Don’t throw out your 8 mm movies, the Library of Congress may want them

Mike Mashon might have one of the coolest jobs in the federal government. He's head of the Moving Image section at the Library of Congress.

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Mike Mashon might have one of the coolest jobs in the federal government. He’s head of the Moving Image section at the Library of Congress. Recently, the section posted a digitized version of something never seen before: A home movie of a famous rock concert from 1969. He spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin to tell about his work, and about that grainy movie.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Mashon, good to have you on.

Mike Mashon: Hey, Tom, very nice to be here, thanks.

Tom Temin: First of all, tell us the bigger picture of what happens in the Moving Image section. I guess they don’t call it movies anymore. An image kind of brings in digital and film and everything that was ever recorded with light, I guess.

Mike Mashon: Right. So the Library of Congress is home to the largest collection of film and video in the world. We have about 1.7 million individual items, physical items in our collection, and ever-growing collection of digital as well. So we have been collecting film here since the 1890s. And we still get it in through copyright and gift and purchase today. So my section is responsible for acquiring the material for describing it doing any conservation rehousing we need, we have good storage for it. And we also established the preservation priorities for that collection. It’s a big job.

Tom Temin: And when you have motion picture film, from a movie camera from emulsion, light sensitive film, do you generally as a matter of course, digitize that, since film eventually breaks down and dissolves?

Mike Mashon: Yeah, these days, we do digitize the film. But we were always founded and we still have the capability of preserving film on film. We are one of the few places that can still photo chemically preserve motion pictures. So we still have the ability to create, for example, 35 mm prints from nitrate film originals.

Tom Temin: And there are still filmmakers working today that use motion picture film, correct, the traditional film?

Mike Mashon: Oh, absolutely. Yes, there’s still a handful out there. We’re a sort of “film forever” kind of people, but we’re not Luddites eithere. So we definitely have a tremendous number of digital workflows available to us in our facility.

Tom Temin: Yeah, it’s kind of a cultural thing. I mean, it takes getting used to, to look at a full budget motion picture, I don’t go to the movie theater very much but to see videotape, that’s something that has been, not to make upon but “ingrained on people” to see the brain going by. And I guess someday we’ll get used to not seeing it.

Mike Mashon: You know it is a little interesting sometimes to go to a theater and you’re watching typically a digital cinema package. And those things, they’re very cleaned up, you don’t see the grain in the film anymore. And for people like me, sometimes that can be a little disconcerting.

Tom Temin: And what is the process by which the library decides this film should be preserved in perpetuity, this one may be not so much?

Mike Mashon: Excellent question, we really do strive to preserve all of it, frankly, particularly in terms of the video that we have in the collection, I do want to make it clear, we have a lot of videotape in our collection as well. We have some ways of doing that in robots, where we can push videotape through robots and do tremendous amounts of digitization, like 20,000 tapes a year, on average. Film is going to be a little different. We have a lot of reels of film in the collection. And you’re right, we do have to make some decisions on what is going to be preserved. We have good preservation storage. So the films that we have are stored in cold and dry conditions. So we’re able to sort of slow down their deterioration until we can get to them. But a lot of times the decisions that we’re making are going to be based on the physical condition of the material. So if the film has really started to deteriorate, we want to make sure that we can scan it as quickly as possible. But we also have a very robust loan program here. There are still a good number of theaters out there that are showing 35 mm film and we can still make 35 mm prints in addition to making digital cinema packages here. So there are films that we know that will be shown in theater. We also have a lot of our films available online through something called the National Screening Room. And we’ll make sure that those films get sent up to the laboratory for scanning.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mike Mashon, he is the head of the Moving Image section at the Library of Congress. And do you work with the National Archives because they have some film like I think they have the Zapruder film, for example. And it has to be also preserved in that same manner. So how does that interaction happen?

Mike Mashon: Oh, we have a lot of interaction with other federal agencies and National Archives being a primary one. We’re also very much involved in in Initiative’s with the National Archives in terms of setting standards for digitization. There’s a federal group that works on that. People will frequently ask me, What’s the difference between our collection and National Archives. National Archives is responsible for films that were produced by the government. And we have a lot of those in our collection. But we collect even more broadly than that. It’s the reason why you’re going to find a lot of Hollywood films, home movies, educational films, in our collection, but we worked really closely with the National Archives.

Tom Temin: Now this recent film that came to light was an amateur-shot film of a famous concert or a concert at which a famous and kind of unfortunate event happened. Tell us about that the Altamont concert there, The Rolling Stones are in there and some other famous artists of the day. What’s the story behind that film and who shot it and how did it come into the Library of Congress?

Mike Mashon: Well, in some ways, the story of finding that film is as interesting as the film, at least from the archival perspective. So one of my colleagues, a technician named John Snelson, is going through a collection of film processing it that we received from a man named Rick Prelinger many years ago, Rick, collect a lot of films, very well known in the archival field. And it’s a massive collection of well over 150,000 reels of film. So John is just sort of going through the Prelinger collection. And he just called my attention. Every once in a while, he would come across something, he would just call my attention to it. And he said, I got this film, and title of it is “Stones in the Park,” and I –

Tom Temin: That could be anything.

Mike Mashon: It really kind of could well be for me, what it triggered was, I knew that the Rolling Stones had actually made a film of a concert they did in Hyde Park in July of 1969, not long after the guitarist Brian Jones had died. So that had been filmed and released as “Stones in the Park.” But what John had turned up was an 8 mm film, and 8 mm is a home movie format, so I wasn’t really sure what it was. And I just went ahead and sent it up to laboratory. I kind of figured, OK, we’re gonna want to know what this thing is anyhow. So I put in a digitization order, it goes up to the laboratory, and a few days later, I get a call from the lab. And the guys up there are like “Mike, you might want to come see this.” So I run upstairs, and here they’re playing the file for me. And it’s Altamont. The Altamont Free Concert was Dec. 6, 1969. Very famous concert memorialized in the film, “Gimme Shelter.” But this was clearly home movie footage shot by somebody right up by the stage. It’s silent. There’s no sound with this. But you know, you see some acts who aren’t in Gimme Shelter. You’ve got Santana and the Flying Burrito Brothers with Graham Parsons, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are in it, in the home movie, in addition to footage of the Stones and their evening performance.

Tom Temin: And that concept became famous, it was in California at a racetrack, and that was where they hired the Hells Angels as bodyguards, and a murder occurred in the audience.

Mike Mashon: Yeah, and there’s nothing, I mean, you can see the kind of mayhem that’s breaking out, as Hells Angels are roaming the stage. But yeah, a concertgoer, Meredith Hunter was killed by a Hells Angel during the Stones set. You don’t see anything like that in this home movie. But you asked do we know who the camera person is? We do not. We would very much like to find out who shot this because I will say the film that Rick Prelinger had acquired was from a company called Palmer Films, which was a laboratory in San Francisco that went out of business. And when Palmer Films went out of business, Rick came in, scooped up all their films, added it to his collection, and then they came to us. So Palmer is no longer extant. This film is abandoned at Palmer and so we consider it to be an orphan work. We just simply, we don’t know who owns it.

Tom Temin: Well, now it’s out for the public to see and maybe someone will come forward, “Hey, I was there. I shot that with my DeJur camera or my Bolex.”

Mike Mashon: I’d love it.

Tom Temin: And just while we have you, what is your background? Do you come to this as a film content, artistic person or as a technical preservation format type of guy or how do you come to this job?

Mike Mashon: I’m a subject matter expert. I always defer to the technical people on this. My professional background actually started as an immunologist, but I really, really love movies and TV. So I went back to school and got a Ph.D. in radio, television and film, and I started at the library 24 years ago as the moving image curator. So I’m very much more on the subject matter side than anything else.

Tom Temin: Well, I’ve got my own home movies in 8 mm and later and Super 8. If you’d like to have them, they’re welcome to go into the library. But I have a feeling it probably doesn’t quite meet the threshold.

Mike Mashon: Oh, no, you would be wrong about that, Tom. We actually very much like home movies around here. We have a lot, a lot of home movies in our collection. And some of them actually date back to the early 1900s. So it’s a pretty remarkable collection. And look, not all of them are going to be Altamont. But look, we have home movies from people who took their vacations in Germany in the mid-1930s.

Tom Temin: Wow!

Mike Mashon: It’s really fascinating stuff. But yes, we also have my home movies as well.

Tom Temin: Alright, well if you want to see a 3 year old Tom Temin sneezing silently on the beach because I was allergic to everything, in Atlantic City, it’s available.

Mike Mashon: Fantastic.

Tom Temin: Mike Mashon is head of the Moving Image section at the Library of Congress. Thanks so much for joining me.

Mike Mashon: I really enjoyed it, Tom. Thanks a lot.

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