Arrow Films Special: An interview with Head of Restoration, James White
James White is one of the most respected restoration experts in the business. His name on a transfer is a gold seal assuring excellence and diligence in accurately representing a film as it was intended to be seen.
I can think of no better encapsulation of his - and Arrow Video's - ethic in returning important films from across the length and breadth of film history to their former glory, than his simultaneous work restoring THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS, each outstanding films in their own way, from either ends of the accepted 'canon'. Indeed, it is the care, passion, enthusiasm and dedication to doing the best that can be achieved with the materials, regardless of a films perceived 'quality' or position in the 'canon', that has - I believe - helped breakdown the very idea of 'the canon' as it used to exist.
All film is worthwhile. All films exist in context of those that come before and after it; in historical, artistic and industrial terms. Each has its place, but some gems have remained uncut, unpolished. For many, only now can an audience appreciate its lustre; see how it shines.
Preservation and restoration are of vital importance to the future of film culture. In order that we understand the art and history of films and film making, we have to be able to see the films. To fully appreciate their artistry, we must be able to view them the way they were made to be seen.
In this respect Arrow excels...
Something that comes through in everything that Arrow does, is a palpable love of film. Nothing is a simple business decision, but is borne of an incredible passion for film. My sense is that Arrow is a label run by people who are fans first... empowered, creative fans, whose passion informs every decision, from title selection to packaging design (and everything in between). So, where did your passion begin?
Thanks! I do hope that comes across through our releases, because it really is a labour of love for all of us involved. The team of people I work with are all driven by a passion to see the films we love being given the best treatment, presentation and release possible. Some of us have been friends/colleagues for some time now, so we all tend to work very well together.
Of course one thing that makes it interesting is that we all have quite different backgrounds and come from different places in our views and feelings about cinema - we certainly don't all like the same films or even share the same opinions on all the films that we release - so I think that mix of cinephilia informs the wide range of films we work on.
As for me, cinema's been a pretty constant presence in my life for as long as I can remember, but I think my love for older films really came to the fore while I was pursuing a degree in film production at the University of Texas at Austin. There were a couple years in my early twenties when I was attending classes by day and working at a specialist video shop by night and would be bring home arm-loads of tapes each night, foregoing sleep and bingeing on Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Renoir, Truffaut, Godard, Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Powell & Pressburger, Vincent Minnelli, Fassbinder, Anthony Mann, etc. It was a period of complete immersion for me - I really couldn't get enough.
It's not hard to see how or why some film lovers take the step to become creators or critics. It's a more unusual trajectory (though no less important - and indeed today, perhaps MORE important) to move into preservation and restoration. How did your love of film grow toward the job you have now? What was your journey from viewer to one of the most respected restoration experts/supervisors in the business? (Forgive me if I'm not giving your job its proper title, and do feel free to correct me.)
It wasn't really a conscious choice, and it certainly wasn't in any way a clear career trajectory for me to end up doing what I do now. Like a lot of people, I left film school with plenty of ideas of what I might like to do in film but not a very clear picture of how to achieve those things. I was fortunate enough to have been hired as a curatorial assistant at The George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, just as they were putting starting up a new film school devoted to teaching archival preservation (The L. Jeffrey Selznick School), which introduced me to a lot of top people in that field.
But I spent the next few years working just as much on new films as old ones in a number of film labs and post-production facilities in New York, London, and even in Stockholm for a short while. The company I'd initially relocated to London for ended up folding very soon after I'd moved here, so I was fortunate again that a position at the BFI came along just at the right time. I ended up working there for nearly ten years, during which time my concentration became much more focused on restoration and remastering, producing the lion's share of new masters for the BFI's DVD/Blu-ray label. I ended up leaving the BFI in 2011 and worked as a freelancer for a couple years (working regularly for both Arrow and Eureka's Masters of Cinema label) before I became an official part of the team at Arrow last year.
In any case I certainly didn't wind up restoring and remastering from the start, and it was only through putting in the time doing other jobs in film work (sometimes related to restoration/preservation, sometimes not) that ended up steering me in this specific direction. I just ended up figuring out that restoring and working on older films is something I really wanted to do.
I do think that the video rental stores of old - as much as the rep cinemas - were a place where cinephiles could earn a wage, hone their knowledge and develop their skills/craft. Arguing with customers over the various merits of films, making recommendations to a wide variety of people with a wide variety of tastes/needs... immersing themselves in film history (if it was that kind of video store). It was an environment in which many of us educated ourselves, and blossomed. Looking back I can see the seeds of the programming impulse. The intimate familiarity with different releases and editions, the quality of transfers, correct aspect ratio etc etc.
Do you think that immersion helped, almost subliminally perhaps, to ground/inform the way you now think about film/transfers for home cinema?
I agree with all your points about video stores, and feel, as with record shops and independent book stores, we've truly lost something special by letting them slip away with the onslaught of online progress. I got my first job in a video store at age 16, and worked record and video store jobs throughout high school and college, right up until I was hired for my first film archive job at the George Eastman House. Had I not had that experience of being surrounded by those tapes, discovering films (both good and bad), directors, genres, etc., it's very likely I wouldn't be working in film now. The store I was lucky enough to land a job in while studying film at UT Austin was Vulcan Video, and it was absolutely crucial to my film education. Not only did the store boast an amazing selection of classic, foreign and cult cinema titles, but the place was staffed by people who were positively devoted to film, often bordering on obsession, with knowledge of their particular area of interest - from Maya Deren to Coffin Joe - rivalling any film critic or historian. The lengthy discussions, debates, partnered with the ability to view anything on the shelf at a moment's notice were without doubt as valuable as anything I learned in film school.
I'm certainly not suggesting we return to the era of clunky tapes, be kind/rewind and all that, (a bit rich considering my choice of profession) but I remember the revelation I felt in first seeing LA DOLCE VITA on video, letterboxed in its original (or near enough) aspect ratio, and I try to keep this perspective whenever I hear complaints that anything less than a 4K restoration from the original negative is unacceptable. Back in those innocent days, the film was the thing, and I can say without any hesitation that some of my most treasured film experiences happened through the magic prism of VHS.
I know that Terence Malick was a regular customer at the place you worked - that must have been quite a trip. What did you talk about?! I can't help wondering if you ever discussed the treatment of his own film on home video etc., and how he as a film maker perceived that process. Again, having that kind of early influence must have been incredibly helpful to the way you understand film in its physical form (as celluloid, video tape or laser disc)...
Terence Malick was indeed a regular customer at Vulcan back then (this is the early 1990s we're talking about) I'm afraid I didn't ask him much, as I mostly stuck to the peripheries and listened to him chat to my older colleagues who knew him far better than I did. I remember he rented mostly Japanese titles - a lot of Mizoguchi, Kurosawa and Ozu. It's funny to think about because at that time we all figured he was done with directing - he'd made two masterpieces (BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN) and there would be no more films forthcoming. Richard Linklater was a regular customer too, and I remember his excitement when the Jean-Pierre Melville films finally started to trickle out on video. (Incidentally, Vulcan Video appears to have bucked the closure trend, and is still very much in operation! http://www.vulcanvideo.com)
We hear a lot about transfers coming from the 'original camera negative', and in terms of quality that's always the dream for any new transfer. But the negative is not what we would ever have seen on a cinema screen. Cinematographers light and expose a negative in the knowledge of how that will eventually look as a print when projected. Something particularly true of older effects films - where the printing process, and then projection would have given leeway, so that a cinematographer would know that the wires wouldn't show for instance.
How do you mediate that area so that what we see on a Blu-ray, is in fact what was MEANT to be seen on a cinema screen? Or are we seeing more now than we ever WOULD have seen on original release?
Good question! The simple answer is that current restorations generally do show more information than would have been seen on original release prints, for the simple reason that technology allows one to scan first generation pre-print materials (such as the original negative) at a very high resolution without experiencing any generational loss during workflow. In general this is a good thing, although it can occasionally lead to problems when certain things intended to soften with photochemical printing show up looking pin-sharp in a restoration. (Seeing wires, etc.) When that happens, it's clearly the responsibility of the person supervising the restoration to make these instances match the intentions of the filmmakers. If that person's done their homework and is familiar enough with the film, they should hopefully be aware of these issues from the start anyway!
What we see on a Blu-Ray 1080P image, when mastered and encoded properly, is a stunning upgrade over previous home video formats, but this is an ongoing, ever-changing cycle and films should never be restored with just the most current consumer outcomes in mind.
It's true that transferring from original camera negative (or OCN) is a term that gets repeatedly trumpeted as a stamp of quality presentation, but as in most cases involving film restoration, there's really no one rule that applies to all films. Any title - and likewise its original materials - has had its own unique history of distribution, printing, storage, preservation, etc.
Essentially when one restores a film he or she's looking to locate the best possible, highest quality source element - something that will provide the fullest, richest and most flexible palette to work from. The printing process is an analogue one, meaning that every step in the printing process is a generation lost - from negative to interpositive to internegative to prints, etc. So in theory one would always want to work from negative, but in many cases, that simply isn't possible, or even desirable. In many cases the negative is lost, faded or damaged beyond repair, whereas intermediary materials have often survived in much better condition. In some cases only a print exists - this is particularly common with silent films, where the majority of negatives are simply gone. And although most restoration work is done in the digital domain these days, there are still cases where it would benefit the film to create a new film element from the existing materials before any digital work is performed.
Whatever the materials available, in each and every case, all work should be done in service to the film as it was originally presented. If one is entrusted to access original materials for the purposes of a new restoration, then one should work at the highest quality level possible (2K/4K) to ensure that the materials, once scanned, need not be accessed again for the foreseeable future. Preservation should always be key in one's thinking on any restoration project. After all, one should aim to restore a film as definitively as possible, so for the foreseeable future, no one else has to!
Being in service to the film also means presenting the film as it was meant to be seen, with the efforts of the director, cinematographer, etc., represented with historic accuracy. Colours, contrast, highlights, and so-on, should be graded as closely as possible to the palette of the film at the time it was released. Film grain, detail and texture should be respected without any overt digital processing and tinkering. The digital tools that help us achieve these results keep getting more and more sophisticated, but they also allow for plenty of abuse if one isn't caring or mindful of what one's doing.
I have to admit that some of the first movies I bought on Blu-Ray, I'm sure DIDNT come from the negative. They most likely came from a print, and had all the dirt and scratches to prove it. And I sort of loved that. Still do. What I saw was literally like I was projecting a print in my home. But then I see something like the BFI release of Svankmajer's ALICE, or the Arrow release of something like THE FURY, and we're talking about a whole new experience again - those are immaculate. And they pop off the screen in ways I've NEVER seen in a print. Just stunning work - both from the film makers in creating it, and yourselves in restoring it, they're beyond anything I've seen before, either at home or in the cinema.
Thanks for mentioning ALICE - that was a fun one to work on while I was at the BFI. The majority of that material was actually transferred from the first-generation Interpositive element, as the negative was deemed to be in too rough a condition to use. As Svankmajer himself couldn't directly participate (he was busy finishing SURVIVING LIFE at the time) this ended up being a blessing in disguise, as the material was in very good shape and the lab colour timings were already printed into the element, so there wasn't a whole lot of guess work involved in figuring out what the grading values should be.
THE FURY was a special experience for me. I'm a huge fan of De Palma's work from this period, and always felt that THE FURY was somewhat under-appreciated. The film had already been released on Blu-ray release in the states, but that edition used a dated transfer as its source and we felt the film deserved a whole new restoration from the original negative. In particular I felt the night scenes, of which there are many, hadn't been well-represented on previous releases. My hope was that De Palma himself might be interested in participating, but when that didn't happen I attempted to contact the film's Director of Photography Richard Kline, but didn't receive an answer at the time. So we essentially took full advantage of the properties the negative scans provided us, while doing our best to preserve the original look and feel of the film. Without the Director or DOP participating, I was well aware that we might be taking a few liberties here and there, but I was extremely gratified to hear that Richard Kline communicated his approval with our presentation not long after. I still haven't heard from De Palma though!
I know what you mean about being struck by work of high quality though. A few that have really impressed me recently are Eureka/MOC's THE GANG'S ALL HERE and VIOLENT SUNDAY, Criterion's PICKPOCKET and PERSONA, Grindhouse's THE SWIMMER and The BFI's THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE. None of these films were new discoveries for me, but in all these cases I felt like I was watching them for the first time, given the beautiful treatment the and phenomenal quality of the presentations the films had received. (If I can mention my own work, our new restorations of LONG GOOD FRIDAY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, both coming out soon, knock me out for the same reason).
We're in a position now where, for many younger viewers, digital cinema is the norm. Where most of what they've seen in cinemas is shot and/or projected digitally. For them, an accurate bluray transfer of an older film really is a whole different world in terms of the image. I love it. I love the crisp grain etc, but I can see how for some people, who simply don't know FILM, in terms of projected celluloid, it could be quite unusual. It worries me when I'm reading some bluray reviews... I need to know enough about the writer to know their frame of reference, before I feel like I can trust their judgement on a bluray edition. Is this something Arrow are finding from consumers? Do you think it represents a greater barrier between a modern audience and an older film? More so than the difference between Colour and Black and White, or sound and silent film?
With new films coming out on DCP, it's a no-brainer. The film you see projected in the theatre as a DCP should be exact replicated on Blu-Ray. The films are produced this way, so there shouldn't be any possibility of variation. This is why I'm always a little amused by Blu-Ray reviewers who gush at the picture and audio quality of, say, AVENGERS ASSEMBLE or GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY on Blu-Ray, because, well, duh.
But with older films receiving the BD treatment, there's a historical and technical criteria one should possess in order to judge/critique these things with a degree of accuracy. I feel like we're in a better place than we were a few years ago, when people were actually debating whether film grain had a place in Blu-Ray replication, or whether all films should be masked to fill their 16x9 displays, or whether original mono soundtracks should be bothered with in favour of 5.1....Thanks in large part to a handful of knowledgeable reviewers and websites, and the ongoing conversations that occur on forums like the Criterionforum, Zeta Minor, etc, film fans seem much more knowledgeable and protective that a film's original look and sound be preserved on disc.
So I don't worry too much about a possible barrier between those who might expect all films to look as though they were shot today and those who buy our releases and follow what we do, who I think are pretty savvy about this sort of thing anyway!
Picking up on what you say there about the ‘historical and technical criteria one should possess to judge/critique these things with a degree of accuracy’... in essence that’s the core of a lot of the arguments about the value of film criticism and film critics, but it seems ESSENTIAL to someone overseeing a bluray transfer/restoration. Whoever that person is, has to not only understand the technology at their fingertips, but the history of film in technological and artistic terms, in order to properly represent the image as it was meant to be seen. Especially in terms of older movies where you might not have the luxury of being able to consult a director or cinematographer, or indeed anyone who was there at the time the film was made... you need at least some understanding of motion picture cameras and film stock, printing processes and projection etc.
Even then, because you are dealing with a pretty savvy audience, there’s still controversy (just look at the debates about how the Hammer Dracula looks on Blu-Ray)
Yeah, I think one needs to bear in mind how new this all is - the idea of restoring films at this level - and that there's really no one specific path to follow to get there. I attended film school and always had an interest in older films but never expected at the time to wind up doing what I'm doing now. At that time (late 80s/early 90s) the first roadshow restorations were being released in theatres, care of Robert Harris and Jim Katz - LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, SPARTACUS, etc. As a result I think the concept of "restoring a film" was, for a while, reserved specifically for those really big, tent-pole studio titles. The idea that the same level of care and attention could be lavished on something less "important" (quotes intentional) than, say, THE WIZARD OF OZ or MY FAIR LADY, wasn't something that started gaining traction until fairly recently, and that's been down to the dedication of film archives, specialty BD/DVD labels and some of the smaller film distributors.
I was fortunate in that when I attended film school, we still worked with film. We shot, edited - and most importantly - handled film every day. So we were able to have a physical, tangible relationship with the medium - to see what you could do with it, how you could damage it, and see how you could repair it, and so on. It sounds pretty simple but it's not something that students generally get access to anymore, and I worry what we've lost. Digital technology is wonderful but it does take away that intimate, hands-on experience, so how is one supposed to learn about lab processing, printing, film stocks, etc except in an abstract way?
And I guess the answer to that is to try to get work in a film archive. That's the path I took after I graduated from film school at The George Eastman House in Rochester, New York and it certainly opened up my mind to considering all these different aspect to film and film history I hadn't considered before. And most importantly, I was surrounded by the stuff! If one wanted to look at a film, you took the reels off the shelf and examined it on a bench. You compared different elements and learned the differences between negative, positive elements as well as nitrate, acetate, polyestar/estar by the colour, the feel, the smell. Most importantly you learned to respect the fragility of these elements and how easily they could be damaged if mishandled, wound or stored incorrectly, left exposed to the trauma of humidity, temperature, etc. And from this you learned what an honour - what an absolute privilege it is - to have access to a film's original film elements and how important it was to respect the artists who produced this work. And hopefully, this respect is what you bring along every time you're presiding over the restoration of a film today.
But does that mean anyone's entirely qualified to do this work? I'm not sure. I'll put my hand up and admit that I don't have anywhere near the photochemical experience of someone like Robert Harris, and this is because I wasn't working in the industry when that was the norm. I've been fortunate enough to have worked on films from all eras of film history through my work for the BFI, Eureka/MOC and Arrow, and I'd like to think that each new project has taught me something. Essentially you're learning all the time!
As for the controversy surrounding how you restore films, well, you hopefully do your research and do the best you can. You're never going to please everyone!
I also think it is incredibly important for a label to be consistent. One of the great strengths of Arrow as a label, is the way they’ve built such a brilliant team, and I think in particular in hiring a single ‘Head Of Restoration’ to oversee all the discs, there’s a consistency that is a relief to cineastes like myself. We know that no matter the title, the disc will be produced to the same level of excellence. Whether it’s an Altman movie or Lucio Fulci, Dreyer or De Palma, they’ll receive the same kind of care and attention to excellence. It’s always exciting to see a great restoration of an older movie, cult or classic – in part because of the new detail that’s revealed, (sometimes to the degree that it’s like you’re seeing a new movie as you mention), but it’s also being able to see the WORLD through that film, the world of the time, the world as the film makers/artists perceived it. It’s a cultural artefact as well as a film, and a great restoration/transfer not only puts us into the film, it takes us into the time and space of the people who were making it in extraordinarily vivid ways.
I certainly feel very lucky to be working with such a dedicated and knowledgeable group of people who I can also call friends of mine. Michael Brooke I'd worked with for years at the BFI, Anthony I knew from his years writing for the Digital Fix/DVD Times and David Mackenzie I'd been in touch with since he was overseeing those first Zulawski releases for Mondo Vision.
I should clarify that while I supervise all master-related issues including new restorations as well as any masters we've licensed from other suppliers, I certainly don't manage all the factors that go into putting together a release - for that you'd have to speak to the Head of the Video label, Francesco Simeoni, who's as passionate about cinema as anyone you'll meet in this business.
Anyway, I certainly agree with your comment about consistency. The team has worked very hard over the last few years to make Arrow the label that it is, and we're eager to keep meeting our fans' as well as our own high standards! Granted we won't be able to lavish the same attention and expense as we do on some banner restorations/releases as some of our smaller, more niche titles, but in all cases we aim to release the films in their best presentation possible.
I have to assume that some of the bigger labels, who get such variable results, must be farming their projects out to different people. There’s no consistency, so you get things like the Hitchcock box set which is all over the place. Or the brilliance of the Universal Dracula, against some shots in The Invisible Man which are like a bad watercolour filter, while others are perfectly crisp and clean. Or the frustration of seeing Studio Canal do such a superb job on Quatermass & The Pit, but treat Don’t look Now and the Lester Musketeers movies so shabbily. It’s immensely aggravating, and so disappointing that the companies themselves don’t seem to want the best for their product, nor exercise any kind of consistent quality control.
I'm going to resist the temptation to talk negatively about the work anyone else has done, but in both the cases of Universal and Studio Canal, these studios have massive catalogues, and you can expect that some of their releases, especially those that are now a few years old, might not be up to the standards we expect of them today, and this is likely down to the remastering work being done several years ago. I'd actually be very surprised to hear of either studio releasing a Blu-ray edition of a classic film in 2015 that still had the kind of issues you're referring to, considering how much flack they received for that sort of thing a while ago!
Studio Canal's output in recent years has been pretty stellar, with terrific restorations and BD releases of THE SERVANT, GRANDE ILLUSION, LE QUAI DES BRUMES, THE WICKER MAN, QUATERMASS etc., along with the Ealing films including two of my favourites, DEAD OF NIGHT and IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY.
So pleased to hear you mention LONG GOOD FRIDAY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE... I think these are two of the most exciting releases coming this year, and they’re not necessarily the most obvious of choices. Blood and Black Lace seems like the culmination of Arrow’s work on the Bava titles (though there are many more movies to release), the cherry on the cake of 30 years of work by genre critics – lead by Tim Lucas - fighting to get Bava’s work better known and better seen. Of all Bava’s work, I think it’s the one that will most benefit from the Blu-ray treatment. THIS is film will wow people in terms of its use of colour. As much as Michael Powell has ever done, this movie has an astonishing colour palette, and as I understand it, Tim Lucas has been involved in the process? How useful is it to have someone like Tim to refer to when the film maker is now dead, and when the films have often been produced and distributed so cheaply, that it’s possible they were never seen as they should have been even IN a cinema?
I agree completely about BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. As much as I love many of his other films (and I certainly haven't seen them all) this film - and possibly BLACK SABBATH as well - feels like the culmination of so much of what his cinema was about. The over-the-top colour scheme in BLOOD is a true fever-dream, with deep reds and lurid purples contrasted with liquid blacks throughout. With the colours, the flowing camerawork, the music, the framing, the set design, the costumes, and the casting, you can feel that Bava was literally creating a new genre as he was making this picture.
Tim Lucas was absolutely essential on this project, given the fact that Bava is no longer with us. He wasn't able to come to London, so we worked remotely by sending him high-resolution files to review after we'd given the film an initial grading and him giving us notes for tweaking the colours here and there. No one on earth knows more about Mario Bava than Tim, so I'm very proud that he regards our restoration of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE as definitive!
Where you HAVE had the director or cinematographer on board during the restoration, how has that been? Do they seem to enjoy the process? How involved have they generally been? TV and home video have been so variable in their transfers over the years I assume they must relish the chance to simply put it RIGHT!
I always ask the Director and/or Director of Photography to participate when that's an option. In some cases, they're too busy or simply not interested, which is a shame, but in most cases I think they're pleased to have been asked. We recently asked Director of Photography Phil Meheux in to oversee the grading on THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY and he leapt at the opportunity. As he explained, no one had asked him in on any previous transfers of the film and as a result the overall look of the film had been incorrect for years. For three days he worked with us on every shot, and made it look exactly as he intended when he shot it. The same goes for WITHNAIL AND I - DOP Peter Hannan spent nearly a week with us going through the film over and over until he was satisfied. And in both of these cases, the results are obvious. It really is like watching the film for the first time, if only because they've looked so poor on video for so many years!
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Edgar Ulmer’s DETOUR would be a dream project for you and I would LOVE to see that happen – there really aren’t any great transfers of that around are there? what is it about the movie that you feel you can really bring out? For myself, I’m desperate to see someone do something with James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE. That’s a film that was almost lost to us. The materials as they exist are in poor shape – the negative long gone – but is this also the exact place where digital restoration CAN come into its own? How much can we really do for a film in the kind of condition that The Old Dark House exists in today?
Well, I think I mentioned DETOUR simply because I'm crazy about the film and would relish the opportunity to restore it. It's pretty much the same situation with OLD DARK HOUSE (another fantastic film) in that both films are in the public domain, and as a result the original elements - what's left of them anyway - are in very poor shape. Nonetheless I'd love to try to find the best materials - this could be one element or several - to make up the best representation of the film possible. And while the final results wouldn't likely be anyone's idea of a 4K demo-level quality restoration, it'd serve to make those films available in something much better than previously available and far closer to what those great filmmakers, Ulmer and Whale, intended.
I think part of it's an age thing. I mean, I love watching old films on Blu-ray in beautifully restored editions, but I also loved watching these films on DVD, just like I loved watching films on VHS for nearly two decades. And y'know, I loved watching old movies on my family's black and white Zenith back in the 1970s. So I'll always have a tolerance for watching these things in a rougher, grungier state a lot of younger viewers might find acceptable. So my worry is that films like DETOUR and THE OLD DARK HOUSE need to be restored, not simply because they deserve it, but because modern viewers simply won't accept such a poor quality representation, and the films will simply disappear, the final insult to these incredible works of art. I guess it's the responsibility of those of us working in this field to make sure that doesn't happen.
It seems to me that, that 'responsibility' is the fundamental raison d'etre of not just the work of film restorers and historians, but also film critics, programmers, independent exhibitors, and BD/DVD labels like Arrow, MoC, Criterion et al... they are in a sense the guardians of an artform which is forever in a state of decay. Of artworks that are at risk of being lost because they were created as a mass medium, as a 'popular artform' and have therefore NOT always been treated with the kind of care and respect that they deserve. Really, the whole film community in this aspect is a like a small army with this purpose underlying all. Do you ever feel like a guardian (I'm picturing a vaguely Thor like winged helmet, certainly something Norse and mythic)?
Well, one has to remember that cinema got off to a bit of a rough start. Films were initially viewed as a lowbrow cousin to the theatre's high culture, and it took decades for people to realise that film was anything but disposable entertainment, and that these things were actually a vital part of our artistic and cultural heritage worth preserving.
Of course, that realisation came far too late to prevent estimates of up to 90% of silent films and approximately 50% of sound films made before 1950 being lost. You think about those figures and it just boggles the mind….of course important discoveries continue to be made, thanks mainly to the heroic work being carried out each year by dedicated archivists, curators, technicians, and film historians.
We all adore Criterion, but one thing I take real satisfaction from these days is that labels such as Arrow, BFI, MOC, Milestone, Vinegar Syndrome, Drafthouse, Editions Filmmuseum, Second Run, etc have worked to shine a light on lesser-known films to such a degree that the pantheon itself seems far less important now. Not in the sense that CITIZEN KANE, GRANDE ILLUSION or THE SEVEN SAMURAI are in any sense less important as works themselves, but that there's so much lesser-known, less appreciated cinema from around the world that's just as valid and worthy of being seen. And these films deserve to be given the same courtesy and respect as the films we all grew up being told were the top 100 films of all time or whatever - essentially they all deserve to be saved.
Considering all that we've lost - and when you look at those figures, I can't believe any other 20th century art form has had to suffer loss on anywhere near the same scale - we all really should be "guardians of the art form" in one way or another.