When Orgeron, Orgeron, and Streible talk about a “dense, rich, and largely neglected history,” their language carefully situates the state of educational film history as a stand-in for all film history and even the daunting task of the archive itself. I wrote about some of these issues once in a piece for UCLA’s Mediascape Blog, talking about the anxieties over information glut that have attended the history of the archive in western culture, and the compulsive need for hierarchical systems of organization. My central trope—the anxiety of the mis-shelved book, speaks to the fear that a historical artifact can be hidden in plain sight, obscured by the indifferentiable sea of entries that surround it (an idea that finds filmic expression in Citizen Kane, All the President’s Men, and Zodiac, among a host of other movies). Canons, whether personal (an informal list of movies you want to watch again) or institutional (the National Film Registry) are created in order to banish the thought of a lost film by drawing a permanent circle around what’s worth keeping. I’ve been thinking, however, about a number of film screenings I’ve attended in the past few years, and the cycle of loss and recovery as a value-making system.
While Streible points out in “The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive” that the causes of neglect are many (apathy, reticence, obsolescence, etc.), the “orphan” label indicates that their products have found a common identity as objects precious for their scarcity. Sure enough, I’ve been to highly-anticipated and well-attended screenings of films that were widely unavailable due to “lost” status (The White Shadow at the Goldwyn Theater in Fall 2011), copyright issues (The Constant Nymph at TCM Fest 2011), commercial inviability (So This Is Harris at AMPAS’s Film-to-Film Festival 2012), technological obsolescence (Napoleon at the Oakland Paramount Theatre in Spring 2012) and even a concerted effort of the filmmaker to eradicate all copies of the film in question (Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire at the Egyptian in 2010). Whatever the reason for their marginalization, each of these films made a celebrated return to an eager audience. The psychology underlying this cottage industry is unmistakable: reclaimed knowledge, when presented as such, not only becomes infallible (its miraculous recovery seeming to promise a superior form of truth) but also immortal: having made the mistake of neglecting it once, we surely will not make the same mistake again.
In Los Angeles (and even in its rather remote exurb of Oakland) it’s easy to see how hard-to-find films serve a niche market. However, when I mentioned a “value-producing system,” I meant something more than just economics. Canonization (and the idea of scarcity producing value) pertains to history, just as much as it does to any database of sufficient size. Two of the most frenzied note-taking experiences of my life took place at the screenings of Fear and Desire and The Constant Nymph. In both cases, I frantically scribbled down onto loose scraps of paper every visual or narrative detail that struck me. It was distinctly possible that these notes and my faulty memory would be all I’d ever have to go on for any future discussion of either title. Thanks to my intense charting of my thoughts and reactions to the films, I’m probably better equipped to discuss them than any single viewing I’ve had of any film. The rediscovery of a film can allow for a bout of concentrated interest that could probably never accumulate around an always-extant film, and the more fragile or ephemeral its availability is, the more intense the attention seems to be—almost like an adrenaline rush of historical interest. It is this focus of attention that permits room for new perspectives on established ideas, and thus it is a cycle that will never be exhausted. The replacement of the “lost” mentality with the “orphan” mentality in film preservation speaks to this, evoking the idea that there isn’t a simple binary of extant/lost, but a spectrum between known and forgotten—one that we will forever cycle through. Like continental plates, all living (that is, periodically updated) canons will ultimately devour themselves, shedding old titles and accruing new ones in our restless search for new perspectives.
The prospect of reclamation as a value-producing process accords well with Oakeshott’s claim that all events, including errors, are productive; however, I don’t claim that this phenomenon is quite benign. The idea of reclamation as a producer of value is complicated by a consideration of the future. Two issues trouble me in this regard. First, the infallibility and immortality of a reclaimed historical artifact are both fallacious, since new information can always be added at some point in the future, and of course the artifact can be forgotten, enfeebling or thwarting any argument around it. Second, the entire issue of historical bias is predicated on the favoring of certain facts over others, and I wonder if it is possible to conceive of a film history that is not beholden to the politics of revision and rediscovery, or if they are an intrinsic property of the act of history writing. With both concerns in mind, I want to identify a method by which a historian can designate stable reference points within a history that are necessary to impose any form of organization upon the indifferentiable sea of data—in other words, how can one establish solid precepts to a historical argument?
Oakeshott, Michael. “Historical Continuity and Causal Analysis,” in Philosophical Analysis and History (Greenwood Pub Group, 1978), 193-212.
Oregon, Devin, Marsha Oregon, and Dan Streible. “A History of Learning with the Lights Off,” in Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Clifford James Galiher received his B.A. in Film and Television Production and M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA, and he is currently a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at USC. His research focuses primarily on film production in classic Hollywood, including a current project on the history of pre-digital visual effects. His other interests include animation, narrative studies, and digital media history, and he wishes he had the money to pursue his dream of ushering full-time.