2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Understanding Film Restoration

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Last week, MoMA’s 14th annual “To Save and Project” festival wrapped. With a mission to celebrate “the vital work of archives, studios, foundations, and independent filmmakers to save our world’s cinema heritage,” the festival unveils how difficult it is to write about and treat the bulk of films that are lost or presented incomplete. (To read more about this year’s edition, I highly recommend Farran Smith Nehme’s Film Comment piece.) As organizations like MoMA reach towards preserving cinema’s past, they reveal questions about the nature of the film restoration process and important considerations about the world of archive writing.

In 2016, we are lucky enough to have a wealth of information at our disposal about the film restoration process. Through video supplements and online resources, companies like Criterion illustrate their process. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (and his non-profit organization Film Foundation) work not only to restore films, but to educate audiences as to the importance and value of restoration within contemporary society. More than ever, film fans are aware of the cost and value of restoring valuable productions. But many are still unaware of the important considerations that go into restoring a film.

Nearly two decades ago, The New York Times ran a piece by Andrew Pollack, “Digitial Film Restoration Raises Questions about Fixing Flaws,” about this subject, and most of the questions are still pertinent within the field. Do you fix or improve effects or mistakes from the original film? Can you erase too much grain? In the case of a film like Touch of Evil, should you reconstruct the film as intended or stick with the theatrical version? Reading about the history of art can offer a deeper context into film restoration for writers who are interested in writing about older films that are lost and perhaps still waiting for a restoration.

Throughout history, there have been a number of writers that praised a painting’s muted look, only for a restoration or cleaning to reveal vibrant colors. Some works of art, like Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington (sometimes called “The Athenaeum”), are best known in their unfinished or unrestored state. At this point, the question of restoring or completing such a painting seems in conflict with its historical significance. As Pablo Picasso once said, “To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul – to give it its final blow; the most unfortunate one for the painter as well as for the picture.” Sometimes, the work of a film restoration is to preserve a work of art in a state of incompleteness. 

For one reason or another, many of us also have a nostalgic or sensual appreciation of the cracks, ripples and dusty appearances of older objects and works. Experimental filmmakers and video artists like Peter Tscherkassky purposefully toy with this flawed and textured image by evoking a haptic response. This relationship we have towards film grain or dust reveals that our relationship with a restored work of art is often more complicated than we might initially believe.

As we move forward, the politics of film restoration will be increasingly challenging. The trustworthiness of digital storing has faltered. Most hard drives have an expiration date, most servers are not immune to malicious or accidental compromise. No period in history has ever seen such a vast influx of new content or information either, so the question of restoring everything is no longer a viable option. 

The other problem within this scenario will be the necessary curation of what documents have value and which do not, as well as who has the power to make that decision. Throughout history, we have already seen regimes — political, religious or ideological — neglect or destroy works of art that are seen as dangerous or unimportant. During the 16th century, the Catholic Church sought to censor nudity in works of art dating back to the ancient world by artificially fitting nude sculptures with plaster, metal and marble fig leaves that have left these sculptures permanently disfigured. In the 20th and 21st centuries, these acts of censorship persisted as well, both at the hands of the repressive governments and jihadi fighters. Art, which has the power to move and inspire, will always be a threat to the insecure, ideological elite. 

Not all writers will treat issues of film restoration in their work, but understanding the conditions of preservation within the new age will open up new possibilities and avenues. As most film schools are now expanding their departments to treat the medium as the study of screens rather than cinema, the definition of movies will likely change over the next few decades. Being ahead of the curve, and understanding that even the process of writing about one movie or another can be an act of curation, can help offer great works of art value in an increasingly over-saturated media landscape.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.