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Gambit Weekly Disappearing Act

By Rich Collins

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  The hordes that assemble each night at movie theaters are looking for a couple hours of entertainment in the form of a Julia Roberts romance or a George Clooney shoot-em-up. What they don't realize when they plunk down their six bucks, however, is that they are watching what will ultimately be an important cultural document.

The country's motion picture industry has mirrored the interests, values and issues of the culture at large for the entire 20th century. And, as a result, films have become increasingly important records of their times.

"Within a few decades of their invention in 1893, motion pictures became both the nation's leading source of entertainment and a major source of information through documentaries and newsreels," writes James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, in an essay about the topic. "Motion pictures in all their varied genres also began to provide an unparalleled record of American life and culture."

There's no shortage of examples to illustrate Billington's point. Hal Roach's 1929 classic Big Business, for example, is a glimpse into the Depression-era American corporate climate. A newsreel titled The Battle of San Pietro (1945) captures the emotional action at the end of World War II. And Dr. Strangelove (1964) is a wry look at the absurdities of the Cold War. Years from now, these and many other important films will provide a wealth of information about the times that shaped them.

Or will they?

In the last decade, historians and film industry types have struggled to make the public aware of the crisis caused by deteriorating film stock -- and the history that is quickly disappearing along with it.

Estimates say that more than 80 percent of the movies shot during the first 25 years of the biz have been lost permanently because of deterioration. And at least half of the movies filmed before 1951 are also gone.

Hoping to stop this trend, Congress in 1988 created the Library of Congress National Film Preservation Board, which is responsible for preserving big studio feature films as well as indies, home movies, animated shorts, experimental films, newsreels and more. One weapon in the board's arsenal is the National Film Registry Tour, a classic-film series that sets up shop Friday through Nov. 14 at the State Palace Theatre on Canal Street.

The purpose of the film tour is to convince moviegoers that it's not only crucial to save copies of important films, but also to preserve the experience of seeing a film in a theater the way it was intended.

"The idea is to sell the concept of preservation around the country," says David Francis, the chief of the Library's movie division. "People see a film on TV and say, 'Oh, that looks OK to me,' but there's technical wizardry to remedy defects on video. If they saw the same copy of the movie projected in a big cinema, they would be shocked. We also want to show films that have been restored properly on big screen so people can see what it's like to see classic film well-preserved. We want to show what the great filmmakers were trying to do at the time the films were originally released."

Francis thinks it's important for people to understand why the films are in jeopardy, and that's a matter of science.

The primary reason film goes bad is because of nitrate decomposition, which can transform usable film into worthless powder, he says. The process can't be halted, but it can be stalled through proper storage and other techniques. Other major problems are color fading and shrinkage. And even the more modern "safety films," which won't suffer from nitrate decomposition, are vulnerable to something called the "vinegar syndrome," a deterioration that results from exposure to high heat and humidity levels.

The way to fight all this natural decay, says Francis, is to make copies on the safest new film stocks available and to store the copies in proper climates. Which is exactly what the Library of Congress has done with its collection of roughly 200,000 film titles, the largest single collection in the country.

Now, the Library wants to encourage the industry to follow its lead.

"We have to decide what to copy on the basis of its state of deterioration," he says. "We have so much to copy and very limited resources. What we hope is that the film industry itself will take precautions. We believe it's just as important to preserve everyday films as recognized classics. There's no doubt that people this century have been very influenced by the cinema, not only as art but as entertainment and as a social phenomenon and influential source on 20th century society."

The films that will be screened in New Orleans include Panic in the Streets, Louisiana Story, Salt of the Earth, On the Waterfront, Raging Bull, The River, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Casablanca.

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