“Film, the Living Record of Our Memory” – Lost and Found [MOVIE REVIEW]
At any given moment, cinema, the record of our remembrance of things past, is turning to dust. Tracking the international effort to find, preserve and restore what remains of that history, director Inés Toharia traveled the world to interview the guardians of our collective memory for her outstanding documentary, “Film, the Living Record of Our Memory.”
We have long known that, nitrate, the original medium of film was perishable, flammable and unstable. Almost 80% of all silent films and about 50% of sound films have been destroyed, either deliberately, from fire or through the aging process. Not viewed as an art early on, many studios would systematically destroy film prints in order to make room for new ones. After all, as was believed at the time, no need to keep that Fred Astaire movie because he’d soon make another. First run was thought to be the only run.
At any given time in the past, anyone could go to a studio or lab dumpster and walk off with a treasure trove of movies. Luckily for us, this often happened, allowing so-called lost films to be found in private hands. Soon, probably not soon enough, archives were founded around the world, primarily for preservation but also for restoration. If the name Henri Langlois is not familiar to you, he is the patron saint of all things cinema. A pioneer in film restoration, he founded the Cinémathèque Française in 1938, dedicated to the history and preservation of film, promoting the idea of film as an art form. He is even credited with single handedly hiding whole film collections from the Nazis who were intent on the confiscation and destruction of material that was considered detrimental to their cause—so basically everything that they didn’t make. Langlois stored them in his closets, in his bathtub, under his bed. He changed the labels on the cans to disguise their contents; something that even today has repercussions.
As the internationally renowned director and current president of the Cinémathèque Française, Costa Gavras (“Z”, “State of Siege”), points out, film is “a rear view mirror. It helps us see what’s happened.” Many countries finally created archives, gathering films from both national and private sources. Collaborating with the archives founded around the world, gradually, piece by piece, gaps have been filled in for both the mundane and the masterpieces. By 1938, an international consortium of film archives co-founded by Langlois had bases in New York, Paris, London and Berlin. The Nazis, uninterested in the art form, were great believers in their use as propaganda. Their archive was full of films they stole from the countries they invaded. In an ironic turn of events, the Russians, overwhelming the Germans at the end of the war, gathered up that huge archive and brought it to Moscow. Their archivists, cooperating with Western colleagues, turned up countless films thought lost forever.
But most of these rescued films were in a pitiful state, crumbling, moldy, solidified, and worse. Film stock is susceptible to heat, humidity and organic decay. So first you collect and then you start on the long, tedious process of preservation, after which, depending on the fame or significance of the film, you restore. When film labs closed with the advent of video, cans of films were dumped and what had been state of the art equipment became obsolete. Astute archivists and restorers, if they were fast enough, were able to purchase this out-of-date technology for a song. But it wasn’t out of date for them because they were working on film, not video and not digital. It was literally a race to get there before the garbage truck because so much was just left on the curb.
The archivists weren’t just interested in commercially made movies, they also collected home movies, corporate and industrial films, and especially documentaries and newsreels. They all tell us who we are and where we came from. Film is a witness to history.
The current patron saint of film conservation is Martin Scorsese. He rallied filmmakers to pressure Kodak into developing a low fade film stock and traveled to movie studios with a list of the films in their possession and instructed them on how to preserve them. He started the Film Foundation in 1990 with Sydney Pollack, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to publicize their cause. These preservation efforts extended world-wide because, as is pointed out, restoration is a first world concept as the rest of the world doesn’t even have the money for conservation.
All restoration projects start with research like finding the best elements that still exist whether the original camera negative or the best generation available. The copies are compared, frame by frame and the restorer takes the best to in essence make a hybrid . Physical repairs are made frame by frame using digital technology or a photochemical process to restore it to 35mm film. The original filmmakers, if still available, are always consulted. The film may be restored digitally but it will be preserved on analog. The goal is to restore, not to perfection but to what the film probably looked like when it came out.
A range of international archivists lead us through the processes and history of film preservation. They are informative, down to earth, easily understood and very enthusiastic. How could you not climb onto their bandwagon? To quote Henri Langlois, “Film must be preserved, saved, and above all, shown.” The influence of old films on new filmmakers is incalculable. Toharia’s “Film, the Living Record of Our Memory” is a must see for anyone who has ever been dazzled by the sleight of hand that is a movie. Your appreciation for the art form and the dangers it faces will increase geometrically.
Showing May 8 as part of the Laemmle Culture Vulture Series and on VOD platforms beginning May 16.