The Preservation Of The Singular Versus The Mass

By January 23, 2014Blog

The (sorta) recent discovery and restoration of the film interstitials and outtakes for the stage play Too Much Johnson (I refuse to call a jumble of scenes tied to a larger narrative a film) shot by Orson Welles poses the obvious, titular question, how much Johnson is too much?

Apparently, as in this case, no amount. The completist impulse of the collector that seeps into archiving demands that, in regards to the auteur, every frame is sacred, every frame is good, and all are worthy of the resources for the preservation of a single objet d’art.

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I wonder about this (once again, as in the vein of similar posts) because, once again, my work deals with collections that are not 40 minutes of selective shots but, for example, 24 hours of broadcast history recorded on a single tape… 24 hours a day, every day, for over 20 years… 24 hours a day of both radio and television broadcast.

Depending on your opinion of broadcast radio and TV, this content may be considered far from artistic — unless some film or opera or something were played during the period in question — but it is a documentation of history and culture. A documentation of the moment as lived and experienced. Not an extended moment over the period of creation and release of a film, but on a day. A moment of time that passes by and is quickly replaced by the next moment and, then, replaced in our experience by the same moment of time the next day, and the next day, and the next day…

In part this is why the exceptional stands out as the typical target of preservation. The day-to-day becomes boring and indistinguishable from the rest of life. How does one, then, select from the banal? How does one winnow down from the everyday? How does one compare life as it’s lived to Life writ large? If 40 minutes of Orson Welles is worth X-thousands of dollars to restore (and $50 to view), does 540,000 minutes of radio broadcast equate to 13,500 times that amount?

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Much of the talk about the Welles unedited footage has centered around the early hints of his eventual auteur stylings, the influence of silent comedy, and the views of 1930s New York City. Again, one has to ask about the true importance here. Do we not already have extensive documentation of New York from that period? Are the views improved when touched by the hand of Orson Welles and populated with eventual film stars? And if we have existing examples of his aesthetic, do we need more? Especially if it is merely protean and fragmentary? What does the incremental gain in the understanding of one man — on whom there is no lack of scholarship — gain us? What is the value of a single work of art? Can we place a value on it? Would the world be a lesser place for not having it or would life move on, as it tends to do?

A human, a life, life itself is not a puzzle that suddenly reveals a complete and unexpected picture when the right piece is clicked into place as art would have us believe. The letters hidden in that attic in Madison County do not point to an epiphany, but to a dearth of imagination and lack of engagement in the children who have discovered them. Rosebud does not define the man.

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Here, too, we may look to the statistic recently publicized by the Library of Congress that an estimated 75% of films from the silent era no longer exist (I thought this had been floating around for a long time, but this is a more thoroughly researched and documented report, and also perhaps I drank too much during graduate school to really remember such details from then…).

Comments in the articles I have read about this report range from “This is terrible” to “Meh, most of those were probably no good” to a repeated obsession with the incomplete works of Metropolis and Greed. My own inclination is towards acceptance of loss — whether of great, minor, or crap works — and I wonder about the focus on such holy grails of filmdom. If only we had the entire 50 hour cut of Greed, perhaps hate and pain and war and greed (but not Greed) would spectacularly end as the magic of the art allows us to transcend the animalism of our humanity, I guess.

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This 75% is an interesting number. It can be estimated because it is based on commercially released works (or at least works that would be more likely to have a production and release record, and to have been collected), so really what we’re dealing with is a 75% loss of distributed films. We can actually have no real idea of what has been lost — in the silent era and beyond — because we have no real way of quantifying amateur, institutional, corporate, and other non-studio production. Commercial studio production — even if considering studio markets beyond Hollywood — pale in comparison to the amount of personal, amateur, and semi-professional recordings… not to mention regional radio and television production, in-house communications production, advertising, and other non-feature production.

How much of this has been lost? We don’t know because we don’t even have an idea of how much has been produced to start with. And, if we did, we still wouldn’t necessarily have an idea of the condition of things sitting on a shelf, in a box, on a hard drive, on an undocumented desktop computer, on a server, etc., etc., etc.

And this is just one reason I’m a big advocate of item level cataloging for audiovisual collections. We don’t know what’s out there and we don’t know what we’re losing. And if we’re talking about digital collections, we don’t even have the false comfort of linear feet to define the size of our collections. (The description of hidden collections is important, but if we can’t unhide those collections by quantifying them in meaningful, format appropriate ways, we are not really unhiding things.)

75% loss of silent films is not great, but 25% is an adequate sampling if no other options are available. However, if we don’t shift focus and advocacy away from the singular and better tackle the massive amounts of film, video, and audio materials that don’t fit under the studio or auteur rubric, the loss — even if smaller than 75% — will be a massive blow to regional and local culture and, therefore, to a shared national and world culture.

Joshua Ranger

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