Terry Mikesell 01/10/2013

With its next series, the Wexner Center for the Arts will celebrate the rescue of the odd and the unusual.

“Avant-Garde Masters: A Decade of Preservation” will begin tonight with a series of short films introduced by Jeff Lambert, assistant director of the National Film Preservation Foundation in San Francisco.

According to the Film Foundation, which is dedicated to movie preservation and restoration, half of all American movies made before 1950, and more than 90 percent of films made before 1929, are lost.

Want to see The Way of All Flesh, the 1927 movie for which Emil Jannings won the first best-actor Academy Award? You can’t; the film is considered to be lost. The UCLA Film and Television Archive has a five-minute snippet of footage.

One of the culprits is the nitrate film stock that, before 1950, was the industry standard. Nitrate film easily decomposed and, even worse, was flammable. Acetate film, which replaced nitrate, tended to fade. Not until more-stable polyester film was created in the 1990s did the problem lessen.

Plus, before the secondary home-viewing market took off, out-of-circulation movies were often treated like old magazines and discarded.

“The nitrate film was expensive to ship and dangerous,” Lambert said in a phone interview. “At the end of its run, there were often instructions to just dispose of the prints. Luckily, there were projectionists and other people who held on to them.”

Hollywood has gotten behind the preservation effort. In 1990, director Martin Scorsese created the Film Foundation, which has salvaged more than 560 movies.

In 1992, Congress became involved by asking the Library of Congress to study film conservation. The resulting report led to the creation of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

“The mandate of the Film Preservation Foundation is to deal with the non-Hollywood films: home movies, industrial films, documentaries, educational films, travelogues,” Lambert said, “things that wouldn’t survive without public support, because there’s no market incentive.

“But they’re of immense historical interest — home movies by an African-American porter on a train from the 1950s. It’s very unique to get his point of view.”

Lambert was inspired to work in preservation as a student at San Francisco State University. There, he took a film-history class taught by Scott Simmon, a film scholar who had helped restore the single surviving copy of a 1920 Spanish movie.

“It was through his film-history class that my eyes were opened to the way that film preservation could help fill gaps in film history,” Lambert said in a subsequent email.

And he takes a glass-half-full approach to the statistics on the number of films lost.

“While . . . (the figures mentioned) seem discouraging, I’ve learned to take an optimist’s approach,” he wrote. “Instead of bemoaning what we think is lost, better to think of all the discoveries there are to uncover.”

Among the restored works to be screened at the Wexner are avante-garde films such as Cosmic Ray (Bruce Conner, 4 minutes, 1961), Prefaces (Abigail Child, 10 minutes, 1981), Rabbit’s Moon (Kenneth Anger, 16 minutes, 1950), and The Velvet Underground in Boston (Andy Warhol, 33 minutes, 1967).

On Wednesday, a tribute to the filmmaking Kuchar brothers will take place.Experimental filmmaking is near and dear to Lambert, who produced the DVD set Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde, 1947-1986 and is curating the foundation’s next set, Treasures 6: Next Wave Avant-Garde, due for release in 2013.

“There’s a certain freedom that the filmmakers take, the artists take,” he said. “It forces audiences to look at film in a different way than what they’re used to.

“When you come out of an avante-garde, you look at the world differently.”

The Columbus Dispatch

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