Is There A Right Time To Let Go Of Original Materials

August 15, 2011

Film is dead. Again. Or still. Or will be soon. It’s difficult to tell where exactly film is in the continuum from bloody-phlegm-coughed-up-in-a-handkerchief to too-far-gone-to-be-a-threatening-zombie. The tendency in the technological age is to declare the end of X and move on to Y before one (or one’s coolness) is usurped by some early adopter somewhere. However, for media obsolescence, there is no hard end date, even when one takes manufacturing end dates into consideration. Production slows until it stops and stock is hoarded or recycled until no longer viable and administrators are finally forced to admit that they must lay out the money for new formats and new equipment.

The death of film has been predicted and/or declared repeatedly over the years because of the extended slow down of stock and equipment production and the decreasing number of places to have it processed. A recent news article about the end of film print distribution in Hong Kong and Macau has many people thinking that this is the big third act coughing fit that can no longer be dismissed or fully recovered from. The topic has led to an extensive thread* on the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) listserv, producing a collective mind version of the 7 stages of mourning as people are alternatively depressed, angry, unbelieving, and hungry (hey, an archivist’s gotta eat).

A definite undercurrent to the posts is, essentially, “Film is the awesomest! Digital is a stupidhead!” (I simplify, perhaps in too many ways, to cover the large volume of responses.) A good point was made by Leo Enticknap** that the tightly clasped fist holding film to our hearts does not seem to exist in the same way with video, the response to this elicited on the listserv then being, “Well, duh.” It was expressed there (and in many places before) that film is special because one can see the image without a projector and there is magic in the creation of the image, while the invisible electrical pulses and signals of video and audio are empty and unloveable. (Sniff! As am I. As. Am. I.)

This is not true. I have a number of colleagues and friends in the field who love video and audio precisely because it is so mysterious and who find electricity magical. Also, an audio signal is at least as simplepure as the filmic image, representing exactly what occurred in actuality to create and transport sound through the air.

Of course there is no real arguing a point among formats here. –philia is –philia, and there is no logical point/counterpoint discussion and resolution to passion and faith. I think of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s writing on sacred objects***. As he states it, in either the spiritual or ethical structure within a culture, “the forms, vehicles, and objects of worship are suffused with an aura of deep moral seriousness” and “that which is set apart as more than mundane is inevitably considered to have far-reaching implications for the direction of human conduct” (126).

I would stress that the reference is not limited to objects of religious worship, but all special objects or symbols (mascots, flags, lucky underwear) that store meaning and importance in the Everyday. As Geertz goes on: “Sacred symbols thus relate an ontology and a cosmology to an aesthetics and a morality: their peculiar power comes from their presumed ability to identify fact with value at the most fundamental level, to give to what is otherwise merely actual, a comprehensive normative import” (127).

For the cinephile or audiophile or philatelophile, their particular sacred object holds a similar rightness and beauty, establishing not an utterly guiding but at least a partial value system dependent on, in Geertz’s terminology, a metaphysical referent or a system that derives from an ontologically based ethic (127). In the field of film preservation, cinephilia has often been a driving force. However, there has been a gnawing concern in the back of mind that the worm will turn…or has turned. It seems that fetishization of the object – the reification of film, video, or whatever carrier – can equally be a detriment to preservation.

Reformatting is a fact of audiovisual preservation. The carrier will not persist and the content needs to be migrated to an accessible format. Scratch that. The carrier will not persist and the business model that produces that carrier will not persist. However, we cannot, we will not let go of that original object. First of all, out of fear, fear of going down in history as that person who decided that nitrate films should be thrown in the Pacific or early television materials should be thrown in the Hudson River. Second of all, the reason is… fear, fear of losing the object. Reformatting is trending towards the digital realm and, to many, digital files are even less real or graspable than video signals. Geertz states that, while theoretically possible, no culture has established an “autonomous value system” independent of symbols and objects (127). However, conceptually, this is what digital preservation can seem to be requiring us to do.

The reconceptualization necessary here will happen over time, gradually, the birth of digital neither as hard nor fast as the death of film. What will be a bigger problem to face is what do we do with all of the physical materials once they have reached a state of advanced/absolute obsolescence and/or decay. One of the promises of digital media is cheap (and increasingly cheaper) storage (though initial cost outlay does not make it seem so). Physical storage is not getting cheaper, and costs will keep rising as organizations reformat and store their originals away. In the very near future (if not already), organizations will start asking hard questions: If we have a preservation master (with backups, stored in separate locations), and a mezzanine copy, and an access copy, why are we paying to store 15,000 tapes we cannot play internally, would cost us X number of dollars to have played by someone else, and may have decayed beyond the quality of our preservation master? At what point do we say, “Enough. We’re moving ahead with what we determined was our best option”?

Tough decision. Not mine nor anyone else’s to make for someone other, but, still, a decision we all can discuss and, hopefully, establish a reasonable set of outcomes and considerations that can inform the choices one must make. Preservation is not a single act, but a series of decisions and implications that follow the embodiment of content from object to object.

Maybe, then, as with the burial of Torahs and other sacred objects in Judaism, there needs to be some sort of ritual disposal, something that acknowledges the limitations of physicality and something that lets us say we shepherded these materials as best we could through their lifecycle so that their essence shall persist.

— Joshua Ranger

*Started by David Croswaith, [AMIA-L] Re: It’s the Beginning of the End for 35mm as Worldwide D-Cinema Roll-out Accelerates, Mon, 8 Aug 2011 14:20:01 -0700
**[AMIA-L] Reply: It’s the Beginning of the End for 35mm as Worldwide D-Cinema Roll-out Accelerates, Wed, 10 Aug 2011 11:33:39 +0100
***Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books. New York, 1973.