Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Spotlight on... Pop Culture Documentaries Revisited!

The Documentary Film channel strikes again! I saw another fascinating pop culture documentary late last night that warrants yet another blog post. Keepers Of The Frame (Mark McLaughlin, 1999) is a heartbreaking plea for the conservation, restoration, and preservation of fading cinematic memories.

Much of the documentary describes the fragility of film media. Leonard Maltin fondly recalled watching a black and white movie that brilliantly lit up the screen; he discovered that the bright light that black and white enthusiasts adore is achieved through a certain amount of silver content in the film itself. As the film deteriorates, that light darkens with each viewing.

Pictures made using nitrate film were once extremely common, but now only one-third of all nitrate films survive. These include not only movie films but also newsreels, historical films, cartoons, advertising, and slice-of-life candid films capturing real and irreplaceable images of the way we once lived. Silent movies, displaying a breadth of talent the like of which we will never see again, are all on nitrate. Ninety percent of all silent movies that were made are gone. Nitrate films are extremely volatile; they are flammable, explosive, and extremely unstable. The conservationists interviewed pointed out that nitrate films basically have the 'seeds of its own destruction' built right in, and, to make matters worse, the chemicals used to prevent further deterioration to the nitrate film is toxic and has contributed to the deaths of conservationists who have worked closely with them. To make matters worse, rotting nitrate acts like a catalyst. One rotten spool of film can spread to, and destroy, nearby films that are in mint condition. Often these films are lost due to negligence on the part of the people who have them in their possession. Films need to be stored in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. MGM has their archives stored in the Kansas City salt mines.

The next variety of film, safety film, appeared to be a solution to the fickle acetate of yore; however, conservationists have discovered that even this improved media has its own set of problems. Many safety films suffer from something that conservationists have coined 'vinegar syndrome,' an acidic deterioration that warps the film and destroys the picture. Then, there are the early talkies that had accompanying sounds recorded to a separate 33 1/3 rpm record. There are many cases of either the film or the record existing without its companion piece.

Color fading is yet another major problem affecting films. The sparkling, glorious technicolors that pop off the screen fade to a greenish hue and, eventually, the image disappears from the film entirely.

The documentary also touches on preserving films shot in formats that are not in use any longer. It highlighted an archivist who modified his living room to facilitate one of the last Cinerama theater systems, which requires three separate projectors.

Keepers Of The Frame shows a lot of rare clips of movies that have been rescued. It also shows clips of movies that are beyond recovery: great splotches obscure the faces of the actors and color fading makes it impossible to watch. Then there are the talkies that have become separated from their records. The documentary played a sound byte with a screen that was blank except for these words: 'The film for this Vitaphone no longer exists.'

The documentary discusses why film preservation is so important (in a far more passionate and effective way than my last post that touched on the subject). Quite simply, there is no more thorough document of who we are, or who we once were, than the motion picture. For all its faults, film captures our stories more indelibly than any other medium. They are artifacts that reflect on a time that is no more and that help us to understand the past and ourselves. 'The films now being made will be seen as the men and women of the future.' This is certainly how I feel about the films of the last century. I thrill to see the fashions and fads, the designs and architecture, and, most especially, both the reality and Hollywood's interpretation of everyday life. For this reason, it is equally important to preserve personal home movies, which were often shot on Super 8. Home movies are completely unique in the way that they preserve personal and social history.

Film preservation is nothing short of a labor of love. There is neither money nor glamour in the job. The equipment is quite expensive, and the process is extremely tedious and time consuming. Thanks to the combined efforts of the George Eastman House, the UCLA Film and Television Archive [2], the Museum of Modern Art [2], and other private archives, a great amount of films have been saved for future generations. The Library of Congress has the largest collection of nitrate films, and, perhaps of even greater value, a collection of paper prints that cannot fall victim to acid deterioration. These paper prints are actual copies of original movie negatives printed on paper rolls. Some of these paper prints have proved to be invaluable to restoring lost or damaged films.

The most devastating revelation that this documentary unearths is that there is no permanent solution. What's lost is often lost for good, and the triumph of recovered films is bittersweet. Every bit of film will need to be retransferred to the latest medium. Digital media is not archival as its lifespan is often as short as ten years. It cannot replace the source material, and analog is seen as superior.

If you would like to see the documentary, I've found this link, but my computer doesn't do video very well, so I don't know whether it actually links to a watchable copy of the video. According to its page on the Documentary Film site, it will be aired again on Sunday, September 19 at 4:00 PM. I highly recommend viewing this well-made documentary.

(Notes: All factoids were gleaned almost entirely from the documentary. Any inaccuracies are either my own or, possibly, from the documentary itself. I accepted everything I saw as fact. Also, on a side note, my interest in preservation isn't just in film; I'm passionate about all varieties of pop culture, art, and historic preservation.)

AND.... Rewind America (also by Mark McLaughlin and mentioned in my last post) will be on the Documentary channel again! Thursday, September 16 at 11:00 AM! Set your devices and MAKE SURE YOU WATCH IT! It's worth it to see the behind-the-scenes story of the Liberace Museum and Forrest J Ackerman's horror and science fiction collections!

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