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This festival could alter your sense of film history
The Cheaters. 1930. Australia. Directed by Paulette McDonagh. Courtesy National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

by Ben Kenigsberg

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Just because movies spent more than a century as physical objects — as strips of film, not the digital files of the 21st century — doesn’t mean they can’t disappear. And their loss, to decomposition or to memory, inevitably leaves gaps in knowledge.

Did you know that three sisters made independent features in Australia in the 1920s and ’30s with a sophistication to rival the Paramount comedies of the early ’30s? That a Frenchman who ended his career in obscurity, working for a chemical company, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as his contemporary Jean Renoir? That George A. Romero’s oeuvre includes a public-service feature on behalf of the elderly?

To Save and Project, the Museum of Modern Art’s annual festival of film preservation, offers those lessons and more. The series, which started Thursday and runs through Jan. 22, showcases recent restorations from the museum and other archives around the world.

This year, as with the Romero feature, some better-known directors are represented with out-of-character films. But the biggest revelations in the lineup are the films that challenge established canons: nearly lost movies brought back from the brink, newly refurbished to expand your sense of film history.

Take “The Cheaters,” an Australian silent made in 1929, though converted to a by-all-accounts inferior sound film before release. It was the third feature from writer-director Paulette McDonagh and her sisters Isabel (who acted, credited with the name Marie Lorraine) and Phyllis (who produced and art-directed).

Raised in an affluent, artistic Sydney family, the McDonagh sisters were effectively self-taught and initially had the means to finance their films at a time when few women anywhere made movies. The sophistication of their technique is readily on display in a Lubitschian early sequence, in which two women (one played by Isabel) conduct an elaborate con to swindle a jeweler out of a necklace.

The McDonagh sisters were honored by the Australian Film Institute in 1978, but their international reputation is not what it should be. Susan McDonagh Fryer, Paulette McDonagh’s niece, can’t say with certainty that “The Cheaters” never played in the United States before, but the MoMA screenings (of the silent version) in a sense fulfill one of their goals.

“I think that my aunts had a strong feeling that they didn’t want to make films that represented the Australian landscape thing,” she said, even though the country’s cinema at the time was trying to distinguish itself amid American-dominated distribution. They wanted to make films with an international appeal.

Another filmmaker who hasn’t gotten his due is Louis Valray, who has two films in the series, “La Belle de Nuit” and “Thirteen Days of Love,” both from the 1930s. According to Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films, which is responsible for the restorations, French cinephiles knew of Valray’s movies as something that probably no one would ever see. Both films flopped on release, and Valray “gave up cinema,” Bromberg said. He went on to become a radio host and finished out his career as an engineer for a chemical company.

But to encounter “La Belle de Nuit” is to see a film stunningly ahead of its time. A playwright (Aimé Clariond) whose paramour and star betrays him with his war buddy escapes in a huff to Toulon and meets the woman’s doppelgänger, a prostitute played by the same actress, Véra Korène. The use of sound (cutting from a dog’s yapping to a train’s steam whistle, for instance) rivals that of Orson Welles several years later; the shadows of the back streets of Toulon anticipate film noir. If “Thirteen Days of Love” is a lesser film — an attempt, Bromberg said, to recapture the magic of “La Belle de Nuit” — that doesn’t make Valray any less a director in need of serious rediscovery.

Other innovations may have occurred earlier than is widely recognized. Leo Hurwitz, a documentarian marginalized by the Hollywood blacklist, has three short films in the program from the early 1950s. Two, “Emergency Ward” and “The Young Fighter,” neither of which apparently warranted a mention in his obituary, lay the groundwork for the “direct cinema” movement of Robert Drew and the Maysles brothers, which dictated that filmmakers should shoot unfolding events, interposing themselves as little as possible.

“Emergency Ward” watches doctors candidly examine patients at St. Vincent’s Hospital nearly two decades before Frederick Wiseman made “Hospital” (and more than four decades before HIPAA, the federal privacy protections). “The Young Fighter,” though burdened with an very un-direct cinema voice-over, observes a rising boxer in his home to illustrate the tension between ring and family life.

Marvel fans complained last year that Martin Scorsese never did as much for diversity as the comics juggernaut. Here, thanks in part to Scorsese’s Film Foundation, which collaborates on the African Film Heritage Project, is Timité Bassori’s “The Woman With the Knife.” In this brisk 1969 Ivorian feature, a young man, convinced he has left superstition behind for an independent, modern Africa, has visions of a woman who may represent a repressed, romanticized past.

Sometimes significant films weren’t even intended for theaters. MoMA will hold the New York premiere of a restoration of “The Amusement Park,” an hourlong Romero feature from 1973 that has practically never been seen. Although Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, the widow of the “Night of the Living Dead” director, told me there were probably isolated screenings over the years, very few copies were known to exist, and the film was made only to be shown in community centers.

Commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania, “The Amusement Park” was meant to raise awareness of the poverty, neglect and mistreatment of the elderly. “To be honest, I don’t know if they realized what kind of a filmmaker George Romero was,” Desrocher-Romero said.

Although she said Romero, who watched “The Amusement Park” shortly before he died in 2017, wrote off the movie as a for-hire job, he gave the assignment an unmistakable personal stamp. The movie is another of his blunt social allegories: It follows an aging man (Lincoln Maazel) as he makes his way through an amusement park where other patrons condescend to him, assault him and otherwise treat him with roughly the same level of dignity accorded one of Romero’s zombies.

“Land of the Dead” would be just as appropriate a title. And once intended to demand respect for the forgotten man, “The Amusement Park” now doubles as a plea for the forgotten movie.

‘To Save and Project’

Through Jan. 22 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., Manhattan;

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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