The new celluloid heroes
Preservationists springboard off audience enthusiasm for 'Hugo' and 'The Artist' to revive old-school films.
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"At the time, studios didn't realize that the films could be exploited for later commercial use," says Jeff Lambert, assistant director of the National Film Preservation Foundation in San Francisco, which distributes grants to archives for preservation efforts. "Now when films are made, studios are already planning the DVD, cable, and Internet-streaming release. So they now all have really great preservation arms in place to watch out for the heritage they're creating. But that wasn't always the case."Skip to next paragraph
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Film preservationists are not just technicians; they are often also curators in determining, given budget constraints, which films should be restored and where they should be made available for new viewing.
"Preservation is absolutely important, but we really don't consider it preservation until the public has access to the material," Mr. Lambert says.
Given the current fate of mechanical film projection, new platforms are emerging for early archival film prints. Online streaming, DVD collections, and film societies now do the work. Jeff Masino, founder of Flicker Alley, a DVD distribution company in Los Angeles that recently released a celebrated box set of just under 200 complete Méliès films, says the continued evolution of how people view movies is only good for preservation.
"The technology in the last 5, 10, 20 years has allowed people to become more literate about film, which has also contributed to the renewed interest in silent films," he says.
Besides home releases that curate lost auteurs, genres, and actors, the ultimate way to experience early cinema might be at a local movie theater operated by a film society. Such preservationist groups work, often unpaid, with national film archives and private collectors to get the films before a new public.
Viewing film "has to be a social thing. It has to be people coming together doing something that individuals can't," says Kyle Westphal, a founder of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, a weekly film series of little-seen or restored silent and early-era films. Besides hunting down prints, ordering them from archives and staging the screenings, the organization creates painstaking background material of the film for viewers to provide a sense of the history that went into keeping them in circulation and relevant for showing today.
"Ultimately we do think of ourselves as an educational organization. If there's an interesting story about a film's preservation, we put it out there and talk about it," Mr. Westphal says. "If there weren't avenues showing these films, why preserve them?"
As fewer venues show archival prints and advancing technology makes home screenings a niche outlet for viewing, the future of appreciating early cinema may take place in museums or art centers.
Mr. Usai, who believes there is a "distinctive beauty of the moving image" on mechanical film, says he is optimistic because soon there will be an "opportunity to give film as an object the same kind of dignity that has been given to painting, sculpture and architecture."
"The day when film will no longer be made, at that point, the exhibition of a beautiful 35mm print of 'Lawrence of Arabia' will be perceived as a special event equal to the presentation of a Picasso painting," he says. "I see nothing wrong with that."