When in late March 2020 I started a new job at a VOD platform, a personal transformation had been underway for quite some time, shifting and even undermining year’s worth of habits in thinking about movies. Without noticing, I started to imagine them not as the stuff of cinephile obsession, but as raw material that needed to be ferried to and fro, evaluated, sent back with notes, re-sourced, sent to the subtitler, and so on.
Working for festivals, movies would come to me directly from the source. They arrived in provisional copies from producers, submitted via festival databases. Garishly watermarked. They regularly were sent unfinished; missing titles, special effects, whole sequences even. In parallel I found myself assembling an 11-film retrospective for which an archivist might send me indistinct iPhone snaps of a few frames of an Algerian classic, the decaying, pink-ish celluloid of the print marked with optically-printed Romanian subtitles. Then a separate film foundation would later send me a deliberately low-quality export of a recent digital restoration of the same film, this time complete with timecode (presumably exported directly from the timeline in the restoration software), sent in 11 zipped files via WeTransfer. From another archive I might receive, for previewing purposes, what appeared to be a direct HD video recording of another film, replete with the darkened edges of a material frame—that is, a Steenbeck editing table unfurling this movie that is otherwise available only in 16mm.
These were moments of rupture, breaking points at which movies were being shattered into parts. In these and so many other cases, the film itself is evidently a material asset—an asset of a state archive or a private institution—and one whose physical qualities or deficiencies can be previewed via so many varied methods, provisional or impressively corporatized. Working for a streaming platform, where the omnipresence of digital materials is unavoidable, accelerated this shift in thinking. In a thousand subtle ways, the fixed integrity of individual movies had, at least in my mind, been compromised. They had become perhaps richer and more material, expressing a thousand different pathways and possibilities, but also were somehow less alluring as a viewer.
Indeed, the passivity of “viewer” itself had been called into question, and though it would be misleading to say that the act of movie watching had become pure business, but there is no doubt in my mind that the comforting cinephile darkness that swallows many of our lives in the act of watching films is less all-encompassing when individual movies get conflated with their material essence. When movies become odds and ends, bits and pieces, scattered in a folder on Google Drive, accompanied by all kinds of demystifying secondary or tertiary material, your sense of the fixed experience of watching movies inevitably changes too. In my case, world events intervened into what was already a shifting process, and so consequently did my relationship to cinema. Decisively so. In other words, movies for me had shifted, at first gradually and then, as if overnight, pretty much entirely, from experiences into materials.
It is with this sense of the physical life of movies in mind that I try to grapple with Jurij Meden’s new collection of notes and scribblings about the art of curation, Scratches and Glitches. Meden himself, a curator at the Austrian Film Museum and formerly of the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York and the Slovenian Cinematheque in Ljubljana, is one of the stalwart last defenders of a certain kind of film exhibition, one that scrupulously acknowledges the limitations (and privilege) of asserting and defending the need for 35mm projections as a shared cultural experience while also still going to great lengths to defend it from extinction. In his work at the Austrian cinematheque and elsewhere, Meden is a prodigious and inspired film worker, a dogged and thoughtful last defender of what has tragically become an anachronistic form of exhibition.
In Scratches and Glitches, he is also taking the occasion of the pandemic—which at least for a while made physical exhibition impossible—to think of film, all film, as its physical traces, as a continuum of varied sensations, ideas, impressions all churning together in a single flow. Meaning: as material, as the book’s title would suggest, in both the sense of pixels and the celluloid. In every sense, he makes a direct philosophical connection between digital scratches and analogue glitches. In the sheer sprawl of this rather provisional book are the makings of a more organized, maybe more galvanizing, though certainly less gleeful and gleefully scattershot cine-manifesto. The first half is undoubtedly the stronger, in which Meden’s writing feels more free-associative and more pungent in its metaphors. On Paolo Cherchi Usai once claiming, in A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship (2019), that there is “no such thing as ‘normal’ wear and tear” on a print:
“[This] rule is both a noble and bold proclamation […] The possibility of accidents was eliminated beyond reasonable doubt. And yet, contemporary observers could probably have said the same about Chernobyl, about Fukushima, before their catastrophes. I have met brilliant archival projectionists, who were short-sighted, hard of hearing, hairy, overconfident, sweaty, with a penchant for a smoke, permanently love-struck, and with an ingrown toenail: all very reasonable challenges to the idea of a projected print returning to the vaults intact.”
Other sections of the book are possessed of the same inspired madness, elaborating on a cinema so ripe for juicy description that it may have been, and perhaps was, invented from whole cloth. In a chapter on Davorin Marc, “Yugoslavia’s leading punk filmmaker” of the late 1970s and his “rugged object” Bite Me. Once Already (1978/80), Meden writes of a cinema produced without camera, without hands even, only with the persistent gnashing of teeth directly onto exposed celluloid. “[Marc’s] sharp teeth left behind a complex pattern of marks, while saliva that filled the scratches immediately started fermenting the emulsion around the edges […] Marc’s teeth not only ‘painted’ across Super 8mm film emulsion, they also profoundly affected the film base, creating deep scratches, dents and even an occasional hole that transformed the seemingly flat film into a three-dimensional object.” This, he notes, means that any attempt to “preserve” the film would be a destructive act and would necessarily create a new experience that would supplant the original viewing experience of seeing it projected from a print, “because of the three-dimensional nature of the object—and the consequent impossibility of ever attaining steady focus during the projection—has always been an important visual element in [its] animated abstraction.”
The idea of fermentation, taken as a starting point in this chapter and in its preceding one, is one of the strongest ideas of the book, not simply positioning film as what he calls “an object in time” but extrapolating from that material essence a theory of change as an essential aspect of the process of preservation, which Meden very aptly and amusingly ties to the history of the fermentation of food, and against which ostensibly our digital restoration culture is battling in a deeply misguided quest, preferring instead to dress “decaying corpses in thick layers of artificial digital makeup to restore a mythical original appearance.”
Over the course of the book, Meden emerges as a kind of semi-romantic, semi-ironic protagonist himself, the marginalized main character in a Musil-like drama of conflicting ideas and continuously contradictory sensations. From one chapter and indeed one moment to the other, he subverts and reorganizes his thoughts as quickly as they pop up, undercutting any perceived self-importance on one page and then hinting at its antithesis in the next. In one chapter he speaks about a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) at Dokufest in Prizren, Kosovo shortly after the country had declared its independence in 2008; Meden had anxiously implored them not to screen a DVD without any discernible curatorial reason and was horrified to learn that it would be accompanied by a local band hammering out a soundtrack. Naturally, the screening turned out to be a beautiful event at which the audience and festival team—and Meden—were all unmistakably touched by the film and its presentation and all assumptions upended.
In another he sardonically mocks the restoration labs whose pursuit of some kind of perfection, whether “restored” to some former glory or retouched completely, now regularly transform and disfigure individual films, even and especially beloved ones, into entirely new objects with warped color palettes and their familiar visual character virtually washed away; Meden does so in that chapter by adopting their voice and churlishly sending up their self-importance with knowingly cheap but satisfying mockery like, “We make Victor Frankenstein look like a mere amateur.”
The self-consciously marginal form of Scratches and Glitches, a marginality I cheer and which, it should be said, is both acknowledged from the outset and evident in its structure and in the archness of all the chapter titles, points to the various conflicts Meden is eager to sustain within himself. He seeks a rejection of the fussy, the orderly, the overly neat, along with a suppressed but unmistakable yearning for the order and consistency of the daily repertory program at a film museum. He pursues a politics that requires the constant checking of one’s own assumptions along with an unmistakable curmudgeonly distaste for so much of what a world based on those terms has seemingly wrought. The two apparent foundations for his worldview make for a would-be paradox: a Balkan admiration for whatever-goes resourcefulness and a curatorial worldview built upon the resources of just about the only institutions capable of maintaining and showcasing the treasures of a large and long-lasting archive.
More than expressing any single worldview or idea, the hundred or so pages of this scrappy tract—a sibling perhaps to Film Curatorship - Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace (Cherchi Usai, Horwath, Francis, Loebenstein, 2008), also published by the Austrian Film Museum—map the contours of a single obsessive whirring-through of so many different permutations of the same set of ideas and assumptions and contradictions. His mind is at war with itself, waging battles of an epic scale against any and all kinds of essentialisms. It is this tireless internal conflict and eye for the possibilities of the truly marginal that has made Meden one of the finest and most tenacious of film programmers, institutional or otherwise, and makes this book both frustrating and essential.
In the second half of Scratches and Glitches, Meden’s scope widens as anecdotal evidence of the pandemic starts to creep in to his observations on the nature of exhibition. All of the material pleasures of moviegoing have been shattered by this epoch and we are only now trying to rebuild them. Meden’s best ideas acknowledge these contradictions and try to account for the invisible sea changes that are occurring in the hearts of so many cinephiles adapting to a new set of implications and conditions. He does so notably in his ode to the value of forgetting, itself an act of societal preservation that ought to go “hand in hand with our efforts to preserve other, less impeachable [trends]”, and again in reworking Austrian philosopher Robert Pfaller’s concept of “interpassivity” for the mania of cinephiles hoarding but never actually watching treasures amassed from private torrent trackers. Meden never takes his eye off the ball of marginalia, which he evidently sees as the inverse of the orderly digital world of rentals and subscriptions the pandemic has given us little recourse to avoid. His idea of “careless curation” as an antithesis to the pandemic of “carefully curated” thematic selections appearing on platforms like Netflix is brilliant.
In another moment, he expounds on the fruitful links and philosophical implications that sprang up from a cheerfully intermingled screening of alternating reels of Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear and Menahem Golan’s Over the Top with Sylvester Stallone, both produced by Golan for the Cannon Group in 1987 and here retitled King Lear Over the Top Dedux—the kind of perverse, in-the-know experimentation that can really take place in the safe space of a cinematheque or film club. In one section entitled “Digital Pandemics” Meden writes eloquently “about preserving the audience as an actual, material group of people, who have gathered to celebrate the critical idea of an actual, material public space, to participate in an act of resistance, a reenactment of the ritual of museum preservation, to reply to the idea of public film exhibition with a public exhibition of human curiosity and mutual respect.”
Even the idea of sharing a space with an audience—once the source of both great joy and regular annoyance—has only just started to return to our lives and may yet again vanish. What is it to preserve that audience? The clearing of a throat, the mnph of a suppressed chortle, the creak of an old wooden foldable chair, the hiss of an admonishing shhh, or indeed the muffled pfff of a fart were all, over the course of the past 18 months, scrubbed from the movie-going experience, along with any spontaneous discussion and exchange of ideas after the screening. The only accompaniment to a film in this new world might be one’s own squeals of amusement, absentminded gnashing of teeth, or involuntary bodily expulsions.
With that idea of “preserving the audience,” Meden arrives at an elegant distillation of so much of what makes moviegoing so great and moving and maybe just as often so annoying: the fact that you’re seeing it publicly, as a living part of the world with a group of weirdos who are, perhaps, being moved by what’s on screen too. These days the option is often between seeing movies on the internet or, at least for me from October through May, not at all. When the cinematheque opened back up here in Prague in June, I would be lying to you if I didn’t acknowledge how wild and exciting the possibility of seeing movies again seemed, how shocked I was to see colors in 35mm, how a new digital materiality had only made that experience sharper and more detailed, how the elusive ghost of a public séance had apparently never been banished. Meden again:
“Just like [Dostoevsky’s] Karamazov, a film curator exists in an inherently schizophrenic position. He can think of himself as a rational operator: as a cultural worker and scientist, as a historian and a technician, as a poet and as a politician, but deep down he knows that all his actions are informed by pure faith.”
Jurij Meden's Scratches and Glitches: Observations on Preserving and Exhibiting Cinema in the Early 21st Century is available now from the Austrian Film Museum.