A tribute to the Donnell Media Center

Yesterday I paid a visit to the Donnell Media Center, my bread-and-butter source for videos on DVD, VHS and 16mm for as long as I've lived in New York City. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the New York Public Library system is the single best source for movies in the New York metro area. The NYPL catalog holds tens of thousands of movies on DVD or VHS, ranging from video art to independently produced documentaries and exemplary television programs. In addition, the Donnell Media Center reserve collection holds thousands more videos, as well as 8,500 16mm films, including features, independent experimental films and documentaries. And it's all FREE.

You can borrow a video from the regular collection usually for a week, and then have the option to renew the video two more times, so long as no one else has a hold on it. That means that you can have a video for as long as three weeks, free. Beat that, Netflix! Of course the more popular titles have a waiting list, and some of those can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months to become available. But if you're not in a hurry, it's fine to place a hold online and wait for it to come in.

The library, situated across from the MoMA, is a few blocks away from my office. When I first visited, I'd wander awestruck through the shelves and shelves of videos. I started off by borrowing recent American releases, then moved on to European and Asian classics -- I was especially delighted by their impressive collection of classic Chinese films on VHS and DVD, many of which have been out of print and otherwise unavailable. After a couple of years of browsing the shelves, I started seeking out specific titles, and learned that a number of them were always checked out. In fact, the videos I saw on the shelves constituted only 20% of the library's video collection - the rest are in circulation. Thus I started reserving titles online, which If you look at my film diary from 2001-2006, it's pretty safe to say that over 75% of these films were borrowed for free from the library. I roughly estimate that I've seen about 1,500 films from the library over the past six years.

By 2004, I was no longer contained to the online circulation catalog, and my searches for particular titles, such as films by Kenneth Anger, Paul Morrisey and Stan Brakhage, had me brushing up against the reserve collection of 16mm films and videos. These are prints and videos that typically can only be viewed in the Media Center study lab (see photo above) a row of booths that have VHS and DVD players, a couple of 16mm projectors, even an old Steenbeck. Since I had no other way to watch their 16mm films, for a couple of years I'd go to the study center on my lunch hour. It was here and in this way that I saw some really great films: Inaguration of the Pleasure Dome, Sweet Sweetback's Baadaaaasss Song, Blood of Beasts, Fires Were Started, Applause, A Page of Madness, Moana, The Phantom Carriage, The Outlaw and His Wife, Mandabi, Culloden, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, Un chant d'amour, Hour of the Furnaces, Heaven and Earth Magic...

... and how could I forget the two months worth of lunch breaks I spent watching a VHS of Berlin Alexanderplatz - or "Berlin Alexander-kerplatz" as my man John behind the desk would call it. John's an interesting character in that, as one of the quality control people for the library's reserve collection, he's probably seen thousands of these films over the years (and, as his Fassbinder quip would indicate, he doesn't seem terribly impressed with many of them. Nor did he seem terribly impressed when I started sporting a mustache, as he dubbed me "Chef Boyardee.") Claudine and Michelle are also very friendly and helpful staff that you'll regularly see behind the media lab desk.

Having seen so many 16mm prints, I eventually learned how to work the projector myself:

Sadly these 16mm projectors are getting increasingly hard to come by and the Center is very careful about how they're handled. You'd think that the days of acquiring film prints are over for the library, but Joe who runs the center says that they're still coming in. In fact, just this past April they acquired Peter Kubelka's Unsere Afrikareise... which leads me to my review...