‘Becoming AFI’ Might Have Benefited from a Good Scriptwriter’s Input

The history of this important American cultural institution is vital and appreciated, of course. If only the text had more "life" and "color" in it, as a good film does.

Becoming AFI: 50 Years Inside the American Film Institute
Jean Picker Firstenberg, James Hindman
Santa Monica Press
Aug 2017

The notion of a primarily federally-funded institution to create and promulgate cinema in all its forms was first proposed in 1935. At that time, in the midst of the Great Depression, the National Council on Education proposed the American Film Institute (AFI) as a way to incorporate film as a teaching tool in classrooms. As indicated in the Appendix Timeline in the final pages of Becoming AFI: 50 Years Inside The American Film Institute, it took over a quarter-century from the initial proposal for a British film educator (Colin Young), and over 100 prominent educators and critics, to make another call for a federally-mandated American Film Institute that would preserve the past, enrich the present, and ensure the possibilities of cultural and educational tools prominent within the medium of film. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act in 1965, and two years later, the AFI was established.

Most of us concerned with the emotional strength of our nation as embodied by what should be the stability and composure of our elected President are finding ourselves looking to the past for reassurance and strength. We want to believe that in these current days of unapologetic racism muttered without apparent consequences from our leader, there was a time when a US President felt compelled to lead the nation and embrace the art of cinema, which by 1965 had transitioned from the Golden Age of Hollywood and was about to become something deeper, more challenging, more dangerous. President Johnson might not have been so willing to sign the act had he foreseen such challenging, for the times, titles as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), but his initial remarks upon signing provided hope that a great art and its still untapped potential was going to be preserved:

“We will create an American Film Institute bringing together leading artists of the film industry, outstanding educators and young men and women who wish to pursue this twentieth-century art form as their life’s work.”

In Becoming AFI, an extensive history of how and why this organization developed from a federally-funded Institute (1967-1998) to a fully self-supporting entity (1998- ), writers Jean Picker Firstenberg and James Hindman illustrate that it wasn’t easy. Hindman notes, on the status of films in the 1960s, how “…there were few ways to have access to them beyond tired movie theaters… AFI was created to be a bridge between the public and this most public of art forms, by ensuring cinema-stories on a screen could be valued as an art form.”

In a sense, then, the reader gets the impression that the American Film Institute was developed from desperation. Where was American film going in the mid-’60s? The studio system was in its final stages. The decade would provide such bloated (and some would say misguided) efforts such as Richard Fleischer’s Doctor Dolittle (1967) and William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968), but the energy and experimentation was coming from the French New Wave and the British “kitchen sink” realism that started in the mid-’50s. The pathos of Italian films like The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) the malevolent and majestic spectacles of Akira Kurosawa’s films, and work from other cultures never harnessed by the demands of the Hollywood structure. By 1967, in the first year of the American Film Institute, the history of the medium and preservation of its classic product was in danger of disappearing. This wasn’t due to the popularity of television (by that point deeply entrenched in American culture) as much as the unwillingness of the mainstream (including the federal government) to embrace and financially support film’s artistic legacy. Who would support future pioneers? Where would they go to learn their craft? Film studies were in their infancy in the ’60s, and many of the greatest exponents of the craft (including John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet) had to learn their big screen techniques through their work in live television.

Early in Becoming AFI, we read some impressive statistics: “More than half of the American films made before 1950 have been lost… between seventy and ninety percent of silent films have vanished… destroyed deliberately by the studios… Why pay for the storage and preservation of worthless and highly flammable film?… By 1971, only four years after its founding, the AFI had recovered 4500 films.” It’s remarkable to consider embarking on such a salvage operation. This might bring to mind for the film fan reader Kane’s Xanadu at the end of Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane (1941), or the huge warehouse at the end of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). There might silly old films squirreled away in some dusty box sitting in a dark corner, somewhere, but that box might also contain a priceless cultural artifact or three. It just takes time to examine the remaining, salvageable supplies.

Along with the journey to preserve film, spearheaded by (among others) director Martin Scorsese, we learn about other AFI initiatives, such as the Center for Advance Film Studies, the Directing Workshop for Women, and the Life Achievement Award. American Film magazine, a costly (for the Institute) periodical, started in 1975 and did not survive past the turn of the century. In its time, though, it was a great forum for pointed film analysis writing and a clear understanding of how cinema affected (and was affected by) the American sensibility. The difficulty for the Institute, as explained, is that it needed to maintain status as an independent entity while also accepting and utilizing much needed federal funding. Becoming AFI also clearly illustrates that the mission of the AFI was to maintain status in the past, present, and future. This has meant establishing academic concentrations (in the AFI Conservatory) for fields in video, sound, and other innovative technology as it became popular and disseminated around the world.

While the purpose and history of the American Film Institute in its first 50 years is important to understand, Becoming AFI is not, unfortunately, as compelling a text on the subject as it could be. Too much of it seems devoted to detailed explanations of the financing and leadership roles. Business explications and the machinations of federal entities grow tiresome when the more interesting stories are film preservation and the development of workshops for female directors. It’s exciting to read about the acquisition of a near-mint 1912 print of Shakespeare’s Richard III (André Calmettes, James Keane), thanks to William and Margaret Buffum, called “…true heroes of film preservation” by AFI. William came upon the film in 1960 while trading with a fellow collector and 36 years later the film premiered at the AFI Los Angeles Film Festival. It screened in June 2000 in Belgium with film music maestro Ennio Morricone conducting a live orchestra. These types of stories deserved more elaboration, especially the ways civilian collectors have of periodically coming upon a masterpiece — and generously sharing their find.

Another missed opportunity refers to the difference between the AFI Catalog and IMDb. Most of us who enjoy spending time exploring the cast list and full crew of any TV or film that comes to mind are familiar with the immediate satisfaction that comes from IMDb. However, Becoming AFI makes it clear that “[W]here AFI goes deep, IMDb goes wide. Where AFI prizes professional standards of accuracy, IMDb prioritizes the dynamism of crowdsourced content.” In other words, IMDd has the addictive quality of Wikipedia, where information is constantly included but not always accurate. The goal of the AFI catalog seems to be “…giv[ing] readers a path to retrace the source of details, whether from the films themselves, archival sources, reviews, or news items.” Another book (perhaps more compelling) could have been written about the dedication required of all the researchers who have dedicated themselves to absorbing all these films from the past 120 years (or so) and putting them in historical context. We need to meet these men and women who toil anonymously on this massive print and online project, which to date has documented nearly half a million films.

It’s frustrating to mark the missed opportunities in this text, but they’re glaring. It’s an examination of the birth and growth of a federally-funded project that became independent (perhaps not by choice) halfway through its 50 years. It explores the noble and important act of film preservation, and it focuses on the mission to educate. There are moments, though, that could have used elaboration. Director Mike Nichols received an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. More or less universally beloved by colleagues and stars who worked on his films, there’s a brief mention of dissent from Anne Bancroft, Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate:

“But Anne did not fall into that category, and twenty years later she came to tell Mike that she still remembered how difficult a shoot it was and how she did not appreciate how he treated her on the set. Rarely… do you ever see such pent-up raw emotions unveiled in public…”

It isn’t that the timing is confusing in this passage (was the tribute in 2010? Was it 1987, 20 years after The Graduate? Was it, as implied later, 1993?) The timing isn’t the problem so much as the fact that most readers would rather have heard more stories of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremonies, as when Jack Nicholson asked his limo driver to drive around for a while before he entered the auditorium so the star could get over an anxiety attack.

Becoming AFI works best when it focuses on the projects and mission of the Institute, film preservation, and education. Firstenberg and Hindman are informed about their topic, but they write more as administrators and executives. More could have been heard from AFI conservatory alumni like David Lynch, Edward Zwick, Julie Dash, Darren Aronofsky, and others. The Institute has proven itself an indispensable part of American culture. Perhaps a memoir/oral history can be written that will trim the financial, business, executive suite accounts and focus more deeply on what was gained by the artists who went through its doors.

RATING 7 / 10