Hollywood films are the home movies of global capital.
–Patricia Zimmermann, film historian
A sound case has been made over the past decade for the importance of film preservation: The Library of Congress now selects 25 films annually to enter the National Film Registry, and Turner Classic Movies and others have taken on high-profile restorations of everything from Gone With the Wind to Touch of Evil. All of the studios now have archival arms to preserve their treasures. But if history is written by the winners, then one consequence of this boosterism is the forced categorization of everything else — all those films without the luxury of a commissioning entity or an institutional benefactor — under a single term: orphan films.
Exactly how wide a net those two words cast was evident last month, when the second, almost-annual “Orphans of the Storm” film symposium was held on the campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia. There, a loose affiliation of academics, archivists, preservationists, filmmakers, collectors, collagists, found-footage entrepreneurs, outsider artists, cultists, zealots, fetishists and flat-out nuts gathered to celebrate the power of the celluloid image, with or without a corporate logo. Founded in 1999 by author and academic Dan Streible, the symposium takes its name from the 1921 D.W. Griffith epic in which Lillian and Dorothy Gish, as sisters separated by the French Revolution, fall under the dubious care of thieves and aristocrats, respectively.
“The term orphan film entered the lexicon in the early ‘90s,” Streible explains, “during congressional hearings which ultimately created the National Film Registry and the National Film Preservation Foundation. ’Treasures From American Film Archives,‘ that four-DVD retrospective set released under their auspices, is composed entirely of what are considered orphan films. We define it to include newsreels, outtakes, home movies, kinescopes, trailers, silent film, stock footage, industrials, the avant-garde, independent documentary and any other type of ephemeral film.”
Among the wealth of buried treasures on display was a presentation by Gregorio Rocha, who recently discovered 14 reels of footage on Pancho Villa, including the previously lost feature The Life of Villa, starring soon-to-be director Raoul Walsh, as well as a Mexican exhibitor’s early-‘20s footage thought to contain scenes of border raids staged by the real Villa for the benefit of the camera. The films were discovered at the University of Texas at El Paso in a trunk, which had never been opened because librarians feared the nitrate prints would explode. Other riches include home movies from aboard the Hindenburg; the Mississippi mule races from the mid-’30s (white owners, black riders); and kinescopes of the predawn flash from a 1951 atomic test filmed from Mt. Wilson.
Also on hand were Charles Burnett with the world premiere of a 10-minute short called When It Rains and a newly restored 35mm print of his National Registry entry Killer of Sheep; painter and filmmaker Alfred Leslie (whose 1958 Pull My Daisy more or less codifed the Beat movement) with a work in progress titled The Cedar Bar, which mixes a staged reading of a play with largely found and re-purposed footage to tell the story of the Abstract Expressionists, as a kind of anti-Pollock; as well as ephemeral-films doyen Rick Prelinger, whose dystopian educational epic on inflamed ulcers was trumped only by a surprise appearance of the official Navy training film How To Give an Enema.
If all films are both an objective record and an expose of their origins, then orphan films may be the truest. Whatever their primary intention, they give us a world where men and women don‘t speak of sex in veiled algorithms, where the corporate state is often naked in its ambitions and where raw propaganda is unmediated by all the sophistication an age can muster. This is the reason to preserve the filmic record and is the task to which the so-called Orphanistas have applied themselves. It’s easy to dismiss the politics of Gone With the Wind, but who knows what secret truths might still be harbored in How To Give an Enema? As Alfred Leslie concluded in his toast at the closing-night dinner — voicing a sentiment he inherited, it turns out, from David Niven: “Strike a blow for freedom!”