Doc Films, an organization well known for advocating obscure and rare films, invited like-minded film scholars and archivists to speak Monday night about the issues associated with preserving and studying old film treasures.
Speaking to a group of about 75 students and film buffs in the Max Palevsky Cinema, the panel included Dave Kehr, a Doc Films alumnus and freelance film critic who has written for publications such as The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune; Mike Mason, the head of the Motion Picture section of the Library of Congress broadcast division; and Tom Gunning, the chair of the U of C’s Committee on Cinema and Media Studies.
The panelists spoke and answered audience questions about the difficulties of studying films that were preserved erroneously in their time. Mason said that today there is “more understanding of film as a physical artifact—it’s fragile.” He described new restoration techniques that have made it possible to view films that have been ignored and left in poor condition for decades. Recent restorations have given film scholars a wealth of information about film—unedited versions of classic films are unearthed, and forgotten films are rediscovered. In one example, Gunning related how until recently scholars didn’t know that 80 percent of silent films were color tinted.
Despite advances in restoration technology and attempts to revive interest in old films with ongoing projects such as the Treasures from the American Film Archive series of DVD box sets, today’s market for many of these films is mainly composed of collectors and scholars. Gunning lamented that the distribution of these films is scattershot at best. While studios retain huge libraries of film reels, they often don’t know what they have, and the costs of putting their entire libraries on DVD for collectors are prohibitive.
Gunning pointed out that academia has little influence over Hollywood studios.
“Nobody thinks, ‘Wow, look at this footnote! We’d better bring that out on DVD,’” he said.
Among film preservationists, there is growing concern about the films that are left behind after each switch in film medium. Kehr calls this phenomenon “progressive amnesia”—as media switch from VHS to DVD, and then to high definition DVD, as many as half the titles can be lost in each step as people are exposed to less and less material.
Kehr described the phenomenon as a tradeoff.
“There’s less available, but what is available is better than ever,” he said.
After the panel discussion, there was a showing of one such forgotten classic: the 1925 Cecille B. DeMille film The Golden Bed, with live piano accompaniment by Daniel Sefik.