The Chicago Public Library may be about to add a nail to the coffin of 16-millimeter film, but library patron Jim Finn is determined there should be no burial without a last hurrah. When rumors reached Finn last May that the Harold Washington Library Center had decided to take its 6,000-title collection of 16-millimeter films out of circulation, he got on the phone.

“I called right after I heard it and I was like, ‘What’s going on? Are you going to have meetings about this?'” Library staffers laid out the reasons why they were thinking of dropping their collection: the film stock was deteriorating and they didn’t have the resources to care for it; nobody was checking out the films. Early this month they made it official: the collection would be shut down on August 1.

Sixteen-millimeter film made its debut in the 1920s as an amateur format. The size proved ideal for educational, industrial, and eventually TV uses, and it soon became a standard. Feature films shot in 35-millimeter were transferred to 16-millimeter, and by the 1960s libraries all over the country had collections. But the use of 16-millimeter film dropped off sharply with the advent of video, and in recent years public libraries in Detroit, Dallas, Saint Louis, and other cities have been abandoning their collections. “You can’t get 16-millimeter prints anymore,” says Lea Jacobs, a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin, who notes that private companies renting 16-millimeter prints are going out of business. “It’s dying. The whole market is dying, and there’s no way to resuscitate it.”

Finn’s first reaction was to try, at least with Chicago’s public library collection. A regular at the library’s audiovisual department, he told the staff there that he wanted to organize public screenings before the films disappeared. He even thought he might be able to help raise money to save the collection, but the staff told him that unless he could come up with $100,000 he should forget it. “I wanted to do this film festival at the library. I thought, ‘Look, I want to curate this. I know the collection fairly well because I’ve been showing the films in my backyard.'” Last year he’d bought a used projector for $25, and since then he’s hosted some 20 screenings for friends and neighbors in the yard behind his Ukrainian Village apartment.

But the library’s staff passed him from one department to another. “Basically, I just decided that it wasn’t going to happen at Harold Washington,” says Finn. “They just didn’t seem like they were very interested.”

Finn, who teaches math part-time at Daley College, tried other public institutions where he thought he might screen films. He called the Lincoln Park Zoo (“I thought I could show these old nature films at the petting zoo and have the goats walk around while we eat popcorn”); the CTA (“They said I had to rent a train. It’s a free screening. How can I rent a train?”); and the CHA (“I had the idea of doing children’s programs at housing projects”).

Even film aficionados who lament the death of 16-millimeter might wonder at Finn’s persistence. The Harold Washington collection consists of feature films, educational and instructional films, and children’s programs. “The general assumption is they’re very crappy, outdated films that are in really bad shape. And that’s partially true,” says Finn. “A lot of hard-core film people are kind of snobbish about that collection. They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not that great.’ I understand where they’re coming from, but Chicago is one of the last places in the midwest where you can still check them out–through the end of this month–and I don’t think they’ve considered the whole thing very well.”

Finn says there are treasures in the collection. “They have Elvis–’68 Comeback, they have a film on Mingus, this Johnny Cash film. They have three Bunuel films. They have Interview With My Lai Veterans, which is this 20-minute film with American GIs very frankly talking about massacring unarmed Vietnamese civilians, talking about how they really didn’t feel any guilt about it, because they just thought that it was totally normal. I rented that from the library around the time that the whole Bob Kerrey thing came out. I just thought it was amazing how frank these men were talking about it in 1969, versus Kerrey’s whole spin-control talk about it in 2001. That just doubled my efforts, because I was thinking, ‘Man, these films have got to be seen.’

“Granted,” says Finn, “My Lai Veterans, Elvis–’68 Comeback, Los olvidados–all those films are on video, so you can find them. People have seen Elvis–’68 Comeback on DVD or video, and it’s great, but just to see it projected is amazing. I don’t know of anyone who’s going to come to a festival to watch a TV,” says Finn. “And very few people will come to watch a video projection. There’s just something about projecting a film, and being able to check it out for free, screen it for free. I didn’t go to film school. I’m not a professional film curator. I’m just some schmo and I can go down there and curate any number of films. It’s democratic curating.”

Carole Medal, the public library’s chief of visual and performing arts, says that 16-millimeter films accounted for less than one percent of the library’s total media circulation–films, videos, DVDs, CDs, etcetera–last year; 16-millimeter films were checked out 1,200 times. “The usage doesn’t justify the cost of preserving these films,” which Medal says could run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. “When you have to weigh where your money can be used, the films just don’t come to the top. We have a need for more computers, for increased Internet access.”

The outdated educational films belong in a research library, she maintains, not in the stacks at Harold Washington. “If they’re not being used, then why are they here? What value does that old 1940s Fodor’s travel guide have, except to a researcher? The public at large wants the 2001 Fodor’s travel guide.” She says the library will try to find “good homes” for the films and many of them could wind up staying in Chicago.

But Finn says that sending the films to the Chicago Historical Society or to local universities will change everything. “They have a nice 16-millimeter print of Vertigo at the University of Chicago. That’s great. But I’m never going to see that unless they decide to show it there,” he says. “I can’t check it out. I can’t look at it. That’s the way it is at Northwestern–that’s how it is everywhere. It’s totally different than the library, which is free and open to the public.”

Finn says the library should think twice about how it calculates circulation. “Every video that’s checked out is probably watched by one to three people, but every film that’s checked out is probably seen by 5 to 50 people.” Furthermore, he argues that circulation figures are low because the library has done little to promote its collection. Sixteen-millimeter films are kept out of public view in the back of the audiovisual department, the collection can’t be browsed on-line, the list of titles at the counter is outdated, and the library offers no way to screen its films on the premises. Borrowers must sign a waiver committing them to pay up to $1,500 for a lost or damaged film.

“Even to get the films, you already have to be fairly obsessive,” says Finn. He believes the library really made its decision years ago by deciding not to add to its collection or to weed out damaged films, especially the ones “poisoned” by vinegar syndrome, a contagious condition that causes the images on some color stock to disappear and the film to disintegrate. Medal says the library isn’t sure what percent of its collection might be infected.

The New York Public Library has taken a completely different approach to its 16-millimeter collection. Library patrons there can watch films from the 6,000-title collection at any of eight carrels. Branch libraries as well as the central library sponsor screenings. Marie Nesphus, who heads the New York Public Library’s Donnell Media Center, discusses the viability of collections in chicken-and-egg terms. “We have an absolutely magnificent collection, so therefore people want to see it, so therefore it’s used, and therefore we buy more.” (A Chicago friend of Nesphus’s says filmmaker Spike Lee spent hours at Donnell watching 16-millimeter films.) “The New York Public Library has made a decision which is different from nearly all public libraries,” says Nesphus. “That’s good for New York, I suppose, but not good for the rest of the public library patrons around the country.”

Finn wishes other alternatives could be discussed. “They haven’t done an outside study. They haven’t really looked to see what’s in their collection. Maybe you can go through them and get rid of the ones with vinegar-acid poisoning. Maybe you could get volunteers. If they’d had someone with vision, they could have started ten years ago to collect some of these other films from some of these other cities. But maybe that’s still possible.”

He’s found support for his screenings. Peter McDowell, program coordinator for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, says Finn’s idea to showcase the collection “sounded perfect.” The Cultural Center purchased a professional-quality used projector a few weeks ago, says McDowell. It regularly shows 16-millimeter films in conjunction with exhibits, and has collaborated on programs with Chicago Filmmakers. “We’ve had a lot of success with audiences,” he says, observing that the screenings attract a lot of younger people. “There’s a certain mystique about 16-millimeter. It’s almost the same thing as LPs. People were throwing away their LPs and now they’re buying them up.” Finn will curate a weekend 16-millimeter film festival this October or November at the Cultural Center.

The library isn’t making it easy for him to put the festival together. Finn needs to view the films he’s considering beforehand, but he says the library’s staff has refused to allow him access to the collection after August 1 or to waive its rule that only 90 minutes of film can be checked out by one person at a time. The films Finn chooses for his autumn festival will have to be formally requested by the Cultural Center, although he says it will be able to designate him as its representative to pick them up.

Finn will show 16-millimeter films from 9 PM to midnight this Sunday and July 29 at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, where a screening in late June attracted 50 people. Both programs are free. This Sunday’s will feature In the Night Kitchen, an animated version of the Maurice Sendak story, “with a floating naked boy whose penis caused some upset in the Bible Belt two or three years ago,” says Finn; The Golden Eagle: No Natural Enemy, “with a psychedelic funk score plus some evil cracker white people at the end who hunt the birds”; Nasser: The People’s Pharaoh, narrated by Henry Fonda; Black Music in America: The 70s, a short that ranges from Miles Davis to Donna Summer, “with a hopeful black-disco-will-change-the-world ending”; and Bunuel’s Mexican Bus Ride.

To get around the library’s 90-minute rule and put on a three-hour program, Finn says, his girlfriend will check out some of the films in her name.

For Finn, the upcoming screenings will be more than just a chance to watch some movies: “This is Chicago’s great 16-millimeter death rattle.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.