Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

A Modern Art of Ruins

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

A Modern Art of Ruins

Article excerpt

"The Beautiful is like a God, a piece of Beauty is wholly Beautiful". (Auguste Rodin)

Over the course of many years, for the pioneering film archivists, the preservation and presentation of cinematic works concerned complete films only. It involved locating, preserving, and exhibiting films in a maximal state of completion. A kind of logical identity was thus implicitly established between a complete film and a preserved film.

An isolated piece of a film, the filmic fragment, lacked any curatorial status for a long time. Yet, a history of the cinema has been attempted while ignoring, finally, considerable facets of world film production, reduced to mere residuals of destroyed ensembles, to bits mysteriously saved from material-chemical destruction, in short, reduced to the state of filmic ruins.

ONE history. Today we recognize that several are possible. Nonetheless, that first history was written according to a standard of wholeness, or of that which was judged to be whole, even if only provisionally.

But for the past dozen years, archivists have focused their attention on the history of the "early cinema" (before 1910), the films of the decade 1910-1920 and the early part of the 1920s. And it isn't unusual for certain festivals dedicated to the rediscovery of "cinéma retrouvé" to program film fragments, on occasion minute ones. (We can never confirm, for early cinema, the definitive character of the loss.)

Like marmoreal vestiges from antiquity, lapidarian films have been endowed with cultural and cult values beyond any they would seem to merit if judged strictly from the point of view of their fiction, of their dramaturgical success, of their mise en scène, of their importance in marking and revealing the authorial strategies of a director. For incomplete films are pulled beyond the usual standards of evaluation emergent from judgments of taste. It's another truth that the fragment of a lost film points out, one relatively estranged from a rigorously platonic aesthetic which can only evaluate Beauty by measure of a work's state of completion and finality. The suspension imposed by the temporal and narrative rupture of an incomplete film voids the role of intention in Art in any qualitative evaluation of an initial work. In the first place, because a preserved piece of film "dramatizes" the history of the film as an object, thereby compensating, through a sort of transfer that enhances the materiality of the film stock, for the dramaturgical frustration seeping out of the narrative gaps. In a second, the same film fragment imposes new values which we might find in a description by the art historian Aloïs Riegl: an "objective historic value" and a "subjective value of age"(1); in other terms, knowledge of the work objectivized and knowledge of the qualities which still uncannily reside in the work, albeit mutilated. Riegl opposed these two values as mutually exclusive, refusing to conceive that the poetic contemplation of ruins can coexist with archeological knowledge. Others, Cesare Brandi (2) among them, would to the contrary defend the aesthetic and historic bipolarity of a restored fragmentary work as a necessary condition for access to its truth: to restore would then give rise to an action as philological as critical.

Whatever be the outcome today of this important philosophic point, the interest brought to bear on the "high epochs" of the cinema has upset the routines of the traditional cinephile and created within film museums a new kind of relationship with the works preserved. Like the great art and sculpture museums, film archives today attend to films in a state of ruin although this no longer serves to breed indifference or to deflect interest. To the contrary, it's as films in ruins that collections lead film historians, researchers, and cinephiles to accept seeing the exhibition of degradation and fragmentation as curatorial operations. Thus, as Michel Serres once remarked, film archives discovered that they, like other institutions, were founded upon and for the conservation of relics. …

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