Most of my time is spent digging through rusty cans for moldy film strips that smell so strongly of vinegar that I have to wear a dust mask. It's heartbreaking to open a box of original negative, a most precious resource, and find it in poor condition. Thankfully, the elements in the worst condition are generally the 'trims and outs' - tiny strips of picture and sound snipped from shots during the conforming process, too small for interesting outtakes, and usually duplicates of higher quality material. Of course, trims and outs are important too, and you never know when a two foot strip of film is the only existent copy of that recorded instant.
The elements that tend to be in the best shape are, thankfully, the most important ones. To make a finished print of a 16mm film, you need a master mix track and an edited negative. The negative can be in a number of different forms. Typically, you'd start with A&B rolls - multiple strands, made up of alternating shots, which combine when printed to complete a seamless movie. A&B rolls are the most precious materials because they're made up of pure, original footage - the very film that ran through the camera in the first place!
We're working through films chronologically, so my era falls between 1966-1988, with a few exceptions. Around 1974, I encountered the elements for the film Viva La Causa, a succinct look at murals in Chicago's Pilsen community, produced and directed by Teena Webb, one of the original members of the Kartemquin collective. Viva La Causa was shot on color reversal film, and I found all the necessary elements to produce a beautiful print, including A&B rolls in perfect condition.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I was handed another box, speculated to contain elements of Viva La Causa, with pristine A&B rolls inside! Public Art in Chicago and Teena Webb's name were all over the contents. Common knowledge held that Public Art in Chicago was an alternative title for Viva La Causa, and when I looked at the footage, I saw shots of the same murals that appear in Viva La Causa. But, while both films were the same length, and on reversal film stock, Public Art in Chicago was in both B&W and color, with a different credit sequence. Besides, having found A&B rolls of both films, I knew it was impossible that they shared footage. What had been assumed to be an alternative title ended up being a completely different film that nobody remembered!
It's still a mystery as to where Public Art in Chicago originates. The prevailing theory is that it's a personal project of Teena Webb's, made in conjunction with Viva La Causa - or perhaps a collaboration with the Public Works Commission of Chicago. As much as I'd like to know, we have to stay focused on the inventory for now and hope that along the way, further investigation will reveal some answers. In the meantime, I'll be chugging along, dusting off other gems lying within the rusty bodies of better-known works.
The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by: