That Old Feeling: Moving Images

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On Christmas Day 1955, I opened a present that opened a world. The gift was a book, "A Pictorial History of the Movies," by the composer and scholar Deems Taylor. But it wasn't Taylor's prose that beguiled me; it was the photographs of films I'd never seen, actors I'd never heard of, striking attitudes — of horror, romance, piety — that I never could imagine. Those photos, known as movie stills, conjured up a fictional universe and a bygone age. They told me there was something else out there and back then, something exotic, mysterious and worth knowing. Until that moment, "glamour" was the name of a magazine I saw on the newsstand while searching for the latest issue of Mad. Now it was the name of my new, and very old, religion.

All right (I hear the reader saying), so that's when you realized you were gay. Well, thanks for the compliment, but no. That's when I was seized by movie love. And on succeeding Christmases, kindly Aunt Mary and Uncle Al gave me other picture books about film: Daniel Blum's "A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen" and "A Pictorial History of the Talkies," Ben M. Hall's "The Best Remaining Seats," Richard Griffith's "The Movies." By now I was actually seeing some of the old films. The frozen images came to life and, in an important way, became my life.

I thought of those those early stirrings of cinephilia when I read an essay in Roger Ebert's new book, "The Great Movies," to be published March 5 by Broadway Books. Consider this passage: "Like the images in a movie theater —which run through a projector and escape to lodge in the viewer's mind, sometimes forever — film stills document the cinematic event. They are the images of record, representing the movie in newspapers, books and magazines. This is how generations of audiences — the readers of all that prose, the gazers at all those photos — were taught to remember movies. Film stills return movies to their basics: a succession of images. They are the equivalent of photos in an old family album, a face or a caress petrified in time. These are the pictures a moviegoer is likely to retain, in the portable museum of his or her own imagination."

The author of this essay, and the compiler of the 100 stills in Roger's book, is Mary Corliss. She knows whereof she speaks. Since 1968 — when she was Mary Yushak, and when I began, clumsily, courting her — she has run the Film Stills Archive at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For the last 34 years she has nurtured the Archive, acquired new collections of rare stills and welcomed the scholars, journalists, filmmakers and photo editors who would do their research at the Archive and purchase prints of the some of the 4 million stills housed there. In her spare time, Mary organized 41 exhibitions, from Warner Bros. cartoons to Yiddish films to Pasolini, in MoMA's Auditorium Gallery. I adore her, so I may be considered prejudiced, but most people think she's done exemplary work.

Mary, an Assistant Curator in MoMA's Department of Film and Media, has certainly poured her love into that work — in part because she appreciates film stills as a crucial aspect of film history; in part because, like me, she feels a kinship to old feelings, as a connection to mortality and immortality. "I live in the past," she writes in her essay. "I open those venerable filing cabinets in the Archive and find a century's worth of art and folly, commerce and kitsch, invaluable documentation and, most of all, indelible memories... Film stills freeze the emotion and excitement of an actor, a scene, a film, an era; they are the pin through the movie butterfly that somehow gives this lovely, ephemeral creature lasting life. Stills distill; stills preserve."

The Film Stills Archives has two types of files: those on individual movies, and those on individual actors, directors, the whole gallery of filmmakers and mavens. "When I rummage through bulging 'personality files' of movie-star stills," Mary writes, "I can see a compressed life story: the freshness and gawky promise of a young actor; the radiant maturity as the star's appeal is complemented by the filmmakers' artistry; then, as age writes its cruel lines on a face, the poignant battle against decay, waged with heavy makeup and lighting that is ever more carefully soft-focus. Any of these personality files is a flip-book that grants me a God's-eye view into both the intoxicating nature of human beauty and the inevitability of mortality. In a film still, though, an actor can remain forever at the apogee of his appeal."

Someone who writes, "I live in the past;" who revs up the Wayback Machine to discover beauty, artistic and physical, at its most expressive — how could I not love such a woman?


I've buried the lede of this story because I wanted to linger as long as possible on the glory of the Stills Archive and Mary's achievement as its prime mover for most of its existence. I wanted that glory and achievement to be frozen in time, like the ravishing young Garbo in a Clarence Sinclair Bull glamour portrait, or the Orson Welles of many ages in "Citizen Kane" — like the images in the hundreds of movie books, from the first ones I read until now, whose photos carry the credit "Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive."

But now certain members of the MoMA brass — Glenn Lowry, the Modern's director, and Mary Lea Bandy, head of the Department of Film and Media — have shut down the Stills Archive. They are burying the collection in a patch of earth 2-1/2 hours by car from Manhattan: in Hamlin, Pa., where the Museum stores its films. With this one ill-considered stroke, a significant portion of our collective cultural memory was just struck with amnesia. The decision echoes the final words in "Kane," when the cynical butler snaps, to a workman holding an old sled, "Throw that junk." And Rosebud goes into the fire.

The interment may be for a few years, just until 2005 or so, while MoMA closes its 11 West 53rd Street building and reopens it in a space at least six times the current size. Or the burial could be forever.

As Lowry said in Saturday's New York Times: "We are going to look very seriously whether or not it makes more sense to keep all the film-related material together or not." The statement may be incoherent (or not) — especially since MoMA's "film-related material" includes the newspaper clippings and research books in the Department's Film Study Center; that service has already been moved, along with many functions and staff members, to nearby Long Island City, Queens, where the Stills Archive was originally to be relocated. But Lowry's threat is clear: the Stills Archive may never come home.

Last summer, Bandy had declared that Mary and Terry Geesken, Mary's invaluable co-worker of 18 years, would be sent to Hamlin as well — to the outskirts of Nowhere, fulfilling the orders of those scholars who could no longer see the stills they were to purchase, but who would trust the archivists' expertise to make the right choices. In December, Bandy hinted that a public outcry might change the minds of people who counted. Within weeks, as word got around, a flurry of petitions arrived on the desks of the Modern's Board of Directors: from the Society of Cinema Studies, the New York Film Critics Circle, the film faculty of New York University's Cinema Studies program and other professionals.

It turns out that Lowry and Bandy had execution, not exile, in mind. This past Wednesday Bandy announced that the Archive is to be put it in cold storage, shut down, inaccessible to its traditional clients or Museum staff; and that Mary and Terry would be laid off. Friday the two archivists were told it would be their last day at MoMA. Leave your office keys and ID badges at the reception desk when you go.

As a movie critic, and a person, I look for shadings, subtleties, ambiguities. And as a journalist, I'm bound to be fair to MoMA, the world's great modern museum, and to the Department of Film, whose exhibitions and staff members have taught me so much in my 37 years in the big town. But try as I may, I can't find a plausible reason for moving the Stills Archive out of New York and shutting it down. It can't be the money: the Archive brings in revenue from the sale of thousands of duplicated film stills each year.. It can't be the space: MoMA has found room, in Manhattan and Queens, for every other facility and staff member. The MoMA hierarchy has said only this: that the Stills Archive is the function "least essential to the core mission of the Film Department." So it's a unique archival resource; it has a pristine worldwide reputation; it brings revenue and publicity to the Museum. Sure — but it's not essential.

To outsiders, these Machiavellian machinations may seem as complex and obscure as a village election in rural China. So here's the MoMA fiat made simple:

1. In the 73-year history of the Modern, the Stills Archive is the only public function (by which I mean other study centers, the library, the Department of Imaging) to be moved out of New York City. Way out.

2. It is the only public function of the Museum to be closed down.

3. It is the only public function of the Museum to be threatened with permanent banishment.

4. Mary Corliss is the first, and so far only, member of the curatorial staff to be laid off.

Conspiracy theorists might add this: Mary and Terry were quite active in the staff's 4-1/2 month strike against the Museum in 2000 — when the Stills Archive was deemed "essential" enough that a scab was hired to re-open it halfway through the strike. In the Times story, Lowry denied that the decision to deep-six the Stills Archive had anything to do with Mary's work in the strike. But he seems to have taken the strike personally, not realizing it was simply a case of two sides working as resourcefully as they could to win. I believe the MoMA brass should have been proud of the strikers. They showed the same ingenuity and dedication on the street as they had in their offices; and when they returned to their jobs they worked just as hard.


The film community's support of the Stills Archive has been gratifying. I hope the 53rd Street ground swells with petitions and grievances. Even Mary is pleased, and she's a Cassandra, a believer in the old Ukrainian maxim, "Expect the worst and you'll never be disappointed." Me, I'm a Pollyanna or Pollyandy, a cock-eyed optimist. Maybe growing up watching old movies — and growing older watching "up" movies — has persuaded me that any wrong, even a bureaucratic one, can be righted; that any decision, no matter how lunatic, can be reversed; that the light of reason can illuminate the sorriest soul; that the swallows will come back to Capistrano, and the Stills Archive to MoMA.

Yesterday, the Stills Archive's last, Mary and Terry could have cleared out early and left the packing of the collection to the minions of the people who wanted to shut it down. Instead, Mary, Terry and some generous volunteers toiled with furious care to ensure that those film stills would be properly packaged. Mary, who stayed until nearly three in the morning, was like the mother who is told she must give up her child. Instead of leaving it naked on the stoop, she swaddled it lovingly for its forlorn journey to Hamlin.

Before leaving, she sent this e-mail to her Museum friends: "Well, my dears, today is the last day that Terry and I will be officially employed at MoMA. As you may have heard, the Film Stills Archive is being put into dead storage, and we have the distinction of being the first staff members who were laid off in 2002. On the bright side, I have opted for the severance package that accompanies recall so you may not have seen the last of me quite yet. But, since life is uncertain, and the gods not always kind, I do want to tell you what a joy and privilege it has been to know and work with all of you. Being at MoMA has always been a special part of my life, and nothing that has happened can ever change or dim that fact. So folks, hang in there, enjoy the Queens experience, go to the cinema, and...thanks for, what will always be to me, the good times."

Mary could be sad, and should be angry, about her treatment at the hands of people who might have recognized the value of a MoMA Film Stills Archive in New York, and of her contribution to make it a collection unparalleled in its range and depth. And if she still wants to "live in the past" of her accomplishment, she need only page through the film books, magazines and documentaries (like Martin Scorsese's twin epics on American and Italian movies) that have benefited from her expert eye. But until — I say until — she returns to the job that's been her vocation, she has lots to do.

From today on, Mary Corliss lives in the future.