In the documentary Fire of Love, one of the breakout hits at the Sundance Film Festival this year, the volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft rush to the slopes of Mount St. Helens, hoping to capture what would turn out to be the deadliest eruption in U.S. history.* Among the dead was one of their colleagues, who had misjudged both the direction and the scope of the eruption and wound up directly in its path. All that remained was a stack of the tapes he had brought to record the event, melted into a semi-translucent brick.
I thought about that brick a lot as I spent the last week flipping between the movies in Sundance’s virtual lineup and the TV series Archive 81, which leapt to the top of Netflix’s charts almost as soon as it was released. The show’s main character, Dan, played by Mamoudou Athie, is an archivist who works at the Museum of the Moving Image, a specialist in restoring obsolete media formats who sports Criterion Collection T-shirts and spends his off hours hitting up junk vendors for VHS tapes on the off chance they might contain blurry, low-resolution treasures from the past. He is, in short, a film nerd, although it is worth noting that the last time a man looked this good squinting over an editing console was John Travolta in Blow Out.* If Dan existed in real life, he’d have spent the last week watching Sundance movies at home, popping onto Twitter or Letterboxd to see what was worth catching, and possibly grumbling at the occasional misguided review.
Instead, Dan spends most of the show in a remote bunker somewhere north of the city, tasked by the eccentric millionaire Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan) with restoring a cache of videotapes shot by a graduate student named Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) in the mid-1990s. Melody pretends that she is making a movie about the residents of a Manhattan apartment complex called the Visser, but she’s really searching for her long-lost mother, last seen living in the building. And as she films the Visser’s dingy hallways—and as Dan, in the present, rescues the footage she shot, one tape or frame at a time—she starts to pick up on hints that something else is going on, a shadowy conspiracy that involves avant-garde music, spiritualist paintings, drug addicts, the Catholic Church, and demonic effigies that may open a portal to another world.
Or maybe they don’t. What animates Archive 81 is a fundamental tension between what we see, or think we’re seeing, and what we’re meant to believe. We learn early on that Dan has spent time in a mental institution, and the utter solitude of his post—the compound from where Virgil insists that Dan work doesn’t have so much as dial-up internet, and even getting a cellphone signal requires a hike in the woods—leaves him with nowhere to turn when the images on the tapes start turning strange. Is that the face of an otherworldly demon he sees in the static when a tape goes dead, or just an artifact of magnetic decay? Is it real, or is it Memorex?
What Archive 81 does best is to exploit the ambiguity inherent in analog recording. If you’ve ever had a hard drive go kaput, you know that digital decay is essentially all or nothing, but analog sources decompose slowly and unpredictably—open a canister, and you might find a reel of film perfectly preserved or that crumbles to ash at a touch. Although most restorations now take place in the digital realm, Archive 81 is only interested in physical labor: compressed air, not codecs. We watch Dan delicately open up battered videocassettes and transfer the spools to a pristine new shell, cringe when the ribbon of tape snarls inside the player and he has to gently tweeze it out. We’re forever reminded of how fragile and unpredictable the tapes are, and even when the footage plays back perfectly, it’s hard to be sure what we’re looking at. What is the sound that echoes through the Visser’s walls? Is it the atonal music of a secret society or just the clanking of radiators? “You ever think about what it means to capture a moment in time on a piece of film, to give it an eternity it was never meant to have?” Davenport asks him toward the end of the season. “What else might we be scooping up in that moment? What can’t we see?”
The secret of found-footage horror lies in delaying the answer to that question as long as you can. It’s a subgenre built on imperfect sources, the amateur cinematography of The Blair Witch Project or the fixed low-resolution security cameras of Paranormal Activity. The less we see, the more we can imagine. Archive 81 eventually makes the huge—and, to my mind, fatal—mistake of trading that eerier uncertainty for garden-variety cult nonsense. But for a while, it’s genuinely creepy, because no matter how clear the footage from 1993 becomes, it still looks murky by the digital standards of today. And even that looks crystalline compared with some of the other sources Dan ends up exploring, like a mythical, bootlegged 1920s snuff film or ultra-low-resolution images from a Pixelvision camera, recorded onto ordinary audiocassettes. The show frequently cuts inside the footage Dan is watching for us to see the past with the same clarity as the present, as if the camera itself was a portal through space and time. But it’s never clear—at least, until it’s all too clear—whether this is the past as it happened, or as Melody captured it, or as Dan just imagines she did.
Which brings me back to Sundance. Perhaps because the past two years have made sitting at home going through footage a more feasible preoccupation than shooting in the field, the festival is full of archival and found-footage documentaries this year. Even the films that aren’t seem to touch on themes of what looking at records of that past can and can’t tell you: Tantura, for one, offers up excerpts from hundreds of audio interviews conducted by historian Teddy Katz in the 1990s, in which Israeli soldiers confess to massacring Palestinian villagers in 1948. But on camera in the present day, many of the subjects dissemble or flat-out deny, and while some confirm Katz’s initial account, one of his critics says full-out that historians should simply never believe witnesses. The answer, such as it is, comes down to a pair of aerial photographs taken decades apart, which seem to indicate not the presence of evidence but its deliberate removal. In Descendant, the residents of Alabama’s Africatown look for evidence of the ship they have long believed brought slaves to America in 1860, more than 50 years after the slave trade was outlawed—a search that pits the community’s collective memory against many white Alabamians’ desire to leave the past in the past. But even when concrete evidence does emerge, it’s not enough to shatter the centuries of dehumanization and denial on which the trade was built, let alone to reckon with its effects in the present day. These movies remind us that that evidence can only take us so far, and after that, the meaning is up to us. What the footage gives us is the moment, what it looked like, and how it felt. Or, as Riotsville, USA, the found-footage documentary about the U.S. government’s suppression of 1960s protest movements puts it: “This happened, and it hurt.”
That’s what makes Archive 81 ultimately so disappointing—and, worse, makes it feel like a cop-out. Dan’s restoration and Melody’s first-person documentation bring them closer to the truth, in a sense. But it’s one that literally reaches out and grabs them, a cheap (and cheap-looking) trick that evaporates before you’ve moved on to the next show. In misunderstanding how found footage works, the show both overstates its power and obliterates its impact. It’s all, and then it’s nothing.
Correction, Jan. 28, 2022: This piece originally misspelled St. Helens and misidentified the film Blow Out as Blow-Up.