by Barbara Goslawski
Did you know that each time a film is restored an audience bursts into spontaneous applause?
We all know how, practically speaking, art is fragile and often subject to conditions under which it cannot thrive – think of all of the reports of paintings that have cracked and faded, and sculptures that have worn away. Much of the time, galleries and museums have stepped in, either individually or as a group, to restore and maintain these works, in many cases even saving them. How many art historians have unearthed previously unknown or even lost art? Exhibitions are then mounted – banners are read, champagne corks are popped – painstakingly recreating, even reinventing, an artists’ life work or a movements’ uncanny vision, and then we the audience once again gain greater insight into how we came to be where we are artistically and culturally.
So what happens with the seventh art? As much as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is important, Godard’s Contempt is just as vital. And cinema, as we well know, is an expensive enterprise. Let’s face it, indie makers and even whole national cinemas suffer because of lack of resources. And these works can disappear so quickly you are barely aware of even a passing shadow.
As much as a painting fades and cracks to the point of losing actual pigments of paint, a film is scratched and torn and twisted to the point where it passes unevenly through the projector, losing its balance so to speak, only to then be in danger of breaks and even burns right through the celluloid. That’s right, torched before your eyes.
Projection nightmares aside, some of the older or more obscure (read: poorer) films have not been properly stored, with master copies either missing or faulty, leaving a single heavily bandaged print to limp to the front.
Thankfully, Cinematheques and Film Preservation organisations are devoted to rectifying these often fixable wrongs, enlisting the best restoration teams to research and gather all available source material in order to recreate and remind us of past glories. These efforts can unearth pieces cloaked in immeasurable cultural richness. You’ve probably wondered by now why I’m even talking about film. Surely everything is digital now. Almost everything, yes, but where do you think the digital restorations got their source material from?
As film preservationists have toiled over their projects for decades now, sometimes in relative obscurity, more affluent and popularly influential enthusiasts have stepped up. Filmmakers are instrumental. Tarantino is particularly devoted. J.J. Abrams was involved in the recent restoration of Phantasm, a classic 1979 horror movie by U.S. cult director Don Coscarelli. Martin Scorcese created the Film Foundation in 1990 with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, like Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Stanley Kubrick, continuing today with an equally impressive board of directors. Their World Cinema Project continues to preserve and restore neglected films from around the world.
We in Toronto are lucky that our Cinematheque at the TIFF Bell Lightbox is devoted to regular screenings of some of the best restorations worldwide. Championing these gems has become a consistent part of their programming. The latest programme – RESTORED! running from April 9- 26 – has a comprehensive variety of films that is telling.
And one of the most exciting offerings (if I really must choose) is a new restoration of Insiang, a masterpiece by the great Filipino filmmaker Lino Brocka on April 10, which was funded by the World Cinema project. The conditions of its making were fraught with extreme time constraints, lack of funds and government censorship. Brocka, though internationally celebrated, often ran afoul of the Marcos regime at home. This restoration was shown as a special screening at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is another highlight of this series, digitally restored from the original 35mm colour negative by Belgium’s Cinémathèque Royale. Ackerman sadly passed away last year, and her masterwork distills her unique vision, a daring yet delicate, formally taut and carefully coloured account of the quotidian rhythms of a woman’s activities over three days.
At this point, I could continue to list the accomplishments of the other films showcased. It’s not a long list but it does reveal the richness of visions that continue to inform our experience of cinema today. Instead, I invite you got to Tiff.net to explore and luxuriate in the possibilities brought to you by the series, Restored! And if you listen very carefully, you’ll likely catch the sound of all of that spontaneous applause.