The Past Is a Moving Picture: Preserving the Twentieth Century on Film

The Past Is a Moving Picture: Preserving the Twentieth Century on Film

The Past Is a Moving Picture: Preserving the Twentieth Century on Film

The Past Is a Moving Picture: Preserving the Twentieth Century on Film

Synopsis

Almost all remnants of culture--past and present--degrade over time, whether sculpture or scrolls, painting or papyrus, books or clay tablets. Perhaps no major cultural record dissolves more rapidly than film, arguably the predominant medium of the twentieth century.

Given the fragility of early nitrate film, much has already been lost. The fragments that remain--whether complete prints of theatrical releases or scraps of everyday life captured by Thomas Edison--only hint at what has disappeared. More recently, archives have been flooded with so much material that they lack the funds to properly preserve it all. Both situations raise questions about how film archives shape our understanding of history and culture.

Janna Jones provides a stunning, tour-de-force analysis of the major assumptions and paradigmatic shifts about history, cinema, and the moving image archive, one that we ignore at our peril in the midst of the overwhelming rush toward digitization. No student of film, twentieth-century history, or archiving and preservation can afford to miss The Past Is a Moving Picture.

Excerpt

If we can imagine the guardian angel of the moving image archive (perhaps she resembles Iris Barry or maybe Snowden Becker), surely she would be mystified by her present-day duties. As she steadies her gaze upon the accumulation of material she protects, we see her eyes wide in disbelief, her mouth open, slightly aghast. She never imagined it; this angel never thought that she’d have to protect such an overwhelming hoard of images that have amassed at her feet. Like Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, she too is caught off guard by the storm of progress. Resisting the winds of progress, Klee’s angel would like to be able to close his wings and stay around to commune with the dead. Our guardian angel is not so sure that is a good idea. In her angelic domain, progress is the salvation of the past, not its obliteration. But she has grown weary of tending to the overpopulated spirit world living in the archive. Exhausted, she worries about the sky-high pile of moving images at her feet, our vision of progress in the early twenty-first century.

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