Last week I was in Big Lots of all places when I came across the DVD of George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey. I snatched it up immediately. Not because I’m a great admirer of the director (though I am), or because it was a great price ($4.99), but because I worked on it. And I wasn’t aware it even existed.
Several years ago, I worked for WRS Film and Video Lab, just outside of Pittsburgh. I worked in the Optical Printing department alongside my good friend, Ray Yeo. I sucked at the job. I sucked at just about everything I did there. I understood the technical aspects of what I as there to do—from printing on the decrepit Oxberry to the monsterous, proprietary Tri-Op (which was designed to put three-strip Technicolor negatives back together), film inspecting, Photoguard (a horrifying chemical machine)—but just couldn’t make the magic happen.
The work environment was miserable. We operated out of a former Armor meat-packing plant. With the constant cloud of chemical hanging in the air, to the complete lack of sunlight in the cavernous building, to the necessary dark and dim conditions, it was like working in a submarine. I was sick all the time—the chemicals, many of them out-dated and some of them illegal to work with—got into my lungs and gave me a persistent cough and would strip the upper layer of skin from my tongue. I had frequent migraines and occasional nose-bleeds. My hands were always shredded from handling the endless rolls of film on the rewind cranks.
But I was surrounded by film.
WRS also had a warehouse that stored original negatives. I got to actually handle the original negatives for things like the original The Thomas Crown Affair, The Magnificent Seven, Night of the Living Dead, Orson Wells’ Othello, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, A Hole in the Head, and The Seven-Year Itch. During the course of my stay there, I remade sections of Vera Cruz and A Hole in the Head. And for a few weeks, I photographed deteriorating sections of George Steven’s original 16mm footage of his time in World War II.
Stevens, who’d directed Gunga Din and Penny Serenade, headed up a “combat motion picture unit from 1944 to 1946” in the Army Signal Corps. His division shot the Normandy landings, and the liberation of Paris. The part that I worked on, pulling sections and rephotographing sections late at night, was the liberation of the Nazi prison camp, Dachau. My fellow co-workers kept referring to it as “the Auschwitz footage”, and though I knew it was Dachau, I started referring to it the same way. This was the stuff that had been used during the Nuremberg trials! It had inspired him to form “Liberty Films” with Capra and William Wyler. Many think that the things he’d seen in Germany were what inspired his attention to detail in character in his later films.
Stevens had shot the only color footage of the War, and sometimes during those late-night shifts in the dark back Optical room, I was the only one in the building. Just me and the horrible Oxberry machine—a pre-war monstrosity itself—chugging away and fouling up, conspiring to keep me later. Now and then I would have to stop the machine and look into the view finder to check where I was, make sure nothing had slipped in the gate. Several of those times, I would find myself looking at the piles of bodies left behind by the Nazis prior to Stevens’ unit’s arrival. I was haunted by just a few of these images, in still form. I can only imagine what Stevens went through, seeing it before the rest of the world in living detail.
I was alone in that room with history.
When I found myself enjoying my job, it was because I was surrounded by all these wonderful films—particularly the original negatives, handled by the artists themselves, the single degree removed from the people who made them. The original Night of the Living Dead—one degree from the people it had captured. That negative had been, obviously, in the room when Romero shot it. And it wasn’t on a television or in a theater, it was in my hands!
Very few of the people who worked there gave a shit about movies one way or another. It was just a job to them. And it was a miserable job, for the most part. The man who owned the place was a crook and a tyrant. The wages were ridiculously low. We were all technicians treated like gorillas. Most folks would have been just as satisfied working on cars, computers, or any other assembly line.
The all uniformly hated taking their terms working in the warehouse. It’s boring, was the usual complaint. But that’s where I was happiest. Lost among the shelves lined with the movies.
What I couldn’t get across to most people there—what I can’t really get across to anyone now—is that movies are important. They resonate in our culture the way that literature and music used to. Art, even committed by committee, of any form, is important. Movies aren’t fleeting like live theater or sporting events. It’s permanent, and reflects our changing society. It is a mirror of all of us. And even the worst can be wonderful to some degree, if you truly love the form.
In the dark and inconceivably dirty warehouse (dirt, like every other element, destroys film; and the warehouse was supposed to be temperature-controlled, but it always seemed too hot or cold in there), I was among art history. And 90% of the titles I saw, I not only recognized, but usually had seen in one form or another.
Most of my co-workers thought I was weird. For my passion for the movies, for my passion for the job (despite my ineptitude at virtually every position). I had wanted to try my hand in every aspect of the job and had done just about everything there to one degree. I had cut negative, hot spliced, ran the film cleaner, worked in the video lab across the hall, ran the antiquated animation table (I animated the title crawl for John Russo’s ill-advised Night of the Living Dead: The 30th Anniversary—I’d even done some color correction (despite my red/green color blindness). I worked endlessly making new negatives for a horrible and oddly soul-killing Jesus project that a lunatic Christian company had distributed to every company in the world.
And even when I hated being there, part of me loved it. Because movies are important. So I picked up this George Stevens DVD to remind me of my hellish time at WRS. And to remind me of why I make movies (or try to). Not for the financial reward, clearly. But to bring something to life that hadn’t been there before me. To maybe inspire others to do it. To leave my footprint in the sand.
Movies are important.