A Budding Archivist
I began interning at the Echo Park Film Center late January of this year after first encountering it in a field trip for Professor Jesse Lerner’s Handmade Film class (a class that has now reached a semi-mythic status among some staff at the center for its regular incorporation of Paolo Davanzo and the organization into the course). I came into my internship eager to soak in as much of the work done at the center as possible, especially since I find all aspects of the EPFC fascinating. The organization brings together pretty much all my loves right now: a political subversiveness mediated through education, empowerment, expansion of access to resources along with skills, and love; the cultivation of a community space accessible to whoever wants to walk in while also bringing in a constant stream of experimental, independent, avant-garde, filmmakers and performers; a library of movies on film, VHS, and DVDs and film-related books; an ethos of creating lasting personal connections best expressed through the dubbing of all involved as La Famiglia.
The first task I got assigned to was archiving a number of 16mm, 8mm, and super 8 films donated to the EPFC by a visiting artist Julie Saragosa. My projector skills, only recently acquired two semesters before, rapidly improved and my aversion towards a splicer kit gradually dissipated. I found myself descending surprisingly quickly into that subculture of people drawn to making romantic claims about the aesthetic quality of the materiality of film itself and developing an attachment to celluloid. Much of the apparatus and structuralist based film theory I’ve read began to grow slightly less murky as the act of transforming a series of still images into moving images projected onto the wall gained a new personal significance.
My understanding of the moving image sprung up in an era where nearly all domestic applications relied on digital means of transmission (from VHS to laserdisc to DVD) and so much of the fascination many avant-garde and experimental filmmakers hold for the transmutation of a more recognizable still form of representation into the mythical space of cinema didn’t resonate much for me. I pulled apart a fair number of VHS tapes in my day, but never gained any surer an understanding of the mechanisms involved nor a more tangible relationship to what ended up on the screen.
To provide an theoretical framework for the work I was doing, I dusted off my copy of Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories. The texts contained within the anthology provided an interesting counter-point to the practice I engaged in at the EPFC and to the way the assortment of mostly amateur films were used by Paolo and friends.
The anthology’s editors Karen Ishizuka and Patricia Zimmerman approach home movies and the broader designation of amateur films from an academic perspective, with an interest in their potential impact on the historiography of various disciplines, and with an international scope. Though I missed this weekend’s Orphan Films Symposium West hosted by the Cinefamily and so I don’t know what kind of audience comes out for this sort of screening, I feel relatively safe asserting that most of the archives and organizations discussed within the anthology serve a radically different purpose and demographic then the Echo Park Film Center. While in a certain sense EPFC shares a similar aim in seeking to democratize the possibility of access to the works in question and return them to a contemporary relevance, the fundamental impulse driving this aim seems quite different in the context of a micro-cinema and film center.
The anthology in many ways desires to demonstrate through the breadth and depth of the scholarship represented that home films should be taken seriously within the rareified domains of the academy, the museum, more general film archives, and by historians of all sort. Many of the writers represented, though they are not all archivists or historians themselves, seek to argue for the importance of preservation vehemently. I understand the urgency in the tone as celluloid is a constantly dying medium with the odds against any significant portion of film history remaining in any comprehensive way (see Paolo Cherchi Usai). Still, this stands in sharp contrast to what I, in my admittedly short time working here, see as the driving force behind the archival work at the EPFC. The majority of the writers here reflect a primary concern for the preservation of the object itself, though I understand this reflects a very pragmatic view as once the object deteriorates everything else attached to it is lost as well.
The work I’ve been doing at EPFC feels anti-preservationist, but I acknowledge the possibility that this is a false opposition- a thought I will return to a bit later. My own associations with the act of preservation include a setting apart of that which is preserved behind a glass case or within faux-embryonic fluids, but always an isolating. othering force running concurrent with the preservation. In that respect, that which is preserved is no longer of use except as an object to study at-a-distance. The films I have been archiving are archived to the end of being scratched upon, chewed up as inexperienced hands feed them through a projector, cut up, spliced, painted, tied into loops, used to demonstrate what 16mm film stock actually looks and feels like. They are meant to be touched, to encourage touch, to dispel any lingering mysticism or intimidation.
What is preserved is not the material, but the culture of appreciating and understanding film. Here is where the distinction might collapse because the continuation of film archives or orphan film foundations requires a base of people who have been inducted in a culture of film. My desire to separate out these pursuits might stem primarily from my coming of age in a digital age where I am resistant to anything I perceive as taking for granted that film will continue to be respected at all, much less in its more marginal incarnations.