Look closely at the logo for the Mostly Lost Festival, and you’ll notice something unusual about the movie theater it depicts: the audience is talking, pointing, and plugged in to a variety of computer devices. It’s a perfect depiction of what goes on at the annual film event, where the use of cellphones is not only allowed—it’s encouraged. If you talk, you’d better do it loudly enough for everyone to hear. In fact, you might be handed a microphone just to ensure that no one misses your commentary.
|The movie is starting: please power up your devices.|
What’s happening isn’t an affront to theater courtesy. It’s an effort to label and correctly archive silent and early sound films whose identities have been lost to time. When a film archive ends up with an unlabeled (or poorly labeled, or incorrectly labeled) cannister of film, putting a name to it is not always as simple as just watching it to see what it is. The film may be missing identifying parts, such as the credits. It might be a random reel from the middle of a film. It might only be a fragment of a film—a few minutes out of what was once a feature. Particularly old films from small studios in the early teens might not feature any easily recognizable performers. For these reasons and more, film archives often end up with films that are a complete mystery.
The Library of Congress came up with a way to help identify these unknown reels, by showing them to an audience of film scholars, other archivists, and early film fans, who gather at the library’s Packard Campus in Culpeper, VA once a year to lend a hand at the Mostly Lost Festival. This summer was the fourth time they’ve held the event, and after attending last year on a whim, I knew I had to go back (and I’ll likely be hanging around for as many years as they choose to do it).
Each day of the three-day event includes several film-identification sessions, held in the lovely, Art Deco-style theater at the Packard Campus. To keep things lively, the silent films are accompanied on piano by an alternating roster of pros—Ben Model, Andrew Simpson and Philip Carli —who provide a live improvised soundtrack for films that they are seeing for the first time. It’s not unusual for the pianists themselves to shout out possible identifications for the film as they play.
|How things work at Mostly Lost. (Photo: Ben Model)|
If it sounds like it would be annoying watching a film while folks are yelling all around you, you should know that it’s quite the opposite. It’s surprisingly entertaining to observe the level of knowledge some of the attendees have about the most obscure things. Steve Massa, a silent film expert and veritable treasure trove of obscure film knowledge, is quick to identify some of the most obscure faces ever seen on film, right down to the extras—including toddlers. His knowledge doesn’t stop with humans, and it’s not uncommon to hear Massa shout out the name of a dog, horse, or chimp that he recognizes (even giving the names of the parents of a chimp in one of the films). Those animal IDs are incredibly useful: name the monkey, and you’ve pinpointed the studio, which is a huge step toward naming the film.
Specialist film knowledge isn’t required, which is why audience members are encouraged to yell out anything they know, no matter how seemingly useless. Makes of cars can be helpful in determining the year of a film, and the same goes for ladies’ fashions. If you happen to know that gigantic ostrich-feather hats went out in the teens, you’d better speak up. Locations are important, too, and some films have been identified because someone recognized the historical view of their own hometown or a far-flung travel destination.Title cards or signs that are written in a foreign language are often translated on the fly by anyone familiar with the words. Once a few elements are figured out, it's a matter of connecting the dots by accessing references like the IMDB or historical newspaper and magazine archives.
|Looking for clues in old films. Perhaps the license plate number is one? (Photo: Glenn Andreiev)|
But here’s the coolest thing about Mostly Lost: it works! Many of the films end up being identified, and some of them turn out to be films that were thought to be long lost. It’s no wonder other archives have started to contribute their own unidentified films to be screened at the festival. This year’s roster included, in addition to the LOC’s films, items from the George Eastman House, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, EYE Film Instituut Nederland in Amsterdam, Cinémathèque Française, Royal Belgian Filmarchive, Gosfilmofond, Wissenschaftliche Filmarchivarin in Berlin, Lobster Film Archive, and the Newsfilm Library at the University of South Carolina.
As if it’s not enough to get to view some exceptionally obscure films in such entertaining circumstances, Mostly Lost breaks things up with lectures on relevant topics, and each evening presents a film showing just for kicks (and by that I mean that you can just relax and watch it—we already know what it is). This year was particularly exciting, as the newly-found and newly-restored 1916 Sherlock Holmes was screened. Other evenings featured restored Chaplin shorts, a recently-preserved episode of King of the Kongo, and two Norma Talmadge features. Not exactly stuff you’ll see at your local cinema, at least not where I live.
|Publicity still from Sherlock Holmes, rediscovered and restored by the Cinémathèque Française.|
If you’re interested in helping to identify films, Rachel Parker of the LOC posts stills from the remaining unidentified films on Flickr. Visit the Nitrate Film Interest Group page to peruse them, and comment if you have any relevant information. Just like when you attend the festival, any information is helpful.
As for me, as I continue work on my book on lost horror films, I’m thrilled to be a part of something that aims to ensure that the legacy of silent film endures, and to connect with others who want the same.