Wild Guitar (1962)
By Peter Conheim
Reading time 4 Minutes
The father and son team of Fairway Productions – Arch Hall Sr. and Jr. – cranked out a handful of uniquely off-kilter low-budget pictures between 1961 and 1965. And although their equally off-kilter friend, Ray Dennis Steckler, directed Wild Guitar, it is seemingly the straightest and most user-friendly of their entire output.
That veneer is a ruse, of course, because underneath it is an exuberance of barely-restrained absurd fantasy that is pure Steckler, and a kind of nutty energy almost totally absent in every other Fairway production (aside from their masterpiece, The Sadist).
The Restorationists were extremely fortunate to be able to restore Wild Guitar from its original 35mm camera negative (as compared to Fairway’s The Sadist, the negative of which is long lost). And the film benefits from having been co-lensed by Vilmos Zsigmond, the to-be-legendary cinematographer who would go on to a stunning Hollywood career, shooting McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Deliverance (1972), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and countless more. To our great surprise, the picture negative was in extremely good shape. Having not been physically handled much during its lifetime, it required only a minimal amount of repairs, and very little digital correction.
Where Wild Guitar really turned out to be problematic, from a restoration standpoint, was its soundtrack: As is often the case with material such as this, all that survived was the finished sound mix on an optical film negative – no tapes or separate tracks of any kind exist. As soon as the sound material was transferred to digital, it was clear that it had been the victim of mediocre lab work at the time, and the sound had continuous, severe distortion and noise at any moment where the volume rose above the level of spoken room dialogue. For a film based largely around musical numbers – which can’t be isolated from the other sound tracks – this presented a problem.
Because this distortion was “baked in” to the original sound negative in 1962, every single print of the film which ever existed had to be made to somehow compensate for the deficiency. This was accomplished by essentially eliminating the higher frequencies (i.e. the treble end) and more or less turning the soundtrack into mud. But contemporary filtering tools have improved so significantly in 50-plus years, in the digital domain, that we were able to do multiple passes and almost completely eliminate the horrible noise, yet still maintain most of the top end/brightness of the sound.
As a result, audiences have a chance to hear the soundtrack more or less as intended, for the first time. It is also presented in its correct 1.66:1 widescreen ratio for the first time on video.
Peter Conheim is a film curator and preservationist based in El Cerrito, California. He is also the co-founder of the performing group Wet Gate, which uses only “found footage” and 16mm film projectors to create a live cinema collage, sampling the sound from the film tracks in real time, as well as Mono Pause, a long-running “Situationist rock” group (and its Southeast Asian music spin-off, Neung Phak) and a member of “culture jamming” legends Negativland. His Cinema Preservation Alliance non-profit organization is dedicated to the long-term survival of endangered motion pictures of all stripes.