Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mold Porn

I've written before about finding film elements in deplorable condition. The mold and rust gnawing away at Kartemquin's archive have effected some collections worse than others. Taylor Chain 1, for instance, was filmed in the early 70's, but remained unfinished until 1980. It was damaged badly when the previous Kartemquin studio burned down in 1972. The missing footage necessitated a re-edit of the film, which meant acquiring further funding, which, as everyone knows, doesn't always come through right when you want it.

Other films with extensive damage include The Last Pullman Car (which literally just became available on DVD), Marco, Trick Bag, and Home For Life - one of Kartemquin's first films, and an incredible preservation success story. The photos above show elements from Trick Bag: a melted roll of unused work print; waterlogged, burned notes; and a melted, warped reel of 1/4" audio tape.

The saving grace in all of this has been finding the most important, irreplaceable elements to be, if not in pristine condition, then at least functionally clean. I have yet to find a film project which is irretrievable, even if its 'deleted scenes' are looking grim.

Worse than smoke and fire damage, and, unfortunately, more prevalent in the archive, are water damage and mold. Gordon recently retold the story of the aforementioned fire. "I was standing in the room" he said, "with flames all over the house, holding a garden hose, drenching the boxes to keep them from catching." It was a thrilling story, and I'd be hard pressed to find a better solution in the heat of the moment. But inwardly, I winced. I'd been confused as to why I was finding so many blackened, warped items also covered in skin-crawling mold.

But the mold I'm finding isn't just from intentional flooding. After relocating to its current location, and before renting space in The Hall, Kartemquin stored its archive materials in the basement, a miserable pit so damp it might as well have habitually flooded. The photos above, and at the top of this post, are from the 1984 film Women's Voices: The Gender Gap. The Gender Gap recently received a preservation grant from New York Women in Film and Television, and the fresh new archival elements it afforded are tucked away snugly. But some of the old footage from 1984 hasn't been so lucky. I found several rolls of picture outs where the emulsion has melted completely, been eaten away by mold, or both.

The nice thing about mold and melted emulsion is that when the film being victimized is vibrant with color, like The Gender Gap, the damage can be just as compelling. It's the silver lining on a big moldy cloud. Pulling footage off a sticky, smelly roll and illuminating it on my light table occasionally reveals works of Brakhagian beauty. Even black and white film, stiff from overexposure to heat, might display the fine seaming and delicate crackle of a centuries-old masterpiece (or your shabby-chic side table).

Going through the compromised footage from Gender Gap, Ryan and I had an idea. We set up the roll, running it through the Moviscop (a small device that allows one to watch film as it's hand-cranked through the machine) and a digital camera pointing down towards the Moviscop's small screen. We took three videos of the mold in action. This one is my favorite, for the way the mold starts to sweep in, like curtains, or an elegant wipe, transitioning between medium shot and close up.

Moldy Footage #2 from Kartemquin Films on Vimeo.

One might think that the animation sequences in Gender Gap would dissolve more beautifully than the live action ones. Not true. Ron and Sydney Crawford, the animators (working with art by Nicole Hollander) must have kept their studio free of contaminates. Any animation outs I found were just fine - with the notable exception of this fabulous color balance slate.

Post by Lyra Hill

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by: