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Monday, August 22, 2022

They're Not In It To Get Rich ...


The Sin of Restoration

Understanding is that Leonardo used wonky technique to paint Rectory wall that hosted The Last Supper with result his paint chipped and began falling off within weeks of application. Boner detected by all was addressed by would-be restorers who over a next five hundred years made the mess worse. Now it’s said more of their work is left than his, but either way outcome is spotty. A most recent fix invited as much scorn as satisfaction, but isn’t that the way of all restoration? What thankless tasks. Imagine being one sent up ladders to juice up color on the Sistine Chapel, knives drawn for your trip down. What evil impulse makes us second-guess those put to rescuing our past? I’m for a laurel wreath upon most heads. What I see looks good for memory of how ghastly objects once were. Here’s for-instance: Jack and the Beanstalk with Abbott and Costello (1952). Robert Furmanek and crew are lately out with a Blu-ray better than we dreamed “Super Cinecolor” of a Public Domain title could look. They showed it to a theatre full and I’d like knowing how the crowd reacted. Bet it was warm. Effort put into this was surely immense. Labors of love customarily are. Africa Screams was their last project and discs sold out quick. There are those who rank these beside fine art so far resurrected. Add to it several hours of fascinating extras to make Jack and the Beanstalk all kinds of a Blu-ray bargain.

Some while back, art dealers came by a canvas and figured they found a lost Leonardo. Called Salvator Mundi, it was in rugged shape and had to be restored from ground up. The art establishment decided this was genuine DaVinci and everyone who wanted to stay club members gathered round the notion, peer pressure writ large. There were auctions, money progressively upward from each, till finally in 2017 it realized $450 million, the highest ever publicly bid for art. There was a feature documentary that saw the saga smelling distinctly of fish. By the way, no one knows for sure where the painting is today or even who has it. A lot of so-called priceless canvases simply disappear. This is all worth mentioning because film restoration, at least done by fans for fans, merit stand-to-salute for whoever lends time and resource to a cause no one else would support if they did not. I’m talking for a most part silent movies, homeless pets now that copyright leashes are loosed to whoever will adopt foundlings. Amazing what one can do with home editing suites and some ingenuity, plus the Library of Congress to make what is now public property available to hearth historians who with Kickstarter assist put long-lost rarities into disc trays hungry for what we hitherto could not hope to see. One of late is Valley of the Giants, Wallace Reid circa 1919, the infamous one where he was injured badly on location, given morphine to see the shoot through, got hooked on the stuff and never was able to kick it, result early death in 1923. The film has admittedly morbid interest, but also pleases as a star turn done when Classical Narrative style was still in polish process by studios moving toward assembly-line filmmaking.

Valley of the Giants
has pleasing backdrops, spasms of action, Reid up and over log-hauling trains where it is clear he is not doubled. This is probably the best-preserved Wallace Reid we have, source material for the DVD a 35mm print held by a Moscow archive that shared their digitized transfer with our Library of Congress in 2010. Historian Edward Lorusso arranged with LoC to release Valley of the Giants, him translating titles plus a recreated open and close after fashion of teens-era Paramount. David Drazin prepared a fine score. Theirs is exemplary presentation for a film over one hundred years old that we’ve had no access to for nearly that length of time. The DVD is available at Ebay. Occurs to me that virtually all silent titles emerging on disc come from private sources … collectors, preservationists, enthusiasts who on their own initiative render lost objects found again. Lorusso has so far offered twenty features. He is not alone in a heroic quest. Month or so ago I got a Billy Bevan two-disc Blu-Ray compiled by Dave Glass and Dave Wyatt, over four hours of Mack Sennett shorts in abundance featuring Bevan, most of which have been unseen, apart from cut versions, since playing new. All are remarkable, funny bits of several familiar via Robert Youngson grab bags. Also by way of impress was Kickstarter videos the Dave team did to raise awareness of the project, like silent comedies in themselves with clever narration and infectious music. These are at You Tube and the still standing Kickstarter page, funds raised, and the project completed earlier this year. Billy Bevan is a face and figure any comedy watcher knows, even if the name is less familiar than standard-bearers. His comedies click as never before thanks to retrieval of this lot in quality known not to us previous.

Again, no one is in this for profit. There hasn’t been real money in silent films since before the Market crashed. I venture people who work for archives would do it for free. Their cause has been messianic in often messy corporate or academic environments. A film restorer surely sleeps well at night, him/her not driven by greed or dreams of glory, unlike bottom motive that drove Salvator Mundi from junk canvas to prized masterpiece, many cynics’ triumph of smoke and mirrors. Thing I note about best results out of archives is fact it comes down generally to one mastermind, a single person knowledgeable and dedicated beyond capacity of the rest. How many times have we thought, if so-and-so leaves that place, the party is sure enough over. I can thank lone hands for the best of what gets out. Talk about wishing certain folks could live forever, but champions in our field are finite, and no, they can’t stay eternal, any more than we who treasure them can. I somehow value less a restoration from behind walls of a faceless conglomerate, figuring they’ll pull back on future projects if sales figures don’t raise a roof. Paramount did Wings beautifully for Blu-Ray, a first and last hurrah for them along silent Blu revival line. Fox, back when they were still Fox, released a DVD box set of Murnau and Borzage one had to see to believe, but oh what a bath they took. Where it’s “Universal” or “Paramount” or some such faceless entity back of restorations, I tend to be less patient, like when U released yet another Dracula and this time killed the ambient sound, result an utterly dead track unless actors spoke. Someone’s idea of improvement, but whose? Surely I’m not alone for insisting upon noise armadillos make.

Art historian Martin Kemp wrote a book called Living with Leonardo. There’s a great chapter called The “Original” Last Supper where what Kemp said touched much on prejudices felt by film folk. “Remastered performances tend to exhibit a clinical sheen, but something often seems to have been lost, or is this just false romanticism, delighting to a scratchy voice from the past?” Here was where I recognized myself watching Dracula, except I more and more embrace my false romanticism. Further truism courtesy Kemp: “Current tastes and procedures in restoration play toward surgical viewing and technical publications … With the technology comes an air of scientific certainty and modern superiority.” I hesitate to criticize restorations because after all, what was the last movie I restored? Years collecting 8 and 16mm makes everything now look wonderful. Warner Archive lately put out The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex to my amazement. Let’s just say my false romance with Channel 13 out of Asheville’s black-and-white late show broadcast in 1968 is forever over. Narcotic nature of restorations raise insistent question of How much better is just a little bit better? Kino sent an e-mail this week, a sale on Cohen titles, most half off. There were four Buster Keaton sets, several of which I had, but not the one with Sherlock,Jr. I watched Cohen’s trailer on You Tube. Sure did look good, maybe better than what came before. So what if there are already two Blu-Rays of Sherlock, Jr. downstairs? (one that is Kino’s own release, another from “Masters of Cinema” in the UK) Here is grip of false romanticism then, me in pursuit of a thing I can never catch. Would it have been better to keep the 8mm print of Sherlock, Jr. bought in 1971 for thirty-five dollars and be satisfied with that? Probably so.

What of this monster called 4K? May I expect Sherlock, Jr. yet again in that format? A voice tells me that 4K has taken us a bridge too far. We are balloons into which so much perfection is pumped that we must someday pop. My contact with 4K has been tentative. A few things on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and some Hitchcock and Universal horror. Lots don’t realize that televisions and components must be 4K compatible to play its “native” signal, much like sirens whose song is clearly heard only when you venture near enough their island to seal doom awaiting. Not to overdo Greek metaphors, but how does soft whisper luring me to The Red Shoes on 4K differ from Medusa’s insistent stare? I got Vertigo and watched, it being Vertigo after all. One segment had for me been the visual tripwire, Scotty and Midge visiting a bookstore and talking to the owner about Carlotta. Every print or transfer I had seen bleached color effect Hitchcock was after. Never having owned or seen Vertigo in IB Technicolor, there seemed no way of knowing just what he intended. The three players confer with a front window back of them, a busy street visible and daytime giving way gradually to dusk, or maybe clouds are approaching. Either way, the bookstore darkens as the trio continue to talk. When Scotty and Midge exit to a sidewalk, we observe the store owner turning on lights inside and can infer that out of doors it has darkened. Old Eastman prints or previous videos mistimed some, not necessarily all, shots, just enough to kill the mood Hitchcock worked hard to achieve. Point now … Vertigo on 4K comes closest to what Vertigo might have looked like on opening day in 1958, its Technicolor then-bathed in glow of carbon-arc projection. At least I want to believe that, and if false romanticism allows my embrace, then so be that. Since I’ll not return to distant point that was 1958, let 4K represent a closest reach to lost paradise.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Jean Cocteau wrote of a friend who did not like his film BEAUTY AND THE BEAST who later changed his mind when watching a scratched and worn print Cocteau was viewing while working on subtitles for it.. Cocteau wondered if that was a necessary requirement for people use to seeing films at museums and film societies. You've got me wondering which version of DRACULA cut the ambient sound. I believe I have all (or at lest most) of them. Great post. I'm balking at 4K. Please, if you bite the bullet on SHERLOCK JR. Let us know. Now you have me considering it. I love watching that film with a large audience. Everyone moves forward in their seat during the pool table sequence. I like my old movies to look as good as they can. I remind people these "old" movies are actually young films from the youth of the movies. They have at their best all the energy of youth. It is contemporary films that are often old in spirit.

9:12 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

The Laurel & Hardy collection from Kit Parker Films took some heat for making the films look TOO clean and new. I didn't see that problem, but I view DVDs on a big old Sony Trinitron through thick spectacles.

Sometimes complaints come from nostalgia. Pre-restoration clips on the Sherlock Holmes DVDs take me back to Sunday afternoon broadcasts. And there's a setting on my amplifier that simulates speakers echoing in an auditorium, a diminishment in sound purity but a huge increase in remembered ambiance.

But a more subtle issue is when filmmakers were in fact allowing for or even counting on the limitations of their equipment and current exhibition. When Hitchcock shot that "Vertigo" scene, he surely calculated what release prints would show (but perhaps couldn't foresee less fastidious re-release and television copies). On the flip side, George Pal calculated the wires supporting his martian spaceships would vanish when film was projected on theater screens (but certainly couldn't anticipate super-sharp digital images on big home TVs).

4:49 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

By the way U helped with that restoration of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK. I'll wager Cinecolor has never and will never look this good again.

as for improvements I'd happily see the creases in the backgrounds of FRANKENSTEIN removed. I'm certain James Whale would be okay with that. I tried to order the Cohen SHERLOCK JR. They won't ship it to Canada. Bummer.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I have a 4K player, receiver and projector in my home theatre. They're all "smart." Probably smarter than I. I've danced from 8mm to 16mm to VHS to DVD (I skipped laser disc) to Blu-ray to 4K. I have only 3 or 4 4K discs. Maybe it's my tired old eyes, but I see little or no difference between Blu-ray and 4K. Certainly not worth buying all the same movies yet again...especially at my age. And I'm older than our Greenbriar host.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I have several movies in 4K because that was the only way I could get them in 3D Blu-ray.

Those Fox Murnau/Borzage and John Ford Deluxe DVD sets from FOX are flippin' incredible.

It's a shame not enough people responded. Yes, they are expensive. They are also worth every penny.

1:38 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Excellent post -- and, gosh, that Flynn/Davis photo looks delicious. Is the restoration really that good? I love Private Lives and would happily go for it, if it looks that good.

Not everyone in the art world bought the Leonardo hype -- I did a column on it at the time saying I smelled the faint, sweet odor of BS:

Love your blog!

2:46 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I have no false romanticism regarding film restoration. Once I saw the Sherlock Holmes pictures, I was hooked. Every Blu-Ray restoration I've bought has been a complete joy.

By the way, that false romanticism can apply to real life, too. When our daughter visited after our kitchen renovation, she was actually sorry to see that our creaky old floor had been replaced with one that was new, solid, and quiet.

5:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers the romance of one-time collecting:

The essence of romanticism, though, is adventure. Its goal may be elusive but never false, so long as it is worthy.

There was a time when one’s knowledge of movies was usually hard won. It might be pursued watching fringe UHF stations or the quirky late-night offerings of the established VHF outlets, or haunting repertory theaters for the chance showing of, perhaps, an “Adventures of Robin Hood” patched together from half a dozen prints or seeing a revival of “Key Largo” in 35mm, exquisite, save for the splices and numerous missing frames.

Film conventions were places where unexpected treasures might appear, such as “The Cameraman,” once thought lost, but there to be seen, save for a missing reel.

A friend might have a 16mm print IB Technicolor print of “Adventures of Don Juan,” astonishing in its beauty to someone who had never seen even an approximation of it on television, or what was at the time the only known print in this country of “The Man Who Changed His Mind,” traded for from a western movie buff who couldn’t care less about Karloff.

Always there was the thrill of discovery, of coming closer to the thing-in-itself, the film as it was meant to be seen. Let a Howard Carter cut a small hole into the tomb of Tutankhamun, using a candle to peer inside. When asked what he saw, he replied, “Wonderful things.” It is no less for us, in this age of wonders, when what we had sought for so long is now so much closer to realization.

And yet, I regret not at all the time spent in often fruitless endeavors or having to be satisfied with the shoddy or nondescript, for this only provided a context for hope and anticipation, and for celebrating each new revelation as it is made.

6:33 PM  

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