When I Think Back On All The Crap I Learned in High School: Ode To Kodachrome, 1935-2010

I started having pictures taken of me as soon as I was born. My godmother was a photographer/art teacher at UCLA, and I spent the very early bits of my life in weird artsy places and dark rooms at UCLA smelling chemicals, as well as her incense and (very likely) pot-smelling apartment in Santa Monica.

She had crazy amounts of cameras. Underwater cameras. Regular cameras. By the time I was 6, going to Samy’s was like going to the park or the grocery store or something. I dunno. It was just something we did. I knew names of film (Fuji, Kodak) and I kept hearing about this strange thing called an ISO…?

She took pictures. And my mother took pictures. There was a shutter flashing every two seconds. *click*  **zzzz** I still happen to think that the sound of a manual camera is one of the sexiest sounds on the planet. Put that and perhaps an Irish or Scottish accent next to my ear, and I might just automatically have no bones in my body and a huge shit-eating grin on my face.

We have fairly decent collections of family albums due to the fact that before digital cameras came in and caused us to simply look at something and delete its existence forever due to someone closing their eyes or a misjudged hand in the “incorrect place” we got them developed. And not only did we get them developed, but we had this strange exhibit called a “slide show.”

I know, I know, some of you may not remember this or know what this is. For those of you who do not know what a slide is, I will give you a picture:

All kidding put aside, these were very important and essential parts of my life. I doubt my parents (or my excruciatingly stoned godmother and her partner my sorta other godparent-ish guy) ever knew how much these little pieces of my very early childhood this meant to me, but all I can say is that I probably would not be a cinephile if I hadn’t had slide shows all the time as a kid. I remember laughter, my mom having a drink and the ice clinking, and the crack in the wall (our house was built in 1919, or something ridiculous like that), and great photos. Whether they were artsy photos, family shots, or a mix of the two, we had a good time.

The main thing was that it was not unlike 16mm film. The 16mm format, introduced in 1923, was utilized as a way to create “real” movies but at home. It may not have been 35mm, but hey- it was still film, right? And you could project ’em yourself, too? Not only that, it created a sense of community and brought the family together in a way that other things could not. It was one way that, historically, media absolutely built bridges instead of tearing them down. The process of creating a film together, and then watching it together was a bonding experience. Look at the opening of the TV show, The Wonder Years.

Within this clip, you see a family that is very clearly having Family Fun Times. Ok, yeah. It’s a television show. But it’s a television show that I grew up with. I also watched this show explore some pretty harsh issues of the time in a fairly sensitive and smart manner, so I would have to say that opening the show with a 16mm family film was a good call. It showed the historical reality that was going to be presented withing the fiction. Not bad for an 8:00pm ABC show, essentially aimed at a mid-range adolescent audience.

So back to slide shows. My slide shows in the ’80’s served a similar purpose to the 16mm home movies. They really brought us together. Seeing as my family had quite a bit of tragedy happen before I was even in Kindergarten, we needed some o’ that. Plus they were all hippies anyway. It was their thing, man. At any rate, I enjoyed the pretty pictures. And now, with the death of Kodachrome, I am starting to realize (perhaps) where the birth of my love for cinema came from.

When I went to summer camp, I took a photography class. It just made sense. I liked the visual image. I like the pictures. I like making pictures with my eyes. I like certain photographers as artists much better than most painters, sculpters, etc. The first camera I ever used was a Pentax K-1000 up at Camp Swig, in Saratoga, CA. It was awesome. If I remember correctly (and I believe pretty heavily in the Dorothy Parker quote “Women and elephants never forget”) I believe I ended up being the assistant to the camera teacher. Her name was Emily, she had dyed black hair, and she really liked this band I’d never heard of called Pavement and wore khakis. She was really really really cool. I think about her sometimes and wonder whatever happened to her. I have a feeling we’d be friends now. not just because I have a very good sense of who the hell Pavement is, but just because I think we would. I liked her a lot. She was my entrance into The Camera.

Then came High School…and thus the title for this piece. The darkroom at Fairfax High School in 1995 was no joke…to me, anyways. I learned stuff and had a great teacher. And I met one of my better high school friends who I am still in and out of touch with. My first Punk Rawk Pal that was my own age! Imagine THAT!  Yeah, so upon entering that scarlet chamber, I was given several options: engage in a drug deal (generally pot, but I might’ve been able to go harder. Never asked. Wasn’t interested), lounge around and talk about the exciting and engaging world of high school sexuality and politics (Oooo! Sounds thrilling when I have a chance to have 2-3 hours of darkroom time) or use some decent equipment to print pictures with. I chose the latter of the three. Every time. My only issue was negotiating the other idiots who were inside that space with me and the people who actually wanted to work. Regardless, it got done. And I got lovely work out of it.

My next darkroom, at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts? So. Much. Better. I had my work in our shows, it inspired me to go to Venice Beach on busses and get into photography as a True Love For Life. I think at Fairfax it might have been just a crush that I was considering moving in with. But I committed, hook, line and sinker at LACHSA. My only regret? I missed the day that we did pinhole cameras. I think I might’ve been getting my braces off or it was the dentist or something stupid like that. Someday…I want to do a pinhole camera.

The question now, however, is…will I get to? Perhaps some of you have seen the articles floating around people’s Facebook pages about the Death of Kodachrome. And almost all of you have heard the Paul Simon song “Kodachrome.”

Yesterday, after 75 years of glorious color, Kodachrome came to a screeching halt. Dwayne’s Photo, the building in Parsons, Kansas, and the last Kodachrome developing processor in the world, is being sold for scrap. People sent their rolls and reels in from all over the world to get them in by the deadline, spent retirement funds, traveled internationally, just so they could get those “greens of summer.”

I know what you must be thinking. Is it really that good? Can’t they get those colors digitally at this point? They can do anything with computers now! Can’t they reproduce Kodachrome? The easy answer is yes. You can get that color. The problem is you will never get the tone or, more importantly, the feel. Because I have had close relationships with Real Live Film Projectionists for years, I have been lucky enough to experience the warmth of Kodachrome, and it is simply a film look that is like no other (save perhaps Fuji, but that *still* doesn’t have the same thing that Paul Simon sang of- the dude wasn’t stupid!!).

The thing about Kodachrome is that it keeps its color. It was highly regarded for that reason. It started getting beat out by cheaper processes, but there were studies done and according to professionals, archivists, and the scientists-in-between like Wilhelm Imaging Research, Kodachrome “clearly is the most stable transparency film in dark storage; the film is especially outstanding in terms of its total freedom from yellow stain, even after extended aging.”  Unlike other films, even a roll that is undeveloped can keep its color. Look at these two photographs after 20 years lying in the Canadian rainforest, partially buried:

Picture of the best film roll, no white balance

Picture of the best film roll, white balance applied









So if that didn’t hit you, why don’t we try something a little harder. Here is a piece of film work where they seem to be testing out early incarnations of Kodachrome. No, this is not made today. This is actual honest-to-goodness, back-in-the-day, 1922 footage. I swear. If this doesn’t hit you on the glory of Kodachrome, I’m not sure what (if anything) will.

So, when I heard about Dwayne’s closing, and Kodachrome leaving us for good…my heart was broken. The amount of home movies and relationships that were created upon a format whose very emulsion had properties that outlasted the ones of other color film elements? Countless. The history that was made on Kodachrome photography? Beyond measure. National Geographic, for just one example. Familiar with this?

That’s Kodachrome. An iconic image. Documentaries were done about this photograph and the girl in it. Hey, Kodachrome, how ya doing? Naw, you’re not essential to American media culture. Not at all. We’ll just use the quicker, cheaper, ways. ‘S ok. We can fix all that with computers anyway. Digital! It’s the future!

What you can’t fix with computers is the warmth from the screen, the pure vibrancy of the colors of a printed photograph, the laughter amongst an audience, the bond between families making a home movie. These things take on lives of their own. It is no mistake that most artists consider their works to be “parts of themselves’ or their “children.”  In either situation, they are sentient beings or at least possessing blood, musculature and some possibility of animation.

The big joke was that Kodachrome was made by God and Man, as it was created by two musicians named Leopold Godowsky, Jr. and Leopold Mannes. Kodachrome was almost like a combination of the human and the divine. It could do what other color films could not do and for longer, and conduct great miracles (of the Canadian forest variety!). But it also shared a magic on-screen/paper/slide that others have not been able to match. It has touched people in a way that no other film has. Whether it was through a movie camera or the eye of a photojournalist, Kodachrome made an impact on American culture that was clearly almost religious. We have Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah named after it! Last time I checked, I wasn’t going and picnicking at Ilford or Agfa State Park!

And then there’s Paul. Oh, Paul.

So yes. This is a eulogy. But perhaps it is only a temporary one.  I feel that with the onset of the technological age, unless something changes fast, it will be permanent. The funny thing is that in Paul’s song he says “everything looks worse in black and white” and now that is the only way that Kodachrome can be processed, by a company called Film Rescue International. Oh, irony. According to the New York Times, some folks’re still holding on to their rolls of film because they are hoping that Kodak might “see their lack of wisdom” in killing Kodachrome. And to me that is how it should be. We should always hold out a little hope for the future. After all, it is Kodachrome. It is, has been, and always will be, as Todd Gustavson of the Eastman House says, “more than a film, it’s a pop culture icon.”


The Cult of Hate: Godfather III

To start with, I really liked seeing Sicily. I spent some time there in 2001, and dammit- that place is gorgeous.

When Michael says to Kay that he wants to show her around Sicily because then maybe she’ll  really “understand the family,” I knew exactly what he meant. You would too, had you been to Sicily. It is unendingly beautiful and full of life. Coppola translated this magnificently to film. I think he even got a fairly decent sense of Real Italian Culture, too (or at least what I experienced in the time I spent in Italy), when he wasn’t dealing with Corleone drama.

While I wouldn’t say this is a great film, I would not say this is a film to be hated. In fact, I found this film to be a quite interesting coda to the series. In fact, what it ended up doing was discussing some features that have been subtextual in many mafia films, but never quite laid out as significantly as this. Perhaps it is because it is clear that this is the finale, and Michael Corleone is on his last legs. Perhaps that is the only way that this can come through. Perhaps it is because Francis wanted to feature his daughter and give her some significance. Either way, The Godfather III is actually more about the women as powerful figures than the men, and I found that fascinating.

I wonder if that is why it is the film that everyone scrunches their nose up upon its mention. The series is highly male-based. Having major actions in this film be based upon female characters is more than slightly counter-intuitive to the series as a whole and thus makes it a bit uneven. However, if one were to look at mafia/gangster films, the female presence and female power structure is alive and well.

Let’s start with Scarface (1932), directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Howard Hughes. There has been a great deal written about the main character, mob boss Tony Camonte (played by Paul Muni), and his unnatural sexual attraction and obsession with his sister. Not only does this underscore the fact that he is driven by what I call Mafia Moll Magnetism, but what occurs in the film just supports the theory. Not unlike a femme fatale, many Mafia Molls undo their men purely by containing their power in their sexuality. In Scarface, Tony is undone by his obsession for his sister. The irony of this circumstance (and what complicates the situation sometimes) is that Cesca (played brilliantly by Ann Dvorak) may be aware of the power she has over Tony but chooses not to manipulate him or use it against him. This is not the usual set of circumstances.

Skip forward a few years, and maaaaany gangster films later and you have another stellar example of Mafia Moll Magnetism, only…she is well aware of her position in the gang. White Heat (1949) was directed by Raoul Walsh and introduced us to Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), an iconic gangster figure the world had never seen the likes of before. Now, Cody not only had a double-dealing wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), but he has a ruthlessly unscrupulous mother, “Ma” Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) to whom he is beyond dedicated to.

Another facet of the Mafia Moll Magnetism is that no matter what happens, the “protagonist” (in this case, Cody) will generally select the Maternal Figure over anyone else, no matter what anyone might try to tell him. In the narrative, Verna and Ma…well, I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say that they had a bit of a power struggle. This also figures in highly within the women who are vying for their Don. Someone’s gotta be Alpha Female. However, at the end of the day, there will always be only be one Alpha Female to Cody: “Ma.” Therefore, no matter what happens to that character, in a sense, Mama still wins. The most famous line of the film, “Look Ma, top of the world!” is one where Cody is still talking to her, and it is clear that, once again, he has been undermined by his dedication to the Main Woman in his life.

It’s a slightly different story with two women who are simply competing for top position due to sexual positioning, but Mafia Moll Magnetism still functions the same way and it is to remove power and functionality from the main mafia unit and bring some of it back within their own realm. It can be seen in a similar way to the femme fatale in noir, only that the Mafia Moll will coalesce and go along with much of what is going on. However, at certain key moments she will assert herself and make herself known, figuring in as an extremely powerful and significant icon within Mafia Media.

How does this relate to Godfather III? Well, having never seen it before, I went to see it tonight and I found it to be a perfect example of this theory. First of all, in all three Godfather films I discovered that there is only one truly sympathetic character, and that is Tony Corleone. Poor kid just wants to sing opera for his dad who’s trying to take over the world…legitimately? Yeah. Right.

So what about Kay? She’s an innocent! Nah, not really. She stood by for too long. Let stuff happen. And her position in GIII is one of a manipulative mother. She trades one child for another. Mafia Moll Magnetism? You got it. In order for Tony to be able to sing opera, she gives Michael Mary. She had to know what would happen with that decision. Sorry, lady, I don’t buy it. You knew. You said you knew. You repeatedly stated you knew the family, etc. So…a child trade-off. Automatically makes Kay an unsympathetic character.

Then there’s Michael’s sister, Connie (Talia Shire). Wooooah, boy! She practically invented the whole concept behind my theory. In GIII, if it wasn’t for her, nothing would get DONE! It seemed to me that this film was about the waning of Michael Corleone, and the waxing of Connie Corleone. When he was down, she would get up, sharpen her nails, and get in command. She knew exactly about Mafia Moll Magnetism and how blood relations only booster that.

Then there’s poor little Mary Corleone (Sofia Coppola). Hmmm. Yeah, sure. It seems that she did know what she was getting into. And she wanted more. There was something about the way she positioned herself several times within the film that said, “I want in.” Even when Vincent (Andy Garcia) lied to her face, it appeared to me that she understood that perhaps this was just under the list of “things we don’t talk about/mention” which meant that she knew he was lying. The fact that Mary orchestrated the entire relationship with Vincent says that perhaps there is more to her than the innocent girl that she was portrayed as. I feel that, while the acting was lackluster, the character definitely contained the qualities that move towards this same goal: a manipulative figure within the familia.

In summation, I feel that Godfather III contained some properties that were far more complex and interesting than your average film. Additionally, it was beautifully shot which is always appreciated. I feel that there are enough shitty movies out there that deserve everyone’s unrequited hatred that this poor film should be left alone as it has some very interesting aspects to it, and definitely ones that I did not count on finding.

One Way or Another

In regards to the New Year, Benjamin Franklin said, “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”

However, good ol’ Ben also tried to tenderize a turkey through electrocution, and ended up electrifying himself, so I can’t say that every one of his plans, suggestions or pieces of wisdom were 100% solid.

I’m more of a fan of the Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde school of thought.  Mark Twain said of New Year’s Day that it was “the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” And Mr. Wilde? Well, he essentially followed in the same vein and stated plainly, “Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”

In essence, New Year’s can be looked at in many ways.

I have one way of looking at 2010. It SUCKED. But I have one way of looking at 2011: it’s going to ROCK. HARD.

My personal highlights of 2010, the few that occurred, were all film related. The TCM Film Festival was amazing. The Reel Thing Conference in Hollywood and the AMIA/IASA Conference in Philadephia were unbelievable. In the spirit of that, I will celebrate that with a list of my favorite films of the year. In general, I feel that “top 10/25/etc” lists are slightly on the silly end of things and they almost shout “Look at me! Look what I watch! YOU should watch this stuff too!” And some people’s lists are exactly that. My list is not intended to be so. Maybe you’ll find something you’ll like or want to watch, but if not, no big deal. As I am on the path to trying to become an archivist, this is more for me to remember the films that I enjoyed in a particular year than anything else. So…welcome to my Filmic Forum of 2010.

General Rules:

-There is no order of ones I liked best to least based on numerical value, except for #1-3. Those are self-explanatory. Aside from those, I loved them all equally.

-This list is also based upon the films I’ve seen. I have not yet seen Blue Valentine, Dogtooth, Rabbit Hole, White Material, or I Love You Philip Morris (all films I want very much to see).

-The starred ones at the end are kinda my “special selections.” The ones without stars are the definite ones, without any qualms. The last 2 are quite good films, but not my very favorites.

1) True Grit

2) The Illusionist

3) Kick Ass

Valhalla Rising

The Ghost Writer

Animal Kingdom


The Fighter


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Social Network*

Black Swan*

All I can say is that with the new Malick film coming out this year, and a few other things that look promising, let’s hope that 2011 is a better year for American film-making than it has been. We used to be good, but I’m losing my faith. This year’s list has quite a large amount of foreign work on it, and it seems like that is where the bravery, creativity and good film-making is going.

In any case, have a great new year, and hope your holidays were great!