Archival Spaces 298
James Card Memorial Lecture at Nitrate Picture Show
Uploaded 24 June 2022
Below is an excerpt of my James Card Memorial Lecture at the recent Nitrate Picture Show at George Eastman Museum on 4 June 2022. As some people know, I started my career there:
47 years ago I began my career as a motion picture archivist, although at the time I don’t think I knew that was actually happening. In September 1975, I moved from Boston to Rochester, New York, and began a one-year postgraduate internship in the film department at George Eastman Museum, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. As far as I can tell, it was the first formal moving image archive training program in the United States. Getting the internship was more luck than anything else. I had finished my master’s degree at Boston University in May, having written a thesis on “Ernst Lubitsch and the Rise of UFA.” Wishing to follow Lubitsch’s tracks to Hollywood, I applied for and received a fellowship from the Louis B. Mayer Foundation Oral History Program at the American Film Institute, in order to interview German Jewish refugees from the film industry who had fled Hitler after 1933. While I was doing research at the AFI’s old Greystone Mansion, I got a call from Eastman’s assistant director, Andy Eskind, asking me if I would like to have a paid internship in GEH’s film department. Apparently, their chosen candidate had changed his mind and gone to Washington’s Folger Library. When I asked how they had heard about me, I was told that they had called my thesis advisor, Prof. Evan Cameron, because he had organized a major film conference at Eastman a year earlier. I had written a paper about nitrate film preservation for Evan in a seminar after I had told him I wanted to be a film historian or critic, not a filmmaker.
In any case, I suddenly had my first archival job. The film department at Eastman was still run by legendary film collector and archivist, James Card, who immediately took a liking to me, because he had studied in Germany and was an incurable Germanophile. He became my first mentor, as did George Pratt, the department’s assistant curator. The staff was tiny: Marshall Deutelbaum, who eventually moved to a professorship in film studies at Purdue University, Kay McRae, Card’s longtime secretary, Allan Bobey, and projectionist Bob Ogie.
My first job at Eastman Museum that September was conducting an inventory of the nitrate vaults at the back of the property. I think I spent three months in those vaults with Jonathan Doherty, the son of museum director Robert Doherty, diligently writing down all the information on every can. We had absolutely no training on the handling of nitrate film, which is unthinkable today, given the many hazards to which we were exposed in the old nitrate vaults. The irony was that Jim Card was dead set against any kind of cataloging or inventory. This was an era when the FBI was still looking for film pirates, and many of the films in the archive (as in every major American archive) were there semi-legally, often having been procured in the collector’s market.
As an intern, I was involved in almost all departmental activities, including preservation and programming, and learned mostly by doing. I also spent almost all of my free time watching films from the vaults. My whole sense of film history changed. Like most film students, I had a “greatest hits” notion of film history, meaning I had seen some of the classics from Griffith to Fellini, but now I was getting a vertical, as well as a horizontal view of film history. On weekends I would often project films for friends of Card who had come to see films or do research. I also spent a lot of time in the old library, reading film historical texts. Meanwhile, George Pratt educated me in the use of primary source material and its importance for film historical research, patiently guiding my way through the maze of files, books, film magazines, and photographs. We would begin with a particular filmographic problem and then, as if on some grand treasure hunt, ferret out all the relevant information, oftentimes resolving an issue after flipping through one of George’s legendary notebooks.
When I left Eastman, I knew I wanted to be a film historian working in an archive, but there weren’t really many jobs in the field back then. I went to Europe and eventually started a Ph.D., while occasionally doing freelance work as an archive researcher. Eight years later that I returned to Eastman Museum to become an associate curator of film, still guided by the lessons that Jim Card and George Pratt, each so different, had taught me. In a 45-year career, I’ve been privileged to synthesize those lessons, putting my archival work in the service of film history and film historical writing in the service of film archives.
The first time I met Jim was in his office on the third floor of the old Eastman House mansion, standing in front of a photographic portrait of himself dressed as Werner Kraus in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In his autobiography, Seductive Cinema, Card wrote that a 9.5mm print of Caligari was the second film to enter his collection, bought in Heidelberg in 1936, when he was an exchange student in Germany. Later, Card would say that the only reason he had gone to Germany was to find a print of Caligari. It was the same year that Langlois founded the Cinémathèque, supposedly by starting a collection of nitrate films in his bathtub. Card’s first acquisition had been James Sibley Watson’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), F.W. Murnau’s Faust the third. Could I have ever imagined then that I would reconstruct Caligari at the Munich Filmmuseum twenty years later or that Fall of the House of Usher would become a central piece of evidence in my book on the neglected early American avant-garde?
Card’s example also has led me to treat nitrate with respect, but not with exaggerated fear. He was always totally incensed when he spoke of the policy in certain national archives, such as the British Film Institute of destroying nitrate once it had been copied. While nitrate fires had occurred, and such fires were indeed extremely dangerous, nitrate could be handled safely. Contrary to what many younger archivists who have never handled nitrate material may think, nitrate will seldom self-ignite. If one is not smoking, nitrate film can not only be examined, but it can also reveal stories that disappear in preservation to polyester or digital. My own guilty pleasure at Eastman and later in Munich was to look at nitrate prints on an editing table, for cataloging purposes or in the course of reconstruction. Time has also proven Card correct in terms of nitrate’s longevity. While the American Film Institute’s battle cry of the 1970s was “Nitrate Won’t Wait,” the field now realizes that nitrate can wait, if it is stored properly and inspected regularly. Indeed, RIT research in the 1990s demonstrated that nitrate will last hundreds of years.