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11.07.07

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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
CALIFORNIA ALL THE WAY: David Packard in San Jose's California Theatre. Known for his involvement in the restoration of the California and Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre, Packard has helped turn a small town across the country into the movie-restoration capital of the world.

Cinema Saver

David Packard of Stanford Theatre gives millions to national film-preservation effort

By Richard von Busack


TWO HOURS southwest of Washington, D.C., across the Bull Run and the Rappahannock, lies the town of Culpeper, Va. At the edge of an outer ring of Wal-Marts and Taco Bells, there's a sign boasting that Culpeper is one of America's Top 10 small towns.

Like many ideal small towns, Culpeper is more of a well-off suburb built into the shell of a dead small town. Yoga studios and a bakery operate out of buildings that still have old painted feed and seed advertisements fading on their brick walls—very little glitz, really, for a town that has just become the movie-restoration capital of the world.

This is a national story, involving a huge donation to the public of some $150 million. James Billington, Librarian of Congress, told me it was likely the single greatest financial donation made by a private citizen to his government.

And it is a local story, in that the donor is Los Altos' David Packard and the Packard Humanities Institute, known in the Bay Area and South Bay for his contributions to many charities and for his part in restoring the Stanford and California theaters.

The National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper is better known as the Packard Campus now. "He never asked to have the Packard name on it," Billington says, but "obviously, it has to be named after him. It's insulting not to do it."

This summer, the 11-year process of getting Culpeper financed and built was over, except for a legal dispute with one of the contractors. ("We'll let the nice jury decide," Packard says.)

In Washington, there was a ceremony at the main Library of Congress building. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi spoke, and music was provided by the famed baritone Thomas Hampson, who sang two Mozart pieces and a Jerome Kern number.

By phone, Packard sums up what happened at Culpeper in a few words: "What we did was vastly expand the ambitiousness of what was going to be a $20 million underground building."

As for having his name on it: "I feel somewhat uncomfortable about it. It's not our family's principle to name things after ourselves."

Following the long effort to get the facility built, Packard's attention has turned now to a new project, a storage facility for the UCLA archives in Southern California's Santa Clarita. This will be another monumental facility to protect the actual stuff dreams are made of, the physical components of cinema.

The new center sits just outside of Culpeper. Not much is visible of the 45-acre campus from the highway. A semicircle of buildings with three stepped rows of windows gathers around a reflecting pool. The slope of the hillside bristles with deer-proof tubes containing some 9,000 saplings. It looks like a new winery—not inconceivable, that. Virginians have been growing grapes since Jefferson's time.

Dug deep into the side of Mount Pony, the Culpeper facility will be the front line for preserving much of the babble of electronic and electromagnetic art we've created during the past century.

In addition to film stock and audio tape, even digital recordings are in danger of decay. In a recent Variety article, reporter David S. Cohen calls digital decay "a time bomb. Data DVDs and CDs disintegrate or become obsolete, and there's no way to store those megabytes without constant recopying."

The digital archivist Milt Shefter comments in the same article that "the technological issues here are not going to be solved by the entertainment industry. It's going to take big business, big science and maybe big government." At Culpeper, the Library of Congress will be working to slow the irrevocable decay that is consuming all media.

Capitol Ideas

Before touring the campus, I visited the Library of Congress, a complex of three buildings on the Capitol end of the National Mall. One is the 100-year-old landmark Thomas Jefferson Building, named after the man whose book collection started the library.

Tour buses clog the National Archives, thanks to the popularity of a bad Nicolas Cage movie. Far fewer come to visit the astonishing Jefferson Building, an Italian Renaissance–themed, stained-glass-lined temple to the book, wrought with both Gilded Age largesse and bohemian élan. Legions of allegorical statues and mosaics represent all the Western virtues, as well as some angels that one wouldn't expect to fly in a government building of 2007: the spirit of Muslim genius and the Muse of Erotica.

"Not until I stand before the judgment of God do I expect to see this building transcended," said one witness to the Jefferson building's opening.

No one will ever blaspheme about the second Library of Congress building, the Adams Building from FDR's era. "It's just a big box with a lot of books in it," jokes Billington.

Built in the 1970s, the third building, the Madison Building is just as coldly functional: a six-story concrete mass. On the top northeast corner is the office of the Librarian of Congress, a modest suite of small offices hung with prints of past exhibits in the Library's museum.

Billington's office has a balcony with a granite planter, in which orange tulips were blooming. The office wasn't expensive, but the view was: his office is on the level with the figure of Columbia on the Capitol Dome, and he has perhaps the best view in Washington of the national mall rolling out toward the Potomac.

Billington is in his 70s, a Princeton scholar whose book The Icon and the Axe is a still valuable study of the conflict between spiritual and material aspects in Russian life.

"I was a movie addict when I was a kid," Billington confesses. "I feel quite comfortable discussing movies of the 1930s and 1940s."

The Library's involvement with film began in Edison's day. And the primal film from that era has a twofold importance: as an example of art on the way up and as a historical record. "Edison's films are the only film record of what America was," Billington explains.

Congressional acts in 1865 and 1879 established the Library of Congress as the copyright depository. The Library of Congress holds an almost 100-year backlog of films in various extinct formats, including 22 mm and 2-inch videotape.

To copyright images in those early days, film studios once sent photos of every individual frame of a film. Now that the celluloid for some of these films is long gone, the photos were rebuilt like flipbooks into moving images that can be watched on the Library of Congress' website.

The Library was once said to contain 200,000 films. That number is certainly too low. Years ago, the Library opened a temporary restoration facility for nitrate film at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Ohio; its 145,000 cans of nitrate films were just shipped to Culpeper.

Nitrate film, a format used until the 1950s, is inflammable when badly stored. "Can't have it on Capitol Hill," Billington tells me.

He believes that the Library of Congress never gets the credit it deserves for film preservation. "In the early days, there was very good work done through UCLA, the Museum of Modern Art, Eastman House and the University of Wisconsin. Today, we at the library do 75 percent of the restoration and get 2 percent of the credit."

One way the Library of Congress is preserving film is by tending a national film registry, which adds 25 films a year to the vaults.

"The LoC has a statutory duty to create a national film registry of artistic, cultural and historic merit, and public participation is meant to be part of it. I lobbied very strenuously for the registry. We have a small budget that enables us to do the detective work. We depend on the goodwill of studios, and they've been pretty cooperative. It keeps us looking for different kinds of films."

The 2005 list included San Jose's David Tatsuno's Topaz Memories, a film Billington spotted at an Asian American film festival in Los Angeles.

Just like any other kind of history, cinema history is not made by great men, and Tatsuno's home movie of the Topaz internment camp in the Utah desert would have lasting significance: it's as rare as the only other home movie on the registry, the Zapruder film of the John F. Kennedy assassination. But Billington says that more 8 mm film needs to be sought out.

"When I was a boy in Philadelphia, I saw home movies of Mussolini's march on Rome. If we could find that sort of thing, it would have tremendous historical interest. The larger named films, the ones that make the AFI Top 100 list, are in less trouble than the ones that get neglected."

Blazing Controversies

Billington is head of a library that has had its share of controversy and troubles. Burned deliberately by the British in 1814 and immolated in a few other fires during the 1800s, the Library also faced the question of whether a reference library serving the Senate ought to contain literature. One senator of the 1800s complained about the Library of Congress containing works by "Voltaire and other foreign atheists."

Would the adult content of something like Blazing Saddles—added to the registry this year—create any kind of controversy? Billington said no, though the arts endowment cutting had affected the Library in the 1990s: "The NEA got themselves in trouble when artists were smearing themselves with chocolate and so forth. Poor Jane Alexander—she's a friend of mine—she had to go explain it all to the Bible Belt. But there's a huge public demand for some of these films."

Film preservation is a much vaster subject than it was even 20 years ago. Like many other problems, there's a large ratio of talk to a smaller percentage of action. Colorization for television was the first inkling that the old films might have some value to the studio; or as Billington put it, "at the very least, that the air conditioning ought to be turned up a little higher in the vaults."

But then a 1993 study carried out by the Library of Congress's National Film Preservation Board outlined how much wider the problem of decaying film was than it first seemed.

"The decay of nitrate film is slow and steady," Billington commented, "but what we've discovered is that safety film also decays. It takes longer, but then it plummets. Heat, humidity and light are the main enemies. I'm reluctant to make generalizations, but it's clear that the conditions of storage were even more important than they appeared. Which is why we've worked on the precisely calibrated conditions of storage at Culpeper."

DESCRIPTION

BUREAU OF RESTORATION: An aerial view of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpepper, Virginia—better known at the Packard Campus.

Packard Power

For more than two decades, David Packard has been an important figure in film restoration. Billington had known Packard's father David Packard Sr., but he says he never met the younger Packard at Princeton. Billington traveled to the Stanford Theatre for the Palo Alto theater's formal dedication.

"I was just getting into film preservation, and David may have brought up the subject. At first we'd been looking for seven or 10 years seeking some kind of site for the vaults. The first site we identified for a possible facility was after the end of the Cold War. It was some kind of outpost for intercepting atomic attack. What happened was that there was some rare bird that had been seen nesting on the site—a shrike. We were petitioned by third-grade students not to drive the bird out of its habitat, so that was two years of work, gone.

"After that, we talked to Congress, and they bought the Culpeper property from the Federal Reserve of Virginia. The Mount Pony site was deserted when we got it. It was an underground storage facility, designed to hold paper money in case of a nuclear war. Very useful in a nuclear war, certainly—radioactive paper rectangles with bearded men on one side and Masonic symbols on the other."

Congress agreed to put up some of the funds for a new film-preservation site. Congress came up with $60 million, and the Packard Humanities fund came up with the rest.

"We're preserving an important part of our national patrimony," Billington says. "I'm not sure David himself realizes himself what an act of national service this has been. Culpeper will serve us well into the future. It's astonishing really. It gives me great personal pleasure to think that anyone can have an opportunity to access these films."

From Pickford to 'Death Kiss'

To get an idea of the vastness of the Library of Congress' collection, I stopped by Gregory Lukow's office in the Madison Building. Lukow is the chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound division. A tall Californian, he came to D.C. from UCLA's archives and from the American Film Institute.

"We have early American cinema from the first several decades, the Kleine collection," Lukow explains. "Kleine was a distributor who collaborated with a lot of the early production companies. Mary Pickford donated her personal archives, all the films she had gathered together going back to the days of Griffith and Biograph."

The Library runs an eclectic small theater in the Madison Building named after Pickford. It programs everything from an extensive Shakespeare on film festival to a 1974 grindhouser from Greece called Death Kiss.

Films were brought into the Library for copyrighting since the beginning of cinema, but the archiving began very seriously from 1942 on. "Part of that," Lukow says, "was because librarian Archibald MacLeish had a more enlightened perspective on the issue. The world film-archival movement had really begun in the 1930s. Iris Berry at the New York Museum of Art had the finest American film archive, and cooperation began between the British Film Institute and the Cinémathèque Française."

The International Federation of Film Archives began just before World War II, in 1938. Currently FIAF has 120 members, having just added members' archives in Singapore and Brazil.

"The Library," Lukow continues, "had entered into an agreement with MOMA to acquire some of the more prestige titles to bring into the Library's collections. And I think Mr. MacLeish just took that to the next conclusion that we have to get back into this game at the Library of Congress."

"In the early 1990s," he adds, "the Library was looking for off-site storage space. Everything but audio visual was being stored at Fort Meade in Maryland." Lukow's predecessor, David Francis, approached David Packard with the idea of a larger facility.

"What we're building in Culpeper," says Lukow, "is really unprecedented globally. There's a new system for preservation literally invented for Culpeper. A robotic video-reformatting machine for example—the operator loads it in the morning with Beta tape, and the material is copied onto digital files. We have two film processors at Wright-Patterson. In Culpeper, we have six with the capacity for eight. We'll also be able to do color film for the first time; we've had to farm out color restoration before. Culpeper is more than just a storage space. It's where all the operations that we do here can really enter the 21st century."

Another function of Culpeper will be the MIC Initiative, short for the Moving Image Collection. (San Jose's Geoff Alexander, local film archivist and founder of the Academic Film Archive of North America, describes it in detail on his website: www.afana.org.) Simply, MIC is a multipart archiving and access plan. It will include the Union Catalogue, which will be the most complete of all film catalogues, submitted by the film archives of the world.

The ultimate master list won't be limited to feature films; nonfiction movies, such as Rick Prelinger's famous collection of 50,000 government and industrial shorts, will be on the list as well. According to Lukow, in the fall there will be a transfer of computer servers to Culpeper, and this will increase MIC's ability to take on information. "Geoff is a real proselytizer for MIC, so I know he's waiting for this," Lukow says.

An enormous river of media flows through the Library of Congress. Lukow counts some 100,000 sound recordings per year, not including the wave of feature films, CNN and other television broadcasts. About 30,000 feature films come through annually, not counting the bequests to the library from collectors.

Sometimes there's an incident such as what occurred in Dawson City in what was then the Yukon Territory. As a frontier town, Dawson was the end of the line for many silent films. The local library kept them and, in time, they were scrapped to use as landfill to shore up a swimming pool converted into a skating rink. The cold preserved them, and when the cache was unearthed, it included a lost Harold Lloyd comedy and the only surviving movie of Lillian Russell.

The Vinegar Syndrome

Film comes in from all quarters, along with television broadcasts, more than a century's worth of radio broadcasts and cassette tapes. Since 1972, the Library has been keeping copyright copies of music from symphony recordings to garage bands.

But when I got to Culpeper, it was mostly empty. The tour guide was Mike Mashon, the curator of the Moving Image Section, a friendly Louisianan who came into archiving after an excursion into microbiology. Most of the facility won't be open to the public, except for study rooms and a small but finely furnished theater with glass torchiers and an organ. This theater, a sort of petite version of the Stanford Theatre, will be showing films for free two or three nights a week.

Culpeper is a long trek from D.C., but it's thought that students from the nearby University of Virginia and other locals will be coming into the screenings. When making the decision, the Packard Humanities figured that public access to the collection was as important as preservation.

In an open letter to the town of Culpepper, Packard complained of "the relentless lobbying by special interests for copyright extensions." And he insists a prime purpose of the Culpeper facility is, like the Stanford Theatre, a place for public communion with the movies of the past.

Inside the endless corridors, workmen were scraping tape off the walls and lifting paper tarps off the cubicles, touching up the paint. Millions of stills, press kits and lobby cards had still not arrived.

At the loading dock, as prints of films arrive at the facility, they will be taken to a cleaning room. This is to make sure that no molds are carried in; workers use a sniff test to decide if acetic acid—the vinegar syndrome—is corroding the films inside the canisters.

Mashon showed me some new film arrivals, two prints of Idiocracy. Near the door is an archival master of Gone With the Wind; Mashon confessed he positioned that near the door for the visitors. But even before the mass of films had arrived from the other storage facilities, it was easy to see the promiscuity of the collection.

At one checkpoint, where he gathered a ring of keys, Mashon found a colleague chuckling over a newly arrived 35 mm copy of Mitchell, subject of a memorable roasting on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Happily, posterity will be able to witness the famous Joe Don Baker massage scene.

Vaults of three different temperatures are spaced out through the depths of the facility, including separate temperature-controlled rooms for the tape collection. Years of Meet the Press and all the original kinescopes of the Ed Sullivan show are there, a new donation. Here is every episode of that nexus of performers from antique vaudevillians to the young Richard Pryor.

Nitrate Warning

Behind three-hour fire doors lie the nitrate vaults. There's a certain sexiness to nitrate films, said Mashon, because people think they're like nitroglycerine. "At Wright-Pat, they like to do a parlor trick where they burn nitrate film in an ashtray. Working with nitrate is not The Wages of Fear," Mashon observed, referring to the French suspense classic about hauling decaying explosives in trucks. "We have to respect nitrate film but not fear it."

The nitrate vaults are equipped with a nontoxic gas fire extinguisher that smothers the fire, with a backup wet pipe system if that fails. "With safety film we fear water more than fire. But with nitrate, we fear fire more than water."

One of the Culpepper projection rooms has side-by-side nitrate and safety film projectors, so that the two can be visually compared. If you've seen nitrate film projected—the Stanford Theatre is one of the few places where it's visible—it has a crispness, darkness and richness of color that is lost in copying.

Underneath our feet were miles of cable, which will send digital info in backup to a separate backup in Manassas, Va. One of the ideas at Culpeper is to pipe different varieties of electronic media back to D.C. for public access. Broadcast-quality files will be sent back to the Jefferson Building, and these same files will be backed up to the tune of 3 to 5 petabytes a year.

The third floor of the Culpeper facility is, Mashon said, "something like the world's largest TiVo," with 100 DVRs taping the television shows and satellite.

The networks previously submitted copies of their broadcasts, but those aren't always complete. The Super Bowl broadcasts, for instance, deleted the commercials. And as seen in the Obama/Hillary parody of Ridley Scott's "1984" Apple commercial, what happens during the commercials during the Superbowl can be more socially significant than what goes on in the gridiron.

"We've never done right by tape," Mashon said. "No one ever talks about the romance of video."

Listening studios have been created for music aficionados, with wooden baffles making the room dead to reverberations; hold a conversation in them, and the sentences drop off into a dull thud. It's like being in a Pinter play. Nearby was a studio where the Library would be transferring music and words from wax cylinders and other early recordings. The Library holds some of the oldest recordings ever made, artifacts such as Indian songs from the 1890s, and the sounds of the last foghorns on the Great Lakes.

Into a wide spot toward the heart of an atrium, windows recessed into the roof let in some daylight from the outside. "Here's something I like," Mashon said. "David Packard found out that the interior here didn't get natural light and so he insisted on getting it in. That's nice. He didn't have to do it, and he did it."

Through other corridors, we stepped over chemical canals from gravity-fed bins to do the developing and printing; tanks will catch silver nitrate for recycling. It wasn't James Bond villain big; it was about the size of a small light-industrial-park factory. Still, it was larger than any facility I'd seen on studio tours, and looking over the printers and the darkroom is where it was really easy to understand the scope of the facility.

Ask most people in the cinema industry, and they insist that film is on its way out, and digital recording is where the future lies. As in any format change, this tremendous shift raises the question of what will be left behind. At Culpeper, the past of film will be safer than it has been for years. Similarly, Packard's gift to the cinema won't truly be realized until the future.

"This," Mashon said with a wave around him, "is designed to be the last place to be able to restore films. We hope we're never the last, but this is how we planned it."


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