Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dark Archives

In film archiving programs much like the one I am in, what you end up learning is a lot more about library studies than actual preservation of film.

What's important now is not trying to find an extant copy of an old lost classic. Let's presume that most of the films that can be found have been... or are deteriorated to the point of past saving. Now "archiving" is figuring out how to present what's still around to future generations, and future generations aren't interested in going to museums.

What archiving means now is to learn how physical document-style record-keeping archives keep track of their stuff. It means cataloging, and creating metadata for the Internet.

Describing moving images with words is a challenge that has yet to be conquered. As machines and software get better at "identifying" what a film clip or series of shots is about, the more a human with some kind of cultural sense and taste needs to intervene and perform triage on the alphabet soup that's created. You can't describe the elegance of a match cut in Renoir with even two stills together on a webpage.

You can't capture the flicker in Marlene Dietrich's eyes. Or the swagger in Asia Argento's poise.

Yet everything is being streamed to us anyway, on the Internet in any form they can deliver it to us. We no longer can be concerned with the best possible copies. Now we are beholden to creating the fastest-deliverable ones. There are over 4000 35mm prints of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in existence. In 6 months when it hits DVD, over 3800 of them will have been purposely destroyed to prevent piracy (although it's already on the Internet in digital form). And by the time of the third Transformers film there may be no film prints at all - it will be delivered digitally to your local exhibition spaces.

Newsweek (or was it Film Comment?) was right: Film is dead. They merely announced it a couple of decades too early. Sure, the old classics (and not-so-classics) on film are still being saved, on negative if they still exist, forgotten in dark archives. The temperature is lowered and the lights are dimmed so no more damage is done, for that moment some time in the future when people care about film again and want to see actual light shone through actual chemicals on celluloid and reflected off a silver screen, rather than transmitted with the electronic glow of digital perfection.

The archives are quiet. Companies are releasing the same hits over and over again in newer formats rather than exploring deep into the canon. The industry is trying to shake as much money as possible out of people, but it's hard when everyone is getting everything in a reduced resolution and in small pieces, often only temporarily - and for free.

No one's figured out what to do when people expect so much more for so much less. The old business model of selling atoms people keep is being challenged and undermined forever.

We're in a profound period of transition, psychologically, culturally, financially, and philosophically.


Doug Bonner said...

Quite an elegant and profound posting. When I sat at my computer watching THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE chopped into 13 segments on YouTube, it was a strange feeling: I was finally seeing this legendary film, yet I was watching it in a quality that would have been totally unacceptable to me 10 years ago.

Roger L. said...

Our acceptance of "film" - on a computer screen, is a large part of th problem. Is it still "film" if it's streamed, digitally, by bits, online? Personally rather than with an audience?

I think not.

Thanks for reading, DB