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Memory, Images, History

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 5:25AM   |  14 comments
still from The Nice: Five Bridges Suite (1970)

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… 

 


14 Comments

Interesting post on collecting. I wonder what can be done to foster more of a relationship between collectors and institutions? Also, did you save all of those index cards of directors? Do you still have hard files and notes on films and filmmakers? I wonder if there is a place for these things in a world with IMDb and immediate access to data at our fingertips with the internet. It seems there is still a large amount of strong context and criticism missing from even classic films that is hard to come by even with sophisticated searching online...

I think the relationship beteen collectors and archves has improved significantly over the last 20 years. While there are excptions, most archivists now realize the value of the work done by colectors and many work with them to preserve films.

Yes, I still have my note cards and my notebooks in which I used to write abut every film I saw as a student. It is true that depie a wealthof material on the net, if you dig deeper, you usually don't find anythng or not enough. Senses of Cinema has a great site with lots of in depth film analyses, but the reviewer comments on IMDb have limited value. Like all user driven sites, the information there is only as good as the paper and original sources used by those uploading information. Nevertheless, I find the web a blessing for quick information.

Thank you for writing this post. I had some thoughts as I read.......

I personally began loving movies when I was young. My parents would watch a film with me on Friday nights, so movies equaled family. During the holidays, I watched the same Christmas movies, and during summers, I watched the same summer movies. Movies became more than the pieces themselves, but they became a connection between the film and an experience in the world or a memory. Oftentimes, people find this question annoying, but I love to ask what a person's favorite movie is, and there isn't a common or standard answer; films become attached to events in a person's life, and the movie becomes living because that person lives.

I think you post certainly expresses the feelings of a lot of people. I also suspect from the wording of your post that you saw those movies on tv at home. I know I did. Certain movies did become ritualized events around holidays, as in my house when I wqs a child.

I never realized that there was such a chasm between film archivists and film collectors. It sort of recalls to mind a similar rift between filmmakers and film critics, and while that rift has been slowly bridging since the 90's, it still almost seems like a kind of heresy for a filmmaker to put stock in film criticism.

It also seems fitting that Martin Scorsese should be a kind of bridge between archivists and collectors just as he has been between filmmakers and critics. But do you think film lovers who are also filmmakers are in general helping to improve this relationship or just make it seem even less academic or archeological?

I remember when I first started courting collectors at Syracuse Cinefest when I was at George Eastman House in the late 1980s, the people running MOMA thought that all collectors were crazy and not to be trusted. It is no surprise that Bill Everson's legendary collection ended up at GEH and not at MOA, even though Bill lived in NYC the lastfifty years of his life.

Very interesting post! As a beginning collector myself, I can definitely relate to your attempts at bringing archivists and collectors closer together. Historic film footage is the root of filmmaking today, as well as telling glance into period psychology, and therefore it should be preserved and remain accessible. Viewing film footage from the period of your youth is an emotional experience, whether it depicts the period or brings back memories of your own perception of the period. I'm glad there are influential archivists and collectors like yourself and Marty Scorsese working to preserve film, the greatest medium for retelling history.

I found this post very intriguing because being collector always seemed like a hobby so distant to myself. My friends and family would be collectors of baseball cards, action figures, oscar winning movies and beyond to a whole spectrum of things yet through my whole childhood I never collected anything. Not because it seemed pointless but because I felt anything that I cherished I could just retain in my memory. Consequently, I realized that this is not the case. Today, I wish I would have collected pictures of my youth; I wish I would have home videos of the minute details of my childhood; and I wish I did have something to be able to see and smile because it reminds me of a distant memory. In relation to this post, I feel MOMA and the European colleagues have an unsound base to not be in favor with collecting. Instead of the ideology that collectors "destroy priceless originals", I also feel as though collectors are preserving the past and allowing future generations to experience their background, their roots, and have the ability to be inspired. In my opinion, I also believe collecting is not for the mere fact of eventually making money or showing off the extent of one's collection but to be more in touch with one's passions and youth so at the end of your life, you have the ability to remember what was really important to you and what really made you happy. This post actually inspires me to start my own collection. I am recently enrolled in my first legitimate Film Analysis course and have learned so much in half of a semester that I want to collect this information over time and become a well rounded film historian one day. Just for curiosity, since you started your index card collection as a sophomore in college, how much information or how many index cards do you now have currently?

Collectors and archivists are both motivated by the single goal of preservation. Instead of looking down upon collectors, I completely agree that archivists should partner with these enthusiasts. It is important to realize that it is not just a collection or archive of film, culture, or people, but ultimately history.

Films depict not just an art form, but a time period and a way of life. The film Shanghai Triad, for example, is not just another gangster genre film, but a product of Fifth Generation Chinese Cinema and its ground breaking experimental work after the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution.

"Investment" should not refer to economic value, but the value of preserving the history and life of an era/movement.

I agree with the concept of investment in collecting because doing so can only add to our knowledge of films and fuel our passion. If more people did collect, we may discover films lost generations ago which would help contribute to the tapestry of our experimental exposure of humanity. Capturing revolutions and periods in time give us a better understanding of ourselves so that we may not see films as just entertainment but instead realize their condusivness to society's growth and asertation.

I have never thought of myself as either and archivist or a collector, but over the past few years I have found myself become both of these things. Of course, not to the extent that is described in this post, but have accumulated a large collection of DVD's. I find myself buying any movie that I can get my hands on, and then proceeding to write about it in my "movie book". This is my notebook that contains a list of all of the movies that I own, want to own and want to see. I write reviews about the acting, cinematography and just how I like the film overall. I might not be a serious collector or archivist, but I think that these two things go together well. I don't understand why there should be a conflict between the two, they make a wonderful collaboration and compliment each other so well.

Collecting has always been something fascinating to me. Since I was younger, I found myself collecting large series of books and DVD's. It is interesting how extensive collection here begins with obtaining and organizing knowledge though. I also find the index card method to be a good reflection of the past before such an explosion of digital media. Sometimes, laziness is promoted through technology today. Other times, the ease of access relating to various types of information and resulting from technology improve our ability to find and understand a plethora of subjects.

There was a point in elementary school during show and tell when I began to think about my passions. It seemed that the kids in my class were bringing in something different everyday, something they seemed to know a decent amount about. These were the "collectors" - kids i ultimately came to admire for their perseverance and interest in anything. I began to wish that I could have something like that, perhaps not material to collect, but something to invest my time in so deeply, to feel a passion and love that was unparalleled. As the years went by and I was able to pin point my own interests, I feel in love with film. Since then, I am an avid collector of movies, movie paraphernalia, and anything film related. I've realized that it takes years to realize what you truly like to do, but once you find your calling, it's an extraordinary thing.

This is a fascinating post on collecting! Everything describe sounds so much like me a couple years ago: digging through libraries for old/unseen films, writing it all down (stats, thoughts, impressions), and even collected vinyl LPs.
For some reason, cultural objects (and particularly media objects) are so much more fun when they can be viewed as part of a sequence, in a larger context of other objects. In many ways, this is culture's most palatable incarnation: all of the material objects, amassed or otherwise, that are able to move us in an immaterial way. I'm very much interested in this process of transmutation...



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