When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

Association of Moving Image Archivists
St. Louis
November, 2009


AMIAconferenceSt. Louis gave the world ice cream cones and Agnes Moorehead, Nelly and T. S. Elliot, Masters & Johnson and peanut butter. 

But this week, the world is giving something righteously awesome back to this cool city as the Association of Moving Image Archivists descends on a downtown hotel that’s directly across the street from the Art Deco manufacturing headquarters for TUMS (yet another gift to the world from this city).  This is my first AMIA conference, but they are (or, since I’m now a card-carrying member, we are) a jovial and fun bunch. 
The networking, screenings and talks have been rolling down the pike like the Mighty Mississippi (viewable from the lobby) so much that “my head feels like a load of plaids in the spin-cycle” as Zippy the Pinhead once remarked.

There’s a lot to write about but I’ll start by downloading some quotes, ideas and factoids from the last 48 hours.  Here’s a collage of ideas / concepts / happenings:

While “preservation” and “restoration” are still used when talking about Film, I hear the phrase “rescue” used with Videotape as its technology is dying at a much faster pace than film. 

The overarching word for transferring old media technology to new media types is “migration.”  I like that phrase because it connotes a lack of territory / ownership / permanence.  The passing of Moving Images from a reel to another is a deeply embedded history of its technology.  The term “bicycle” — meaning to ship a film from one location to another — was still in use 75 years after bicycles were no longer used to transport movies from nickelodeon to nickelodeon around New York City.  Many original movie showmen were migrational in their lives, as they would move from town to town to screen their films to new audiences.  And the movie industry itself migrated from New York to California in the early twentieth century.  So “migration” seems a good fit for the current nail-biting drama of saving moving images.

As moving images are deteriorating and traditional technologies die, choices will have to be made in what gets to be preserved — much is lost and a lot more (mainly video) will be lost — so preservationists are working from a place of loss, forgetting and exclusion.  As this SOPHIE’S CHOICE of film/video drama unfolds, the criteria questions coming up include:

“What kind of ideas and energy does a work generate?” “How does it resonate?” “What is its authenticity?” “Where does it come from?”

More later…
Doug / PoMo Joan



More news from St. Louis:  home of Vincent Price and Chuck Berry, Yogi Berra and Josephine Baker, Betty Grable and William S. Burroughs.

A new wave of restored and rescued media layered the screen of St. Louis’ historic Tivoli Theatre on November 5th, as the Association of Moving Image Archivists presented a grab bag of treasures at its annual Archival Screening Night.

tivolisignTwenty-three artifacts dating from 1920s Hollywood to post-Katrina New Orleans, recently preserved and secured until the next technological sea-change occurs, were presented in five-minute segments:  a candy box of treats for any moving image junkie. 

Honoring the host city, the evening was bookended with clips of St. Louis.  Opening the program was a remastered 1969 documentary detailing what went into the production of a 6 o’clock news program at St. Louis’ KMOX-TV.  Biggest kick on the reel?  Showing what the narrator described as the “Nerve Center” of the station, consisting of a half-dozen guys in white shirts and ties, banging away on IMB Selectrics, while a secretary in a mini-skirt with “a balcony you could do Shakespeare from” collected news copy from their outboxes.

St. Louis native Andrew Lampert from the Anthology Film Archives totally stumped me by presenting a trailer of a movie even I never heard of:  a 1968 feature written and directed by Robert Downey Sr.  According to J. Hoberman in the Village Voice  Downey’s NO MORE EXCUSES was a collage of several short and unfinished films, which –judging from the trailer– looked as juicy and irreverent as his next project, the wicked and iconoclastic crossover hit PUTNEY SWOPE.

AMIA’s conference had a significant coterie of Small Gauge / Amateur Film enthusiasts, represented by organizations such as The Center for Home Movies.  A 1942 black-and-white, silent home movie of a public appearance by country music patriarch Bob Wills in Enid, Oklahoma, was presented by the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Dwight Swanson of the aforementioned Center for Home Movies introduced a home movie reel by Helen Hill of her post-Katrina home cleanup.  Swanson’s introduction added extra poignancy to the images by relating that Hill later was killed after moving back into her New Orleans home.

Rick Prelinger of the deliriously overwhelming Prelinger Archives screened 16mm Kodachrome footage of the release of Japanese-American internment camp residents from the Jerome Relocation Center in Illinois.  The film generated many thoughts and questions: 

The color palette of 1940s Kodachrome reminded me of that garishly gorgeous paintbox that amateur filmmakers worked in, often resulting in unconsciously heady color images. Was the well-framed footage shot by a really good amateur or was this reel actually unedited footage shot by a government professional?

Television History was represented by images selected for their power and historical significance.  The third oldest surviving color two-inch quad videotape has been rescued:  a November 1958 episode of THE DINAH SHORE SHOW co-starring Gene Barry, Peter Lawford and (a personal favorite) the often-overlooked Janis Paige.  The large format of the videotape, when projected on a big movie screen, was visually wondrous:   astonishing detail and texture was revealed with delicate, beautiful color rendering.   For Boomers who remember when PBS was called NET (National Educational Television), seven excerpts from the 1965 nine-part NET series HERITAGE OF THE NEGRO had some stunning moments, particularly (for me) Ruby Dee’s dramatic reading of a slave’s letter.  In another vein, unplanned comedy was a crowd-pleaser as Julia Child wielded a blowtorch on the set of THE DICK CAVETT SHOW (to melt the cheese on her French Onion Soup), scaring the bejeezus out of Cavett who hid behind the set until the fire was extinguished.

That misunderstood decade, the Seventies, had perhaps the most cogent representation of its trademark Groovy Mix of sex, drugs and feminism.  The Women’s Film Preservation Fund screened Lisa Crafts’ 1976 animated short DESIRE PIE, a full-on sexual fantasy that celebrated both genders, their sexual beauties, and their copulation possibilities.  If you’ve ever seen Suzan Pitts’ sexual/scatological/shifting-reality animated film ASPARAGUS (that used to open for David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD at its long West L.A. run at the NUART Theatre) then you have an idea of the impact of DESIRE PIE.  A N.O.W. conference from 1973 (the year of Rowe vs. Wade) generated an early independent video of a “Come as Your Sexual Fantasy” Party, an artifact of many worlds gone by:  early black-and-white video technology, days of pushing the sexual envelope, the bursting energy of early feminism … plus when was the last time you went to a conference where the Meet-and-Greets included a Sexual Fantasy Party??   CURIOUS ALICE, a clumsy-yet-fascinating anti-drug film from the National Archives was the perfect after-dinner mint tothe works from that righteously unstable decade.

I could write about each segment if my time allowed.  It was a no-brainer as to why these 23 works were selected:  as with any treasure from a world gone by, each challenged the viewer’s curiosity, resonated with significances both identified and yet-to-be identified, and filled the viewer with deep appreciations for their existence and for the wonders witnessed within one’s own life.

Doug / PoMo Joan

The MAGNETIC Generation

A sobering panel discussion was hosted by Jim Wheeler of DigitalForward on the unstoppable attrition of videotape and its playback equipment at AMIA’s conference on the afternoon of November 6th.

Using an analogy of the sinking of the Titanic, the panel visualized which video formats were already “underwater” and unsalvageable.  More alarming was the analogy that — due to the number of hours of videotape destined to eventual unreadability and obsolescence — there are not enough “seats on the lifeboats” and archivists will have to play God in picking and choosing which tapes can be saved.  “The show’s over,” as Jim Lindner of Media Matters put it.  “The battle is lost.”  Adding additional credence to the arguments were David Crosthwait of DC Video and Eduardo Zanette, master-artisan rebuilder of videoheads for Videomagnetics (did you know that videohead wires are thinner than a human hair?).

In a post-panel chillout discussion with Peter Brothers, tape restoration and disaster recovery guru at Specs Bros., he gave out a single clarifying factoid:  ABC News has about three million hours of videotape it needs to digitize and archive before the tape is unreadable, yet — among all the tape decks that are still operable — there’s a combined life expectancy of about ONE million hours remaining.

[If you’re among those who need to digitize non-VHS videotapes, the companies linked in this article can help you. — DB]

Doug / PoMo Joan

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