Unknown knowns, and known unknowns


Is there any other art form where the unidentified and the lost have as much cultural cachet as they do in film? Perhaps in some quarters there are those who fret over lost operas or unattributed paintings, but there doesn’t seem anything that quite matches the fascination film buffs (especailly silent film buffs) and film archivists have for films that no longer exist (but might be found somewhere), and films that do exist but whose identity is no longer known. It must have something to the photography and the nearness in time. We’re just a few generations away from when these films were made, and yet we have forgotten already. There is tragedy, and there is guilt.

Perhaps the nearest discipline, if not art form, is archaeology, which likewise looks for that which is lost, and puzzles over that which has been found but whose purpose is unclear. So it is appropriate that a workshop on identifying unidentified films, to be organised at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus, should be entitled Silent Film Archaeology. The workshop takes place 14-16 June at the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, Virginia, and here are the details:

A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop

The staff of the Moving Image Section of the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation will host SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop, during June 14-16, 2012. The workshop will include unidentified films from other film preservation archives in addition to those from the Library’s collection.

NOTE: Due to resource limitations, participation in this workshop in 2012 will be limited to film archivists and historians actively engaged in film preservation activities and research efforts devoted to American produced films of the silent era. No support will be provided by the Library of Congress for travel, lodging, meals, local transportation or other expenses incurred by participants.

SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop will be a three day event and take place at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, Virginia, during June 14-16, 2012. The majority of the films presented will be “silents” but will not be shown in silence. Phil Carli, Ben Model and Andrew Simpson will provide musical accompaniment. In addition to full days of workshop screenings, there will be evening public screenings of recent restorations the titles of which will be announced at a later date.

A recently completed study by David Pierce, now being prepared for publication by the Library of Congress, confirms what film archivists have long suspected—that 76% of all U.S. feature films produced between 1912 and 1930 no longer survive, or exist only in fragments in non-US film archives. In spite of this sobering statistic, it is known that most US film archives hold considerable amounts of both “unidentified” and “inadequately identified” films and film fragments from the silent era. The SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop will bring together practicing film archivists and researchers in an informal atmosphere for the purpose of screening 35mm prints and sharing comments and opinions, with the expectation that a significant number of the puzzles among the Library’s collection of unidentified and poorly identified films will be solved. Some film elements with sound tracks may also be screened.

It is hoped that this important film research and discovery effort will become a regularly scheduled Packard Campus activity, in service to the community of film preservationists, and that it can be expanded in the future to include all under-investigated areas of creative and technological achievement in the history of US motion pictures.

Prior registration is required and no reservations will be accepted after May 18, 2012. For more information, or to request a registration form contact: Rob Stone, Moving Image Curator at rsto [at] loc.gov. All registrants will receive additional information on schedule, housing and directions.

One of the organisers of the workshop, Rachel Parker, is also the person behind the Nitrate Film Interest Group, a Flickr site established by the Association of Moving Image Archivists which posts images from unidentified films from archives around the world, and invites anyone to have a go at ientifying them. Many have since we first drew your attention to the site, and there is now a triumphant section presenting those images which have now been identified thanks to the wisdom of individuals, if not the crowd.

It’s a good an example as there is of film archives reinventing themselves and their relationship with their users through the opportunities the web now presents to us. Do take a look, and if you can’t identify any film or person therein, you can still delight in the images and maybe contemplate the passing of time and the transcience of fame.

2 responses

  1. Thank you, Luke, for posing an interesting question. I took a class in Old and Middle English literature and we spent a lot of time dealing with fragments. I was reading an essay last week about Roman history and the author mentioned that most of the information about a certain emperor came from two contemporary books that survive only in fragments and paraphrases.

  2. A project has been established to discover the Lost Films of 20th Century Spatchcock, and I am pleased to inform you that over 260 have been discovered in the last two months alone.

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