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Academy Film Archive

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I may hate the Academy for some of its Oscar choices but I have nothing but praise for the work it does to preserve film history. I speak with Josef Lindner, the preservation officer at the Academy Film Archive about the challenges of preserving and restoring films. As an example we discuss the pre-Code comedy naughtily titled Cock of the Air.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:06 Welcome back to another episode of listener supported Kpbs and I'm a junkie podcast. I'm Beth Armando.

Speaker 1: 00:26 As someone who loves film, I respected admire those who work hard to preserve film history. On my last podcast I spoke with Fox Arcubus Chon Belston about preserving a studio's history. Today I speak with Joseph Lindner, the preservation officer at the academy film archives. I may hate the academy for some of its Oscar choices, but I have nothing but praise for the work it does to preserve film history. My discussion with Lindner, we'll focus in part on the epic work the academy did and restoring a pre code comedy Natalee titled Cock of the Air. But what else would you expect from producer Howard Hughes

Speaker 2: 01:00 as the code was not well established when the film came out? Howard Hughes and director Tom Buckingham were able to sneak a lot past the sensors. So what was removed and why the cuts are well documented in the 139 page file of the production code papers held at the academies. Margaret Herrick Library. Uh, a key concern was the lead actor, Lieutenant Roger Craig and American pilot. A member of the censorship board refers to him as quote a philandering and lecherous young man who pursued rather less full affairs and quote.

Speaker 1: 01:36 That was film preservationist Heather Lynnville introducing Cock of the year in 2016 for the academies premiere of the restored print. Cock of the air is a perfect example of a pre code comedy loaded with verbal and visual innuendo. I was so enchanted with the film at the TCM film festival a couple of years ago that I've worked with film Geeks San Diego to program it as part of a year long film series. I do with Miguel Rodriguez. I'll be co hosting a screening of the academy's restored print at Digital Jim Cinema on May 5th here's the teaser.

Speaker 3: 02:07 Don't want my guardian angel came to me in a dream and said, get yourself transferred down to Widleen. I thought it was on account of the being very little fighting going on down here. If I'd known it was you when you were sending you to, I know we're out of boredom and new halo example. Don't do like Friday and I know I just liked making enemies. I want everybody to love me. The film Tom was

Speaker 1: 02:33 made in 1932 when the production code dictating what could and could not be shown on screen was in place, but not fully being enforced. The resulting film serves up a delicious sex comedy about a lusty Shan twos and the womanizing pilot or cock of the air that she sets her sights on hold tight while we take this short break. And then I'll be back with my interview with Joseph Lindner about the fascinating detective work it takes to restore a censored film to its original intent.

Speaker 4: 03:03 So for most people who live outside of Hollywood and Los Angeles, they probably associate the academy with just the Oscars. So give us a little insight or a quick overview of kind of what things are you involved with that the academy's doing?

Speaker 5: 03:19 Yes. I'm involved with the Academy Film Archive, which is one of the major endeavors of the academy's foundation. It's nonprofit work. There's also the Margaret Herrick library. There was a grant program and educational work, but we have a collection of motion picture film here on site and spend part of the academies interest to pursue the history of the art form almost since the beginning. And we have motion picture film in our vaults, which are humidity and temperature controlled and we do active preservation and restoration to make sure that these movies aren't just collected and stored properly, but that they're available on screen in a theatrical format and the same quality that those original film artists made them an audiences saw them and experience them. So it's part of that same mandate of keeping the history of cinema heritage alive in theaters is that we've got this actual physical evidence of the art of cinema, which is important to know because most people may not be aware of the idea that spends 1930 80% of movies, and this isn't just the u s this is across the world, it's Europe, it's, it's other parts of the globe.

Speaker 5: 04:22 80% of all movies that were made have been lost forever. It's not just that they're hard to see or they're not. On a nice criteria and disk or on streaming, they are literally gone and no matter how far you travel you will never be able to see them. So from the birth of the art form to the dawn of sound, we've lost four fifths of all of our heritage and so so much has already been lost. We are working to make sure that future generations don't suffer such such problems and that both the history of the cinema from its last hundred and some years and in the future will be something that stays alive in cinema theaters.

Speaker 4: 04:56 And if people are in Los Angeles area, can they actually go in and look through the archives in any sort of ways there any way for them to like appreciate some of the stuff that you have?

Speaker 5: 05:07 Well, very slowly we've been working to put the the collection online in an accessible form. There's also an online form. You can just ask us what we have if you're looking to do research, so you don't necessarily have to come in to look through what we may have a but then if you want to examine things. Yes, we have an onsite uh, public access space, but we also have the material isn't just here, it goes out. So we do loans all over the world. We send out films both on film and digitally to cinema techs to archives, to film festivals and to independent theaters, uh, on a regular basis. So you can see it if you come here, but you can also see it on screen at all of these places, these centers of, of film throughout the country in the world.

Speaker 4: 05:51 And what kind of preservation are you able to do at the academy? Do you actually have people on that are like going through old negatives or cleaning up old prints or things like that?

Speaker 5: 06:02 Absolutely. We're a staff of four who are dedicated to some preservation. That's for people who are doing all the research that builds up to a project, but then are physically looking at the elements to analyze them. Sometimes it's not even clear what they are, whether so many films that have been forgotten, we're just learning what, what the material is in the first place. Other times we start with the title and then have to find the pieces called filmmakers call archives called labs. We physically inspected for its condition. We don't have our own laboratory work on site, so we've worked with both photochemical labs doing, you know, just film to film copying and and for protection and for making the projection prints and then we work with a lot of digital vendors who are specialized in moving image restoration. Then when we have those materials and their best new formats that come back to the archive for protection and to make sure that they're not lost again or never lost in the future.

Speaker 4: 06:51 Do you have any stories of like odd ways that you've gotten film elements? I mean you hear stories of like, Oh yeah, somebody found this film like you know, under their bed or you know, when someone passed away they opened a closet and found like film that had been just stashed. Oh, away there. I was just wondering if you had any personal memories of anything like,

Speaker 5: 07:10 well, we've had all kinds of things. I mean, sometimes we're fortunate that we were connected to a filmmaker or their state and they come to us that way and it's all there. Other times we do a lot of outreach to filmmakers in particular because we're interested in specific areas, say underrepresented forums like documentaries and student films and short films, but also those filmmakers who were nominated for Oscars. And a lot of times we have to look them up and, and, and call them. And I was researching a documentary from the late sixties and the early days of Google, this is maybe 2005 of the Internet and looking people up. I asked him, are you the person who made this film that won an academy award? And I in the late 1960s and he said, I am. I've been sitting here waiting for the day. Someone would call me, I know where the materials are.

Speaker 5: 07:57 And they weren't at an archive. They read a small university in San Jose. You know, we're, we're used to doing this kind of detective work calling certain labs and certain distributors, but I never would have looked for the material there and without just cold calling this, this person hoping it was him, never would have gotten to the actual film elements, which is kind of a key point without finding somewhere to start that survives. If we don't have that film to begin with, no amount of digital technology in the future will, will allow us to do anything. You know, it's not about the power of the computers. We have to have the basis, the physical material to save. And when I spoke to him, I finally had it. Same thing that filmmakers who said it was in my basement and I had a washing machine overflow and the humidity damaged it.

Speaker 5: 08:38 Someone had put it under their bed and not open the box. And when they finally opened the box, they realize the lab had sent them someone else's film from China and it even had an address of the person in China. And the person in China said, no, I never got your film. I don't know why you have mine, but also recently some of those major labs that did high volume work have been have been closing or at least shuttering their film work and just overwhelmed with trying to find people whose accounts go back sometimes 30 40 or 50 years. And I've come to us to bring in these collections that they don't want to throw out, both for good ethical reasons, but also for legal reasons. And then we have to go through this massive amount of sort of abandoned material from the film labs.

Speaker 5: 09:19 And when we do, we can sometimes identify those filmmakers and called him and they say, Geez, I never even thought that I, I left that material there because one of the challenges of making movies is people need to think about how am I going to make the next one? Who's going to fund it? How am I going to get everyone to agree to give me these resources and work with me? And they don't have the time to think. And now what do I do to protect the one I just finished? And that's why we're always doing this detective work to search them out to find these, these last things.

Speaker 4: 09:45 Can I ask which a documentary that was,

Speaker 5: 09:47 that was a documentary called journey into self because we were trying to show, it was called Oscar stocks. We were showing every winning documentary. And the good news is that with the exception of one from the first year, they've got an honorary award, no winning document that we know of has been lost. But many of them were on the edge of being lost and journey into self with something. I don't think at the time we had any copy of which itself is kind of a complicated title because that year you'll see that another film when the Academy Award and was later disqualified. So then journey into self was awarded it then that was uh, one of the rare instances of academy history of that happening. But I was still looking for that gentleman and we didn't have anything on that film.

Speaker 4: 10:26 So how did you get into this work?

Speaker 5: 10:29 Well now there are formal programs for some preservation and film archiving and moving image archiving, which is beyond of course just motion picture film. But when I, when I was in Grad school, there wasn't, I was in Grad School for, for critical studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. My colleague who's now my boss in fact was also at school with me who was a projectionist. And we also had an interest in looking at film, deeper into collections, things that hadn't been digitized and we're just in VHS or, or laser disk at the time. And so we handled a lot of motion picture film and it was my supervisor who, um, sort of moved from academia and to other pursuits and realized that having this background of both studying film history and handling film, that archival work was ideal for it then. Then he later convinced me to try it out as well. So we came in through that background of understanding the physical elements of film, but also having a researchers perspective from critical studies, both of which I think are essential, but it's a fairly new field. So many of us came in through sort of these related areas.

Speaker 4: 11:29 Well, I'll say that I partially got it. I've always been interested in in film and in film preservation, but attending the TCM film festival where they make this real concerted effort to show everything in the highest possible quality that they can and and screening stuff on nitrate and on, you know, brand new 35 millimeter prints. It gave me an greater appreciation of what goes into that. And I, I did want to talk to you specifically about one film that I saw a TCM film festival, which was cock of the air, which was this pre code, this pre code comedy. And they talked about the extensive work you guys did. So I wanted to have you discuss a little bit about the extra mile you went on. This particular film

Speaker 5: 12:19 is one of those titles. As I said, sometimes we have, we know what we're looking for when we start looking for it. No one, almost no one in the world was looking for a cock of the area was forgotten. It was on the edge of being lost. It's sandwiched between Scarface and hell's angels and other high profile films that Howard Hughes produced. And so it just, it wasn't even on those lists of films that are lost and people are looking for. No one even knew about it. And I remember the donor came to us with the material and said, I've got this film that I thought about releasing cause I thought it was PDM. I'm not sure it is, but I, I'm not sure I can really do anything with it. It is nitrate. There's a, I think one of the reels of sound deteriorated. So you've got nine reels of picture and eight reels of sound.

Speaker 5: 13:01 And I said okay, that sounds interesting. I don't know this title. And we started looking into it and it was my colleague Heather Lynnville, she's the one who would have spoke at TCM. She's now and she will, she would be doing this interview with you is she was still here. She took a job at the library of Congress. But I worked with Heather very closely on this project. So that's why I can talk about cock of the air that we looked in. And said, okay, are we missing a real, that's a very common thing. One real goes bad nitrate. When it goes bad, it just eats itself. It deteriorates the it can eat through the candidates in and eat into the can below it. Nitrate film can be very robust if it's properly processed and then stored correctly. But this was our first assumption. There's one less real of sound, so we're missing 10 minutes or so.

Speaker 5: 13:45 A sound and the thought was, well, are there any positive copies around projection copies? When Heather looked at it, she was a little confused and she said this, this soundtrack is not missing a single reel. It's missing little bits all over the place that add up to about 10 minutes. It's not missing one 10 minute, 10 minute chunk and with a little digging again, she went right to our own Margaret Herrick library where we have the, the, the files of the NPA production code. She found out about the battles that Howard Hughes had with trying to get this film approved and the the sort of pre censorship that was going on, although it was sort of just at that time where the code was being developed. So we believe the film may have been finished in its full version and then had to be cut afterwards. So what it looked like we had as a master positive of the uncensored picture and we had these censored audio.

Speaker 5: 14:36 That's why there was 10 minutes missing and not in all one scene, not in wall. One chunk from little places. The reason Heather actually new this is cause she'd done her homework and I don't know if you've seen the cademy closeup. Heather's on there specifically. She mentioned at this moment that one of the censored scenes is a, as the, as the female lead trying to protect herself by wearing a suit of armor and then her pursue or follows with a can opener. And that gag was actually mentioned in some of the reviews and was one of the things that they were forced to cut. And when she saw that winding on a bench. So that image, she said this is the uncensored picture. And we were missing those 10 minutes of audio at different pieces. And as we talked about, we looked everywhere. We didn't want to get into this without saying, okay, we're missing 10 minutes of audio that were censored.

Speaker 5: 15:24 Uh, let's make sure we know everything that exists. There was one 16 copies, 16 millimeter projection copy at the Ucla Film and Television Archive, which is very handy. They're right here in town. Uh, and strangely it was in the collection of the, of Mel Torme May. He had some film there and they lent us that film and it turned out it was the censored version. So we thought, okay, we don't have anything. And then we kept looking. We sent letters to every, every archive, we, all the English language speaking archives, the way you thought it might've been distributed. And then we sent it out to many groups of film archives and archivists through the world and had no hits. No one has yet come up with any copy of this. So we thought, well, okay, we're missing 10 minutes of audio. What do you do? Do you show the censored version?

Speaker 5: 16:07 Well, we'd already had one sort of vote that, that that's the film. Once it was been cut up wasn't necessarily so great anymore. Could we fill in this audio in some other way while we, we kept looking and how they found a script. Oh okay. We've got the dialogue so we could just do subtitles for those pieces and we try to quick video copy where we put, because we want it to be authentic. We said if we don't have the audio we shouldn't be going rerecording things and trying to fake it. That's, that just doesn't sound very authentic and we're worried about that. Heather and some of my other colleagues had some just thought let's try it. So we did the subtitles and having just silence and some texts it came, it felt really flat. Especially for, even though this is early sound, this is a, you know, a comedy, it's very lively and having, you know, cutting to text with no audio just really was clunky.

Speaker 5: 16:56 And then we did a test using, not actors, but our own internal staff, Heather and, and a few other archivists. We pulled in to read the lines. And when you watched it in video with even amateurs reading the lines and nothing else, it was so much easier to view and it made so much more sense and it didn't interfere with your ability to enjoy the film. And you have to think about presentation. These are filmmakers, film artists who made this to be seen by audiences and and they never intended it to be this heavily censored. And we do have some evidence, they had some copies that were sent out in this full version. So we do want to keep that version. We were looking towards it and we're fortunate that someone in the academies, administration had mentioned this to people, someone in the actor's branch and said, we could get some voiceover actors and they would love to help out and do some recording.

Speaker 5: 17:44 And again, as I said, we were very hesitant to jump into recreating this, but a number of factors came to help us. We had the script that Heather found, she kept doing research and she found a score. So we found some music, some, some written music for some of the pieces that were missing from the collection at the University of Las Vegas and Howard Hughes's material. We didn't find the uncensored audio. We were hoping we would, but we found these silver discs that were the master disks for these, the, the sound on disk that went out with early vita film films where there was a, essentially a record playing along with the picture. Uh, and we didn't have the actual records, those large disks. We had the silver stampers that made those disks. So we had to find someone in the world who could capture the master disc without damaging it.

Speaker 5: 18:34 And we didn't find the uncensored audio, but we found one song, a complete performance of a song that was cut. So we have the script, we have a song that fills in the audio in at least in part. We've got some music, we've got a score, and we've got some professional actors who are willing to help out to rerecord this audio. And, and kind of finished the film and, and put it back together again. And the very last thing we thought is we never want people to misunderstand what's been recreated and what's authentic. And so when we were doing this and we were doing it digitally because that was really the only way to do it, we thought, let's put a little icon in the, in the lower corner with it's a little frame of film and with a little scissors, a little drawing that shows that this is a recreated scene.

Speaker 5: 19:16 Now the picture you're seeing that's authentic and that would have been a lot harder or literally impossible to recreate if the picture had been missing. All we could do is just go from the script and write a little descriptive seen and that that would have been, um, very jarring because some of the cuts that are as little as a few lines, some are maybe a few minutes, but there are little pieces all throughout the film. So dropping in the audio worked very smoothly. But our fear was someone in the future would mistake what was restoration and what was recreation's. I would say it should say, and what was original and by we did hesitate because sometimes putting something in suggesting that it's, you know, recreated if you put a little date and a silent film to show that you've, you've just guessing on a title card. Some people say that takes me out of the movie.

Speaker 5: 19:59 But we were very surprised. People loved to see it. Not because they thought it distracted them, but because they were then in on it in on the process of seeing what had been censored, which I have to admit it sometimes puzzling why some things get cut in some things that are left in. So we were worried that people might find that too distracting. But really they were quite interested in seeing, you know, what's, what existed and what had to be recreated. And so I'm glad that that worked out so well that we were able to at least flag, you know, without distracting from the movie flag where we came in and we had to to to take a little bit of a leap and try to recreate it, but that it's still is a viewing experience in the theater that people could enjoy and when to have a problem with,

Speaker 6: 20:42 I would hope would be happy with it. Just looking through the production code files and seen how hard Howard Hughes fought to keep the uncensored version out there and then ultimately had to relent and take out a level material. I would hope that he would be pleased that audiences are seen the version of hockey, the air that he intended audiences to see to see it now in its full glory. It's very exciting and I can't wait for audiences to enjoy it as well. That was a clip

Speaker 4: 21:21 from the academies close up on the restoration of cock of the air with then film preservationist, Heather Lynnville. I'll be back with more of my interview the Joseph Lindner after this short break. And so you did actually get actors who tried to kind of impersonate or mimic the, the voices of the actors who were in the film?

Speaker 5: 21:45 Yes. My understanding is that at some of them were voiceover specialists and some are just actors and I feel like it was someone, uh, there were a couple of, of academy members who are had casting background and they con we didn't in the archive. We, and that's definitely not my background. So we were just so fortunate that there were active people, active members of the academy who wanted to help the archive. But yes, these actors, they, uh, spend some time to hear it. Uh, I think it was a challenge for them. They were very interested in the idea of even if they'd done voiceover or done dubbing of, of themselves, they were working with other actors and lines that weren't familiar to them. So they were looking at the script and looking at these, uh, at the, at the picture and trying to come up with a performance.

Speaker 5: 22:28 And it's good that I think we were never trying to mimic the performance so well that you never could tell. I think you could probably tell that it is a different voice, but again it's, it's close enough that it fills in without distracting you but isn't trying to fake it. You know? There's no computer modulation to people's voice to try to make them sound like the actors. These are new actors and they're doing good performances and again, not making up lines or trying to fill and things we didn't know. We knew the script, we knew the dialogue and we knew how it's sunk. Again, just so fortunate that everything came together that we had so much documentation. I'm the actual, I was saying how the physical film is important, but sometimes you have a piece of film and you know nothing about it. It may be interesting to watch, but you still don't know like when this was shot, why was how it was used and what, why, why they actually filmed it. That's often with the newsreels or home movies, you get some raw footage. It's very exciting, but you want to know more. The whole point is to have the film back in front of audiences as those people, as those original filmmakers wanted it. And so that's the, the, the very last part of our work is when it's unscreened again and that's the most exciting and fulfilling part.

Speaker 4: 23:34 Do you have any personal memories of something that you've worked on that gave you particular satisfaction or that was a particular challenge?

Speaker 5: 23:43 What are the projects? Okay. I can about two projects tend to briefly and their, their bigger projects, not a single film. The academy was involved for a long time in a project for the, the director from India, the Bengali director sat digit ry. The story started it in the 90s. They were giving him an honorary award to him. Uh, and unfortunately he was ill. He received, he, he, he spoke from satellite, from his hospital bed. But it was a huge honor to him. He was very moved, but people started to realize they were trying to put the clips together. And as we were honoring the filmmaker, the films weren't being honored. They were being neglected. They were falling apart. And so there was a big project in the 90s, uh, nine of his feature films were stored by the academy in collaboration with Sony and, uh, the merchant ivory with merchant ivory.

Speaker 5: 24:28 And, and after that we continued on and as part of those initial, um, nine films we did his, some of his most well known work is a trilogy of films called the output trilogy. And a key part of this story, and this was before I actually got involved as that, just as this restoration was starting to happen, some of the elements had been moved to London for our laboratory to make some new films, to get them in distribution, to hope to get this interest in the restoration work. And there was a fire at that laboratory and those six negatives were destroyed. And that was one of the, the, the, the, you know, great tragedies of, of the, of the modern film preservation area is losing the, I mean, this has happened historically, but that happened in the 90s was, was really shocking at the time. All the other pieces from the world were brought together and the Apu trilogy was, was restored, was restored in it with traditional film means to the point where people in India had told me it looked better than it did in Ray's first years when he first made the films.

Speaker 5: 25:24 Fortunately when the fire happened in London, there was this idea, we can't leave these materials even though they're not usable with the technology they had. And frankly, these burned reels were left in our storage area. Kind of ignored because it was a unfortunately a reminder of such a sad time and no one thought there was anything we could do with it. But when criteria and came to us, you know, just a few years ago and said, we need to go back to the APU trilogy, we wanted to restore them and we want clean elements without those subtitles. I said, let's look at those cans. Let's look at those burned cans and see what's left. And the real miracle of that story was that second film. And again, sometimes it's just fortunate how things work. Out of the first film potter Pachale, there was maybe about six reels total that six pieces that were long and usable.

Speaker 5: 26:11 For the last film there was only three, but for that middle one, at least 60% of the of the movie was salvageable. From that original negative, once you took off the chart, melted pieces around the edges. Now it was badly damaged, it was warped, it was shrunken and it had all kinds of other issues. But we took it to the one lab in the world that has specialized in rehydrating and scanning the most difficult damaged film. Lots of other people can do it well, but [inaudible] rich Trovata in Velonia scanned this film even though sometimes it had no Perth left and it was warped and shrunk, you know, still smelled like, um, had that smell of burnt film, that ashy smell and that blue ray set those, those DCPS existed and they can be shown and the miracle, the Apu trilogy literally writing from the flames.

Speaker 5: 27:03 That's one of my, uh, you know, one of the more exciting story, another larger project is of course a project we've had with Cuba. The academy had had members who went to Havana to go to the Cuban film festival as part of the international outreach, uh, committees work to talk to people in, in different parts of the world, different film industries, to speak film artists to film artist. And fortunately, someone along the line said, okay, why don't we also think about film preservation? So I got to go to Havana in 2011 and started a conversation thing. We'd love to see some Cuban films preserved. The high humidity has meant that so many of their films are damaged in that risk. And um, we were able to bring in two films by a director named Tomas Gutierrez. The layer who is, has, hasn't it kind of connection to the academy because he, coke co-directed the only Cuban film to be nominated for an academy award, strawberries and chocolate.

Speaker 5: 27:52 And in the 90s, that's been really rewarding. And it led to us to do a new project. We're hoping to do two more films that will be Cuban feature films that we'll debut later this year. And if people are interested in what you're doing, what's the best place for them to go with your website or, that's a good question. I know that the academy film archive has a part of the oscars.org. A good place to start as Oscar's dot org, which shows all of the, the uh, activities of the academy, both the, the Academy of Motion, Picture Arts and sciences, and then all of our foundation works. So the library, the museum and the archives, I'll have pages on there. Uh, we have collection profiles that tend to highlight in, in some more detail specific collections in the, in the film archive, including things by filmmaker or studios or subjects. There's one on home movies, there's one on the collection of Roger Corman films. We have, um, on the silent collection on nitrates. I think the, the web page is a good place to start for them.

Speaker 1: 28:57 That was Joseph Lindner preservation officer at the academy film Archive. If you're in San Diego, you can see the academy's restored print of Cock of the air May 5th at 1:00 PM at digital. Jim Cinema. Thanks again for listening to the podcast cinema junky. We'll be back with some real scientists talking about movie science. So till our next film fix on death, like a Mondo, your residents cinema chunky

Speaker 7: 30:00 only here as a new KPBS podcast about the place where San Diego and Tijuana meet at six years old says, oh, I'm going to go to America tonight. Only here till stories you would only find in a border town. He can make a Frankenstein. Drones find only here on apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place