Memory, Images, History
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive, UCLA, Los Angeles
Held in Hollywood at the Academy Film Archive’s Linwood Dunn Theater, the 25th iteration of “The Reel Thing” proved to be as innovative and thought provoking as the first, back in October 1995. Indeed, thanks to its two originators and tireless organizers, Grover Crisp and Michael Friend, both of Sony Pictures, “The Reel Thing” has provided us with a seamless documentation of the technological revolution of moving image archiving from the mostly analog era of the mid 1990s to our decidedly digital present in 2010.
That bridge from the analog to the digital was illustrated most convincingly at “The Reel Thing” (2008), when “First Sounds” software programmers digitized charcoal voice recordings, which not even their inventor could playback. Suddenly, through digital technology we clearly heard a voice from an analog imprint, a “phonautogram,” recorded in 1857, thus pre-dating Thomas Edison’s first sound recordings by decades. Check out the website at firstsounds.org
At The Reel Thing just ended, another technologist proposed to capture the electronic data from magnetic media, e.g. 2” Quad video tapes, without using a conventional tape head that puts stress on the tape, but rather by “reading” data on the tape. Possibly more importantly, if this technology proves to work (actual results are still forthcoming), it would eliminate the need to archive all videotape hardware, presently required to access obsolete tape formats. I’m filled with utter admiration at the way Grover and Michael seem to effortlessly wrangle professional colleagues at the cutting edge of new preservation and archiving technologies.
Initially organized as a pre-conference event at the Toronto AMIA conference, “The Reel Thing” has been a part of every conference of the Association since then, but has also traveled to Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, and Bologna. The Association of Moving Image Archivists, but especially its brave office staff, have been an incredibly important support for what is essentially a volunteer effort on everyone’s part.
I can’t remember how many Reel Things I‘ve attended over the past twelve years, but enough to know that every visit has paid off. The consistently illuminating reports from the mostly for profit world of studios and commercial preservation vendors, have shown me the challenges of a technological landscape, which I’m forced to negotiate from the perspective of a poor, non-profit archive. The intellectual exchanges between a community of like-minded but not always agreeing practitioners have been just as important.
The opening night this year featured a 4 K digital projection of an 8 K scan of Dr. Zhivago (1965). Two further evening screenings of new preservation projects, Fantasia (1940) and The Fly (1985) were supplemented by a midday screening of an early Frank Capra silent, accompanied brilliantly by Alan Stark, normally a mild-mannered technologist. On the more serious side, a significant number of presenters discussed ever more efficient algorithms for digital clean ups or faced specific problems in the digitization of films from degraded film preservation masters. Other highlights: Ralph Sargent, whose career goes back decades, gave two extremely informative lectures on the history of optical film sound and early videotape recorders, respectively. Rita Belda discussed Columbia’s historical exhibition strategy in the transition to sound film, as reflected in surviving nitrate elements from 1928-31. Theo Gluck and his team of preservationists introduced a whole program of Disney digital restorations. And Andrea Kalas discussed innovative survey techniques at Paramount to assess the condition of movable digital media. Not the most exciting of topics, especially to outsiders, but certainly just as necessary for our field, if we are to successfully preserve ever more moving image media in the digital realm.
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.
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, March 16, 2010
This week I had the pleasure of meeting Jamaa Fanaka in Hollywood when he paid me a visit, because he had agreed to put his films on deposit at UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Jamaa is an African-American filmmaker in Los Angeles, who directed the hugely successful Penitentiary (1979), followed by Penitentiary II (1982) and III (1987). Like his earlier features, Emma Mae (1976) aka Black Sister’s Revenge and Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975) aka Soul Vengence, Fanaka’s films play with the conventions of “Blaxploitation,” while simultaneously commenting on the genre in a highly self-reflexive genre.
The term “Blaxploitation” was originally dreamed up by Variety for a wave of Hollywood films with all-black casts, often centered on crime, drugs, and prostitution that began with Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Gordon Park’s Shaft (1971). During the 1970s, Hollywood produced more that seventy Blaxploitation films, many directed by black directors, and therefore a genuine expression of African-American popular culture. But there were also many “pimps n hoes” quickies, shot in the Philippines.
Ironically, Jamaa Fanaka belonged to a unique group of African-American film students at UCLA in the 1970s and early 1980s that film historian Clyde Taylor has labeled the “L.A. Rebellion,” because they specifically reacted against mainstream Hollywood cinema’s hijacking of African-American life to create a stereotyped and largely negative cinematic image. Indeed, the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers identified themselves as the first sustained and geographically specific effort in the United States by a group of black film artists working with a common purpose to forge a cinema practice that would be responsive to the lives and concerns of African American communities and the African diaspora. The most prominent of the group are Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Ben Caldwell, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin, Jacqueline Frazier, Barbara McCullough, Zeinabu Irene Davis, and Carroll Parrott Blue.
Surprisingly, neither UCLA Film & Television Archive nor the film school had ever attempted to stay in touch with or collect the films of this group of filmmakers, nor had there been any sustained attempt at historisizing the “movement.” Only a few isolated film titles had entered into the Archive.
In 2009, we decided to change that and begin a truly holistic research and preservation project, by bringing the “L.A. Rebellion” home.
It is the first time the Archive is not waiting passively for films and television to “walk in the door”, but rather is going out and saving a specific group of films we believe are important. We have assembled a team of scholars, filmmakers and professionals to research existing film and paper collections in libraries and archives; conduct and capture oral histories with participating filmmakers; collect film elements for conservation, restoration and exhibition; collect paper documents from filmmakers for the special collections library; publish a book which will contextualize the L.A. Rebellion and frame it in relation to its time period and parallel developments in film and the arts; strike many new prints for a massive retrospective exhibition in Fall 2011. We have received initial funding from the Getty Foundation, since the “L. A. Rebellion” film exhibition will be screened in the context of the Los Angeles wide art exhibition, “Pacific Standard Time.”
I first talked to Jamaa last Fall on the phone and then began an email correspondence, when I became “a friend for life.” When the sixty-something filmmaker arrived at the Archive last Monday, he had a lovely young women on each arm and appeared to be totally in his element. They were Professors Jacqueline Stewart and Allyson Field, two co-curators on the L.A. Rebellion project, who had met Jamaa previously at Roscoe’s Waffles ‘n’ Chicken. Interestingly, like so many of his film school colleagues, Fanaka had financed his films independently and thus knew where his pre-print elements (negatives) were stored, something many mainstream director’s don’t know. So Jamma’s main concern was that UCLA would not only store the films, but actually restore them, the way we have previously restored Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977). Happily, Jamaa Fanaka’s films constitute the first collection to be placed in the Archive.
Given the fact that we have now identified more than fifty different individuals in the L.A. Rebellion, our journey (and our fund-raising!) have only just begun.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Blog posting written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
While the NEA discontinued funding moving image archives in the early 1990s, other organizations took up the challenge. As early as the late 1980s, the American Film Institute’s campaign “Nitrate Won’t Wait” had increased public consciousness about the need to save and preserve the precious moving image heritage. Through theNational Film Preservation Act of 1988, Congress established a National Film Preservation Board and created a National Film Registry (25 titles are added each year by the Librarian of Congress), which identified ‘National film treasures”. The initial impetus for the Act was the concern over the commercial treatment of classic films, including re-editing to fit television time slots, panning and scanning to fit the tv screen, and electronic colorization of black and white materials.
The National Film Preservation Board consists of appointed representatives from virtually all of the medium’s professional organizations, including the Society of Cinema and Media Studies, the Screen Actor’s Guild, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and the National Society of Film Critics. The reauthorization of the Board in 1992 asked the Library of Congress to complete a study of the state of film preservation, Film Preservation 1993, which in turn led to the Founding of the National Film Preservation Foundation in 1999.
The NFPF is now funding film preservation projects at a national level, both through direct government monies and grants from private foundations and companies. While the National Film Registry’s titles are overwhelmingly culled from mainstream Hollywood’s output, the NFPF mandate is to fund only so-called orphan films, i.e. films which were never copyrighted or have entered the public domain. As a result, many previously marginalized films and film genres, including amateur films, industrials, educational films, medical films, avant-garde, and silent films are now being preserved.
The 1990s also saw a number of private foundations become involved in the preservation of films, including The Film Foundation (TFF, founded by Martin Scorsese and other film directors in 1992), and the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI), both of whom have shown a preference for classic Hollywood cinema, although TFF supports avant-garde film preservation through the NFPF, and PHI has funded the preservation of third world titles. Meanwhile, the major film studios, including Sony Entertainment, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Universal have redoubled their own preservation efforts, at least of materials on which they own copyright or which they are planning to re-release in digital formats.
In 1997, the Librarian of Congress commissioned another study to look at the state of television preservation, Television and Video Preservation 1997. A Report on the Current State of American Television and Video Preservation. Seven years later, the National Television and Video Preservation Foundation was finally established in 2004, albeit without the participation of Congress or the Library of Congress, which had initially funded the NFPF. Instead, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and Jim Lindner, a video preservationist, have made initial cash donations, while video laboratories have offered in-kind services. The National Television and Video Preservation Foundation (NTVPF) has secured preservation services from preservation sponsors which has lead to the preservation of ca. 35 titles. (to be continued...)
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…)