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In the year 373, the Emperors Valens and Valentinian ordered the destruction of all books of magic in their domains. Since the term "magic" was broadly construed, much of the learning and literature of the Romand Empire went up in flames. No one can know what was lost to posterity then, or say what treasures the Alexandrian library might have held. Book-burnings in our own day have been less devastating in their results--Gutenberg made it harder to extirpate texts--but we still look on such events with proper revulsion, even though the damage may be more symbolic than real. The book, we feel, is the body of our history and thought.

Unfortuantely, we lack a similar respect for the medium that has embodied our own century's history. Motion pictures are industrial products--technologically complex, economically profitable, popular beyond the dreams of Dickens himself-so we never think of them with the reverence we afford books, and rarely imagine that they could be endangered. Yet more than half of the films made before 1950 have vanished. In fact, every film from that period will inevitably self-destruct unless someone takes the trouble to save it.

During the movies' first half-century, all films were made on a nitrate-based stock, which yielded beautiful, shimmering images. The stock also reacted chemically with air, producing nitric acid. In other words, the films ate themselves. It wasn't until the late 1940s that researchers invented the stable, triacetate stock that is now universally in use; and by then, much of the damage had been done. Thousands of films had been lost: features, short subjects, newsreels, actualities footage, an Alexandrian library's worth of historical documents and works of the imagination. Today, almost forty years after the invention of safety stock, the situation is not much better. While films literally turn to dust, the world's archives struggle to come up with the money to rescue what they can. The simplest preservation job, transferring a black-and-white feature from nitrate to safety stock, costs $10,000 to $12,000. If the film has to be restored in some way--pieced together, perhaps, from various faulty prints--the cost is much higher. And if a color film is being preserved, the base costs rises by a factor of five. In this context, the recent uproar over colorization seems a mere sideshow.

It would be easy to cite statistics and examples to make a case for film preservation; but the best arguments are the films themselves. I would therefore urge readers who happen to be in New York City to visit the Museum of Modern Art, where a remarkable exhibition of preserved films is on view through September 9. Saved! A Decade of Preservation pays tribute to the work of the U.C.L.A. Film and Television Archive through screenings of some of its notable successes. You couldn't ask for a more delightful or convincing introduction to the cause.

There is, for example, a gleaming new print of John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. When it was released in 1949, the film won an Academy Award for its Technicolor cinematography. It was a popular success and has since been accepted as a classic. And for almost thirty years, audiences have seen the picture only in badly faded, 16mm prints. That's like hearing Beethoven's Seventh through a tin can at the end of a string. When the U.C.L.A. Archive set out to save the film, the conservators found no adequate prints in circulation. They located only one good, 35mm print--in John Wayne's private collection--and used that to check the accuracy of the colors, as they restored the film from the original Technicolor negatives. If you didn't see She Wore a Yellow Ribbon during its first release, you haven't been able to see it till now.

One of the obvious goals of preservation is to save films of clear historical importance, such as a John Ford classic, or Rouben Mamoulian's 1935 Becky Sharp, the first feature shot in full Technicolor. Another goal is to save films that nobody thinks are important at all. Tastes change in film--as in all things, only rather more quickly. In the MoMA exhibition, for example, you will find pictures directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer that we would call films noirs, examples of the genre that has been called the greatest achievement of American filmmaking. But as Robert Rosen, director of the U.C.L.A. Archive, points out, for a long time nobody called such pictures films noirs. They were known as urban paranoia movies or gangster pictures, and most people who took film seriously thought them beneath contempt. "People ask, 'Why don't you pick the few great classics and save just those movies?'" Rosen asks. "The answer is, we can't decide for people in the future which films will be worth savings."

Film is a documentary medium as much as a narrative one, and to show the importance of preservation in this regard, the MoMA series will include a program of saved footage from Hearst Metrotone Newsreels of 1919 to 1940, including outtakes that are sometimes more revealing than the finished product. Newsreels will also be shown before some of the features, in the company of other short subjects: Max fleischer cartoons featuring Betty Boop, or Popular Science films shot in retina-boggling Magnacolor.

Those interested in backstage footage will want to catch the Group Theater screen tests from 1939 (with Luther Adler, Elia Kazan, Morris Carnovsky and others), as well as the program Behind the Scenes in Hollywood (including an aged and disaffected F.W. Griffith presenting an Academy Award to a young and giggly Bette Davis). For fans of cinematic oddity, there are examples of Laurel and Hardy featurettes shot in Spanish. In the early days of sound, before dubbing was invented, films would sometimes be shot two or three times over. The actors, having done a scene in English, would repeat it in Spanish or French, reciting lines that were written for them phonetically. Imagine, if you will--or better still, see for yourself--Stan Laurel declaring, "High, corrumba!"

"When audiences fall in love with the image on the screen," Rosen says, "they know in their guts the tragedy of what might have been lost." In this sense, the series at MoMA is less a celebration of the U.C.L.A. Archive's achievement than a plea for support for the effort that still must be made. U.C.L.A. alone holds 13 million feet of endangered nitrate feature films, as well as 14 millino feet of nitrate newsreels; and U.C.L.A. is only one of more than seventy members of the International Federation of Film Archives. There is great cooperation among the archives, to make sure that scarce funds aren't wasted by duplicating efforts. In the United States, for example, U.C.L.A. shares the responsibility for saving American film with the MoMA archive, the Library of Congress, the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House and others. Nevertheless, the task is daunting. Adrienne Mancia, the MoMA curator who selected the films in this exhibition, began her introduction to a recent showing with congratulations to the U.C.L.A. archivists for their success. Then she thought better of it and added, "Well, given what's already been lost, they can't succeed. They can do their best to save what's left, along with the rest of us."

Complete schedules for Saved! are available at the Museum of Modern Art. Count on seeing me there on August 28 or 30, when they're showing the 1941 Jean Arthur comedy The Devil and Miss Jones, with a screenplay by Norman Krasna of Arisstotelian clarity. I would as soon have lost the Poetics as that picture.
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Title Annotation:Films; Museum of Modern Art, New York
Author:Klawans, Stuart
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Aug 13, 1988
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