One of the great pleasures in working for George Eastman House, and in my particular case the Motion Picture Department, is the opportunity for rediscovery. In the cold storage vaults here we house tens of thousands of films. The classics are many – Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz are just two that are often noted.
But by and large the collection is made up of thousands of films that film history has forgotten or ignored in the years and decades since their release. Now I’ll be honest some of these films have been forgotten for very good reasons. Sh! The Octopus, anyone?
Still others have been forgotten and neglected for reasons not of their making. Wonderful films that in some cases were trampled when American audiences were captured by the birth of the blockbuster. In 1977 filmmaker Mark Rappaport released Local Color.
Film Critic Roger Ebert called this funny, and melodramatic tale of the interconnected lives of New Yorkers “a strange and wonderful movie.” Shot in black-and-white, Local Color has the look and feel of another NYC-based film that would appear two years later, Woody Allen’s Manhattan. But like many films released in 1977, Local Color would never have a chance to find its wider audience as another little film steamrolled across American movie theaters. That film was Star Wars.
The role that George Eastman House plays in Local Color happens 30 years later when Mr. Rappaport decided to entrust the original negatives of Local Color to the Motion Picture Department. Received in 2008, Local Color was almost immediately on our preservation radar.
By now Mr. Rappaport was a well-known and respected independent filmmaker of the 1980s and 1990s. Many of his films had garnered a following, but prints in screenable condition were quite rare. Initial inspection of the material also revealed something very troubling. The original picture negative was exhibiting signs of “vinegar syndrome.” Long-term exposure to above average temperatures and humidity cause film made on acetate film stock to give off an acetic acid, vinegar-like smell. This is usually just a sign of deeper problems. Film naturally shrinks over time and vinegar syndrome can expedite this process. The film can become warped. The photo emulsion can become soft causing the image to loss definition.
Luckily for us and the film, preservation funding was obtained through the Avant-Garde Masters program funded by The Film Foundation and administered by the National Film Preservation Foundation. We worked with the Los Angeles-based laboratory Film Technology to preserve Local Color.
Along with the original elements, brand new negatives now sit in our cold storage vault. New projection prints have been struck and are just beginning to make their way to screening venues. It is appropriate that our new preservation of Local Color was screened recently at Anthology Film Archive in New York City. Hopefully those audiences were able to rediscover the charms of Local Color.
Dan Wagner, a graduate of Eastman House's L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Preservation, is a preservaton officer in the Motion Picture Department.