Mike Mashon might have one of the coolest jobs in the federal government. He directs the Moving Image section at the Library of Congress. Recently, the section released a digitized version of something never seen before: a home movie of a famous rock concert from 1969. He spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk about his work and this gritty movie.
Tom Temin: Mr. Mashon, good to have you.
Mike Mashon: Hey, Tom, it’s very nice to be here, thank you.
Tom Temin: First, give us an overview of what’s going on in the Animated Image section. I guess they don’t call it movies anymore. Kind of image brings digital and film and everything ever recorded with light I guess.
Mike Mashon: Law. Thus, the Library of Congress houses the largest collection of films and videos in the world. We have approximately 1.7 million individual items, physical items in our collection, as well as an ever-growing collection of digital items. So we’ve been collecting movies here since the 1890s. And we still get it through copyright, gifts, and purchases today. My section is therefore in charge of acquiring the material to describe it doing any conservation relocation we need, we have good storage for this. And we have also established preservation priorities for this collection. It’s a big job.
Tom Temin: And when you have motion picture film, from a camera from emulsion, light sensitive film, do you usually digitize that, because the film eventually breaks down and dissolves?
Mike Mashon: Yes, these days we are digitizing film. But we’ve always been grounded and we still have the ability to keep film after film. We are one of the few places that can still chemically preserve moving images. So we still have the ability to create, for example, 35mm prints from nitrate film originals.
Tom Temin: And there are still filmmakers working today who use motion picture film, right, traditional film?
Mike Mashon: Absolutely. Yes, there are still a handful. We’re kind of a “film forever” kind of people, but we’re not Luddites either. So we certainly have a huge number of digital workflows available to us at our facility.
Tom Temin: Yeah, it’s kind of a cultural thing. I mean it takes some getting used to, to watch a full budget movie I don’t go to the cinema a lot but to see a video tape it’s something that has been, not to do but “rooted in people” see the brain pass. And I guess one day we’ll get used to not seeing it.
Mike Mashon: You know that sometimes going to the cinema is a bit interesting and you usually watch a digital cinema package. And those things, they’re very clean, you don’t see the grain in the film anymore. And for people like me, it can sometimes be a bit disconcerting.
Tom Temin: And what is the process by which the library decides that this film should be kept in perpetuity, this one perhaps not being so?
Mike Mashon: Great question, we really try hard to preserve everything, frankly, especially in regards to the video we have in the collection, I want to point out that we also have a lot of video tapes in our collection. We have ways to do that in the robots, where we can push the video tape through the robots and do huge amounts of digitization, like 20,000 tapes a year, on average. Cinema is going to be a little different. We have many film reels in the collection. And you’re right, we have to make decisions about what is going to be preserved. We have good conservation storage. Thus, the films we have are stored in cold and dry conditions. We are therefore able to slow down their deterioration until we can reach them. But quite often the decisions we make will be based on the physical state of the material. So if the film has really started to deteriorate, we want to make sure we can digitize it as quickly as possible. But we also have a very strong loan program here. There are still a fair number of theaters showing 35mm films and we can still do 35mm prints in addition to doing digital cinema packages here. So there are films that we know will be screened in theaters. We also have many of our films available online through what is called the National Screening Room. And we will ensure that these films are sent to the laboratory for digitization.
Tom Temin: We speak with Mike Mashon, he is the head of the Moving Image section at the Library of Congress. And do you work with the National Archives because they have films like I think they have the Zapruder film, for example. And it must also be preserved in the same way. So how does this interaction occur?
Mike Mashon: Oh, we have a lot of interaction with other federal agencies and the National Archives being the main one. We are also very involved in initiatives with the National Archives in terms of establishing digitization standards. There is a federal group working on this. People will often ask me what the difference is between our collection and the National Archives. The National Archives are responsible for films that have been produced by the government. And we have a lot of them in our collection. But we collect even more widely than that. That’s why you’re going to find a lot of Hollywood movies, home movies, educational movies, in our collection, but we’ve worked closely with the National Archives.
Tom Temin: Now, this recent movie that was revealed was a home movie of a famous concert or concert where a famous and unfortunate event happened. Tell us about the Altamont concert there, the Rolling Stones and other famous artists of the time. What is the story behind this movie and who shot it and how did it get to the Library of Congress?
Mike Mashon: Well, in some ways, the story of how this movie was discovered is as interesting as the movie, at least from an archival perspective. So a colleague of mine, a technician by the name of John Snelson, is going through a collection of films that we received from a man by the name of Rick Prelinger many years ago, Rick, collects a lot of films, very well known in the archival domain. And it’s a massive collection of over 150,000 film reels. So John is going through the Prelinger collection. And it just caught my attention. Every once in a while he would come across something, he would just draw my attention to it. And he said, I got this movie, and it’s called “Stones in the Park,” and I –
Tom Temin: It could be anything.
Mike Mashon: It could very well be for me what it triggered was that I knew the Rolling Stones had actually filmed a gig they did in Hyde Park in July 1969 shortly after the guitarist died Brian Jones. So it was filmed and released as “Stones in the Park”. But what John had found was 8mm film, and 8mm is an amateur film format, so I wasn’t really sure what it was. And I just went ahead and sent it to the lab. I thought, OK, we’re gonna want to know what this stuff is anyway. So I place a digitization order, it goes up to the lab, and a few days later I get a call from the lab. And the guys up there are like, “Mike, you should come see this.” So I ran upstairs, and here they play me the file. And this is Altamont. Altamont’s free concert took place on December 6, 1969. Very famous concert commemorated in the movie “Gimme Shelter”. But it was clearly an amateur film shot by someone right off the stage. It’s silent. There is no sound with this. But you know, you see artists who are not in Gimme Shelter. You have Santana and the Flying Burrito Brothers with Graham Parsons, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are in it, in the home movie, in addition to footage of the Stones and their nightly performance.
Tom Temin: And this concept became famous, it was in California at a racetrack, and that’s where they hired the Hells Angels as bodyguards, and a murder happened in the audience.
Mike Mashon: Yeah, and there’s nothing, I mean, you can see the kind of chaos that breaks out, as the Hells Angels roam the stage. But yes, a concert goer, Meredith Hunter was killed by a Hells Angel while filming the Stones. You don’t see anything like it in this home movie. But you asked, do we know who the cameraman is? We dont do. We would love to know who shot this because I will say that the film that Rick Prelinger had acquired was from a company called Palmer Films, which was a lab in San Francisco that went bankrupt. And when Palmer Films went out of business, Rick came in, picked up all their films, added them to his collection, and then they came to us. So Palmer no longer exists. This film is abandoned at Palmer and therefore we consider it an orphan work. We just don’t know who it belongs to.
Tom Temin: Well, now it’s up to the public to see and maybe someone will come, “Hey, I was there. I shot this with my DeJur camera or my Bolex.
Mike Mashon: I would love it.
Tom Temin: And just while we have you, what’s your background? Do you come to this as a specialist in film, artistic content or as a type of technical preservation format or how did you come to this work?
Mike Mashon: I’m an expert on this. I always defer to the technicians on this. My professional journey started as an immunologist, but I really, really love movies and TV. So I went back to school and got a doctorate. in radio, television and film, and I started at the library 24 years ago as a curator of moving images. So I’m much more on the subject than anything else.
Tom Temin: Well, I have my own home movies in 8mm and later and Super 8. If you want to have them, they’re welcome at the library. But I have a feeling it probably doesn’t quite hit the threshold.
Mike Mashon: Oh, no, you would be wrong, Tom. In fact, we really like home movies here. We have many, many home movies in our collection. And some of them actually date back to the early 1900s, so it’s a pretty remarkable collection. And look, they won’t all be Altamont. But look, we have home movies of people who vacationed in Germany in the mid-1930s.
Tom Temin: wow!
Mike Mashon: It’s really fascinating. But yes, we also have my personal films.
Tom Temin: Okay, well if you want to see a 3-year-old Tom Temin sneeze silently on the beach because I was allergic to everything, in Atlantic City, that’s available.
Mike Mashon: Fantastic.
Tom Temin: Mike Mashon is responsible for the Moving Image Section at the Library of Congress. Thank you very much for joining me.
Mike Mashon: I really enjoyed it, Tom. Thanks very much.