Knighted by the French government for his work in film preservation, adjuct professor and senior curator of the George Eastman House Paolo Cherchi-Usai strives to restore and preserve films “lost” to the modern world.
To those wondering why film preservation is important, Cherchi-Usai linked film to other “classic” works of art. “Do we wonder why we are restoring cathedrals, Michaelangelo’s frescos or the Mona Lisa?” he said. “We’re here to show future generations the film of our generation and of those before us.” He explained that there are so many films today that “film is not seen as an artistic phenomenon.”
According to his book “The Death of Cinema,” there are a little more than 40 minutes of moving images from before 1895, most of which are preserved. He estimates that one and a half billion hours of moving images were produced in 1999. If the current rate continues, one hundred billion hours will be produced in the year 2025.
“The Death of Cinema,” which came out in 2001, is a collection of aphorisms and letters with a foreword by producer and director Martin Scorcese. The book deals with the history of film, its preservation and its impact on our culture.
“[Cherchi-Usai] has drawn with clinical precision ? and a welcome touch of irony ? the picture of a worldwide crisis that commands our unconditional concern,” Scorcese said in the forward. “His portrait of a culture ignoring the loss of its own image is a devastating moral tale, the recognition that there is something very wrong with the way we are taught to disregard the art of seeing as something ephemeral and negligible.”
Cherchi-Usai is currently working to preserve or restore 18 films from the Eastman House collection in a project called Saving the Silents, which is funded by the National Film Preservation Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Also, he is collaborating with UR to form a joint degree with the L. Jeffery Selznick School of Film Preservation.
In addition to working on restoring films and teaching, he is also writing the seventh volume of a twelve volume series on early cinema entitled “The Griffith Project.”
Cherchi-Usai questions today’s Hollywood cinema, “Current American cinema is not in good shape,” he said. “The future is in Asian countries such as Korea, India, Iran, Japan and China.”
“Hollywood is in a time of mediocrity, if not garbage.”
Cherchi-Usai was born in a small town near Genoa, Italy. He attended the Universit de Lige and received a doctoral from the University of Genoa. Although he wrote his dissertation on art history, he chose a career in film preservation because there was little work being done to preserve film at the time he began his career.
He came to the George Eastman House in 1989 after hearing of a job opening while at a film festival in Italy.
The George Eastman House houses 62,500 items related to George Eastman, the Eastman Kodak Company and photography from 1854-1932.
“There’s a saying among my colleagues,” Cherchi-Usai said in response to his feelings on Rochester, N.Y. “Do you prefer to have the job of your dreams in a miserable town, or do you prefer to have a miserable job in the town of your dreams?”
Junior Ethan Gould took his course on silent cinema in the fall of 2001. “This was one of the best courses I’ve taken at the university,” he said. “Cherchi’s very passionate. He has a total mastery of the subject matter.”
Gould also believes that despite his extensive work in the field, Cherchi-Usai remains unpretentious.
Cherchi-Usai offered some advice to students. “Don’t go with the flow of current cultural trends. Try to develop your own thoughts and cultivate your intellectual freedom,” he said.