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…