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…