THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
IMMERSION PART 3:
AN UPDATE ON THE CONTINUING SAGA OF CATCH MY SOUL (a.k.a. SANTA FE SATAN)
By Tom Mayer
On Friday, March 22, 1974, the rock musical Catch My Soul premiered in New York City and ran for just one weekend before virtually disappearing for decades. Exactly forty years and three weeks later, on Saturday, April 12, 2014, the film premiered again, so to speak -- this time heralding its return from obscurity and its journey back into the public consciousness.
This hippie rock-opera version of Shakespeare's Othello, thought lost for many years, has long been the subject of speculation and puzzlement among film fans, researchers and archivists. Nobody knew what had happened to it, or if it even still existed. For admirers of Patrick McGoohan (this being the only feature film he ever directed) and folksinger Richie Havens (the only film he ever starred in), it was especially frustrating having such a puzzling gap in both men's careers. The film simply wasn't available for those curious enough to search out and investigate. Therefore, it was quite surprising when the announcement was made that Catch My Soul would have its first public showing in decades.
The event was part of the
16th Annual RiverRun International Film Festival held in Winston-Salem, North
Carolina, USA. Over ten days, from April 4-13, an amazing 145 films from 33
countries were screened, including new features, documentaries and rare classics.
The Catch My Soul screening was part of the "Spotlight on Media Restoration
and Preservation," a subsection of the festival organized by David Spencer,
Senior Film Curator at the North Carolina School of The Arts. According to the
RiverRun press release, the Spotlight "provides the rare opportunity to
experience classic cinema curated around a particular theme," and helps
"draw attention to the importance of preserving our shared cinematic history."
When the RiverRun schedule was announced in late-February, news about the Catch My Soul screening appeared on many Facebook and Twitter feeds, in addition to several major websites, including Nitrateville (a forum for film archivists), and the Official Richie Havens Facebook Page. The event was reported in many online articles as well. Ziyad Saadi at Indiewire stated that the film had been "[doomed to] obscurity and eventual oblivion -- until now"; while Chad Nance at the Winston-Salem Camel City Dispatch mentioned the "unique, crystalline feeling" that archivists experience when they find something important, and that "those lucky enough to catch the upcoming RiverRun screening will soon feel that tingle themselves."
The showing took place at 1pm in the "Gold" screening room of the ACE Theater on the campus of the North Carolina School of The Arts. Approximately 35 people were present, including fans of McGoohan and Havens, several reporters from the Winston-Salem area, and notably, a writer from Rolling Stone magazine. Their presence confirmed that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event for aficionados of both music and rare films. The film being shown wasn't exactly Catch My Soul, but rather, its 1975 "drive-in" version, re-released under the title Santa Fe Satan. This fragile 35mm print was discovered in the back of an 18-wheeler trailer in rural North Carolina in 2003, thus making this screening that much more remarkable.
The event began with an introduction by David Spencer, in which he briefly explained the history and premise of the film. He also made several exciting announcements regarding recent developments (see the interview with him below). The showing commenced with the recently discovered 1951 documentary short, Tar Heel Family, which tied in with the "media preservation" theme of the Festival. Then, the big moment finally arrived, and Santa Fe Satan was viewed by its first public audience in decades.
The film remained as bizarre and fascinating as ever, with stretches of undeniable brilliance, punctuated with moments of plodding excessiveness. It was well-received by the audience though, as was its amazing swamp-rock/funk/soul soundtrack, and Lance LeGault's memorable performance of Satan himself masquerading as Iago. That producer Jack Good could conceive of such an audacious project, and that McGoohan had the vision to translate it to the screen (helped by Havens' and Tony Joe White's memorable score), speaks volumes about the era in which the film was made. While the premise of a rock-opera Othello might have seemed odd even in the 1970s (a decade ripe with rock operas), the chance of a studio green-lighting such a project today is practically nonexistent.
Thus, with four decades of hindsight, this small group of discerning film fans finally had the chance to appreciate this forgotten effort. Reactions included gasps during the revelation of the blinding white interior of Iago's demonic black bus; as well as laughter at all the (intentionally) humorous moments (usually those involving Iago's sarcastic and devious nature). After the film, I made note of several comments:
-- One man said he was so impressed with the soundtrack that he was going to search out a copy of the original LP as soon as possible.
-- Another man thought that several long sequences could have been edited shorter for time.
-- A woman said that she attended a performance of the stage version in the U.K. in the late-1960s, and that she even recognized some of music as being the same.
-- Another man remarked on how much of the dialogue was not Shakespearean, but rather biblical in nature.
A final comment concerned the grainy, sometimes blurry, condition of the image and whether it could be cleaned up in a restoration; yet, many agreed that the graininess added to the organic, analog experience of viewing an actual film print in a movie theater. This was an experience that couldn't be duplicated while streaming an image on a phone or laptop. Also evident was the once-in-a-lifetime fleetingness of the moment. Unlike watching a DVD or Blu-ray at home, we couldn't rewind to watch our favorite scenes, or freeze-frame a certain shot to savor its artistic composition. We had to embrace the entire film in one linear sitting. It made viewing this rarity on such a fragile medium that much more memorable.
Spencer then announced that this would be the final time this print would be projected, due to the fragility of the film stock. Since acquiring the film a decade ago, he has screened it only four times. "The more we run it, the better the chance there may be a problem," he explained. "Each run-through is, in a way, creating more damage to the print. We have professionally-trained archive projectionists here, but I still don't want to take any chances."
He later confessed that the last few screenings created a "pins and needles" atmosphere, where he found himself praying that the film wouldn't break and melt in the projector. Indeed, I found myself tensing up whenever the image momentarily shuddered, or a static-filled "pop" erupted on the soundtrack. Mercifully, the showing went off without a hitch. Now due to the "retirement" of this print, we are afforded the possibility of its use in the proposed restoration of the film. It was appropriate then, that this final screening took place in the presence of an appreciative audience at a film festival stressing the importance of media preservation.
LATEST NEWS/RESTORATION UPDATE
Afterward, Spencer kindly spoke with me to elaborate on the announcements he made at the start of the screening. As it turns out, many fascinating developments have transpired since our previous interview.
First, he recently screened the film for none other than Patrick McGoohan's daughter, Catherine. By coincidence, she is friends with Susan Ruskin, Dean of the UNCSA Film School. Ruskin had invited Catherine many times before to tour the college, but once Catherine heard they had a copy of Catch My Soul, she now had to come see it for herself. She flew out to North Carolina in December 2013, where Spencer gladly showed the film for her. "She had a great time watching it," he recalled. "She was very thrilled, and in her mind, it was a nice legacy of her father's, since she had never seen the film, and had heard all the crazy production stories from him!" As a parting gift, the archive staff presented her with a copy of the film's theatrical poster.
We then moved on to the next exciting turn of events. Since our last meeting, Spencer has tracked down not one, but THREE additional copies of the film. The first, and most important, is a partial negative discovered in the vaults of 20th Century Fox. Second is a 16mm print of the original Catch My Soul found in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. A third copy was located when Spencer contacted the estate of Richie Havens. He was told that the singer had for many years owned two 3/4" videotapes of the film (presumably copied for him by Jack Good or Metromedia).
Considering that Catch My Soul was thought to be completely lost, the discovery of even more copies is astounding. With four sources of the film available (or 3.75 to be exact?), obviously enough footage now exists for a proper restoration. It might even be possible to reconstruct each of the various versions as well. An amazing development, indeed!
As for the RiverRun screening, Spencer explained that he had long wanted to do a program on Media Restoration that captured the spirit of preserving film and television. The main reason was to stress that, while so much media has gone digital over the past decade or so, "the cloud" is not a viable archival medium in any way. There will still be the need to transfer anything digital to a reliable physical format that can be successfully stored for decades (even centuries, if needed). Spencer then asked himself, "What is the one title I can show that is part of the restoration process -- the act of discovering a forgotten gem in your own archive or in someone else's? What title from our collection fits the bill?" It was obvious that Santa Fe Satan was the perfect choice.
Since the first two parts of this article in appeared in 2013, Spencer had applied to the National Film Preservation Foundation for a grant to restore Santa Fe Satan, but was sadly turned down. He had confirmed that 20th Century Fox owns the rights to the film (as those of us involved with the restoration and research correctly surmised), and since the NFPF deals specifically with independent or "orphan films," the fact that Santa Fe Satan is owned by a major studio renders it ineligible for a grant.
Yet Spencer was able transform that loss into a positive attempt to raise awareness for Catch My Soul. "I hoped that if I went ahead and screened it [at RiverRun]," he explained, "then it would generate some buzz, and maybe Fox would see the rationale in pursuing a restoration -- that going through the labor, the cost and clearing the rights would be worthwhile."
I then asked Spencer the big question -- the one that is on the mind of every person remotely interested in the fate of this film. That is, when can we expect it to be restored and re-released? "I have no idea, no clue," he answered resignedly. "If we can get the music rights cleared, it could happen within two or three years (2016-17). If not, then it may never happen at all."
"The legal issues are the big stepping-stone," he explained. "It's not a question of technology, or a lack-of-will anymore. There are many people that want this to happen, and we've got all the [film and video] elements in place. It's just a matter of legal issues." When asked about the exact status of the talks with Fox, he simply replied, "We're still discussing it."
As our meeting came to an end, we reflected on the success of the screening, and how this obscure, unique film could still generate interest after forty years. "Once again," Spencer summed up, "it's an amazing cultural artifact that should be seen -- it NEEDS to be seen. It would be a crime, in my opinion, if it languished in our archive for the rest of time."
MANY HAPPY RETURNS?
After researching and writing about this film from January to July of 2013, I felt the story had reached a temporary conclusion, and that it would take several years before an update was needed. Instead, it took about nine months. The speed at which these recent developments occurred made this forty-year-old obscurity seem like breaking news. At times it was difficult to keep up with it all. Throughout this period, I have been fortunate to have seen the film twice, and to have discovered much information about its history and production (thanks to the invaluable help of many colleagues and friends). In October 2013, I even traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to visit the filming locations and interview members of the cast and crew.
Yet, after all this time, I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the enigma that is Catch My Soul. Quite simply, the movie has exploded all preconceptions I've had about it for over twenty years. Besides being an exceptionally unique and remarkable film, the accounts of its production, disappearance and rediscovery are, at times, unbelievable. Also consider how the movie touches on so many cultural aspects: lost film, classic television, pop music, Shakespeare -- even the technological journey from 1970s physical media to today's digital age. How many other films or TV series have led such a storied existence?
The film is all the more unique because of this. No longer are we dealing with a forgotten cinematic failure or an obscure footnote in the careers of Richie Havens, Jack Good or Patrick McGoohan. Instead, we have before us, a current, "living" work -- full of potential and promise that is finally receiving the attention, interest and discussion that it richly deserves. Thanks to the 2014 RiverRun screening, we are now hopefully closer to the film's restoration becoming a reality. Catch My Soul deserves a new lease on life through an official release on DVD & Blu-ray. Here's to that eventually happening -- may it be sooner, rather than later.
UPDATE - THIS ARTICLE HAS NOW BEEN EXTENDED TO A FOURTH PART, DUE TO MORE FASCINATING AND EXCITING DEVELOPMENTS - CLICK HERE TO READ PART 4.
[Many thanks to
Rick Davy, Lara Dent and David Spencer for their assistance. For more information
on Catch My Soul, parts ONE and TWO
of this article document the history and rediscovery of the film.]
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