My first thoughts of Barney, as for many, are of late afternoons lapsed into evening; rum and cokes in hand raised lazily above the 4th Avenue din. The stories the drinks unleashed, of America’s great culture wars, would rarely foreground Barney. His absence is striking, but his reach was long. To imagine our cultural landscape without him is to conjure an unrecognizable and barren land. Barney has invisibly enabled the present.
Moving past the stories, which others can tell far better, I think of our project together. Barney had loomed large in my pantheon since the early ‘80s, when I was an undergraduate in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ken Jordan lived in our dorm and through him our sensibilities were entirely focused through the prism of Grove. As a kid, Ken would come home from an average schoolday to greet Abbie Hoffmann, a longterm houseguest while hiding from the FBI. I half-pictured them tossing baseballs in an East Village lot. Through Ken I came to understand Grove’s role as crucible for a generation.
So years later, in my role as a film restorationist at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, it was with nervous excitement that I approached Barney about preserving Samuel Beckett’s Film. Legends abounded in archiving circles about the lost negative, gone missing around the time of Grove’s sale. Barney knew nothing about the negative’s whereabouts, and he was delighted to work with us. The preservation itself will be chronicled elsewhere; what I want to relate rather, is something of our struggle to find the movie.
Through some old receipts that turned up in one of Barney’s thousands of folders, I traced the best known surviving elements to a now-defunct New York laboratory. I’d dealt with the owner before and had difficulties. He was a man whose business had died, and he carried with him the tragedy of a lost career. Unlike Barney however, who also lost an empire, the man was destroyed and embittered. After years of begging, pleading, bribing and threatening, the lab owner still refused to release Barney’s film. Through an incongruity of the law, he was able to hold Beckett’s Film hostage, in hopes that Barney might bail him out of his entire catastrophic debt.
The levels of irony stagger. The monetary value of the film was frankly negligible, and the request to pay the larger sum was preposterous. Said the lab owner on the phone one day, “I don’t give a damn about artistic importance. In our society whoever holds the gun holds the power, and I have the gun.” In his younger days Barney would have taken him straight to court and shown him something about power. Now, years later, there were no resources to do so, and we had to drop the matter. The lab owner remains ruined, and the copy of Film collects dust in a vault in New Jersey.
The story does not end sadly however. With funding from the Film Foundation and the National Film Preservation Foundation, UCLA has managed to restore Film with digital tools, and it now looks like new. The results will be released by Milestone Films in 2013; Barney’s lifelong dreams of cinema, tracing back to Strange Victory, at last to reach national release. Perhaps as important to me is the lesson I learned from Barney. Like the lab owner, he’d lost his empire. Yet even in that loss he held his head high, and when seeing him, I felt only his achievements. He was weakened with age, but unbeaten by circumstance, and heartwarmingly human. The rum and cokes tasted the same, empires be damned.