Friday, July 26, 2013

Naked Yoga - Forgotten Oscar Nominee Saved

As Documentay Curator of the Film Archive, one of my jobs is to acquire the best possible film prints of all Oscar Winning and Nominated Documentaries for the collection. NAKED YOGA was nominated for Best Documentary Short in 1974. It consists of scenes of young women doing yoga, both in a studio and outdoors on the island of Cypress, as well as images of Tantric art from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, with readings from yogic texts.  

For many years, the Film Archive had no copy of this title, I could find very little information about the film, and had never seen it. I first contacted the film's director of photography, Michael Elphick, in June of 2004 (actually, I originally wrote to his agent, who put me in touch with Michael). He only had a PAL Beta SP videotape Since I was only looking for a film print at that point, I didn’t follow up with him on that.  He referred me to the director, Paul Cordsen. Cordsen had no copies on any format, but referred me to a company in Switzerland that had purchased the rights many years earlier. I contacted them, but they only had a 1975 letter from the producer Ronald S. Kass to someone at the company telling them the film had been nominated.

I forgot about the film for several years, and in 2010 had run out of options. But my experience has shown that every longshot is worth taking, and have gotten results from seemingly pointless hunches. I began composing (but never finished) a letter to Joan Collins, who had been married to (now deceased) Kass, thinking that maybe she might have a print or know something about the film. (Collins and Kass had remained close after their divorce).

I then wrote Elphick a letter in June of 2011, just to follow up about his PAL Beta SP, to get a copy - any copy - for the collection, thinking at that point probably no film prints (let alone the negative) survived. He emailed saying that he'd recently been given a print from a TV station. I assumed it would be a beat up, faded 16mm print – meh. He later told me it was actually 35mm (better), but I still assumed it would be pink. 

Michael had no equipment to inspect or screen it, so I arranged for him to look at it with colleagues at the British Film Institute. But this couldn’t happen in London where Michael lived, because none of the BFI facilities there had any viewing equipment. So he drove up to Berkhamsted (an hour away) to have them show him the film. A staff member from the BFI reported the film to be in okay shape, but that was about it.  I arranged for them to send the print to the Academy so we could copy it for preservation purposes. I was still thinking that it would be faded, and that we’d need to spend a ton of money doing a digital restoration.

The print arrived, and the second I unwound the leader and down to the picture, I saw that it was an IB Technicolor print, which of course had retained its original color. I was surprised that neither Michael nor my BFI pals mentioned this. Additionally, I discovered that it was in fantastic shape, something they also didn’t tell me.

Joe Lindner, the Film Archive’s Preservation Officer, arranged to have a new preservation negative and new 35mm print made from this sole known surviving film print. And it looks pretty damn good, as you can see from this frame scans. We were that close to losing this Oscar nominated film, on film.

There are several interesting aspects to this film. It’s a real period piece, with the yoga content, the psychedelic music, the long lap dissolves, and unique special effects. The sequences of the Tantric art were made using an audio input, e.g., music soundtrack which created the multiple echo images (audio feed back) recorded onto a 2" video tape recorder. The resulting manipulated images were then transferred out to 35mm film. There was only one machine like this, called a "Cox Box," at the BBC.

The narrator is Alexis Korner – a musician, guitarist, and DJ, known as a "Founding Father of British Blues,” a major influence on the British music scene of the 1960s. I asked Cordsen why he chose Korner to narrate, assuming there had been some connection between 60s British blues and yoga; maybe like the Beatles, Korner was a follower of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. No, Cordsen said, he just liked the sound of Korner's voice, asked him to do it, and that was it.

This is truly a forgotten title in the history of Oscar nominated films, and in documentary film history in general. Below, a picture of me presenting the newly preserved film for the first time publicly, at Orphans West, aka The Real Indies, in May of 2013. -

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