May 12, 2015

Curation On Top of Curation, and All In the Trash

In the course of my thesis work on aging VHS tapes, I came into a collection of the same that was in the process of being deaccessioned by the NYU Cinema Studies Archive.  They were stuffed a bunch at a time into the Techno Trash, and I would come through periodically to collect them for study (and, let's shoot straight, because I'm an acquisitive pack rat and I wanted them.)

It eventually emerged (or I eventually asked, and was told without any difficulty whatsoever) that the tapes were recorded by one William Anderson, who was "the Librarian of the New York Times" (I put this in quotes because I can find no reference online to that position, so I suspect his actual job title of being something else), and who privately kept several VCRs running and recording movies for his collection.  The tapes were scrupulously catalogued (this I had already guessed from their being systematically numbered, but I didn't imagine that the catalogue still existed!), and that his system had been transferred into a database when the tapes were received by NYU after his death.  The catalogue amazingly gives details not only on the movies themselves, but on the dates and TV stations from which they were recorded.  I have close to 200 of the tapes, but there were once nearly 1,600 of them, recorded over a decade from 1983-1992.

The tapes are T-120s -- they could be recorded with 2, 4, or 6 hours of content, depending on your VCR settings and demands for quality -- and it was clear from the number of titles on each label that Anderson had used the low-quality, high-density EP mode to cram as much onto them as possible.  But that's how we taped movies when I was a kid, too -- fit as many things on one cassette as possible, irrespective of what juxtapositions might occur.  I would be hard pressed to make a claim that the contents of each of Anderson tapes constitutes a deliberately curated series, though Lord knows many of them would make interesting evenings' entertainments, and they may just be thematically clumped by broadcasting, or fascinatingly disparate enough, to be passed off as deliberate curation.

One hell of a night's viewing.  Coming soon to a TV in my apartment.
But the collection at large certainly is.  It may be widespread, but the selections of taping this movie versus that movie are interesting choices.  It is tempting to screen these tapes as movie nights for friends, and if I did, I think I should like to print out the TV papers from the days that these were recorded.  Taped late in 1985, it may say as much that Andy Warhol's Dracula was chosen in preference to The Official Story (I made that up, but it was certainly chosen in preference to several other options) as that it was chosen at all.

An interesting occurrence on the cassettes is a large number of episodes of Matinee at the Bijou, an early PBS program that presented Golden Age Hollywood programing through the lens of early 1980s nostalgia.  One episode that I watched, also from 1985, featured a trailer for Money Madness (1948) (edited on video with the kinds of slogans that the producers of Bijou evidently identified with late-forties cheapo noir), two "Buy War Bonds!" slides, an ad for the concession stand, the Warner Bros. cartoon A Coy Decoy (1941), four Soundies, a cut down version of chapter 11 of The Phantom Creeps (1939), and a 45 minute reduction of the already short PRC elephant-in-Mexico "musical" Machine Gun Mama (1944).  Except that the films are cut to fit together in a 90 minute slot, this is perhaps not an unbelievable program that could have played in 1948, and it was certainly an enjoyable (if not great) 90 minutes' television, but the curation doesn't make any thundering good arguments.  Perhaps that music is enjoyable, by pairing the Soundies with a semi-musical.  What's most interesting, though, is seeing it as a time capsule of a certain nostalgic taste in 1985.  The acceptance and even embrace of battered, chopped up, jittery prints of whatever movies PBS could grab rights to broadcast, and the still corny/not yet cool "good old days" presentation, present a telling view of how these films were widely seen for a time between their release and their wider, cheaper proliferation on cable and home video (home video was very much a thing in the early '80s, but with a cheap tape going for $30, most folks' libraries would have been pretty carefully selected).  And maybe a clue to how many kids growing up in the '80s came to look askance as "black and white movies".  But for this kid who at least started growing up in the '80s, these tapes are going to make a mighty nice summer's programming!

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