J. Hoberman’s Lost Film Copy Discovered in QMA’s Projection Booth
This is how it begins. I get phone calls and emails almost every day requesting information on our museum’s permanent collection and exhibitions. 90% of the inquiries are for our world’s fair materials. Then about 9 % inquiring about our exhibitions and collections of modernist and contemporary art. Then there’s the remaining 1% — inquiries that I’m sure I’ll never be able to answer on esoteric items hidden deep within the museum’s collective history and memory.
On March 3rd, I received an email from Andrew Lampert, Curator of Collections at Anthology Film Archives, in which he requested assistance for a preservation project they are hoping to undertake. He is in search of a short 16mm film, MISSION TO MONGO, by critic/filmmaker Jim Hoberman. The film was purchased in the late 1970s from Jim by Debby Feinstein who worked in the museum’s education department. Anthology is interested in securing the museum’s copy of the film for their grant application which is due by the end of the month. All other extant copies are in poor condition with heavy color fading and damage.
MISSION TO MONGO???
It lives! Net research revealed the film was “comprised of postcards picked up from the streets of Chinatown.” It was screened at the museum on May 31, 1982 (image courtesy Google Books/New York Magazine), as well as Hallwalls and Collective for Living Cinema.
This sent me searching through our modest archive of World’s Fair films though this title didn’t sound at all familiar. Perhaps it was a mis-titled, misfiled reel orphaned due to the ravages of time, and changes in staff and storage locations.
Andrew kindly offered to come to the museum with Anthology archivist John Klacsmann to conduct an inspection and create a simple inventory of our film collections. This sounded like a lucky break for us. Having worked with alumni and students from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House, I was fully aware of the expertise their training provided.
In a bit of a panic the afternoon prior to their visit, the projection booth in our theater came to mind where stacks of reels and cans of film were stored on shelves above the projectors and sound equipment. Remnants of an artistic film program of the museum from the late 1970s into the early 1990s, these films complemented its exhibitions and education programs, but were never technically catalogued into the permanent collection.
Our intrepid AV genius, Danny Corona, let me into the locked doors of the theater and booth, and then unloaded all the shelves for inspection. I spent some time going through dusty film cans with misfiled and mis-titled 16mm reels, while attempting to recall the mysteries of film inspection by staring at their leaders trying to decipher the markings. Sadly, no MISSION TO MONGO came to light.
The next morning, our world’s fair collection of films was inspected and inventoried in short time. I mentioned the stacks of reels in the projection booth as another possible location, and intrepid detectives Andrew and John enthusiastically volunteered to inspect the 40 or so reels. I left them in the projection booth.
About an hour later, they showed up at my desk holding aloft a large reel of four films spliced together, a compilation of avant-garde shorts. It was the last reel they’d examined. MISSION TO MONGO was the last film on the inside of the reel, one small ¼ inch of celluloid, along with AMERICA IS WAITING by Bruce Conner, RUNAWAY by Standish Lawder, and MYTH IN THE ELECTRIC AGE by Alan Berliner. Strangely, its condition was the best of the remaining copies, due to being stored for so many years in its location at the inside of the reel. In addition, another reel revealed a similar compilation from the same series of shorts.
A happy dance! How incredible this find was and how impossible a task it had seemed when the inquiry first came in. A flurry of emails ensued between Andrew, John, Diya (web guru at the museum) and I. J. Hoberman in response to Andrew’s Eureka email, “Amazing! I was beginning to think I had imagined the whole thing. Thanks for being so persistent–and of course I’m additionally thrilled to be a part of Queens history.”
MISSION TO MONGO still from Anthology’s archives
“First, I wanted to make a kind of reflexively impoverished Busky Berkeley extravaganza. Second I was interested in juxtaposing two cultural artifacts–which could be schematized as East/West, socialism/capitalism, propaganda/entertainment, as well as image/sound–and see how they reverberated. In other words, I wanted to make an essay out of things, as well as a communist musical. But the question arose–what was the ideology of such film play? Is MISSION TO MONGO aestheticized politics or political art? — J. H.”
For more information on J. Hoberman and the NY film avant-garde, see here.