Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Five of the Hardest Films to See

I wrote this article to submit to a film blog, which subsequently closed for submissions before I finished. It was originally intended to have ten entries - I will hopefully finish the others at some point.

In movie land there exists a small but strange group of films. A group of movies that remain strangely out of reach, gathering dust on shelves, locked away from human eyes, never or rarely to be seen.

These films are not lost - there is not reason to believe that their original elements have destroyed. Nor do they exist in mere fragments; they are complete works, you just can't see them, at least not in full.

The reasons for these restrictions are usually legal; a battle between who owns what, who gets paid, a battle that keeps these films in a stage of limbo. But there are of course other reasons, controversies, disagreements and other reasons which remain mysterious.

Here are five such films, films that you won't be seeing at the cinema or be buying on Amazon any time soon.

I Woke Up Early the Day I Died 

Even decades after his death, Ed Wood projects were still destined for disaster. His 1959 movie Night of the Ghouls lay unseen in a post-production lab for over twenty years because he didn’t have enough money to process it. A similar fate would befall this 1999 tribute production, based on one of his most beloved yet unmade scripts.

I Woke Up Early the Day I Died starred Billy Zane as a psychiatric patient who steals a nurses uniform (cross-dressing, of course) to escape from hospital, ending up in a variety of scrapes amongst the city low-life. It was a star-studded tribute, with an impressive cast that included Eartha Kitt, Christina Ricci, Tippi Hedren, Ron Perlman, Nicolette Sheridan and many former Wood alumni.

The jury’s still out on whether it’s any good, and by that I mean true to Wood’s unique kind of enthusiastic ineptitude, but few of Wood’s fans actually got to see it. Its production company, Cinequanon, went under, causing the film to be mired in legal difficulties. After a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it New York City release, the film went unseen beyond a brief VHS release in Germany and some Mexican TV screenings. 

Cocksucker Blues

The Rolling Stones 1969 documentary Gimme Shelter culminates in several Hell’s Angels stabbing to death a gun wielding audience member at the notorious Altamont concert. Yet this is the documentary that’s banned from release.

Cocksucker Blues was supposed to build on Gimme Shelter’s success, once again following a huge American Tour but this time with Exile on Main Street photographer Robert Frank behind the camera. Unfortunately, Frank was more interested in what goes on back stage than on, and captured candid scenes of drug-taking, roadie sex and all kinds of debauchery, though soon clearly put-on for the camera.

Perhaps almost as damaging was that it showed all that was awful about touring, the arguments, confusion, strained-relationships, not to mention the signs of addiction. Jim Jarmusch said of the film: "one of the best movies about rock and roll I've ever seen. . . . It makes you think being a rock and roll star is one of the last things you'd ever want to do."  He’s one of the few to have seen it; the Stones brought out an injunction to prevent its release. Frank is now legally only able to show the film once a year, with himself in attendance.  Good luck getting tickets.

Filming Othello

Welles later years were full of projects half-finished or trapped in limbo. The most famous of these, the filmed but not edited The Other Side of the Wind, may still eventually make it to cinemas, but oddly the last film Welles ever actually completed seldom gets mentioned.

True, it was more making-of than movie; Filming Othello was commissioned by West German television to accompany an up-coming screening of his 1952 Shakespeare adaptation. Typically of Welles, the project was tinged with disaster – all his insert shots were lost by a producer - leaving the film consisting of Welles talking straight to camera while sat behind editing desks, books and water bottles in an effort to disguise just how much weight he had now put on.

Finished four years too late, Welles raconteurial skills still won over the critics in its few screenings, but as there was little demand for such a niche project in the 70s, and with no home video market, the film faded into obscurity. The re-release of Othello in 1992 seemed the ideal time to dust-off the film but the on-going feud between Welles’ daughter Beatrice, who owns Othello, and his mistress Oja Kodar, who owns Filming Othello, prevented it. Somewhat ironically, Welles follow-up, the unfinished Filming the Trial, has fallen into the public domain and is free for all to see.

The Pied Piper of Cleveland: A Day in the Life of a Famous Disc Jockey

So little is known about this music documentary it may be a lost film. Some have even doubted that it ever existed at all, but there’s evidence that it was made and that it was screened for an audience at least once. What’s so special about it? Only that it features the first ever recorded performance of Elvis Presley, that’s all.

The film was a tribute to famous DJ Bill Randle, who financed the film himself and arranged for performances by Elvis, Bill Haley, Johnnie Ray, La Vern Baker and others at Cleveland’s Brooklyn High School. Elvis performed five songs but it’s not known how many made it into the 48 minutes long documentary.

The film was edited down to 20 minutes for national distribution, but this mysteriously never occurred. Parts of it were shown on local television, but since then the film has been shrouded in mystery. Randle spoke only obliquely about the film, and seldom consistently. Music historian Jim Dawson has claimed Randle sold the footage to music producer Ray Santelli in 1992, who then sold it swiftly to Polygram. It is now said to exist within Universal’s archive, but no one knows for sure.


There’s an argument that King Kong might not have been made if it wasn't for Ingagi. Made three years earlier, Ingagi was a documentary charting the adventures of British explorer Sir Hubert Winstead as he explored the Belgian (!) Congo, culminating in the discovery of a tribe of naked women who gave over one of their own as a sex sacrifice to a giant gorilla.

Suspicions towards its authenticity were raised early; Sir Hubert appeared to be American, the newly discovered Tortadillo appeared to be a tortoise with feathers and wings stuck on, and the naked tribeswomen’s genitals always seemed to be conveniently covered by thickets. One of the lion’s in the film also bore more than a slight resemblance to the one that roars in the famous MGM production ident.

The Hay’s Office were determined to get this smut out of theatres and tried to get it pulled on the grounds that it was falsified. They even got a signed affidavit from the actor who played the film’s lead gorilla, stating that it was faked. But when the studios backed off, the film’s producers took it to independent cinemas. It took three years before it was driven out of theatres by which time it had made more than $4 million, making it one of the most profitable of the decade. Reason enough for RKO to invest in cinema’s most famous giant gorilla epic soon after.

Ingagi hasn’t been seen since. Prints do exist, but the film’s non-pc content perhaps makes it rather a risky proposition for distributors. Interestingly enough, the title was appropriated for the otherwise unconnected Son of Ingagi, Hollywood's first all-black horror film.