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YI Summer Visits the MoMA Film Archive

JUL 16, 2014

On July 16, the Youth Insights group headed to the Museum of Modern Art to meet with Anne Morra, the MoMA film curator, to learn about her position and about the Museum’s Film Archive. Upon arrival, we ventured into the galleries for the few minutes we had before the presentation. Among some of the artists whose work we saw were Jasper Johns, Lygia Clark, and Sigmar Polke.

After our quick look at the exhibitions, it was time to meet Anne Morra! She led us to the MoMA’s film screening room, a classic theater with a screen the size of a stage and comfortable red seats for lengthy screening sessions. Morra told us that her position as film curator entails managing access to the museum’s film collection by other departments within the organization as well as film festivals, and collaborating with the curatorial departments to display works. Much of her job revolves around the Museum’s impressive collection of more than 22,000 films, all of which are stored off-site in a special facility. The Film Archive’s beginnings are rooted in Hollywood through the work of Iris Berry, the founder of MoMA’s film department. The focus of the collection is cinema history, which explains why its strength lies in silent American film. This information was particularly intriguing because it provided us with insight on how film is incorporated into the larger system of the museum’s operation and also how their film collection maintains a bridge between the MoMA and other arts organizations. After elaborating on the details of her career, Morra told us the path she took in order to become MoMA’s film curator. She assured us that the path to curatorial work is not a singularly defined one and that passion in the field should be the chief driving force of any aspiring curator.

The first picture Morra showed us was The Blacksmithing Scene, the first American film on record. It was made in 1893 and classified as an “actuality.” This type of film depicts a scene of daily life in real time and lacks the element of storytelling; in keeping with its genre, The Blacksmithing Scene showed us a few seconds of three blacksmiths working on a project. The sharp screen display gave us the chance to experience the rudimentary and charming quality of silent films.

The next film we watched was The Great Train Robbery. This film, made in 1903, incorporated more familiar aspects of film making; there was a cast of actors,  direction, a plot line, and aesthetic choices. Two rewarding things of the viewing experience were witnessing the style of acting in this early film compared to the modern ones we are accustomed to, and seeing the technique of hand tinting used to convey color on black and white film. After this, we watched Goldilocks, The Peroxide Kid, an early Walt Disney cartoon originally collected and conserved by MoMA, but subsequently reclaimed by Walt Disney Studios as a piece more fitting for their collection. This film taught us about the vividness of silent cartoons, as well as the complications that come with works whose ownership is undefined. The minor conflict between MoMA and Disney provoked the interesting question of whether a film belongs to the one who recovers, cares for, and preserves it or the one from whom it originated.

Finally, we watched a brief commercial titled New Sensations in Sound (1949) that was directed by Mary Ellen Bute, one of the first woman filmmakers. Anne then informed us about the preservation of color film. The main concern is determining what the film’s colors looked like originally through the use of color guides. New Sensations in Sound was an example of a film in the MoMA’s collection that required a more complex process of preservation because of its color.

We ended the meeting with a lighthearted short film made in 2001, The Hire: Star, which told a comedic story about the dynamics between a demanding celebrity and a wily chauffeur. The film’s humor showed us that the MoMA film department not only collects renowned art films, but any movies that they believe represent a wide range of film genre. This was followed by a brief Q&A session during which the teens learned more details about Morra, such as her personal interest in surrealism and avant-garde experimental film. We left with a better understanding of what film, as a genre, means to a fine art museum—thank you, Anne Morra, for having us!

By Veronica, YI Summer Participant