Kino! Kino! Kino! as Guy Maddin would say—cinephiles are easy to suss out amid the metaglamour and thrill-seeking that amount to American film culture, since they alone are betrothed to celluloid for its own refulgent sake. Consider a definitive movie-love crash test: the four-disc DVD set Treasures From American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films, a magical, inexhaustible anthology of “orphan” films that has received little notice from the media bazoo since its autumn release. But for the ardent, this is a bottomless bottle of blue tequila, rich with era-documenting home movies, governmental effluvia, pioneering one-reelers, Yiddish snippets, paper-print copyright deposits, newsreels, and rare avant-garde films no one’s had a chance to see often enough.
It’s certainly worth a C-note (and the proceeds are siphoned right back to the archives). Here in a box is the melancholy luster of cinema—a past at once captured as if in amber and forever lost to time. Ranging from Edison’s 1893 blacksmithing glimpse (the first film shown publicly anywhere) to Richard Protovin and Franklin Backus’s park ode Battery Film (1985), the movies function, above all, as bewitching documents about the history of movies. Whether it’s a 1905 subway ride (from Union Square to Grand Central) or Groucho Marx’s 1933 family flickers, we’re watching a dead America live again.
When archival films are this impeccably restored, presented, indexed, and packaged, it’s hard to mourn their orphanhood, but this is simply one ladleful from a very large vat. Randomness is integral to the experience; along with long-lost features starring William S. Hart, Anna May Wong, and Marguerite Clark, there are visual records of Marian Anderson’s 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert, George Balanchine’s 1951 choreography for Ravel’s Valse, a 1936 Hindenburg flight taken by vacationing Americans, and Orson Welles’s 1936 “Voodoo” Macbeth production in Harlem. There’s even circa-1946 footage of Negro Leagues baseball; preserved ephemeral films might be our only hard copy of a century’s worth of racial travail.
A few fundamental film-school texts are included—Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), Edison’s The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)—but they’re overshadowed by Lewis S. Moomaw’s The Chechahcos (1924), an extraordinary Klondike melodrama made independently in Alaska and featuring stunning on-location glacier footage. In fact, many of the pieces represent the act and will of a single filmmaker—amateur, professional, or otherwise. American avant-gardisms have never had this much commercial respect: Ed Emshwiller’s wordlessly moving George Dumpson’s Place (1965), Scott Bartlett’s singing-the-body-electric OffOn (1968), and Watson and Webber’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928, the same year as Jean Epstein’s more famous version) are righteous gifts, but none glow as timelessly as Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936). The first found-footage lyric and the premier love song to starlet absurdity, Cornell’s abstracted reediting of the cheesy Hobart vehicle East of Borneo is more often read about than seen, something that should now change.
In a different America, Treasures would be a series, an annual DVD magazine plumbing the nation’s archives (18 of them represented here), reawakening forgotten images and sociopolitical ambiguities, and rewriting film history along the way. But there, the movies wouldn’t have needed preserving, so much celluloid would not have been lost to neglect, and our history would matter to us, as Rose mattered to Joe.