A film archivist is… (first published January 9, 2011)

Amy and I went to a (lovely) party last night [note: this blog was first published on January 9, 2011] where we didn’t know that many people that well. At every party, sooner or later, after you find out how the other person came to know their hosts, who you want in the Super Bowl this year and how freakin’ cold it’s outside, you get to the adult variation of “what’s your major?” There was somebody writing a book on America’s 1940-1942 planning for postwar policies, who also sold pharmaceuticals and scooters. Another was a principal at a Jersey City charter school. As usual, there was the range of livelihoods one associates with these parties of our age group.
When asked, our usual answer is “we distribute classic films and sometimes we get to restore them.” People are usually surprised at this, as if this isn’t a real job (like accountant or lawyer) or that they can’t imagine that a job like this can exist.
A librarian’s job is easy to understand – one sees them all the time – though they don’t get nearly the respect they deserve. And a seller of widgets or watches is also easy – you buy an item and you sell it for a higher price. An archivist is perceived as some sort of nerd who collects “things” and doesn’t share. But if considered, they must deal with books, personal papers and art.
I perceive Amy and I as amateur film archivists. We lack the official training but have had plenty of learning at the feet of the masters. Through Milestone’s work and as a longtime member of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (I’ve been a board member for the last three years), Amy and I have had the pleasure befriending moving image archivists around the world.
The following is adapted from a speech I gave last year and it’s the best I can do to describe a film archvists’ work.

First, let me tell you what I think film does best. You may disagree with me, but I’ve come to believe that films are truly great when they can do one of three things.

1)    Films that take us to unknown worlds, time and cultures (where we completely forget about the uncomfortable seats or the rude ticket taker) and leave us with a better understanding of those outside of our own experience. Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery all do this. Avatar does the first part exceedingly well but James Cameron’s depth is little more than the level of cheap cowboy and Indian B-movies. Great as entertainment, but not on the level of true cinematic greatness.
2)    Films that are so universal in their sense of humanity that we can truly empathize and understand the characters even though they at first, don’t outwardly seem like us. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Maborosi and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep can seem half-a-world apart, but they share a sense of reverence for people able to endure when life is at its most difficult. And we share it with them.
3)    Films so truthful to their setting and situations that those most closely aligned to the story do see themselves. Daughters of the Dust and Killer of Sheep were so successful because African-American recognized themselves or saw people they swore they knew. Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals did this for Native American audiences as well. And there are so precious few movies like this that when they do occur, they are to be treasured.
In truth, the greatest films take you in and make you a part of the story. And there are many, many great films that have been part of the canon since the Museum of Modern Art established the idea in the early 1940s. Films like Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, The Red Shoes, Jules and Jim are (and should be) part of almost every cinema course.
But what if these films are threatened by deterioration or just as bad, forgotten to history. This is where a film archivist comes in.
1)    A film archivist is a librarian but with a fedora, a whip and a sense of discovery. He is an explorer.
2)    A film archivist is a time-traveler who can discover lost worlds.
There are numbers tossed about – created from an old American Film Institute propaganda campaign to separate your money from your wallet – stating that 90% of all silent films are lost and that around 50% of all sound films are missing. It’s all lies. No one actually knows the numbers – though the very number-oriented Jon Mirsalis has counted up the number of feature silent films that were created in the United States and compared it to a list of all those that exist today in the world archives and came up with 77% of silent films are lost. Admitedly, this is still a significant and tragic number.
What’s cooler, however, is that there are films being discovered all the time. Many, like John Ford’s Upstream or the complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were known to exist within the New Zealand and Argentine archives respectively, but they weren’t really “discovered” until some film archivist put a cultural value on them and brought their existence to the attention of the world. Others, such as the marvelous Mitchell and Kenyon “reality” films from early part of the 20thcentury, were miraculously discovered a hundred years later almost perfectly intact in barrels of a building about to be torn down. And watching those M&K films are incredible. They are so immediate that the people in the films seem to be actually watching you as they view them. You can see the nine-year-old children coming out of the mills at the end of the day and feel their weariness.

Film and video archives catalog, label, preserve and restore these films all day long, all year round. Archivists are dedicated to ensuring that future generations will share our moving image heritage. And they do love to share!
Moving image archivists can take you into a world a hundred years old and make you forget about the auto mechanics’ report or the bad meal you just had. You can mistake archivists for tradesmen, but they are actually time-travelers and magicians. There is wonder and honor in what they do.
Some day, I’ll write to you about AMIA, the archives and archivists we know.