People tend to see movies in digital form today, even in cinemas. In fact, the public screening of a movie that is actually being projected from film onto a screen is something of a special event (I saw Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight projected from film in 2015 at the Village East theatre in NYC, and that was definitely a big deal). I’ll leave debates about the relative artistic merit of analog vs. digital films for another day, and I certainly love the convenience of streaming and DVDs, to say nothing of the far greater variety of films accessible to people who live outside the major cities.
Digital is great in many ways, but it has one big drawback—it’s not a preservation medium. When it comes to preserving films for posterity, physical analog film is the way to go. As one can read hand-written manuscripts created hundreds of years ago but may be unable to get a digital file from 20 years ago to open on a computer today, so can we watch analog films from the early years of cinema while digital copies from not that long ago may already be impossible to play on current software and hardware.
Being able to watch an old analog film depends on it being properly preserved, however. This concern lies at the heart of Ines Toharia’s documentary Film: The Living Record of Our Memory, which celebrates the cultural importance of the medium as well as the many people who work to see that the films of today and yesterday will be available to be seen well into the future. She also includes some cautionary examples of how nitrate film can deteriorate “in the can” (i.e., in storage), turning to dust or changing colors due to chemical instability. If stored at the wrong temperature or humidity, the deterioration can progress that much faster, and trying to restore damaged nitrate, if possible at all, is a delicate and time-consuming process.
Film preservationists have always been fighting an uphill battle. In the early years of cinema, film reels were shipped from screening location to screening location, and when they reached the end of the line might simply be discarded because they had no immediate economic value (a large trove of discarded nitrate film discovered in the 1970s in the Yukon Territory is the subject of the documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time). At other times the stock for films taken out of circulation was melted down to extract the silver it contained, because no one in the business saw a reason to hold on to a film for which there was no commercial demand. Although, to be fair, that “no one” did not include Walt Disney, the rare studio head who began keeping an archive of his films from early in his career.
Discarding old films or reclaiming the materials they contain both make perfect sense from a business point of view—preservation costs money, and most movie-goers have always been interested in seeing the latest pictures—and cinema exhibition has been a business proposition longer than it has been anything else. But film is also an art form and a record of our times, so it’s good to recognize and celebrate the people and organizations investing the time and money and effort to see that at least some films are preserved for posterity.
Martin Scorsese, one of the most famous advocates for film preservation, created The Film Foundation, which has provided funding for the restoration of hundreds of films. Henry Langlois, founder of the Cinematheque Française, was responsible for saving gems such as F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926). Today, many countries have a national film archive or include film in their national library or national museum, and private organizations also play a key role in preservation efforts. You hear from many of the people involved in these enterprises in Film: The Living Record of Our Memory, and Toharia, to her credit, includes a wide variety of voices from outside North America and Europe, like P.K. Nair, founder of the National Film Archive of India, and Hisashi Okajima, director of the National Film Archive of Japan. | Sarah Boslaugh
Film: the Living Record of Our Memory is available now on DVD from Kino Lorber. The documentary is also screening on May 11th and 14th at 7:30pm at the Winifred Moore Auditorium (470 E. Lockwood) as part of the Webster University Film Series. For more information on these screenings, click here.