Film

The Museum of Modern Art’s “To Save and Project” Rescues Treasures

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When Iris Barry and her colleagues at the Museum of Modern Art drew up their plans for a Film Library in 1935, Barry admitted, “One most important fact is that — like the famous coffee — all the films shown by the Film Library are dated.” But Chase & Sanborn’s popular Dated Coffee brand eventually disappeared, and Barry, for her part, probably did not envision just how many different and difficult procedures it would require to keep the celluloid past from vanishing in the same vein. Nitrate stock quickly deteriorated. Acetate prints turned luscious colors into murky reds. And by the time Barry began collecting prints in the late ’30s, silent film had already vanished. (The most recent study by the Library of Congress, from 2013, notes that only 14 percent of the major film studio releases have survived, while other independent, amateur, documentary, and educational works make up barely a fraction of the existing catalog.)

Over the years, these complications and anxieties eventually spurred action — and it is time, once again, to celebrate and bask in the complex toil of the archivist trade through MoMA’s “To Save and Project” series, now in its fifteenth iteration. (The program kicked off last week, and continues through February 1.) Originally the brainchild of curator Joshua Siegel, and now in the hands of fellow curator Dave Kehr, “To Save and Project” aims to share the highlights of the previous twelve months in film restoration, including selections from MoMA’s own vaults as well as those of the other institutions that make up the consortium of the International Federation of Film Archives. The result, as J. Hoberman termed it in these pages in 2010, is nothing less than an “annual international orgy of the newly preserved.”

Presenting movies on the big screen often represents the culmination of years’ worth of arduous labor by both archivists and programmers. For Kehr, who spoke to the Voice by phone, the perennial problem is one of “paring down” the numerous possibilities. His preparation for “To Save and Project” often begins in the summer at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, which he describes as a “Cannes of archival work,” where various archives gather to project the fruits of their restorative labor in Bologna, Italy. Following that, Kehr then shifts his efforts to fine-tuning, seeking to “balance [the lineup] with a good distribution of eras, countries, and genres.” The volume of the series has actually shrunk considerably in the last few years, though that’s mostly as Kehr has decked out the rest of the year-round MoMA calendar with rare archival items from Classical Hollywood. (The Film Department just announced a run, set to begin next month, of thirty restorations from the Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures.) The diversity of works in this year’s “To Save and Project” slate is apparent even through just a simple scroll: Where else will you get a Jackie Chan comedy next to a Chantal Akerman drama, in addition to works from Mexico, Burkina Faso, and the Philippines?

Kehr has been closely working with MoMA’s long-standing archive — a storage facility in Hamlin, Pennsylvania, where reels chill at a nippy 35 degrees — to restore these “infinite riches.” Since becoming a curator in 2013, he has collaborated with the Film Library’s archivists Peter Williamson and Kate Trainor to identify materials and projects for restoration. The standout for him in this “To Save and Project” batch are two restorations of a pet favorite auteur, the early sound director William K. Howard. Best known for his Spencer Tracy–Colleen Moore vehicle The Power and the Glory, Howard was an inventive stylist who pushed narratives through at an acrobatic pace. This facility is evident here in both his 1932 Sherlock Holmes and especially his 1931 Transatlantic. With no extant copy of the American release of the latter film, the MoMA team had to scrape elements from numerous foreign release prints — as well as audio from a U.K. print — to get as close as possible to the work’s intended form. Kehr declares it Howard’s masterpiece: “It advances the argument for what was possible in the early 1930s in terms of deep focus, long takes, and expressionistic montage. The film’s style is just unbelievably advanced.”

MoMA has also prepared a new restoration of the boisterously entertaining The Three Musketeers, starring Douglas Fairbanks. The 1921 film here comes from elements that have been preserved in the Film Library ever since a fading Fairbanks donated his collection to the museum in 1939. (If one thought MoMA only embraced the mainstream with its 2009 Tim Burton exhibit, consider that they hosted a Fairbanks retrospective as far back as 1940.) Though its two-plus-hour runtime may suggest bloat, director Fred Niblo delicately builds the film in a manner akin to Ravel’s Bolero by transforming the affair into one long crescendo. Fairbanks, meanwhile, provides a light comic touch. The deft pacing makes the final payoff — with Fairbanks enacting acrobatic stunts through horse chases and sword-fighting — a real sight to behold.

Though MoMA’s archive is stuffed with gems, not everything in “To Save and Project” originates there — even finding widely consumed Hollywood material like Musketeers can require archaeology-level excavation. Just ask Rob Byrne, board president of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (which partnered with MoMA to restore Musketeers), who found a single reel of the thought-lost ’20s Louise Brooks aviation comedy Now We’re in the Air. Looking at the amusing footage — which follows Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton through a series of screwball hijinks — you’d have no idea that it was found in the Czech Republic’s National Film Archive (which, for reasons too long to describe here, has one of the largest deposits of American nitrate film prints on the planet). Decomposition had taken its course, but Bynre nonetheless embarked on an eight-month endeavor to save the twenty-minute segment. The process, to say the least, was complicated: re-ordering scenes, removing scratches and dirt, re-creating original English-language titles, getting the tint just right. (If you ever want to get lost in a rabbit hole, Byrne can discuss for hours the complexities of silent film tinting and toning.)

In terms of pioneering discoveries, few can argue with MoMA’s presentation here of a literal pioneer, Aloha Wanderwell. Academy Film Archivists Heather Linville and Jess DePrest have been diligently exploring the vast archive of this real-life female Indiana Jones. The resurrected footage shows the six-foot-tall Wanderwell as she traveled the world in an army of Ford Model Ts, capturing with her camera the pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China. (She often edited the footage in makeshift darkrooms on trains.) Her enthusiasm and curiosity radiates onscreen: While many travelogues from the same period racially code their subjects as natives, Wanderwell’s pieces often demonstrate the modernity already present in most of the places she visits. After this edition of “To Save and Project” concludes, DePrest and Linville will get back to restoring her oeuvre and examining audio recordings to recapture what audiences may have experienced attending one of Wanderwell’s lively shows on the lecture circuit. For them, as for their colleagues in the craft of archiving and preservation, the work — with all its rewards, delights, and challenges — continues unabated.

‘To Save and Project’
The Museum of Modern Art
Through February 1

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