'The Lady Vanishes': Film Crumbles, Its Image Gone Forever

August 19, 1994|By KEVIN SMOKLER

I magine going to the Louvre and noticing horrible changes. The Mona Lisa's smile has blurred into a muddy frown. The once brilliant colors of the Flemish masters have deteriorated to sludge.

This horrifying vision is the reality of America's film history.

The National Center for Film and Video Preservation (NCFVP) estimates that of the 21,000 feature films made before 1951, "only half exist today."

Most of the remainder are falling victim to deterioration of their nitrate stock, the highly reactive substance base of pre-1951 film.

Prints of these once-brilliant screen images fade, then emulsify and stick together, ultimately transforming into a canister of worthless powder. Years of cinematic history, the collective effort of thousands of creative individuals, the enjoyment and memories of millions more -- gone.

This is only half the story. Acetate, post-1951 film stock, contains unstable color dyes that are highly susceptible to fading. When stored improperly, this can take as little as six months.

Archivists have also recently discovered the "vinegar syndrome," a deterioration process that erodes acetate film much in the same way as nitrate. It appears as if no part of America's cinematic history can avoid the debilitating effects of time.

Speed and unpredictability separate film deterioration from that of other artistic mediums. A print in pristine condition on new film stock can become useless in a year.

But some movies on nitrate stock have lasted 100 years and are still in good shape. Not surprisingly, since cinema is an art form barely a century old, its preservation and restoration techniques suffer most from a lack of experience.

This does not imply they are not successful. Tales of restorations are peppered with heroism as diligent technicians and archivists race against time to restore a classic film to former glory. Such efforts, however, are expensive, labor-intensive projects.

The American Film Institute (AFI) estimates that it costs between $10,000 and $20,000 to transfer one nitrate film to acetate stock. It costs five times more to make a "black and white separation," or photographic copies of each of the acetate's primary colors, to avoid fading. This does not include the hundreds of thousands of dollars to store film at the proper temperature and humidity, the key factor in stretching its life span.

A few organizations have accepted this challenge. The American Film Institute and its subsidiary, the National Center for Film and Video Preservation, conduct worldwide searches for the best quality prints (or parts of prints) of films in critical condition or presumed lost.

Their journeys take them through the complex network of cinema exhibition, from studio vaults to distribution warehouses, from private collections to projection booths in old movie houses. Once they have assembled the highest quality print they can, they attempt restoration.

The reality, says Greg Lukow of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation, is that "it's no longer a matter of what we try to save. It's a matter of what we save and what we let go forever." He says, resignedly, that "preserving a film is primarily the responsibility of the owner." In theory, this makes sense. In reality, it will not happen.

Prints of old films are in constant movement, from personal collections to condemned warehouses to landfills. The "owners" may have little concern for preservation or the film's place in history. Rather, they may see the decaying reels as clutter.

It is short-sighted to assume that whoever owns a print of an endangered film will take responsibility for upkeep. It is equally so to assume that a few under-funded preservation organizations can shoulder the burden. The resource that should be tapped is the American public.

Awareness and finances are the key. Citizens would have more of a chance to become interested in preserving American cinema, if they knew about its critical condition. AFI has hindered its cause by soliciting mainly members of the entertainment community and recognized film buffs. That is not enough.

Preservation organizations should be working to increase interest in saving American film. This strategy worked for environmental organizations who encouraged citizens, not simply the ecological community, to buy acres of rain forest for preservation.

Successful restorations should be premiered nationwide, not at a few invitation-only events in New York and Los Angeles. Organizations should lobby theater chains to include public service announcements before feature presentations, similar to those for the Will Rogers Institute. Perhaps contributions should be solicited. It makes sense that a movement to save film history ask donations of those paying for film admission.

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