Questions About Film Archives/Museums

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JFK

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Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 4:40 am

This thread is a clearinghouse for more-than-likely ignorant questions
concerning the workings of film archives, and friendly answers to same.



Yesterday's NY Times article and Bert Williams’s film clip
(first noted here in the
"Never released Bert Williams film" thread)
illustrate one of the big downsides of the “archivization” of rare, public domain, films.

Image
"The reels were part of a collection of 900 unprinted negatives that came from the defunct Biograph company in New York. Iris Barry, MoMA’s founding film curator, acquired the cache, including the untitled Williams material, in 1939.
Its journey to the public began in 1976, when a curator copying the footage noted
Bert Williams’s appearance.
In 2004, Mr. Magliozzi’s curatorial team began restoring the film and researching its origins."


Privately-funded MOMA has had the negative 75 years, suspected what it has had for 38 years,
and then, eventually, spent a decade restoring it. For young and/or healthy
fans of Bert Williams and silent film,
it's good news; for the elderly and ill, it may be another case of good news decades too late.
(If they'd've made the film available in 1976, they might even have been able to interview its participants).

So, what took MOMA so very long ? Under-funding ? Priorities askew ?
And, more generally, what is the reason for film archives- what duties should they perform?
Is it merely, but most importantly, “simply” to “do no harm”- that is to preserve, without sharing, their holdings for future generations- and for formats not yet invented ?
Or should they also be busy duplicating, and/or digitalizing, every restored and unrestored unique element in their possession, whether identified or not? Or are they ?
Are government-funded archives required, or should they be required, to publish information, semi-annually, on the extent and condition of their film collections, and any losses due to theft, deterioration, or deacquisition?
Should government-funded archives be allowed to profit from already-digitalized copies, or should they be allowed to charge just for the digitalization process, or should they be required to accept payment only for the price of DVDs and shipping?
And, even more wildly off-topic, if the studios are unwilling to market or televise films whose copyrights should have expired 56+ years ago (under the old laws that that the studios had replaced), might they at the very least be required to provide inferior/watermarked copies to libraries for on-site viewing?
Last edited by JFK on Mon Sep 22, 2014 5:29 am, edited 1 time in total.
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boblipton

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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 5:29 am

I suspect that the purpose of film archives is to provide sinecures for film archivists. Occasionally an enthusiast gets into a position of authority by mistake and does something. While this may be used to justify the institute, all too soon they get back to their real job of fund-raising and hiding the films in Pennsylvania, where no one can see them.

Iris Barry is a fine case in point. She started with great enthusiasm and a dedication to making sure that the treasures of the past would not be lost, to a sort of well-meaning tyrant who would let a treasure rot rather than change her Five Year Plan. We've got some good people in Nitrateville who, I am sure, could tell some terrible war stories were they not too decent to tell tales.

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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 6:30 am

Question: Would we be better off without archives? Probably not.
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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 8:01 am

Like most of life, it's not a simple story of good and evil. If Iris Barry had not been there to accept the donation of the Biograph material, the owners most likely would have sold their negs to silver reclaimers for hard cash. She also had the wisdom to preserve not only the precious Griffith reels but, presumably, all of it without even knowing what it was.

A quarter century ago MoMA embarked on a restoration of Intolerance that included every known shot and still, even single frames that had been snipped and stapled into the copyright submission. The result was judged by film historians such as William K. Everson to be unwatchable and inconsistent with Griffith's vision of an emotionally engaging entertainment. If this version of Intolerance has had any screenings since, I'm not aware of it.

Would the considerable time and money used to stitch together the Frankenstein Intolerance been better spent working on the Bert Williams negative? I think so. But I'm glad they finally got around to it.

And most archivists I know want nothing more to preserve and present as much historic film as possible. The stereotype of the squirrelly archivist who simply wants to hoard and preserve film for posterity, whenever that may come, just doesn't ring true. If it ever did.
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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 8:11 am

I think it's all a question of money. Someone has to make a decision on how to spend the usually limited funds that are available. restorations cost a great deal of money and it is just a matter of fact that a choice has to be made as to what project should be worked on. We all have different opinions and of course whatever an archive does it will cop criticism. In the main, we are lucky that we have a depository at all where films can be looked after.
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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 9:19 am

Rob Farr wrote:The stereotype of the squirrelly archivist who simply wants to hoard and preserve film for posterity, whenever that may come, just doesn't ring true. If it ever did.
If anything that's the private collector or studio/network. Not that that's true.
But if I can play the devil's advocate for a minute, I remember a thread a few months back where the question if anything had been done with a rediscovered film ended badly. I don't see why all the arguments used back then do not equally apply to archives as they do to studios and other companies.

In fact, can anyone tell me if the Bert Williams film hasn't been accessible at the MOMA all this time? OK, you'd have to be in New York, but it wouldn't actually be locked away. On the one occasion I was there and knew about a film they had, I was able to go there and see it, free of charge. And not just on Steinbeck, but in a small theatre! :D
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JFK

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Might archives/archivists be aided by do-it-yourselfers?

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 12:14 pm

If the only alternatives are either a unique film being lost to decay, or it being preserved in an archive, then I’m in favor of the archive.........But doesn’t it seem that last-surviving copies of films (whether in the hands of their creators [e.g. Keaton, Lloyd, Pickford, and even Chaplin] or in the vaults of studios and museums) too frequently have gone unduplicated, improperly preserved, or under-distributed, and thus wind up having an unenviable survival rate? And wasn’t MOMA’s handling- for the past 75 years – of its century-old Bert Williams feature, more mummification than preservation?

Might not future film preservation and ”archiving” more likely be done, either
1. for free, online, by do-it-yourselfers like LouieD and Silencebound, or
2. for profit, more rarely, on Youtube channels or by such fine folks as Paul E. Gierucki and Ben Model ?........
(Would something comparable to the Mack Sennett Collection Volume 1 exist today if, for example,
Mr Gierucki had donated the sole copy of Thief Catcher to an archive, or if Richard Roberts
[28 films in the collection were sourced solely by him] had done likewise with his rarities?)

Maybe the only way to preserve a film is by making, and letting others make, multiple copies....
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Re: Might archives/archivists be aided by do-it-yourselfers?

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 3:31 pm

JFK wrote:If the only alternatives are either a unique film being lost to decay, or it being preserved in an archive, then I’m in favor of the archive.........But doesn’t it seem that last-surviving copies of films (whether in the hands of their creators [e.g. Keaton, Lloyd, Pickford, and even Chaplin] or in the vaults of studios and museums) too frequently have gone unduplicated, improperly preserved, or under-distributed, and thus wind up having an unenviable survival rate? And wasn’t MOMA’s handling- for the past 75 years – of its century-old Bert Williams feature, more mummification than preservation?

Might not future film preservation and ”archiving” more likely be done, either
1. for free, online, by do-it-yourselfers like LouieD and Silencebound, or
2. for profit, more rarely, on Youtube channels or by such fine folks as Paul E. Gierucki and Ben Model ?........
(Would something comparable to the Mack Sennett Collection Volume 1 exist today if, for example,
Mr Gierucki had donated the sole copy of Thief Catcher to an archive, or if Richard Roberts
[28 films in the collection were sourced solely by him] had done likewise with his rarities?)

Maybe the only way to preserve a film is by making, and letting others make, multiple copies....
What I tried to express with my earlier question was that in my opinion, many films would also have been lost today without an archive to preserve them. Including the film that started this thread. They've kept it safe so far, haven't they? You call it mummification and I see your point (even though mummification essentially IS preservation but that's just semantics). But this is a very exceptional case, isn't it?


Not sure if your two approaches can co-exist. The 2nd is a strictly capitalist way - and is there enough commercial interest for that? - and the 1st is more anarchic - and I've seen some fan "restorations" that were HORRIBLE - and some of those restorers suffer from a disease called the bastard personality! I hope this is none of that fear of any form of government regulations that sometimes seem to pop up in the USA (the MOMA is privately funded I gather, but still). :o

Either way there must be plenty of examples where the one or the other archive has saved the day. For example I'm pretty damn sure most archives do make multiple copies. I don't see how a private collector can do that, no matter how careful or knowledgable he is. Don't forget it's only in the last 10, 15 years that a serious effort has really become feasible for people at home. And youtube is not even 10 years old.
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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 4:28 pm

Well, yes, Spiny, I guess it did exist in a Schrodinger's Cat sort of way. That's where classical deterministic physics and the modern stuff disagree. Is the cat alive or dead? My answer is "I don't know", which is apparently the wrong answer. The classical answer, which is mine, is to open the box and look. Modern physics is not so stuffy, but there you go.

Question: Iris Barry sticks the only copy of a particular film in seven cans. That's how they remain for forty years, during which time people die or forget about those cans.. After that time, some one sees the cans. Does the film still exist? Open the can and find out.

What I do know is that out in the world, for forty years, that film did not exist.

Bob
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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 4:46 pm

boblipton wrote:What I do know is that out in the world, for forty years, that film did not exist.

Bob


This Bert Williams "feature" is really mostly unedited dailies of a partially completed film. It is a wonder that it survived, and an even greater wonder that it was actually preserved. Archives? Studios? Collectors? There have been heroes and villains all the way along the line. Let's be thankful for what's been saved and preserved,and keep looking for more. Regret the mistakes of the past, to be sure, but it seems foolish to beat up MoMA on the Bert Williams footage when in fact they did the right thing--They conserved it, preserved it, and have made it available in various public screenings. The footage is fascinating for Bert Williams fans and for those interested in 1913 Biograph production techniques, but it is not sufficiently complete or assembled to ever be more than an interesting curiosity to the broad general public.
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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 4:55 pm

Bob Birchard wrote:This Bert Williams "feature" is really mostly unedited dailies of a partially completed film. It is a wonder that it survived, and an even greater wonder that it was actually preserved. Archives? Studios? Collectors? There have been heroes and villains all the way along the line. Let's be thankful for what's been saved and preserved,and keep looking for more. Regret the mistakes of the past, to be sure, but it seems foolish to beat up MoMA on the Bert Williams footage when in fact they did the right thing--They conserved it, preserved it, and have made it available in various public screenings. The footage is fascinating for Bert Williams fans and for those interested in 1913 Biograph production techniques, but it is not sufficiently complete or assembled to ever be more than an interesting curiosity to the broad general public.
Basically what I was trying to say in my own roundabout way. This is just one oddity in between extant, lost, and found.
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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 4:55 pm

Bob Birchard wrote:
boblipton wrote:What I do know is that out in the world, for forty years, that film did not exist.

Bob


This Bert Williams "feature" is really mostly unedited dailies of a partially completed film. It is a wonder that it survived, and an even greater wonder that it was actually preserved. Archives? Studios? Collectors? There have been heroes and villains all the way along the line. Let's be thankful for what's been saved and preserved,and keep looking for more. Regret the mistakes of the past, to be sure, but it seems foolish to beat up MoMA on the Bert Williams footage when in fact they did the right thing--They conserved it, preserved it, and have made it available in various public screenings. The footage is fascinating for Bert Williams fans and for those interested in 1913 Biograph production techniques, but it is not sufficiently complete or assembled to ever be more than an interesting curiosity to the broad general public.


I am. I would be more grateful if the papers could get the details right and not view blackface through the lens of their ideology, but I am grateful.

Bob
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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostMon Sep 22, 2014 7:14 pm

Should government-funded archives be allowed to profit from already-digitalized copies
"profit"? Hahahaha. MoMA's quite lavish budget aside, those of us who work in the archival field could tell you how chronically underfunded most institutions are and that the issues are not that simple.

Honestly, it's not that easy to make things accessible. Copyright is a huge factor (although admittedly not for most silent-era stuff). It's not realistic to expect archives to release all things on DVD or be able to digitize everything and put it online. A lot of access has to happen onsite at film archives, or, the patron has to pay to be able to get access to a digital copy. That is the reality of archival holdings in general - whether film, paper documents, or other materials.
And you know, some places don't have adequate storage facilities, let alone the funds to be able to create preservation copies (on film or digitally) of their holdings.
I get the frustration, there are cases where I know that films are preserved and even digitized but not available, or archives put up digitized video in subpar quality for no apparent reason. But still, there is so much more available now than in the past that it seems churlish to complain too much ...

And, even more wildly off-topic, if the studios are unwilling to market or televise films whose copyrights should have expired 56+ years ago (under the old laws that that the studios had replaced), might they at the very least be required to provide inferior/watermarked copies to libraries for on-site viewing?
Required by who? But, it's an interesting idea. Does anyone know if you can go to view out-of-print/rare films at the major studios à la film archives?
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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostThu Sep 25, 2014 6:10 am

kaleidoscopeworld wrote:
And, even more wildly off-topic, if the studios are unwilling to market or televise films whose copyrights should have expired 56+ years ago (under the old laws that that the studios had replaced), might they at the very least be required to provide inferior/watermarked copies to libraries for on-site viewing?
Required by who? But, it's an interesting idea. Does anyone know if you can go to view out-of-print/rare films at the major studios à la film archives?
As far as I know: No! :(
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Re: Questions About Film Archives/Museums

PostFri Sep 26, 2014 4:08 pm

The current copyright law does have a provision where if a film is not in distribution in the last twenty years of copyright, then it can be caused to be released by an archive. This has been in the law for many, many years, but it's difficult to do since most archives depend on the copyright holders for either financial assistance (Studios are helping to pay for storage costs, etc.) or use of materials at the archive. And presently, there are very few archives that have distribution.

NOW, for the slaps against the archives. In my years, I've had major run-ins with archivists and archives but no matter how bad it got, I always respected their work. And since the advent of film archive schools, there is a new generation of archivists that are changing the dynamics of all the archives and will continue to do so for the better. That view of the archive as fortress is disappearing -- some slower than others but it's still going to happen.
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