Recently, I purchased a ticket for Japan Society’s upcoming screening of Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo, one of only three features directed by Sadao Yamanaka to have survived World War II. The program boasts that this will be the “longest version” of the movie available—an evocative claim. While it initially appears to be an inconsequential parenthetical note, it suggests a fascinating behind-the-scenes story: a struggle to scavenge and reassemble footage and elements from various disparate sources in order to produce some approximation of the creator’s original artistic vision.
An anecdote about the efforts of those (admittedly hypothetical) archivists would have been right at home in Film, the Living Record of our Memory, a documentary (currently streaming via DOC NYC’s online platform) that explores the delicate craft of film preservation. Through haunting imagery that is guaranteed to horrify and psychologically scar any cinephiles in the audience (burning nitrate, rotting celluloid, canisters filled with nothing but powdery dust), director Inés Toharia illuminates the challenges and emphasizes the importance of protecting humanity’s recorded legacy—not just big-budget Hollywood fare, but also international productions, and even amateur home videos.
Fortunately, there are glimpses of hope amidst the rubble and decay—the promise that lost treasures may yet someday be rediscovered, resurrected, and reintroduced to new generations of fans. I was completely unaware, for example, of the existence of a silent-era adaptation of Journey to the West, nor had I ever considered the notion that such trailblazers as Georges Méliès might have borrowed techniques and technological innovations from older media. Indeed, thanks to the tireless and valiant work of professional “cine-anthropologists,” the “accepted history" of this relatively young industry (i.e., literally everything that I learned in college) is constantly being recontextualized, reevaluated, and rewritten.
And for enthusiasts like myself, that should be a tantalizing prospect.