As my birthday looms ever-closer, gifts are starting to trickle in. My parents gave me the DVD of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Thanks, Mom and Dad! This is an amazing movie, probably the most contemporary silent movie I’ve seen. Falconetti gives one of the most raw and riveting performances I’ve ever seen; Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert don’t sing her praises enough. But it’s a minor miracle that I got to see this movie. The original negative was thought lost in a fire; Dreyer composed a second version, editing alternate takes, and that was thought lost as well. For decades, the only way to see Passion was through a reconstruction. In 1981, in a supply closet at a Norweigan mental institution, a seemingly-perfect print of the first version was found. That’s the DVD Criterion sells; that’s what I watched. Now, I know that in seeing a movie in digitized form, transferred to disc from a fifty-year-old screening print, on my 14" monitor is not the ideal film experience. (Ideally one would see every movie in an Art Deco movie palace, or possibly at the Fine Arts, with Josephine projection and a bucket of popcorn in hand.) But consider this — it’s estimated that half the films made before 1950 are lost forever. I appreciate the complaints of people like Nicholson Baker; surely there’s value in preserving things in and on their original media, microfilm sucks, digital media won’t last forever either, and there’s an extra layer of mediation imposed by digitalization that can be dangerous — shifts in technology can render computer files as unreadable as Linear A. But the great tradeoff is the ease of duplication of files.
The Betteman archives placement in storage is a great example. It will cost millions and millions of dollars to fully digitize the archive, and until then the physical medium — the photographs themselves — are decaying; as it is, they’re being stored safely, but they’re inaccessible to anyone. For all the problems digitalization brings, having a digital copy means that you can get a version to anyone in the world nigh-instantly. If there had been digital copies of The Passion of Joan of Arc, two generations of movie lovers would have been able to see it the way Dreyer meant it to be seen. How much did the world lose when the Library of Alexandria burned?
I’ve got some photographs of my grandparents and great-grandparents. They’re probably of no interest to anyone except me and my immediate family, but they’re my historical artifacts, and I want to share them with the world — or at least that small subset of "the world" that would be interested. The flickering pixels on a computer screen aren’t like a real photograph, of course, but they’re there. They’re accessible. They’ll live, for a while, at least. ("Of course, she won’t live. But then again, who does?")
I’ve got a scanner. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) I’ve got hard drive space. I’ve got a job to do.