Classic Films Rescued

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Starting 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 video.

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:

?The 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.

?Plastigrams: 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.)

?Dante's Inferno (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 sections.

?Mad Max (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.)

?Easy Rider (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.

Digital 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.

"It's 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.

"I 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."

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