The Death of the Gorilla (1966) by Peter Mays

Sometimes I update with reasonable regularity, then I’ll go months with no sign of life. Sorry about that.

There has been so much going on for the past year in my film world/life that it’s often hard to keep up. Between the ever-increasing volume of preservation and restoration work (not to mention all the filmmaker and lab interactions, inspections, inventory, and collection management that goes with it, and even further not to mention the horrendous amount of email I feel like I’m always drowning in), plus the huge amount of stuff I have going on with Los Angeles Filmforum’s very exciting Alternative Projections project, it’s been hard for me to make time to post things here.

But I do definitely want to continue to be able to share the bizarre or interesting projects, findings, discoveries, etc. that I feel are a big part of my work, so I’ll try update things a bit more regularly here. I just have to cultivate it as a habitual activity.

Above is a still from the incredible The Death of the Gorilla (1966), by the inimitable Peter Mays. This is what you might call a local classic, in that it’s known to the L.A. avant-garde community, and is a crucial part of L.A. avant-garde history, but it’s been shamefully left out of a lot of larger histories of experimental film. This film is a masterwork and should be a classic (whatever that means). It’s also now newly restored, and is showing in the 2011 edition of Views From the Avant-Garde at New York Film Festival, as well as other locales, and I hope you get a chance to check it out.

Peter made this film by shooting 100ft. camera rolls of 16mm 7255 Ektachrome Commercial off of his television. He would run the film entirely through the camera with a certain color gel in front of the lens, and shoot fragmented bursts of primarily low-budget horror, sci-fi, and exotica stuff, with some King Kong and other recognizable features thrown into the mix. Upon reaching the end of the roll, he would rewind the entire roll, then do another full pass in-camera, shooting again off the television, this time with a different color gel. He sometimes did 6-8 full passes with 6-8 different colors in this manner. He got roll after roll of amazing, kaleidoscopic material this way. Immediately after getting his very best roll yet, he produced a total dud, which is how he knew the shooting was done. He then VERY extensively edited the material into a rough psychedelic narrative, and also created a similarly kaleidoscopic collage soundtrack to go with the image. The end result is 16 minutes of mind-blowing psychedelic genius, with all superimpositions produced in-camera, no exception.

Actually, you may have already seen some images from this film without realizing it. Strips from the film make up the entire cover of Taschen’s Art Cinema coffee table book.

The preservation didn’t actually take a ton of time. But it was an interesting experience, and unique in a couple of ways.

Peter had actually undertaken his own project to preserve and make available his work a few years prior, culminating in an incredibly elaborate and resourcefully executed DVD set of his work, from his earliest shorts to his most recent Flash animations. With a lot of films in his filmography, and some of them confusing due to variant versions, incompleteness, and other issues, he and I agreed that the best way to start working on anything of his was to go title-by-title, with The Death of the Gorilla seeming an obvious place to start, it being his most well-known film.

Peter had attempted to get the original 16mm mag track for the film transferred a few years back, to no success. The audio house had told him it couldn’t be done effectively, and instead he made a new optical track positive from his track negative, and used that as the audio source for his digital transfer and DVD.

Acetate mag stock does have a tendency to deteriorate more readily and alarmingly than picture, something to do with the metal oxide “aggravating” the acetate base it’s on. Most mag stocks switched to much more stable polyester in the 1970s/’80s.

When I got the mag track from Peter, it was pretty stinky with vinegar syndrome, and fairly warped and starting to curl. But it wasn’t as bad as some really nasty mags I’d encountered, and I was pretty confident it could be transferred. Nick Bergh at Endpoint Audio really knows how to handle deteriorating mag well, and I gave it to him, which eventually yielded a very nice transfer. At Audio Mechanics, we checked the mag against an existing transfer of the optical track, and it was superior, though not by a huge margin, as the source for the track’s audio was recorded ambiently off of television with a mic, and was pretty lo-fi to begin with. But the mag still sounded a bit better.

In the meantime, the original picture had its own issues. 7255 Ektachrome Commercial stock doesn’t have nearly the color stability problems of its successor, the dreaded 7252 ECO (covered elsewhere in this blog), and Peter’s original still has great looking color and contrast. It was also undamaged – no tears, perf damage, anything like that.

Normally, an element like this would be printed on a wetgate printer, the liquid in the gate helping to fill in scratches and blemishes on the source element, so the newly made element is as scratch-free and clean as possible. But we couldn’t print Peter’s original this way for two reasons. First, the head and tail titles were hand-painted (and beautifully, I might add – see end of this post). More problematic were the splices – Peter had originally edited the film with tape splices, which have held firm, but separated slightly over time, leaving a sliver of a gap in between pretty much all of them (and there are many many hundreds of splices in the original). If printed as-is, these slivers of splice gaps would be visible throughout the movie as punctuating white horizontal bars, occurring annoyingly and constantly throughout the film, especially since the framelines shift a bit over the course of the movie. To compensate for this, Peter, in his incredible focus and diligence, actually blackened out the splice gaps with a black marker, OVER the tape splices. So any attempt to clean or wet-print this original would wash away not only the hand-painted titles, but ALL of the “corrections” to the splice gaps. Yikes.

Also, because the adhesive from the tape splices had oozed somewhat over the years, every opposite lap of film from any given tape splice had dirt and adhesive residue stuck to it, on both sides of the film, constantly, throughout its entire length. Yikes again.

What to do? Well, the solution was painfully clear. I had to hand clean the entire thing, a foot at a time, all the way through, on both base and emulsion sides of the roll. Which I did. I hand-cleaned every single instance of that adhesive gunk and the dirt sticking to the adhesive gunk, through 600+ feet of the original for this film, on both sides. It took a while, but not as long as I thought it would.

In the meantime, another unique aspect of the project presented itself, which was very helpful. Extremely presciently, Peter had cut together a short, 50ft. roll of original outtakes from the film which represented a lot of the film’s various looks. He did this specifically to be used as a test roll, so the lab could print the short test roll and experiment with exposures and timing, rather than print the full original a bunch of times. VERY helpful.

So while cleaning the original, I sent this test roll to the lab – Colorlab in this case. The wonderful and brilliant timer there, Chris Hughes, and the great Julia Nicoll got the test roll printed to internegative, then timed to print. Peter and I had decided pretty early on that the film should absolutely be printed as a “one light”. In other words, there would be no timing light changes for the entirety of the film – one “best” light setting would be used for the whole thing. The reasoning for this was twofold – Peter had originally printed it this way in the 1960s, and the nature of the film’s concept and making suggested this approach made the most sense. In other words, all of the superimpositions and color effects should be treated equally on a neutral grounding, not diversely modified from sequence to sequence or anything like that.

Additionally, Peter and I agreed the lab should try to make the new print look as much like the original as possible. Normally one might be matching a screening print of a film rather than the original, because perhaps there’s a certain amount of color correction or other exposure modification that would have taken place in the film’s printing. But in this case, we agreed that matching the original again fit the film’s concept and execution, and also allowed for a very fine, subtle, high quality mirroring of the original as an object, rather than trying to artificially match a Kodachrome print, which would be a lot less subtle, a lot more contrasty, and miss the film’s fine detail somewhat.

The test came back from Colorlab looking great, and needed only a tiny correction (1 point lighter, 1 point less blue). It looked beautiful. In the meantime, I had finished hand-cleaning the original, and shipped it to Colorlab for them to do another dry cleaning pass and then print it according to the results gotten from the test. Also in the meantime, the sound work had been finished and a new digital sound master, new mag track, and new optical track negative were created. Colorlab produced a new internegative and a first answer print with sound that hit the film exactly on the money. It looked fantastic. Peter saw it and was absolutely thrilled. I compared it to the 1960s Kodachrome print, which, though also beautiful, was not as good as the new one, which had a lot more range of color and subtlety of detail, closer to the original.

The new print premiered at Rotterdam 2011 in a pair of restored L.A. experimental film programs I put together, and I hope Rob Todd doesn’t mind me quoting him as calling the film “a maximalist monsterpiece”.

To conclude this really long post, I thought I’d share a few more stills from the film:

And here are some pictures showing the film’s beautifully hand-painted main titles:

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