Interviews

MoMA’s Dave Kehr on Film Preservation and Why There’s Never Enough Money

The veteran critic and curator speaks to Hyperallergic about the museum’s festival of film restoration and the changing tides in the field.

Dave Kehr in a MoMA live Q&A

Marking its 17th edition this year, the Museum of Modern Art’s To Save and Project festival celebrates newly preserved and restored films, both from the museum’s collection and other archives and distributors from around the world. This year’s slate included the premieres of restorations of silent films by D.W. Griffith and Raoul Walsh, a collection of amateur films in the National Film Registry, a previously unreleased PSA about age discrimination from Night of the Living Dead director George Romeo, and more. To Save and Project represents New York’s biggest film preservation event of the year.

Hyperallergic spoke to Dave Kehr, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film and former film critic at the Chicago Reader and the New York Times, about this year’s festival. The conversation ultimately broadened into how To Save and Project has evolved over the years, how digital has radically changed restoration practices, the funding difficulties archives face, and the generational shift occurring in the film preservation field. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Hyperallergic: Walk us through the process of putting together a To Save and Project slate. How does it begin, what goes into the choices, how are the decisions made on a curatorial level? 

Dave Kehr: Through the course of the year, I go to other archival festivals. There’s a big one in Bologna every year, Il Cinema Ritrovato; a silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy, a small town north of Venice; and there’s the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in May. I see a lot of the new restorations there. Otherwise, I keep up with my colleagues through the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) and track various newsletter and emails to see who’s working on what and when it might be available. Then the idea is to bring what I think New York audiences would be more interested in into this program.

From The Amusement Park (1973, US, directed by George A. Romero) (courtesy MoMA)

H: Do you have main priorities while you’re creating the slate, or is it mostly determined by access?

DK: What’s available really shapes it, of course, and you try to keep up with the newest things coming out of the various archives and distributors. There’s also a sense that we want to provide as wide a range as possible of kinds of movies, of nationalities of movies, and so on, and just make sure we’re giving people a sense of the activity that’s taking place around the world. It would be easy to just do 15 American movies, but we don’t want to do that. We want to give people more of a sense of what’s happening in Thailand, for example, or Australia this year – Asia, Europe, the whole thing. We also try to get documentaries, try to get some experimental avant-garde stuff, mix it up as much as we can.

H: You came onto the MoMA staff in 2013. I’m curious how the festival has changed over the years.

DK: I’ve been following the festival as a journalist for a long time. This was started by my colleague Josh Siegel 17 years ago. I really think the biggest change is digital. That really made a lot of things possible that weren’t before. Things we thought were hopeless at one point, suddenly you can get a decent, even very good results with digital technology – which, tragically, is very, very expensive. [Laughs] You get what you pay for in that world. I think there’s more interest in non-industry work, in home movies, in industrial films. People are casting a wider net. It’s not all narrative features, which was more what was being shown 15 years ago.

H: To what extent, as long as you’ve been there, has the choices behind which films to preserve or showcase have become more politicized over time?

DK: There’s certainly much more interest in finding forgotten, overlooked work by women and people of color, a museum-wide campaign. We’ve turned up some amazing examples of that in our own collection. Famously, there all the rushes for an unedited film that would have been the first all-black cast feature, from 1914. We’re showing this amazing Australian film made by three sisters in Sydney in 1928 called The Cheaters. It is unaccountable how they got the energy and the equipment and the knowhow to make this. We’re always looking for things beyond the canon without suppressing the canon, of course. We’re still showing plenty of dead white males. Of course, most of MoMA’s collection is studio work, starting with Edison and Biograph and going through to the present. But MoMA, along with every other archive, is now looking outside of that cohort for interesting work, and I think there’s a great deal to be discovered.

From The Masque of the Red Death (1964, US/UK, directed by Roger Corman) (courtesy MoMA)

H: I’m curious what the coordination is between you and MoMA’s preservation department. Were they already working on Isn’t Life Wonderful or Loves of Carmen, two silent films from your archive premiering at the festival, or did they prepare it for the festival?

DK: They’re not necessarily preparing it for the festival. I’m pretty deeply involved in restoration efforts here, and in the case of Isn’t Life Wonderful, that’s one that we did almost two years ago, and we were waiting for the rights to expire. It went into the public domain recently, so we’re able to show it without worrying about people showing up and asking for money. Other things like Loves of Carmen, that’s something that’s been in the collection since the ’70s, but it was a print that came from the Czech Republic’s National Film Archive with Czech intertitles, not a very good image quality, scenes out of order, the usual problems. Again, it wasn’t until fairly recently that the digital technology was good enough to address some of those problems. We have to find the original English intertitles and recreate those in the style of the period.

In this case, what we had was what’s called the export negative. Do you know about this? Oftentimes they would make two or three, and sometimes even more, negatives – cameras just lined up in a row, because in those days the negatives would be printed out very quickly. The A version would be for North America, the B version would be for Europe, and so on down the line. In this case, we had a C or a D version that went to Eastern Europe, and it took some special finagling to weave that one back together. We obviously want what’s as close as possible to the original release, but very often it is just not. You have to do some interpretation, some guesswork, and in the end, hopefully you’ve got something that’s not too off the mark.

H: What are your efforts in the restoration field outside of your curatorial duties at MoMA?

DK: One of the nice things about being a curator at MoMA is that it’s kind of a design-your-own-job thing. I was always very interested in historical film, and MoMA has a remarkable collection. It was the first museum in the world to start collecting movies as an art form, beginning in about 1935. The first director of the film department, Iris Berry, went on a worldwide tour and bought movies when nobody else was doing this. MoMA does not have the largest collection by any stretch, but in some ways, we have a very important one, because Iris was there and got first pick for a lot of things. We have the best copies of a number of German films, British films, French films just because Iris bought them before the war. Of course, there were films that Iris Berry didn’t like very much and didn’t buy, and it would be nice to have them! But we don’t. [Laughs]

From Dancing James Berry (1954, US, directed by Leo Hurwitz) (courtesy MoMA)

H: On the topic of digital, are you conscious of striking a balance between showcasing work in a DCP format and staying true to the festival’s original film-specific preservation roots? 

DK: It’s an individual decision. We’re showing a group of documentaries, kind of early precursors of Cinema Verité, directed by a fellow named Leo Hurwitz. Those came from the George Eastman Museum, and they originated as 16mm prints, and the Eastman was able to restore them on 16mm, so we were one of the few places in the world that can actually screen them that way without worrying about damaging the print. In that case, rather than the DCP, we would show the film version. Something like Loves of Carmen, it just doesn’t exist as a film. We can do these things called film outs, which we will eventually do, and that’s just transferring the digital image to celluloid. That’s very good for long-term storage, but as a theatrical experience, it doesn’t really add a whole lot.

H: How does access to digital restorations work? You used to make a print and then rent a print. What are the rights complications involved with digital copies?

DK: We just did a number of films we’ve had in the archive since the ’70s from the Fox Film Corporation, which was the precursor to 20th Century Fox, and we got a lot of support from 20th Century Fox to digitize and restore eight or nine films from the batch. But when you work with the studio, the studio owns the copyright and they want to distribute them themselves. So in order to book those films, you now have to go to 20th Century Fox or Disney and get it from them, rather than directly from us. You have trade-offs. It’s certainly nice to have the money, but on the other hand you have to give up a certain amount of control, which nobody wants to do. It’s a balance.

H: Do you have to manage or negotiate between competing agendas from different archives? Does, say, the National Film Archive jockey for certain works to be programmed that might clash with whatever UCLA wants?

DK: We all have a sense of who has what in their collection and what is most appropriate for one particular archive to do. MoMA has a lot of early cinema, silent cinema, 1930s, and then we go into the ’70s where we have a lot of New York experimental stuff. I think an archive will be saying, “We want to restore a 1927 Fox Film production. We should really check with MoMA and see what they have in mind,” and vice versa. If we want to do a Paramount film, we should check with UCLA, because they have most of the Paramount material. I don’t recall there ever being a fight over a particular restoration project. The fight is over finding the money. It’s still a very, very underfunded field where we have to raise money for every project individually. Sometimes that’s the hard part, getting the financing together.

From The Cheaters (1930, Australia, directed by Paulette McDonagh) (courtesy MoMA)

H: Are there ongoing fundraising efforts, or does it come from the endowment?

DK: I wish it did! We have a nice endowment that came in part from Lillian Gish. She donated quite a few dollars years ago to preserve silent films. We draw from that. We have another endowment fund from a former head of our film department board. Otherwise we go to friends of MoMA, people we know who are interested in these films. The Film Foundation, certainly, Martin Scorsese’s group, is a major funder for us. There’s also the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and so on and so forth.

H: Do you have a favorite archive or distributor to work with? 

DK: Everybody is in this because they love the medium. I love working with Eastman House, the Library of Congress, UCLA, the Academy, many of the foreign archives we work with constantly — the Czech Archive, we just completed a lot of recent work with. It’s a very collegial field. There’s no sense of competition. We all have way too much on our hands. We have 35,000 films at MoMA, which is not big by archive standards. They probably have ten times that many in the Library of Congress, for example. But digitization is very expensive and very slow, and if we want this work to live beyond the next ten years or so, we really have to get down to digitizing it at a much faster rate. It’s hard to see where that funding is going to come from.

H: How does MoMA maintain its commitment to 35mm restorations when seemingly almost everyone else has more or less given up on that?

DK: I think everyone would like to maintain a 35mm output, and we do when there’s money for that in the funding. But for a digital project, it does add $50,000-$60,000 to make a print at the end. There are times when you think twice about that. We can get halfway through another project for that same price. That’s something that’s very fluid. We don’t have a set policy on it. But the feeling is that if the money is there, we would like to make a print, or at least a dupe neg (which is a negative that can be used to make other prints), largely because we’re not sure what the state of digital preservation is going to be. It’s changing all the time. The codecs change from year to year. The different carriers for the digital information change constantly. Who knows if they’re going to be able read LTO tapes in 10 years? So your safest bet is to get it on 35mm and keep it nice and cold in a dark place. That will last you a very long time, no matter what happens. At the same time, it’s just not free, and that means not doing another project in some cases. It’s tricky.

From Duck Soup (1927, US, directed by Fred Guiol) (courtesy MoMA)

H: Have you seen digital storage get better? 

DK: Oh, definitely. I have been on that National Film Preservation board at the Library of Congress since the ’90s. When I got started in this world, they were telling us, “Just to digitally preserve one film, you would need a football field full of hard drives.” Of course, it’s a lot better than that now, but it is still a lot of data. Wrangling it in and out of the cloud and finding storage, just getting uploaded can take days or weeks. Things fall behind. But they’re working on it all the time. I just hope they will continue to do so.

H: How do you think the restoration landscape has changed over the past decade?

DK: There’s been a generational shift. It’s still happening right now. Recently, the head of the UCLA archive stepped down. The head of the George Eastman Museum Film Division stepped down and has been replaced by a good friend of mine, an archivist from Gosfilmofond in Moscow. Younger people who are more adept at other technologies are starting to move in there. We will probably see more of an emphasis on digital work in the years to come, just because these people are more comfortable with that technology and that’s where the demand is going. I often hear, “We would love to show your films, but we don’t have 35mm archival projection at our university. Have you got a DCP?” We have a few, but nowhere near enough. That will be the struggle of the next few years.

H: There seems to be a heavy nonfiction bent to this year’s slate. Some of this is tied into the Private Lives, Public Spaces installation, but also the Leo Hurwitz selection, the Greaves film, even the Romero to some extent. Was it just coincidence? 

DK: I would say it’s a happy coincidence. We’re always looking for that kind of material. Those happened to come up at the right time, and we were glad that they did so we can give them a decent showcase in New York.

To Save and Project ran January 9 through January 22. Keep an eye out for these restored titles at repertory screenings in the future. 

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