Minds of UW Tacoma on Eyes of the Totem

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UW Tacoma faculty, staff and alumni are involved in an amazing film restoration project that is bringing the 1927 silent film Eyes of the Totem back from obscurity.

Eyes of the Totem Resources

(Above: Mick Flaaen, '15, holds a reprint of an original Eyes of the Totem poster under the watchful guise of some wall art in Metro Coffee on the UW Tacoma campus. Photo by Cody Char.)

Once upon a time, on a Tacoma beach long ago, a film studio sprang up, brought three films into the world, and then shut down. After their initial runs, the three films faded into obscurity, and were presumed lost.

Then, one day in 2014, one of those films, Eyes of the Totem (1927), was miraculously rediscovered. The spirits of the pre-talkie past were given voice once again as aficionados and film mavens jumped at the chance to bring this priceless glimpse of 1920s Tacoma back to the screen.

Tacoma being the tight-knit community that it is, it’s hard to imagine a project of this sort coming to life without the involvement of UW Tacoma people. As it turns out, there are lots of connections between the campus and the film. Here are a few.

Michael Sullivan, Stephanie Stebich

Michael Sullivan has been a history lecturer at UW Tacoma for many years, which is not surprising given his reputation as a leading urban historian of the Pacific Northwest. He got involved with the Eyes of the Totem project shortly after the City of Tacoma historic preservation coordinator Lauren Hoogkamer rediscovered the film in the archives at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (a tale of detective work itself--see the video below for the story).

When Hoogkamer confirmed Eyes of the Totem existed at MOMA, she learned it wasn’t on their priority list for restoration. It might be years, and it would take $40,000. She called Sullivan, and Sullivan called Stephanie Stebich, the executive director of the Tacoma Art Museum and a member of the UW Tacoma Urban Studies Advisory Board.

Stebich knew MOMA’s executive director, Glenn Lowry. She called him, and, soon enough, MOMA archivists agreed to fast-track their work on the film for one-tenth the cost.

Davenport Publishes Tacoma Theater History Book

Kim Davenport, UW Tacoma lecturer, has her own connection to Eyes of the Totem. She is the author of Tacoma’s Theater District, just published by Arcadia Press as part of its “Images of America” series, and available through the University Book Store. The Rialto Theater will host Davenport for a book signing on Sept. 20 at 1 p.m., prior to the screening of Eyes of the Totem.

Mick Flaaen

Michael Sullivan knew there was someone who should be pulled into the film restoration project: Mick Flaaen, local filmmaker, actor and UW Tacoma alumnus (’15, Arts, Media and Culture). Mick had gotten a video production degree from Clover Park Technical College before transferring to UW Tacoma’s film studies program. He immersed himself in the local filmmaking community and inevitably started hearing about the silent-era film studio, H.C. Weaver Productions, that was built on Titlow Beach—the largest studio in the United States outside Hollywood at the time.

The Weaver studio produced at least three films in Tacoma, including Eyes of the Totem, and then went out of business as sound swept in and changed everything in the industry. Now that one of those films had been found and could be restored, local film mavens like Sullivan, Hoogkamp and Flaaen knew they had to make sure the film would be seen by the world.

Sullivan called Flaaen and told him he had to be involved in the revival of the film. For Flaaen, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “I pinch myself every day,” he says. He became one of the leaders of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the restoration, which garnered $27,187 (exceeding its $25K goal) from almost 400 supporters.

Detail of a reprint of a poster advertising Eyes of the Totem, calling it "the picture you've been waiting for".Flaaen is making a documentary of the Eyes of the Totem restoration project. He notes that the project team has had intense discussions about some issues unique to silent films. One in particular is the frame rate at which the revived film should be shown. Pre-sound, there was not necessarily a standard frame rate at which films were shot or projected. Later, when standard frame rates were introduced and silent films appeared on television, the films were often shown at a frame rate different from that at which they were made. Generations of film-watchers have become accustomed to seeing silent films with the action displaying at a different pace than may have been the original intent.

Flaaen says Eyes of the Totem will be projected during its Tacoma re-premier screenings at a rate that should cause the action to appear closer to a natural speed.

And then there is the matter of the titular object—the totem pole: the very same 110-year-old, 80-foot-tall pole that today stands in Tacoma’s Fireman’s Park. It was the subject of much discussion in 2013 when it was found to be rotting. Ultimately it was restored and has remained in place.

Flaaen says the pole itself, although it features prominently in the film, is not portrayed in a sinister way. It is merely a trigger for the dramatic action that ensues.

Possibly more problematic is the film’s portrayal of Chinese people, Flaaen says. Following the prevalent cultural views of the day (the federal Chinese Exclusion Act wasn’t repealed until 1942), the film depicts Chinese areas of Tacoma and Chinese people in ways that may make people uncomfortable today. “The film is not politically correct by today’s standards,” Flaaen noted.

Joanne Clarke Dillman, Jennifer Myers

Joanne Clarke Dillman, UW Tacoma lecturerDrs. Dillman and Myers are both lecturers at UW Tacoma, teaching film studies. They both were involved in the Kickstarter project that raised money to support the restoration of Eyes of the Totem, but perhaps their biggest contributions to the film’s revival are yet to come.

Both plan to incorporate the film in courses they are teaching during the upcoming academic year at UW Tacoma. They hope to actually show the film in class, although that may depend on whether the film becomes available on DVD.

Mick Flaaen notes that a DVD is in the works, but may require more fundraising to make it possible.

Jennifer Myers, UW Tacoma lecturerHe is ecstatic that Dillman and Myers are planning to include Eyes of the Totem in their teaching. “This is the connection that everyone hoped for,” he said, referring to the team that worked on the restoration of the film.

Claudia Gorbman

Dr. Gorbman just retired after 25 years at UW Tacoma. She was one of the original 13 faculty members hired at the founding of the university. As a professor of film studies, she gained widespread admiration for her pathbreaking critical analysis of music in film, published as Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music, now out of print although Gorbman plans a revised edition in the near future.

Claudia Gorbman, emeritus professor of film studiesWidely considered one of the leading film scholars in Tacoma, Gorbman's involvement in Eyes of the Totem restoration project was inevitable. She will share her thoughts on the film and her deep knowledge of its context in silent-era history during a presentation, entitled “Suffering Heroines and Leering Villains: Eyes of the Totem and Silent Movie Melodrama,” on September 20, just after one of the re-premiere weekend screenings of the film at the Rialto Theater.  (Read a profile of Gorbman here.)

Gorbman says Eyes of the Totem is well done as a silent film.

“A lot of silent films were made in relative haste compared to sound movies. There are lots of holes in the plot. … But, it’s a pretty darn competent movie.”

She has several favorite moments in the film. “I love the boarding house of petty criminals and beggars led by a Ma Kettle-type tough spinster woman. There are a couple of shots that show all these misfits: I think there’s a dwarf, and a very tall guy—there’s just a marvelous collection of eccentric types.

“I love the point-of-view shots as Mariam is sitting at her bench where she begs under the totem. You really get this amazing pang in your soul as the POV shots show her seeing her own daughter, who doesn’t recognize her.

“And I love the shot of the girls at their exclusive girls’ school—which is the Annie Wright School! You’re seeing them all do their dance exercises—it looks so ‘20s, it’s marvelous.”

(Read a longer version of the interview with Gorbman about Eyes of the Totem here.)

Written by: 
John Burkhardt / September 11, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu