You might not believe it, but the world’s foremost film preservation experts work in a rural community somewhere in between Washington, DC and Richmond, VA. Here, in a former bunker from the Cold War-era, hidden in the mountains of central Virginia, the work of the Library of Congress is being carried out, so that future generations will have everything from all-time classic movies like Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Casablanca to newer cult films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Back to the Future, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
This is the work that is being done at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, VA a place I was lucky enough to see up close recently as a part of a special screening of the classic 1980s Dustin Hoffman comedy, Tootsie.
For those of you who don’t know, the United States Congress passed a law in the late 1980s in order to preserve classic films through a project called the National Film Registry. Every year, the Registry, under the direction of the Library of Congress, picks 25 films that are at least 10 years old and considered to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” This law was made partially in response to businessman and CNN founder Ted Turner wanting to colorize classic films like Casablanca after buying MGM’s film library.
The Registry, as of 2015, contains 650 individual films, ranging the classics I previously mentioned to everything from acclaimed documentaries (like Grey Gardens and Hoop Dreams) to old Looney Tunes cartoons to home video footage to experimental films (including the first films to experiment with sound and CGI, respectively) and even footage of historical events (the infamous “Zapruder film,” which shows the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, is preserved in the Registry).
The site of the campus in Culpeper, Virginia was actually a former Federal Reserve bunker, used to prepare the country in the event of nuclear holocaust at the height of the Cold War. The bunker had enough cash stored in it to replenish cash supply in a post-nuclear attack economy, as well as facilities to continue the business of the American federal government in case of such in an attack. The bunker was declassified and closed between the late 1980s through the early 1990s, right as the Soviet Union was collapsing and the Cold War came to an end. Realizing the continuing need for preserving America’s audio and visual heritage, the David & Lucille Packard Foundation (the late David Packard was the founder of computer company Hewlett-Packard) bought the bunker in 1997 on behalf of the Library of Congress and with the permission of the US Congress, to convert it into what it is today.
The main center of the Packard Campus, pictured just off the main highway leading up to it
Opened in 2007, the campus features state of the art equipment for film preservation, and is home to 7 million individual items, which include not just movies, but music, recordings, and other audio-visual media, with the campus starting to expand into preserving Internet videos and websites. Despite being a few hours away from the nation’s capital in Washington, the campus is still considered a federal property, with armed guards and a metal detector that all visitors are required to pass through. However, unlike other federal properties, the campus is not generally open to tours from the public, except on rare occasions.
At the heart of the campus lies a 200-seat theater, which is opened to the public for occasional screenings of classic films. This is how I got to see the campus and learn more about its history.
The entrance to the theater
Driving from my native Richmond, VA, I took a scenic route up the road to Culpeper and the campus. The campus may not be as inviting as the other Library of Congress buildings in Washington are, because a large gate stands at the entrance. Luckily, it was opened for the screening event.
The intimidating entrance to the campus...
Driving up, the first thing one’s eyes gravitate to is the massive main center. It is very visible from the main road, and architecturally it is a very beautiful building, with its exterior that blends into the Virginia countryside and an interior with plenty of space, where large windows allow visitors to look out onto the scenic view. It is this main building that the campus’ theater is in.
Entrance to the main center of the campus
The theater itself is an old-style, Art Deco theatre that can play a variety of different movie formats on the big screen. Later in the month, we were told, the theater would play host to film academics from all of the country and throughout the world as they watched old, “lost” silent movies in order to watch for clues as to the films’ identities.
Picture of the theater just before Larry Smith came to speak and the movie started.
Note the Library of Congress logo on the podium
Shortly before the movie began, we were given a brief introduction by Library of Congress employee Larry Smith, who works at the campus as a Nitrate Film Specialist in the Moving Image section of the Library (you can read more about Larry and his work at http://blogs.loc.gov/now-see-hear/). Larry has been working for the Library since 1999, and worked with their film lab in Dayton, OH before being asked to move his work to Culpeper. He chose all the movies that would screen at the theater during the month of June, ranging from Psycho to Double Indemnity to, the reason I was there, Tootsie.
In a flyer handed out before the movie, Larry Smith describes his work and reasons for his choices for his month of screenings as such: “Working here I am fortunate to be a part of a dedicated team made up of lots of diverse tastes, backgrounds, and education… It is an honor for me to program the month of June – I feel like a kid in a candy store. With over a 1000 favorite movies, many of them already played at the theater, so I wanted to select some of the best that have not yet been screened. Happily, some prints are being loaned to us from UCLA, Universal, Sony… Sadly, not all the titles I had hoped to present have been preserved – yet! But for this package I hope everyone will join me in celebrating some of the best films, not yet show our BIG screen, the way they were meant to be shared – with a big audience of like-minded movie buffs!”
Before we began, Larry told us a little bit about the background of Tootsie, specifically how actor Dustin Hoffman pitched the project and worked with director Sydney Pollack to create a modern comedy masterpiece. Noting that one of Tootsie’s inspirations was the story of transgender tennis champion Renee Richards, Larry drew a parallel between that and the current media sensation over Caitlyn, formerly Bruce, Jenner. And then, the movie started.
Overseen in the theater lobby... Coming attractions, perhaps?
As someone who had seen Tootsie before, but only on home video, I was surprised just how much the big screen experienced enhanced the movie. I probably laughed more than I had previously when I had seen it thanks to 200 other movie fans laughing behind me and reminding me of what a damn funny movie it is. The film print itself, while still scratchy and containing “dust” at parts, hardly appropriate in our era of the “high-definition digital-remastered edition,” was still just like what seeing Tootsie on its first release in the early 80s would have been like, giving me a sense of nostalgia for a movie whose release I wasn’t even alive for.
After the screening had ended, I shook Larry’s hand and thanked him for picking such a great film. As I made my way back to my car, I pondered what a truly interesting and unique experience it had been to visit, even just for a film screening, such an important fixture for movie lovers, one that will ensure that the movies we love will live on forever.