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Protect and Preserve


By Mary Daily

Published Apr 1, 2009 10:00 AM

A man's passion for preserving original film work has become a legacy of our times.

Moving image media tell us so much about ourselves, says Robert Rosen, that letting films fade away is a "cultural crime."

The historian, who ends his 10-year term as dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television in June, is one of the seminal figures in the struggle to save our filmed heritage. He compares film's role in the 20th and 21st centuries to calligraphy's in the 9th. "They're historical documents that embody collective narratives," he says. "Who we are, what we aspire to, what happened and what we thought about it."


One of Robert Rosen's favorite film "saves" is the 1955 movie Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum.

Preservation also is integral to artists' rights, says Rosen. It ensures that filmmakers' work survives in its original form and can be viewed as intended, rather than as adapted for television, computer or cell phone screens. So students "can see how past masters of the craft solved storytelling problems" and be inspired to find their own voices, which is critical to Rosen's view of what film school should do. "Unlike the studios' tendency to make movies appealing to the lowest common denominator, we encourage risk-taking," he says.

Film preservation was a fledgling activity in 1974, when Rosen arrived in Westwood from the University of Pennsylvania to teach one quarter in the Department of Film and Television in the School of Fine Arts. Actually, he had never planned a career in film at all.

Back at Penn, when a colleague asked him to co-teach a film history course, Rosen had to work hard to prepare. Rosen grew up in rural New Jersey, where a trip to the movies required a drive into town. But the course drew 500 students, and Rosen found his life's work.

Nice saves

See a gallery of film stills featuring some of Robert Rosen's favorite movies rescued by the UCLA Archive.

One quarter at UCLA has turned into 35 years, and he says he's not going anywhere soon. Along the way, he was appointed director of what began in 1977 as a "small study collection" known proudly as the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and later dean of a newly formed school devoted entirely to performing arts and moving image media.

Since then, the Archive has preserved more than 400 feature films and innumerable shorts, newsreels and TV shows in their original form. It has amassed more than 500,000 titles and is now the nation's second largest film collection, behind only the Library of Congress.

Rosen takes enormous pride in UCLA's leadership in preservation and in what the collection provides for students, singling out the preservationists and projectionists who have worked long and hard, often on a shoestring budget. What drove them, he says, was a "shared vision of making films come alive as they were intended, larger than life."