Reflections on Film at Yale: A Conversation with Film Archivist Brian Meacham 

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

When you enter the Yale Film Archive, located on the seventh floor of Sterling Memorial Library, the first thing you see are the screening booths. Here, students can watch and check out films on DVD, VHS, and Laserdisc. Once you walk past the booths and step back into the hallway, you see the screening room. With its online reservation system and intimate 23-person capacity, this is one of the best places to watch anything on campus. “Take some friends,” archivist Brian Meacham recommends. I agree. Keep walking past the screening booths, or turn left after the screening room, and you’ll find the reason the archive got its name. Filled with reels upon reels of film, the archival room is a work of technical art. 

After bringing me to a closet set to a cool 62 degrees and filled with stacked film reels, Brian mentioned that James Ivory would soon be donating his collection to Yale. Ivory is the screenwriter of Call Me By Your Name and half of the Merchant-Ivory duo, the power couple whose many accomplishments include lauded adaptations of  E. M. Forster’s novels A Room With a View and Howards End. Brian smiled as I gasped: “How did you manage to do that?!” “Ivory simply reached out,” he replied. Today, the Yale Film Archive has gained enough prestige that things like this Just Happen, though they’re still a delight to us all. As I talked to Brian, the amount of work that went into creating a space able to acquire these kinds of donations became abundantly clear. 

Housed at the Whitney Humanities Center until fall of 2021, what’s now the Film Archive wasn’t even conferred the title of “archive” until that same year. Brian, who is both the chief and the sole archivist at Yale, arrived in 2013 from the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles. But the history of the Film Archive began long before 2013. In 1968, 207 16mm film prints were acquired by Yale. These were from the Griggs Collection of Classic Films, amassed by theater, radio, and occasional television actor John Griggs. Griggs ran a film society—a “microcinema”— in New Jersey. He and his producing partner invited guests, including the likes of Lillian Gish and Marlon Brando, to their screenings, Brian told me. Brian stressed the radicalism of this project—at the time, watching movies was a deeply inaccessible activity. If a movie was no longer in theaters, it was virtually impossible to see a quality print of it again. 

When Griggs passed away, three Yale alums purchased his film collection on behalf of the university and donated it. The collection bounced around for a while. Who should use it? How should it be used? Where should it even be stored? In 1982, 14 years later, the Film Studies program was founded. It was jointly established with the Yale Film Studies Center, which screened 16mm prints, VHS and Laserdiscs. Brian’s impression is that it grew in “fits and starts.” Without much money or a considerable collection of prints, it was difficult to get off the ground. By the late ’90s, the Film Studies Center had moved to the Whitney Humanities Center, and around this time, students and staff lobbied for a second 35mm projector. (35mm can only be properly shown on two projectors; otherwise, the individual reels risk getting damaged.) To Brian, getting a second 35mm projector was a pivotal moment in establishing the Film Studies Center’s credibility. 

My memories of the Film Studies Center begin in 2018. As a New Haven public high school student, I took Introduction to Film, a class in which Brian guest lectured. Watching the Film Archive’s beautiful prints of films like A Clockwork Orange and Do The Right Thing was instrumental in my journey as a film lover—it showed me that film is textured. It’s a real thing. Brian showed me a reel for the upcoming screening of Palm Springs, a Hulu-exclusive film directed by Max Barbakow SM ‘11. Unlike digital movies, which are confined to pixels and subject to removal from streaming platforms, film is physical. As long as the equipment to preserve and screen it exists, film will last forever. Today, the Film Archive aims to connect an audience of Yale students, faculty, and the New Haven community through its preservation and screening work. 

Towards the end of our conversation, Brian mentioned the Film Archive’s extensive collection of home movies. He showed me one particularly fascinating set of home movies—the donor attended Yale in the ’70s and was part of the Women’s Crew team after the passage of Title IX. The ragtag team’s celebrations are captured on beautiful, green-tinted film, a relic of women’s athletics in its infancy at Yale. At the time, the Women’s Crew team had to fight for resources equal to the men’s team despite the passage of Title IX. The team was only successful because of the incredible work done by a passionate few. 

There are resonances between this history and the story of the Film Archive itself. The fight for resources, of course, is a recurring theme, but so is the pure joy I saw scrawled across the faces of the crew team. In my experience—and in Brian’s, and in that of most visitors to the Archive—it’s a lot like the feeling of watching a beautiful print in the company of friends and strangers.

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