University of Rochester

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The ‘Thingness’ of Film

Students experience film as art—and object—via George Eastman House collaboration

Film Class

Peter Thompson ’10 joins his classmates on a tour of George Eastman House, which holds close to 27,000 film titles, including the collections of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, and three million pieces of film-related publicity stills, posters, scores, scripts, and precinema artifacts. Students in Professor Joanne Bernardi’s “Film as Object” class get a chance to touch, smell, and see up close the labor of love—and remarkable expertise—that goes into preserving and restoring film.

Right after Joanne Bernardi learned the complete anatomy—down to the smallest screw and its function—of a 16mm projector at George Eastman House, she experienced one of the greatest thrills of her life. She was then able to project her first archival film. 

“It was a Kodak Pageant projector with a Super 40 shutter,” enthused Bernardi, associate professor of Japanese culture and film and media studies who values the vital cultural, historic, and physical connections film contains—now more than ever.

Bernardi—whose research and courses include subjects such as Godzilla and Japanese animation at the University’s River Campus—took a year-long sabbatical last year to attend the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation certificate program at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Eastman House is one of the four major film archives in the United States, along with the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, and UCLA Film, and Television Archive.

Working side-by-side with Eastman House’s Motion Picture Department staff, who also serve as faculty, students gain hands-on training in the restoration, preservation, and care of motion pictures. During the one-year certificate program, students receive training in all archival practices, including inspecting, repairing, measuring, and shipping nitrate prints, organizing and managing climatized vaults, evaluating the quality of laboratory work, and exploring the possibilities and limits of electronic and digital technologies.

“Film, even a small fragment of film, can tell you so much more information beyond what you actually see on the screen, so you can never know too much about film as a tangible object,” says Bernardi, who received an honorary certificate from the Selznick program in June, the first University faculty member to do so. “There is absolutely nothing like watching Ed Stratmann, the associate curator of motion pictures, in action during the initial stages of a preservation project—George Eastman House is a veritable treasure, right here in Rochester.”

George Eastman House holds close to 27,000 film titles, including the collections of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, and three million pieces of film-related publicity stills, posters, scores, scripts, and pre-cinema artifacts. The preservation of nitrate motion pictures is an ongoing effort, as is the production of new 35mm preservation elements for productions of the post-nitrate safety film era.

In handling film, in all its organic nature, Bernardi was taught by staff how to use all of her senses—the smell of the film when you open the can, what it feels like in your hands, to watch it closely as it goes from one reel to the next. Bernardi, a vegetarian, jokes that her first “aha” moment was when she heard that the gelatin that acts as the binding element of film emulsion comes from the bones and hides of cattle, something she hadn’t thought of before.

Inspired by her experience at the Selznick program, Bernardi developed a new course offered this semester to River Campus students called Film As Object, parented by the Department of Modern Languages and Culture and cross listed under the Film and Media Studies Program.

“What Joanne Bernardi gained from her experience at the Selznick School was the technical knowledge of how film as an artifact and object work, while most film scholars rarely handle the object of their studies,” says Jeff Stoiber, assistant curator at the Selznick School. “Combining her newfound knowledge from Selznick experts with her broad background of film history for her course, she is now a double threat!”

Film as Object unconventionally focuses on the tangible object at the origin of the onscreen image, and what can be learned about the social, cultural and historical value of motion pictures and national film cinemas through an understanding of a reel of film as an organic element with a finite life cycle. Guest lecturers for the course are given by George Eastman House archivists in specialty areas such as nitrate film, sound, film identification, and archival projection. Students see recently restored films, take off- campus trips to Eastman House for demonstrations, and visit destinations like Eastman House’s nitrate vaults at the Louis B. Mayer Conversation Center.

“A major benefit of this course is the amazing access to the awesome equipment, research and facilities of George Eastman House, instead of relying on just books to show the way,” says Avis Reese ’09, a film and media studies major interested in a career in production. “I have learned so much about the ways things connect, what film itself really means.”

The uses of film are not limited to Hollywood entertainment, says Bernardi, and film preservation no longer focuses on film classics, but also includes amateur films and home movies, newsreels, scientific films, educational and industrial films, expeditionary and anthropological documentaries, and avant-garde filmmaking.

“Knowledge of film preservation helps ‘demystify’ film, what it is—what we are actually talking about when we ‘talk about film’—and the processes of its production and consumption,” she says.

“Film as Object makes some absolutely terrific inroads into the broad domain of material culture—the growing field in which scholars look at the physicality and concrete presence of the representational objects they study—and it offers students the chance to look more particularly at how the materiality of film—it’s ‘thingness,’ which tells us more about how it communicates with audiences,” says Tom DiPiero, senior associate dean of humanities and professor of French and visual and cultural studies. “Joanne Bernardi is one of only a handful of film scholars with expertise in this area, and Rochester is one of the very few places in the country where undergraduates can benefit from this conjunction of historical and theoretical work on film tied with archival study.” 

Joanne Bernardi
Film Reel
Film Projector

Bernardi, pictured above in the projection room, took a year-long sabbatical last year to attend the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation certificate program at George Eastman House. In 2005, the University built a master of arts degree in film and media preservation in conjunction with the Selznick School’s one-year certificate program, creating the first museum and university collaboration of its kind to encompass both curatorship and film studies. Eastman House is home to the original Technicolor separation negatives of Gone with the Wind (center)—the actual film that was in the camera during the production of the classic drama. The complete picture negative runs 39 reels and weighs more than 400 pounds. Above right is Charles Allen, chief projectionist at Eastman House.

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