Author Archives: conservator1

Kodachrome is the color of Home Movies

Today at work I looked at some anonymous home movies that are deteriorating, to decide if they’re worth keeping or not. Since every home movie is different, I had to watch them to gauge their worth – it’s impossible to tell quality from looking at them through a loupe on the bench.

Stack_of_home_movie_cans

This was a box of ten or so 8mm films from the 1940s-1950s, purchased by someone on ebay or something, and then they made their way here to the HFA. The cans have no information on them, although at some point someone, either here or there, put sticky notes on a few that say things like “1950s water skier, horseback riding, football arena, farm horse, snowlice (rabbit kill) spring (family), baseball game.” I don’t know about you, but aside from the “snowlice” (maybe it’s supposed to say “snow/ice”), I didn’t find this a particularly evocative description. Sounded rather dull.

I watched the first reel, which was OK. Beautiful Kodachrome, lovely 1950s rural scenes. People swimming in a lake, hanging out with animals on a farm, riding horses, etc.. It seemed like a family vacation reel. It was nice but nothing special. Then I watched a few more reels. I wasn’t expecting the whole box to be from the same family, but it is. The content is repetitive – spring baby animals and flowering trees, summer at the lake, swimming, bringing home dead animals from hunting, then it is winter and there is ice fishing and playing in the snow.

There are a lot of people in these films – many kids and adults. One kid manages to be the star, though. The house, with its made-for-Kodachrome red doors, was a lovely recurring scene. I couldn’t quite place it geographically – it looks like New England, perhaps Vermont, but could be some other northern spot where there is water and snow and hills and trees.

The mid-1950s Kodachrome film is a thing of beauty. It was a filmstock for all seasons, and this cameraperson knew it. It really showcases certain colors, transforming the natural world into art. Autumn leaves and blue skies, red doors and white snow, blue lakes and green fields. People in the films were dressed like they knew the magic of Kodachrome would preserve their visages for a century in red and black wool plaid jackets, blue cowboy shirts, and incredible bathing suits.

The more films I watched, the more I loved them. Yes, the same things were recorded over and over, but there was a touching intimacy to the films in addition to their colorful beauty. The family clearly loved animals, despite killing many black bears, bobcats, white rabbits, and a few things in between. They kept sheep and cows, dogs and cats, and tamed a deer and her baby (which led to a joke scene of a hunter being stalked by a deer). In one snowy scene, a young boy is walking in front of the house with something white stuck to his chest. Is it the baby we saw in the last scene?  He’s not holding the white thing, though; it’s just clinging to him somehow. The camera moves closer, and we see it is a giant white cat, which then licks the boy’s face as the film runs out. My eyes welled up. In another charming sequence, it’s lambing season, and baby lambs are jumping around all over the green pasture. Then the camera cuts to a baby crawling in the grass, dressed in white, looking like a little lamb.

It’s easy to love a well-shot film. Most scenes were correctly exposed, and the addition of a finger occasionally making its way into the frame only adds drama to the proceedings – who is holding the camera now? Who usually holds it? Sometimes the film is left to run as the arm holding the camera drops, filming a topsy-turvy world, most dramatically so during a toboggan run sequence, sadly underexposed.

To try to explain these films (this film?) by merely listing what has been recorded, which is often how home movies are explained in catalogs, is like doing the same for a feature film. It does not do it justice, and it does little to make sense of it unless you’re opening a stock footage mine. I wish I could somehow add smells to the description – the aroma of lobster cooking outside, the crisp autumn air, the flowering trees, the horses – the film is that evocative. The films are silent, but the sound of the projector is hypnotic. I feel like this is my own family and I feel nostalgia for this life before I was born.

Kodachrome is dead. LONG LIVE KODACHROME!

boy with cat

Silence, please!

Depending on how you count, the first 40 years or so of motion pictures did not include recorded sound. As many have said before me, this doesn’t mean they were experienced in silence by the audience, but they did not have soundtracks, so we call them Silent Films.

Sound film went mainstream in 1929, and in short order all films made by the industry (I’m not including artists, students, and independent filmmakers here) arrived at the cinema with a soundtrack printed on the film right next to the picture.  This standard lasts to this day, although as we all know, there aren’t that many new 35mm prints making their way to cinemas.  Frowny face.

1 frame 4 Stereo Tracks Scope copy

 

With the popularization of television thirty years after the advent of sound,  fewer people went out to the movies, preferring to stay at home glued to the screen instead.  In search of content to keep them in their seats, TV programmers would regularly show old films, preferably those in the public domain.  The new “sophisticated” TV viewer simply didn’t appreciate silent films the way his or her parents did, and certainly watching a silent film at home alone is quite different from the contemporary audience’s experience.

In a bid for the younger TV viewer’s attention, producers created shorter, newly edited versions of silent films specifically for television.  These versions, often showing silent, 18 frames per second films at sound speed (the noticeably faster rate of 24 fps), with sound effects and a comic narration, took the place of their originals in the pop culture memory for decades.

Some series were better than others, of course. One such was The History of the Motion Picture, which boasted several serious film collectors/historians on the production side: Paul Killiam, Saul J. Turell, and William K. Everson.  These men took their silent comedy seriously.  The History of the Motion Picture was released to the educational market, and later Ernie Kovacs brought the series to TV (1960-1961) as Silents, Please! with a filmed introduction by himself.

In an episode of Silents Please!, a narrator would talk over the action, describing the story, the history of the film or series, give background information on the production and stars, etc.. We watched an episode from the HFA’s collection recently, canine hero and superstar Rin Tin Tin in TRACKED BY THE POLICE (1927).  It was a bit like watching an essay about the film, and since it both showed the film and talked about it at the same time, it was a real time-saver!  The narration didn’t pause, even when there wasn’t much to say, so there were times when it was too much, other times when it was interesting.  It included some dumb jokes, but was overall quite illuminating for someone who had no handle on silent films or Rin Tin Tin.

These film essays have gone way out of fashion. Their style is dated, their content may be good, but their reputation is not. They can be seen in retrospect as making fun of the silents, with their goofy jokes and fast running. In fact, they truly revived these films, turning many people on to silent cinema; the passion of the men behind them brought forth new cinephiles.

I believe silent films on television were the inspiration for most of the older film collectors who still walk among us.  We often find silent films, abridged, with soundtracks, or as released, in collections from men who bought and traded films for most of their lives.  These characters are mostly senior citizens now, and their collections are being broken up and sold or winding up en masse in film archives as they die off or move into smaller housing.

Today, silent films are seen less often on television, and certainly not in this educational manner. Perhaps the film is prefaced by Leonard Maltin or some other film fanatic speaking to its history, but the experience is neither that of the original theater-goer, nor that of the television viewer of the early 1960s.  Nostalgic when new, these TV silent film essays are doubly nostalgic now.

references:

TV by design

Paul Killiam productions

Silents Please

 

 

 

Extreme acetate decay!

Sometimes some really horribly decomposed film turns up at the conservation center.

These pictures are of some extreme cases of vinegar syndrome.  The films are from the 1920s, and are a diacetate safety base.

crystalizing on the reel extreme diacetate decay 2 decomposing diacetate film

 

These white crystals are a result of the plasticizer pulling away from the base. We will see if a lab is able to work on them for us – they are also very shrunken.  These films are, of course, unique, so we hope to be able to get something off them.

MA safety film logo one frame

This is the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety seal, OK-ing the film for non-theatrical projection, although these were made to be shown at the local cinema.

Star Wars

As the world waits impatiently for the new Star Wars film, we take a look at the old one.

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This is a Super 8 condensed version of Episode IV, made for the home market in the dark days before everyone had a VCR.  Instead of the entire film, you could watch the highlights at home.

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The condensed version is around 20 minutes long, and the storyline is sort of carried, but all we see are the action sequences.

We ran this for an elementary school group that visited a few years ago, and one kid was very excited by this movie – “Now I understand why everyone loves Star Wars!  I’m going to go home and watch them all right now!”

It really warms our hearts when our jobs as archivists make a difference.

Newly digitized Anne Charlotte Robertson titles

Here is an update on the Anne Robertson films that have been digitized and are available for loan.  We are working on making more available soon!

Five Year Diary reel 26 making Magazine Mouth FYD47thrift_two_frame FYD83mother_and_sister

These are generally available as DCP or files.  Some are available on DigiBeta for you oldschoolers.  As always, please contact the HFA’s Loan Officer for more information.

shorts:
Subways (1976) – 13 min.
Going to Work (1981) – 7 min.
Locomotion (1981) – 7 min.
Magazine Mouth (1983) – 7 min.
Depression Focus Please (1984) – 4 min.
Talking to Myself (1985) – 3 min.
Kafka Kamera (1985) – 3 min.
Apologies (1986/1990) – 17 min.
My Cat, My Garden, 9/11 (2001) – 6 min.

Five Year Diary newly digitized reels: Reel 3, Reel 26, Reel 40, Reel 47, Reel 83

FIVE YEAR DIARY (approx. 27 min per reel):
The Five Year Diary explores many aspects of soundtrack. Many reels have synch sound – mag stripe Super 8. Sometimes the soundtrack is spotty, other times it continues for the entire reel. Audio cassettes were used as well, either on their own or in conjunction with SOF (sound on film). Some tapes were used multiple times for many reels. A narration was usually performed live, and several reels have Anne’s audio narration, which she recorded in the 1990s for posterity and so her narrated film could travel without her.

Reel 1: The Beginning – Thanksgiving, November 3 – December 13, 1981
Vegetarianism, bingeing, Thanksgiving with parents. (ACR)
In the first reel of the Five Year Diary, we watch Anne grow up, consider food and fat, and don her yellow leotard in front of the camera for the first time. (LC)
SOF and audio cassette

Reel 2: Definitions of Fat and Thin, December 13 – 22, 1981
Anne consults the dictionary in this one – what is “fat?” what is “thin?” Inanimate objects are animated, and Anne experiences problems with her camera. (LC)
SOF and audio cassette

Reel 3: Christmas and New Year ’82, December 20-January 9, 1982
The first of many year-end holiday reels. Cooking, cleaning, pixilation. (LC)
SOF and audio cassette

Reel 9: April Fool / Happy Birthday 33, March 17 – March 27, 1982
Pixilation. Sleeping, cooking, resolving to quit smoking. (LC)
Audio cassette

Reel 22: A Short Affair (and) Going Crazy, August 23 – September 1, 1982
Anne finds a lover, loses him, mourns him, and has a nervous breakdown. (LC)
Audio cassette and narration

Reel 23: A Breakdown and After the Mental Hospital, September 1 – December 13, 1982
Anne’s nervous breakdown continues until she is hospitalized. One track was recorded during the mania; in the second track, Anne reflects, years later, on this troubled time. (LC)
Audio cassette and narration

Reel 26: First Semester Grad School, February 28 – May 20, 1983
Two years into the Diary, Anne began graduate school at Massachusetts College of Art. Reel 26 was shot silently; the soundtrack is an audio recording she made during a graduate review. She discusses her work with Super 8 auteur and professor Saul Levine and a second faculty member. Ideas brought up in the discussion were later implemented in Reel 22 and 23 and in the presentation of the work in general. (LC)
audio cassette

Reel 31: Niagara Falls, August 19 – 28, 1983
Anne takes a road trip to Niagara Falls trip with her family in this exceptionally beautiful Diary reel. (LC)
audio cassette and narration

Reel 40: Visiting Grandmother, My Insanity, & Wyoming, July 17 – August 26, 1984
Anne travels west with her camera to visit family. (LC)
SOF

Reel 47: I Thought the Film Would End, October 21 – November 2, 1986
The would-be penultimate Diary reel. Anne ruminates about the upcoming end of the Diary – and mourns it, of course. Familiar themes of Dr Who, drinking, comedy, and a nice trick-or-treat Halloween sequence. (LC)
“There is a tendency to film your life like it is scenes.” (ACR)
Sound on film.

Reel 80: Emily Died, May 14 – September 26, 1994
Anne’s niece Emily dies. Anne goes into a deep depression. (LC)
audio cassette and narration

Reel 81: Mourning Emily, September 27, 1994 – January 29, 1995
Anne mourns the death of her young niece, Emily. (LC)
audio cassette and narration

Reel 83: [Untitled, final finished reel] December 24, 1995 – March 19, 1997
It’s been 16 years, and finally the Diary ends, an unintended ending that visits familiar territory.
SOF

(ACR) = text by Anne Charlotte Robertson

(LC) = text by Liz Coffey

 

Soviet Collection wrap-up

A few folks have asked about the status of our processing for the Soviet Film Collection. We have wrapped up the main aspects of this massive processing project and the films are now safely in our cold storage vault. Stay tuned for updates on access and future screenings from this collection. In the meantime, we have a time lapse video record of the (often relentless seeming) process.  This video is courtesy of Soviet Film Collection project employee (and accomplished filmmaker/photographer/artist) Michael Hutcherson.

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Soviet Film Collection project staff celebrating the last day of the project with a Soviet Film themed cake. From left to right: Liz Coffey, Michael Hutcherson, Laurel Gildersleeve, Adrianne Jorge

 

Intern Report: The Bruce Ricker Collection

A new post from our fantastic Summer Intern, Derek Murphy!

Diving deep into a stranger’s records can be an intense experience. As the summer 2015 intern at the Harvard Film Conservation Center, I trawled through a career’s worth of documents from the life and work of Bruce Ricker. Ricker was primarily a jazz and blues documentary filmmaker. From his first pivot from law practice to filmmaking in 1974 until his death in 2011, he worked tirelessly to promote education about and appreciation for the music that moved him.

Last of the Blue Devils Japanese posterLast of the Blue Devils

 

The majority of the papers I organized originated from the production of Ricker’s films. His first feature documentary, The Last of the Blue Devils, saw him capturing and preserving some of the final performances the world ever saw from Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, and several other prominent musicians from the 1920’s Kansas City jazz scene. The film was treasured by jazz enthusiasts, eventually attracting the attention of Clint Eastwood.  A lifelong listener and performer of jazz music, Eastwood loved the film, and contacted Ricker out of the blue. The two met for dinner and began a friendship that led to the creation of several more films. Most notably, Ricker and Eastwood collaborated on one of Ricker’s most well-known films, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. The 1988 documentary featured rare and previously unreleased archival footage of some of Monk’s later performances before illness ended his career, and eventually his life. It also contained interviews with many of Monk’s creative collaborators and loved ones after his death.

eastwood and ricker

Ricker and Eastwood’s collaboration did not end there. The two worked together on the production of documentaries about Budd Boetticher, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mercer, and Dave Brubeck. Additionally, Ricker directed two documentaries about Eastwood.  Ricker started Rhapsody Films, through which distributed his and other noteworthy films about jazz and blues.  As I got a handle on Ricker’s papers I saw marketing materials, catalogs, notes, correspondence, and research related to the company.

The Harvard Film Archive prioritizes multimedia holdings over papers when processing materials, so when I came on board, Ricker’s papers had been only partially described, and had not yet been arranged. The goal of my internship was to describe the papers that hadn’t yet been looked at, and arrange the totality of them into series to help create a finding aid for the collection. On my first day, I was given four boxes of papers straight from Ricker’s filing cabinets, still in their original order. Over the course of several weeks, I dove into these papers. I kept a spreadsheet where I entered information about the folders and papers I encountered, to aid in their later arrangement. This was a great learning experience. It was very satisfying to make connections between papers I’d seen in completely different boxes, and come to realizations about their place in Ricker’s oeuvre.

I was not familiar with Ricker or his work when I began my internship, but by my last day I felt a strange closeness to him. Even though I’ll never meet him, I think that my work at the HFA has given me a strong sense of his personality. I am working on my own feature-length documentary right now, so as I looked over his notes and production documents, I got a good feel for his process, and I felt a certain kinship. I even picked up a few good tips from looking at his workflow! It’s a bit uncanny, getting to know a man through the incidental papers he left behind, but I’m thankful that I got the chance to.

My internship at the HFA was extremely instructive for me, and the time I spent there was completely worthwhile. I was able to pick up hands-on skills in working with both paper and film collections. It really grounded the theory I’ve been learning in my archives classes at Simmons College’s School of Library and Information Science. In addition to the expansion of my archives knowledge, I also learned the basics of physical film handling, something I’ve wanted to do for many years. Both of my supervisors were very generous with their time, willing to answer any questions I had. They were extremely skilled and they were happy to help me pick up some of those skills myself. And, most importantly, they were a ton of fun to hang out with!

-Derek Murphy

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The Five Year Diary (1981-1997)

small_Five_Year_Diary_original_boxes

This week I’ve been watching some episodes of Anne Robertson’s Five Year Diary with a visiting researcher.  It’s been great getting back into this work.  There were quite a few exciting finds among reels I’d never seen, including one with a soundtrack recorded during a review at Mass Art.  Anne discusses her work with her professors, Saul Levine and a second, as yet unidentified, man.  This episode is somewhat early in the work (1983), but the discussion is relevant to the work as a whole.

Part of my goal with watching more reels of the Diary is to prioritize reels for digitization.  Presently, 8 reels of the work have been digitized and are available for screenings.  It is our goal to digitize the entire work; we are prioritizing and hope to have more reels available this fall.

The final reel of the Diary (Reel 83, 1997), which was only accidentally so, includes some images that remind me of earlier reels.  There is some focus on weight, a theme from the beginning, as well as the family gravestones, holidays, and, as always the moon.  I’m going to have to watch the entire work – is there an episode without the moon?  The moon and Anne are the constant characters in the film.  Anne travels; her companion the moon meets her there.  Anne goes through cycles of mental stability; the moon waxes and wanes.

The Diary is most obviously a thorough evaluation of the self, but despite Anne’s obsessions about her own body and life, she is also a solid viewer of the natural world.  The moon is the face of it, but we see the seasons closely monitored, plant life, the weather.  Paradoxically, her romantic obsessions are found on television, and on programs that are anything but celebrations of nature.

Here in Cambridge, the summer is drawing to a close.  It’s made most obvious by the return of the students, clearly demonstrated by traffic and restaurant crowds, but Anne’s films remind me to look to the trees that are beginning to brown, the flowers that are going to seed, the vegetables that will require harvest before the frost.

~Liz Coffey

FYD 2 reading definitions of fat and thin

A word from the filmmaker

The Arthur H. Freedman Collection at the Harvard Film Archives 

and the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Museum of the Harvard College Library.

Marky Mayhem mini dv tapesStatement by the documentarian Arthur Freedman

August 13, 2015

I am honored to have my life’s work inducted into these prestigious collections. In 2012 I was contacted by Elizabeth Coffey, Film Conservator for the Harvard Film Archive, and by Peter Laurence and David Ackerman of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library. They had heard of my extensive documentation on audio and video of unsigned local bands that played in the nightclubs around Boston, Cambridge, Somerville and surrounding locales. I have had various write-ups and press over the years, and evidently it resonated with the progressive thinking at Harvard to see how it would integrate into an historic place amongst the more recognized works. Special thanks go out to Robert Dennis and Denise Gorayeb, along with those at Harvard who were, are, and will be involved in this project, with whom I am not familiar.

I would like to call to your attention several individuals who had very significant roles in collaboration with me, without whose support much of my work would not have been possible. First and foremost, Patricia Ann Pelland, who is a fine emerging photographer; the photograph of me amongst my recordings was taken by her. Patricia was often my roadie, collaborator on the Boston Archives Project, my wife and partner for over 10 years, and now, a quarter of a century later, still my best friend. Others include Timothy Fulham; Thomas White, videographer at MIT, film maker, guitarist for Unnatural Axe, Beach Combovers and several other bands; Kevin Boisevert; Timothy Jackson; Karen DiBiasse; Linda Cardinal; Paul Lovell; Timothy Maxwell; Steven Nelson; William McCarthy; Joseph and Nabil Sater; William Ruane; Jan Crocker; Mark Hussey, Steven Morse, Tristram Lozaw, Andrew Smith, Kris Fell. I am also grateful to musicians who thanked me from the stage, on their records and cds, and those who signed releases, as well those who called me to come and record them.

My audio recordings were primarily done using cassette tape and 2 microphones.  Video was almost always single camera, either hand-held or tripod.

Occasionally I had equipment problems, and it is a deep regret that I did not have better gear with which to work and additional camera operators with whom to collaborate. During the era in which I was recording, there were very few people doing what I was doing. The time of camera phones and miniature video cameras had not arrived, and 99% of the time I was the only one dedicated to chronicling the careers of bands I cared about. Regardless, the recordings are a time capsule of the music at a time of great creativity and energy. The bands with whom I worked were unsigned, unknown, sometimes underappreciated, and often forgotten. There were many times I would be one of only a few people in the audience. Those of you who attend large venue concerts do not have the connection to the musicians as I have had. I invite you to listen to these bands and let your imagination take you to dive bars with a dance floor where the audiences’ heads are bopping and a dance called the pogo is hep cat go man go!

Since very early in my recordings, I always wanted the bands to be vested in the project; I tried to make the recordings and my time available. The tapes were becoming more numerous and preservation of the fragile magnetic media was always on my mind, but due to financial constraints, time and resources, it has taken till now with the wonderful folks at Harvard to begin this monumental project. The recordings had never been properly cataloged and now that that has been accomplished, I am astonished at the breadth of what I have done. I still have additional recordings that I will be adding to this collection and there are some real treasures in those.

This collection will include additional works from me shortly and over time. On 7.26.1981, I was recording Mission of Burma and The Stains at the Paradise. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and my car was stolen. In it was a case containing nearly 60 sets of my favorite early tapes I had recorded; they were never recovered. It is my hope that in watching, listening, and discovering the bands among my recordings that you step out, pay the cover charge and see some of these great bands yourselves. Please support live music, buy bands’ compact discs, records, and merchandise, and immerse yourself in one of the coolest eras of creativity. You will have the best times of your lives.

As I have previously mentioned, most of these bands are likely unknown to you, so I will offer several websites that can be useful in learning more:

http://bostongroupienews.com/

http://www.thenoise-boston.com/

http://mmone.org/

http://kinodv.net/home.html

http://www.collectorscum.com/volume3/mass/

Some of the performers and participants whose voices have been silenced:

http://bostongroupienews.com/BGNInMemorium.htm

I invite band members band members to sign releases, donate cds, records, tapes, set lists, personnel lists and contact information, posters, and flyers from any of the sets listed and help to make this one of the most important music history collections of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Thank you to all who give this project more than a passing glance.

Arthur Freedman

CONSERVATOR’S NOTE:

It was Tom White (Unnatural Axe, Beach Combovers) who tipped me off to Arthur’s collection.  I had recently been talking to Billy Ruane about his own extensive collection of local band recordings, and was rather heartbroken to learn that most of these tapes were lost when Billy stopped paying the bill on a storage container.  I didn’t want anything to happen to Arthur’s recordings, and hoped he would be interested in getting them into cold storage at Harvard.  We were very pleased when he agreed to give us this important collection.  ~Liz Coffey

Christmas programs this weekend

This weekend the Harvard Film Archive brings some winter revelry to the screen with Another Kuchar Christmas and the Annual Vintage Holiday Show.

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GEORGE KUCHAR – Saturday

‘Tis the season for festive video offerings! Join us for four short films from prolific artist George Kuchar (1942-2011) on Saturday December 20 at 7pm. Come share in Kuchar’s feasts of the senses with his singular take on the rituals and feelings brought to the fore at Christmas.

VINTAGE HOLIDAY SHOW – Sunday afternoon – free admission!

Every December, we scour the Harvard Film Archive’s collection for winter-holiday-themed films and present them for free the weekend before Christmas.  Like everything else at this time of year, it tends to be very Christmas-oriented, but we are not trying to push religion on you.  In fact, yours truly, the curator of this screening, is an atheist.  Nevertheless, I enjoy a Christmas movie as much as the next atheist, and a lot of them were made over the years!

The program is always free, appropriate for all ages, and a lot of fun!  Since this is a shorts program, you are welcome to stay as long as you like, and we don’t even mind if you bring a baby along.

This year’s lineup includes some animated shorts, a locally-produced film about Christmastime window-shopping, which depicts some nice Downtown Crossing window displays, and a “meaning of Christmas” TV special starring a young Seth Green.

We hope to see you Sunday the 21st at 3pm!

Click here for a link to the program.

figgy duff