Out of the Past

A report from the conference of the Association of Moving Image Archivists
by Sam Adams  posted November 19, 2010
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On a laptop in Philadelphia's Loews Hotel, the Lederer family is still alive. Linsday Zarwell, a film and video archivist from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is showing clips of Jewish life in Europe before World War II, part of a larger undertaking to tell the story of the Holocaust through home movies and amateur footage. In this footage, filmed in the former Czechoslovakia in 1939 or 1940, the family are carefree, twirling through a mountain meadow and strolling freely through the streets. It's a peaceful, even innocuous scene, until Zarwell informs me that the father died in a labor camp, and the mother and children were sent to Terezin and then Auschwitz, where they were killed in May of 1945.

Another piece of footage shows Warsaw's Jewish quarter (separate from the ghetto) in June of 1939, only months before the occupation. The vivid colors and striking quality bring an obliterated culture back to life.

Like many at the Association of Moving Image Archivists' fall convention, which ran from November 2 through 6, Zarwell is working to make his museum's collection accessible to those who never walk through its doors. The above clips and hundreds more are available at the Holocaust Memorial Museum's website, and are also being compiled into a series of DVDs.

In the past, archivists have served the function of gatekeepers, preserving their collections at the expense of allowing easy public access. But nowadays, says AMIA board member Dennis Doros, many are seeing the wisdom of throwing open their doors, virtually or otherwise.

Doros is also the co-founder of Milestone Films, whose dazzling print of On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1957), restored by the Cineteca di Bologna, screened for conference members and the general public on Saturday night. As a theatrical distributor, he has a foot in the archival world and one in the commercial arena, so he is particularly aware of the changes in the way the public watches moving images. Milestone secured a theatrical run for On the Bowery at Film Forum in New York—it's back for a repeat engagement November 19 through 25—and will be moving prints around the country; it is also scheduled to be the company's first Blu-ray release.

As digital restoration grows more sophisticated, extending if not replacing physical processes, the barrier between the theater and the Web is becoming more permeable. "For the last several years, there's been a lot of funding for access to the archives, and not as much for restoration," Doros says. "But now it's one and the same thing."

The importance of technical concerns was evident in the fact that this year AMIA and the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives held their conferences jointly, with discrete tracks devoted to each discipline as well as panels addressing their overlapping interests.

Jan-Christopher Horak, of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, said that UCLA is in the process of digitizing its analog archive, including 27 million feet of Hearst newsreels, and building the back end to make it practically accessible. Horak, who took the reins of the UCLA archive in 2008, has made expanding into the digital realm a priority, including building a website devoted to the L.A. Underground, a group of filmmakers including Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, and Julie Dash who will be the subject of a UCLA retrospective in the fall of 2011. But ultimately, Horak says, the Web is "just another delivery system."

"I don't see it as that big of a sea change," says Horak of the move from analog to digital. "There's still a lot of preparation to be done. You need to make sure when you're transferring it that you're timing it right, so the image quality translates into the new medium and so on." The bigger change will be behind the scenes, in the infrastructure of archives themselves. "It will change the nature of the field," he says, "and it may have repercussions in terms of how many people are actually working in the field." The physical objects remain, but the structures needed to move them in and out of vaults and to ship prints and materials around the globe will become less important.

Long-term digital storage is still a tricky proposition, with no universally agreed-upon format and the all-or-nothing risk of digital decay. (Think of an old VHS tape that, while worn out, still plays, compared to a DVD that can be made unwatchable with a single scratch.) "We can take a 35mm print, put it into a vault, and that material can stay there for hundreds of years in passive storage, except every once in a while looking in the can," Horak says. "But with digital there are huge issues in terms of storage, in terms of replication, in terms of migration to newer formats."

In the era of YouTube and video on demand, the tacit assumption is that everything worth watching is readily available, and anything else isn't worth the trouble. But AMIA's members gathered at Philadelphia's International House on the last night of the conference to show just how wrong that assumption is. Over the course of two and a half hours, two dozen AMIA members presented recent finds and old favorites. Chuck Howell from the University of Maryland Broadcasting Archive presented a snippet of a St. Louis New Year's Eve special, with a bunny-eared Steve Martin dazzling on the banjo, while Appalshop's Caroline Rubens showed an excerpt from the documentary United Mine Workers of America, 1970: A House Divided, with UMWA president Tony Boyle raging about the influence of "outsiders" on the union—this shortly before his arrest for embezzlement and murder.

Some were fascinating historical artifacts, like Queens at Heart (1965), presented by Outfest's Kristen Pepe, a stilted news profile of four male transvestites that offered a rare look at gay life pre-Stonewall, or the introduction Emile De Antonio filmed to give foreign audiences a context for Point of Order (1964), taken from UCLA's collection. Ode to Muzak (1972), brought by the New York Public Library's Elena Rossi-Snook, touted the Taylorist uses of the canned-music service, scientifically calibrated to increase human productivity; with its bizarre low-angle shots and wide lenses, it could have served as an unacknowledged touchstone for Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Others were delightful larks, like an excerpt from Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich (1958), shown by Cinerama's Randy Gitsch, a Smileboxed snippet of the only movie filmed in three-panel "Cinemiracle."

Milestone's Doros screened Sand Bubbles (1916), silent documentary, found during a periodic eBay search, filmed at the Dorflinger Glass Works in White Mills, Pennsylvania. Perhaps it was a coincidence that Doros's film was devoted to the painstaking labor of artisans toiling in what is now a largely defunct profession, but the resonance was not lost on its audience. 


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Milestone Film & Video
On the Bowery, directed by Lionel Rogosin
Photo Gallery: Out of the Past


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Sam Adams is a Contributing Editor at Philadelphia City Paper and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. His writing on movies, music and popular culture has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Film Comment, and The A.V. Club. His essays on Two-Lane Blacktop and Greendale will appear in the forthcoming National Society of Film Critics anthology The B List.

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