Film archivists save history through careful preservation

Monday, November 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

UNIVERSITY CITY — Inside the Tivoli Theatre, a couple of hundred people sat in the dark, watching an oddball smattering of movies: a tottery, fuzzed-up video of a blues singer playing guitar, footage from the 1940s of Japanese-Americans being released from an Arkansas internment camp, a home movie of a woman sweeping the front steps of her wrecked house after Hurricane Katrina and her husband, holding his hand above his head, showing just how high the water had come.

Every few minutes, the audience members clapped as the screen turned splotchy with a reel's end, as credits came up, or as the film stopped abruptly. They clapped because what they had watched was historical, funny, beautiful or plain bizarre.

But mostly, they applauded  because they just watched something that was saved.

About 470 members of the Association of Moving Image Archivists gathered in St. Louis to discuss the fine points of preservation and archiving at their annual conference.

The group is an esoteric lot, from do-it-yourselfers to executives with major entertainment companies.

But they have a common goal — to take vast amounts of filmic flotsam, the stuff most of us take for granted or forget about and save it from oblivion.

"Our mission is to preserve our moving-image heritage, both culturally and artistically," said Grover Crisp, who leads preservation efforts at Sony Pictures Entertainment. "This is not about 'Gone with the Wind.' It's about local news collections, about avant garde cinema; it's about animated films and home videos, that collectively have cultural relevance."

Though film and video are fragile, most people don't really consider their vulnerabilities, Crisp explained. "People think because they've seen something on TV, its going to be there forever."

When film was invented, it never occurred to anyone that this cheap new material might need restoration or saving.

But it became a dominant medium of artistic, historic and personal record, and now there are endless reels sitting in municipal archives, historical societies and basements that preservationists and archivists have either forgotten about or are scrambling to save and store in accessible ways.

As new technologies have emerged, first video, then digital, the problem has become more complicated, and preservationists and archivists are constantly playing catch-up.

"The general perception is that all of this material exists somewhere and is in good condition," said Janice Simpson, head of the association's board. "But a lot of it is, in fact, lost. Or will be."

One problem, for example, is that old analog video recorders aren't being made anymore, which means entire libraries of old videotape are potentially obsolete. "There are dozens of video formats and a lot of the videotape exists and not the equipment to play it back on," Crisp said.

At the conference, participants sat in sessions on various topics — how to overcome the challenges of identifying silent film fragments, "video digitization work flows" or the conversion of images from analog to digital. They also considered the broader issues of disappearance, loss and rescue.

Preservation — plucking old film from ruin or video from obsolescence — is only half of the association's mission. The other is to make archives more accessible and better organized. A big piece of this effort is happening in the transition from analog to digital, making more moving images available, especially online.

"I believe archives should be pushing their holdings toward the public," Rick Prelinger said. "Archives are justified by use."

A quarter century ago, Prelinger started a crusade to rescue the mundane and quotidian from extinction.

"I've been collecting the types of films not made in Hollywood," he said. "Specifically, advertising, industrial, educational and home movies. ... This is a media-rich country. We throw away more media than most countries produce, so there are many opportunities to collect."

There are many opportunities to preserve and keep, creating something of a backlog in the conversion of film and video to digital, the medium that is most accessible these days but presents its own questions.

"All three media are fragile," Prelinger said. "Nobody knows how long digital will last."

Still, the shift is happening, and preservationists and archivists remain at a threshold as they decide what's important or try to predict what could be important, and therefore, worth saving.

"Of all the different kinds of historical records, moving images are the most dynamic, the most vivid and in some ways, the most urgent, and they're the most abundant," Prelinger added. "These people are the gatekeepers."

But at Thursday's archival screening night, few people were worrying about these weighty decisions or pondering which images would be granted passage into history.

The screening night is a celebration, a chance for the country's budding and established preservationists and archivists to show their film-geek colleagues the exceptional oddities that emerged from their work over the last year. Karen Gracy, a professor at Kent State in Ohio, sat in the back row, watching the peculiar gems unfold.

There was an old anti-drug film, a home movie of a Canadian business tycoon from the 1920s, a psychedelic sex cartoon from 1976 and film of the Fox Theatre in St. Louis being built on Grand Boulevard.

There was footage found at estate sales and in trash bins. And then, the penultimate piece and apparent crowd favorite: a promotional film made for the Bobcat Co. in 1968, with a red-haired go-go girl and a white front-loader engaged in an unusual dance of sorts. The dancer shimmies and shakes; the front-loader weaves and jerks. The piece ends as the go-go dancer blows the camera a kiss and shares a provocative wink.

"You can't make this stuff up," Gracy said.

Which is exactly the point.

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