Film refreshments

The Moving Image
October 25, 2002

Those for whom an old film is just an old film might be mystified by the concerns, passions and occasional squabblings of The Moving Image , now into its third half-yearly issue. The key point that explains and drives the journal is that an old film - any old film - is not merely a surviving artefact, it is a complex problem that can involve controversial issues of technology, aesthetics and ethics.

Film is peculiarly vulnerable to destruction and decay. The makers of early films had no incentive to preserve them. Last week's picture was old news, commercially dead and a waste of storage space: for decades films and negatives were junked almost as a matter of course.

Every projection is likely to result in losses from breaks and tears. Films get cut, edited and recycled. Film stock is volatile. The nitrate-based film of the early years is subject to sudden chemical degeneration that transforms it into explosive matter: millions of feet of film have perished through the years in spectacular conflagrations. In the 1950s, an acetate safety film was introduced, but hopes of its longevity were dashed with the appearance of its own form of auto-destruction, "the vinegar syndrome". It is a measure of film's vulnerability that in the West perhaps less than 30 per cent of fiction films made before the arrival of talking pictures have survived. In Japan, less than 1 per cent have survived.

The first concerted efforts to arrest the evaporation of the cinematic heritage date from 1935, when archives were established in London, New York and Paris. These united in 1938 as the Federation Internationale des Archives du Film (Fiaf), whose members - now a three-figure number of organisations in every part of the world - collaborate on developing techniques and strategies of film conservation and restoration.

This history, these problems and the question of what best to do for our threatened heritage are the concerns of The Moving Image . This organ of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (Amia) was set up a decade ago as a democratic alternative to Fiaf. The US-based Amia, which has a growing international membership, attracts those with an interest in preserving motion-picture heritage. Although Fiaf's members are non-profit official organisations, Amia's members include representatives of the commercial world, even the heirs of those studios that once systematically destroyed their product.

Articles in The Moving Image fall into distinct categories. There are the recurrent questions of definition: the difference between "conservation", "preservation" and "restoration". Cataloguers and academics alike are taxed with the problem of defining film genres. Thus Mark Betz can wrestle for more than 40 pages with the problem of how to catalogue the "omnibus" film, with separate episodes often directed by different people. A significant group of essays is concerned with the history of individual archival institutions and changing conservation methods. Several articles deal with the sometimes disputable ethics involved in restoring films. Should shots that a director removed be put back? Should we speculatively replace the colour tints that were applied manually to early films? How do we decide what speed to project a film from days when there was no standard? T. A. Kinsey's "The mysterious history and restoration of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc" in the first issue leads to some very ill-tempered polemics (20 frames a second or 24?) with Tony Pipolo in the following issue.

A creditable special interest of Amia is the conservation and study of amateur films and home movies. Mark Neumann's "Home movies on Freud's couch" is intriguing. But his fascination with using home movies "to probe more deeply for the potential plurality of latent meanings that dwell not only in home movies but also in those who watch and study them" could deter potential donors from exposing their family chronicles.

The Moving Image is at pains to establish itself as a proper academic journal, hence some of its authors are inclined to compose phrases such as "the screen-based exhibition of the celluloid object" when they mean "showing films". It proudly vaunts the hallmark of US academic publications, that the articles are peer reviewed. The problem is that when the subjects are new and original, there may be no "peers" adequate to the task: thus Alison Trope tackles the relatively novel subject of moving-image museums evidently without any peers able to spare her factual and orthographic errors.

Amia and The Moving Image are committed to exploring the digital recording media - which to the layman might seem the perfect solution to the archivist's problems. Forget those clumsy reels of film, why not just transfer them all to digital media, which can be endlessly copied without any loss of quality?

There are subtle aesthetic issues, of course. The question mark on the title of Howard Besser's article "Digital preservation of moving image material?" is not insignificant. Digital records have a way of fading away. They can be periodically copied and transferred, which is defined in the new vocabulary of digital archiving as "refreshing". But a worse problem is that with the rapidly changing technologies, old standards become extinct and the material recorded on them irretrievable. The solution to this is periodic updating of files to new technology ("migration") or creating costly hardware that can decipher obsolete formats ("emulation") - all easier said than organised. If old films are of their nature problems, the new technologies do not yet provide solutions.

David Robinson is the author of Chaplin: His Life and Ar t and director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists

Editor - Jan-Christopher Horak
ISBN - ISSN 1532 3978
Publisher - University of Minnesota Press
Price - Institutions $80.00, Individuals $35.00
Pages - (twice a year)

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