In 1922, Buster Keaton produced a short film called “The Blacksmith” (he was about 1 year away from making his first feature) in which an inept garage mechanic inadvertently ruins a white Rolls Royce with the oil on his hands, smearing it all over the brand-new paint job.
The joke apparently didn't get a laugh in the theatres, and later Keaton was quoted as saying the reason was that audiences didn't like to see nice things destroyed. This from the filmmaker who famously would drive a perfectly recreated Civil War-era train locomotive into a river in Oregon in “The General.” Again, not to much comedic effect at the time, but to subsequent critical acclaim years later.
Why is archiving important? Is archiving old films important anymore? Nowadays the newest generations of film-goers, the ones whose tastes define what makes money and therefore what gets produced, see as many films on-line, either streamed or BitTorrent'd (stolen) than in a movie theatre. People watch films – or pieces of films – on YouTube, and on their iPods, a big 2 ½ inch wide. How's that Johnny Depp performance in “Pirates of the Caribbean” come across like that exactly?
Clearly the quality of the image isn't important. The go-getter techno-plugged-in crowd occasionally has the opportunity to see the opposite, of course, when the summer films are released in digital 3-d Imax formats, with high frame-rates, deep-focus silver screens, multiple stereo tracks, and fetishistic special effects. But these films are closer to acid trips than actual stories. These $20-a-ticket handjobs are all dazzling and tarted up without a single thought behind their pretty lipstick-smeared faces.
I've talked elsewhere about the “plastic” quality of film. Film's a physical and tangible collection of discreet photographs that documents a specific performance, and – here's the leap into the industrial age of mechanical reproduction - is specifically mediated (by editing, music, shot choice) for the optimum aesthetic or emotional impact (Brett Ratner will tell a race riot story to different effect than John Singleton). The physical aspect of it – the “sculpture” of the thing, if you will - is the plastic. In a post-modern, pre-Semiotic art-as-object, not-a-bundle-of-interpretations way. I'm in over my head. I'm coming back in.
And finally, it's infinitely duplicable. Both the print and therefore the showings for every audience are exactly the same, each and every time. The film can show forever, for as long as someone wants to see it, and there's a print available.
But who's happy when it goes digital? Goes on-line? Sure - it's now widely available (in that library-hit-by-an-earthquake jumble called the www. If you don't know it's there, can you ever find it (I'm with Nicholson Baker on the whole “art of card cataloging” thing)?).
The irony is – digital is more susceptible to loss, not film. Film is surprisingly stable. Despite all the “nitrate can't wait” articles we've read (and it can't), if it has been stored properly, apparently the stuff has a lifespan not yet decided by empirical evidence – it's now believed it may last as long as 200 years (if it's not gone already that is).
You can find a 90-year-old reel of Charlie Chaplin and put it on a projector and figure out what it is. I bet you can't get a computer file from 10 years ago to boot. I bet you don't even have the proper machine to do it.
And goddamn it, it costs money to transfer these old chemical-plastic things to digital format. If there's no perceived value (if no one's gonna pay for the DVD), many old films go untransferred, copyrights get unrenewed (and the films go orphan, which is a whole 'nother kettle of legal wax), or the few remaining prints simply are sold off, cannibalized, or thrown away.
Not even recycled.
So what's lost isn't just the film prints, on 35mm or 16mm film, but the actual experience of seeing these films as they should be seen. Wondrous joys from the past, never to be repeated (because there aren't any audiences who know they exist, and no prints are available anymore anyway) and doomed to be forgotten. Forever.
Nice things, indeed.
(The author thanks Bruce Fletcher of “Dead Channels” for concepts discussed in this post.)