The Elitism of Film Preservation

By April 10, 2013Blog

When I was studying some (and failing at) History as an undergrad (I don’t think the professors fully appreciated my approach of reading and interpreting historical texts as if they were literature) the full shift to the Bottom Up approach to the field was settling in. There was still time in class spent underscoring why that approach was important and why it was preferred, but I never got the sense that most students needed convincing at that point. It seemed that it was more just muscle memory spasms from the recent struggle of a paradigm shift away from a Top Down or Great Man approach.

In the old model history is told through the stories of leaders and powerful individuals (usually men) as if their decisions and actions were the primary causes or lessons to learn from. The Civil War as a story of politicians and generals, of singular accounts of hubris and honor, of a speech or a bit of blind luck or ill fortune that affected one man and turned the tide of battle. In the new model this is flipped over to view history as the story of the masses, of the underprivileged and commonplace as equal to the privileged and extraordinary. To continue our example, this method is well represented by the popular The Valley of the Shadow project that presents the Civil War as a story of everyday life, of soldiers and their families and their neighbors, of the farms and towns impacted by the war.

I was thinking about this topic after reading about Martin Scorsese’s recent National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture where he spoke about the importance of film preservation. Despite his nominally Bottom Up supporting statements that all films should be preserved regardless of their box office results (the home movie and amateur circuits thank you, sir!) I came away with the distinct feeling that this was very much a Great Man view of media history. It seemed that the focus was on auteurism and Hollywood or otherwise distributed films. Or, Films.

To me this smacks of a hierarchical view of the moving image, one where Cinema is at the top, deserving of the most respect, the most resources, and the most concentrated effort (regardless of how much money it generated in release, of course). Though admittedly this would seem to include shorts, early cinema, and the avant garde — film productions influential on feature films if not of the genre itself — the summary of the speech does not seem to address the masses of amateurish and video productions that are out there (though I’m sure some people would group those two categories together…).

This bothers me in part because, despite a sympathy to the concept of the auteur’s vision, I am also too well aware of the huge amount of collaboration and serendipity that goes into film production, and a focus on the periodic or limited output of directors (or any specific creative/technical position) denigrates the roles of others in that process. It also bothers me because, despite the good work the National Film Preservation Foundation has done, their model and funding mission does not match the world of moving image collections as I experience them on the ground.

I do not see single films that require weeks of detailed work to restore them and garner front page articles in the newspaper. I see piles of U-matics and 1/2 inch open reel and miniDVs — thousands and thousands of them that need quality transfers, but are in a volume and state that would not be feasible at the same time and cost factor as a film preservation project. These are broadcast programs, interviews, field footage, news gathering, home videos, amateur image capture, production materials, and beyond. Box office doesn’t matter because there is no box office here. The auteur does not matter because these materials are more reflective of an institution or of related content produced over years and decades. It’s about the democratization and the speed that video capture enables, which also means that it’s about volume and long term impressions, not singularity and pristine objects.

Perhaps my anger is misdirected, because the frustration here is that video does not have the same foundational and federal support as film, whereas, arguably, video (and audio) is the much greater documentarian of history and culture of the past 30 years, documenting home life, political events, disasters, community, performing arts, and all degree of personal, regional, and national experiences.

I’m reminded of a project several years ago where we were discussing with the client the massive appeal/obsession with World War II footage and the relative lack of interest in more recent military events such as Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, military response to natural disasters, etc. We lamented the fact that people were willing to let historical documents fade and decay because they were not sexy or “historical” enough, which, honestly is likely related to their nearness in time as much as the fact that recent events are on video while the Past is on film. The video was seen as less precious and less endangered (though if you want to find a Hi-8 PAL deck for me we can review that assessment).

Lest I misdirect you, this is not an argument over the comparative merits of film versus video. Both exist. Both must be cared for in the way that is best for them. Rather, it is an argument about historiography, about how we write, read, and interpret history. About the need to recognize now — not 200 years down the road — that history is currently being recorded on ugly formats in ugly ways with an entire lack of beauty and skill. Such is the human condition. Such is what we are tasked to care for.


Coda: But really, my biggest beef here is that Marty proclaims we should Save Everything. I mean, doesn’t he read my blog! Come on!

Joshua Ranger

Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Well said! Film preservation is too elitist and auteurist. Or rather it’s the idea of film preservation that is so – most film and video archivists know not to think in such a hierachical way. Someone like Scorsese might do a bit of good if they spoke up a little more for film (and video) as having primarily a social purpose, and not the tired idea of film as art.

    • Josh says:

      More well said, Luke! And I totally agree — it’s not the archivists that are thinking that way but it’s the story that more frequently gets picked up and told by the media.

  • Kevin) says:

    Josh, I like what you have to say here, and feel that it also applies quite well to the library/book preservation world. It seems to me one of the challenges your analysis identifies is the need for a well educated and aware and effective worker who does as you do – recognizes the hype of the “special” and more importantly, recognizes the value of the arguably more banal. In the library conservation training world it seems that so much training attention is directed toward the treatment of “treasures” I’m concerned these students will buy into the hype. But, I will also confess that in the cocktail party scenario when strangers ask me about my work, I am more likely to talk about the few treasures than the bulk of the banal.

    • Josh says:

      That’s interesting to hear about a similarity with book preservation, though I guess it shouldn’t have. I was a little blown away at AIC last year hearing about how much time and effort was put into the restoration of single objects like the Jefferson Bible and comparing it to the volume and timeline on the reformatting projects I see. Totally agree about the cocktail party scenario. Heck, not just strangers but even my parents want to hear about the best item I’ve worked with, not about the boxes of 20,000 Betacams and U-matics I arranged this morning. I do feel that conservation programs can do a good job of deflating the hype if students get good internship or hands on experience (not always easy). At NYU we were introduced to many regional collections, untouched collections, and plenty of video, so I think we really saw the scope and reality of the situation and have trended to work in those areas.

  • […] and elitist evaluation are essential to criticism, but death when it comes to film preservation, argues Joshua Ranger. Via Luke […]

  • Julie says:

    Thought provoking as usual, Joshua. It seems to me that the preservation of large amounts of archival video and film might be well served by something like the ARL Hidden Collections initiative, which was designed to provide patron access to inaccessible large collections such as pamphlet collections that had no catalog records at all. The film preservation initiatives that you describe seem to be more curated to select individual items for expensive and time consuming conservation treatment.

    • Josh says:

      Thanks, Julie. I think you’re right that the Hidden Collections model is a good approach, but I do have caveats about that — primarily that the documentation should be at least item-ish level, and that there is acknowledged awareness of the fact that in most cases creating a catalog record is only one step to access. Most likely reformatting will have to occur in order to enable that access. Even if researcher demand is prompted by records being made publicly accessible, there may not be the funding (or even institutional desire) to take on reformatting and digital asset management.

  • Well said, and of course I agree that the tip of the mountain is only the …er … tip of the mountain. But if attention and value were not focused on the tip, would that improve things for the rest? I wish it were true, because then there would be at least that one way to improve things. But I think the inaction on the mountain itself is because institutions (universities are at least a documented example) don’t know what they have, and don’t much care– until somebody documents the value (as they have done at Indiana Univ) and then works very hard to drum up interest and support. It’s the actual slog to document and promote action, across all institutions, that is missing — and knocking film off its high perch won’t supply the hard slog needed for everything else.

    • Josh says:

      Really great point, Richard. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it is very true. Documenting large collections is a big undertaking that will often require multiple passes at description and reformatting — as with preservation in general there is no pat and dried end point to say “That’s a wrap. Good work, everyone.” I guess that may be the attraction of marquee restoration projects (until a few years later when the film has to be restored again for redistribution…). And with across the board budget constraints you’re right, dis-allocation in one area will not necessarily result in re-allocation to a desired area unless there is a strong voice articulating and pushing for that need.

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