“Anything you can do, I can do meta” is a quip that’s been gleefully adopted (literally or in spirit) by philosophers, geeky computer scientists, and performers. It’s a tweak of a line from Annie Get Your Gun, a show about show business, and a reminder of how we often enjoy entertainment that’s in some way about itself. Some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed movies are themselves about the movies, such as Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, and La La Land.
Robert Hughes’ Souls for Sale (1923) is an early silent movie in that tradition that will be joining the public domain in the US thirteen days from now. It’s a Hollywood movie about Hollywood, the movies it made, and the scandalous behavior it was already known for. Based on Hughes’ 1922 novel of the same title (now readable online), it features aspiring actors, jealous and murderous lovers, and directors who insist on keeping the cameras rolling through danger and disaster in order to get the perfect shot. Many of the stars of the silent era make appearances in the film, either as featured characters or in cameo roles. For instance, the film shows Charlie Chaplin, as himself, filming a scene from A Woman of Paris, one of his 1923 films that will also be joining the public domain in January. The film even turns its sardonic commentary on itself. After a character on a train makes a head-scratching (but plot-advancing) decision not to do anything about his bride’s sudden disappearance, a title card appears asking “Why didn’t he tell the conductor and stop the train?”
Souls for Sale was popular when it was released, but isn’t as well-known today as the other films about Hollywood that I mention above. That may be in part because it disappeared for decades, and until recently was believed to be one of the many “lost forever” films from the silent era that I noted in a previous calendar post. Luckily, prints were eventually found in various vaults, and the film was restored, in time for Roger Ebert to see it and write a memorable appreciation of the film in 2009 for his “Great Movies” series.
Unfortunately, many other films and videos, both from that era and from much later, have not escaped the fate we once thought this movie had suffered. Limited numbers of copies combined with fragile media doom much of our audiovisual cultural memory to oblivion, unless active steps are taken to preserve it. An article in the latest issue of the Science History Institute’s Distillations magazine describes the ways in which various film technologies remain vulnerable to deterioration. Videotape also degrades faster than many people think; a 1995 CLIR report for libraries warns that tapes can easily deteriorate beyond use within 10-30 years.
The migration of audiovisual media to the digital realm introduces new preservation problems. While digital video files can be refreshed through copying, those in digital-restriction management (DRM) formats, like much of what’s released to consumers, may not be easily replayed or reformatted, particularly if the DRM scheme becomes obsolete, as eventually tends to happen. Even when DRM is not an issue, the specialized, high-information formats that are often used in video and movie production (and which are often the best sources for later remastering for new technology) can become unsupported alarmingly fast. Apple recently posted a warning to users of Final Cut Pro and Motion, two software packages popular with many video creators, that many formats they supported would no longer be viewable or convertible after installing versions of macOS released after Mojave.
The perils for audiovisual content are severe enough that in 2014 Joshua Ranger posted a plea to libraries and archives to stop digitizing paper, and redirect their resources to preserving what they can of their more rapidly deteriorating audiovisual holdings. But even if libraries don’t shift their priorities that radically, they can still invest in relatively low-cost equipment and services for rescuing not only their own audiovisual works, but also those of their users. Examples of such services include the portable PROUD and PRAVDA systems developed at the University of Wisconsin, and the Memory Lab services offered by the DC Public Library.
Once works enter the public domain, the legal barriers to copying them drop, and preservation through propagation can become much easier. With long copyrights and short shelf-lives for audiovisual works, we in cultural institutions have a lot of work to do to ensure that the works we should preserve outlive their copyrights. In less than two weeks, though, we can celebrate, and copy, Souls for Sale and other 1923 films that have done so.
2019 update: Link to full silent video of Souls for Sale, now in the US public domain, at the Internet Archive.