Interview: Mark Toscano on Preserving the Avant Garde
This article appeared in the July 7, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Spliced film strip from Tortured Dust (Stan Brakhage, 1984). Photo by Mark Toscano
Mark Toscano, senior film preservationist at the Academy Film Archive, started on his chosen path quite early in life. While growing up in South Windsor, Connecticut in the 1980s, he became an avid Three Stooges fan, and set out to record every one of their two-reel shorts off of local television and onto VHS. “I got 176 of them,” Toscano said in an interview last week. “I remember, specifically, there were only four they just never showed, and it was no end of annoying to me as a little kid.” Later, jobs at Bay Area video stores, repertory theaters, and a course in preservation (one that boyhood hero Leonard Maltin encouraged him to pursue) led him to a position with San Francisco–based experimental distributor Canyon Cinema in 2000. Three years later, Toscano took a job at the Academy Archive in Los Angeles. His relationships with Canyon Cinema and a host of individual filmmakers would lead the Archive to take a more robust interest in experimental work—most notably, the films of Stan Brakhage and Barbara Hammer.
Eloquent, sharp, and humble, Toscano is careful to give credit to institutions, artists, and friends wherever it’s due. But his own activities as a programmer and preservationist have brought important and neglected avant-garde and experimental films to Los Angeles audiences and beyond. At the Academy film Archive and several other venues (including L.A. Filmforum), he presents work that might otherwise never be seen, often restored by Toscano himself. Recently, he curated a program of restored works by punk filmmaker Greta Snider at the Hamburg International Short film Festival, and on July 14th, the Academy Museum will screen Toscano’s recent restorations of the films of Christopher Harris (still/here). His activities don’t end there, however: he also teaches the history of experimental animation at CalArts and runs an essential Instagram account where, at the start of the pandemic, he began livestreaming 16mm prints from preservation and printing projects he’s overseen.
Last week in Los Angeles, I spoke with Toscano about the unique conceptual and philosophical challenges of restoring experimental works, his role in bringing these films into the Academy film Archive, and what it’s like to work intimately with avant-garde luminaries like Hammer.
Starting very basically, what’s the difference between preservation and restoration?
Preservation could be thought of as an active set of processes that you’re engaging in to extend and ensure the longevity of a particular film. That could be really basic stuff like making new prints and master materials. Digital has sort of changed how we might think of this, too. Maybe you’re doing a high-quality digital scan of something and then saving it on a robust server or data tape.
Restoration suggests more intervention to theoretically reverse problems that have occurred over time, whether color fading, damage, etcetera. But very often restoration, especially in the commercial realm, will involve fixing things that weren’t problems to begin with or were just intrinsic to the production. Although I’ve done that too, it’s always been at the request and with the involvement of the filmmaker. It’s not something I would normally just fix myself, like: “oh, that splice shouldn’t be visible, let’s remove it.” I don’t do that.
I lean toward a more conservative [approach], and really try to respect the physical, historical, and aesthetic integrity of the work.
I became aware of you through your programming of experimental films. Fixing a splice is perhaps different when it comes to work where the material and the form are foregrounded and damage is sometimes inherent to the aesthetic.
Some artists, like Stan Brakhage, typically never cut their films to hide those splices. He would compose around the percussive visual impact of the splice. Then he had a whole long period where he would insert two little frames of black at every cut, literally splicing them in to give this kind of eye-blink effect instead of a regular hard cut.
Sometimes artists may have a technical approach or an aesthetic sensibility that results in work with properties that challenge the received wisdom about how one approaches restoration—things that, in a more neutral situation, we would consider potential flaws, like grain, scratches, dirt, hair, color problems, weird inconsistencies, overexposure, underexposure. In a Platonic-ideal situation, [the film is] not supposed to have any of these funny flaws, but it’s all so contingent. My approach is always to try to understand the film and the filmmaker on their terms, to hopefully make informed determinations about what’s supposed to be there and what’s a function of the production process at the time [of the film’s making]. And to what degree do we need to try to replicate that or not? It’s complicated, but it’s also what I like about it. For each project, you have to redefine what a problem or a non-problem is.
What’s an extreme example of this process?
An extreme example is a film called Picasso (1973) by Chris Langdon. She went to CalArts in the early ’70s and made a ton of films that were really funny, smart, and had a bit of a punk attitude. Her name is now Inga Uwais, but we talked about how to refer to the films, and she said, “They’re still by Chris Langdon because that’s who I was then.” Picasso was made in the span of four hours on 16mm in mock tribute to Picasso on the day he died. It’s basically black-and-white negative that she filmed and then hand-processed and actually deliberately scratched to make it look old. Then she printed it with an arbitrary found-sound loop. I decided that one of the things that’s almost as important as the film itself, if not more so, is the performative nature of the film’s production, and the print is almost a byproduct of this sort of filmmaking performance. I thought: well, that has value. Can that be embraced in the preservation process somehow?
The restoration of Picasso involved making a number of atypical technical choices which I felt would help maintain and incorporate the film’s offhand, performative aspect. For example, the negative wasn’t cleaned, the printing exposure was a roughly estimated one-light, and the soundtrack was printed asynchronously from a physically recreated sound loop.
So, to me, restoration has a variable definition, because it’s not embodying any specific technique or approach. It is more of a conceptual process by which you’re making sure that the film retains its qualities as a work that was made by a person—especially experimental work made by an individual.
You mentioned Brakhage earlier. As a preservationist, what is your relationship to his work?
I’ve been overseeing the care of Brakhage’s films since 2004, which has involved preservation on several dozen titles, as well as striking prints on numerous others, not to mention general conservation, inspection, and some amount of curatorial oversight. Although the Brakhage collection wasn’t the first one I brought into the Academy, it happened in my first year of work there, and has in some ways represented a continuum for my time at the Archive, since no matter what I’m working on at any given moment, I’m also always working on something by Stan Brakhage.
You have worked closely with Barbara Hammer as well. What has it been like preserving and restoring her work?
Barbara worked in pretty much every medium, and almost every kind of film medium. She never worked in 35mm, actually, but she worked in 8mm, Super 8, and 16mm, and used optical printing, contact printing, handmade stuff, multi-roll printing, superimpositions, in-camera stuff, black and white, color, sepia tone, etcetera. Because of that [variety], her body of work represents almost the entire spectrum of potential aesthetic and technical challenges that I could encounter as an archivist. Normally I would have to have maybe a dozen different artists’ works to span that range of challenges and types of filmmaking.
Was she involved in the preservation process?
She was very involved in the preservation process. We had a series of conversations before she died [in 2019], knowing that she was dying. And since she died, there have been plenty of things that we didn’t talk about that I have had to figure out, but I actually feel really confident that I can at least, to the best of my ability, interpret her desires because we talked so much about so many other things. I can extrapolate that knowledge into all these other projects.
Can you give an example?
There’s a really obscure film of hers called See What You Hear What You See, that pretty much nobody’s seen. She made it in 1983, and it’s a film where she took different adhesive patterns, like Letraset, and she stuck them to clear leader. Then she put the exact same pattern in the corresponding place on the soundtrack area. So you’re seeing a pattern, but you’re also hearing what it sounds like when run through the sound system. When she put these patterns on, she made [an] error in the film’s original production—the first two patterns have a correct sync relationship (in 16mm, the sound is positioned 26 frames before corresponding picture), but then she seems to have gotten mixed up starting with the third pattern, and instead placed the sound 26 frames after the picture. And she died before I found that out.
Now, a more conservative archival approach to this would be: well, that is what it is. I had talked to her once about this film, and I knew that the basic concept was clearly that you hear and see the sound at the same time, as simple as that. So I knew that it wasn’t supposed to be that way. It was kind of a common error. Still, the idea of changing it or fixing it is a little bit of a tricky one. But then the one thing I know about Barbara is that she always wanted stuff to look and sound as good and right as possible. She was like, “I know what I want.” And that determination of the expression of her vision was what made me decide: of course I have to fix this. I could hear her voice in my head saying, “You better fix that, Mark.” And so I fixed it.
It makes me a little nervous to make some interpretive decisions like that, but I was also really moved to think that I was still having a collaboration with Barbara, even though she’s gone.
How are preservation and restoration related to your programming activities?
When I started at the Academy, my job description had nothing to do with programming. I wasn’t hired to do experimental film curating. I’m a film preservationist. But Mike Pogorzelski (the Archive’s director) and Josef Lindner (the head of the preservation department) have been amazing at supporting my eagerness to develop a collection devoted to independent and experimental cinema. I think it was when I brought in the Brakhage films that it was like: okay, that’s a major thing that we’re gonna work on. It occurred to me from very early on that programming could be a part of preservation, because the whole point of saving this stuff is so that people can see it. And if no one is seeing it, then it’s all kind of pointless.
Chris Shields is a film writer based in Los Angeles.