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Film archivist leading effort to promote preservation

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Caroline Frick with the Texas Archive of the Moving Image is becoming the director of the Association of Moving Image Archivists.

Caroline Frick admits to lying to people sitting next to her on airplanes.

It's easier that way, she jokes. If she mentions that she works in film, the next question might be, "Can you make me a list of the top 10 John Wayne films you'd recommend?"

A former programmer for AMC, Frick likely could rattle off 10 Westerns without much strain. But the founder of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and assistant professor in the University of Texas' Radio, Television and Film Department doesn't think about movies the way the average person does. Where most people see entertainment, Frick sees historical artifact. Where did the movie come from; how has it been catalogued and preserved?

The technical intricacies of her work are complicated and often confusing to the layperson. So when movie-loving strangers asked what she did for a living, Frick would often fall back on an innocent lie instead of delving into the minutiae of preservation. "I'm a waitress," she might answer.

This weekend, Frick becomes the new director of the Association of Moving Image Archivists as the nonprofit organization visits Austin for its annual conference. With celluloid falling out of prominence as the primary medium for filmmakers, AMIA faces an exciting and challenging opportunity.

"For archivists, it's like a paradigm shift," Frick says. "The way film preservation has grown as a field and as a practice has all been predicated on the existence of celluloid. And now that that might not be around, or, indeed if it does stay around, it's going to be really expensive and most archives have no budget and dwindling money for preservation. It's going to change things significantly. If you look at the traditional ways film preservation has occurred, it's always been that preservation means a celluloid copy, so you're essentially going from film to film to film. Now, it's game-changing because that doesn't exist. What does preservation itself mean? We don't know."

There exist in the archivist world two separate camps when it comes to preservation. One sees preserving the actual original medium as its main charge, while the other views the content and not the medium as the central focus of archiving and preservation. Frick says her goal will to be to unite the two groups and ensure that AMIA is a key player in the future of archiving.

Frick battles with the dualism and says she can appreciate both sides of the argument. Though she looks at film as artifact as opposed to artistic text, she acknowledges that when you go to a place like the Paramount Theatre and view a restored film print, there is no denying the uniqueness and authenticity of the 19th century technology of celluloid.

The conference this weekend offers archivists from the Oklahoma Historical Society, to Sony Pictures, to regional archives in the United Kingdom and Europe the chance to gather and compare footage and discuss the intricacies of preservation and the changing landscape of moving image archives.

"I think what's special about this conference in a lot of ways is that for a film archivist, it's a boutique profession and even within archives, you're kind of boutique within the archival world," Frick says. "And a lot of people in this field work very much alone, they work in some isolation. And the reason there's such great energy at this conference is because this is the one time of the year you get to spend time with people who speak your language, who understand your concerns, so you can vent about things that you're experiencing."

In addition to conference sessions that feature discussions on such arcane issues as the "Hierarchical Datastructure and Fully-Integrated Workflows in BFI's New CID system," AMIA extends its offerings to the general public with a fascinating array of free screenings.

The Paramount Theatre will play host Saturday to a full day of screenings that includes one of the first public presentations of Nicholas Ray's "We Can't Go Home Again," a glamorous, restored color print of David O. Selznick's screwball comedy "Nothing Sacred" and a series of home movies curated by AMIA members from around the country.

Frick says the organization's decision to bring the conference to Austin gives credence to the city's role in the world of film.

"Austin should feel really proud that it is seen around the country and around the world as a hub for filmmaking but is also seen as a hub for film preservation and film as history, and by that I mean film, television, moving image history," Frick says. "The fact that the association is coming here and is a part of that is important, and it's a great opportunity for people to get out and hear specialists in this very unique and fun area.

"It's such a great opportunity that other people around the country don't have a chance to participate in."

In the age of YouTube, AMIA is positioned to help enhance people's fascination with historical footage while educating the public about the importance of preserving our recorded history.

As AMIA moves forward under her leadership, Frick acknowledges that the organization must attempt to broaden its reach and extend its message to the public.

"It's great to talk to your peers because you feel validated in some way and appreciated, but I think it's really important for our organization to get out of its comfort zone," Frick says. "I think there's going to be a challenge for us to get out of that zone and to say, 'You know what, we've got to get out there to communicate to the public more broadly about why this matters, why this field matters, why preservation matters — however we define it — and to begin engaging with different kinds of communities to figure out the future of preservation.'"

It sounds like if you're the inquisitive type and end up next to Frick on an airplane, you may just be in for a fascinating education.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

AMIA screenings