The Clifford West Preservation Project
- written by AFA director Geoff Alexander
The Clifford West Preservation Project was one of the Archive’s most gratifying successes, in terms of both historical preservation and human interaction.
Somewhat ironically, my discovery of Clifford West’s films was accidentally borne out of a desire to get to the farthest corner of the U.S, away from films, so I could concentrate instead on writing my book, a project which has taken a good chunk out of my life for the past six years. I picked Enfield, New Hampshire, a tiny town on the edge of Lake Mascoma, where an abandoned Shaker village has been taken over by a small local company that has turned the Shaker meeting house into an austere inn. Every room has Shaker furniture, no pictures on the walls, no television; it’s the perfect writer’s hideaway.
Early one afternoon, I decided to take a break and drive to Lebanon, a few miles away from Enfield, to get a cup of coffee. An art gallery appeared on the town square, and I stopped to take a look. The woman who ran it was friendly, she asked what I was doing in town, and after telling her about my project, she announced: "oh, my husband was a maker of educational art films, and his name is Clifford West". After admitting I’d never heard of him, she suggested I meet him. "He’s on the third floor, you can walk up there right now." Thus began a three year involvement with Clifford West, wife and Edvard Munch-scholar Bente Torjusen, and their family. Increasingly, as my travels took me to Boston, I’d make the three-hour drive to Enfield, watch a few films with Clifford and Bente, and continue my writing.
Clifford West made a number of outstanding films, focusing primarily on Florentine art of the Renaissance, but also creating gems such as his kinetically powerful tribute to the work of his good friend, sculptor Harry Bertoia. Although his films never achieved the distribution they deserved, they are important historical documents, and, with their "camera-as-paintbrush" moving camera technique, are unique. West, was 85 years old, had a desire to preserve his films for future historians, but did not have a record as to whether he actually owned prints of each of his own films (in some cases, if so, possibly the only prints in existence), among the hundreds of reels, film cans, and boxes scattered over two floors of a three-story gallery/warehouse in New Hampshire. Among West’s wishes were to develop a means of keying filmed outtakes of important Florentine art works (many of which were destroyed in the 1966 flood) to specific films, a project he wanted to supervise himself, negating the possibility his donating his films and outtakes to us here on the West Coast.
We played with a number of ideas; I suggest he contact nearby Dartmouth College, develop a relationship with a scholar there, and arrange a donation that would result in a renewed research on his work. Dartmouth wasn’t interested, the standard state of affairs, unfortunately, when it comes to the fortunes of classroom academic films. One day, Bente mentioned to me that Anna, one of the two West daughters, would shortly be returning from college in Boulder, Colorado. Would she, I asked, be interested in becoming a film archivist? A conversation with her confirmed it: she was excited at the prospect of seeing her father’s films, and desperately wanted them preserved.
I suggested that on my next trip, we attempt to document and catalogue as much as possible. It was agreed, and I arrived a short time later. I developed a matrix that Clifford could use to list his film properties, then together, worked with the West family to identify and document all of his existing prints, outtakes, and miscellaneous rolls of film, which involved carrying many decaying, dusty boxes up three flights of stairs before the important work began. Over two days, we meticulously catalogued, viewed, and repacked films for more effective preservation. We found a total of 50 usable prints, and Clifford suddenly had a clear picture of his life’s work in film. Among the boxes of film, Anna, a photographer herself, discovered old picture albums she’d never seen before, chronicling her father’s life as a young man. Our showing that night was a bit more emotional than usual, as doors from the distant past were suddenly, and occasionally jarringly, unlocked.
I found Anna to have superior organizational skills, and her background in photography has given her a keen interest in the minutiae of preservation. We welcome her to the world of film preservation, delighted that Clifford West’s important films will not vanish from the scene. A recent photograph she took of her father is on AFA’s Clifford B. West webpage; please visit the page for a filmography, pictures, and a brief explanation of his work.
From a preservation perspective, the films are stored in what I refer to as "best local" conditions. While not in vaults, they are kept in an environment away from heat and, to as much extent as possible, humidity. They are in close proximity to Clifford and Anna, where they can continue to document and view his work.
My own philosophy subscribes to the theory that, when possible, it's important to keep the work of academic filmmakers in the hands of passionate and interested family members who wish to become archivists of the work, but aren’t necessarily sure where to begin. We are convinced that donations to universities aren’t always the best thing; given the overall lack of appreciation for academic film shown by the scholarly community at large. In many cases, trusting the work of academic filmmakers to the caprices of university storage processes leaves them at best open to abuse, at worst, to discarding, and loss. It is apparent that new archivist Anna West will contribute significantly to the knowledge and understanding of her father’s work over the next several decades.
To publicly document the Clifford B. West preservation project, we presented a two-evening retrospective of the films of Clifford West at ciné16 in San Jose on August 9 and 10, 2001, with Anna West in attendance.