Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Silent Film Archaeology

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Silent Film Archaeology

Article excerpt

The Library of Congress held a film identification workshop called "Silent Film Archaeology" at its Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia, 14-16 June 2012. The success of the event should commend the idea to other archives.

It is the rare archive that does not possess a number of films or film fragments that mystify its cataloguers, films that are missing their original titles. Solving these puzzles takes detective work, a part of every film cataloguer's job description. With the help of experts in various subject areas invited to participate, it is possible to accumulate a lot of useful information for identification purposes. If the original title is not to be found, at least information about the date of production, the location, the actors, etc., can be used as an aid to cataloguing the item and ensuring that it will be located when there is a search for relevant material.

People with a special interest in some aspect of film history are happy to be asked to participate in this detective work. The exercise is actually a lot of fun. While a few uninteresting films are sure to viewed, one never knows when an exciting discovery may occur. Lost films may be found, as we know, on the archive's own shelves. Identification workshops are not a new concept within FIAF. In the late 1960s Ceskoslovensky Filmovy Ustav held an identification workshop in Prague, inviting FIAF members to participate. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art held a slapstick identification workshop in connection with the Slapstick Symposium held as part of the 1985 FIAF Congress.

In Culpeper, about half of the films were identified on the spot, and additional identifications were made in the following weeks, as research continued with information gathered at the viewing. The Library of Congress itself supplied a large number of films to be identified, but others were lent by the Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House, the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the USC Hefner Archive, Lobster Films, and private collectors. A second layer of FIAF archives may also be credited with supplying these films, consisting of those archives around the world that had saved American silent films in the past and repatriated them to the American archives. The repatriated films are often missing main titles or have main titles changed for release in other countries, and therefore may be unidentified.

Nearly 100 films were looked at during the Silent Film Archaeology workshop. These were short films, or, rarely, an excerpt of a feature. Unusual for an identification workshop, skilled musicians accompanied these unknown films. Phil Carli, Ben Model, and Andrew Simpson achieved a remarkable and sensitive task, performing with a lot of unidentified shorts, while the audience talked out loud. Yet it never felt like musician and spectator were in conflict. One of the unusual aspects of the identification workshop is that the spectators are supposed to interact with the screen and each other. Speaking out is encouraged.

The participants were about sixty enthusiastic historians, researchers, archivists, collectors, people who could recognize the actors, or the shooting location, or read car license plates. A large proportion of the films were slapstick comedies, and there were some great slapstick experts in the audience. Others could recognize the actors in silent Westerns, or the actors' gestures that revealed the film as Italian. Different areas of the auditorium held specialists of one kind or another, and shouts came from various corners. …

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