Monday, March 11, 2013
Who Wants Nostalgia Anymore?
To SwanArchives.org, which is devoted to the 1974 film "Phantom of the Paradise," and it is the best site for any film, official or otherwise, EVER.
The guy who runs it (Ari, whom Paul Williams wants the trust of) became a fan of the film after seeing it on a double bill (with "Young Frankenstein" no less and there's no better argument for the great loss we've suffered culturally by not wanting to see 2 films in one night anymore), and he began to collect the various emphemera, stills, international posters and magazine articles related to the film over the next 20 years. In the era before VHS and DVD and their attendant behind-the-scenes features this was the only way to capture the experience of a film vicariously absent having a copy yourself (which he would also purloin, a 16mm print intended for the college rental market). In the process he amassed over 400 items, including previews, radio spots (on reel-to-reel tapes), lobby cards, concept drawings and even outtakes from footage abandoned in a lab.
Yeah. A goddamn archive, more complete than any other, devoted not only to one film but to an entire production and marketing process of a typical cult, mid-level hit from the '70s. That it's a sci-fi musical with elements of horror, rock 'n' roll, and directed by Brian De Palma who would go on to much greater things adds to the delicious fortuitousness of his foresight.
In 2006 he put photos of his collection online and wrote over 20,000 words on the production, themes and complicated subtext of the film. A labor of love and the sign of an obsessive fanboy stuck in the past but us beggers can't be choosers and he's done a fabulous job, bringing the joys of the film to a new international audience - and arguably increasing the long-term value of the film for those who own the rights. There is no better discussion of aesthetics and a critique of the industrial process of building and marketing such a complicated and nuanced piece of popular culture, putting it into context.
Thing is the rightsholders don't seem to care. They held no archival material for the film and when a French company wanted to put out a DVD they had to go to Ari for the trailer to put on as an extra. 20th Century no longer held such obsolete objects.
Ari's efforts, exhaustive and extensive, bring up important questions about how archives and curation will manifest in a new digital age. From an age in which films came and went over the course of a few weeks - often only to be found on late-night cable after their initial theatrical runs - "Phantom" now lives online in a comprehensive deconstruction, including a history of last minute edits to erase the "Swan Song" logo illustrated by outtakes, and a careful chronology of marketing campaigns and film quotes.
The archive is no longer behind closed doors. The curator is now the tourguide, leading you through a primrose path of materials arranged just so. And he's a stone amateur. He makes no money on this and has set up shop in the inner sanctum of archivology without permission. 20th Century Fox and Harbor Productions don't even mention the film on their websites, and although Ari posts image after image of their intellectual property they seem to have ceded all archival responsibility to him.
A thousand other films from before 1980 did not make it to a new generation of fans and didn't enjoy an obsessive teenage nerd with time on his hands to collect every related element or magazine mentioning its makers and stars. They weren't borne during the internet age of dedicated websites. If they never showed on late night TV or made it to VHS they're invisible to us now.
If not for Ari this one would be lost as well.
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Postscript 5/3/13: An extended article I wrote about Ari's website and its archival ramifications was accepted by the esteemed online journal Bright Lights Film Journal, and just appeared in the May 2013 issue here.