Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lynne Littman and Her Videotapes

For several summers in the early 2000s I served as a member of a jury panel for the International Documentary Association Awards, chaired by Oscar winner Lynne Littman. Among the group's members were terrific filmmakers and teachers such as Richard Pearce, Rick Berg, Linda Reavely, Tony Silver, Margot Winchester, Judy Chaikin, and Kate Amend. Lynne had known the others for many years; I was a newcomer but soon became good friends with everyone, especially Ms. Littman. She hosted the meetings at her amazing home near the Hollywood Bowl, and we spent part of the time watching portions of the submitted docs in her "media room," where she kept many videotapes of her work. I nagged her often to bring the tapes to the Film Archive for safekeeping and preservation, which she said many times she would do - soon.

Finally in 2010, she brought in several boxes of 3/4", VHS, 1/2" reel-to-reel, and a couple 1" tapes the Archive. At the time, we were "migrating" tapes on obsolete formats to digital betacam. As you may know (if you don't by now, you should!) all tapes on old formats are in extreme danger - there are not many machines left on which to play them, and the tapes themselves, especially if not kept in proper storage conditions, may only play with great difficulty, if at all.

Due to various circumstances, we in the Film Archive were not able to migrate Lynne's tapes until recently, and by then our protocols had changed. We now have long term digital storage at USC, and are no longer moving old tapes to tape, but going to digital files. Actually, Lynne's tapes were some of the first to undergo this process, so we're learning as we go, and except for a few issues here and there, the process has been quite successful.

The majority of the tapes are programs or reports that Lynne made as a producer and reporter at KCET in the 1970s. Unfortunately, KCET does not seem to have retained their master tapes for these pieces, so we believe that these copies may be the only ones that survive (in fact, many are labeled "Master.") These news and public affairs pieces are a fascinating and valuable time capsule of life in Los Angeles in the 70s. Some of the material is political, and very cutting edge, others more social but no less compelling. I wish I had the time to discuss each one, but I'm just going to hit some highlights.

WANTED: OPERADORAS is a short piece about women, mostly Mexican American and often undocumented, doing work at home for clothing factories of downtown Los Angeles. Obviously a story that, sadly, could be ripped from today's headlines as well.

Another short report from Lynne concerns the dangers of asbestos. Though a known carcinogen since the 1930s, asbestos was at the time still an ingredient in many household products, and available for sale in many hardware stores. Lynne goes to a store and buys a paper bag of asbestos powder, dispensed from an open container by a barehanded clerk!

THE GAY WAY is an hour long program from 1971 exploring gay life.  

In one studio panel, Lynne talks to four gay men, all prominent (then and later) activists, who give articulate testimony to their own experiences, as well as how gay people should be able to fit into the larger society.  One of this group is Morris Kight (1919-2003), one of the founders of the gay rights movement in the United States.

In another panel, Lynne speaks to four lesbian activists (including Ellen Broidy, part of the group that proposed the first gay pride parade) about their lives. Surprisingly for the period, the discussion is  straightforward and matter-of-fact, without apology. This seems to me a tremendously significant historical document.

In 1977, Littman and her then-husband Taylor Hackford made a terrific concert documentary about Rick Nelson and his Stone Canyon Band, IT'S ALL RIGHT NOW, with revealing behind-the-scenes interviews with Nelson and his fans.

Now, most of these tapes were in decent condition, others not so much. But for this transfer process (done at DC Video), the tapes were "baked" first to prepare them for transfer. The 1/2" reel-to-reel tapes were especially tricky due to their rarity. It's gratifying to know that these films are now preserved for the future, and available to be seen again.

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