BAM/PFA series focuses in on film archives
By Lou Fancher
Unlike gymnasts, film archivists who stride boldly into the industry's digital future while keeping one foot firmly rooted in cinema's celluloid past do not end up performing the splits.
Instead, the time- and technology-spanning maneuver leads to greater connectivity as history and tradition inform contemporary approaches to filmmaking and film restoration and preservation. Among the offerings in new programming at the recently opened Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive's downtown location on Center Street, the PFA introduces "In Focus," a lecture/screening series aimed at increasing visitors' awareness of the art form's past and how it will be preserved, presented and understood in the future.
The PFA's 17,500-piece collection and films and videos on loan are featured in a series of weekly classes that begin with "The Role of Film Archives" and "Japanese Film Classics." The classes pair film experts and curators with screenings of films that draw on the organization's vast local, national and international connections.
"In many ways, the platform of the Barbro Osher Theater is a beautiful new home for the kind of programming we've done for 45 years," senior film curator Susan Oxtoby says about the opportunities offered in the 232-seat theater.
A smaller, 33-seat theater, two film viewing booths, and other features in the all-in-one-place building expand the options.
Before its opening in January, the museum and film center operated on opposite sides of Bancroft Way.
Oxtoby says that simply having a lobby space, the film library and study center, increased evening hours, and a cafe within the same building as the theaters is exciting. "With film culture, to have a chance to talk to viewers and to have them mingle and talk to experts in these settings, is a delight."
The Wednesday afternoon courses are developed in response to audience input.
"We know from feedback we've received that people want to go more deeply into subjects, almost like extended education classes. We've taken into account people who can only attend at night by scheduling related events during the Japanese Film course," says Oxtoby.
Aligning the classes with UC Berkeley courses and departments and with the museum's exhibits in the all-in-one-building makes it easier for people to "connect the dots" between visual art and film, says Oxtoby. And an added bonus of increased proximity is the opportunity to have the museum's featured artists and the Bay Area's scholarly experts participate in the series.
"These lecturers are keepers of specialized collections. (National Film Preservation Foundation Executive Director) Jeff Lambert has a staff preserving marginalized films; archivist Rick Prelinger shares his philosophies about making film available on the Internet and copyright-free films that are an amazing world to open up."
A lecture on Feb. 10 had Oxtoby speaking on preservation and the influence of digital formats on archiving and restorations. "Celluloid is stable for hundreds of years if stored properly, but digital is a fascinating development," she says.
Conserving assets -- and gaining them -- is entering a new era, with a globally connected field that has missing imagery from the 1926 film classic "Metropolis" turning up in Buenos Aires and other discoveries.
Even so, Oxtoby is proud that although most people will only see restored films in digital formats, the PFA has a large collection of celluloid prints. In 2016, over 60 percent of the PFA's 450 programs will be shown in their original format. "That's very rare -- to have that kind of access," she says.
Asked if the In Focus course on archiving will repeat, or if people who missed the first two classes can drop into the course at any time, Oxtoby says "possibly" to the first question and "definitely" to the second.
"We have more planning to do for the series so I can't say if the archiving classes will repeat: we just wanted it to be part of the opening season," she says. "But if there's one thing that ties our work together it's creating a home where people can look forward and backwards. I'm always looking at how things echo across history."