A Decaying Art Form

The job of a film archivist is a relatively new one.  It sounds silly.  (If my friend Pete has a massive DVD collection, is he suddenly considered an archivist?)  But what a lot of people don’t know is that film is a kind of living organism.  It decays quite rapidly over time.  And as depicted so graphically in the latest Tarantino venture, Inglorious Basterds, most of the movies made in the silent-era were shot on an ultra-flammable cellulose nitrate film base.  Due to this highly unstable stock, as well as the recklessness of early studio storage, a great many of the films made in America before 1920 are either lost, or have turned to dust.  In fact, no type of truly durable film base was even introduced into the movie-making landscape until the early 1990’s with the popularization of polyester.

Enter the heroic film archivist, whose job it is to preserve the ever-growing, ever-decaying amount of film stock from the grips of its natural demise.  Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive is one of these heroes, who most recently co-curated the REDCAT screening of Now You Can Do Anything: The Films of Chris Langdon.  This series of fourteen short, experimental films were all made within the period of two years, from 1973 to 1975, and would have easily been lost were it not for the efforts of people like Mark Toscano and fellow filmmaker/Angeleno, Thom Andersen.

Yet Langdon’s shorts, interestingly enough, seemed to work in spite of preservation.  The magic was in her apparent disregard for such preciousness.  Her film “Bondage Boy,” for instance, featured 16mm shots of a guy in a basement dressed in a woman’s slip and bound with ropes in various positions, all to the soundtrack of an uppity 1950’s swing tune.  “Picasso,” another one of Langdon’s works, was, in her words, “the first post-mortem documentary” of the famous painter, fully completed in four hours for a little under $5.

Langdon, who was present at the screening, addressed the audience afterwards.  And it was clear that her main motivation behind the 83 minutes of film we had all just sat through was simply to film something.  One piece was a joke, another was a bet, and one was just to get over the plain fear of wasting money through a camera.  In a sense, she was fueling the need for future experimental film archivists like Mark Toscano.  Because without artists with the courage to waste film, why would you need someone to preserve what’s special about it?

The Redcat is located Downtown at the Roy and Edna Disney/Calarts Theater in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.  For information about upcoming screenings and performances, please visit www.redcat.org, or call (213) 237-2800.

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