19 February 2010

A Trip to the Acme Film Preservation Emporium

Your humble narrator is currently participating in the For the Love of Film Blogathon, which aims to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation. (If you can, please donate generously here.) After reading posts by his fellow bloggers at the host sites, The Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, he was staggered by the talent and knowledge on display, wishing he had more expertise to offer the project. Alas, the tide of work at his desk prevented him from delving into the field through such rigorous, time-consuming tactics as "research" and "actually watching movies," and so he settled on writing a more general post - until now. A trip through the Internet's looking glass led him to discover the existence of the Acme Film Preservation Emporium in the nearby city of Metropolis. He quickly arranged to visit the facility.

Senator Joseph Paine, who played an instrumental role in establishing the Emporium, greeted me at the front gate with a firm handshake. "It's a great pleasure to meet you," he said in an accent surprisingly tinged by England. "We receive precious few visitors these days, what with everyone always up in arms over the newest things. Old-timers like myself can't help but feel overlooked. Please step this way."

He led me inside, where we stepped onto a giant conveyor belt that whisked us past screens showing films saved by the Emporium. On one, Joseph Cotten was visiting Agnes Moorehead at a boarding house. On another, Clara Bow was punching out a man with a vicious left. I asked the Senator if we could pause the conveyor, but he shook his head. "Sorry, old boy, but once this thing gets started it's impossible to make it stop. We must take it to the very end."

The conveyor quickly approached two giant emerald doors that swung open as we neared. Beyond was a cavernous room, the floor covered by row upon row of drafting tables. At each sat a person clad in a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a black tie, a spattered smock, and a jeweler's loupe embedded in one eye. "Here is our main floor," the Senator announced. "Each man and woman is carefully fixing a single degraded frame of film." He stepped off the conveyor and beckoned me to follow. We moved closer to one of the desks, where a young woman was analyzing a frame that had severely deteriorated into a mass of nitric acid.

"We can salvage this one," she said, wiping away the acid with a Windex-soaked rag. This revealed a faded picture of an elderly man and woman in a shoddy apartment. She selected a black Sharpie from a jar at the top of her desk and expertly shaded in the darker tones. "That's the black part. Now for the white." She produced a bottle of Wite-Out and neatly dabbed the frame until all the parts were properly retouched. When finished, she blew on it to speed up the drying, then placed it into a plastic container which she sent flying into the tangled pneumatic tube system overhead. A few moments later, a new tube arrived, and she gingerly placed the next frame onto her desk. "Aw, this one is even worse!" she moaned, shaking her head and grabbing the rag.

As we made our way back to the conveyor belt, a worker passed us holding what looked like an oversize novelty check. "Pardon me," he said, and I saw that it was not a check, but a title card with a lined border and "Griffith" written in cursive at the top.

The conveyor took us through another set of doors and into a room crowded by a giant piece of industrial equipment, so large its top was lost in an unlit void overhead. "This is where all the frames go!" Senator Paine shouted over the machine's roar. "The Kuleshov 3000 sorts out which frames go where and then splices them all together." With a monochromatic hand he gestured to the end of the machine, where several workers were pulling out film stock like sausage links and threading them onto separate spools. "We can edit together up to eleven films per day with this."

We did not linger here, but moved on to the Emporium's final section, a room with waste-suited workers using hoses to spray bright paint onto whirring reels. "For preserving films made after the invention of color," Senator Paine said. "It's hard for young people these days to picture what the world was like before we had more than one hue. Sometimes I think we've become spoiled with all of our blues and reds and...oh, blast, what's that bright one? Yellow! I suppose I'm just showing my age..."

Just then, a humanoid whistle hooted steam into the air and, all at once, each worker took out sleeping masks and slipped them over their eyes. "They enjoy a mandatory ten minute break every hour," he explained. "Staring that closely at Technicolor for any longer gives them terrible headaches." In a far off corner, I saw a group of children scribbling over film stock with crayons. When I asked the Senator what they were doing, he turned away and muttered something I couldn't quite hear about colorization.

At the end of the line, we stepped off the conveyor and into an unstaffed gift shop. As Senator Paine escorted me to the exit while pressing a box of Acme Dehydrated Boulders into my hands, I spotted a door marked "John L. Sullivan Memorial Wing." When I attempted to move toward it, the Senator barred my path. "Oh, back there, that's nothing you want to see. Just some storage units." He was interrupted by another man who emerged from the shadows. He wore the uniform of French policeman and bore a strong resemblance to the Senator. "Why not let him see? We have nothing to hide." Against the Senator's protests, the policeman opened the door and I stepped through.

Before me were several booths divided by clear plastic glass, much like interrogation rooms. In the first, a distinguished gentleman was wearing a pair of headphones and speaking into a microphone. His gray pallor identified him as belonging to the same generation as the Senator and the policeman, who sidled up beside me. "Our studies have shown that people dislike silent films because they lack sound," he said. "So we correct them by adding in a voiceover narration - the audience tends to find this soothing - or we call in the actors and record dialogue to loop over the scene." The policeman knocked on the booth's window. "Everything alright in there, Charlie?" The distinguished gentleman inside glanced up and smiled with a curt wave.

The policeman took my arm and guided me toward the second booth. "You see, what's the point of restoring these movies if no one is going to watch them? We're merely trying to give the audience what they want. People toil long and hard all day, and when they return home, they shouldn't have to work to relax. They're just looking for some light entertainment." I began to sputter about remaining true to an artist's vision, but he cut me off. "We're not ruining these films. Really, we're improving them. We're making them more enjoyable for a wider audience. What could possibly be wrong about that? The filmmakers should be thanking us."

He stopped me at the second booth. Resisting the urge to run, I instead leaned forward to look inside. There, I saw a box of kittens mewling on a table while workers painted them with various shades of gray. "Have you ever watched a movie where the characters weren't quite good or bad? Don't you hate it? How are you supposed to know who to support? That's where these kittens come in. When we restored The Lost Weekend, for example, no one was sure whether Ray Milland was a hero or a villain. So we put in a scene of him feeding a kitten. And then the audience knows: Ah, yes, he may have his troubles, but he is an exemplary fellow at heart."

With a sinking feeling, I turned to the last booth. It was entirely occupied by a tube-shaped chamber, ominous smoke emitting from the tightly shut door. From somewhere inside, I could hear a steady percussive beat. "This," the policeman darkly intoned, "is the Rapping Grandma Generator."

My feet acted on their own accord. I fled the room as swiftly as possible, slamming the door shut behind me to block out the policeman's mocking farewell laughter. Senator Paine was still in the gift shop, standing beside a display of Acme Giant Rubber Bands. "We tried to make a go of it, you see. But the funds we received from the government weren't enough. And when we asked for donations, those weren't enough either. And then the Acme Corporation offered us a deal and...well, we would have been foolish to turn it down. They were perfectly in the right to request certain actions be taken that would, as they saw it, increase the films' profitability. They do need to earn money, after all, as do we all."

"I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine," I said. "You think us cinephiles are licked. Well, we're not licked. We're going to fight for this lost cause. Even if the Acmes and all their corporate spreadsheets come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to us." Senator Paine paled at these words. He turned on his heel and hurried into the Sullivan Wing. A moment later, a gunshot rang out. I rushed in to find the policeman wrestling a pistol away from the Senator, who shouted, "Let go! I'm not fit to be a senator! I'm not fit to live!"

There was nothing left to see. The tour was over. I departed the Acme Film Preservation Emporium, determined to help other film preservation organizations in any way possible. If you're out there, reading this, I ask you to join our cause. Donate and support the work of actual, non-fanciful film preservationists who have dedicated their lives to saving our nation's art and history. Before it's too late.


  1. Brilliant! No other words are needed.

  2. What a trip. Thank you for taking us in a different direction.

    One tiny complaint: Senator Paine would have said "How are you supposed to know whom to support?" Sorry, I was an English major. Perhaps he would have said "How is one supposed to know whom to support?" Stop, must stop ;0)

  3. This is utterly charming. Thanks for the whimsy and the wisdom.

    I'm not sure Senator Paine's English is as good as Joe's so I didn't mind the "you"........