Classic Films Rescued

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

this Sat., May 18, the American Museum of the Moving Image is running "Rescued
Treasures: Restored films from American Archives and Studios," featuring
a collection of restored and preserved films that were once thought incomplete,
unprojectable or lost. The timing couldn’t be more right; the series starts
the same week as Attack of the Clones, the first big-budget Hollywood
film to be shot (and in certain theaters, projected) on 24-frame high definition

In other
words, it’s the first big studio release that does not involve the use
of celluloid, constructing (and reconstructing) a whole universe from pixel
dust. I’ll withhold creative judgment on Clones for now–that
falls to Armond White this week–but I will say that on a purely technical
level, Clones must be considered a success. I know a bit about the process
behind film and video, and recently finished producing a digital feature, so
I went into the picture primed to identify every place where Lucas’ image
failed to fool the professional eye. In Clones’ two-and-a-quarter-hour
running time, I identified perhaps 15 to 20 individual shots that clearly did
not originate on film–mostly from scenes set in very dark rooms, where
a bit of snow could be seen in the inky backgrounds. Complaints that Clones
looks a tad washed-out or blurry should be dismissed as the gripes of someone
who has not done his homework. If the Clones image isn’t perfectly
sharp and distinct, it’s because you’re watching a film print of a
video image, which ensures a very faint dip in quality (a dip that likely won’t
be noticed by anyone who doesn’t watch movies for a living). When seen
in a theater equipped with a digital projector–i.e., one that can project
a digital movie straight from DVD or tape, without film serving as an intermediary–Clones
will suffer no such loss.

Which is
another way of saying that whether you like it or not, the filmless future is
here. Yes, 35mm film still offers the best, most complex image in existence,
but 10 to 15 years from now that probably won’t be true; both filmmakers
and film exhibitors will have switched over to HD video. At that point, as my
friend Godfrey Cheshire pointed out in his 1999 manifesto "The Death of
Film," you’ll have to go to a museum to see an honest-to-God celluloid
movie projected on a silver screen.

So why not
get an early start? The AMMI’s "Rescued Treasures" series includes:

Emperor Jones
(1933; May 18, 2 p.m.). This Eugene O’Neill drama starring
the great Paul Robeson hasn’t been seen in its original release version
since 1933, when censors lopped out any frames (audio or visual) that included
a certain racial epithet. The Library of Congress reconstructed Jones
using an original version of the censored camera negative, plus prints from
the Museum of Modern Art and the National Archives. They combined this composite
version with old Vitaphone discs containing the original, uncensored soundtrack,
then double-printed certain frames within scenes to make room for the restored
lines. "The dialogue might offend modern ears, but we thought it was important
to preserve it, to show what it was," says Library of Congress curator
Mike Mashon, who oversaw the restoration.

Stereoscopic Film
(1927; May 19, 2 p.m.). This six-minute short, shown before
the compilation Treasures from George Eastman House, is the earliest
known example of a 3-D film, designed mainly to convince exhibitors that the
process could work. (I watched this one last week through red-and-blue glasses;
it’s mainly a collection of silhouettes of people playing baseball, throwing
paint and pies at the lens, etc., but it’s still mighty nifty.)

(1924; May 26, 2 p.m.). A rare showing of Henry Otto’s surreal
reworking of Dante’s epic, in which a ruthless millionaire screws a friend
and is punished with a cursed copy of Inferno, which causes him to dream
of the netherworld. This version preserves the original’s tinted color

(1979; June 1, 1 p.m.). Although it’s been available on DVD for
a couple of years now, this fresh version of the George Miller-Mel Gibson apocalypse
cartoon deserves a big-screen viewing, not just for its Cinemascope images,
but also for its recently restored Australian dialogue track. (Previously seen
versions substituted a circa-1979 redubbed soundtrack, with Popeye-sounding
Americans redoing all the lines. The original soundtrack’s now available
on DVD, too.)

(1969; June 1, 4 p.m.). Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs joined forces
with Sony to digitally restore 25 percent of the original negative, which had
decayed, then re-color-timed the whole movie, creating something close to the
original release version. I watched a few reels last week and was impressed.
It looks as if it was made last week, which is how films are supposed to look.

But only
if they’re properly preserved–and until about 15 years ago, when home
video opened up a whole new market for old movies, the major studios tended
to treat their releases like product, storing them anyplace, under destructively
cold or hot or moist conditions, contributing to decay of all sorts. It seems
incredible now, with so much attention paid to re-release, preservation and
restoration, but there was a time when prints of any film not current or profitable
was simply round-filed; some companies used to manufacture film shredders to
make the destruction process easier.

technology makes restoration easier; computer software can eliminate negative
scratches, clean up scratchy audio tracks, restore faded colors, you name it,
at a much cheaper cost and faster rate than older restoration technologies.
Ironically, however, the gizmos that make restoration easier are part of the
same technical revolution that now imperils celluloid itself.

the central irony of our work," says the Library of Congress’ Mashon.
"None of us around here fears the digital future. We just want to find
ways we can make this stuff available to our grandchildren’s grandchildren."

But at the
same time, he says he worries that digital tools aren’t as reliable or
consistent as good old film. Constant upgrades mean last year’s computer
technology might prove incompatible with systems arriving five years down the
road. The Library of Congress has already run into this problem with its videotape
collection; tapes made in older formats simply won’t play on newer systems.

just know what a headache video has been for us," he says. "I’d
really hate to see us have that same problem with our cinematic heritage. The
technology of projection has remained stable for a hundred years. I have no
confidence that digital projection will remain stable for anything like that
length of time."

Says John
Kirk, the MGM archivist who supervised the restoration of Mad Max, "I
think even though some of the films in this series are available on home video
and have been shown on tv, there’s still nothing quite like the experience
of seeing them in a theater. It’s a social event. I don’t think sitting
at home, even if you’re with a friend or two, can replace that. Supporting
places that show film will help keep the interest in film going."

for complete schedule.