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.