By Marilyn Ferdinand
It was a happy day for this cinephile when I got on the radar screen of Mimi Brody. Mimi’s official title is Pick-Laudati Curator of Film at Northwestern University, which means that she is in charge of Northwestern’s film-related programming. While she can take the credit for the many and varied screening choices that occur throughout the year, it is with her approach to special events that she really shines. In 2011, she put together a three-day conference on, of all things, film criticism that brought me together with my cohort in film preservation, Farran Nehme, for the very first time (Farran was on the panels; I was an enthusiastic audience member). When there was some unfinished business from that conference, she booked an additional panel for this year that brought renowned film critic and scholar Adrian Martin to my neck of the woods. It’s rare that any university in the United States not only would take contemporary film criticism seriously enough to devote considerable time and resources to bringing together the best critics to talk about their endeavors, but also include panelists from academia, print journalism, and online blogs and digital magazines. The conference was named “Illuminating the Shadows,” and it did much to bring online criticism out of the shadow of perceived inferiority and put it on an equal footing with more traditional vehicles for film criticism.
Mimi made it a point to introduce herself to me at the conference, and has kept me up to date on other film doings that might interest me and this blog’s readers. I was very excited when she sent me an e-mail announcing “Rethinking Film Preservation: Implications and Inspirations for the 21st Century,” booked by the Preservation Department at the Northwestern University Library. Again, the approach to thinking about film looks to the future with open arms, and if there ever was a discipline in need of a gentle, but firm nudge into the future, it is film preservation and archiving. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with film collectors and buffs about the Chapter 11 filing of Kodak and the demise of celluloid, with the hand wringers and outraged mixing with the genuinely nervous repertory programmers who wonder what will happen to their ability to get and show high-quality 16mm and 35mm prints. Greedy corporations are blamed for failing to understand the aesthetic quality and purity of celluloid, forcing independent exhibitors like Chicago’s 85-year-old Patio Theater to ask Kickstarter investors to help fund the purchase of a $70,000 digital projector just so they can stay in business.
Bringing a knowledgeable, practical, and forward-thinking preservationist and archivist like Dr. Caroline Frick to speak to a diverse audience was another brilliant stroke. Dr. Frick is an enthusiastic, intelligent, and funny individual who is the president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and founder and executive director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI). Because I attended her presentation, I now have a clearer picture of where we are and where we might be going in our continuing efforts to save our audiovisual heritage.
Frick began with a fascinating fact about a list that even the most diehard film buff probably hasn’t heard of or voiced an opinion about (that might change right now!): the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The vision and mission of this program are below:
The vision of the Memory of the World Programme is that the world’s documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected for all and, with due recognition of cultural mores and practicalities, should be permanently accessible to all without hindrance.
The mission of the Memory of the World Programme is:
* To facilitate preservation, by the most appropriate techniques, of the world’s documentary heritage.
* To assist universal access to documentary heritage.
* To increase awareness worldwide of the existence and significance of documentary heritage.
Of interest to film fans is the fact that the first of only two American films to be placed on the register (the second is an ethnographic study) is The Wizard of Oz. The film was promoted over several decades as an important representation of America’s cultural heritage, but was regarded with suspicion because it is the product of a commercial enterprise. It only made the list in 2007 because George Eastman House archives the print from which commercial products and exhibitions emanate, thus providing a link to a nonprofit organization that UNESCO seems to need to declare something in the public interest. Thus, Frick established that the peculiar public/private nature of U.S. film preservation and distribution is as American as apple pie.
David Woodley Packard; Wohelo Camp (10 minutes, 1919)
Frick set up the landscape of film preservation funding as well. David Woodley Packard, son of the cofounder of Hewlett-Packard, is responsible for the lion’s share of grants for film preservation. Preservation of films like The Wizard of Oz (aka, Hollywood films) constitute the only projects his foundation will fund. The National Film Preservation Foundation, for which For the Love of Film blogathoners have raised funds in two separate years, does the heroic work of providing funds to archives like TAMI to restore and preserve everything else, from industrial films to vintage television commercials. One film Frick is especially excited about finding, and is working to restore and preserve now, is an interview with 96-year-old “Uncle” Jeff Hamilton, who was Sam Houston’s slave. The film was literally a solid brick that had to be put in a sauna to relax.
At the same time, a big challenge to the film preservation community, including funders, is to evolve the definition of what constitutes preservation. Frick was trained in the photochemical restoration of nitrate and other film-based materials, and celluloid has been fetishized by many parts of the film community. Until recently, even the great NFPF provided funds for restoration to film, not to DVD. Frick said AMIA members are struggling to come to terms with the digital present and future, but she doesn’t see this as an either/or process. “Many copies make films safe” is her mantra, and the digital revolution has made it possible to save thousands of audiovisual artifacts that otherwise would be languishing and possibly dying waiting for their turn in the few photochemical labs still in existence—or deemed not worth the trouble at all. I commented to her after the presentation that people might not be so unforgiving of digital projection if they’d had my experience of sitting through eight time-eating film breaks during a theatrical showing of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan that forced me to abandon the screening to make an appointment. Just last night at the 13th annual Silent Summer Film Festival, impresario/organist Jay Warren did something he has never done before—he asked for donations to the Silent Film Society of Chicago to defray the sky-rocketing costs of acquiring films for the festival. If a high-quality, high-definition digital transfer of last night’s Sherlock Holmes (1922) had been available, a lot of the money spent on the festival could have been diverted to more screenings throughout the year.
Farran’s recent post on Self-Styled Siren, “The Kid with the Citizen Kane Tape,” showcased the flagging interest in our film heritage. Perhaps ironically, Frick mentioned that YouTube has created a huge appetite among the college students she teaches for vintage home videos, commercials, and industrial films—the no-copyright audiovisual artifacts that are freely available on YouTube that we cinephiles generally pay little or no attention to. Imagine if we could get more of these kids to consume films like The Wizard of Oz (which, unbelievably, Frick says more and more of her students have never seen or even heard of) online or through their cable TV provider or some other way that hasn’t even been invented yet, but will be, and soon. I am happy to say that by emphasizing access, our fundraising blogathon this year was a small step into the future for the many feature films that have been lovingly restored, preserved, and locked away in an archive waiting for someone to pay all the fees associated with showing them.
Finally, Frick shared her enthusiasm for the hundreds of films shot by director Melton Barker, of which perhaps only six or seven are still in existence. Before you run off to your film encyclopedias to figure out why you’ve never heard of this prolific director, let me explain that Barker was an itinerant filmmaker/businessman who traveled from town to town from the late 1930s through the 1970s with one script only, Kidnappers’ Foil, and induced ordinary families to pay $10 a head (more if the child had lines) to have their children appear in it. Barker is the perfect icon of American films as a populist form. Vintage audiovisual artifacts will live on to inform, entertain, and enlighten us only when we can all see and hear them.