What classifies as a lost film? On one side, there are silent films that Hollywood studios dumped in the Pacific Ocean once talkies took over. On another, there is Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried, which he suppressed for personal moral reasons, and there are also movies like Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, which was caught in legal trouble for years before it was finally edited and debuted in 2018.
Bill Morrison expands on these ideas of lost cinema with The Village Detective: a song cycle, a project about a recovered print of The Village Detective (1969) starring populist Soviet actor Mikhail Žarov—who acted in roles criticizing the bourgeoisie and socialism—and how the film is well known to Russians of a certain age but lost to many in post-Soviet Union Russia. By comparison, it’s like if network television stopped showing It’s A Wonderful Life and the cultural disconnect that would create between generations.
As the film opens at IFC Center, we sat down with Bill Morrison to talk about famous lost films, the importance of actor Mikhail Žarov in the Soviet Union, and the silent films that may exist at the bottom of New York Harbor.
The Film Stage: An actor’s life can be traced through the lineage of their work on screen, like Mikhail Žarov. Where do we find Bill Morrison in your films made of disused, old films?
Bill Morrison: Wow, I don’t know. [Laughs.] My job is to keep making films. And if people want to find me within them, they can! Obviously, you can tell what I’m fascinated with by what I choose to show other people and the music that I choose to share. But in terms of a biopic about Bill Morrison, well, that’s somebody else’s job.
Will you explain how Mikhail Žarov was part of a Russian populist cinema?
Westerners don’t know about him and that’s part of what I found so compelling is that when this print was brought to the surface, it was then identified by an expat Russian living in Iceland as this very popular Russian movie The Village Detective, a movie that would be on television a lot while you were growing up. It’s the kind of movie for family viewing like Jimmy Stewart’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Remember how it was free for a moment so everybody showed it all the time? It was sort of ubiquitous that way. I think in the Soviet Union they didn’t have the same kind of stringent copyright laws that we have here so this film could show quite a bit. It was almost a joke when this came up from the bottom of the ocean––it’s not a rare film at all.
For us, you’d have to be an Eisenstein scholar to recognize him because he did have a prominent role in Ivan the Terrible. Beyond that, you’d have to be a Soviet cinema scholar to know who he was. He occupied the public consciousness in a way that few celebrities of his time did. He was described to me by a curator at the Moscow Film Festival that he’s like Groucho Marx in that he superseded the films that he appeared in. He was a cultural figure, almost like a living cartoon of himself while he was around.
As a populist actor, he was a very good-looking guy as a young man and he played the earnest revolutionary in the early 20s. As sound was introduced, he was quickly understood as a comic actor, and someone who could play against type. At once he could be used to criticize what existed before the revolution, to criticize the bourgeoisie, but also as socialism and communism had their own power dynamics and contradictions, he could also point to those. He was always used sort of as an anachronistic symbol of what happened before. Somebody who comes in as a flag bearer of the old guard, and is therefore laughed out because he’s out of step with the times. And that’s true all the way up through The Village Detective, where he’s still trying to uphold the ideals of a socialist farm community and during Brezhnev and the loosening of codes of conduct that happened in the late 60s.
Do people contact you frequently offering lost reels of film?
Yeah, and it seems to be something of a blessing and a curse. It’s like when people’s studios flood they go, “Contact Bill Morrison, he will want all my crap.” One of the more ironic gifts was the filmmaker, Helen Hill, who I’d sat on a jury with at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. She gave me a VHS copy of my film Decasia that withstood the flooding of her home during Hurricane Katrina. So I had this gift that was an obsolete media that had been made obsolete by a flood that was recording in the obsolescence of film. Then poor Helen Hill died tragically in New Orleans, sort of as a result of Katrina in the aftermath of social upheaval.
In the case of Jóhann Johansson, who heard about this film The Village Detective that was pulled up by a fisherman from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, he said it was something I would be interested in. I think the assumption is that I’d be interested in it because it was a lost film. In The Village Detective: a song cycle, I’m turning the narrative a bit to say, “What isn’t a lost film?” Even this populist film from 1969 that’s in a Russian archive. It stars a guy that is a household name in the Soviet Union. But people in the West and indeed younger people and people in their 30s in Russia don’t know him. In a way, this find, even though it’s not of a film that we don’t have a copy of, it is of a reality that we don’t have a copy of. It’s symbolic of an entire Empire that has gone by the wayside.
Talking about the different types of lost films: what do you think of a project like Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, which completes his vision as he intended it, instead of presenting the materials as they were found?
I found that a really interesting film. I think that there are different approaches to it. This was not a lost film and I think that with Welles we’re dealing with one of the great icons of cinema, so you want to try to be faithful to what his vision was, to the degree that we can be. But I really found that the way that they restored that and put that together was quite compelling. I love that film.
There are all kinds of ways that films are suppressed. Certainly when we’re talking about Stalinist Russia, the Soviet Union, only a few could squeak through. I mean, even Ivan the Terrible was deemed inappropriate, and Part Three was never finished. You see also in capitalist society, that we have the same kind of suppression from the studios, where they’re trying to control the films that they’ve released. Early on, they wanted those films destroyed, rather than somebody else would profit from showing them and they wouldn’t get a cut. Once their run was done, and they were exploited commercially, the modus operandi was to throw them away. There is a rumor that an entire barge of silent film was dumped into the Pacific Ocean, off San Pedro by Fox Studios. Whether that’s true or not, that would be a trove of films that exist in the very, very deep ocean. That’s like 3,000 feet deep. I’m also interested in the DuMont Network in New York that was the fourth network, and allegedly in the 1970s a lawyer found that it was an albatross to keep renewing the rights for this archive and when there was other aspects of the company that could be sold, they dumped the entire archive into New York Harbor.
Mikhail Žarov’s movies pre-1949 are in the public domain because the Soviet Union doesn’t exist to hold their rights. Who maintains these and is it easy to access these works?
It’s surprisingly easy to access them once you have a contact because it’s all so centralized. There’s the archive for narrative film and there’s the archive for documentary film, and there is an agency that represents both. You can either choose to use them or you can go around them and not use them and deal with the archive directly. I think there is some sort of assumption or ambivalence about writing Russians and saying, “I want your film.” Indeed, it did take a long time before I established those contacts, but once they were there, it was pretty straightforward. I was very lucky that a young intern who was already familiar with my work wanted to interview me. I could say, “I need these three seconds of this nitrate outtake from 1915” and she could put cord to cord and bring that to the person who would be scanning it and send it to me. It was like anything, any archive, it’s based on human relations and human contacts. It took a while to remain in the game until I was able to email people and say, “How about this shot? How about that film?” But eventually it happened.
The Village Detective: a song cycle is now playing at NYC’s IFC Center.