He oughta be in pictures...

If you prefer Olivier to Arnie, a man at the NFT could have you singin' in the aisles.

Nicole Veash
Sunday 17 May 1998 23:02

Are you tired of being force-fed a rigid diet of blockbuster releases at faceless multiplexes? Do you crave the chance to see movie greats on a big screen? Then read on.

Fifteen years ago, David Meeker, a feature archivist at the National Film Archive, part of the British Film Institute, attempted to do something about contemporary Hollywood's cinema dominance. Instead of relying on sporadic NFT screenings, Meeker hatched a plan to give the public regular access to rarely seen classic films. In the ensuing years, he has compiled a list of 360 "Treasures", as he calls them, one of which will eventually be shown daily at the Museum of the Moving Image on London's South Bank. Meeker's aim is to bring recognised landmarks in cinema to a public which he believes is currently being offered only a dictated film culture.

Wandering through the vaults of the BFI's archive in Berkhamsted, Meeker admits he is something of a film evangelist. "OK, I'm a purist," he confesses, "For me, the real joy of watching a film is in seeing it exactly as the film makers originally intended, and the key to that is the big screen.

"Maybe some people are happy with watching films on video or television, but I'm not." To this end, Meeker is slowly building up a library of perfect, state-of-the art prints, which cost around pounds 2,000 a piece.

"Before I started compiling the Treasures you could only see Singin' in the Rain on television because there wasn't a cinema print available in Britain until I acquired one," says Meeker.

It is staggering to realise how few recognised film classics you can actually see in the cinema. Currently, there are no acceptable show prints of All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grapes of Wrath and Laurence Olivier's Richard III. Through a combination of often painstaking negotiations with film studios, and rescue attempts on rapidly deteriorating films shot on nitrate, the BFI have managed to collect and preserve 149 treasures on non-degradable safety stock for the benefit of future generations.

"It is so difficult to get prints out of studios these days," says Meeker. "Disney, for example, never allow archives to own prints of their pictures, so I'll never get Fantasia into the system. When we are given a print, the cost of importing it can be enormous." Added to that is the cost of restoring rotten, nitrate-damaged films. According to Meeker's reckonings, around pounds 300,000 has so far been spent on the Treasures, but he says every penny has been worth it. "I am convinced that people want to see films from the past as they were meant to be seen."

The list is not exclusively western European or American. The world cinema trove has been plundered and in certain areas, like Finnish cinema - which Meeker admits is not his strong point - expert advice is taken. He is emphatic that the Treasures do not constitute another "best of" line-up.

"I'm not making any claims that these films are the best in existence. It doesn't include some of the most important or the most influential," he says. "They reflect my views and prejudices, although I personally detest some of the films in the list.

"After all, I left out Gone with the Wind because I don't think it's a great film, although it was hugely popular at the box office. With a project like this, some people are bound to disagree."

Meeker's list is not static. Currently, it only goes up to 1981 because, he says, anything after that date hasn't really had a chance to "mature". "A list like this needs time to breathe," says Meeker. "I'm always prepared to revise it, because film is a living thing which people respond to and change their minds about.

"It might take me another 15 years to finish compiling perfect prints of all 360 Treasures, but I'll do it, even if I have to justify myself over and over. This is a dream of mine, and I'm never going to give it up."

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