Casting a shadow

Last week saw the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, in which bloggers around the world took on the themes of Hitchcock or silent film or film preservation, or combinations thereof. Organised by organisers the blogs Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod, the inspiration was the recent discovery of part of The White Shadow (1923), the film on which Hitchcock served as art director and assistant director (the director was Graham Cutts), the goal being to raise funds through donations to enable the National Film Preservation Fund to put the film online with music score, for us all to enjoy.

The sum required is $15,000, and sadly as of today the campaign has raised $2,140 [Update: as of 21 May it is $6,490]. This is disappointing, especially as previous such preservation blogathons have achieved their targets. Maybe it’s the global economy; maybe people out there like reading about Hitch but don’t feel too passionately about watching Cutts; or maybe there’s simply been so much to read that they haven’t had time to donate as yet.

Well, there is still time, and with a 100 or so bloggers who signed up to the blogathon, each of which should easily be getting 150 viewers per post (and in some cases a great deal more), it only requires each reader to donate one dollar to hit the target. Do the math, then hit the Hitch to your left.

As encouragement, here’s a listing of the For the Love of Film posts which have related to silent Hitchcock or silent films in general. If I’ve missed out any relating to silent films, do let me know, and I’ll add them to the list.

So no one took up the challenge of Downhill or even Always Tell Your Wife, eh? Nor the silent Blackmail, which is the greater surprise.

You can find all of these posts listed and illustrated on The Bioscope’s sister news site courtesy of Scoop It.

Update: Here are other silent-related posts from the bloagthon that I missed:

For the love of Hitchcock

Bloggers are good people, or we strive to be, and what better evidence of this could there be than For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. A blogathon is where bloggers each write on the same theme on each of their respective blogs, linking to other blogs doing the same. The Film Preservation Blogathon, now in its third year, takes film history as its theme but goes that much further by raising funds for film preservation (i.e. a PayPal button appears on blog posts encouraging everyone to contribute their little bit).

In its first year the Blogathon raised funds to enable the National Film Preservation Foundation to restore The Sergeant (1910) and The Better Man (1912), two of the silent-era American films whose discovery in the New Zealand Film Archive we reported at the time. Last year funds were raised to help the Film Noir Foundation restore Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (1950).

The subject of this year’s Film Preservation Blogathon is Alfred Hitchcock. The aim is to raise funds to enable last year’s great discovery, The White Shadow (1923), directed by Graham Cutts with Hitchcock serving as assistant director, art director and more, to be put online by the NFPF with music score (for four months only, presumably because of ongoing hosting costs). This excellent and imaginative objective will cost in the region of $15,000.

The Blogathon runs 13-18 May 2012, and you can read more about it on the blogs of its three organisers, Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod. There will be more information on how to participate, and how to contribute donations, on each of those blogs as the date gets nearer, or follow all developments on the For the Love of Film Facebook page.

As said, the subject is Hitchcock, any aspect, though the organisers have expanded on this to include (and I quote)

Hitchcock, British silent films, silent film scores, film preservation and the people who do it (but please, as much as we love and revere him, no tributes to Martin Scorsese), the suspense genre, the stars of The White Shadow, Graham Cutts, and other related esoterica.

The Bioscope fervently hopes that at least one Graham Cutts blog post appears out of this (an entire Graham Cutts blogathon was always going to be a bit of a folorn hope). The man has never been so famous, and now’s the time to give him his due when people will be listening. We’ll do something for the Blogathon here at The Bioscope, and fingers crossed we’ll all be able to see The White Shadow in the not so distant future.

National Film Registry 2011

The Cry of the Children

It’s that time of the year once again at the end of the year when we have the announcement of twenty-five further films added to the National Film Registry. Each year the Librarian of Congress (James H. Billington), with advice from the National Film Preservation Board (and with recommendations made by the public), names twenty-five American films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant that are to be added to the National Film Registry, “to be preserved for all time”. The idea is that such films are not selected as the “best” American films of all time, but rather as “works of enduring significance to American culture”.

Four silent films are among the titles chosen for 2011: the Thanhouser Film Company’s heartfelt social problem drama The Cry of the Children (1912), the world’s most popular film comedian before Chaplin, John Bunny, in A Cure for Pokeritis (1912), with his regular foil Flora Finch; John Ford’s classic railroad western The Iron Horse (1924); and Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, The Kid (1921). Here’s how the National Film Registry describes its silent choices:

The Cry of the Children (1912)
Recognized as a key work that both reflected and contributed to the pre-World War I child labor reform movement, the two-reel silent melodrama “The Cry of the Children” takes its title and fatalistic, uncompromising tone of hopelessness from the 1842 poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “The Cry of the Children” was part of a wave of “social problem” films released during the 1910s on such subjects as drugs and alcohol, white slavery, immigrants and women’s suffrage. Some were sensationalist attempts to exploit lurid topics, while others, like “The Cry of the Children,” were realistic exposés that championed social reform and demanded change. Shot partially in a working textile factory, “The Cry of the Children” was recognized by an influential critic of the time as “The boldest, most timely and most effective appeal for the stamping out of the cruelest of all social abuses.”

A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)
Largely forgotten today, actor John Bunny merits significant historical importance as the American film industry’s earliest comic superstar. A stage actor prior to the start of his film career, Bunny starred in over 150 Vitagraph Company productions from 1910 until his death in 1915. Many of his films (affectionately known as “Bunnygraphs”) were gentle “domestic” comedies, in which he portrayed a henpecked husband alongside co-star Flora Finch. “A Cure for Pokeritis” exemplifies the genre, as Finch conspires with similarly displeased wives to break up their husbands’ weekly poker game. When Bunny died in 1915, a New York Times editorial noted that “Thousands who had never heard him speak…recognized him as the living symbol of wholesome merriment.” The paper presciently commented on the importance of preserving motion pictures and sound recordings for future generations: “His loss will be felt all over the country, and the films, which preserve his humorous personality in action, may in time have a new value. It is a subject worthy of reflection, the value of a perfect record of a departed singer’s voice, of the photographic films perpetuating the drolleries of a comedian who developed such extraordinary capacity for acting before the camera.”

The Iron Horse (1924)
John Ford’s epic Western “The Iron Horse” established his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most accomplished directors. Intended by Fox studios to rival Paramount’s 1923 epic “The Covered Wagon,” Ford’s film employed more than 5,000 extras, advertised authenticity in its attention to realistic detail, and provided him with the opportunity to create iconic visual images of the Old West, inspired by such master painters as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. A tale of national unity achieved after the Civil War through the construction of the transcontinental railroad, “The Iron Horse” celebrated the contributions of Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants although the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country legally was severely restricted at the time of its production. A classic silent film, “The Iron Horse” introduced to American and world audiences a reverential, elegiac mythology that has influenced many subsequent Westerns.

The Kid (1921)
Charles Chaplin’s first full-length feature, the silent classic “The Kid,” is an artful melding of touching drama, social commentary and inventive comedy. The tale of a foundling (Jackie Coogan, soon to be a major child star) taken in by the Little Tramp, “The Kid” represents a high point in Chaplin’s evolving cinematic style, proving he could sustain his artistry beyond the length of his usual short subjects and could deftly elicit a variety of emotions from his audiences by skillfully blending slapstick and pathos.

The other films on the 2011 list are Allures (1961), Bambi (1942), The Big Heat (1953), A Computer Animated Hand (1972), Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963), El Mariachi (1992), Faces (1968), Fake Fruit Factory (1986), Forrest Gump (1994), Growing Up Female (1971), Hester Street (1975), I, an Actress (1977), The Lost Weekend (1945), The Negro Soldier (1944), Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s) [technically silent, of course], Norma Rae (1979), Porgy and Bess (1959), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Stand and Deliver (1988), Twentieth Century (1934), War of the Worlds (1953).

The full list of films entered on the National Film Registry since 1989 can be found here, while this is the list of all silents (or films with some silent content) on the Registry 1989-2010:

The Bargain (1914)
Ben-Hur (1926)
Big Business (1929)
The Big Parade (1925)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Black Pirate (1926)
Blacksmith Scene (1893)
The Blue Bird (1918)
Broken Blossoms (1919)
The Cameraman (1928)
The Cheat (1915)
The Chechahcos (1924)
Civilization (1916)
Clash of the Wolves (1925)
Cops (1922)
A Corner in Wheat (1909)
The Crowd (1928)
The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916-17)
Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-95)
The Docks of New York (1928)
Evidence of the Film (1913)
The Exploits of Elaine (1914)
Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915)
Flesh and the Devil (1927)
Foolish Wives (1920)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
The Freshman (1925)
From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
The General (1927)
Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
The Gold Rush (1925)
Grass (1925)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Greed (1924)
H20 (1929)
Hands Up (1926)
Hell’s Hinges (1926)
Heroes All (1920)
The Immigrant (1917)
In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)
Intolerance (1916)
It (1927)
The Italian (1915)
Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest (1910)
The Kiss (1896)
Lady Helen’s Escapade (1909)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)
The Last Command (1928)
The Last of the Mohicans (1920)
The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1927)
Little Nemo (1911)
Lonesome (1928)
The Lost World (1925)
Mabel’s Blunder (1914)
Making of an American (1920)
Manhatta (1921)
Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Miss Lulu Bett (1922)
Nanook of the North (1922)
Newark Athlete (1891)
One Week (1920)
Pass the Gravy (1928)
Peter Pan (1924)
The Perils of Pauline (1914)
Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Power of the Press (1928)
Precious Images (1986)
Preservation of the Sign Language (1913)
President McKinley Inauguration Footage (1901)
Princess Nicotine; or The Smoke Fairy (1909)
Regeneration (1915)
The Revenge of Pancho Villa (1930-36)
Rip Van Winkle (1896)
Safety Last (1923)
Salome (1922)
San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, April 18, 1906 (1906)
Seventh Heaven (1927)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Show People (1928)
Sky High (1922)
The Son of the Sheik (1926)
Stark Love (1927)
Star Theatre (1901)
The Strong Man (1926)
Sunrise (1927)
Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
There it is (1928)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Tol’able David (1921)
Traffic in Souls (1913)
A Trip Down Market Street (1906)
The Wedding March (1928)
Westinghouse Works, 1904 (1904)
Where Are My Children? (1916)
Wild and Wooly (1917)
The Wind (1928)
Wings (1927)
Within our Gates (1920)

The Library of Congress welcome suggestions from the public, and even provides a helpful list of titles not on the Registry yet but which are under consideration, to help prod your memories. It contains well over 200 silent films alone, which suggests that they are not about to run out of ideas just yet.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, last year we said that a list of American films worthy of preservation is all very well (and none of these films automatically gets preserved just because it is nominated – it’s an honour, not a financial award), but what about a world film registry? One which drew attention to world cinema (silents and beyond) and its need for preservation on account of its cultural, historical or aesthetic relevance. We have some films now listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register, but that’s not really enough. Isn’t it the sort of thing that FIAF ought to promote?

Reading matters

Well, it’s coming to that time of year again, and to help you get through the rigours of Christmas, we thought we come up with a selection of the books published this year on silent film which might be the sort of presents you’d rather like to get for yourselves as opposed to those you can expect from the nearest and dearest. So here’s an idiosyncractic selection of some of the publishing highlights of 2011:

Andrew Shail (ed.), Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 (University of Exeter Press). One of the most novel and interesting silent film books of the year is this mixture of anthology and critical history, which brings together eight short stories about early cinema, published at the time, paired with scholarly essays in each. Pieces such as Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Mrs Bathhurst’, George R. Sims’ ‘Our Detective Story’ and Mrs H.J. Bickle’s ‘Love and the Bioscope’ are introduced by Tom Gunning, Stephen Bottomore, Andrew Higson and others. The stories are facsimile reprints with the original illustrations, and the essays are illuminating, cogent and enthusiastic.

Bryony Dixon, 100 Silent Films (BFI/Palgrave Macmillan). The book surely no silent fan can resist is this knowledgeable, slightly polemical account of 100 representative silent films. Not the 100 best, but 100 that cover the great range of silent films, so encompassing not just the best-known feature films, but equally early cinema, documentary, newsreels, animation, natural history, actuality, advertising films and the avant garde. A book full of discoveries, with great knowledge expressed in an easy style.

Matthew Solomon, Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (State University of New York Press). It really has been Georges Méliès’ year, and two of the year’s most notable publications concern his iconic 1902 film, Le voyage dans la lune. Fantastic Voyages is a collection of essays that cover the many different aspects of the film, from its production history, to its contemporary contexts, to its meanings today. It also comes with a critical edition DVD. It’s a whole scientific adventure in itself.

La couleur retrouvée du Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon Back in color (Capricci Editions / Technicolor Foundation). This 192-page book was produced by the Technicolor Foundation to accompany the sensational colour restoration of Le voyage dans la lune. Written in English and French, it is gorgeously illustrated and jam-packed with essential information on the film’s history, Georges Méliès himself, and the restoration. It is available for free as a PDF from the Groupama Gan Foundation website; hard copies can be purchased in France, but I got mine just by writing to Technicolor and asking.

Martin Loiperdinger (ed.), Early Cinema Today: The Art of Programming and Live Performance (John Libbey). One of the themes of silent film publication this year, at least as far as this selection is concerned, is pushing the subject out into new territories. I don’t recall seeing before now a whole book devoted to the presentation and performance of early cinema today. This fascinating selection brings together essays by academics, programmers and archivists who are discovering new meanings in the films of a century ago in the act of thinking how best to put them before the audiences of today.

Charles Drazin, The Faber Book of French Cinema (Faber). This, as the title indicates, is not solely devoted to silent films, but rather takes in the whole of French cinema. Single volumes recounting the history of a national cinema for a general audience rather than specialist academic have become something of a rarity, so an acessible and useful overview like this is particularly welcome. Drazin shows due and knowledgeable attention to French silent cinema, even the complexities of the earliest period when Pathé and Gaumont first set up their multinational empires, connecting it all to the latter years of Renior, Pagnol, Duvivier, Godard, Truffaut and Audaird.

John Bengston, Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd (Santa Monica Press). John Bengston’s photographic volumes illustrating the real locations used in the great silent comedies are innovative classics. Following on from his much acclaimed volumes on Chaplin and Keaton, here he illuminates the artistry of Harold Lloyd through an understanding of the locations used in Safety Last, Girl Shy, The Freshman, Speedy and others. A delight both for the film historian and any enthusiast for social or urban history.

Aubrey Solomon, The Fox Film Corporation 1915-1935 (McFarland). A solid, really useful acount of Fox before it was Twentieth Century-Fox, this studio history covers its foundation by archetypal mogul William Fox, the man who turned a “$1600 investment into a globe-spanning $300 million empire”, the production of such classics as The Iron Horse and Sunrise, and contains a comprehensive filmography. A film book publication of the traditional and entirely reliable kind.

Caroline Frick, Saving Cinema: The Politics of Preservation (Oxford University Press). As is becoming increasingly clear, cinema history is at a crossroads, as celluloid comes to the end of its natural life and digital takes over. This makes archiving riven with practical, aesthetic and politicial choices to be made, which are the subject of huge debate. This thoughtful and well-researched book shows the dilemmas but also the great opportunities that digital brings to film archives, especially in opening up previously invisible corners of our moving image heritage. Are we saving cinema, or are we saving something else?

These are just my suggestions. If you have favourites of your own from 2011, do let us all know.

Heritage matters

http://beta.bfi.org.uk

If someone offered you £25M to save the nation’s moving image heritage, what would you say, and how would you spend it?

Both questions are worth considering, because the first answer is that you couldn’t save the nation’s moving image heritage with ten times that amount, so you need more. In fact, when the UK’s public sector moving archives (excluding Scotland and Wales) were offered round about this sum four years ago from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, it was less than they had originally asked for. The pitch had been for twice that amount, but funders love to give you just that little bit less than you asked for and see how well you do with that.

So you’ve got less than you hoped, and now you have to spend it. Of course you have to spend it against an argument presented to your funder, the argument here being a strategy in support of the UK’s screen heritage, which would help stabilise an unsteady and certainly underfunded sector. There were four ‘investment’ aims” to the strategy:

  • Securing the National Collection
    Capital works to extend and improve BFI storage facilities with appropriate conditions to safeguard the collection.
  • Revitalising the Regions
    Nomination of key collections in the English Regions, leading to improved plans for their preservation and access.
  • Delivering Digital Access
    Extending online access to the Nation’s screen heritage, through collection cross-searching and digitisation.
  • Demonstrating Educational Value
    Identifying, developing and evaluating effective use of screen heritage material within learning environments.

Four years on, and ‘demonstrating educational value’ rather got lost in the mix, but significant achievements have been made under the main three categories, and yesterday at the BFI Southbank they were announced to an invited audience. The Bioscope (naturally) was there.

It was a curious evening, which began with a clip shown from David Lean’s own 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia, inelegantly cut off just as it was getting interesting, then effusive words in praise of film as a medium to inspire, move, inform, entertain, engage and so on. The main business, however, said little about the feature film and focussed chiefly on amateur and documentary film, stressing their special capacity for capturing human experience and strongly suggesting that the film history we have is a greatly inadequate one. We know a lot about a few films, said speaker Frank Gray of Screen Archive South East, and know next to nothing about a huge number of other films that lie in archives, demanding discovery, interpretation and sharing.

We heard from the people at the BFI who have steered the strategy, with head of collection and information Ruth Kelly doing a fine turn explaining the necessities of film preservation and even managing to make database management sound interesting. A panel session stressed the great value of archive film for an understanding of history and society, and the notable achievement of the strategy in getting so many film archives to work together for a common aim (how many other sectors could boast such co-operation?). The convenor, Francine Stock, suggested that what was being argued for archive film went a good way beyond nostalgia, but unfortunately we were then shown clips from the shamelessly nostalgic BBC series Reel History of Britain, first broadcast yesterday, which shows archive films being taken around the UK and projected to weeping audiences. Though it is always moving to see someone old see themselves when young, or a parent or grandparent when young, there is so much more to the medium than this. The series bombards you with the same emotional manipulation again and again. A wasted opportunity.

The BFI Master Film Store

But how did they spend the £25M (or £22.8M as it has boiled down to)? The greater proportion of it (£12M) went on building a new master film store for the BFI, though its facilities will be available for other archives as well. This is going to take the nation’s moving image heritage and keep it cold and dry (minus 5 degrees and 35% relative humidity, to be precise). As Ruth Kelly explained, a few years ago the BFI discovered that the traditional preservation model of copying from one film onto new stock was no longer sustainable, because the amount of films on the verge of deterioration was outstripping the resources available to manage it. The solution was to keep the films at a cold enough temperature to ensure that the process of decay was halted. You don’t copy, you freeze. It seems an obvious, economical solution now, but when first proposed it caused huge controversy, with the BFI attacked on all sides, and a secret online group formed to try and save the BFI from itself. How foolish that all seems now.

The master film store is being built at Gaydon in Warwickshire, and there’s a video guide to it on the BBC news site, with Ruth Kelly telling us the difference between nitrate, acetate and polyester, and showing us round.

Officially launched yesterday was another key output of the Screen Heritage Strategy, a union search facility enabling you to search across the databases of eleven film archives in one go. Entitled Search Your Film Archives, it has already been reported on by the Bioscope, and favourably. The idea is that the search mechanism will appear on the websites of each of the participating archives, so their users can find what’s held locally and nationally in the same place. It also links you to some 3,000 online videos on their websites of the respective archives. Search Your Film Archives is a good first step, and will get better in time. It is actually of huge significance as the potential platform for a new kind of national archive, one that is shared by partner institutions, who will eventually enjoy common preservation, digitisation, discovery and distribution services. This is what is interesting about Screen Heritage UK – it has seen that the answer to stablising film archives is to change the way they work, to change what an archive means. We are not there yet, certainly, but the desirable model is becoming clearer.

The Search Your Film Archives search facility on the London Screen Archives website, showing how users can either search across the LSA database or all databases

There will be more from the BFI on the database front soon. Their filmographic database is available online, but there is a separate technical database (known to its friends as TecRec) which tells you what materials they hold on each title. After years of trying, they have finally managed to marry up the two databases, which will be published as one under the name CID (Collections Information Database) very soon. It boasts an “innovative hierarchical data structure” based on the new European metadata standard for cinematographic works, CEN EN 15907. More on that when it appears.

And there there the regions. The UK has a number of film archives operating in the public sector. As well as the nationals (BFI, Scotland, Wales, Imperial War Museum) then are a number of archives representing the English regions, and having them work alongside the BFI through something like Search Your Film Archives or the Reel History of Britain TV series is wonderful to see. The regionals have each been pursuing their own Screen Heritage-funded projects, the outcomes of which will be announced in due course. As an example on the innovative approach to archive film being taken by such institutions, consider the Yorkshire Film Archive’s Memory Bank project, which is developing therapeutic uses for archive film footage in dementia, residential and domiciliary care settings. We’ll report on what has been achieved by these other archives with the Screen Heritage funds in another post.

Reel History of Britain is itself an outcome of the Screen Heritage project, though whether it is ‘revitalising the regions’ or ‘delivering digital access’ is not very clear. It’s putting films from the 1900s onwards onto the screen (that’s your token mention of silents in this post), under themes such as Evacuation, Teenagers, Slums, and Package Holidays. It features presenter Melvyn Bragg going about the UK in a mobile cinema and showing people films of themselves or their locality from the past. It revels in the coup of uncovering the descendants of people in archive films, delighting in the thrill of recognition, that tingle up the spine we get when we see that what the film depicts really happened and has its living connection with us today. It runs daily for 20 episodes, and some of the films featured just as clips will be shown in their entirety on the BFI’s Reel History site, which is a welcome innovation. If only a little more imagination and innovation had gone into the programmes themselves…

And, finally, there’s the BFI’s new digital delivery platform still in test mode, so it’s called BFI Beta, which is serving as the online to a lot of this activity. My, they have been busy.

So there’s an exciting future for film archives, but it’s really only a part of the picture for archives overall. Roly Keating, Director of Archive Content at the BBC, was on the panel last night. He pointed out that there had been a lot of talk about ‘film’, but that a screen heritage meant TV content too, and TV archives need to consider how they can likewise work together to enable greater care, discovery and sharing. But then he pointed out that moving images are just one digital object among many, and the real prize will be establishing shared systems in which films, books, images, manuscripts, sounds, websites, and anything else that contains knowledge can be found together. Some are already thinking along these lines (see Europeana or Trove, both covered by the Bioscope). The BBC is too, in most interesting ways. That’s where film belongs. The new film history is just history, with film in it.

Welcome to the machine

Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Hilversum

There are times – usually in the daylight hours – when your scribe turns his attention away from silent films and earns his daily crust working as the moving image curator at a well-known national library. As such I get involved in broader matters to do with the study, care and availability of the medium, and it was with this particular hat on that I attended Screening the Future 2011: New Strategies and Challenges in Audiovisual Archiving, held this week in Hilversum, the Netherlands.

Did it have anything to do with silent films? Well, yes, in the general sense of planning for the future care of the moving image heritage. And there were issues raised, and matters to contemplate, which I think would be worth sharing. So here goes.

The event was organised by PrestoPrime and PrestoCentre, interlinked projects funded by the European Union as part of a decade-long programme looking at how film and broadcast archives should plan for the future by sharing knowledge of best practice. In particular the aim is to prepare these archives for the inevitable digital future. The conference was held at the architecturally stunning Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (Beeld en Geluid), located in Hilversum’s Media Park – the archive of Dutch television and radio located next door to its main broadcasters and producers.

Film vaults at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision

The conference was clearly popular, as they could have sold twice the number of tickets that they did. Attendees were split roughly 50/50 into archivists looking for the best way to manage their holdings, and vendors anxious to sell them the products and services to enable them to do so. There were some starry speakers: Antoine Aubert from Google; Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle; film preservationist Jim Lindner of Media Matters; James Snyder, Senior Systems Administrator at the at Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center; BBC Senior Research Engineer Richard Wright; digital video archiving guru Jeff Ubois; Daniel Teruggi, head of France’s Institut National de l’Audiovisuel; and Javier Hernandez Ros, Head of Unit Cultural Heritage and Technology Enhanced Learning at the European Commission.

We were there to discuss such big questions as What are we preserving? How can we fund our future? Where do archives meet IT? How will we keep our archives in good shape? and (painful as it is to write) How can we valorise our archives? A lot of the argument was inspired by a recent report, The New Renaissance, by the EU body Comité des Sages, which was published in January 2011. The report comes with a fascinating appendix, The Cost of Digitising Europe’s Cultural Heritage, prepared by Nick Poole of the Collection Trust. The report looks at the costs of digitising audiovisual collections, including the variables and the scales involved, comparing such costs with other things the EU member states might want to spend their money on. We are told that the total cost of digitising the cultural material in the EU (i.e. libraries, museums, national archives and AV collections) would be €105.31bn, of which AV collections alone would be €4.94bn. We are asked to consider the price of one Joint Strike Fighter (a fighter aircraft), which comes to €147.41m (excluding annual maintenance costs). For that money you could instead be

  • Digitising 1m individual books if the majority of Digitisation is done in-house
  • Digitising 1.67m books if the Digitisation is outsourced
  • Digitising 2.42m books under a Public Private Partnership
  • Digitising 96,789 rare books, manuscripts and incunabula
  • Digitising 29.5m historic photographs
  • Digitising 1.83m man-made artefacts in museums
  • Digitising 2.02m natural artefacts in museums
  • Digitising 36.85m pages of archival records
  • Digitising 2.4m hours of audio material
  • Digitising 0.34m hours of video
  • Digitising 0.09m hours of film

Europe being a peace-loving continent, and moreover a continent generally in favour of state funding, there were many who wanted to divert funds from the air forces to digitising our cultural heritage, so the €100bn figure was much bandied about. Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive was scathing about this, pointing out just how many millions of film, sounds, websites and book titles his organisation has been able to make available for free online for a fraction of the sums being advocated by the Europeans. It all seemed so easy, if you apply Kahle’s ingenious lateral thinking and bold attitude towards copyright laws as presently constituted. The audience at Hilversum was torn between its free spirit aspirations and its dismay at Kahle’s seeming indifference towards rules of ownership that public sector institutions and broadcast archives are bound to observe.

Brewster Kahle taunts the archivists of Europe

Is Kahle a rogue, or a right-minded libertarian? Were his detractors in the audience only seeing the bars of the cage while he sees the gaps in between? That’s for others to debate. Instead, I was interested in the vision of archives that was being to presented to us. In times past, a conference about archives would have touched on the care of film stock, film handling skills, cultural priorities, aesthetics, and so on. We understood that we were talking about a craft, as well as all the economics and politics. But in Hilversum we heard speaker after speaker talk about project plans, workflows, metadata, file formats, wrappers, bit rot, master files and proxies, scalability, checksums, fixity checks, terabytes, petabytes (1,000 terabytes) and exabytes (1,000 petabytes). It was all about feeding the machine, the machine that the audiovisual archiving world is turning into as we put in analogue on a mass scale at one end and spit out digital files at the other. James Snyder from the Library of Congress told us that, in the future, we would have to eliminate humans from the process as much as possible (humans create errors), adding that

We are the last generation to have worked with analogue in the production environment. The next will have to be taught.

Gradually the pieces of the audiovisual archiving puzzle are coming together. You have the object to be digitised, the metadata standardised, the workflows agreed, the file formats accepted, the systems built, the processes understood and agreed internationally. And if you don’t spend all your money on jet fighters, you may even to be able to pay for it.

The future of film archiving is rows and rows of servers, nurturing digital files forever. Once you have digitised, that’s not the end of it. New formats and standards keep on coming in, and you have to migrate what you have digitised on a regular basis to ensure you’re not losing anything, maybe every 5-7 years re-digitising from your master files, so the machine will keep churning away, into infinity.

The love of the medium will be gone. The physical sense of the medium will vanish. Archivists will no longer be craftsmen or women, they will be process managers. Arguments in favour of supporting moving image preservation (which will be a never-ending procedure) will be harder to make to politicians and funders, because there will be nothing with any romance to show them, except those rows and rows of whirring machines – and what can be shown on the screen itself. We’ll still have that. And access will be sensational. We’ll have everything available one day: every extant silent, every feature film, every TV programme imaginable, every YouTube video, all probably accessible at the touch of a icon on your smartphone. But the medium itself, and the archive profession that exists to preserve its value for the future, will have lost not a little of its soul. I guess it’s the price we pay for finally coming up with the perfect archive.

Inside the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, from http://www.pictureshowman.com

Update: Videos of the entire conference are now available from the PrestoCentre website. Brewster Kahle’s presentation is on the 14 March video (go to 3 hours 15 minutes into the video). James Snyder’s presentation is on the 15 March video, at the beginning.

Thanhouser on Vimeo

As many will know, the name of the Thanhouser Film Company – a mid-ranking American company of the early cinema period – has been kept very much alive by the efforts of the Thanhouser family, with DVD releases, research and publications. Now Ned Thanhouser has gone one step further by releasing a number of Thanhouser films previously available on DVD through the Vimeo online video site.

Above, for example, is the famous The Evidence of the Film (1913). Discovered in 1999 on the floor of a Montana projection booth, it is a crime tale typical of the period made especially fascinating on acount of its filmmaking background. It has acquired the status of a classic, and in 2001 was selected inclusion in the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. It comes with original music composed and performed by Ray Brubacher.

Some fifty videos have been made available on the Thanhouser Vimeo channel over the past few weeks. They include The Voice of Conscience (1912), the five-reeler Woman in White (1917) based on Wilkie Collins’ novel, the Wagner-based Tannhäuser (1913), She (1911) with Marguerite Snow and James Cruze, a number of Shakespeare titles including The Winter’s Tale (1910), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912) with James Cruze in the dual role, and perhaps the most celebrated of all Thanhouser films, The Cry of the Children (1912), on child labour reform, which uses an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem (Thanhouser was notable for its dedication towards the literary classics) to highlight the wretched living and working conditions of the contemporary poor.

Each of the videos comes with informative but not too extensive background notes, and all in all this is a bold and welcome move on Thanhouser’s part. Quite probably it’s a reaction to the several examples of these films which can be found on YouTube, which have been ripped from the DVD releases by other hands. Far better, of course, that the videos come from a legitimate source, and hopefully it will help promote DVD sales in any case and further the preservation and promotional work of the Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, Inc.

Update: There is now a page on the Thanhouser site which lists all 56 films, provides links to the videos, and supplies useful background notes. See www.thanhouser.org/videos-online.htm.

National Film Registry 2010

Newark Athlete (1891), one of five silent films included among the twenty-five films added to the National Film Registry for 2010

Once again at the end of the year we have the announcement of twenty-five further films added to the National Film Registry. Each year the Librarian of Congress (James H. Billington), with advice from the National Film Preservation Board (and with recommendations made by the public), names twenty-five American films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant that are to be added to the National Film Registry, “to be preserved for all time”. The idea is that such films are not selected as the “best” American films of all time, but rather as “works of enduring significance to American culture”.

Five silent films are among the titles chosen for 2010, including two that have been championed in particular by the Bioscope: Preservation of the Sign Language, produced in 1913 in by National Association of the Deaf president George Veditz and one a of a number of films made by the Association at that time (available online from Gallaudet University); and the Miles Brothers’ haunting A Trip Down Market Street (1906), showing San Francisco just before the earthquake struck it. The others are Paul Fejos’ Lonesome (1928), which exists in both silent and sound versions, the William S. Hart western The Bargain (1914), and W.K.L. Dickson and William Heise’s 1891 proto-motion picture film experiment Newark Athlete, the oldest film to be added to the registry so far.

The other films on the 2010 list are Airplane! (1980), All the President’s Men (1976), Cry of Jazz (1959), Electronic Labyrinth: THX 113B 4EB (1967), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Exorcist (1973), The Front Page (1931), Grey Gardens (1976), I Am Joaquin (1969), It’s a Gift (1934), Let There Be Light (1945), McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), Make Way for Tomorrow (1936), Malcolm X (1992), Our Lady of the Sphere (1969), The Pink Panther (1964), Saturday Night Fever (1977), Study of a River (1996), Tarantella (1940), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945).

The full list of films entered on the National Film Registry since 1989 can be found here, while this is the list of all silents (or films with some silent content) on the Registry 1989-2009:

Ben-Hur (1926)
Big Business (1929)
The Big Parade (1925)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Black Pirate (1926)
Blacksmith Scene (1893)
The Blue Bird (1918)
Broken Blossoms (1919)
The Cameraman (1928)
The Cheat (1915)
The Chechahcos (1924)
Civilization (1916)
Clash of the Wolves (1925)
Cops (1922)
A Corner in Wheat (1909)
The Crowd (1928)
The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916-17)
Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-95)
The Docks of New York (1928)
Evidence of the Film (1913)
The Exploits of Elaine (1914)
Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915)
Flesh and the Devil (1927)
Foolish Wives (1920)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
The Freshman (1925)
From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
The General (1927)
Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
The Gold Rush (1925)
Grass (1925)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Greed (1924)
H20 (1929)
Hands Up (1926)
Hell’s Hinges (1926)
Heroes All (1920)
The Immigrant (1917)
In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)
Intolerance (1916)
It (1927)
The Italian (1915)
Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest (1910)
The Kiss (1896)
Lady Helen’s Escapade (1909)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)
The Last Command (1928)
The Last of the Mohicans (1920)
The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1927)
Little Nemo (1911)
The Lost World (1925)
Mabel’s Blunder (1914)
Making of an American (1920)
Manhatta (1921)
Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Miss Lulu Bett (1922)
Nanook of the North (1922)
One Week (1920)
Pass the Gravy (1928)
Peter Pan (1924)
The Perils of Pauline (1914)
Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Power of the Press (1928)
Precious Images (1986)
President McKinley Inauguration Footage (1901)
Princess Nicotine; or The Smoke Fairy (1909)
Regeneration (1915)
The Revenge of Pancho Villa (1930-36)
Rip Van Winkle (1896)
Safety Last (1923)
Salome (1922)
San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, April 18, 1906 (1906)
Seventh Heaven (1927)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Show People (1928)
Sky High (1922)
The Son of the Sheik (1926)
Stark Love (1927)
Star Theatre (1901)
The Strong Man (1926)
Sunrise (1927)
Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
There it is (1928)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Tol’able David (1921)
Traffic in Souls (1913)
The Wedding March (1928)
Westinghouse Works, 1904 (1904)
Where Are My Children? (1916)
Wild and Wooly (1917)
The Wind (1928)
Wings (1927)
Within our Gates (1920)

The Library of Congress welcome suggestions from the public, and even provides a helpful list of titles not on the Registry yet but which are under consideration, to help prod your memories. It contains some 225 silent films alone, which suggests that they are not about to run out of ideas just yet.

But what about a world film registry, one which drew attention to world cinema (silents and beyond) and its need for preservation on account of its cultural, historical or aesthetic relevance? We have some films on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register, but that’s not really enough. Isn’t it the sort of thing that FIAF ought to promote?

Saving motion

Paolo Cherchi Usai (left) and Kevin Brownlow

On 19 January 2011 there is to be a notable event held at the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Strand, London, by the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. This august institution is devoted to promoting the knowledge, methods and working standards needed to protect and preserve historic and artistic works from around the world, but as well as the paintings, sculptures, buildings, museum artefacts and such like that are its usual concern, it also considers moving images. As one of its series of ‘Dialogues for the New Century’ is inviting Kevin Brownlow and Paolo Cherchi Usai to debate Saving Motion – the conservation of the moving image.

Here’s how the IIC describes the event:

Motion pictures, the movies, enjoy a position of both mass entertainment and valued products of our creative heritage. From the era of silent films to today’s high budget features, masterpieces abound, as do intimate personal moments and historic documentaries that capture the intangible aspects of what surrounds us.

Moving image heritage makes up a large portion of the world’s memory and both commercial and personal examples are found in every country and in every size and type of institution across the world. Archives, libraries, and museums struggle to conserve these records in a manner that attempts to respect the authenticity and inherent values while assuring and encouraging broad access. As the idea of digitization presents itself as a solution to both preservation and accessibility, questions arise regarding the value of the original footage, the qualities unique to film based material, our stewardship responsibilities to preserve these works in their unique original form, and the essential role and definition of film archives.

Kevin Brownlow and Paolo Cherchi Usai will explore a wide range of issues pertaining to the preservation of moving image heritage (films, video and digital materials) as well as the particular challenges of access. This dialogue between two of the leading pioneers and experts of the preservation of motion pictures will also explore the reasons for an apparent disconnect between those pursuing the preservation of film and the larger conservation community working toward the preservation of heritage in other art forms.

Kevin Brownlow is a filmmaker, film historian, author, and Academy Award recipient, best known for his documentation of the history of silent films. He is the creator of the alternative-history film, It Happened Here and the 1975 film Winstanley. Brownlow has written numerous works on silent and classic films including The Parade’s Gone By (1968). In collaboration with David Gill he produced a number of documentaries on the silent film era, including the 1983 Unknown Chaplin and the 1995 Cinema Europe: the Other Hollywood. His book The Search for Charlie Chaplin was published this year, 2010.

Paolo Cherchi Usai, is director of the Haghefilm Foundation in Amsterdam, cofounder and co-director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House. He has authored numerous works on film and its preservation including Burning Passions: An Introduction to the Study of Silent Cinema (1994), The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age (2001) and co-author of Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace (2008).

The event promises to be a fascinating one, with a strong bias toward silent film, and with two of the most prominent, thoughtful and opinionated people in our field addressing an audience of general conservationsists rather than the usual film crowd. In particular the theme of a disconnect between the conservation of film and the conservation of other heritage works promises much. Does the care of film exist in a world of its own, separate from the conservation or preservation of other media, and if so then why so, and is it a good or bad thing? If we could hang films in national galleries or museums might they be better cared for? Or might those who care for other heritage media have something to learn from how film archives manage huge problems with minimal resources while contending with thorny issues such as copyright which do not affect those caring for old masters or archaeological sites?

Previous such dialogues have been made available in transcript form on the ICC site, so if you can’t be there you can still read about it. The event takes place at 19:00 and is free to all.

Kevin Brownlow honoured

From right to left, Kevin Brownlow, Francis Ford Coppola and Eli Wallach posing after the Governors Awards held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, 13 November 2010. From Reuters

Warm congratulations to Kevin Brownlow on his receipt last night of an honorary Academy Award for his work in documenting and preserving the films of the silent era.

Brownlow received his award alongside Francis Ford Coppola (receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Award) and actor Eli Wallach at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ annual annual Governors Awards ceremony. Jean-Luc Godard was also given an honorary award but declined to turn up. Hollywood luminaries such as Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Oliver Stone, Kevin Spacey and Robert De Niro were in the audience. There are reports on BBC News, Reuters, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times.

Coppola has gained the all the notices, but Brownlow’s achievement is the real headline news – for silent films, film preservation, the historiography of cinema, and for British cinema – and of course for himself. Kevin took the opportunity to lecture his audience on how American copyright laws had made his work more difficult, while also celebrating the artistry of the filmmakers who made Hollywood the cultural and commercial powerhouse that it remains.

If you are keen to find out more about Brownlow’s career as filmmaker, writer, programme maker and preservationist, I warmly recommend an interview with Brownlow conducted by Ann Harding in 2008, originally published in French but now re-published in English on her excellent blog, Ann Harding’s Treasures:

Update:
AMPAS has published videos of tributes paid to Kevin Brownlow and Kevin’s acceptance speech at the Governors Award ceremony:

There’s also a biography with filmography and a ‘did you know’ on Kevin Brownlow on the AMPAS site.

Kevin Brownlow accepting his award, from oscars.org

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