The tragedy of lost films (and what you can do)

This is kind of last minute, but I very quickly want to give as much support and gratitude as I can to the wonderful folks who are currently running the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, the Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn of Ferdy on Films. The blogathon is nearly over, and I’ve sadly been kept from posting anything by the stresses of 7th week, but I can’t overemphasize how noble and important of a project this is. The purpose of “For the Love of Film” is to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation, whose raison d’etre is pretty much right there in its name. (I’ve dreamed of volunteering for the NFPF for years, but Minneapolis isn’t exactly a Mecca of film preservation.)

Imagine that you’re Burgess Meredith in the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” You’re the last person on earth, and you’ve got all of mankind’s collected work at your fingertips. Let’s say your glasses didn’t break. But what if the library started on fire? Would you do whatever it took to get a fire extinguisher or a hose, anything, to quench the flames? OK, this may be a strained analogy, but my point is that film preservation is essential to preserving our collective identity.

Film is such a young art, but already it’s produced so many sublime and beautiful masterpieces, works which literally improve us as human beings and the world we live in. Yet tragically, this hasn’t always been acknowledged: during the days of the Hollywood studio system, for example, before the public even knew of such a thing as “art cinema,” filmmaking was regarded first and foremost as an industry. This is how Thomas Edison treated it, and this is how it was viewed by the men who controlled it over the following decades. At that historical moment, despite the fact that Hollywood was exporting countless great works of art, film just hadn’t acquired the necessary approval from the broader artistic and intellectual communities.

Granted, I’m oversimplifying a little, but I’m trying to hastily spell out some of the reasons why film preservation is so very fundamental. Because it was this dominant attitude toward film as nothing but a transient form of entertainment that helped lead to the ongoing crisis we face as cinephiles. Our cultural heritage is literally decomposing. Imagine (yes, more hypotheticals) if you learned that a vault somewhere in Vienna contained thousands of pages of sheet music, with a few lost Mozart symphonies in there somewhere, and the paper was slowly rotting away, so that much of the music was already unreadable. Would you be a little concerned? I can’t overstate the gravity of this situation.

Already, so much – far too much – has been lost. If you want to make me cry, force me to peruse a list of lost films; it’s like gazing over a memorial to lost lives, experiences, sacrifices. Just think about Theda Bara, the beguiling, vampy sex symbol of early silent cinema. Her very image is intriguing, she’s one of the first true movie stars, but out of her whole prolific career, only four feature films remain; barring an archival miracle, no one will ever see her legendary Cleopatra in its entirety. I want to see Cleopatra. I can’t, because it hasn’t been preserved. Donating to the NFPF at least ensures that future generations will be able to enjoy the films of other silent starlets.

I’ll mention a few other tragic losses, cautionary tales about the fragility of film: consider Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), an expansive masterpiece of intense psychological realism. Of course, we’ll never see the whole thing, because some janitor decided to throw away a huge amount of its running time. This is just a sample of how one person’s brief carelessness can harm all of humanity; the NFPF works to overcome the effects of individual carelessness. (Luckily, janitors have redeemed themselves, since legend says that one recovered Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc in a Norwegian insane asylum.)

Another classic example of negligence depriving us of great filmmaking is Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. A failure when first released, RKO’s apathy toward it eventually led to about an hour of footage being irretrievably lost. As it is, Ambersons feels so potent, so full of the same layered storytelling that defined Citizen Kane, with great performances from Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, and Agnes Moorhead – what could that extra hour have added? How would it have changed our perception of Welles’ talent?

(It’s worth noting that a couple months ago, I had a conversation with my advisor, a Cinema and Media Studies professor, in which he happened to mention, “I was in Madison recently and ran into David Bordwell, and we happened to talk about The Magnificent Ambersons…” to my quiet awe.)

It’s so frustrating; it’s as if James Joyce had, in his fit of rage, thrown the manuscript of Ulysses into the fireplace, and then Nora hadn’t rushed to salvage it. Except in this case, it’s all thanks to the studio’s short-sightedness and penny-pinching. This also counts as a great lesson for anyone in any period of history: don’t pretend to know what will or will not end up being historically important. Rash actions, based on hubris like that, has lost us so many would-be classics, ones that never lived to see the light of the present day.

I can’t talk about lost films without touching on the holy grail, perhaps the most desired and most sorely missed film out there, and one to which I feel a personal connection: Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). How many times as a child was I entranced by photos of Lon Chaney, Sr. as the Man in the Beaver Hat; how many times did I contort my face in an attempt to mimic his? Sure, as with Greed, there’s a reconstruction by Rick Schmidlin (whose work I admire), but it’s just not the same. The reconstruction gives an outline of what London After Midnight may have been like. But I can never experience firsthand chills from seeing Chaney’s pseudo-vampire in motion, the essence of cinema (La Jetée notwithstanding).

We’re fighting a war. It’s a war against time, fire, mold, decay, and apathy. It’s a war against lack of funds and space. Think of these lost films as a few of the higher-profile casualties over the years, though rest assured, there are thousands and thousands more. If you want to learn more about some of the success stories of film preservation, and the endless tally of losses, look around at the lists on the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Film. You can find out all about the technical reasons that films decay (an area where I’m pretty lost myself), as well as great film preservationists, porn preservation, and so much more. These collected posts are an amazing accomplishment, providing glances into areas of film history that are usually off limits to all but the most dedicated researchers. To everyone involved: thank you!

(Also, DONATE to the NFPF!)

6 Comments

Filed under art, Cinema

6 responses to “The tragedy of lost films (and what you can do)

  1. Thanks for the heartfelt argument; I love your analogies!

  2. I love your passion for the cause. Thank you so much for this rallying cry at a time when it is needed more than ever. The industry is changing so rapidly, and our collective memory gets shorter and shorter. Our history is valuable, and you make the case better than I ever could have. Thanks!!!!

  3. Thank you for the impassioned post. So many people want to see Theda Bara’s Cleopatra, but none of us ever will. And thank you for taking time from your academics. I remember how hard that can be.

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