Moma Builds Extensive Film-Preservation Center In Rural Pennsylvania

HAMLIN, Pa. - Here in the rolling country of the northern Poconos, Marlon Brando is trapped in a metal canister, in a room as stark and gray as a prison cell.

So, too, is his "Godfather" co-star Al Pacino, locked in a vault maintained at a bone-chilling 36 degrees. And just a stone's throw away, down a gravel road that curves around a broad, sloping meadow, Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin sit, neatly stacked, in a building where the air conditioning thrums at a constant 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

Of course, these fabled movie thespians and other legends from the 100-year history of the medium aren't really here. But their images are, captured on acetate, polyester and old nitrate film stocks and preserved in an elaborate climate-controlled environment in a spanking-new $11.2 million complex built by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

With more than 13,000 titles representing every style and format of the moving image, the invaluable MOMA collection stands as one of the most important in existence. Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille . . . Russian masters and French New Wave . . . surrealist shorts by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp . . . Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in "It Happened One Night," Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in "The Bridges of Madison County." They're all here.

And outside little Hamlin, population 892, in two sleek buildings ringed by woods full of deer and birds and even a few bears, is where MOMA decided to put it.

"As long ago as 1980, when I came to the film department, I realized we had this huge collection, not well-stored, and we had to do something about it," said Mary Lea Bandy, chief curator of the museum's film and video archive. "We couldn't do it in Manhattan. Technically and mechanically it's too difficult, and it was certainly too expensive."

Bandy's realization and 15 years of research and innovative design have led to the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center. Named after the chairman of the museum's trustee committee on film, the facility - which was dedicated June 20 - is 150 miles north of Philadelphia and 100 miles northwest of Manhattan.

More than a warehouse, it's a high-tech complex designed by Davis, Brody & Associates to forestall the deterioration of the MOMA collection. (Nitrate stock, used until 1950, is notoriously volatile, and even the newer "safety" films made with acetate or polyester wear over time.) The center, staffed by six people, is not open to the public, and apart from hosting a few conferences with other preservation teams - the Sony studios' archivists met here recently - it is not going to be crawling with visitors. Scholars, screenwriters, institutions and others seeking access to the collection and its databases will continue to use the MOMA offices in Manhattan.

The center's larger building, with 28,000 square feet, contains 22 vaults and stores black-and-white and color safety film, as well as videotapes, film stills and posters. The second structure, with 8,000 square feet, houses nitrate originals. At the heart of this collection are almost 1,000 silent-era Biograph titles, including 400 shorts by D.W. Griffith, and such landmark works as Thomas Edison's 1890s Kinetoscopes "The Barbershop" and "The Blacksmith Scene" - the oldest of the MOMA pieces.

Linked by computer to the museum's Manhattan offices on 53rd Street, the center maintains a database of filmographic information "on every title in our collection," Bandy said. "That catalog will probably never be finished. . . . It's an ongoing process."

The archive's inventory is also cataloged by computer and bar-coded by can, shelf and vault, so that "for the first time, we have major communication between our storage facility and the museum," Bandy said. "Eventually we'll be able to hook up with other archives around the country (to share) cataloging, descriptive information."

There is also a shipping database that keeps track of every can of film, every reel, as it goes in and out, and every title added to the collection.

The museum began acquiring titles in the early '30s, when studios typically discarded films after their runs. Lillian Gish was responsible for obtaining D.W. Griffith's films; Turner Entertainment donated more than 600 titles released by the Warner Bros. and RKO Studios in the '20s, '30s and '40s. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have also donated their collections to the museum. Many reels are the sole remaining copies of the films.