Certified Copy: Film Preservation in the Age of New Cinephilia

By Leah Churner

My cinema education was backwards: from a primal attachment to video in the suburban backwoods, I discovered film in the city. This trajectory, from small screen to large, comes with its own fundamental logic. As Thomas Elsaesser observes in his essay “Cinephilia, or the Uses of Disenchantment,” published in a 2005 anthology called Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory, the contemporary breed of movie love has matured at a time of academic purgatory–critical theory’s aftermath–and a dumpster-diving impulse seems to be one of its distinguishing characteristics.

These things are related. In college (I studied art history) it seemed to me that everything had been said, challenged, reiterated, and reworded again: an echo chamber of theory. I craved tactile discovery, historical aura. I wanted to plunge into the obscure to find something less mediated, more authentic, that hadn’t been pawed threadbare already.

Cinephilia is about film literacy–being well viewed and well read in the history of the cinema. But even as we argue about it, blog about it, and publish revisionist histories of it, the very object of critical worship is disappearing. The Film Foundation estimates that half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are permanently lost. As an archivist and curator, I find that too often discussions about cinema in the 21st century hinge on changing reception contexts and ignore the physicality of film. I’m troubled by three pervasive clichés in particular: First, that 35mm theatrical projection is the only proper, shame-free way to watch movies. Second, that the proliferation of digital delivery systems means people are no longer concerned with proper presentation and format. (Riding the New York City subways each week, I have never encountered evidence that a large swath of the population is watching features on their iPhones.) And third, that all of film history is available at our fingertips thanks to DVDs and the Internet.

Because attitudes about film seem to break down along generational lines, it’s pointless to try to conceal your age when you’re writing about cinephilia. I was born in 1982 in north Texas. The extinction of neighborhood cinemas in this region had already been the subject of a Larry McMurtry novel in 1966, and a 1971 film adaptation by Peter Bogdanovich, The Last Picture Show. To see a movie you drove to the mall twenty miles away. So my first connection with “film” was on video: movies taped off cable and rented from the single chain video store in town, Blockbuster. (In fact, their corporate headquarters were not far off, and the company remains one of the top employers in my hometown.) Around the time I was 12, my parents instituted a short-lived “movie night.” As I recall, the initial run of the series was The Graduate, A Clockwork Orange and Suddenly, Last Summer. These films were freighted with carnal themes that made them excruciatingly awkward to watch with your parents, but even as I cringed I understood the generosity of the gesture: they were trying to equip my sister and I with vision to see beyond the Bible Belt.

In college I had my choice of independent video stores. I didn’t have any cinephile friends,  so my VHS tour through world cinema was self-guided and haphazard. I worked my way through Buñuel, John Waters, Polanski, Wenders, Herzog. I best remember watching Fassbinder; all his movies had a sickly green-gray tint. The picture was dark, muddy, and low-contrast, but I kept renting them. I’d watched all of Paul Morrissey before that, so I assumed the shitty look of the Fassbinder movies was an artistic choice. It wasn’t until I moved to New York at 22 and saw The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant at the Museum of Modern Art that I realized something was wrong with those video copies. In 35mm, the textures, colors, faces, and music were devastatingly beautiful, and I was a sobbing wreck by the time I walked out into the sunlight. Since then I’ve had countless thrills in repertory land. Off the top of my head: a nitrate print of Portrait of Jennie at the George Eastman House; Blow Out in its original Dolby Stereo at BAM; a triple feature of A Fistful of Dollars, Play Misty for Me, and Dirty Harry at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (followed by a Skype interview with Clint Eastwood, who was vacationing in Hawaii, wearing a Hawaiian shirt); The Magnificent Ambersons and The Night of the Hunter at the Landmark Loews, an eighty-year-old movie palace in Jersey City.

Video releases have rivaled (or exceeded) box-office takes for almost two decades. 35mm projection is gradually evacuating the realm of everyday life and moving into the high culture “museum experience.” Having grown up in this milieu, it seems odd to me that some writers of an earlier cinephile generation discuss the demise of celluloid and the rush of digital delivery systems in the home as if it were a voluntary choice, i.e., we have “sacrificed” image quality and communion in the dark for increased selection, convenience, and wider geographic distribution of titles. Take, for instance, Susan Sontag’s 1996 essay “The Decay of Cinema,” in which she states:

Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia — the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired….To see a great film only on television isn’t to have really seen that film….The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film….To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.

Or consider James Quandt’s recent remarks in “Everyone I Know Is Stayin’ Home: The New Cinephilia”: “In the blithe celebration of the film culture born of new media, few seem willing to admit that essentials have been lost by unquestioning acceptance of the recent formats.”

Let’s parse Sontag’s idea first. Is watching a film on video radically disrespectful? Only if we’re willing to invalidate the entire history of non-theatrical exhibition. In 1923, Pathé introduced Pathéscope, a 9.5mm film format marketed for home viewing of commercially produced movies, and for the next five decades, up until the arrival of the VCR, small-gauge reduction prints were a significant part of the education of cinephiles. (As Paul Schrader remarked to Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: “People today complain about watching a movie on tape. Did you ever watch an 8mm print of Nosferatu on a sheet?”) Libraries and universities maintained 16mm print collections for study on flatbed (rear projection) viewers. And as archivist Leo Enticknap explains in his intricate history Moving Image Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital:

From the 1930s onward, 16mm was also used by groups of enthusiasts called film societies to show reduction prints of commercially produced features; this often included films which had been banned from 35mm theatrical release for political reasons.

Just as the small screen took forms other than television and home video, big screen settings have varied significantly throughout history, from storefront nickelodeons of the teens to the movie palaces of the thirties, the rented-out Broadway theaters of the fifties roadshows to the drive-ins of the sixties and the arthouses and Times Square fleapits of the seventies. Unconsidered in Sontag’s essay is how the movie theater’s physical and technical shortcomings—blown speakers, subway noise, poor seating, inferior projection equipment or projectionists–can degrade the viewing experience. (And “anonymous strangers” wont to stage-whisper, perambulate, belch, and rustle plastic sacks are dangers even to the most vaunted repertory spaces in Manhattan.

Sontag’s title is especially bizarre. She refers to cinema’s figurative “decay” and “ignominious, irreversible decline,” but never mentions the actual decay of film–the problem of celluloid as a thing that decomposes, physically and chemically, over time. In the same year that Sontag pronounced the death of movie love in America, the U.S. Congress passed the Film Preservation Act, which established the National Film Preservation Foundation (a charter that has served to legitimize film preservation as a form of private philanthropy). Also that year, Jeffrey Selznick and Paolo Cherchi Usai established the first academic training program for film archivists at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Since then, around ten more graduate programs have appeared around the world, each churning out about ten master’s degrees each year. (I attended New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program and have traveled to many professional conferences. I can attest that there is a shortage of jobs but no shortage of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings willing to do unpaid internships.)

Which brings me to the issue that James Quandt wrestles with in his essay, new cinephilia’s “unquestioning acceptance of new formats.” New formats are the primary cause of ulcers in my field. Because the cycle of obsolescence occurs so quickly in data storage technology, there is no accepted method of digital preservation. Good luck watching that LaserDisc or pulling data off that floppy drive. Since it has remained relatively unchanged for over a century, 35mm is considered the only “archival” format, and the only way to truly “preserve” a film is to create a new negative and prints from existing film elements. This is much costlier than digitization. Therefore, the availability of any given title in digital form does not mean the source elements have been preserved, or even that a print would be available if you wanted to include it in a film program.

Finally, there’s the widespread assumption that “everything is available” now, thanks to digital delivery. This is patently false, and yet Thomas Elsaesser (who founded the Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image M.A. program at the University of Amsterdam) writes in the same essay mentioned earlier that “the new cinephile has to know how to savor…the anachronisms generated by total availability, by the fact that the whole of film history is henceforth present in the here and now.” Film’s physicality, along with market forces and ever-changing cultural preferences, preclude the possibility of ever having “the whole of film history” at our disposal. Even if we set aside the issue of preservation-for-posterity and look at what is commercially available at this moment, the situation is troubling. Many works that have been preserved “film-to-film” are unavailable on digital platforms. I’ve worked on NFPF projects to restore films by Hollis Frampton, Mike and George Kuchar, Carolee Schneemann and Lawrence Weiner, and none of the final products are available in any digital form. In the realm of narrative features (preserved or not), the apparent expansion of selection through digital platforms is misleading. While the incremental upgrading of consumer formats is a positive thing in terms of image and sound quality (of course, Criterion’s release of Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy is an immeasurable improvement on the VHS), there is the problem of “format turnover.” Each time we upgrade, the cost and trouble of reformatting winnows our selection: it’s more expensive to put out a Blu-ray than it is to put out a DVD, and more expensive to put out a DVD than it was to put out a VHS tape. Jan-Christopher Horak, the head of UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, spoke about this at length in his excellent article “The Gap Between 1 and 0.” I interviewed Horak shortly after it was published in 2007, and he elaborated:

Each format change has narrowed the choice of what is available. This is an empirical fact. There are huge numbers of titles that used to be out on VHS but are not coming out on DVD, and they’re not going to come out on DVD because it’s simply too expensive. It may change again once we go to purely digital Internet distribution, but maybe not. There will always be a new format, better compression, and the R&D necessary for creating new formats will keep the price high.

The notion that “everything is available” also presumes a very narrow definition of cinema, one that is perhaps 80% narrative features, 15% documentaries and 5% non-narrative experimental films. But that perspective is itself skewed by market forces–by the kinds of titles available on video and circumstances of copyright. Increasingly, film enthusiasts steeped in thirty years of home video are embracing a much wider definition of cinema (the rise of moving image as an institutional term attests to this). In one of his roundtable posts for this site, Neil Young quotes Manny Farber, whose thoughts (printed over forty years ago) bear repeating here: “Now people who take films seriously study skin flicks, TV commercials, scopitone…The sheer bulk of what is known as film, plus the equal cheers for so many different types of film, has loosened everyone’s bowels.”

Among items screened by the Orphan Film Symposium, led by NYU’s Dan Streible, in recent years:  Sam Fuller’s first known film, a 16mm document of the U.S. Army’s liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp (1945), and Ed Bland’s documentary indictment of white America, The Cry of Jazz (1958) and Saul Bass’ Oscar-winning short film Why Man Creates (1968). Other inspired programs are even further out in the margins, like “That’s Undertainment!,” a recent installment of Anthology Film Archives’ “Unessential Cinema” series curated by Andy Lampert (“Tonight only, our bleary-eyed presenters will unleash their findings in a 4-projector expanded cinema foray into the very heart of dullness”), and “A/V Geeks,” Skip Elsheimer’s traveling showcases culled from his own collection of industrial and classroom films, where one might see the 16mm Shake Hands With Danger, a grisly safety film directed by Carnival of Souls’ Herk Harvey. And, coming soon to Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York: “The Unfinished Film,” a survey of derailed projects by Pasolini, Kenneth Anger, Erich von Stroheim and twenty other filmmakers and artists, curated by Thomas Beard (June 24-July 31).

As a culture, we’ve lived through the analog-to-digital transition. Brought up in a nest of analog tangibles, many of us now find ourselves indulging in pack-rat behaviors and frowning at the horizon of “disembodied content.” A good thing about living in the 21st century is that it’s possible to watch the whole Janus catalog in pajamas. But with that privilege comes an impulse to go ransack the archives (or the basements and attics of collectors and amateur producers) to find treasures tossed aside. Today’s cinephile, like yesterday’s, has to go out and dig.

Leah Churner is a film/video archivist and guest curator at Museum of the Moving Image and Anthology Film Archives.

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