Diamonds in the Rough

Of 21,000 feature films made in America before 1950, nearly half have been lost. Most of silent cinema has been obliterated. And the crisis is global: Of 500 movies produced in Hong Kong before 1947, only four are known to survive. In Italy, 90 percent of silent and 50 percent of sound productions are gone, and 90 percent of all films produced in Japan before the end of World War II are missing and presumed dead, many of them melted down so that their silver content could contribute to the war effort. But if the threat is vast, so are the potential riches that can be unearthed, provided film preservation is practiced diligently on an international scale. It’s a message delivered most effectively by the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s monthlong series of recently restored rarities, which begins tonight and features works by such legendary film artists as Fritz Lang, Mauritz Stiller, Victor Sjöström and Josef von Sternberg, all of which might have been lost if not for the hard work undertaken by preservationists in Paris, Bologna, Hong Kong and Berlin. Any movie buff worth his salt will get the shivers watching the first few restored scenes of John Ford’s astonishing silent Western, Bucking Broadway (1917). You’ll have to decide for yourself, though, if Ford squanders the grandeur of his opening images once the plot kicks in and a pack of dusty Southwestern cowpokes (led by soulful Ford regular Harry Carey) descends upon Manhattan. But by recapturing most of the epic depth-of-field in Ford’s expansive landscapes, the preservationists of the Archives Françaises du Film have given us a vivid glimpse of the instincts of a great filmmaker, several decades before they were widely recognized. In removing the skips and ticks and glitches, and digitally reinstating the tints applied to the film’s original release prints, this restoration gives back to Ford his fluency and control, the scope and seamlessness of his accomplishment. And it gives us another irreplaceable John Ford movie. The benefits of restoration aren’t always so widely agreed upon. There is, for starters, the “patina” argument, which holds that visible signs of aging embody part of the truth of our relationship to older works of art. For those of us who buy into the traditional mission statement of preservation — “restoring the original achievement” — this patina theory sounds willfully esoteric, like a late-romantic poet mooning over some moss-encrusted ruins. But on a case-by-case basis, there are movies whose stretch marks and wrinkles do enhance the viewing experience. The best example in the current series is Jean Renoir’s Nana (1926), a cautionary tale of high and low life set in Paris during the preening Second Empire, a golden age for hair oil that was still within living memory when the film was made. Nana has been given an elegant restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna, and a complete set of reconstructed French intertitles, but it hasn’t been digitally airbrushed. And the slight imperfections that remain have the odd effect of making Renoir’s depictions of the past feel even more concrete — from the dressing room of a Parisian music hall, where the startlingly blatant seductress intoxicates several elaborately coifed toffs, to the posh track where one of these besotted gents performs the (slightly too symbolic) act of “betting on the wrong horse.”Of course, most restorations are driven by commercial, rather than esoteric motives, designed to make the old movies in a studio’s library more palatable to DVD consumers whose tastes have been shaped by state-of-the-art theatrical exhibition and increasingly lavish home-theater systems. Over the last couple of years I’ve watched hundreds of Shaw Brothers martial-arts films made in the 1970s and ’80s, reissued on gorgeous DVDs by a company in Hong Kong. Though this is surely the most ambitious ongoing film restoration project on earth at the moment, picky fans tend to be ingrates, and there have been persistent complaints of anachronistically bright color values and of soundtracks obnoxiously “sweetened” with cartoonish sound effects, apparently added to alleviate the claustrophobic feeling of “dead air” that can be quite uncomfortable for viewers accustomed to the ambient noise and “room tone” of DTS stereo. The Shaw Brothers restoration screening at UCLA, Li Han-hsiang’s The Love Eterne (1963), is a rapturously artificial period “light opera” with a romantic storyline that recalls Yentl: A talented young woman, frustrated that only males can be educated, disguises herself as a boy and enrolls at a prestigious cram school, a memorization factory that prepares students for the all-important Imperial civil-service exams. The twist being that, in keeping with age-old Chinese stage conventions, the male student our heroine falls in love with is also played by a woman. The Love Eterne works so well in its current form, bright colors and overdubbed bird songs notwithstanding, that it would be crass to complain. Likewise, the twisty silent espionage thriller Spies (1928), an infernal machine of a movie, is mesmerizingly beautiful, with the metallic surfaces of director Fritz Lang’s crisp, symmetrical images polished until they glisten. The goal of film restoration, after all, must be to transform the remnants of movies back into living works that modern audiences can savor without having to make allowances. One artist created the movie, and now others have re-created it. Who can argue with that? INTERNATIONAL PRESERVATION | At UCLA Film and Television Archive | July 29–August 26 |


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