Adventures in Preservation

A report from the 7th Orphan Film Symposium
by Leo Goldsmith  posted June 10, 2010
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In 2008, the discovery of over 20 minutes of lost footage from Fritz Lang's original cut of Metropolis in the archives of the Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken in Buenos Aires set newswires and Internet message boards ablaze all over the world. Acting on a rumor, archivists Fernando Peña and Paula Félix-Didier found that the museum's 16mm negative of the film, reduced from a dusty and badly scratched 35mm nitrate print, was longer than it ought to have been. This discovery prompted a new release of the "complete" film, along with a host of questions: How did the most complete cut of one of cinema's landmarks turn up 80 years later in an archive in Argentina? More tantalizing still, what other unknown wonders reside in the world's film archives, collecting dust and slowly deteriorating, waiting to be discovered or else to be lost to the ravages of time?

While few archival finds are as high-profile as the Metropolis discovery, the annals of film preservation are filled with such tales of secret vaults and hidden treasures, hot tips and lucky breaks, races against time and last-minute rescues from the brink of death, highly flammable nitrate and even a little international smuggling. What sound like the plot points of an old B-movie serial are just the kind of cliffhangers and daring escapades presented at the biennial Orphan Film Symposium, where for the past decade, archivists, preservationists, filmmakers, scholars, curators, collectors, distributors, and librarians have gathered to revel in the wonders of the rarest and most neglected of moving image artifacts. Over the course of four days this April, at New York's SVA Theatre in Chelsea, the 7th Orphan Film Symposium assembled some 300 "orphanistas" to listen to the latest discoveries and rescue missions of cinematic archaeology.

Of course, as the "orphan" metaphor suggests, the symposium is less about raiding the lost arks of cinema than about placing them in the loving, parental care of dedicated preservationists. And since the symposium's inaugural meeting at the University of South Carolina in 1999, this notion of the "orphan film" has gathered in both prominence and scope. What once simply identified those film works that have been abandoned (however inadvertently) by their owners, rights-holders, or "parents"—newsreels and ephemera, unreleased and unfinished works, home movies and stag films—now serves as a catchall for any work that exists outside the mainstream of commercial cinema. Indeed, any film whose future is in jeopardy—due to its diminished status in film history or its low priority in the usual operations of the archive—could be classified an orphan.

Dan Streible, the symposium's founder and associate professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and associate director of its Moving Image Archive and Preservation (MIAP) program, explains: "While a film might not be literally abandoned by its owner, if it is unseen or not part of the universe of knowledge about moving images, it is essentially orphaned." So, at Orphans, Edward Bland's excoriating and prescient 1959 short The Cry of Jazz plays alongside a fragment of the lost first film by Georgian-Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov, and a 1933 film advertising laundry services in Vienna follows a psychedelic Sears commercial made by avant-garde filmmakers Pat O'Neill, Neon Park, and Chick Strand. Whereas many a hoary Hollywood classic gets a dusting off with each new DVD (or Blu-ray) release, films like these command far less attention, and this general lack of attention leaves them susceptible to degradation and neglect. "Physical deterioration obviously puts films at risk," Streible cautions. "In this sense, more moving image works are orphaned—or headed to the orphanage—than not." (See Streible's introduction to the new Orphans-themed issue of The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, Spring 2010, vi-xix.)

Such painstaking care of decaying materials and crumbling artifacts seems to offset the casual perception of academic film studies as an unnecessarily theoretical and rarefied pursuit—esoteric, obtuse, and generally lacking in fun. By contrast, cinema studies' sister discipline of film archiving and preservation requires considerably more hands-on labor, along with a passionate attention to the physical details of cinema's history. Indeed, it's a well-worn irony in this crowd that the old cinema studies chestnut, proffered in 1935 by Walter Benjamin, that cinema's act of mechanical reproduction strips an object of its "aura" is dead wrong. At Orphans, the auratic value of celluloid itself—"its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be"—is reaffirmed minute by minute, with each collective cry of pleasure at the sight of a pristine restoration and each communal gasp of horror at each specimen of warped, moldy, vinegary celluloid.

Take, for example, the anecdote relayed by George Willeman, nitrate vault manager at the Library of Congress's National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. When NYU's Tamiment Library acquired several hundred film reels along with the collection of the American Communist Party in 2006, librarians discovered a six-reel nitrate print of the International Workers Aid's film about the 1926 Passaic Textile Strike, including a fifth reel once thought lost. While the other reels were in passable condition, the storied fifth reel—which documents the impact of the strike on the New Jersey mill workers' children—was in terrible shape because of nitrate decay and bad splicing cement that had fused the entire reel of film into what Willeman described as "a hockey puck." Delicately and patiently, Willeman unspooled the reel with a pair of tin shears and a screwdriver, salvaging whatever fragments he could, and reconstructed the reel piece by piece.

With the material history of film already very much in mind, this year's Orphans placed special emphasis on the international transit of the celluloid artifact. Subtitled (with pun intended) "Moving Pictures Around the World," Orphans 7 focused on legacies similar to that of the Argentine Metropolis print, astonishing tales of films lost and found, sometimes in the darnedest of places, from Zimbabwe to Austria, China to Jamaica. Vanessa Toulmin of the University of Sheffield's National Fairground Archive discovered six Edison Kinetoscope films, one thought lost, in a shopping bag full of nitrate from the collection of a turn-of-the-century English carnival showman; art historian Juan Salas, working in the NYU Library, dug up the lost first film by French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, documenting American volunteer combatants in the Spanish Civil War. The Library of Congress undertook the preservation of a shed-load of silent B-westerns and assorted nitrate, formerly archived in the backyard storage room of octogenarian John Maddox of Duck Run, Tennessee.

The work of orphanistas like Willeman, Toulmin, and Salas is not simply about locating and saving celluloid from total decay, but also about making films available to students, scholars, and the public through the institution of the archive. In this sense, the archive becomes not just a repository for the odds and ends of cinema history, but part of a living record of the last century to be shared as widely as possible. As Foucault says in The Archaeology of Knowledge, "In our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments": the transfer of obsolete 3/4-inch U-matic tapes from the Nicaraguan Television & Latin American Video Archives (via the New York-based media project Xchange TV) to a more stable digital format preserves a rare document of independent Nicaraguan media in the 1980s under Sandinista rule (and U.S. sanctions); and the preservation of the 1904 film by Valparaiso University, Chicago Film Archives, and Colorlab not only salvages the documentation of a traveling live performance of Longfellow's famous poem, but also provides an invaluable record of the local Ojibwe Indians who enacted the drama.

Each of these preservations suggests that—Benjamin's "aura" aside—film's mechanical reproducibility allows for a great deal of international circulation, which in turn raises new questions about the involvement of state-funded national archives in the preservation and archiving of films from foreign countries. One of Orphans 7's most pressing issues was that of the repatriation of film materials to their respective nations of origin, and one of its great goals the fostering of collaboration and communication between archives and institutions from different countries. Film Connection Australia-America, a partnership between the U.S.'s National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA), offered an encouraging example of such collaboration in the restoration of eight American films that had long been unavailable in America, including the 1920 animated "half-reeler" On Strike, one of more than 300 such films featuring the popular comic strip duo of Mutt & Jeff. Such collaborations are still more important for archives in Africa, where a variety of challenges—political, economical, technological, and climate-related—threaten the future of local audiovisual heritage. The urgency of Africa's situation was driven home by Ishumael Zinyengere of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the National Archives of Zimbabwe, and by Mona Jimenez (NYU/MIAP), whose ongoing efforts with Audiovisual Preservation Exchange (APEX) in Accra, Ghana, have provided local archives with much-needed education, resources, and equipment.

In essence, the ability of this collective effort by preservationists, curators, academics, archives, and the public to overcome physical, political, economic, and even legal limitations is what Orphans is all about—even as the apparent panacea of the digital archive threatens to make the preservation of film obsolete. No symposium on archiving and preservation would be complete without a discussion of digital archiving's pros and cons, and while many orphanistas, like Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Archives, have demonstrated the extraordinary expansion of access afforded by the online archive, others are wary of its limitations. NYU/MIAP's Jennifer Blaylock noted, in discussing her graduate work with APEX in Ghana, how digital access tends to flatten the particularities inherent in a physical archive. Filmmakers Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin presented their own abstract explorations of digitization with some samples of their series Lossless, which incisively demonstrated in soupy, globular images of Meshes of the Afternoon, The Searchers, and a Busby Berkeley musical what is retained and what is lost in the process of digital compression.

Unlike in the world of sound preservation, where Broadcast Wave Format files have thoroughly replaced the bothersome clutter of magnetic tape and vinyl, no means of digital moving-image archiving has been found to equal celluloid's longevity and stability. Digital media must be actively managed, moved to fresh media every few years and closely monitored for errors during every transfer, but new film prints can survive for centuries if they’re stored properly. In this sense, as Paolo Cherchi Usai of the Haghefilm Foundation has noted, "all analog cinema is potentially an orphan"—the time, expense, and labor required to preserve film, not to mention the small window of opportunity in which it must be done, means that some orphans will not see the care they demand. Still, the orphanistas soldier on.

Thanks to Zack Lischer-Katz. 


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Orphan Film Symposium 2010
The Cry of Jazz, directed by Edward Bland


April 7–10, 2010 Orphan Film Symposium


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Leo Goldsmith co-edits the film section of The Brooklyn Rail and is a PhD candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. He contributes regularly to Not Coming to a Theater Near You and Reverse Shot.

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Author's Website: Not Coming to a Theater Near You