Monday, October 15

Preserving television for future viewers


It’s not often that small-screen material gets the big-screen treatment.

For the most part, TV plays second fiddle to film in prestige, esteem and preservation efforts. However, that is not the case with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which stacks tapes of “Seinfeld” in the same building as reels of “Casablanca.”

“You look at a program today and you think, “˜God, this is a piece of junk.’ Right? But you look at it 10 years from now and you go, “˜Boy, that show sure tells you a lot about what was going on in 2007,’” said Dan Einstein, a UCLA television archivist and UCLA graduate.

In the spirit of honoring the legacy of television along with film, the archive will be screening a shining example of classic television with 1957′s “Clash by Night,” an episode of the early live television program “Playhouse 90.” The showing takes place at the Billy Wilder Theater tonight as a part of the Television Archive screening series.

“Clash by Night” concerns a torrid love triangle between a frustrated Staten Island housewife (Kim Stanley), her boring husband (E.G. Marshall), and her husband’s dashing friend (Lloyd Bridges). This episode is widely considered a classic because it is a triumph for early live TV, and perhaps more famously for the performance of the late Kim Stanley.

Stanley is widely considered one of the foremost actors of her generation, as she was a notorious perfectionist and a devoted method actress.

“It was a kind of wonderful organic experience or kind of acting that she did, that so moved me, it felt like I knew that person. Also what was breathtaking for me was to see her take on the persona of the character that she would play. … She was a role model for me,” said Salome Jens, assistant professor in the UCLA Theater Department, who had the privilege of working with Stanley.

However, she vastly preferred stage acting to film acting.

“I think she just felt that the stage was a medium in which she could be more artistically true to herself. On stage, the performance is continuous and of a piece, whereas in film, there are many scenes, so it’s just kind of chopped up into little bits and she just hated that. She felt that film was a director’s medium, whereas the stage was an actor’s medium,” said Jon Krampner, author of “Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley,” who will also be present at Wednesday’s screening.

As a result, not many of Stanley’s performances have been preserved. However, because “Playhouse 90″ was a televised play, it seems that Stanley was comfortable enough with the format to make it one of her handful of Hollywood efforts.

“Because she worked mainly on stage, of course all of those performances are lost. So anything that preserves a record of her acting really helps to set a benchmark for future generations of actresses,” Krampner said.

This first screening of a television show in the newly acquired Billy Wilder Theater is just one part of the efforts by the archive to preserve what is often considered a lesser art form than film. Work includes cataloguing and archiving, but chiefly involves digital transfer and preservation.

Einstein is involved firsthand.

“We have the early videotape which was used from the mid- to late-1950s on through early ’80s … and one reel of that, maybe an hour-long tape, weighs 20 to 25 pounds,” he said. “It takes a special machine and a special person who knows how to run that machine to play them back, (but) a lot of what we’re having done is work on those old videotapes. Transferring them to new, modern digital videotape.”

This concerted effort by the archive to preserve television secures the medium’s position as a legitimate art form because of performances like Stanley’s and its technical achievements, even if it is often derided as being too commercial.

“You look at (live television shows), and especially some of the dramas, which get very involved, and they’re technically incredible, and you think, “˜How on earth did they do this live?’ ““ especially when you realize that the cameras weighed about a ton,” Einstein said.

The archive not only has artistic achievement in mind when choosing archive-worthy materials. Television shows are also considered historical documents. In addition, the archive preserves commercials, which further contributes to its time-capsule-like qualities.

“Having the commercials is really valuable, because you can watch the show as it aired originally and you get the whole experience as you’re watching it,” Einstein said.

The archive clearly takes television seriously, as evidenced by the screenings and preservation efforts. Future generations will now be able to be addicted to “Lost,” caught up in “The Sopranos,” and completely mystified by “Flavor of Love.”

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