June 25, 2010

Consider the case of Hector Mann

Once sound entered the movies, silent films had been left to rot in vaults, had been destroyed by fires, had been carted away as trash, and hundreds of performances had disappeared forever. But all hope was not dead, the voice added. Old films occasionally turned up, and a number of remarkable discoveries had been made in recent years. Consider the case of Hector Mann, it said. Until 1981, only three of his films had been available anywhere in the world. Vestiges of the other nine were buried in an assortment of secondary materials -- press reports, contemporary reviews, production stills, synopses -- but the films themselves were presumed to be lost. Then, in December of that year, an anonymous package was delivered to the offices of the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. Apparently mailed from somewhere in central Los Angeles, it contained a nearly pristine copy of Jumping Jacks, the seventh of Hector Mann's 12 films. At irregular intervals over the next three years, eight similar packages were sent to major film archives around the world: the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the British Film Institute in London, Eastman House in Rochester, the American Film Institute in Washington, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and again to the Cinematheque in Paris. By 1984, Hector Mann's entire output had been dispersed among these six organisations.

-- Paul Auster, from The Book of Illusions. Faber and Faber, 2002.

STILL: From Upstream (1927), the formerly lost John Ford film -- one of 75 American silent films recently discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive. Auster on silent films: "It struck me that I was witnessing a dead art, a wholly defunct genre that would never be practiced again ... They were like poems, like the rendering of dreams, like some intricate choreography of the spirit, and because they were dead, they probably spoke to us more deeply than they had to the audiences of their time."