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Top 5 Archive-Based Films Selected by the Expert

In this weeks’s top five best archive-based films, Richard Misek, filmmaker and Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of Kent, selects his five favourite films.

1. The city of Los Angeles as an invisible backdrop in “Los Angeles Plays Itself”(Thom Andersen, 2003)

For over a century, Los Angeles formed a ubiquitous and invisible backdrop to countless Hollywood films before Thom Andersen had the genius idea to repurpose footage from them in order to make L.A. itself the focus of a film. Every video essay made since the mid-2000s consciously or unconsciously owes something to “Los Angeles Plays Itself“. Added kudos to Andersen for taking inspiration for his title from an early 70s gay porn film.

2. The influential “Passage à l’acte” (Martin Arnold, 1993)

In terms of historical influence, it’s probably Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (made in the same year) that most clearly opened the flood gates to visual artists’ use of archive footage. But for me “Passage à l’acte“, together with Arnold’s Pièce Touchée (1993), even more effectively demonstrates the creative and critical electricity that can be generated through retiming source footage. 10 seconds from a breakfast scene in To Kill a Mockingbird transformed into a 12 minute opus that lays bare the patriarchal assumptions of classical Hollywood – and does so without saying a single word.

3. A documentary about humans and nature in “Grizzly Man” (Werner Herzog, 2006)

Love him or loathe him, you have to respect the brilliance with which Herzog transforms poor Timothy Treadwell’s footage of his time among bears in Alaska into a meditation on the relationship between humans and nature in “Grizzly Man“. It’s not only Herzog’s cool critique of Treadwell’s film-making methodology that does it, but also the way he (re-)structures Treadwell’s formless self-documentation into a classic three-act narrative. The revelation (spoiler!) that Treadwell was not the lifelong environmentalist that he seemed to be delivers the kind of narrative punch that Nolan et al can only dream of.

4. The creative mashup The Red Drum Getaway” (Gump Studio, 2015)

James Stewart finds himself shadowed across San Francisco by a cast of unsavoury Kubrick characters. It probably won’t go down in history, but I include this YouTube video, “The Red Drum Getaway“, because it’s important also to be open to works that disrespect and debase their source material – the kind of works that copyright holders might point to and say ‘This shouldn’t be allowed!’. In a sea of ponderously respectful video essays about Hitchcock and Kubrick, this one stands out like a beacon for its wit, its technical proficiency, and its sheer creative insanity.

5.  Combining new with old in “Concerning Violence” (Göran Olsson, 2014)

The slightly awkward academic prologue aside, “Concerning Violence” is a model for how to bring new life to old footage. Blessed with free access to the Swedish Film Institute’s archival collection, Olsson fuses 1960s and 70s Swedish news crews’ footage of African decolonisation with incendiary and inspiring words by Frantz Fanon. Though both the images and the words are decades old, the combination of them speaks directly to the world’s current struggles with aggression and nationalism.