51% #1663: Film Archivist Audrey Kupferberg | WAMC

51% #1663: Film Archivist Audrey Kupferberg

Jun 9, 2021

On today’s 51%, we explore the world of film with archivist Audrey Kupferberg.

Film archivist Audrey Kupferberg has lived a lot of her life just off-screen, observing the stars and cataloging their work. She says archivists collect and preserve old footage, and help institutions like museums and libraries to display it.

Kupferberg worked for the American Film Institute and met more Hollywood stars than she can count.  She says when she was in her 30s she got to touch one of her favorites. In the 1970s she was at the American Film Institute Annual Life Achievement Award dinner, and she got bored. So she and her friend played a little game.

“We decided we were each going to pick a star of our choice, and we were going to touch him,” Kupferberg said. “Oh, we circled the room and it was a very big room. And she saw Robert Mitchum. And she said that's for me. I'm gonna touch him. Well, I've always been a little quirky. And I grew up absolutely loving George Burns. And there he was. So we walked through the room together. And when we were close enough to the star of our choice, we put our hands out, touched their back, they turned around and we quickly moved -- talk about immature.”

Kupferberg says she met Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson – she calls them legends. But she adds that some stars are more difficult than others.

“I had a job at AFI where I was given a task to stay next to Bette Davis for a whole evening,” Kupferberg said.

Bette Davis
Credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/kndynt2099/5739421749

“Because we were raising money for Film Preservation and she agreed to speak to the press. She couldn't care less about me. But I stayed next to her. And she started to talk to the press and everything she said was anti preservation. She was being Bette Davis, that crazy character you know, so grumpy. So above it all --elitist. And after 30-40 minutes of hearing her saying things like, ‘Oh, they never should have bothered preserving that film of mine, they should trash it,’ So I just walked away from her and left her there she was enjoying her time.”

But Kupferberg’s absolute favorite star-power moment? None other than the Music Man himself, Robert Preston.

“At AFI we were doing a series on acting for the students, the graduate students on the campus at AFI. Someone had the great idea of inviting Robert Preston to do an evening,” Kupferberg said. “And so I hosted the evening. And that was one of the most wonderful evenings of my career. He turned out to be more genteel, more charming, and more intellectual than then I ever hoped for. And nice, you know, just a lovely man. He came with his wife. The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘I understand, you know more about me than I do.’ And, and his wife said, ‘Why don't you two go off somewhere together?’ And I was not going to say no. So that was really an incredible evening.”

Kupferberg says she and Preston did go off for a private conversation in her office – which every cataloguer listened to from an adjoining room. But she says nothing happened, save for some shameless flirting. 

Raised on Film

Kupferberg was born in Amsterdam, New York in 1949 – about a block from where we’re sitting now.

This industrial upstate city was also home to Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas, who died at 103 in 2020.

Audrey Kupferberg's home is covered in Hollywood movie posters.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

The walls of Kupferberg’s ancestral home are covered with old Hollywood movie posters – everything from Cary Grant embracing a beautiful starlet to French films I can’t pronounce. Floor to ceiling shelves are overflowing with DVDs and VHS tapes. Boxes of film reels stand in corners. Even the metal filing cabinets are covered in magnets from past eras. One catches my eye – a woman brandishes a knife above bold sinister letters that read, ‘Beware, My Lovely’ and beside it is a miniature poster titled ‘Women in War.’ As we sit in her living room, a framed ‘Pacific Blackout’ Robert Preston smiles down on us from the stairwell.

In 1971, after graduating from the State University of New York in Albany, Kupferberg took her chances in New York City. But she says in those days finding work as a woman was limiting.

“I went from job interview to job interview -- totally meaningless jobs, but they would have paid the rent,” Kupferberg said. “Selling curtains at Bloomingdale's, selling vinyl at Sam Goody’s. Just anything that paid minimum wage where I could make my way and, and eat, you know, at the same time. I couldn't get any of the jobs --  there were too many people out there. I was hired at Bloomingdale's for the curtain job. My parents were in the curtain business, I knew all about curtains. And while they were doing my paperwork, someone else finished their paperwork. I lost that job. So, I was looking through the New York Times. And I saw this ad for Art Theater Guild. Art Theatre Guild, ‘Secretary’ – I thought, must be a place that sells box office tickets for shows. And it was right on 1501 Broadway, which is right in Times Square, the Paramount building, the old Paramount building film history here.”

She says when she walked in, she felt right at home.

“There were films all over the floor, you know, ICC cases and stacked reels of 16 and 35 millimeter films. I lost it,” Kupferberg said. “I was so excited. And I was so young. I mean, I had just turned 22.”

Kupferberg says she interviewed so well that the hiring manager fired someone else in the room to hire her. Talk about different times.

“And was Audrey going to be humane about it and say, ‘Oh, you shouldn't do that.’ No way! I was desperate,” Kupferberg said. “I was like three or four days away from having to get on that bus and come back home. So, no way, you become pretty ‘dog eat dog’ at that point. And in those days, young women entry level, you were a secretary. If you were a man, young man, entry level, you were in the mailroom. So it wasn't really as though the guys had a better position. In some ways, the secretarial position was better because you were around your bosses all the time. And you could prove to them that you knew something.”

Et tu, Pornography?

Kupferberg worked as the assistant to the film buyer for 14 months. The most interesting part of that adventure? It was the dawn of mainstream pornography.

Like the controversial 1972 film “Deep Throat”

“I found out shortly after getting the job with Art Theatre Guild that Sherpix had a lot of sex films,” Kupferberg said.

Sherpix was the sister company to Art Theatre Guild.

“Now the 1970s were a time of sexploitation films,” Kupferberg said. “The 60s and 70s in the United States was a time of opening up morally, you know, in many ways, and our tastes changed instead of this exploitation experience where a man goes in with a raincoat, you know, and hides his face. I mean, these became more mainstream. So I called my mother and I said, ‘I just found out that I'm working at a place where one half of the sister company has sex films.’ And she says, ‘Well you're not going to leave that job. So we're going to tell people that you work in cinematography.’”

Kupferberg says she doesn’t like the word “pornography.” She says films are a reflection of life, and sex is a big part of life. And she says the films coming out in that time had plot – she would classify them as real movies.

“It's not looking at the sex act in a nasty way,” Kupferberg said. “Like, I've seen pornography from early days of film, where -- no soundtrack, stag films -- stag films. They're pornographic in some ways. I don't know how far into the conversation you want to get with this. But there's a stag film, famous type of stag film called ‘golden showers.’ Now, OK, I would look at that and say it's pretty pornographic. That's disgusting to me. But a film with a storyline where people go out on a date and then come back home and have sex. Now, that's not pornographic.”

Kupferberg says the sex films were mirroring the evolving morals of the 60s and 70s.

Audrey Kupferberg shows Jackie Orchard some of the many shelves in her home stacked with VHS tapes, DVDs, and books.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

“In the 60s, you have the new American cinema movement, where people start to act more real,” Kupferberg said. “Where people like Jack Nicholson are starting to swear, where we have “Carnal Knowledge,” Mike Nichols’ film, where people talk about sex, where people talk about sleeping with each other. So the world was changing, with or without movies, but movies were an influence on the world. And in turn, the world was an influence on movies. People were not shocked. Some people were I mean, there are always going to be some people who would look at a sex film and say this is pornographic. This is this should be illegal, you must put those people in jail. And that that actually entered into the experience that I had, where there were several lawsuits. ‘Deep Throat’ had come out at that time. And that was not one of our films, but I know the film, and deep throat was shocking to a lot of people. And conservative government people and attorneys started lawsuits against the companies that were putting out these films.”

I ask her how she feels about that.

“I believe in freedom of speech,” Kupferberg said. “And I was pulled into those lawsuits. I had to go to Washington at the time to be a witness in trials. They were they were going after the liberals, you know, and I often wonder, maybe not often, but I occasionally wonder. Were they also going after the New York Jews? Because a lot of those film companies, a lot of film companies period are owned, or were owned by Jewish people, Jewish men. And I wondered, you know, were these people somehow anti-Semitic. But it faded. It was horrible for those men one, my boss. His name was Arnold Jordan. He was a wonderful guy. Really a kind-hearted guy. And he taught me about film. He started out with Warner Brothers in 1929 in the New Jersey exchange. And this guy was just a fount of knowledge and a good guy a lot of fun. And he, he was so put upon by these district attorneys whenever he had a heart attack and died was 60 something.”

I ask Kupferberg what portraying sex adds to the film industry.

“It adds a kind of realism,” Kupferberg said. “I was just writing about westerns. And I talked about realism in westerns. What I was referring to at the time was “Deadwood.” And “Deadwood” has people speaking in ways that are sometimes disgusting. Using words, using terminology that are no longer acceptable, and acting in ways towards one another that are completely inhuman, inhumane. But that's the way it was. And that's the difference.”

Kupferberg says film is most honest when it deals with what was and what is.

“Calamity Jane in “Deadwood” is portrayed as lesbian,” Kupferberg said. “Some people don't think that's right. ‘You shouldn't portray a woman as lesbian.’ They don't want to see it. Excuse me, ‘they don't want to see it?’ What business is it of theirs, if the rest of the world is a certain way, and they don't like what they see? You know, so I think film has to have the opportunity to expand to the most realistic of ways. I get very angry with very conservative people who don't want to have films or pictures that put them off personally, because they're only thinking of what puts them off. If you don't like it, don't look, because a lot of the world understands and wants to see and experience through film.

Kupferberg says because Art Theater Guild owned 45 theaters across the country, she was exposed to all genres.

Kupferberg explains to Jackie Orchard how she used to physically cut and paste film together.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

“And I was booking all sorts of films,” Kupferberg said. “The Marx Brothers, the Chaplin festival we were the first people to complete the entire Chaplin festival. And we had some theaters that ran sex films. We had some theaters that ran first-run, new films, we had second-run theaters, it was a wonderful experience.”

Kupferberg says at Art Theater Guild she learned about production and distribution, how to publicize films, how to judge lab quality of new prints – and film projection.

“They were kind enough to loan me, for the course of my time there, a 16 millimeter projector,” Kupferberg said. “And I could take 16 millimeter prints of anything I wanted home and watch them. So we worked with the Andy Warhol people at that time. I was taking home Andy Warhol films, just watching them by myself studying. It was a great, great time.”

After her time in New York City, in 1972 Kupferberg hopped on a train to the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C. – to demand a job -- based off of one remark on a field trip where a man said, “If you ever want a job let us know.”

“I showed up at the American Film Institute offices, went to the person who had offered me that opportunity,” Kupferberg said. “David Shepard, he was a great, well known film archivist. And I said, ‘David, I'm here. I'd like to have a job.’ Sounds like out of a movie. You know, I don't think you could get away with it today. And he said, ‘we have no budget, we have no jobs available. You didn't even call?’ I said, ‘No, I didn't. But I'm here.’ And he says, ‘Do you even have a place to stay?’ ‘No, I can always get back on a train and come back home.’ So he said, ‘Well, don't go yet.’ And he spoke with the head of human resources, he came back, and he said, ‘Well, you're my new assistant, and the head of human resources is going to visit her son for two weeks. So you have her house in Georgetown for the next two weeks.’ And that was my beginning at the American Film Institute. I was still in my early 20s. And I had the opportunity to work with two of the most famous and incredibly knowledgeable film archivists, David Shepherd, and Bob Gitt, and they taught me so much. And that's how I began.”

Kupferberg stayed with AFI until 1984.

“We had a small preservation program,” Kupferberg said. “And we had the AFI catalog, which many serious film people say: the only two departments of real strength were the catalog, the national filmography, and the preservation program.”

Touch It, Feel It, Hear It

Kupferberg, now a long-time film commentator for our home station, WAMC, says getting her hands dirty with film preservation was the best job she ever had.

“Actually working with celluloid, with nitrate, bringing in dirty rusted cans of unidentified material, which could have been garbage, or could have been something extraordinary,” Kupferberg said. “And working with it very carefully to identify, and then working in conjunction with the Library of Congress or National Archives, or George Eastman House or the Museum of Modern Art, or a downline, lots of archives, to have the preservation process performed, and maintain that film for hundreds of years to come. You can't beat that for a job. And I'm broad shouldered and I play racquetball and golf, and I always had the muscles. So I could pick up these 30, 40, 50 lb ICC cases. Oh, they're very heavy. And some are double sized.”

Audrey Kupferberg shows Jackie Orchard an old film crank she happened upon in her coat closet.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

Kupferberg says the weight, and the back problems, were worth it. She says there’s just something magical about actual film that gets lost when you watch a DVD or stream.

Because there's no clickety clickety clickety in the projector,” Kupferberg said. “There's no smoothness to the celluloid. No, it's a different feel, a different world.

Did You Try Blowing In It?

Glancing at some discarded reels in the other room, Kupferberg says format changes are as old as the medium itself.

“I'm an appraiser of motion pictures, unique films that have some monetary value,” Kupferberg said. “And I see what has come through the years in WAV formats. At first was 35 millimeter, 28 millimeter, 9.5 millimeter 16 millimeter, then video, video is -- it's too complicated. You have so many failed formats that have to be accounted for at an archive. So really an archive -- a film archive or video archive has to be a museum of technology, a museum of machinery. You have to have a couple rooms assigned to storage of out of date video formats. And then of course the laser disc came in and there was more than one format of the laser disc. And then finally, you know the DVD and the Blu-ray. It's a challenge, especially for an archivist because you can't throw it away and say, ‘I'll get a newer version.’ You have to maintain.”

Having absorbed films her whole life, while teaching at the University at Albany in 2009, Kupferberg decided to produce some herself.

Audrey Kupferberg pointing out some of her favorite Hollywood movie posters in her home in 2021.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

“A good friend of mine, John McCarty, who has published more than 30 books, mostly on film, some on mysteries, he's a really good filmmaker. And he wanted to make a film and I thought that might be fun,” Kupferberg said. “And John and I made several films over a several year period -- made three films and they're available on Amazon.”

One film is called “Confinement,” – a modern interpretation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman whose husband decides she is suffering from depression and confines her to an upstairs bedroom to recuperate.

Kupferberg says the film is often shown in classrooms as a classic feminist work.

Every Guy’s Just Lookin’ For Some Doll

Kupferberg says she never really experienced sexism in the film industry. She says the men she worked with just looked for talent. But she says the role of the leading lady has definitely changed over the years.

“In the beginnings of film, you have the director heavily influencing the storyline,” Kupferberg said. “And the movements, the stylization of the lead -- not the older women who appear in the film -- but the young leading lady in many films, when you have a director like D.W. Griffith, working from 1908 to the early 30s, when you have someone like Griffith who knew how to make a film, but whose viewpoint about women was caveman and you have him working with actresses who have caveman viewpoint themselves, you wind up with women acting like jumping around in acting like toddlers on screen.”

Griffith's film “The Birth of a Nation,” made in 1915, made large sums of money glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. It’s considered the first "blockbuster." He was presented a special Oscar and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Audiences today are still watching Griffith while reconsidering his politics. 

“When the director is a certain way, it shows up,” Kupferberg said. “But the older women in a lot of the first films are, are more down to earth and intelligent. I think that's because these male directors, respected older women, they had grandmothers, they, you know, they saw them as images of respect. But the early days of cinema tended to be all over the place.”

Kupferberg says after World War I there was a big shift.

“The studios had become so rich, so connected to Wall Street, that women became relegated to being editors, cutters, film cutters, or once in a while, something a little more, or costume design and makeup, you know, things that you expect a girl would know how to how to do makeup, you know,” Kupferberg said. “So, the early silent age, you get all kinds of looks at women. Then in the 1920s, you have the societal change. You have the sweet young thing image, in books in literature and in movies in culture, pop culture, moving from sweet, shy, dependent upon her man to the flapper. And the flapper is either a very independent, powerful type of mindset or she's just a silly girl trying to impress a boy. So you get both kinds of modern woman in the 20s.”

Kupferberg says some of the saddest times in film include watching women in the 40s and 50s playing the role of the devoted housekeeper.

“I mean, look at 1950s television, “Leave it to Beaver.” “Father Knows Best.” The title says it all,” Kupferberg  said. “And he didn't always know best. I liked that show. But I was a kid. And then, in the 60s and 70s it became clear to a lot of female actors that they weren't getting good roles. And that's when some of them really started talking about it to the press. And that is when things began to change.”

Kupferberg says The American Film Institute started a special program in the 70s to train women as filmmakers. But she says once women went through that program, the studios still didn't really want to hire them.

Kupferberg says there is still a shortage of female filmmakers, especially women of color.

Take Me There

Kupferberg says whatever format they may take, movies are here to stay. She says we need them to fill in the gaps in our lives of the far off adventures we will never experience.

“The importance for our future with movies is the same as it's been since 1896. We look at movies to see ourselves or we look at movies to see other people who we never will get the opportunity to meet,” Kupferberg said. “Not just in a travelogue. But certainly in a travelogue, we meet people in dramas and comedies that we'll never have in our circle of friends. But maybe we'll learn something from watching the movie, or maybe we'll just get a lot of laughs out of and that's important too -- movies can do anything, you know, there's nothing that a movie can't do. It can make you feel a certain way. It can educate you. It can make you disagree in a very strong way and bring up fighting emotions. Or it can be purely visual, no story involved. And what does that do? Well, that does what a fine painting will do -- brings feelings to you.”

I tell Kupferberg that I often watch “girl power” movies to inspire me, give me a boost when I need it. I tell her I was obsessed with Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” when I was an Army Officer. I watched Elizabeth Bennet chastise powerful men in “Pride and Prejudice” when I was in college, and Hermione Granger in Harry Potter when I needed to kick myself into studying. I tell her these characters made me who I am.

And to my surprise, she warned me against that.

She said films only have as much power as we give them – they aren’t real. She said to not look to films to fix real-life. She says at the end of the day, the best role model to have -- is yourself.

Thanks for joining us for this week’s 51%. Thanks to our story editor Ian Pickus. Thanks to Tina Renick for production assistance. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock. Our theme music is “Lolita” by Albany-based artist Girl Blue. 51% is a national production of Northeast Public RadioIf you’d like to hear this episode again or share it with your friends, sign up for our podcast or visit wamc.org. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @51PercentRadio