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 accidental discovery of Clifford West’s films was borne out of a desire to get to the farthest corner of the U.S., to concentrate on writing my first film book, Academic Films for the Classroom: A History. I picked Enfield, New Hampshire, a tiny town on the edge of Lake Mascoma, where an abandoned Shaker village was run by a small local company. They turned the Shaker meeting house into an austere inn, Shaker furniture in every room, neither pictures on the walls nor television, the perfect writer’s hideaway.
Early one afternoon I drove to Lebanon, a few miles away from Enfield, to grab a cup of coffee, stopped at an art gallery on the town square. The friendly woman who ran it asked what I was doing in town. After telling her about my project, she said, "Oh, my husband made educational art films, his name is Clifford West". 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, also produced gems including a 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 Although his films never achieved the distribution they deserved, they are important historical documents, and, with their "camera-as-paintbrush" moving camera technique, are unique.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, at the age of 85, wanted to preserve his films but had incomplete records defining 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. Bente mentioned that Anna, one of the two West daughters, would shortly be returning from college in Boulder, Colorado. Would she 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.
On my next visit several months later, we documented and catalogued several pallets of film. I developed a matrix Clifford and the West family used to identify and document all his existing prints, outtakes, and miscellaneous rolls of film. This 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, finally providing Clifford 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, unlocking doors from the distant past.
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. Anna's organizational skills and photography background fueled 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. Visit the Clifford B. West page for a filmography, pictures, and a brief explanation of his work.
When possible, we believe 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.