Memory, Images, History
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive
Last the Fall I wrote a blog about my professional mentors who had influenced me while I was a student. Since completing my PhD. more than 25 years ago, I have become a mentor to many of my own students. They are in many ways my proudest accomplishment. Publishing a book or restoring a film has nothing on the emotional kick I have gotten watching some of my students grow, develop, and succeed. I’m incredibly proud of them, like a mother hen with her brood.
Two of my former students are now themselves moving image archive directors with PhDs. Claude Bertemes has been the Director of the Cinémathque Luxembourg since 1997. He took a seminar with me as an undergraduate thirty years ago when I was at the beginning of my teaching career, myself still a doctoral candidate. He recently confessed to me that he was not very happy with the grade he received in my “Photography as Communication” seminar. Hayden Guest was my student at the School of Theater, Film & Television at UCLA ten years ago; He’s been Director of the Harvard Film Archive since 2006, where he has revitalized that institution. One of my interns, Dr. Sabine Lenk, was Director of the Düsseldorf Filmmusuem. And I guess I can take credit for training Dott. Paolo Cherchi Usai, whose illustrious film archive career spans three continents.
Among my UCLA Moving Image Archives students, many are ensconced in various film and digital archives, including: Karen Barcelona (Academy Film Archive), Gillian Borders (UCLA), Robert Dirig (Art Center Pasadena), Melissa Dollman (Schlesinger Library, Harvard), Zac Fink (Film Technologies), Dave Gibson (Library of Congess), May Haduong (Academy Film Archive), Benji Harry (Cooperstown), Steven Hill (UCLA Film & Television Archive), Leah Kerr (Mayme Clayton Library), Chris Lane (MGM), Oki Miyano (Kurosawa Project), Stephanie Sapienza (LA Filmforum), Amy Sloper (Harvard Film Archive), Julio Vera (Academy Film Archive).
There is a whole cohort of former graduate students from the University of Rochester who hold a special place in my heart. All of them took my film historiography seminar in the early 1990s, and are now themselves professors.
We’ve tried to get together regularly at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference: Mark Lynn Anderson is a tenured professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of numerous articles and the forthcoming Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920's America. Mark Betz is a lecturer at King’s College, London, and recently published, Beyond the Subtitle: Remapping European Art Cinema (2009). Heather Hendershot is a Professor at Queens College, presently the editor of Cinema Journal, and the author of Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation before the V-Chip (1998) and Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (2004). Amanda Howell is senior lecturer in media studies at Griffith University in Australia and has written widely on popular film and music. Laura U. Marks is Dena Wosk University Professor in Art and Culture Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and internationally known film programmer. She is the author of The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (2000) and Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (2002). Maggie McCarthy is an Associate Professor of German at Davidson College, and edited Light Motives: German Popular Film in Perspective.
Then, there are my more recent UCLA students, many of whom have now completed their PhDs. and have gotten their first or second teaching jobs: Jun Okada is an Assistant Professor at SUNY Geneseo; Michael Baskett is an Associate Professor at University of Kansas; Paul Macolm is a film programmer at UCLA Film & Television Archive; Ross Melnick is spending this next year on a post doc at Emory University; Qi Wang teaches at Georgia Institute of Technology. Lindy Leong is teaching at SUNY Purchase. Others completing their PhD.s include Snowden Becker (co-founder of Home Movie Day, UT, Austin), Emily Carmen (UCLA), Andrey Gordienko UCLA), Bill McClain (USC), Doron Galili (University of Chicago), Mary Samuelson (UCLA), Pauline Stakelon (UC Santa Barbara) and Noah Webster (UC Santa Barbara).
Sorry, if I forgot anyone.
Am I bragging? You bet I am.
I do hope to see a lot more students make good before I hang up my mortarboard.
Friday, July 2, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive
21 June, 10 AM, which happens to be 1 AM (California time), according to my body clock, and I’m standing in front of a group of eager film students. We are doing a one week academic seminar in and around PEOPLE ON SUNDAY to prepare five German film students (from the IFS) and five American film students from UCLA to spend the next five weeks making a film, which will be a portrait of Cologne, the way PEOPLE was a portrait of Berlin in 1929.
We start with an initial discussion of the film, made by Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer, Robert and Curt Siodmak, Eugene Schuefftan, Fred Zinnemann, and Seymour Nebenzahl, all of whom were exiled from Germany in 1933 and had high profile (or less substantial) Hollywood careers. Along with Prof. Dr. Gundolf Freyermuth (IFS) and Dr. Lisa Gotto (IFS), we discuss the incredible modernity of MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG, given its non-plot and hand-held camera, its amateur actors and documentary views of a vibrant city.
Next, I lecture on German speaking Jewish exiles in Hollywood, in order to provide a context for the week’s work to follow. As I told the students, over 1500 writers, directors, producers and other film workers were forced to leave Berlin, due to Hitler’s anti-Semitic blacklist. Interestingly, neither the German nor American students had any idea that some of Hollywood’s most famous directors were German born.
Screening Robert Siodmak’s CRY OF THE CITY (1948), starring Victor Mature, we see a film noir, but also a city film about New York. As we discover, Siodmak actually remade a shot from PEOPLE ON SUNDAY in CRY OF THE CITY. A productive discussion follows about the film’s moral ambiguity, so unlike American classical Hollywood narrative and so much like German films from the 1920s.
Our second day starts with my seminar on the history of the Weimar film industry, in order to place the production of PEOPLE ON SUNDAY into the proper historical context for the students. I’m surprised that most of the German film students know as little about Weimar cinema and history as the American students. Prof. Freyermuth lectures on documentary film, fiction film and what he termed “faction” film, the hybrid form that we are seeing with ever increasing frequency in the digital age. Lisa Gotto screens Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR (1945), a classic film noir which fits into our thread on the makers of PEOPLE ON SUNDAY.
Wednesday’s lectures start with my presentation on American film noir and the role of German émigré directors, like Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Edgar G. Ulmer in creating that genre. In fact, we can see a direct connection between the crime films of the German Expressionist cinema and the American private eye movie in the work of these directors that goes beyond high contrast lighting and oblique camera angles to an atmosphere of dark fatalism and despair.
Gotto then lectures on the role of the city and urban space in not only German films, but also American films from the 1940s to the 1990s, ending with a recent rap video. Next, we screen Bill Wilder’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948), a film that takes place in Berlin after World War II and features many location shots of Berlin in ruins.
On my final morning, Prof. Freyermuth lectures on stereotypical images of Germany and America, as found in the autobiographies of German émigrés in Hollywood. This is important for the students, because German American teams will have to work together on their films of Cologne in the coming weeks, so they need to know what kind of cultural prejudices each side is bringing to the project. Next, I lectured on German and European avant-garde films from the 1920s, since PEOPLE ON SUNDAY must be seen not only in the context of the Weimar film industry, but also in the context of the avant-garde, since it was made and released expressly as an independent and avant-garde film.
In the afternoon, we screen Billy Wilder’s ONE TO THREE (1961), another film about Berlin, but produced at the point when the Berlin wall was being constructed. It is a screamingly funny comedy about a Coca Cola executive in Berlin, winning the war the way we know best: with American consumer goods.
Now the students have to discuss their ideas for projects. I can’t wait to see the films.
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…
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
Not many people would go to Syracuse, N.Y, in the dead of winter, but for cinephiles who love old movies, Cinefest is the place to be.
Leonard Maltin has been a regular for years, as have David Sheppard (Blackhawk Films) and numerous film archivists. Cinefest is a convention of film collectors, which includes a market for film memorabilia and 16mm film screenings at a local hotel from 9 AM to 12:30 AM, as well as 35mm screenings in a local cinema. Almost none of the films are available on television or video.
Some of the highlights of this year’s program included: THE VALIANT (1929), starring Paul Muni, directed by William K. Howard. A very sweet little melodrama by Frank Borzage, LIFE'S HARMONY (1916), which is one of his earliest films, but instantly recognizable as a Borzage in its focus on family life. CONRAD IN QUEST OF HIS YOUTH (1920), directed by William DeMille. Less well-known that his younger brother, Cecil, William's films have always struck me as very quiet, understated narratives (unlike Cecil), and this film was no exception. With virtually no plot, the film follows a war vet trying to recapture memories of his youth.
HUMAN HEARTS (1922), a typical rural melodrama from Universal, was directed by King Baggot. The story of a “bad” city girl vamp and honest country blacksmith was predictable, but the acting was good. A TALE OF TWO WORLDS (1921), starring Wallace Beery as a Chinese heavy in yellow face, featured Leatrice Joy in a Chinatown tale of miscegenation, with lots of racial stereotypes, of course. LITTLE CHURCH AROUND THE CORNER (1923, WB), about a mining town clergyman who mediates between capital (Hobart Bosworth) and labor. I wouldn't be surprised if Thea von Harbou saw the film before writing METROPOLIS. AREN”T PARENTS PEOPLE? (1925), a comedy of “remarriage” as Gerald Mast has called similar films from the 1930s, directed by Mal St. Clair, starred the wonderfully droll Adolphe Menjou
A "fake" Republic serial, CAPTAIN CELLULOID VS. THE FILM PIRATES (1962-68), shot on weekends with non-synch sound by a group of amateurs, including the late William K. Everson. LIFE RETURNS (1934): directed by Eugene Frenke, the film was a very weird but interesting hybrid, which took as its starting point a medical documentary about the first experiments to resuscitate a dog that was clinically dead, then created a feature length narrative around it about a father who neglects his son. A very early talkie from Tiffany Studios, PEACOCK ALLEY (1930), starring Mae Murray in one of her last films. No longer the dynamo of THE MERRY WIDOW, she’s a bit over-the-hill and having problems talking and acting at the same time. By the end of day two, I’d seen 15 features, 1/2 a serial and a couple of shorts, none made after 1950.
The 35mm program on Saturday in Rome at the Capitol Theatre, built in 1928, began with THE GRASP OF GREED (1916). The continuity, unfortunately, was somewhat confused, because of major decomposition, but the film did feature Lon Chaney in a very early bit part, doing a jig. EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1927, Allan Dwan), starring George O’Brien, was a lively melodrama that shuttles between New York’s Jewish and poor lower East Side and the rich, WASP West Side. The story involves an inter-ethnic romance, but the ladies in the audience couldn’t get over how much beefcake O’Brien sported here, coming as it did shortly after his nude photos were published.
PLEASURE BEFORE BUSINESS was a Columbia feature, starring Max Davidson, one of the great under-rated comedians in one of his few features; another Jewish-themed film. Next was THE IRON MULE, a screamingly funny comedy short of the first railroad, starring Al St. John and featuring an uncredited Buster Keaton as an Indian chief. Finally, ROARING RAILS (1924) was an independent modern western, starring Harry Carey who brings a French orphan back to America after World War II. Carey who of course had been a big star a decade earlier in John Ford westerns, demonstrates why his star career was coming to a halt.
While the 35mm films have been preserved at film archives, such as the Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House, and Library of Congress, the 16mm program came almost exclusively from film collectors, who have made a major contribution towards saving films that otherwise don’t exist in Archives or at the studios. Increasingly, archives have been working with collectors to preserve these priceless treasures.
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.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archives
In the general public there is the notion that archives are spaces where almost everything is saved and preserved for posterity. However, the founding of an archive is no guarantee that its contents will ultimately be saved. This tells us that while the archive exists in an idealist sense to capture both the evident and hidden meanings of our culture, through the preservation of objects and information, the reality of such institutions is more chaotic, survival much more a matter of the serendipity of time than archival management.
Some of the largest and most important film archives in the world, like the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris or George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., were founded by collectors who were cinephiles, hell-bent on collecting every scrap of film and film history. Other archives, like the Library of Congress or the Czech National Film Archive were started by enlightened governments, wishing to preserve national culture. Still others were set up as warehouses for multi-national corporations, whose mandate it is to control intellectual assets and copyrights. Moving images that have entered into these archives have gotten there more or less as a result of the whims of time, curators, donors, and government officials. Changes in administration, curators, budgets, often brings changes in acquisition policy.
The history of moving image archives thus always also includes a hidden history of what has been lost. Motion Picture companies have been notorious for “de-accessioning” their archives into the proverbial trash bin. Every collector has a story about dumpster diving for priceless movie memorabilia treasures, whether scripts, photos, or films. When I was building an archive for Universal Studios in the late 1990s, I realized that the company had sold a warehouse in New Jersey that contained the papers of Irving Thalberg, who had worked for the company for several years in the early 1920s, without bothering to remove its contents. Much of MGM’s corporate history ended up in the trash after the sale of its historical assets to Turner in the early 1980s.
But even non-profit and government archives are subject to destruction or loss. Several years ago, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan attempted to destroy that country’s national film and television archives, because they interpreted Islamic law as a ban against “images of all living things,” including any and all documentary films. In 2002, Agence France Press reported that almost 12,00 boxes of paper materials from the Cinémathèque Française were destroyed in a fire at the Bibliothèque du film, including film publicity materials, posters, photographs, and periodicals, almost all of it uncatalogued. Two disastrous nitrate film fires at the United States National Archives in Suitland, Maryland in 1977 and 1978 destroyed over a million feet of The March of Time and close to 12 million feet of Universal Newsreels, respectively. A fire at the National Film Board of Canada in July 1967 destroyed much of that institution’s illustrious production.
Every archive I have worked in keeps lists of nitrate films that have decomposed, materials that have been de-accessioned, duplicates that have been sold, traded, or just lost. Lack of funds have often been the root of the problem, hindering Archives from building proper storage facilities, hiring staff for regular inspections, beginning or completing a rigorous program copying to newer formats, whether film or digital. Indeed, budget cuts at every major American public media archive in the present economy have made certain collections inaccessible, if not lost.
History can only be created from what survives. Survival is more a matter of chance than most of us archivists would like to admit.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Blog post written by Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
There is a paradigm shift of enormous proportions going on in the real world, and in the archive world. We are moving away from a culture of objects to one of electronic bytes. The very materiality of traditional media will become obsolete. Now some of us may see this as an advantage, others will perceive the loss of that materiality as a fact to be mourned. How many theories of art, of photography, of cinema, are in fact grounded in the specific physical characteristics of the media? How will these media change when they no longer exist in any form other than as free-floating information in cyberspace? Archivists are by nature conservatives – at least in the sphere of art, culture and technology. This is true, because as archivists it has traditionally been our job to conserve cultural artifacts in their original state. While commercial enterprises are constantly improving technology in the interest of efficiency and cost, in order to produce higher profits, archivists are usually governed by the notion that moving image media have had an intrinsic aesthetic or perceptual value, apart from their informational content
As we speak, there is already more information being stored digitally, than on all other surviving information carriers together. But, personally, the death of materially based moving image media in general and movies in particular causes me great pain. Although I love my computer, I hate the thought that motion picture film has become a totally obsolete medium in my lifetime. I have spent a good portion of the last thirty years of my life preserving film, as well as discovering its evolution as a film historian. I am passionate about the film projector, the carbon arc lamps that used to create a warm light, the chemically-based shades of black and white and color, the space of the cinema, the audience in a communal activity, defining themselves collectively and individually through the subjectivity of the viewing experience. I spent much of my twenties at repertory cinemas and other spaces showing avant-garde and film classics. As 21 I was blown away by Mizoguchi and Shansho the Baliff at the late TLA Cinema in Philadelphia. Later that year, I saw Hour of the Furnaces at the late Bleeker Street Cinema in New York. At 23, I discovered Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons at the late Orson Welles and Godard’s Pierrot le Fou at Brattle Cinemas in Boston. I remember the smell of these places in the semi-darkness, as I imbibed images that remain with me today, but also the sense of discovery with the people around me, whether I knew them or not.
All that may be lost with the digital, as capitalism’s ever-greater push towards the atomization of social life keeps us alone at our computer screens.