UPDATED: March 30, 2016, at 12:45 p.m.
It’s a drizzly Saturday night, and the Harvard Film Archive’s cinematheque is buzzing. A stream of Harvard students, young couples, and film professionals mix and mingle between the bright red walls of the theater, preparing themselves for tonight’s feature: the works of experimental filmmaker and current Harvard professor Alfred Guzzetti. As the lights dim and film starts rolling, the crowd’s enthusiasm is palpable—hushed sighs, hearty laughs, and collective silence enhance the films’ most evocative moments. Even for a casual filmgoer, it is an electric experience. Visual and environmental studies visiting professor Adam C. Hart summarizes it best. “[The HFA] is one of those places where any night of the week you can just watch something at random and have your mind blown,” he says.
Tucked beneath the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the HFA is easy to miss. But as one of the most prominent university-based film collections in the United States, the HFA provides both the Harvard and Cambridge communities with an ostensibly endless array of historic cinematic material. University students and professors alike take full advantage of its collections, while weekly screenings ensure that even the most arcane of film titles goes watched. But the archive is more than simply an academic resource. Through its screenings and preservation efforts, the HFA aspires not only to highlight exceptional work that would otherwise go unnoticed but also to cultivate a space in which a film-watching community can thrive.
While the archive contains a number of academic papers, sound materials, and movie posters, its most distinguishing feature is its wide array of films. “The heart and soul of the collection are the film prints,” says HFA director Haden Guest. “For the most part, when you go see films today, they’re being shown in digital files.”
Guest believes that keeping the film in its natural state not only enhances the visual experience of film-watching but also preserves its rich history. “Our bodies are imprinted with a history of who we are, what we eat, where we live; it’s the same thing with prints. They wear the patina of all expressions of their life,” Guest says.
'[The HFA is] a really rich archive and very unique in that many archives have a set purpose, collecting films of a given country or specific theme,' says HFA director Haden Guest.
For VES students, having easy access to films in their original state is a main attraction of the archive. “It’s a fantastic way for all of us to enjoy films in a way that they’re supposed to be seen,” says Silvano D’Agostino ’18, a VES concentrator. “We get these actual film prints of these movies that look incredibly gorgeous, and it’s something we appreciate.”
Certain prints have established themselves amongst the archive’s most valuable possessions. “We also have a number of prints where their physical quality is so well preserved that they are now considered extremely rare objects,” Guest says. “The HFA has a beautiful original Technicolor print of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ that was used as a reference print to the most recent restoration of that film.”
To build up its print collection, the archive contacts local film collectors, as well as talented former students. “We’ve maintained a really good relationship with some of our alumni, including Andrew Bujalski and Damien Chazelle,” HFA programmer David W. Pendleton says. “Darren Aronofsky sends us 35mm prints of each of his films after they’re made, which we place in the collection. We probably have the only 35mm prints of ‘Noah’ in the world.”
But while the sheer number of prints is impressive, the HFA also prides itself on its diversity. “It’s a really rich archive and very unique in that many archives have a set purpose, collecting films of a given country or specific theme,” Guest says. “[The HFA] has a more expansive idea of: What is cinema—what is it today, what has it been, and what will it be in the future?”
Though the VES department integrates multiple disciplines into its curriculum, including painting, sculpture, and design, its involvement with film makes the HFA a natural resource. “VES is a department with a really distinct identity and history; film itself isn’t even mentioned in the name,” Guest says. According to him, the architecture of the Carpenter Center reinforces the core strength of the department: a multifaceted approach to artistic expression. “The way the ramp cuts through the building and allows you to see all the different arts… it argues for the simultaneity and dialogue between artistic disciplines, how they should all inform one another, and be a part of some rich engagement.”
VES department chair Robb Moss stresses the importance of the HFA to the overall interdisciplinary experience. “The HFA makes available to our classes its extensive holdings of films and projects for students in a state-of-the-art cinematheque,” Moss says. “The films, the expertise and generosity of the staff, and the viewing experience make the HFA an invaluable resource to our classes.”
And students agree: Having the archive available undoubtedly enhances the academic experience. “For our VES tutorial, we’re doing a project where we will be looking at one of the collections in more detail: We’ll interact with it, look at different things included in it, give a presentation on it,” D’Agostino says. “From the people who are visiting to full-time faculty here, there’s a lot of really interesting opportunities.”
“The HFA has a really amazing library of films,” Travis C. Morrow ’18 says. “I was really blown away by the screening of ‘The Saragossa Manuscript’ that the HFA offered last year.” Morrow, a VES concentrator focusing on film studies, appreciates the easy access to films otherwise difficult to watch. “The opportunity to see an unheralded masterpiece…. It’s just a dream come true for any film student.”
Daniel M. Claridge ’13 now cites his time at the HFA as critical to developing his own artistic vision. “I make my own films: short films, documentary, non-fiction; [the HFA] has totally changed the way I’ve thought about filmmaking. Our imagination is only about as big as the films that we see,” Claridge says. “I’ve had very memorable viewing experiences at the film archive that in some conscious or unconscious way influenced me. It’s just a really special way to watch film.”
In addition to its wide swath of historical material, the HFA draws in students and Cambridge community members with its weekly screenings, held four nights a week. “Our primary mission is to give people access to kinds of cinema that they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to,” Pendleton says. As programmer, Pendleton selects the films that the HFA will present at public screenings. “We consciously try to balance old films and contemporary cinema without a theatrical release, documentary, experimental cinema, international film,” he says. “We try to build as eclectic a program as possible.”
'It's wonderful to be able to choose the films you're watching, but also there's such incredible value to having the films you watch be chosen by someone else,' Daniel M. Claridge '13 says
For many cinephiles, including VES concentrator Hugh A. Mayo ’18, the opportunity to see films with limited or no release is invaluable. “There’ve been so many times where I’ve been looking to watch more off-the-beaten-path films, and this is one of the few places they’re shown in the area,” Mayo says. “It’s really hard to get access to foreign films that may not have distribution in America, and the HFA really helps with that.”
While having no influence over what films are screened could frustrate some, Claridge considers the programming to be a benefit. “I think generally as a student, living at a time when there’s basically infinite accessibility and choice, the process of curating films is really important and vastly underrated,” Claridge says. “It’s wonderful to be able to choose the films you’re watching, but also there’s such incredible value to having the films you watch be chosen by someone else. There’s a really rich exposure to things I would otherwise never seek out on my own.”
The HFA’s screenings draw a diverse crowd of filmgoers. “When I’m there, I see a lot of regulars—a lot of people around Cambridge who are interested in film. A good amount of film studies students will try to get out to the screenings as well,” D’Agostino says. “For students, it’s more fragmented because they tend to be pretty busy, and especially because we already have screenings for our regular VES classes.”
However, Pendleton notes that the students who do visit have been fully integrated into the film community. “There’s always a handful of the real Harvard—or even Emerson and Mass Art—cinephiles who I get to know because they come to the screenings so often,” Pendleton says. “We often end up chatting.”
In addition to the sense of community, regulars often cite the positives of having a place to watch cinema other than at home. “When it comes to viewing a film, most of the time, bigger is better. There are some films that would benefit from being seen in a more intimate setting, but bigger is better in terms of classic cinema,” says Ned Hinkle, creative director of the Brattle Theatre. “Even if you’ve seen it a dozen times at home, you haven’t experienced it to its fullest.”
Running an archive does not come without its challenges, particularly for conservationists. “We never have as much money as we’d like to have for preservation projects,” says HFA conservator Liz Coffey. “Right now, we’re digitizing material and creating new copies, and the aspect of making new film copies is really expensive.” But Coffey stresses the importance of moving forward with preservation efforts. “You wouldn’t digitize oil paintings and call it a preserve; you would make the oil painting beautiful as well.”
For others, it is merely a problem of engagement. “The biggest challenge is getting an audience and choosing a film that people will spend their valuable Tuesday night coming to,” Hinkle says. He notes this difficulty is partially because of the Brattle’s marketing tendencies. “We do hardly any paid advertising and print,” Hinkle says. “We focus on our Facebook page and Twitter feed. The only thing we concentrate on printed-wise is our bimonthly calendar, which is a vintage way of promoting film, much like the HFA.”
Like the Brattle, HFA affiliates and regulars acknowledge the relative lack of awareness within the Harvard community. “I still haven’t figured out if it’s the typical Harvard problem of too many wonderful things to do on any given night or if the HFA just hasn’t pitched itself as the resource that it is,” Claridge says. “Sometimes I’ll talk to students in the VES department or [who] are ostensibly interested in film and they won’t have any idea where the archive is or where it’s located.”
Cinephiles tend to have the best sense of the archive. “I think as soon as you start getting into the film scene on campus in whatever way that might be—whether it’s the cinematic society or the film festival—you learn that the film archive is a thing that exists. Maybe the HFA could have some screenings that are more accessible to a broader range of students,” D’Agostino says. But he also notes the paradox of the situation. “Part of the purpose of the archive is to give the people who really care the opportunity to see stuff that they wouldn’t otherwise see. So there’s a certain balance to be struck,” he says.
Whether as a preservation center or cinematheque, the archive plays a number of roles in the cultivation of film culture. For one, it protects a number of critical film documents. “Most consider film the second most important medium for information in the 20th century after books, so having a record of what happens in that stretch of 100 years is so important, aesthetically as well as historically,” Coffey says.
Additionally, the HFA emphasizes the importance of recognizing newer talent in addition to more established directors. “You have a lot of older cinephiles who have nostalgia for the past, which is understandable,” Pendleton says. “But there’s still a lot to be excited about today, which is why we bring so many young filmmakers from around the world—to show that there’s a future not only for filmgoing but also for filmmaking.”
Part of the focus is combating the diminution of the cinematic experience, as people continue to watch films on smaller and smaller screens. “When I fell in love with cinema, it was very much a social experience” Pendleton says. “The focus is making sure that younger people learn to value that experience, as well as trying to transmit to new generations the value of seeing a film on the big screen.”
Hinkle also acknowledges the worth in making filmgoing a collective process. “It seems paradoxical getting together with people in the dark and not talking about something, but watching a movie is a community experience,” Hinkle says. “There’s a joint psychic bond that happens watching a film together with an audience, particularly comedies or romances or thrillers—films that elicit strong reactions. The emotional moments of a film hit much stronger when you’re experience it with a group.”
Between exceptional programming, opportunity to interact with award-winning filmmakers, and easy access to key historical documents, to say the HFA is a cinephile’s dream would be an understatement to most. Unlike traditional archives, it strives to develop a vibrant environment as much as it does to preserve history. “To me, this is a living collection. It doesn’t exist to just sit on the shelf; it exists to teach, to enlighten,” Guest says. “It’s here to share with the really dynamic, beautiful film community we have here.”
—Staff writer Shaun V. Gohel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: March 30, 2016
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that HFA maintains a good relationship with alumni, including Andrew Bachalski. In fact, the director's name is spelled Andrew Bujalski.