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.