Memory, Images, History
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive,
The first generation of film archivists were essentially collectors interested in showing their treasures. Before the age of television, old films were virtually impossible to see, since producers had little interest in saving material that had outlived its economic usefulness. Furthermore, mainstream cultural institutions and governments considered the cinema a crass commercial enterprise, a form of communication not worthy of serious intellectual consideration. Having what Roland Barthes has called "bad object status", the cinema was mistreated by governments, institutions of education, and commercial interests, alike.
In the 1920s, a minority of intellectuals began championing the cinema as a new art form, advocating the creation of non-commercial screening spaces and the establishment of archives for the preservation of old films. Once sound film was introduced between 1927 and 1931, however, the matter of the medium’s survival became critical, since silent films were considered completely obsolete. Yet, in that era many critics, historians, and cinephiles believed that silent film was a superior art form, an art form that deserved to be preserved.
The first film archive in the world was established at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935 by Iris Barry and her husband, John Abbott, cinephiles who understood that the cinema was potentially a modern art. A year later, two young Frenchmen, Henri Langlois and Georges Franju, founded the Cinémathèque Française in Paris as a private initiative. Before the decade was out, two more archives were founded in London (the National Film Library) and Berlin (Reichsfilmarchiv). While the latter two were national in scope, MOMA and the Cinémathèque collected internationally.
Together, these archives established the Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF) in 1938. After World War II, FIAF expanded considerably with the founding of film archives in Switzerland, Prague, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Rochester, and Moscow. By 1959 FIAF consisted of thirty-three members and by the turn of the millennium had over 120 archives associated with the organization.
The priority of the members of FIAF, then, was to collect films. Not without some justification it was thought that the very act of collecting prints also contributed to their preservation. Just as important as collecting films was the act of screening them, making them live again on the screen for a new generation of filmgoers. Most of the first generation of film archivists, including Henri Langlois (Paris), James Card (Rochester), Maria Andriana Prolo (Turin), Jan de Vaal (Amsterdam), Jacques Ledoux (Brussels), Einar Lauritzen (Stockholm), and Freddy Buache (Lausanne) were indeed film collectors, rather than film archivists. Films were stored in vaults which often did not meet standards for archival security; catalogues consisted more often tan not of lists printed in loose-leaf notebooks.
On the positive side, many films were indeed saved from destruction, because the mentality of the film collector precluded throwing anything away. In other words, most of the first generation believed in saving every film they could get their hands on, legally, semi-legally or illegally. Indeed, until quite recently film archives often operated without the blessing of film companies and rights holders; according to the strict letter of the law, only the rights holders could acquire films, making the very act of collecting illegal.
Finally, by the end of the 1960s, numerous countries around the world had established film and television archives, funded by their governments. This was also the case in Canada, where after numerous government and private initiatives, a national film archive was established in 1969. In the United States, however, moving image archives remained for the most part private affairs. At the same time, film companies now realized that they had lost many films, which now only existed in the archives, films that could be resold to television, and soon remarketed as videos. Suddenly, old films had a market value again.