Il Cinema Ritrovato DVD Awards: Interview with Mark McElhatten

Mark McElhatten has been an independent curator of moving images since 1977, as well as film archivist for Martin Scorsese (Sikelia Productions and the Scorsese Family Foundation) since 1998.
He is the founder of the ongoing nomadic film series The Walking Picture Palace and was the founder/curator of “Views from The Avant- Garde” at the New York Film Festival from 1997 to 2013 and presented special programs at the International Film Festival Rotterdam for 11 years. McElhatten has taught Cinema history theory and production classes at Duke University, Bard College and State University of New York at Binghamton.
Some of his films include Christofori Disparu (1974), Ember (1977), Specialities of a Residency Above the Clouds (1979), Passing Resemblance (1984) and Submersion of the Temple (1996-7). He continues to write, make films and photography anonymously under the guise of a variety of created personae.

This year as well you will be a juror for Il Cinema Ritrovato – DVD Awards. In your perspective, what is the aim of this prize and what makes it important?

In my opinion the most important thing about the DVD awards is that they draw attention to valuable and distinctive releases in the field that enrich our understanding of Cinema history. We are highlighting projects that hold Cinema, a love of Cinema and an archeology of film as their foremost concerns. The awards come with no cash prize or sense of competitive victory they are meant to salute distinctive work. I know these awards were personally important to Peter von Bagh and his impulse was to be generous and to provide encouragement to the field. So this is an expression of gratitude that means more than just promoting our personal favorites or proclaiming “bests”. Though many films languish in need of attention this is an incredible time to be alive in terms of the kind of excavation and rediscovery that is happening with film. Each year I learn about films I never knew existed, see legendary titles I knew about but never imagined would be accessible, and re-view rare films that I had once seen but expected might remain in memory only as once in a lifetime experiences. DVD and blu-rays allow films to become tangible companions. We consult with them and we age with them. An editor of a film magazine that reviews a very wide range of dvd releases asked me about the awards one year. When he viewed the list of nominations and choices he was infuriated. “Why this is ridiculous, I have never even heard of many of these titles!” And I said : “Fantastic, then these awards do serve a purpose!”

Each year a large number of great DVDs and Blu-rays participates in this special competition, which is divided in various categories: Best DVD (THE PETER VON BAGH AWARD), Best Blu-ray, Best Special Features, Best Rediscovery of a Forgotten Film, Best DVD Series. How do you select the winners and what makes a product unique?

The editions that are finally chosen for the awards may hinge on the relative worth and regard for the specific film titles featured. This is considered along with the quality of the transfer, and the intelligence and scholarship behind the presentation. The excitement felt by the panel of dedicated critics and curators informs decisions as we share discoveries and celebrate the availability of these
disks and box sets. Each panelist brings different insights and surprising information to bear on the deliberations. The results defy advance prediction yet often in the end it feels like we reach near unanimity and peaceable consensus while retaining respect for the full list of nominations.

What do you think about the present and the future of video-distribution specialized in classic films?

Encyclopedic information is available at the touch of a key. A journey of a thousand miles begins as a quest of fingertips. Curiosity propels the search. For curiosity to become passion for information to become knowledge for knowledge to become wisdom, what is required? Experience and Contemplation. Experience comes with In depth encounters with film. DVDʼs insure accessibility involving an investment in different senses of the word and allowing intimate contact, revisitations and revelations. With streaming and viewing on demand the market for dvds and blu- rays is evaporating but it has not yet disappeared. For less expense and at a greater convenience some films can be streamed almost instantaneously. There is a particular kind of individual that values the tradition of actual objects useful possessions that make experience available that transmits important histories that gives pleasure and allows us to investigate and savor. I appreciate DVDs and blu-rays both as “a Thing” and a vehicle letting us live on a daily basis with a life enhancing Art. How much longer will these publications exist and what factors decide this? After all we recognize these objects are ephemeral and are not reliable for archival storage over time. Blu-rays were an actual technological advance over DVDs and a superior more respectful format but many consumers did not embrace this and some companies stayed committed to the lesser format. In a world where neglecting Truth is often considered an elective “option” it is not surprising that accuracy and fidelity can be seen as a luxury and nuance deemed negligible.
No thing can substitute for another. I always say “I donʼt believe in synonyms” But in the world of technology and commerce there is the pretense of improvement, strategies of planned obsolescence and forced extinction brought about for financial gain. Formats and manufactured items that are at first touted as being novel, reliably “Permanent” and Indispensible are a relatively short time later portrayed as inferior or as anachronistic stepping stones. But everything has its own unique attributes and advantages that cannot be equaled. The iPhoto, the Cibachrome print, the daguerreotype, the Polaroid the Xerox they are not at all synonymous with each other nor do they fulfill the same desires or utility. With a DVD or a DCP for that matter we must remember that these are reproductions, simulations, translations to a different medium and it is a willful delusion to think we are seeing a film when in fact we are not. But these mediums in effect work magic and they can bring some essential aspects and vivid reminders of a film over to us.
To have a better access to some form/version of films and related materials, especially those that can only be seen in archives, at rare special events in specific geographical locations, is a wonderful gift. DVDs and blu-rays offer this possibility. The courage, dedication and imagination that fuels many of the DVD and Blu-Ray projects transcends profit motives and our awards transcend the vanity and exclusivity of contest prizes. These awards are a gesture that celebrates endeavors that celebrate Cinema, something which is fully in keeping and at the heart of Il Cinema Ritrovato.