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The Past Is a Moving Picture

Preserving the Twentieth Century on Film

Janna Jones

Publication Year: 2012

Almost all remnants of culture--past and present--degrade over time, whether sculpture or scrolls, painting or papyrus, books or clay tablets. Perhaps no major cultural record dissolves more rapidly than film, arguably the predominant medium of the twentieth century.

Given the fragility of early nitrate film, much has already been lost. The fragments that remain--whether complete prints of theatrical releases or scraps of everyday life captured by Thomas Edison--only hint at what has disappeared. More recently, archives have been flooded with so much material that they lack the funds to properly preserve it all. Both situations raise questions about how film archives shape our understanding of history and culture.

Janna Jones provides a stunning, tour-de-force analysis of the major assumptions and paradigmatic shifts about history, cinema, and the moving image archive, one that we ignore at our peril in the midst of the overwhelming rush toward digitization. No student of film, twentieth-century history, or archiving and preservation can afford to miss The Past Is a Moving Picture

Published by: University Press of Florida


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

If we can imagine the guardian angel of the moving image archive (perhaps she resembles Iris Barry or maybe Snowden Becker), surely she would be mystified by her present-day duties. As she steadies her gaze upon the accumulation of material...

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pp. xiii-xiv

Many people helped me write this book. I would like to take this moment to thank them. The University of South Florida generously funded my travel to the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the University of California, Los Angeles. The University of South Florida Department of Communication and the School...

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pp. 1-22

The Past Is a Moving Picture details and interprets the twentieth-century project of preserving moving images. This study is an analysis of some of the major assumptions and paradigmatic shifts about history, cinema, and the moving image archive, prior to the current shift toward digitization. This book......


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1. What to Show the World

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pp. 25-51

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, moving image archivists and preservationists are in general agreement about the purpose and cultural significance of their work. The National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), the nonprofit...

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2. Accessibility, Authenticity, and Anxiety

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pp. 52-82

When you ask a moving image archivist about YouTube, do not expect her to immediately exclaim its virtues as the twenty-first century town square. Do not think that she is going to straight away do a song-and-dance number for you about YouTube’s democratization...

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3. Film Preservation 1993: Orphans and the Culture Wars

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pp. 83-108

The colorization controversy inadvertently brought film preservation into the national spotlight, but it gained national attention in other ways as well. Martin Scorsese, film preservation’s most famous spokesperson, began fostering awareness and generating financial support for film preservation more than two decades ago...


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4. The Archive at the End of the Century: Discipline, Excess, and Access

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pp. 111-166

The federal government, the public, and the film industry’s investment in archives and film preservation has resulted in an abundance of historic and contemporary cinematic material flowing into moving image archives, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This archival abundance is tempered by the fact that much...

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5. Film Restoration: A New Way of Seeing Film History

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pp. 167-176

Most of an archive’s labor and its budget are expended in the supervision and protection of its materials. The amassing, sorting, cataloging, and caring for collections can be likened to the efforts required to keep a domicile in order; it goes largely unnoticed...

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pp. 167-176

As you read this, there are thousands of films pouring into our archives, while thousands more are disintegrating or are simply missing. A handful of archivists are confidently piecing together filmic fragments while a few others are fretting over..


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pp. 177-186


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pp. 187-190


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pp. 191-194

About the Author

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p. 195

E-ISBN-13: 9780813043661
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813041926
Print-ISBN-10: 0813041929

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 806033028
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Past Is a Moving Picture

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Motion pictures in historiography.
  • History, Modern -- 20th century -- Historiography.
  • Motion pictures -- History -- 20th century.
  • History in motion pictures.
  • Motion pictures -- Archival resources.
  • Motion picture film -- Preservation.
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