Memory, Images, History
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.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
As we enter into the second decade of the new millenium, moving image archives have taken a few more steps towards complete professionalization by establishing formal training programs for moving image archivists. Not surprisingly, the major impetus for the yearly Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) conference had originally been the real need for training and the professional exchange of archival methodologies and practices for moving image preservation. Thus, the second official AMIA conference instituted workshops where older colleagues spoke to novices and younger colleagues, a sort of moving image archiving 101.
Beginning in the mid 1990s, then, film archives in connection with universities began for the first time to offer professional training courses for moving image archivists. One of the first programs in Europe was founded as an M.A. in Film Archiving at the University of East Anglia in England. The Selznick School at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., was established in 1997 as a one-year non-academic certificate program. The school now offers a Master’s Degree in conjunction with the University of Rochester. The first graduate degree program in Moving Image Archives Studies was established at UCLA in 2002, followed a year later by New York University’s Moving Image Archive Program.
These formal training programs which incorporate theoretical and research oriented studies with real world archive internships, move beyond the autodidactic approach that previously characterized training in the field. Many individuals presently working in moving image archiving and preservation have received on the job training and little else. I may be one of the few archivists of my generation to actually receive a semi-formal training in moving image archiving. In 1975-76, I spent a year at George Eastman House as a postgraduate intern, funded by a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship program for Museum studies.
Now a young generation of academically-trained moving image archivists and curators is rapidly moving into the field. Most entry level positions in this still expanding field of moving image archiving are now filled by graduates from the above programs, as well as others established at the University of Amsterdam, in Germany, Italy, the University of Texas Austin, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Just this last week, my alma mater, George Eastman House, where I was the institution’s third curator, named Dr. Caroline Frick as its 6th curator of film. She is the first graduate of a film archive M.A. program to ascend to a leadership role in a major American archive.
These academic programs are important, however, not only to train film archivists, but also to establish methodologies and best practices. We have to remember that despite decades of practical work, moving image archival practice has until quite recently been based on nothing more than an informal set of anecdotally communicated “recommendations.” Few standards had been theorized or codified, even fewer practices had been formalized in a program of action. Most of what we call archival ethics and theory had been borrowed from other fields, whether the library and information sciences or curatorial practices in museums. AMIA’s founding in 2001 of an official journal, The Moving Image, began to change that, as over the last decade it has built up a body of literature on many aspects of archival theory for moving images.
Numerous contributions to The Moving Image originate at one of the academic institutions involved in the field. It is a project that must continue, if the field hopes to produce competent professionals, yet one that cannot be completed by working archivists alone. In fact, the establishment of codes and practices for moving image preservation, whether in the analogue or digital realm, must be conceived as a huge, collaborative project between working professionals, professors in academic programs, and students. By questioning informally established procedures, students force both working professionals and professors to explicate and rationalize their current use. Documenting these types of discussions in protocols, student papers, and formal academic articles will create a body of knowledge for moving image archive professionals and hopefully engender better technologies and methodologies for saving our visual heritage.
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.