LESSONS FROM THE PAST IN 35MM
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
SACILE, Italy, Oct. 12, 2005 -- The opening weekend of the world's most prestigious silent film festival was as dated as the 20th Century and as current as the latest fight over Wal-Mart. As in other historical studies, we begin to discover things from our past that help us to better understand our own lives.
The gathering known as "Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto" (roughly, the Festival of Silent Film) brings together cultural historians, academics and garden variety film buffs who participate in symposia and watch movies. It is held in the beautiful town of Sacile (pronounced" Sah Chile"), a few miles north of Venice.
The late 19th and early 20th Century represent the first era for which we have full-motion pictorial records of how people actually lived their lives, set their tables, fought their wars and endured economic hardship, all preserved in a viewable format. The surviving collections represent a priceless historical record of our cultural history, not to mention the nuts-and-bolts details of hand-cranked telephones, the Machine Age and the Model T Ford.
What's equally important is the insight we gain into peoples' attitudes and beliefs. The fears, hopes and idealism - not to mention the xenophobia and racism - of a hundred years ago were decisive in the development of our modern era, and it is useful to be able to review them.
The problem that archivists and preservationists have faced stems from an accident of chemistry: Unlike the Egyptian pyramids or papyrus scrolls, motion-picture film has only a modest life span. Under the best of conditions it may last well over a century, but often enough, the useful life of movie film is measured in decades. Even the process used to copy film for viewing adds wear and tear.
Now archivists are speaking seriously about a once-taboo topic: the idea of digitizing the old masterworks. The object is not only to preserve them, but also to make them more accessible to the general public. At the moment, there are two problems with this idea:
First, the technology is still expensive. What is new though is that professional archivists are giving a thumbs-up to the overall concept. They are no longer averse to digitization per se, but warn that it is not a panacea. No copy, digital or otherwise, will ever be quite the same as the original can of celluloid, but used carefully, the technologies of the 21st Century can be useful tools in extending the effective life span of cinematic content.
The other problem is more one of attitude, but no less real. To the film archivists who labored in lonely (and generally underfunded) obscurity over the decades, the preservation of the original masterworks became something of a sacred calling. There is obviously nothing quite like the original version of a work of art, whether it be the Mona Lisa or the vault copy of the film Casablanca.
Archivists are gravely concerned that with the advance of digitization, funding for the preservation of the original source material will die. They express concern that those miles of dusty shelves containing cans full of cellulose nitrate will no longer be considered as a critical cultural asset by the political establishment that funds their existence.
As to why it is important to preserve the world's film heritage, the opening night performance of a generally forgotten French film offered testimony enough.
"Au Bonheur Des Dames" ("For the Pleasure of Women") was made in 1929 and apparently never shown in the United States. The title, unlike what you might think, refers to the name of a department store. It's a bit of an odd name, but may represent ironic humor on the part of the filmmakers. In spite of any modest difficulties in translation, the themes presented to the 21st Century international audience were direct and compelling.
The store in question is a giant new edifice opening in Paris. It is progress, we are told, and like progress elsewhere, it devours a lot of little people who happen to be in its way. In the case of this long forgotten masterpiece, the little people include Denise, newly arrived in town, and her uncle, who just happens to be unlucky enough to own the small fabric store across the street from the new monstrosity. The progress across the way means personal ruin for him.
It is the same story as our modern-day conflict over Wal-Mart, the malls, and the destruction of the small local businesses by globalization.
This is actually a fairly common theme in films of that time. But the filmmaker takes it a couple of steps farther. The systematic sexual harassment practiced by the management against the shop girls may be as old as civilization but it is also as modern as the latest lawsuit. Apparently the "pleasure" in the title is that of shopping, not of being employed by this pack of wolves.
In addition, there was another old lesson, so common in films of that day, that we might be wise to consider. Our human susceptibility to pathogens, bacterial and viral, is a common theme in movies of that era. Tuberculosis and pneumonia were capable of carrying anyone off, and there was nothing much that the medical science of the day could do about it.
That was the reality of the day. It is a reality that might return - ask a doctor about multiple-antibiotic-resistant staphococcus if you want to see a worried expression. We might want to think about that theme as the bird flu ramps up.
"Au Bonheur Des Dames" was a brief snapshot into what life was like in an earlier day. The names of the players change from decade to decade, but what remains are the timeless themes. The human interaction revealed in a fictional Paris neighborhood of the 1920s or in the latest episode of "Boston Legal" are not all that different.
What Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto is trying to teach the world is that such masterpieces exist and are deserving of our care. By first preserving and then studying these works of the past, we regain knowledge about our origins and in so doing, better understand ourselves and the civilization we have created.