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In the Dark: The BFI Archive

From: Cinema Journal
47, Number 4, Summer 2008
pp. 152-155 | 10.1353/cj.0.0042

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the Dark:
The BFI Archive

Like most British scholars of film and television of my generation, I am formed by the British Film Institute: through its exhibition, distribution, and production policies; by the Education Department, its summer schools, and conferences; through BFI publications; by its promulgation of “film culture”; and in its libraries and archives, both paper and audiovisual, in Dean Street, Charing Cross Road, and Stephen Street. I owe my current occupation, and much of what I know about film and television, to the British Film Institute, and it is on the BFI archives that I thought I would write when invited to contribute to this “In Focus.”1 I had the idea of documenting the significance of the archives to international film and television scholarship by collating the acknowledgements given in academic and [End Page 152] popular books to the archive and its curators and librarians, so that my contribution would consist of a long list of authors and books with their acknowledgement cited. This was such a good idea, I soon discovered, after a little preliminary research, that I could easily have filled the whole of the “In Focus” section of Cinema Journal. I tried various ways of selecting which acknowledgments I would cite, but the beauty of the project was lost when it was not indiscriminate. So instead, reluctantly, rather than being a collagist, I will reflect briefly on my own passion for the dark of the archive by describing three different encounters with it.

I first went to the archive as a young teacher to watch films that I had read about and needed to see, before video was a domestic medium—long before DVDs. This archive is forever cold and snowy to me, for much of what I watched on 16 mm film was Soviet cinema of the 1920s, and my own rhythms of viewing were quite Stakhanovite: so many films, so little time. With Jay Leyda to guide me, I viewed the sort of films that, even when video became available, were not going to be shown on television so that you could tape them: Battleship Potemkin possibly, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty never. My aim was to familiarize myself with a canon: to actually see what I had read about. And the only way of doing this was to watch films on celluloid in a dark basement viewing room.

My second example is about television. Here, what I remember is often a wondrous astonishment. I was not going to view canonized material, but instead, a notoriously poorly archived medium, seeking to find out what was there. In the context of the lifestyling of British television, I wanted to find out what the precursors of this type of television were. While I did discover something of this, as I viewed hours of instructional, leisure, design, and magazine programs, what was almost as significant was discovering how poorly archived this type of ordinary television was. The cataloguing department of the BFI were assiduous in seeking out material that might be relevant, but it was very patchily preserved, and very little of it existed as viewing copies. It was as if the policies for the archiving of television had had little connection with some of the ways in which television was thought about academically following Raymond Williams’s inaugural account of the medium.2 If what was becoming of great interest to television scholars was the ordinariness of the medium, what was most archived were its moments of exceptionalness. Poring over the interplay of experts and ordinary people in sporadically preserved programming made when television itself was new, it was very difficult to judge what was normal and what was extraordinary in the performance of “being on television.” Often, too, the metadata was incomplete, and so while the date of broadcasts was normally recorded, their times were rarely there. The schedule was, perhaps, both invisible and taken for granted by those early archivists of television. However, viewing all the material that was available—and thus identifying the sources for the familiar clips used to signify “funny old television”—was still illuminating, perhaps because the patchiness of the material preserved spoke...