In the small collection of digital films I have on my tablet, I have a copy of Jean Renoir's early sound film, Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932). When I watched it with my girlfriend, I was astonished. It was a Criterion print, made from the best available materials - perhaps from a brand new positive print struck from the original negative made especially for the transfer. It looked like so many such restorations: like it must have looked when it was first released eighty-fiur years ago. There's a scene in which Boudu, played by the irreplaceable Michel Simon, goes begging in a park. The sunshine is startlingly bright and clear and the women's clothes and hair, that are the only visible indication of the period, look like the latest haute couture. All I could think of when I watched the scene was what a beautiful day it was - a day in the past that is otherwise forever lost. As a cinephile, to have such things in my possession is a quite special kind of collector's pride.
When I first saw Boudu, it was probably at the Ogden Theater in Denver in the late '70s. It was a print in general circulation with all of the marks of its history: big reels of celluloid film passed from city to city in metal cans, handled by projectionists who sometimes have to make repairs to the film if it breaks or is otherwise damaged in the projector. Foreign objects - grease, dirt, hairs - are deposited on the film as it jerks through the aperture through which the intense light is directed. A chain of custody report informs the distributor or the next projectionist of problems encountered during the film's presentation to the public.
The Boudu I saw in Denver all those years ago was much like the one Wilfrid Sheed saw in New York a decade earlier, whose qualities, he wrote in his Esquire column, could not be accurately assessed because of what he called the thick "period fuzz" that permeated and obscured it. There were unaccountable lapses in continuity, sudden inexplicable jump cuts (long before the technique had been invented) and an overall dark pall seemed to envelop every scene, both indoors and out. This was all due to the total lack of care taken by the owner of the film's copyright and by the careless distribution to which the film was subjected. A great many films of the period in which Boudu was made, and before and after it, suffered from the same neglect.
To single out the history of just one (great) film, what many - including me - consider to be Charlie Chaplin's greatest film, The Gold Rush, was released to great success and critical acclaim in 1925. In 1942, Chaplin decided to re-release it, but removed all the intertitles and added his own spoken narration, along with an original musical score. Chaplin had possession of all of the material shot in 1925, in mint condition, and the re-release, seventeen years later, revealed more evidence of Chaplin's genius to a whole new audience. In 1953, however, Chaplin, who was living in Switzerland by then (his return visa was revoked because of the Red Scare witch hunts), neglected to renew the copyright of the original silent version of The Gold Rush, and the rights lapsed into public domain. By the time I first saw the film, it had been a victim of more than a decade of public domain ill-treatment, in which anyone could distribute a copy of the film, no matter how horrible its condition. Even when the 1925 version of The Gold Rush was rescued by copyright and its original negative salvaged and restored, it revealed noticeable differences from Chaplin's 1942 version, missing frames and generally degraded images. It's a tribute to Chaplin's genius that a film in such a sorry condition ever survived in people's memories as anything other than a faded, murky shadow of its former self, one of the innumerable films that millennials call "gray" rather than black and white.
In a recent essay on Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (which he didn't think much of), Richard Brody writes that "There are two main reasons to restore a film: one is artistic merit; the other is historical significance."(1) These are perfectly sound guidelines for the preservation and restoration of films. Henri Langlois, pioneer of the Cinematheque Francaise, discovered the hard way that any attempts at "triage" - the application of aesthetic standards in the pickng and choosing stage - was ultimately impossible and actually detrimental to the process of film preservation. Restoration, which is a proactive singling out of certain films for a painstaking and expensive reconstruction - and sometimes resurrection, is too often a matter of judgement. Which films, among the thousands rotting away in vaults around the world, are worthy of the loving attention of restorers? And which ones will have to wait until the next round? Clearly, sometimes such decisions are left up to the wrong people. While I was exceedingly pleased to see David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia restored to its original director's cut glory twenty-five years ago, I was much less pleased by the lavishing of the same loving attention on expertly made trash like Hitchcock's Vertigo.
All this said about the loving kindness of film restoration, about the joy of seeing a film in its most optimum condition, sometimes for the first time since it was first shown in theaters, I have to express a certain degree of nostalgia for the bad old days when a distributor like Peppercorn-Wormser bought the rights to an obscure film from Poland or Brazil or South Korea (and there must be hundreds of such films by now that lie forgotten in some storage room in New York or L.A.), make copies at as low an expense as possible, apply clumsily-translated English subtitles to it (much of which are unreadable) and screened in decrepit art houses across America, a number of which I visited in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In the early days of home video, there were companies like Blackhawk Films that slowly realeased its extensive catalog of silent films, like the Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Baghdad and Video Yesteryear that unhurriedly released its unusual selection of foreign films, like Susumu Hani's Nanami - aka Inferno of First Love. Long before it was released in a more acceptable condition, Video Yesteryear released a video version of Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water that was so dark that the night scene on that beautiful lake looked like it was shot on a moonless night with no artificial lighting whatever. Even the subtitles were illegible. But watching it was a fairly accurate reconstruction of the experience of sitting in a cavernous movie theater (or auditorium) on some forgotten evening in the 70s when I was full-time college student dreaming of futures that never came to pass. Such cheap, careless reproductions are reminders of how far we have come to finally sanctify cherished filmgoing experiences.
(1) "Louis Malle's 'Elevator to the Gallows,' and its historic Miles Davis Soundtrack," The New Yorker, August 3, 2016.