Memory, Images, History
Friday, February 5, 2010
With the development in the United States in the late 1960s of government funding sources for preservation through the National Endowment for the Arts and the growth of local, regional, and television archives, a sea change occurred in the U.S. archival community. While moving image preservation had previously been handled by only a few nitrate-holding archives, including George Eastman House, UCLA Film & Television Archives, Museum of Modern Art, and the Library of Congress Motion Picture Division, literally dozens of new archives were founded in the following years, making the need for a North American organization apparent. Suddenly a host of regional archives, archives of special collections (dance film), and television news archives appeared on the scene. What had been a loose organization of film and television archives at the end of the 1970s, the Film Archives Advisory Committee/Television Archives Advisory Committee (FAAC/TAAC), was formalized in a new organization, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), founded in 1990. Unlike FIAF, which was based on institutional membership, AMIA became an organization of individual archivists and other persons engaged in film and television preservation, including commercial laboratories, the major studios, and stock shot houses. By 2003, membership had grown to nearly 1000, with yearly conferences, a newsletter, archival education, scholarships, a journal, and an internet listserv as a part of its mandate. The organization has also expanded from a strictly North American organization of archivists to one with members spanning the rest of the world. As a result, of these structural changes, the field of film and video preservation has matured from a group of individual collectors into a discipline with standards and sanctioned practices.
While films and videos were often stored in substandard environments, film/video archivists now attempt to maintain strict standards for climate control and vault safety. By the late 1980s, it became increasingly clear that both acetate and nitrate materials benefited from extremely low humidity and very cold environments. The lifespan of nitrate film, for example, could be doubled by lowering the ambient temperature in a vault by 5˚ and the humidity by 5%. Storage suddenly became the first line of defense for preservation, not the transfer of images to newer film stocks, making the 1970s slogan “Nitrate Can’t Wait” an anachronism. At the same time, the Library of Congress and other institutions developed cataloguing standards for moving image materials, while the archives themselves began the massive project of properly cataloguing their holdings. Finally, the old policy of sending out for screenings “unprotected” prints, i.e. materials which had not been preserved, was discontinued in most archives. Instead, preservation priorities were often formulated, based on the need for public access to given titles. Making all this possible was regularized funding.
The National Endowment of the Arts was created in September 1965 through an Act of Congress. Based on a recommendation from the Stanford Research Institute, the NEA formally announced in June 1967 the awarding of a $1.3 million grant for the establishment of an American Film Institute, which furthermore received matching grants from the Ford Foundation and the Motion Picture Association of America. Based on the model of the British Film Institute, the AFI’s mandate was to support the production of quality films, train filmmakers, and foster the preservation of American film. From the start, the AFI’s role was not to actually preserve film, but to act as a conduit for collecting films and funding archives, such as the Library of Congress and George Eastman House. Essentially, the AFI became a re-grant agency for NEA film preservation funds, while taking an allowable 30-35% cut for administrative overhead. And while the archives received a total of more than $ 10.5 million for film preservation between 1968 and 1972, the AFI’s overhead costs took an ever bigger bite out of funding, so that by 1972 film preservation accounted for a mere 9% of its expenditures. NEA continued funding the archives through the 1970s and 1980s, but its funding levels remained at about $350,00 - 450,000, despite inflationary costs for film preservation, due to increased laboratory costs. With restrictions placed by the Reagan NEA on the kinds of content that could be preserved, as well as continuing to cut back funding, film preservation reached another crisis in the early 1990s. (to be continued…)
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.