Friday, August 15, 2008
Review of Film Preservation: Competing Definitions of Value, Use, and Practice
My review of Film Preservation: Competing Definitions of Value, Use, and Practice by Karen F. Gracy. (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007).
Published in Metropolitan Archivist, Summer 2008.
In Film Preservation: Competing Definitions of Value, Use, and Practice, film historian and academic Karen F. Gracy presents a robust ethnographic survey of American individuals and organizations that conserve moving images. In response to the paucity of research in the field, Gracy analyzes “film preservation in action,” which she delineates as the historic, economic, and theoretical frameworks within the film archiving and preservation community, examining it as a sociocultural phenomenon, a “separate social universe, with its own structure, dynamics, and conventions.”
Over the last thirty years, film has increasingly been recognized as a valuable cultural heritage object. Films are “signifiers with multiple referents whose multiplicity of value [can be] historical, cultural, social, aesthetic, educational, economic, or entertainment…” However, moving images face inimitable preservation challenges. Decomposition, due to film’s delicate nature, is the foremost problem. Studios and production companies own copyright to the material and must be consulted before use—even preservation; historically, owners have been reluctant to release their rights. Limited funding also challenges archives: one film can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. The definition of preservation itself has become “multi-layered and supersaturated” with meaning, transitioning from simple activities like copying a film to a more stable format to theoretical issues of values and policies debated among archivists.
Film Preservation is influenced by social theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on “the field of cultural production,” whereas institutions “consecrate a certain type of work” by the authority to define and control what is worth protecting. Film archives work inversely, often ceding their authority over selection, preservation, and access to studios that hold intellectual property rights. Film archives also differ from other cultural heritage institutions because of their interest with mostly popular, rather than high, arts.
These issues contribute to the instability of film archives within the hierarchy of cultural institutions. The text’s crux is, “Without the exclusive authority to control the work of film preservation and restoration, what are the ultimate consequences for the cultural imperatives of preservation and access to moving images?” This concern pertains to other archival areas because cultural institutions may relinquish their authority due to copyright law issues and technological advances in the future.
Film Preservation is especially valuable because of the author’s ethnographic fieldwork conducted within the archival environment. Gracy documents the decision-making process of film preservation in a series of flowcharts, illustrating selection, fund raising, inspection and inventory, laboratory preparation, duplication, storage, cataloging, and access. Although the text emphasizes social activities over techniques, the charts provide a meaningful assessment of information about the film preservation process, which is often not as extensively documented as it should be.
Archivists, of both film and other mediums, will be interested in this text, as it balances theory with practical advice. Film Preservation teases out the challenges of archiving and preserving moving images with a sense of optimism for the future, providing a solid foundation of subsequent ethnographic work in this field.