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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 8:19AM   |  11 comments
Nitrate Vaults

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.

 


11 Comments

"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"

I definitely agree with this... the market for old films is there but it is so small. That may not necessarily be a bad thing, for it keeps the films/ and prints sacred. Maybe they are less prone to exploitation this way.
But they're alienated because they aren't kept alive enough, on main-screen and in popular culture. Thus, they will be ignored by the masses. So many prints are out there just rotting away in garages and vaults. We do need to be aware of this... this back-log of media. So thanks to these archivists!

Thanks for this.

Having interned in a film archive (Asian Film Archive) before, I can appreciate the necessity and imperative to preserve these cultural/historical artifacts.

One of the biggest conundrum of archival - to me - is how do archives/archivists balance what gets archives and what does not? And in this commercialised environment, how do archivists not get caught up in such politics?

Many thanks for this concise history on film archives.

Extending Mallary's point, it is important for archivists to keep old films "alive", relevant to contemporary times, because the film archive is an institution, and like all institutions, its strength greatly depends on its legitimacy, which is derived from social actors such as the public, businesses and government.

Thus, archivists face the dilemma of whether to preserve records that have more "commercial" appeal or that have "historical" value, as mentioned by Koon Yen.

What gets me is the DVD archival process where they replace intertitles with "new and improved" digital titlecards, they colorize the picture, make it widescreen, etc. Whether good or bad, it's quite interesting to follow the trends on how to keep old movies relevant to modern viewers.

However much we would like to imagine that viewers watch for story and emotion or meaning alone, I have seen people turn a show off MERELY because it was in black and white. If we want to resurrect films that currently just sit in an archive, it is sadly necessary to consider what kind of hook we can give it.

Thank you for the comments. The question of how to decide what to Archive is a difficult one to answer conceptually, but in practice easier. Theoretically, archives should probably save everything, because it should not be the role of the archivist to make decisions for future generationscabout what is important and what is not. But how do we keep everything? We don't. In practice, collections are usually offered to the archive one at a time, so you must decide whether that collection of films or a single film fits into the madate of the collection. It is important that archives have mision statements and collection policies in place. Even a huge archive, liuke UCLA does not take everything. We have lately turned down a large collection of educational films, not because they aren't important, but because there are other archives that specialize in educational film, so we thought the collection should go there.
On the other hand, I also believe there is a certain efficiency in "natural selection." What I mean by that is that before our culture developed a mania for saving everything, archives only preserved what survived. Now that did mean that some things were lost. But what is the alternative. Can we really, better said, should we really save every piece of film and video produced by our movie mad society? Every game show? Every reality show? Every soap opera?
The DVD question is is different matter. "Improving" media is what commercil companies do to sell their stuff. The Archives try to preserve the originals.

I agree with Chris that archivists are not in a position to make decisions for what gets preserved and what does not.

But with digital technology, filmmakers are capable of producing works at a faster rate, how do archives deal with this explosion of works then? Are there plans for a digital archive?

And with regards to making old films relevant, I feel that the public's deeper understanding of film heritage is important; after all, the archive is for the public. There is a situation of ambivalence in Singapore, despite our ravenous diet of movies.

In the digital world, the website and its architecture are also the archive. Preservation can only be achieved - at the moment - via continual migration to newer digital media and formats. Nevertheless, huge archives of moving images have developed, for example, U-Tube and all other sites that allow consumers to upload moving images and stills.

I also must emphasize, how important the role of education and film/tv/digital media research is for the Archive. We will neveer abdicate our role as a presenter of moving images in a live cinema, even then when the commercial cinema has all but disappeared. Archives are always also museums with curatorial functions.

I'm very interested in this discussion about the public's access to the archive. Although, many might disagree with me, it seems that the internet might attach some kind of celestial glory to an image or film that otherwise would not be there if the physical object was present and real to the public. I for one was astounded to stand before Velazquez's Les Menines and realize that it too was only a painting.

Art is incredible because it is and was made by humans, and the physicality of a work of art or a film allows a spectator to feel and experience the humanity intrinsic to that work of art.

Film on the other hand pulls us into an alternate reality, but if the United States had a national archive for works of cinema the work might become more physical or personal to Americans. I love movies, but much of what I love is the space or environment in which I experience that movie. Personally, I associate a season with a movie - I missed my annual dose of "Groundhog Day" for instance - but perhaps with a national gallery of cinema my experience of films might go beyond a personal connection to understanding the larger history in which that work is connected.

I completely agree with Jaoshua that watching a movie in a cinema is the best way to experience a film. However, this is rapidly becoming a minority opinion. For the major studios, they don't caree how their "content" is delivered to the consumer, as long as they pay for it. Most directos are a little more choosey and would happily see more peopel see their work as it was meant to be seen: on a big screen. But the reality is now digitual and ever fewer people feel the teatrical experience is central to film viewing.

Great read. It is nice to know that efforts have been made to collect and keep old films alive. This blog also gave me a new found appreciation for the movie "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." This film was made in 1920 by Robert Wiene in Germany. This film is very old and is a silent movie which Zimmermann mentions became obsolete after the silent film era ended around 1927. My appreciation of this film roots from the extraordinary effort it took to preserve old films and to have them available internationally. Thank you Patricia this was very enlightening.

Great read. It is nice to know that efforts have been made to collect and keep old films alive. This blog also gave me a new found appreciation for the movie "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." This film was made in 1920 by Robert Wiene in Germany. This film is very old and is a silent movie which Zimmermann mentions became obsolete after the silent film era ended around 1927. My appreciation of this film roots from the extraordinary effort it took to preserve old films and to have them available internationally. Thank you Patricia this was very enlightening.



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