'm not deliberately trying to make them imperfect either.  I'm just doing it.

I've dealt with the badly dried up splices in a similar way, but they need a bit more help.

original picture roll for Will She Get Over It?

The adhesive wouldn't come off in a hand-cleaning, so in a moment of mild frustration, I just stuck the end of the film right into the film cleaner bottle, like so:



let it sit for a few minutes, pulled it out, and was glad to discover the dried up adhesive had weakened enough that a hand-cleaning would work.  I then respliced them.

Of course, this didn't help the problem of the tarnishing.  Here's a top-down view of the above splice so you can see a more extreme example:

original picture roll for Will She Get Over It?
Since the film is totally black and white, the brownish tone that you see will be eliminated in the printing process going to a black and white dupe negative.  There will still be some visible image degradation built in, but aside from chopping out the frames entirely, there's nothing that can really be done to fix it.  The tarnishing in Will She Get Over It? is infrequent and not that bad, so I decided to just leave the frames as they are.  In the case of Harvey Hog, the tarnishing is much worse, and has turned the two frames under each tape splice into nearly abstract compositions.  Talking to Mike, we decided I should cut those frames out of the film entirely, as they intruded too much on what the film is.  Although it's a compromise to remove the frames, and unfortunate, the film is not about those frames, and the minimal integrity of those frames should not compromise the integrity of the film as an overall artwork.

One last thing about preserving Will She Get Over It? that came up is something that's suggested by my hasty post-it note on the film can as seen above.  The original has yellow lightstruck leader at its head, which cuts directly to the first image of the film.  This suggests to me that the film, in its printed form, originally began with a fade-in, but I have no way of knowing for sure - there's no print to compare to, no lab paperwork, and Mike doesn't remember.  We talked about it, and he said sure, start it with a short fade-in.  So that's what I'm doing.  It's up to Mike, and it sounds good to me.  And it's not the kind of decision -- when dealing with films as beautifully unanxious and liberating as Mike's -- that I'm going to let keep me up at night.

1 comment:

Tara Merenda Nelson said...

I saw Dufus when Kathy Geritz came to MassArt Film Society in 2010 or 2011... it was one of my favorites! So glad these films are in good hands.