Nine out of Ten

Decomposing nitrate film

On May 21st, at the Cannes Film Festival, Martin Scorsese announced the forming of a World Cinema Foundation to restore neglected treasures of world cinema. The Foundation builds on the Film Foundation, which Scorsese established in 1990, with such luminaries as Sydney Pollack, Woody Allen, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood and Francis Ford Coppola. The Foundation has been responsible for establishing funds to save several key films, but as Scorsese pointed out: “90 percent of American silent movies have been lost, as have half of all U.S. movies made before 1950”.

It’s a startling figure – indeed higher than the usual figure of 80% of all silent films being lost that is usually quoted (the Library of Congress gives this figure for American silents). In truth, it is a very difficult figure to determine, not least with the variable quality of national filmographies, nor does the figure includes non-fiction films (as the Film Foundation site admits, “As for shorts, documentaries, newsreels, and other independently produced, ‘orphan’ films, there is simply no way of knowing how many have been lost”). But you only have to consider that less than 4% of all Japanese films made before 1945 are thought to survive, and maybe 90% for silents worldwide is a fair figure.

Of course, very few have seen even a small percentage of the 10% that survives, not least because much of it has not been restored or made available to view. The profileration of silent DVDs that we’re so fortunate to have access to can blind us to the substantial number of films that we haven’t had the chance to see. There also needs to be an element of realism here. Not every silent film was a masterpiece. Every ‘lost’ silent film which gets put back on the screen seems to be hailed as being an inevitable work of art, but silent movies were much the same as movies today – a few gems, a lot of proficiency, and a large amount of dross.

But the overall lesson must be one of shame at how we can allow a medium, the original experience of which is within the memory of some still living, to be disposed of so easily. And here we are in 2007, as cavalier as ever, now failing to get to grips with the preservation of digital media. What percentage of all emails has been preserved? What will happen to the YouTube ‘archive’? Where will all these blogs be in ten years time?

Here’s a report from the International Herald Tribune. Amusingly, several news reports have misquoted Scorsese and stated that “all American films made before 1950 are gone“. One or two dozy entertainment editors out there…

3 responses

  1. Excellent Post, It is so interesting to see the figures bandied about of what does and does not exist. As you mentioned, it is so difficult to get a handle on this figure. SO many films were made by so many groups, the films by different arms of the Government, Private Organization, etc. Also, when we speak of what does exist we have to remember that in many cases, the fact that a film exists, does not mean it is complete. Many exist only in fragmentary condition. I think another point you mentioned is well worth noting, while all of this material has historical value, lets not kid ourselves and think that everything from the era was a great piece of artistic production. In that respect , Hollywood has not changed. A lot of the films produced were indeed not very good, so just by virtue of their existence it shouldn’t make them immediate classics.

    Lets also note that the problems of Film preservation are nothing new, discussion of various facets related to preservation go back to 1910 or so, if not earlier.


  2. The important point is that we need to preserve the dross too. Silent cinema wasn’t all about unreachable glamour and high art – a lot of it was plain routine. I love silent films, but I love the entirety of them, not just the cream – and I want to see the appreciation of silent cinema grounded in reality.

  3. I agree, and like many things, while we agree that there is dross from that era, who decides what is dross but the audience. That is part of the point , one of the many unfortunate things about the lack of available extant material from the silent era is that it makes it difficult in many cases to to gauge where a film fits in its own era. Was it run of the mill, above average, below average? Without a good baseline to judge from, we can only make a guess in many cases of how it compared to other films of its own time. One of the many things I have gained from viewing silents, is to look beyond the surface, when I first became interested in this medium, I like many thought certain films outdated, didn’t stand up well over time. But then as I have gotten older, and have more experience in looking at these films, I find I am much more willing to look with I guess you would call it a historical bent. When I see them now, things no longer seem outdated, I am much more willing to move my thinking and my perspective back to the time of the film, than expecting the film to move to the current time period (if that makes any sense.)

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