Memory, Images, History
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Blog posting written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
Last week the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) met in St. Louis for their 19th annual conference. Despite dire predictions that the economy would drive down attendance, attendees flocked to the “gateway to the West.” Founded in 1990, AMIA this year saw over 450 film, television, and digital media archivists from the private and public sector, laboratory specialists, vendors, and a healthy dose of students in moving image archive programs at UCLA, NYU, Rochester, and Texas Austin, all hoping to learn from practitioners and make contacts for future employment.
The pre-conference kickoff is called “The Reel Thing,” a day technical symposium, where the newest methodologies of media preservation are introduced by an international group of speakers in powerpoint, before the actual results are shown. The day started with a talk about the restoration of a Cyd Charisse NBC-TV special on 2” quad videotape from 1959. Given that neither VTR machines, nor handbooks exist any longer, preservationists had to rebuild the machinery to read and transfer these rare images to digital. Another equally complicated preservation involved Quadraphonic stereo sound in Ken Russell’s Tommy, the only film ever to use that technology. The trick was how to convert the sound to modern quintaphonic sound, a process that took over 100 hours of work. Another presentation discussed a survey of 60 million media elements in a named studio library, which found statistically significant amounts of decomposition in polyester sound and film elements. This was somewhat surprising, given the fact that the industry has been telling the field for at least fifteen years that polyester would last forever, in contrast to nitrate and acetate, which decompose.
The greatest change this year is the number of panels dedicated to issues of digitization, digital asset management, born digital media, etc. More than half of the twenty-six sessions dealt exclusively with digital issues, while at least another quarter involved digital media at some level. Only five years ago, the digital occupied only a handful of panels.
Not surprisingly, then, a plenary session on analogue media archives and the digital future opened the official conference. One of the most interesting ideas in that plenary was the notion that we can no longer think of the archive as an endpoint, where moving image media goes to die (or lie dormant), with archivists as gatekeepers, allowing individual users to reanimate the corpses. Rather, once a significant amount of content is digitized and on line, the archive becomes a point of origin for all future work with those images, the archive constantly morphing as users discover, create, propagate new meanings through remix. In a digital world, the archive is the content, the medium also the message, i.e. archives have in the words of my colleague, Leah Lievrouw, become performative, making and enabling the production of culture.
Just how the internet archive has changed the ground rules was demonstrated by a panel on advertising films. Many commercials are now going to the internet for an afterlife, once their immediate commercial utilization has passed. Indeed, many well-known directors, like Spike Jonz, Michael Bay, David Fincher, and Ridley Scott have set up websites to advertise their work. These ads then get circulated through the web by fans who are not interested in the products anymore, but rather in the auteurs hawking them or in their cultish content.
The traditional archival screening night, held at the Tivoli Theatre, a neighborhood theatre turned art house in the St. Louis Blueberry Hill district (yes of Chuck Berry fame), was again a highlight. No less than 23 archives presented 3-5 minute clips of new moving image preservation work. My personal favorites: Julia Child making French onion soup on the Dick Cavett show with a blow torch, a Bobcat Co. promo with a Bobcat operator dancing opposite a go-go dancer, and a tape from a sexual fantasy party sponsored by the N.O.W. Conference on Sexuality in 1973. The weird and the profane collide, as bits of popular culture enter the archive, hopefully to be recirculated in a never-ending digital remix.
Monday, November 2, 2009
A few days ago I spoke at a memorial for George Bluestone, who was my one of my mentors and a life-long friend. We first met in fall 1973, when I was a freshly matriculated graduate film student at Boston University. George was well-known for his book, Novels into Film, which has remained in continuous print since 1957; an accomplishment matched by only a handful of film books. Looking over my notes from that time, I was struck most of all by George’s intensely humanistic perspective, and the intellectual breath and depth of his thinking about film.
In a lecture in my first seminar, “Religion in the Cinema,” George drew an arch from Milton, Dante and American transcendentalist poetry, to Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman, from the world of absolute certainty about the existence of an all-powerful deity to a vision of modernity and ambiguity, in which god’s existence was unknowable. But George could also move from the sacred to the profane with amazing rapidity and humor. In a seminar on sex in the cinema, Bluestone explicated Gerald Damiano’s theatrical porn film, The Devil in Miss Jones (USA 1973), in terms of Catholic notions of sin and redemption and Jean-Paul Satre’s existentialism in “No Exit.” Such a discussion may seem commonplace today, given “Porn Studies” after Linda Williams, but in the early 1970s it was nothing short of revolutionary. For George there were no taboos to intellectual inquiry and no limits to his generosity in sharing ideas.
Writing my remarks on the plane to Boston, I remembered my other mentor, named George. For over thirty years, George Pratt worked quietly and diligently at George Eastman House, collecting precious materials, saving bits of data which at one time seemed important to only a few isolated scholars and archivists, but now constitute a major, historical collection. For all those who came to do research at Eastman House, or wrote to him, George opened his files, generously, humbly, completely.
I first met George as a post-graduate intern at Eastman House in 1975. At the time, he was Associate Curator, responsible for all the non-film collections. He had just published Spellbound in Darkness, a compilation of reviews and documents from the silent era. . Although in his introduction he stated that "My comments simply bind the chapters together", his remarks in fact constituted an intelligent, informative, highly original, and self-reflexive history of silent cinema. George was always too modest. But his life work was a compilation of filmographic data from the silent period, much of which flowed into the American Film Institute Feature Film Catalogue, thus creating a basis for all subsequent film archival work. George died in 1988, after I had become his successor at Eastman House.
My first mentor was Gerald Barrett, the professor of record for all my film courses as an undergraduate. In winter 1971, he taught a non-credit seminar on Sergei Eisenstein, a tough entré into cinephilia. Yet, I realized almost intuitively, that, unlike my majors, History and English, cinema studies was indeed terra incognita. I was hooked. I took a couple more film courses with Gerry, including an independent study on classical film theory when no other film courses were to be found, and started writing film reviews for the student paper. Barrett was involved in Literature/Film Quarterly, but unfortunately eventually left the field, ABD, having published three excellent film monographs on literary adaptations of works by Ambrose Bierce and Conrad Aiken, and on Stan Brakhage. Apart from introducing me to the field, I owe my interest in American avant-garde cinema to Barrett.
Finally, I have to acknowledge my debt to two other mentors, Evan Cameron and Marshall Deutelbaum. Cameron was my advisor at Boston University for my master’s thesis on “Ernst Lubitsch and the Rise of UFA,” later finishing his career as Department Chair at York University. More importantly, he first suggested I write about film preservation for his film production methodology seminar and eventually recommended me for my internship at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Equally at home in the fields of mathematics, Kantian philosophy, and film studies, Evan taught me rigorous thinking and writing. Marshall Deutelbaum, who is an Emeritus Professor at Purdue University, was Assistant Curator at Eastman House during my internship. He demonstrated to me that you could be both an academic and an archivist, preserve films and produce film history through critical writing.
Over the past thirty plus years I have done just that.