Running Around San Francisco for an Education

Visiting the low-profile (and captivatingly curious) National Film Preservation Foundation

How did the National Film Preservation Foundation, an affiliate of the Library of Congress' National Film Preservation Board, end up on the other coast in a cozy two-room office above Fifth and Market? "Our legal address is in Washington, D.C.," Director Annette Melville says with a laugh. "We're supposed to be in Washington. By a fortunate accident" -- and the rise of the Internet -- "we were able to launch the programs cost-effectively here."

Created by Congress in 1996, the NFPF (www.filmpreservation.org) provides grants to dozens of archives, from the Nebraska State Historical Society (Last Great Gathering of the Sioux Nation, filmed by a pharmacist in 1934) to Stanford University (backstage footage of baritone Richard Bonelli at the S.F. Opera in the '30s). "For many years, people were interested primarily in Hollywood film, and they thought that was the only preservation challenge," Melville explains. "Now people are waking up to the value of avant-garde films, silent-era films, industrial shorts, home movies, regional documentaries, and other independent works. My suspicion is that people will start rethinking film and cultural history in terms of the other voices that have been making films for the last 100 years."

Once preserved, the "orphan" pictures (i.e., one-offs not part of a library) saved by archives and labs aren't simply returned to the vaults. "Preservation is not complete unless the public can enjoy the results," Melville declares. To that end, two years ago the NFPF released a four-DVD set, Treasures From American Film Archives, filled with captivating curiosities ranging from the 1911 comic short Her Crowning Glory to seven minutes of home movies compiled as Japanese American Communities, 1927-32 to the 1938 political ad that lends its title to this item. (NFPF board member Laurence Fishburne recorded the narration gratis.)

The nonprofit gets a piddling $250,000 a year from the government, of which every penny goes out in grants. So the NFPF must raise its operating expenses -- including salaries for its four staffers -- from private-sector entities such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Film Foundation (the philanthropic organization of another board member, Martin Scorsese, which recently kicked in $50,000 to preserve avant-garde movies). When I dropped by the office last week, it was obvious from the reception that visitors are infrequent. "We try to keep a low profile," Melville says. "We give priority to the archives."

Cold FeverIt's become a cliché for foreign filmmakers to use McDonald's or Coke signs as symbols of American cultural encroachment, but iconoclastic Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur has a different take. "In the end, it's not America's fault," he remarked during a visit to the S.F. International Film Festival with his splintering-family drama, The Sea. "It's the one who accepts it. So you can't go blame America for Icelanders drinking Coca-Cola. On the way around Iceland, when you're driving a beautiful landscape, there's this huge Coca-Cola bottle. I don't know how many stories tall. How the fuck did they come to the conclusion that this looks good for Coca-Cola?" Kormákur had no compunction, therefore, about taking Coke's money for a placement in his movie, then mocking the product. "They never asked for the script," he says with a shrug.

Since Iceland is so small, Kormákur must go to Europe for financing. His challenge, then, is to make distinctive pictures with a strong sense of place that can still cross borders. "I think it can be very dangerous to aim your films to everybody," the director asserts. "Because if you start doing that, there is only one place you end -- that is Hollywood. They have found the formula of making films for as many people as possible. And that is a pudding that has no taste. In [his first film, the sharp black comedy] 101 Reykjavik, there was a joke about AIDS, and people told me, "If you're going to have this joke, you will never get a release in America.'" Kormákur grimaces at the prospect of compromising, suggesting that it's a slippery slope if you remove one joke to make something more accessible or less offensive. "It starts like this, you know. Of course, nobody had problems with it here in the U.S.," he adds, smiling. "Not that I know of." The Sea opens Friday at the Lumiere.

 
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