Feb 8, 2017

Notes on 16mm films

Thanks for the lively arguments about arguments in class.

Since we were 3 persons down due to illness, here are a few of the references from today and a few extra ones relevant to our cause.

We opened with a twin bill:

Despotism (1945) 10 or 11 min., depending on which copy you view.
Archival source?  Hard to say. There are 5 uploaded files on the Internet Archive alone. Many more on YouTube. The MP4 file we projected was from the Prelinger Archives collection at the IA.
Several files of varying resolution and format are available there. The URL  https://archive.org/details/Despotis1946 is among the ways in which this film is often dated 1946, as on the AV Geeks YouTube channel.  Encyclopaedia Britannica Films and Erpi Classroom Films were distributed as 16mm prints (by the hundreds), yet Worldcat.org lists only 2 libraries holding 16mm copies (North Carolina A&T State University and the State Library of New South Wales, Australia). Certainly other prints exist in private collections like those of Prelinger and Skip Elsheimer's AV Geeks. The EB Films company assets were sold to a holding company, which put them in a former salt mine, Underground Vaults & Storage Inc., in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Meteority (Meteorites, 1947) 10 min.
Directed by Pavel Klushantsev
Leningrad Popular Science Film Studio, USSR. In Russian with English subtitles added 2012.
Archival source: Gosfilmofond of Russia (35mm)

Manon Gray projected the DVD Orphans in Space: Forgotten Films from the Final Frontier (2012), produced by the NYU Orphan Film Symposium by Walter Forsberg, Jonah Volk with Alice Moscoso, then media archivist at NYU Bobst Library. Liner notes by Sergei Kapterev and the whole 40-page booklet are at https://archive.org/details/OrphansInSpaceBooklet. Worldcat lists 6 libraries holding the DVD set,  but not NYU (even though NYU Bobst Library does have a circulating copy).
Since the DVD's release, a nice looking copy has become available on YouTube. "Alexander J" posted it as Метеориты. Meteors / Meteoroid (though we are assured the Russian word translates best as Meteorites). Watch it here. No English subtitles.

We discussed the pairing of the two works:  educational films, American and Soviet; nontheatrical and theatrical; 16mm and 35mm; arguably dated and undated in different ways. Despotism has been appearing in a variety of blogs and Facebook postings, usually "programmed" with an argument something like "Britannica got it right; why do so many people not recognize authoritarianism in 2017?" or "This once-dated film suddenly looks smart and concise, given the results of the presidential election."

A 2013 digital release from Films for the Humanities & Sciences summarizes Prelinger Archives. Despotism this way: "Thoughtful and non-propagandistic educational film concerning how a society ranks on a spectrum stretching from democracy to despotism. Explains how societies and nations can be measured by the degree that power is concentrated and respect for the individual is restricted." Worldcat lists 6 university libraries holding this release (4 in Indiana, 2 in Kentucky; go figure).

An essential source for understanding the 16mm nontheatrical film phenomenon is Rick Prelinger's The Field Guide to Sponsored Films (San Francisco: National Film Preservation Foundation, 2006), available as a PDF here. It's an annotated filmography of 452 works, listing archival holdings. In the Introduction, Prelinger says "300,000 industrial and institutional films have been made in the United States" before 1980, "far more than any other type of motion picture."

The book's bio offers this useful summeary: "Rick Prelinger is the founder of the Prelinger Archives, a collection of 51,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films that was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2002. He has partnered with the Internet Archive (www.archive.org) to make 2,000 films from his collection available online." That number is almost 7,000 now, with more than 1,000 items in the Prelinger Archives home movie collection. All digitized at the Internet Archive work station in San Francisco, where Savannah Campbell has worked.

The Field Guide lists four Encyclopaedia Britannica films, including

Making Films That Teach (1954) 18 min.
Film celebrating the 25th anniversary of the educational film company. Making Films That Teach illustrates the film production process, including location shooting in exotic locales, and includes numerous clips from Encyclopaedia Britannica films. NOTE: The black-and-white film ends with a color sequence.

Many of the works in the Field Guide list holdings from the J. Fred MacDonald Collection, the Prelinger Collection, and the American Archives of the Factual Film (AAFF). In fact all three of these large collections are now part of the Library of Congress holdings. Access has been slow to develop. However, now that film scanning workflows have improved -- and a new Librarian of Congress came into office in 2016 -- access to some of this material looks promising. LOC moving image section head Mike Mashon has been prioritizing the scanning of film titles found in the Field Guide. Working with the National Film Preservation Foundation, LOC will be putting a digital edition of the book online with most of the titles downloadable. (Two students in this Curating class authored prototype research notes and essays for the project.)

A curious curatorial discussion is ongoing about the AAFF Collection. Orphaned by Iowa State University, LOC took in the 25,000 films when they would otherwise have been deaccessioned. But twenty years later, the materials have not been worked on. We've heard in class about Indiana University and its Moving Image Archive, which has prioritized the collection, preservation, and digitization of 16mm educational films as core to its curatorial identity. IU is interested in helping process the AAFF Collection, which rhymes well with its own institutional history (a Midwestern state university, a distribution hub for educational films).

Stay tuned, as they say.

-- Dan Streible

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