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Monday, May 20, 2024
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‘Film is Dead, Long Live Film!’ offers insight into film preservation

The new documentary focuses on the people who work to keep cinema heritage alive.

Rarely does a documentary on a niche topic featuring interviews with people who devote their lives to collecting celluloid film prints end up being so entertaining.

Wisconsin Film Festival documentary “Film is Dead, Long Live Film!” had a featured screening Saturday with director and Emerson College media studies professor Peter Flynn, including a Q&A after the film.

The documentary centers around the history of the preservation of celluloid film stock and the people who devote their lives to this practice. The unspoken, often mundane nature of film preservation due to passion from individuals like Dettlaff is what “Film is Dead, Long Live Film!” ultimately champions through interviews with dedicated film collectors.

Many of these interviewees strained their relationships with their families collecting mountains of celluloid film prints and cameras and taking the necessary steps to prevent their deterioration, showcasing the dedication placed into this hobby by its adherents.

A standout interviewee is Stu Fink, a cigar-chomping, bespectacled preservationist who steals the show with his retelling of the history of 8-millimeter home prints of films and the theft needed to save certain films from destruction. He appeared as a wise sage imparting wisdom to viewers each time he was on screen.

The main preservationist featured and the man to whom the film is dedicated is Lou DiCrescenzo, whose personal archive of prints — ranging from 8mm home movies to 35mm reels of Hollywood blockbusters — is a man who breathes cinema on the screen.

DiCrescenzo’s obvious passion for safeguarding film history and his lament of lacking interest among younger generations in maintaining celluloid prints represented the fall of film preservation’s old guard in favor of a more diverse wave of archivists.

“Film collecting, for the most part, that we have today has its origins in the postwar baby boom,” Flynn said during the Q&A. “In that postwar period, film [was] quite expensive, so it’s predominantly a middle class pursuit, which further delineates the demographic into white males.”

Flynn’s statement holds true, given all of the preservationists interviewed in his film were white, and all but one was a man. Despite the documentary mentioning the preservation of “Felicia,”  a 1965 short documentary capturing the life of a Black teenage girl in the months before the Watts riots, and filmed rehearsals of the Harlem Theater, the films preserved reflected the socioeconomic and cultural sensibilities of white males.

“[Film] was heavy, oily and greasy, and so it was associated with a male thing,” Flynn said. “It’s now part of a museum culture — a library culture — and culturally, historically, libraries have been a feminine space. And I think to a large degree the future of film is going to be female, isn’t it?”

Q&A hosts also shared a story of film preservation relating to Wisconsin.

Alois F. Dettlaff, a Wisconsin film collector, discovered in the 1970s that he was in possession of a copy of the 1910 Edison Pictures adaptation of “Frankenstein,” the first-ever filmed adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel and a landmark in cinema history. The film was long thought to have been lost.

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Dettlaff’s entire collection of rare prints, including other films considered lost such as a 1912 version of “Robin Hood,” was eventually purchased and restored by the Library of Congress before being entered into the public domain.

The documentary ends on a heartwarming moment with 35mm projectionist Jesse Crooks teaching his young son the basics of winding and unwinding film. The scene shows film collecting’s power to achieve one of art’s greatest goals: uniting individuals through something greater than themselves.

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