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Preserving history, frame by frame

At Harvard Film Archive, focus is on saving the past

Email|Print| Text size + By Saul Austerlitz
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2007

CAMBRIDGE - Liz Coffey has a motto. "Film takes up a lot of space and a lot of money," notes the Harvard Film Archive conservator with a rueful grin. Invested with the responsibility of preserving and restoring a wedge of film history, Coffey and the staff of the HFA are well aware of the effort and expense required to save even a single film from the ravages of time.

Nonetheless, they press on in their dual role as preservationists and exhibitors at Boston's leading venue for the screening of international, documentary, and avant-garde cinema. Haden Guest, director of the HFA, views the archive's work as essential to the study of film history. "We are working with our colleagues in different institutions to preserve American film heritage," Guest says.

Crafting its own niche in the happily crowded world of film preservation, the HFA leaves the Hollywood work to Los Angeles archives like UCLA's. Founding curator Vlada Petric, possessed of strong Eastern Bloc connections, had concentrated on collecting Soviet avant-garde films, and the archive has since built up holdings in the American avant-garde, postwar American films, and contemporary German film - courtesy of an ongoing donation from the Bavarian Film Foundation.

Following a lengthy fallow period, in which the archive went through numerous directors and shifts in focus, the HFA has returned to its strong suits - exhibition and the preservation of shorter works. Harvard's long tradition as an incubator of documentary and avant-garde filmmakers lends the archive's work a personal touch, with Crimson alums' work often singled out for attention. Beginning with short films, the 28-year-old HFA is jump-starting its once-moribund conservation program in the hopes of returning to the ranks of noted American film preservationists.

Other curators are impressed with Guest's work. "Haden is very young, and has a lot of energy, and a lot of enthusiasm, and in many ways is just what the archive has needed for many years," says Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The HFA dedicates its entire summer program, when students and faculty are off, to showcasing its own collection. During the school year, the archive mingles touring programs with its own films, with an emphasis on contemporary international cinema. "To really keep pace with world cinema today, we can't just leave it to the collection," notes Guest.

The emphasis is on broadening the reach of local filmgoers. "One of our goals as a cinematheque is to provide access to films that otherwise wouldn't be available to see in Boston," Guest says. Preservation goes hand in hand with exhibition, with the HFA able to use its cinematheque as a public screening facility - a place to show off the results of their work.

Housed in the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the only building in North America designed by Le Corbusier, the archive's theater originally had no seats, with films projected onto the side walls. Seats were eventually installed, along with state-of-the-art 16- and 35mm projectors, but a touch of the original aesthetic remains in the Le Corbusier print on the wall, and the architect-approved palette of blocky colors that decorate the room.

Guest has defined the HFA's work as revolving around two crucial tasks: conservation - "keeping films the way they are" - and preservation, which requires the creation of new elements, like negatives or exhibition prints, in order to salvage a film.

The archive's process, after acquiring new films, begins with an activity familiar to anyone ever tasked with cleaning out an elderly relative's attic or basement: unpacking old boxes and cataloging their contents. This past summer was spent cataloging the library of postwar film distributors Brandon and Fleetwood, two new acquisitions which fill an entire room in the HFA's preservation facility in a converted Woolworth's building on Bishop Allen Drive, near Central Square.

The Brandon collection had been stored in the same cardboard boxes for 30 years, with many films lacking labels or other identifying material. The cardboard boxes they had been stored in contain acid, which hastens the demise of film stock, but the fact that these particular boxes weren't sealed allowed the reels to breathe, somewhat offsetting the damage.

After unpacking, the conservators run the films on a flatbed viewer, which allows them to determine which reels belong to which film. New leaders are stuck onto the beginnings of each reel, tape and other foreign materials are removed, and the film reels are wound on to new, larger plastic cores whose size will prevent the film from permanently curling.

At the same time, a basic assessment of conditions is performed, with archivists looking for signs of vinegar syndrome - the decay of cellulose acetate-based film stock, often indicated by a sour, vinegary smell.

Occasionally, films are simply not salvageable, either because of natural decay, water damage, mold, or some other form of degradation. From the remaining salvageable materials, the archive selects some of its holdings for preservation. This is usually decided on the basis of an original negative that is deteriorating, or in the absence of a watchable print for projection.

While Guest often has his own preferences about what to preserve, it is ultimately the availability of funding that determines the HFA's preservation selections. Brainstorms can never be separated from bankrolls. "They have to go hand in hand," says Guest. Attention must also be paid to the work of archives worldwide, so as not to duplicate the work of others.

Not running a film laboratory of its own, as better-established institutions like UCLA and the Library of Congress do, the HFA works closely with labs in New York on the actual preservation and restoration. After doing as much of the repair as possible in-house, fixing perforation damage and patching worn splices, the HFA gives the film lab instructions about how to proceed.

This may range from bathing the film in a chemical wash in order to clean scratches to printing an entirely new negative. Costs run from approximately $2,000 for a new negative and exhibition print for a 10-minute short by experimental pioneer George Kuchar to $30,000-$60,000 for full restoration of a feature-length film.

Once the lab concludes its work, which includes consultation in addition to labor, an answer print is struck, and the lab and archive analyze the results. If the color and general cleanliness of the answer print is solid, the HFA gives the lab the go-ahead to strike a final print. If not, another round of work is called for, and another answer print studied.

For Kuchar's short films - the HFA's latest conservation project - the archive has had the added bonus of being able to consult with the filmmaker himself. The work of the legendary avant-garde director has been little seen since his 1960s heyday, and the films' soundtracks have suffered from particularly malevolent decay. Only original prints remained, and the wear and tear of normal screening was considered to be too risky for such fragile reels.

The HFA's work, helped along by a grant from the National Film Preservation Board, will reverse that process of decay, and save Kuchar for another generation of film buffs. "We'll be able to bring them to a much larger audience," says Coffey with a touch of pride.

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