Memory, Images, History
Monday, April 12, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
When I discovered film history as a sophomore in college, the first thing I did was to start collecting. Not objects on paper or celluloid that are the Grail of film collectors, but rather filmographic information. I used 6 x 9 index cards to create lists of directors and their work, then marked the cards, when I saw the films. This was, of course, long before IMDb, and even before there were many reference works. I would spend hours in the library, copying data from far flung sources. There was a certain comfort in collecting data, in organizing information, in cross-referencing, in short, in managing the world through the fetish of data control.
Collecting filmographic information later became a part of my academic life. My dissertation included an appendix that was several hundred pages long, constituting a filmography of German Jewish refuges to Hollywood, which was published as a separate volume. A book on photographers and avant-garde film also featured an extensive filmography. As in other cases, I felt I had to conduct this basic research, because of a lack of reference sources. But now I wonder, whether that research work wasn’t possibly an excuse for pleasure, for justifying the expenditure of an extensive amount of time and energy in the act of satisfying a desire to neatly order my world.
I have always been sympathetic to collectors, as indicated in my remarks about Cinefest above, but I have never actually been a film collector or a collector of movie memorabilia. Through my archival work I have engaged in a dialogue with collectors, learning to appreciate not only their achievement in preserving many, many films and much material culture which would not have otherwise survived, given the film industry’s long-standing neglect of its own history, the fragility of the media involved, and the lack of cultural capital movies suffered from for much of the medium’s existence.
And yet, when I started in the film archiving field, relations with film collectors were frowned upon by the archival community. MOMA in particular, but also many European colleagues considered it treason to befriend collectors, who were allegedly responsible for destroying priceless originals with every screening. I felt it was better to cultivate collectors, inviting them to partner in the grand project of film preservation. I started going to Cinefest and other collectors’ conventions and talking to collectors.
Whether they collect 16mm films of Tom Mix or 8mm cartoons, or 70mm Hollywood epics, or sci-fi 1 sheet posters or any images, likenesses, representations of Marilyn Monroe, collectors are passionate about their avocation. That is their strength. Their passion fuels their expertise. Many are more knowledgeable about their collecting focus than most film historians/archivists.
I remember sitting in Marty Scorsese’s office after he had amassed a huge film collection of his favorite films, and after he had founded The Film Foundation. The collection is the product of a youth spent in movie theaters. Recalling a Technicolor sequence in minute detail from a film we were preserving in black & white, he mentioned not having seen it in decades; we found the color sequence and included it in our restoration. Was Mr. Scorsese collecting to preserve films or his youth?
I’ve been asked by laypersons about investments in the film memorabilia market, and have always discouraged “investors.” Most collectors are only marginally concerned with the market. They are collecting out of passion, not to turn a profit. They will never “lose” money in the market. But I’ve seen speculators with significant deficits, because the “market” is fickle and unpredictable, prices fluctuating wildly, for no other reason than the attendance of rival collectors at the same auction. Much more so than in the fine arts, prices depend on time-based fashion and generational shifts of active collectors.
I only really started “collecting” myself a decade ago. Indeed, I wasn’t even aware I was collecting. I just started buying 33 rpm vinyl records of all the progressive rock groups I was enamored with in my teens and twenties, because I could find them in second-hand record shops for practically nothing. Then I started making lists…
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
Not many people would go to Syracuse, N.Y, in the dead of winter, but for cinephiles who love old movies, Cinefest is the place to be.
Leonard Maltin has been a regular for years, as have David Sheppard (Blackhawk Films) and numerous film archivists. Cinefest is a convention of film collectors, which includes a market for film memorabilia and 16mm film screenings at a local hotel from 9 AM to 12:30 AM, as well as 35mm screenings in a local cinema. Almost none of the films are available on television or video.
Some of the highlights of this year’s program included: THE VALIANT (1929), starring Paul Muni, directed by William K. Howard. A very sweet little melodrama by Frank Borzage, LIFE'S HARMONY (1916), which is one of his earliest films, but instantly recognizable as a Borzage in its focus on family life. CONRAD IN QUEST OF HIS YOUTH (1920), directed by William DeMille. Less well-known that his younger brother, Cecil, William's films have always struck me as very quiet, understated narratives (unlike Cecil), and this film was no exception. With virtually no plot, the film follows a war vet trying to recapture memories of his youth.
HUMAN HEARTS (1922), a typical rural melodrama from Universal, was directed by King Baggot. The story of a “bad” city girl vamp and honest country blacksmith was predictable, but the acting was good. A TALE OF TWO WORLDS (1921), starring Wallace Beery as a Chinese heavy in yellow face, featured Leatrice Joy in a Chinatown tale of miscegenation, with lots of racial stereotypes, of course. LITTLE CHURCH AROUND THE CORNER (1923, WB), about a mining town clergyman who mediates between capital (Hobart Bosworth) and labor. I wouldn't be surprised if Thea von Harbou saw the film before writing METROPOLIS. AREN”T PARENTS PEOPLE? (1925), a comedy of “remarriage” as Gerald Mast has called similar films from the 1930s, directed by Mal St. Clair, starred the wonderfully droll Adolphe Menjou
A "fake" Republic serial, CAPTAIN CELLULOID VS. THE FILM PIRATES (1962-68), shot on weekends with non-synch sound by a group of amateurs, including the late William K. Everson. LIFE RETURNS (1934): directed by Eugene Frenke, the film was a very weird but interesting hybrid, which took as its starting point a medical documentary about the first experiments to resuscitate a dog that was clinically dead, then created a feature length narrative around it about a father who neglects his son. A very early talkie from Tiffany Studios, PEACOCK ALLEY (1930), starring Mae Murray in one of her last films. No longer the dynamo of THE MERRY WIDOW, she’s a bit over-the-hill and having problems talking and acting at the same time. By the end of day two, I’d seen 15 features, 1/2 a serial and a couple of shorts, none made after 1950.
The 35mm program on Saturday in Rome at the Capitol Theatre, built in 1928, began with THE GRASP OF GREED (1916). The continuity, unfortunately, was somewhat confused, because of major decomposition, but the film did feature Lon Chaney in a very early bit part, doing a jig. EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1927, Allan Dwan), starring George O’Brien, was a lively melodrama that shuttles between New York’s Jewish and poor lower East Side and the rich, WASP West Side. The story involves an inter-ethnic romance, but the ladies in the audience couldn’t get over how much beefcake O’Brien sported here, coming as it did shortly after his nude photos were published.
PLEASURE BEFORE BUSINESS was a Columbia feature, starring Max Davidson, one of the great under-rated comedians in one of his few features; another Jewish-themed film. Next was THE IRON MULE, a screamingly funny comedy short of the first railroad, starring Al St. John and featuring an uncredited Buster Keaton as an Indian chief. Finally, ROARING RAILS (1924) was an independent modern western, starring Harry Carey who brings a French orphan back to America after World War II. Carey who of course had been a big star a decade earlier in John Ford westerns, demonstrates why his star career was coming to a halt.
While the 35mm films have been preserved at film archives, such as the Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House, and Library of Congress, the 16mm program came almost exclusively from film collectors, who have made a major contribution towards saving films that otherwise don’t exist in Archives or at the studios. Increasingly, archives have been working with collectors to preserve these priceless treasures.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
This week I had the pleasure of meeting Jamaa Fanaka in Hollywood when he paid me a visit, because he had agreed to put his films on deposit at UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Jamaa is an African-American filmmaker in Los Angeles, who directed the hugely successful Penitentiary (1979), followed by Penitentiary II (1982) and III (1987). Like his earlier features, Emma Mae (1976) aka Black Sister’s Revenge and Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975) aka Soul Vengence, Fanaka’s films play with the conventions of “Blaxploitation,” while simultaneously commenting on the genre in a highly self-reflexive genre.
The term “Blaxploitation” was originally dreamed up by Variety for a wave of Hollywood films with all-black casts, often centered on crime, drugs, and prostitution that began with Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Gordon Park’s Shaft (1971). During the 1970s, Hollywood produced more that seventy Blaxploitation films, many directed by black directors, and therefore a genuine expression of African-American popular culture. But there were also many “pimps n hoes” quickies, shot in the Philippines.
Ironically, Jamaa Fanaka belonged to a unique group of African-American film students at UCLA in the 1970s and early 1980s that film historian Clyde Taylor has labeled the “L.A. Rebellion,” because they specifically reacted against mainstream Hollywood cinema’s hijacking of African-American life to create a stereotyped and largely negative cinematic image. Indeed, the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers identified themselves as the first sustained and geographically specific effort in the United States by a group of black film artists working with a common purpose to forge a cinema practice that would be responsive to the lives and concerns of African American communities and the African diaspora. The most prominent of the group are Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Ben Caldwell, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin, Jacqueline Frazier, Barbara McCullough, Zeinabu Irene Davis, and Carroll Parrott Blue.
Surprisingly, neither UCLA Film & Television Archive nor the film school had ever attempted to stay in touch with or collect the films of this group of filmmakers, nor had there been any sustained attempt at historisizing the “movement.” Only a few isolated film titles had entered into the Archive.
In 2009, we decided to change that and begin a truly holistic research and preservation project, by bringing the “L.A. Rebellion” home.
It is the first time the Archive is not waiting passively for films and television to “walk in the door”, but rather is going out and saving a specific group of films we believe are important. We have assembled a team of scholars, filmmakers and professionals to research existing film and paper collections in libraries and archives; conduct and capture oral histories with participating filmmakers; collect film elements for conservation, restoration and exhibition; collect paper documents from filmmakers for the special collections library; publish a book which will contextualize the L.A. Rebellion and frame it in relation to its time period and parallel developments in film and the arts; strike many new prints for a massive retrospective exhibition in Fall 2011. We have received initial funding from the Getty Foundation, since the “L. A. Rebellion” film exhibition will be screened in the context of the Los Angeles wide art exhibition, “Pacific Standard Time.”
I first talked to Jamaa last Fall on the phone and then began an email correspondence, when I became “a friend for life.” When the sixty-something filmmaker arrived at the Archive last Monday, he had a lovely young women on each arm and appeared to be totally in his element. They were Professors Jacqueline Stewart and Allyson Field, two co-curators on the L.A. Rebellion project, who had met Jamaa previously at Roscoe’s Waffles ‘n’ Chicken. Interestingly, like so many of his film school colleagues, Fanaka had financed his films independently and thus knew where his pre-print elements (negatives) were stored, something many mainstream director’s don’t know. So Jamma’s main concern was that UCLA would not only store the films, but actually restore them, the way we have previously restored Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977). Happily, Jamaa Fanaka’s films constitute the first collection to be placed in the Archive.
Given the fact that we have now identified more than fifty different individuals in the L.A. Rebellion, our journey (and our fund-raising!) have only just begun.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
As we enter into the second decade of the new millenium, moving image archives have taken a few more steps towards complete professionalization by establishing formal training programs for moving image archivists. Not surprisingly, the major impetus for the yearly Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) conference had originally been the real need for training and the professional exchange of archival methodologies and practices for moving image preservation. Thus, the second official AMIA conference instituted workshops where older colleagues spoke to novices and younger colleagues, a sort of moving image archiving 101.
Beginning in the mid 1990s, then, film archives in connection with universities began for the first time to offer professional training courses for moving image archivists. One of the first programs in Europe was founded as an M.A. in Film Archiving at the University of East Anglia in England. The Selznick School at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., was established in 1997 as a one-year non-academic certificate program. The school now offers a Master’s Degree in conjunction with the University of Rochester. The first graduate degree program in Moving Image Archives Studies was established at UCLA in 2002, followed a year later by New York University’s Moving Image Archive Program.
These formal training programs which incorporate theoretical and research oriented studies with real world archive internships, move beyond the autodidactic approach that previously characterized training in the field. Many individuals presently working in moving image archiving and preservation have received on the job training and little else. I may be one of the few archivists of my generation to actually receive a semi-formal training in moving image archiving. In 1975-76, I spent a year at George Eastman House as a postgraduate intern, funded by a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship program for Museum studies.
Now a young generation of academically-trained moving image archivists and curators is rapidly moving into the field. Most entry level positions in this still expanding field of moving image archiving are now filled by graduates from the above programs, as well as others established at the University of Amsterdam, in Germany, Italy, the University of Texas Austin, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Just this last week, my alma mater, George Eastman House, where I was the institution’s third curator, named Dr. Caroline Frick as its 6th curator of film. She is the first graduate of a film archive M.A. program to ascend to a leadership role in a major American archive.
These academic programs are important, however, not only to train film archivists, but also to establish methodologies and best practices. We have to remember that despite decades of practical work, moving image archival practice has until quite recently been based on nothing more than an informal set of anecdotally communicated “recommendations.” Few standards had been theorized or codified, even fewer practices had been formalized in a program of action. Most of what we call archival ethics and theory had been borrowed from other fields, whether the library and information sciences or curatorial practices in museums. AMIA’s founding in 2001 of an official journal, The Moving Image, began to change that, as over the last decade it has built up a body of literature on many aspects of archival theory for moving images.
Numerous contributions to The Moving Image originate at one of the academic institutions involved in the field. It is a project that must continue, if the field hopes to produce competent professionals, yet one that cannot be completed by working archivists alone. In fact, the establishment of codes and practices for moving image preservation, whether in the analogue or digital realm, must be conceived as a huge, collaborative project between working professionals, professors in academic programs, and students. By questioning informally established procedures, students force both working professionals and professors to explicate and rationalize their current use. Documenting these types of discussions in protocols, student papers, and formal academic articles will create a body of knowledge for moving image archive professionals and hopefully engender better technologies and methodologies for saving our visual heritage.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Blog posting written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
While the NEA discontinued funding moving image archives in the early 1990s, other organizations took up the challenge. As early as the late 1980s, the American Film Institute’s campaign “Nitrate Won’t Wait” had increased public consciousness about the need to save and preserve the precious moving image heritage. Through theNational Film Preservation Act of 1988, Congress established a National Film Preservation Board and created a National Film Registry (25 titles are added each year by the Librarian of Congress), which identified ‘National film treasures”. The initial impetus for the Act was the concern over the commercial treatment of classic films, including re-editing to fit television time slots, panning and scanning to fit the tv screen, and electronic colorization of black and white materials.
The National Film Preservation Board consists of appointed representatives from virtually all of the medium’s professional organizations, including the Society of Cinema and Media Studies, the Screen Actor’s Guild, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and the National Society of Film Critics. The reauthorization of the Board in 1992 asked the Library of Congress to complete a study of the state of film preservation, Film Preservation 1993, which in turn led to the Founding of the National Film Preservation Foundation in 1999.
The NFPF is now funding film preservation projects at a national level, both through direct government monies and grants from private foundations and companies. While the National Film Registry’s titles are overwhelmingly culled from mainstream Hollywood’s output, the NFPF mandate is to fund only so-called orphan films, i.e. films which were never copyrighted or have entered the public domain. As a result, many previously marginalized films and film genres, including amateur films, industrials, educational films, medical films, avant-garde, and silent films are now being preserved.
The 1990s also saw a number of private foundations become involved in the preservation of films, including The Film Foundation (TFF, founded by Martin Scorsese and other film directors in 1992), and the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI), both of whom have shown a preference for classic Hollywood cinema, although TFF supports avant-garde film preservation through the NFPF, and PHI has funded the preservation of third world titles. Meanwhile, the major film studios, including Sony Entertainment, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Universal have redoubled their own preservation efforts, at least of materials on which they own copyright or which they are planning to re-release in digital formats.
In 1997, the Librarian of Congress commissioned another study to look at the state of television preservation, Television and Video Preservation 1997. A Report on the Current State of American Television and Video Preservation. Seven years later, the National Television and Video Preservation Foundation was finally established in 2004, albeit without the participation of Congress or the Library of Congress, which had initially funded the NFPF. Instead, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and Jim Lindner, a video preservationist, have made initial cash donations, while video laboratories have offered in-kind services. The National Television and Video Preservation Foundation (NTVPF) has secured preservation services from preservation sponsors which has lead to the preservation of ca. 35 titles. (to be continued...)