Monday, October 10, 2016

Framing the Shot

In honor of Columbus - except without the wooden ships and the Queen's gold - we headed west for some exploration.

Our mountainous destination, Culpeper, may have been a tad less prosaic than setting sail for the New World, but it was just as novel in its own way (and involved no dysentery).

We'd managed to snag tickets to the first-ever Columbus Day open house at the Library of Congress' Packard Campus of the National Audiovisual Conservation Center, a film lover's paradise.

And, yes, the "Packard" part was David Packard of Hewlitt-Packard, who bought the building formerly owned by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (who knew?) and donated it to the government, making it the second largest gift to them after the Smithsonian.

Maybe you're not impressed by all that, but we sure were.

Bunker-like and built into the side of a mountain with living rooves everywhere, the remodeled center was an impressive mixture of old - one foot thick concrete walls - and new - a glass-roof dining pavilion on the top floor with sunlight streaming in.

Set up on tables in the lobby where we had to go through metal detectors and put our bags through an X-ray machine, were examples of the kinds of things the Center spends its time preserving.

A 35 mm print of MJ's "Thriller," for example. A foreign language version of a VHS tape "Bon Jovi: Drumming Essentials." A 78 rpm shellac record.

One table held a basket of black and white strips of film, some from a 1923 Western and others from a 1912 slapstick comedy, all intended as bookmarks.

I chose slapstick, no surprise.

There were even a couple of Kinetoscopes with a bowl of pennies next to them. Put in a penny, turn the handle and Felix the Cat has a black and white adventure right before our eyes.

When our "reverse mullet" tour began, our guide led us from the "party in the front" lobby where a theater auditorium regularly shows classic movies on 35 mm (and even lends them out to worthy institutions such as MOMA) to the "business in the back" areas where the real preservation work gets accomplished.

Oh, and, by the way, it had the most delicious "new library" smell you can imagine.

Moving through the serpentine building, we passed hundreds of boxes containing film and paperwork about films, film canisters of varying shapes and sizes and scads of digital reproductions.

When we got upstairs to the extensive nitrate vaults, manager George, who was to talk to us about his job there, asked for a minute before he began. "I want to warm up my hands!" he told us.

No kidding. The vaults are kept at ridiculously low temperatures because nitrate film has the same chemical composition as gunpowder, so it ignites easily, hence the concrete walls between vaults housing the prime film stock of Columbia, Universal, Disney and other major studios.

From there, we saw the largest collection of sound recordings in the world, with wax cylinders waiting to be processed and bins on shelves labeled "Les Paul collection," "Gershwin Collection," and "Sandra Day O'Connor collection."

We saw sound recordings that looked like busted records ("All we can do is cry," our young guide said about the losses).

In the video lab, we saw where a robotic arm pulls 3/4-inch tapes, inserts them in a player and records them digitally. Humans are required only to load the machine.

Old players of every type- Beta, VHS, 1" and 2", you name it - are repaired weekly because they get so much use.

For that matter, old equipment, whether projectors, Kinetoscopes, players or Gramophones, and old movie posters (Hello, "Coneheads") are displayed throughout because, as our guide put it, "Why not?"

We finished up on the top floor, looking out over multi-level green rooves to mountains, massive silos and farmland against an azure sky.

"Greetings from Culpeper, Virginia...Get lost in the Blue Ridge foothills" the postcard I picked up today reads.


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