Sunday 19 February 2012

Canyon Cinema - the impact of the digital on film access and preservation

Home from a weekend back in Scotland today I was saddened that the first e-mail I read was from the AMIA (Association of Moving Image Archivists) list saying that Canyon Cinema is under threat.  Canyon Cinema is a film collective based in California who provide over 3,500 film titles for rental, sale and distribution on film and DVD, though mostly on film - Super 8, 16 and 35mm.  I first heard of Canyon Cinema at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in LA in March 2010 where I attended a panel - 'Celebrating Chick Strand through screenings and discussions'. The co-operative started in the 1950s and their website gives an account of their history which just makes you wish you'd been there in the beginning!  Chick Strand is one of a huge number of the film makers who are represented by Canyon - other famous names include Len Lye, Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger.

The story of the threat to Canyon Cinema of course ties in with the ever increasing news coverage being given to the impact of digital on the film world, in terms of preservation and availability of 35mm prints for viewing. The New York Times article which was highlighted on the AMIA list refers to the growth of digital film as the main reason for the large drop in profits from renting, selling and distributing films.  The article quotes Dominic Angerame, Executive Director of Canyon Cinema, as saying that about 70% of their film titles are not digitised and that its annual film rental income has dropped from $133,000 in 2004 to about $90,000 now.    The suggestion is that they would need to digitise the majority of their film titles in order to survive, and the cost of this is so prohibitive as to make it impossible. 

Now I know that nothing stays the same forever and that technologies have to change but I am just so saddened by the implications of the take-over of digital film.  The thought of never seeing a film on 35mm in a cinema again, of the ever-increasing difficulty which film archives, film schools, and individual film lovers are going to have in getting hold of and maintaining the equipment needed to project and repair films.  All this makes me so sad and I really don't think that change is always a good thing.Of course digitising all the film titles in their collection would increase their accessibility but I just don't see that digitisation is the solution to everything - many of these films were made by the artists to be experience in the particular medium they were made in.  Not to mention that there are still many viewers who want to experience the films in their original format.  However I'm not a Luddite either and I get that there are lots of benefits to digital over film - I just don't want to have the new over the old - can't they co-exist?

Interestingly the article also says that the money problems of Canyon Cinema have been around for a while and that in 2009 they got $100,00 from Stanford University for selling them their paper archive.  I did wonder why the paper records weren't actually held at Canyon - I thought maybe the didn't have the space, the staff, or the time to make them accessible.  It hadn't occurred to me that this would be a way of trying to ensure survival of the film collection.  Again, although I understand it is rarely practical to house entire paper collections with the film collections they relate to - different preservation needs, storage conditions, different archive specialisms to name but a few issues that spring to mind - in an ideal world I'd love it if more archives did contain the films themselves alongside the paper records relating to their creation, even better if it was all catalogued on the one database - ah well, it's nice to have archive dreams!

I was glad to read in the article that they do have some options and ideas for how to ensure the survival of the film co-operative.  The proposition is that by turning themselves into a non-profit they would have a much higher chance of survival - well, I hope this turns out to be true.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

A Useful Life - a love letter to film and film preservation

Well, I've been slightly lax with blog posting since the start of the New Year, partly because I've been doing more posts on my work blog. However I thought I should post this while there's still a possibility for readers to catch this film in the cinema.  The reason being the film is a love letter to cinema, 35mm, and as a result of that, the work of film archivists.
My first cinema trip of 2012 was on January 2nd to the BFI to see Manhattan but this is not the subject of this post. One of the trailers I saw was for A Useful Life - a Uruguayan film set in a cinematheque with shots of the cinematheque's film archive in the trailer - how could I resist!

The film is the story of Jorge, the projectionist of the Cinemateca, an art house cinema in Montevido. It’s a sad story in many ways, the seemingly inevitable decline of a cinema which can’t or won’t adapt to new ways of working, the drop in the number of visitors coming to see the films, the increase in the costs faced by independent cinemas – all these issues are played out in the film. However it’s also an incredibly heart-warming story as it’s the story of Jorge, the projectionist, as he moves from being a part of the decaying cinema to creating a life for himself outside of, but definitely not apart from, his cineaste identity.

There are so many wonderful moments in the film – the discussion about money between the members of the cinematheque team, Jorge fixing the seats in the cinema, the radio interview he does for his radio show, and of course the shots of the projection room and the film store! It’s a film that’s full of love – love for the cinema, for film itself, and I thought for the work of film preservationists. Well it turns out I wasn’t just projecting my own views on that last point as the director Federico Veiroj not only worked at cinematheques but also at the Spanish Film Archives. I can’t recommend this film highly enough – it still makes me smile when I think about it. There’s an interesting interview with Federico Veiroj reprinted on Mubi here where he talks about his love of film and film archives/archivists.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

On reading other people's letters

The joys of cataloguing correspondence - I'm sure I've gone on about it plenty on this blog, and on my work blog so apologies if you're bored of it by now.  There's a real feeling of privilege I get when reading someone else's correspondence.  I hasten to add this doesn't mean I steal people's mail or anything like that - I 'm very lucky in that I get to read other people's mail as part of my job!  I also enjoy reading edited collections of correspondence such as The Raymond Chandler Papers.

[photo by me]

The letters can be quite hard-going sometimes, particularly when he's suffering from writer's block or has finished up working on a film script.  Like with any collection of letters, you really get the sense that you're getting to know the individual, and for me, they also give a real sense of the richness of archives - but then I'm slightly archive-obsessed!

One of my favourite exchange of letters so far has been about Farewell, my Lovely. The title of the book was the cause of some disagreement.  In a letter to fellow writer George Harmon Coxe on 27 June 1940 Chandler explains that the publishers wanted to call his second novel The Second Murderer.  Chandler goes on to say 'when I turned the manuscript in they howled like hell about the title, which is not at all a mystery title, but they gave in.  We'll see. I think the title is an asset. They think it is a liability'. Apparently this book was largely ignored by the critics and the publishers blamed this, at least partly, on the title.  I really enjoyed Farewell, my Lovely when I read it recently but I've yet to see the film - I can't imagine anyone else but Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe!

The book includes some non-fiction writing alongside the letters and, as it's topical at the moment I thought I'd include a piece he wrote on the Oscars.  In 1946 Chandler, fed up and jaded from working for Hollywood studios, had moved to La Jolla to focus on his own writing.  However, he returned to Los Angeles to report for 'The Atlantic Monthly' on the 1946 Oscar ceremony.  Here are some of my personal highlights from his report:

‘in the motion picture business we possess an art medium whose glories are not all behind us.  It has already produced great work, and if, comparatively and proportionately, far too little of that great work has been in achieved in Hollywood, I think that’s all the most reason why in its annual tribal dance of the stars and big-shot producers Hollywood should contrive a little quiet awareness of the fact.  Of course it won’t. I’m just daydreaming.’

‘If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theatre without a sense of collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage to what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, ‘in these hands lie the destinies of the only original art form the modern world has ever conceived’; if you can laugh, and you probably will, at the cast-off jokes from the comedians on the stage, stuff that wasn’t good enough to use on their radio shows... if you can do all these things with grace and pleasure, and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously ... if you can do all these things and still feel the next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong.”

It doesn't really sound like a whole lot has changed in Hollywood, or at the Oscars, does it?!