Death Comes to the Archive

Archives grow from what elders preserve and death releases, and winters hit the aged hard.  It’s a plain truth no one can celebrate. This polar-vortex winter has been stringent, even in the south, and as 2017 turned into 2018 three women who appear in Lesbian Home Movie Project collections died — ally Barbara Ann Davis (1952-2017); lesbian musician & wiccan Deborah “Flash Silvermoon” Kotler (1950-2017); and sculptor and filmmaker Jere Van Syoc (1935-2018). Barbara and Flash appear in pieces in the Corky Culver Collection. Jere Van Syoc was the subject of the earlier Woman Behind the Camera blog, “Looking for Lesbisia.” I grieve their deaths as if I knew them well. But I never met them.

As film buffs and psychoanalysts know, repetition strengthens the fervid impressions moving images so often create. Many buffs watch beloved movies over and over to refresh the original pleasure. It’s not that different from eating spoonful after spoonful of ice cream. But while ice cream cloys and sugar highs collapse fast, repeatedly watching moving images deepens their effect. Sometimes that’s the goal. In the case of a viewer’s personal home movies, the home movies of her childhood, for example. the intent is often to embed memories her brain was too young initially to write to its hard drive. It works, evidence suggests and experience supports. Sometimes the goal is of a different order: to overwrite painful real-life memories with screen memories.  That works too.

The hallmarks of amateur films — the jiggle, the jerky pan, the grain, the blur, the hues, the grays, the fogs, the static — seem to replicate the effect that the passage of time has on memory and scam the mind into the sense that the other is part of the one’s own world and the moving image that captured the imaginary cinematic world a record of one’s own history and experience.

Archivists bring an instrumental and conscious intention to watching moving images repeatedly as we labor to meld documentation and moving images via viewing logs and catalog entries. All the same, pouring over footage heightens the sense of intimacy.  It doesn’t take long to feel you really know people you’ve never actually met in “real” life.  And so I grieve Barbara, Flash, and Jere.

Barbara Ann Davis is best known for her work as an attorney and mediator. While she practiced traditional public-interest law for some years as a public defender and legal services attorney, she came to put her stronger faith in mediation.  She founded and directed the Mediation Center in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1984, and she later became a pioneer in the field of collaborative law. She was a staunch supporter of the lgbt community. At the bottom of her practice web page, this exclamation appears in bright blue: “An LGBT friendly business!” The Corky Culver Collection documents another role she gave her warmest attention, that of wonderful friend.  It would have been a great pleasure to hum with her as Corky does in this clip.

Deborah “Flash Silvermoon” Kotler, who also died in December, appears many times in the Corky Culver Collection. She grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, and lived in New York City for a number of years, playing music, reading tarot cards, doing astrological charts, and generally hanging out with other wild women — Janie Joplin among them — before she took Corky up on the suggestion to move to northern Florida.  There she became a major force in the women’s music scene as well as “a metaphysical community leader.” The Culver tapes show her playing her heart out for women’s and activist events from just about the day she arrived in Florida until very close to the day she died. Release of most of those performances has to await participant and collective’s permissions. Luckily the clip of the performance below only includes Flash herself, so we can share it.

For me most painful, in the past two weeks the filmmaker Jere Van Syoc whom I wrote about in an earlier blog post, “Looking for Lebisia,” had a massive stroke in a West Virginia nursing home. She died just a few days later. Given that she suffered from dementia for several years and her film “The Brothel, the Temple, and Art” in effect constituted a final memoir, her death shouldn’t have come as a shock. But against all reason, I had harbored a hope that dementia research might suddenly produce a treatment that would bring her memory back and — side effect! — open the chance to interview her about her work. No such luck.

To mark her death, I knuckled down to a job I’d put off — creating viewing logs for her outtakes. As a rule, I love creating viewing logs — identifying strangers from the past, pointing a viewer toward a fact they’d probably never guess — that, for example, the odd looking lobster boat had an extra motor to give it the speed rum-running required or the comic looking fellow in the fedora holding a stick perpendicular to the ground is dowsing for a well. Or that if the viewer keeps her eyes peeled on that party, she’ll glimpse Adrienne Rich having a rollicking good time. But outtakes are also irritating. So many splices, so random. It’s going through a wastebasket.

Jere did the bulk of her filmmaking when there was no easy way for someone who was neither in the film industry nor had big bucks to create a piece out of footage without destroying the original.  She resolved that problem a cheap way.  She projected her original footage, filmed the projection,  and then cut and spliced that to make the film she wanted. Sometime later she loaned her remaining footage to the filmmaker Michelle Citron to use bits of in Citron’s “Mixed Greens.” Citron had the footage transferred to tape and returned the original footage to Jere.

Lesbian Home Movie Project holds Citron’s 2003 tapes.  It was a professional transfer but methods then were not what they are now.We’re looking for  the original Super 8mm footage — there was also said to have been a 16mm transfer — but so far no luck.

By the time I clicked on the last outtakes reel, I was tired of squinting and close to giving up. But a rule of archiving is that patience pays off. It did. The reel opened with a treasure: early Michfest footage in delicious color,  originally Super 8.  I want to share every minute of this footage. Almost did in fact, but since Michfest was for womyn only, tops were optional, Jere’s camera was fearless, confrontational, and bold, and these are nervous times, prudence has ruled and this clip stops at the gates of Eden.  Imagination doesn’t have to, though.