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Harvard University Library Notes / November 2006 / No. 1334
Interview: Haden Guest
A film historian, archivist, and curator, Haden Guest was recently appointed director of the Harvard Film Archive in HCL's Fine Arts Library. The former curator and acting director of the Warner Brothers Archive at the University of Southern California, Guest holds a PhD in film and television from the School of Theatre, Film, Television, and Digital Media at UCLA, a certificate in photographic and motion picture preservation and archival practice from the George Eastman House, and a BA in Japanese studies from Connecticut College. He was interviewed for Library Notes on October 20.
LN You're a film historian and a film archivist. You came to us from the University of Southern California, one of the film schools of choice at the heart of the film industry. What drew you to the Harvard Film Archive?
HG When I started at USC, I was finishing my dissertation, and I quickly realized how invigorating it was, after a long, monastic period of writing, not only to be immersed in an archive—surrounded by primary materials of vital interest to my own research and writing—but, at the same time, to be working closely with faculty, students, and researchers from across the country and around the world.
The HFA offers a similar dynamic—only increased tenfold—fabulous primary materials and a remarkable community of faculty and students who are deeply engaged and invested in them.
A further attraction was the unique position of film as a field of study within Visual and Environmental Studies. VES "sits" in the Carpenter Center and is grounded in the idea of interdisciplinarity among the arts. Within this building, there are painting studios, sculpture studios, darkrooms. Film is taught and practiced within the context of these other arts. This is radically different from the ways in which film is explored in a place like USC, where commercially oriented production is the dominant mode, where the idea of film as art is not fully appreciated.
LN Is the richness of the HFA collection attributable to Harvard's interdisciplinary view of the arts or to the overarching liberal arts framework of a Harvard education—or to both?
HG Both. I think that the collection is informed by the larger idea of a liberal arts education in which film continues to be a burgeoning field of interest. The collection is also informed by the unique interdisciplinarity that exists within the VES department and the Carpenter Center—there's a rich and constant pollination among the arts.
LN Can you give us an overview of HFA's collections?
HG The HFA has very strong holdings in American and European avant-garde cinema, studio-era Hollywood films, and European art cinema, as well as growing collections of contemporary German and recent American films. HFA also has many educational newsreels and a good number of industrial films. The Archive includes a very nice collection of the rarest type of motion-picture materials—original print negatives and sound elements, fine-grain masters, and alternate versions of important films. There are now close to 11,000 prints in the Archive, and the collection continues to grow.
LN Where are the comparable film collections?
HG The Pacific Film Archive at UC-Berkeley probably has the collection most comparable to the HFA's. They have strong collections in Japanese and avant-garde cinema, for instance. They also exist in a university setting.
LN What are the major issues facing the collection here?
Preservation and access.
In film, an important part of preservation is ensuring that original, unique material is not being projected. If you have original prints—prints that contain information that's not available anywhere else—you don't want to submit them to potentially deleterious effects of being run through a projector. We need to ensure that we only project archival, preservation copies.
LN Do your film conservators work with Brenda Bernier, the senior photograph conservator in the Weissman Center?
HG Not at this point. But there's currently a search under way for a senior film conservator who's going to interface on a regular basis with the other conservators in HCL and HUL.
Access is another question. Currently, HFA uses a local inventory database that's not available online. Ultimately, we want to have the collection fully cataloged and available online, so that researchers here at Harvard and elsewhere can see what films are in this collection and in what form they exist. This will totally dynamize our collection.
LN Do you envision a specialized catalog for film—such as VIA—or will film be discoverable in HOLLIS?
HG This is something that we're talking about right now. We have, for instance, a poster collection that is quite significant, and it's an obvious candidate for VIA. But feature-length motion pictures raise other issues. You're not going to have every single frame captured. Other film archives have used conventional MARC records to make their collection accessible.
LN So there might simply be a HOLLIS record for each film.
HG Yes. You'd find a listing that would tell you what the format is, number of reels—what's missing, what's complete. And then some general condition notes that could help researchers and programmers—that would also help us greatly.
LN You are a scholar of film as well as an archivist of film, and your scholarship presumably will move forward while you're here. How is your own work going to affect HFA?
HG For years, we've had a wonderful, incredibly diverse program that brings the creme de la creme of contemporary world cinema to Harvard, to Cambridge. That will definitely continue. My interests are going to inform, but not radically alter, the programming. I could see, for instance, increased programs dealing with studio-era Hollywood. Or a series of pre-code films or post-World War II Westerns.
LN Which Westerns?
HG A number of undiscovered classics. Little-known films by John Ford, for instance, Bud Boetticher, Delmer Daves. Films like 3:10 to Yuma, The Hanging Tree.
I'm really interested in avant-garde and experimental cinema, and that's something that I want to continue to explore, through my writing, through increased scholarship in the program as well. I see our programming as a type of very significant scholarship. It's not in the form of published books, but it is an important contribution to the study of cinema.
LN As a library community, how should we understand HFA's public programming?
HG The public programming is integral to the work of the Harvard Film Archive and is integral to the study of film. Many of the HFA series are carefully curated to showcase treasures from Harvard's collection.
We're also bringing in films from other collections around the world—work of contemporary filmmakers or works drawn from other motion-picture archives that would not be accessible otherwise. We work closely with the faculty to develop series that serve their courses.
Our public programs also allow Harvard students, Harvard faculty, and the larger Boston community, in effect, to sit in on Harvard classes that they couldn't otherwise attend. That's something that I think is really quite exciting. We provide rare opportunities for people to see this material gathered together by one particular argument or philosophy, which can really radically change the ways in which individual works are viewed or works are viewed together, the way they're contextualized. So the communal experience of viewing the film is something that we at the Harvard Film Archive are deeply committed to and the faculty with whom we work most closely are equally committed to.
LN It's almost irreplaceable.
HG It is absolutely irreplaceable. There's really no point in collecting films if they're not going to be screened.
LN How is HFA, which had been almost a freestanding organization, benefiting from being part of the College Library?
HG It's given the HFA real institutional stability for the very first time in its history, and it's going to dynamize this institution and this collection in terms of access and preservation. LN How is the College Library benefiting from bringing HFA into its fold?
HG Cinema is definitely one of the signature art forms of the 20th century, and, in its ever-changing forms, continues to be absolutely inextricable from the culture of the 21st century. It's difficult to imagine any work done on those topics that doesn't consider film.
HCL does an incredible job with traditional library materials and with non-traditional ones, such as digital objects.
If you're studying 20th-century literature, HCL gives you the opportunity to examine original manuscripts by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. If you study the cinema at Harvard, HCL now gives you access to rare motion-picture material.
We've added another dimension to HCL and to the unique learning environment at Harvard. Just as there's unique information contained within hand-annotated manuscripts, so too there is unique information contained within motion-picture prints that will help you understand how these films were experienced at the time, and also help you understand film as works of art and works of commerce. We offer an experience that's very different from seeing films on television late at night or on your DVD player—there's an intimacy and a spontaneity that's lost when these films are viewed in non-theatrical settings and in non-celluloid form.