Cinema Obscuro

Film archivist Matt Bakkom's 'search and rescue' operation saves the life of 16mm

No matter how daring or eclectic you think your film collection is, Matt Bakkom has got you beat. Part of Bakkom's collection sprawls around the furniture-less living room of his Lowry Hill apartment. The rest of it fills a storage locker in Plymouth. There are some 6,500 16mm films in all: experimental animation, 1950s educational filmstrips, promotions for heavy industry, newsreels, and things too mysterious and wonderful to classify. Technically speaking, none of these movies belong to Bakkom: They're actually part of an even bigger collection that was once housed in the University of Minnesota's archives. Bakkom is merely a custodian of orphaned movies, an explorer in a vast, forgotten library of celluloid.

On the afternoon I visit Bakkom, he's in the process of sorting through some of his films. A few dozen battered, saucer-sized metal film canisters are stacked around the legs of a card table. They look like big, scuffed pennies. On the table is a film projector set up to throw the image onto the wall. (An old Underwood typewriter sits in the corner of the otherwise empty room, completing the antique vibe.) Most of the films Bakkom screens here end up back in the Plymouth storage unit; the best and strangest, however, are included in "Search and Rescue," the weekly series of found-footage programs Bakkom organizes at Bell Auditorium in conjunction with Minnesota Film Arts.

Bakkom picks a canister off the top of one pile: a "Search and Rescue" candidate. "This one's called Italian Children," he explains. "Probably from the '60s. It's sort of a portrait of an Italian farm--kind of a sweet Old World travelogue. But it also ties in with Italian neorealism--you know, the fascination with children in Open City and films like that. This is the kind of stuff you find in the archives."

Bakkom is an intellectual type, a hyperarticulate and widely knowledgeable guy with shaggy hair that he sweeps off his forehead every so often. He's wearing a blue mechanic's jumpsuit, and, as we talk, he smokes steadily and drinks Orangina. Bakkom is an artist, filmmaker, and curator with an abiding interest in the physical detritus of movie culture. He has a jack-of-all-trades CV. For a time, he programmed screenings for Red Eye Cinema. In 1994, Bakkom collaborated with filmmaker Mark Wojahn (who used to live downstairs) on the highly regarded short documentary "What America Needs: An Interior Expedition." And, this past April, Bakkom put together a program of film clips to accompany Walker Art Center's celebration of jazzman Ornette Coleman. Bakkom is also a sculptor. He retrieves one of his pieces from a bookshelf. It appears to be a bell wrapped in shiny black material. "It's the third reel of Gone with the Wind," he says with a grin. (Bakkom once made a funeral urn from the Russell Crowe film The Insider.)

Bakkom recognizes that there's a slightly quixotic flavor to his enthusiasm for 16mm--a medium that, let's face it, is about as au currant as cuneiform. He compares the reels strewn around his apartment to the consumptive heroine of a 19th-century novel: "You know she's doing to die, but you love her anyway." There is something sort of romantic about "Search and Rescue," a program aimed at cataloging and preserving an archive of unwanted movies in an obsolete medium. Bakkom might as well be some medieval monk clinging to the windswept edge of Europe while waves of digital darkness wash over the world.

"You know, it's funny," he says. "In the beginning days of film, guys like Lumière would literally travel around with their projectors. They'd show up in town, make a film, then [screen] it. This was before an industry had time to congeal. Here, at the end of film culture, things are coming full circle. I'm not trying to be a harbinger of doom. But it's a material finale in a way. We're not going to be viewing this stuff in the same way. In 10 or 15 years, you won't be able to find these anymore." Bakkom gives the projector a friendly pat.

"To my mind, there's kind of two camps in the fascination with this material. One is almost more along the lines of an archeological model: 'Wow, this stuff is really interesting in and of itself, and engaging, and worthy of future study by intellectuals, historians, and regular people.' And then there's another line that comes from experimental filmmaking: 'Wow, these films are really useful, because we can recombine them into new things.' There are clips in these films that you could recombine as montage to make new films with all kinds of new signifiers. I rely much more on the archeological way of thinking."

Like a digger sifting through Egyptian sands, Bakkom sees value in even the unlikeliest of artifacts. "I found this highway safety film that's totally amazing to watch," he enthuses. "First, the footage is really hardcore. Highway safety films are a classic of the educational genre. You sort of know what to expect, right? But when you see this one, this guy doing the voice-over is really serious, and really sad. It's this really heartfelt first-person voice-over--not at all sensational. It's just very earnest and straight, the way only a policeman who has seen accidents like this his whole career might be. Think about first-person voice-over: Apocalypse Now or Blade Runner. It's one of the most effective types of narrative. And here's a classic of first-person voice-over in a highway safety film. It's things like that that really surprise you when you first come across them."

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