History’s Mysteries: Phil Hall on ‘In Search of Lost Films’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m delighted to be in the virtual company of fellow Examiner.com alum Phil Hall.

Phil is the author of In Search of Lost Films (BearManor Media). He has had a three-decade career in cinema/media, working at various times as a film journalist, critic, publicist, distributor, festival programmer and actor. Phil has written five previous books, including The History of Independent Cinema and The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired and Film Threat. Phil is also the host of The Online Movie Show on PPRN Radio, a member of the Online Film Critics Society’s Governing Committee, and director of the New England Underground Film Festival. Most recently, he has become a contributor to Cinema Crazed.

Author Phil Hall.

Praise for In Search of Lost Films:

“I’m a big cinema fan and I love history so I jumped at the chance to read this. I had no idea how many films made in the early years of cinema were lost to fire, deterioration, neglect or just bad luck. Phil Hall is a journalist and film critic, his writing is clear, accessible and enjoyable. I came away from this book with a clearer understanding of the world of cinema as it once was.”—Josefina W., Amazon reviewer

From the publisher:

It is one of the most astonishing facts of cinema history: an extraordinary number of important films are believed to be lost forever. Spanning from the early days of the silent movies to as late as the 1970s and touching all corners of the global film experience, groundbreaking works of significant historical and artistic importance are gone. Cinema icons including Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Oscar Micheaux and Vincente Minnelli are among those impacted by this tragedy, and pioneering technological achievements in color cinematography, sound film technology, animation and widescreen projection are among the lost treasures. How could this happen? And is it possible to recover these missing gems? In this book, noted film critic and journalist Phil Hall details circumstances that resulted in these productions being erased from view. For anyone with a passion for the big screen, In Search of Lost Films provides an unforgettable consideration of a cultural tragedy.

In Search of Lost Films.JPG

Now, Phil Hall shares a revealing look at one of history’s mysteries …

John Valeri: What inspired you to write In Search of Lost Films – and how do you feel that your book differs from others on the topic?

Phil Hall: I have written several books and a seemingly endless number of essays and reviews on films that are easily accessible, but this was a very unusual project because I was writing about films that no longer exist. This raised a number of interesting challenges, ranging from describing the now-missing footage to explaining the significance of its disappearance.

While there have been several books on the subject, many of these books are focused to an academic audience and tended to dwell on American silent films. I am aiming at a general audience that may not be aware that so many important cinematic productions are gone. I also sought to expand my focus to the full spectrum of the motion picture experience, particularly with a strong focus on sound-era films and a consideration of the disappearance of historically important films produced in other countries.

JV: To what do you credit your interest in the subject – and how has your writing allowed you to indulge this curiosity?

PH: Everyone loves films, of course, and it seems that everyone has an opinion about what is on the screen. I began writing about films when I was in college, which was more than a few years ago, and over the years I have been fortunate to have my writing published in the New York Times, Wired and other major media outlets. I have also worked as a film publicist and I had the pleasure to work with important filmmakers including Jonathan Demme, Susan Seidelman, Penelope Spheeris, Liz Garbus and Bill Plympton.

But the challenge in maintaining a film journalism career over such a long period is to stand out from the competition in terms of style and content. I assume that people like my writing, as I am still being published. In terms of content, finding subjects that require attention can be tricky – after all, how many books on Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock do we really need? With my new book, I am able to bring a new level of attention to a subject that is most unknown to the general public.

JV: Why is it important for us to understand the history of lost films — and what is the relevance of this in today’s technologically advanced industry?

PH: Cinema offers a sharp consideration of how society has evolved on social, political and emotional levels. More than any other medium, it provides a visual and visceral understanding of who we are and how we became who we are. Cinema was also the first creative medium that was widely accessible and able to appeal to everyone, regardless of their educational and financial status. Its impact on the world cannot be overstated.

But in order to consider the impact of cinema and its continuing value, we have to be aware of how it gained its power. This becomes frustrating when you realize that so many important milestones in the development of the medium – from both a technology standpoint and a content standpoint – have vanished.

Advancements in technology also have a downside: as new technologies emerge, the older technologies that were once cutting-edge are suddenly obsolete and have no perceived valued. That is why so many silent films and the early sound films that featured their soundtracks on separate phonograph-style discs are lost – not to mention the early experiments in color, three-dimensional and widescreen filmmaking. But you don’t have to be a film scholar to appreciate that: just think of the many, many people that still have VCR tapes, laserdiscs or music cassettes but no machines to play them on.

JV: You have had a long and distinguished career in the realm of film. How have your various roles impacted your perspective – and in what ways do you believe they influence, or enhance, your writing?

PH: Not everyone thinks that my career is distinguished – I can recall once when some English professor once posting online that I should quit being a film writer and get a job collecting shopping wagons in the K-Mart parking lot. Unfortunately for me, K-Mart wasn’t hiring.

Throughout the course of my career, I have been a film critic, a film journalist, a film publicist, a film distributor, a film festival programmer and a film actor. I have been blessed to see almost every corner of the film world, and this has provided me with an extraordinary perspective on the artistic, emotional, technological and financial elements that go into the cinematic experience.

JV: Speaking of writing, you have a background in journalism. In what ways does this provide a foundation as you begin a new book project – and how do you endeavor balancing fact with entertainment/readability in delivering a compelling story?

PH: The keystone to a journalism career is the ability to research and fact check, which is very helpful in a book of this nature. This book actually came in one year past its original deadline because of the level of research required.

Telling a compelling story is relatively easy: if you love the subject, it comes through via the telling. The worst writing comes from people that genuinely hate what they are writing about – you get bored as a reader because the writer cannot disguise his or her lack of enthusiasm. That is also why film writing and sports writing is among the most invigorating reading material – you know immediately that the writers have a passion for what they are writing about.

JV: You maintain an active online presence. Where else can readers find you?

PH: I just began writing for the Cinema Crazed website (www.cinema-crazed.com) after three media outlets that I wrote for – Film Threat, FilmSnobbery.com and Examiner.com – ceased publishing. (Film Threat and FilmSnobbery.com are supposedly coming back, but I don’t have any details on that.)  I also have a Monday evening program called “The Online Movie Show” that is broadcast on PPRN Radio (www.PPRNRadio.net), and I am a co-host on Peter Pinho’s comedy/music/talk show on Tuesday and Wednesday nights on PPRN Radio.

Separate to this, I also have an active career as a financial and business writer, and my work can be found on a number B2B media sites. And, of course, you are welcome to say hello to me on Mr. Zuckerberg’s digital playground: www.facebook.com/PhilHall.


With thanks to Phil Hall for bravely indulging my curiosities, of which there are many.

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