By Richard Ades
The worst job I ever had was working in a motion picture lab in the late 1970s. Not only did I spent much of my time trapped in a dark room with very pungent chemicals, but I sometimes had the difficult task of copying old, shrunken films that had to be coaxed through our machinery.
Too bad I couldn’t have seen Film: The Living Record of Our Memory back then. It would have allowed me to feel some pride in the small role I was playing in the massive (and massively difficult) effort to preserve our cinematic history.
Spanish director Ines Toharia Teran’s documentary is about the worldwide quest to save films that otherwise would be lost due to chemical degradation, disasters and other causes.
It’s a quest that began in spite of the early film studios, we’re told, as they thought of movies as commercial products rather than works of art or historical documents that needed to be preserved. In fact, flicks that had already made the theatrical rounds were often destroyed to recover the silver in the film stock, thus helping to pay for future productions.
An additional preservation complication: Early film stock was composed of nitrate, which was dangerously inflammable. If it ever caught on fire, not even water could extinguish the flames.
The documentary tells us that the result of this danger and neglect is that 80 percent of all silent films are likely gone forever, along with half of all the “talkies” ever made.
Film is not a tragedy, however, but an account of the heroes who have devoted themselves to protecting film history. Numerous preservationists and other cinematic experts from around the world talk about the challenges they face—such as trying to reconstruct a formerly “lost” film by splicing together the least-degraded frames from various recovered prints.
Why go to all this trouble? Because otherwise we’ll lose pieces of art that help to define our cultural history. And sometimes we’ll lose pieces of actual history, as in the case of home movies and other nonfiction films that depict scenes from the Holocaust and other world tragedies.
At nearly two wide-ranging hours, Film will be of most interest to those who care about cinema’s past, present and future.
Does it bother you that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 film The Mountain Eagle may never be seen again? Is it important to you that people be able to watch the early works of India’s Satyajit Ray, or the many independent films that depict Africa’s anti-colonial struggles?
Do you want such influential flicks as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment to be available to future cinema lovers?
If so, the documentary will be two hours well spent.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)
Film: The Living Record of Our Memory opened May 5 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, with additional screenings planned May 8-9 in Los Angeles, May 11-14 in St. Louis, May 20 in San Francisco and May 21 in Cleveland. The film will be available through VOD outlets beginning May 16.