When you walk into the Miami-Dade Public Library's film archive in downtown Miami, you encounter a unique scent. It's bitter to the nostrils and smells somewhat like vinegar. Turns out that's the odor of decay particular to film.
Donald Chauncey, a longtime film archivist working for the library as a volunteer, explains it's the smell of bacteria eating away the emulsion on the film. Once that emulsion is gone, the film will disintegrate to the touch.
"The worst thing for film is to sit in air-tight cans," he notes. So he's made it his mission to give the archives a breath of fresh air -- enhancing Miami's film offerings in the process.
Chauncey used to be the library's branches administrator. He later served as director of the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archive, and also helped establish the Alliance Cinema on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach in 1990. He founded the first LGBT film festival in South Florida at the Colony Theater, called Queer Flickering Light. Now retired, he calls himself a bureaucrat who knows his way around a grant proposal, but his passion for film defines his essence. He cannot help but volunteer his services to the library to try to preserve the film sitting in an expansive storage room in the Main Library.
He explains that someone has to play the film to keep it in good condition. But since the advent of cable and VHS, not to mention DVD and YouTube, the use of the library's holdings has steadily declined. Chauncey says the film needs to breathe, run through a projector, bright light flickering through the image to sustain its life. Otherwise, it literally can turn to dust.
The Miami-Dade Library used to boast holding the largest rotating film collection in the country in the '60s and '70s, according to Chauncey. "Now, I don't know if anybody on staff knows how to run the equipment," he says.
Most precious to the former librarian's heart are the library's avant-garde holdings by directors who worked to make the medium the message, people like Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage. These filmmakers went beyond film as a tool to tell a story; they celebrated the versatility of the medium by exploring the format itself. At the height of modern art's heyday in the late '40s and into the '50s, these artists invited interpretation from the audience using simple montage and painting on the frames of developed film instead of forcing a straight-forward narrative on the viewers.
It's fitting that, as a self-described purist, Chauncey has chosen such films to celebrate selections from the Miami-Dade Public Library's 16mm film collection for a one-day only screening at the Main Library. "A lot of the stuff is on DVD now," he admits, "but it's not the original format ... not many people are showing film. I'm fine with that. I'm just a proponent of original format."
With the help of grants, Chauncey led the way to the glory days of the Miami-Dade Public Library's film collection, even getting a 35mm film projector installed in the Main Library's multi-purpose room for regular screenings. He would also bring in an array of films beyond the banal educational shorts used to teach elementary school students to be good citizens. In fact, he earned the title of "Dade County's official pornographer," given to him by a local pastor who protested his screening of "banned" films at in the Miami-Dade Public Library system. He remembers those films well: La cage aux folles and Last Tango in Paris, though he cannot recall the pastor's name.
"He'd probably still say I greased the slippery slope of decadence in upholding freedom of speech," notes Chauncey.
With film, people are always going to see what they want to see. The two hours of films Chauncey is now working on cleaning up and, in some cases, repairing, will most definitely stimulate the interpretive eye. He does not want to reveal any titles to maintain a surprising aspect to the program, but some of the directors involved include pioneers of avant-garde cinema like Len Lye, Deren, and Brakhage, and also more surprising names like Kenneth Anger and Shirley Clarke. "If this is a success, I may want to do a second series," notes Chauncey.
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In the meantime, he will spend his free time upstairs behind a couple of labyrinthine turns, beyond the walls of the Main Library, cleaning and trying to preserve reels of film. "Some people volunteer to feed the homeless," he says. "I volunteer to keep film alive."
Avant-garde Cinema: Selections from the Miami-Dade Public Library 16mm Film Collection will screen Saturday June 29, from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. at the Miami-Dade Main Library, 101 W. Flagler Street, Miami. Visit mdpls.org.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @indieethos.