Cinema Obscuro

Sean Smuda

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."  

Of course, Bakkom doesn't operate under the illusion that every '50s filmstrip is some lost cinematic masterpiece. Many of the films in the U archive are unintelligible, boring, or just plain lousy; sex ed films have proven particularly disappointing. "I'm not one of those people who thinks we have to preserve every single frame ever shot," Bakkom says. "The paradox or rub is that a lot of these films probably aren't worth saving. Obviously choices have to be made." Just how and why these choices get made is at the philosophical heart of "Search and Rescue." What, finally, is worth preserving?


During the golden age of 16mm, in the '50s and '60s, a film projector was as familiar a classroom accoutrement as a chalkboard. For people of a certain age, these filmstrips, with their sprocket perforations and blotchy imperfections, will conjure memories of sleepy childhood afternoons and dust motes floating in the projector's beam. Naturally, libraries and universities all over the country developed 16mm archives for lending and for classroom use. With the medium's drift into obsolescence--and, often, concurrent space and budget crunches at libraries--it was inevitable that these archives would begin to vanish. The library-science term for the process, "de-acquisition," strikes the right note of finality. The collections weren't merely falling into disuse; they were being erased wholesale.

"Years ago, many universities had film collections," says Peggy Johnson, a librarian at the University of Minnesota. "The primary emphasis was to show the films in classes. Gradually, that's been eliminated. Film is expensive to maintain. And the equipment just isn't available anymore. Many of these items hadn't been used in four years. The films just got older. They stopped being used."

Before liquidating the U's 16mm films, Johnson contacted the Library of Congress to make sure the collection didn't include anything rare or irreplaceable. Next, she allowed library staff to pick through the movies and remove the ones they thought valuable. Finally, looking for something to do with the lees of the collection--6,500 or so reels--she called Bob Cowgill, who was then the head of Minnesota Film Arts (MFA).

At first, Cowgill was lukewarm on the prospect of adopting the collection. He didn't have any space for the movies, and he didn't want to saddle MFA with the cost of maintaining the archive indefinitely. "I didn't particularly want them," he recalls. "I certainly didn't have anywhere to put them." And Cowgill didn't know precisely what the collection included: "A lot of them were educational films--'Chemistry Is Fun' and things like that. Most of the titles had no resonance for me. We could be sitting on gold or we could be sitting on crap. There was just no way to know. But the gun was to our head."

Not wanting to see the films wind up as landfill, Cowgill agreed to take the U's collection. He rented a storage unit in Plymouth, where the collection still resides. According to Adam Sekuler, an MFA programmer, the plan was to house the films only until a more permanent repository could be found. "The idea was just to rescue them," Sekuler says. "We were sending e-mails all over the country trying to find an organization that does film preservation--someone who could take this archive off our hands."

MFA had a general idea of what was in the archive based on a manifest of its contents. In addition to the miles of cheesy educational filmstrips, there were a few obviously valuable items: a print of The Birth of a Nation, for instance, as well as possibly the only existing outtake footage from a Robert Flaherty documentary. There were also interesting local marginalia--for instance, a silent film set on the University campus that dates, as best anyone can deduce, from the 1920s. As rich a trove of Americana as the archive turned out to be, however, no one could figure out quite what to do with it.

Bakkom was living in Paris when he heard about MFA's lucky windfall. A few years before, he had organized a series of public screenings of films from an archive based at the New York Public Library. Why not do something similar with the U's collection?  

When Bakkom returned to his native Minneapolis, he got in touch with Sekuler. The two meet at Bakkom's apartment and kicked around ideas. "The initial approach was kind of like magnetic poetry," Sekuler says. "You know, those things you hang on your refrigerator? We'd go out to the storage unit in Plymouth and just pick things off the shelves, like, 'Hey, this looks interesting.'"

Bakkom himself sounds a bit like Howard Carter describing the descent into Tutankhamen's tomb when he talks about his initial spelunk in the Plymouth storage shed. "I remember it was just getting dark when we got there," he says. "There were no lights in there, and we'd forgotten to bring flashlights, so it was really hard to see what we were looking at. We basically just started grabbing things. We filled the trunk of Adam's car."

The first installment of "Search and Rescue" took place on the day of the last presidential election. Appropriately, Bakkom selected variations on a theme: His inaugural screening included a 1978 documentary entitled "Oil and Sudden Wealth" and a film called "JFK: What Is Remembered Is Not Lost." In his program notes, Bakkom described his m.o.: "These programs will provide a rare opportunity to examine the present through the lens with which it was perceived in the past.... These films are manifest as newsreels, scientific demonstrations, civics lessons, descriptions of history, and prescriptions for living. At our current remove, each one of them is a naked testament to the ideas that they attempted to grasp and the eras and circumstances in which they were produced."

That initial screening turned out to be a bit of a wash. First, the projector broke down. Later, the final results of the day's election seemed to sour everyone's mood. Nevertheless, Bakkom's regular Tuesday night screenings began to attract a small but enthusiastic cadre of fans. These days, "Search and Rescue" even seems poised to blow up into a phenomenon. In July, Bakkom and Sekuler are moving their screenings to Stevens Square Park. And, in addition, Bakkom recently received a grant to continue studying the collection with a possible eye toward releasing a compilation DVD of some of the archive's memorable oddities.

In April, Bakkom assembled his most surprising discoveries for a special "Search and Rescue" program at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. On the evening's bill were: a spookily beautiful black-and-white animated film, set--Disney sing-along style--to a French-Canadian voyageur roundelay; "Eggceptional," a film by an obscure Bulgarian animator named Stoyan Dukov in which a rebellious egg defied a Soviet-style production apparatus; an ancient educational film put out by Harvard University in which scientists demonstrated "reactions" by dropping cats from various heights; and some mesmerizing silent footage of ski jumpers in slow motion. The program's highlight, though, was a 1975 film called "Everybody Rides the Carousel." The movie, which was drawn in beautiful washed-out watercolors, defied easy description. Mostly it seemed to be about an aged couple in a cafeteria line arguing about pudding. In fact, as I learned later, the film was intended to illustrate the ideas of Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst whose theory of human psychological development was apparently quite popular in the '70s.

Some of the films, like the cat-dropping experiment, were pure camp--humorous examples of mid-century American innocence and cockeyed optimism. But there was, in general, something dislocating and peculiarly melancholy about watching this flotsam and jetsam; it felt almost like peeking at somebody else's flickering home movies on the sly.


Bakkom isn't the first artist to recognize the wonder and latent poignancy in America's cast-off educational films. One fellow media archeologist and film archivist in particular has been a pathfinder in the creative use of found footage: Rick Prelinger. Since the 1980s, Prelinger has been collecting educational and industrial films, which he poetically calls "ephemera." At one point, his archive in New York City reportedly included more than 100,000 reels. Like Bakkom, Prelinger believes that his films are worthy enough to be shown in their entirety: These are primary documents in an invisible history of America. Yet Prelinger also mines this vast archive for media projects. Recently he released Panorama Ephemera, a collage of 64 sequences from titles such as "Teenage Transgression" and "The Honey Industry."

Another inspiration for "Search and Rescue" might be the novelist and journalist Nicholson Baker. Some years ago, Baker discovered that books and newspapers from the early part of the last century weren't being properly preserved in America's libraries. Some items had been poorly transferred to microfilm; others were moldering in private warehouses. Baker found this disregard for the quotidian past intolerable. His 2001 book Double-Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper agitated for the papers' rescue.  

While perhaps different in scope, "Search and Rescue" is predicated on a similar philosophy: namely, that this cinematic lagan is the raw stuff of American history. Who's to say that educational films are any less valuable than Hollywood's most venerated classics? Maybe history is merely a winnowing of this endless welter of junk into a manageable shape, a dam against the surging chaos of memory. Film archives are disappearing because film, like Baker's beloved bales of newsprint, is a perishable medium. In the digital future, perhaps every frame of every movie and every page of every newspaper will be perfectly preserved--as in the Luis Borges story about an infinite library in which all knowledge has reverted to senseless cacophony. But if nothing is lost, nothing will ever be discovered. What will become of films like Italian Children, of the fragmentary, the obsolete, and the glancingly magical?

Paradoxically, the most poignant thing about the films in "Search and Rescue" is that they are so ephemeral. Will the cultural flotsam that surrounds our lives look so alien in another 50 years? After one screening, I asked Bakkom about the point of his program. What is it that these films have to teach us? He thought for a moment, then said, "I look for movies that are interesting not just because they were interesting when they were made, but that are interesting to us now, that speak to the present. There's this idea that our contemporary perspective is authoritative. These films that seem archaic in a lot of cases raise the possibility of the obsolescence of our perspective. It's destabilizing, but in a good way. It raises the notion that we really don't have any idea what's going on."

In other words: Nothing lasts. Everybody rides the carousel.

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