NEW YORK — Question: When is a movie not a movie?
Answer: When it turns into a pile of dust because it hasn't been properly preserved.
That's a grim riddle with an unfunny punch line, but it points up an important message. Until fairly recent times, most people thought of old movies as used-up commodities with no commercial value. They were usually consigned to the rubbish heap, and consequently a large proportion of cinema's history has been lost forever.
Fortunately, some historians and curators have realized the enormous waste of leaving old films to decay, crack, fade, flake, or simply fall apart. Few institutions have worked so conscientiously on this problem as New York's renowned Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which has been collecting, cataloguing, and circulating movies for some 60 years, and boasts more than 13,000 films among its holdings.
That's a lot of movies to find space for in midtown Manhattan, where the museum has been located since the late 1930s. This summer, after a long period of planning and construction, the solution to this dilemma proudly opened its doors: the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, located on a 38-acre plot in Hamlin, Pa., about 100 miles from New York City.
The center's sheer size is impressive, with two buildings holding storage vaults, inspection and cleaning rooms, offices, and other facilities necessary for such a large and continually used archive. Climate control is complex: Color film is stored at 36 degrees; black-and-white film and old-fashioned "nitrate" footage get a warmer 45 degrees; posters, production records, and other paper materials are kept at 50 degrees; and videotapes and photographs bask in a tropical 55 degrees. Meanwhile the humidity hovers at 30 percent, just right for the whole collection. The air is cleansed on a continual basis, since celluloid gives off gases that can contribute to its decay.
Who gets to use this meticulously designed archive? Movie-lovers everywhere benefit from it, directly or indirectly. Its primary users are MoMA itself and the 100-odd institutions that belong to the International Federation of Film Archives, which channel large numbers of films to schools, libraries, festivals, arts centers, and other places that program movies for public viewing.
"We make hundreds of loans a year all over the world," says Mary Lea Bandy, chief curator of MoMA's film department and a prime mover of the preservation-center project. All members of the federation "lend films to each other for programming, restoration, and cataloging," she continues, stressing the interconnected nature of the preservation and programming communities. "Our network is worldwide," she adds.
This doesn't mean all countries are equal in their support for such activities, however. "The United States is behind the Europeans in archiving," Ms. Bandy said in a recent interview, "because there's less government support here. Even a nation like Portugal has been ahead of us."
Bandy hopes the new center will give a needed boost to American film preservation, and she notes that it will enhance MoMA's ability to make its materials more accessible to more people. "It enables us to double the access to our collection," she says, "and allows us to get a much better handle on our own material. In the past we always knew what we had, but we didn't always know what condition it was in, and we didn't always have room to get our hands on things. It's much better now."
What distinguishes MoMA's collection from others is its emphasis on preserving movies donated directly by filmmakers. "It was founded by donations from D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and Harold Lloyd," says Bandy, "and this has continued in recent years with filmmakers like Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, Stan Brakhage, and Ernie Gehr contributing their films. The Library of Congress [film archive] is huge, since it's the national depository, and UCLA has a great number of Hollywood studio films ... but we're different because we grow largely through filmmakers' gifts."
Since more people think of cinema as popular culture than as high art, some have questioned the place of movies in a major museum. Which comes first for MoMA's film department - art or sociology?
"Both," curator Bandy says. "We're the only archive in the world whose primary purpose is to collect film as art. But as the century goes on, we're valued in a much broader sense for our social and political documents.... The whole museum has become a record of the 20th century, and film and photography are becoming more and more important as art and also as a record of our time.
"It's that tension, that dichotomy that has always made MoMA interesting. We believe that Bugs Bunny and Francis Ford Coppola are both art. Of course, this raises questions that may never be satisfactorily answered. We believe there is no one definition of art."