To Restore or Not to Restore?

Guest blogger Gary Sweeney writes:

There’s no question that the advent of DVD has been a great step in film presentation. The medium has created a whirlwind of fascination among movie collectors with its ability to showcase more than the feature. Additives such as bonus footage and commentaries are the fireworks that lure the viewing audience beyond the main menu. DVD also boasts the potential to give a complete cosmetic facelift to those films that have suffered the wrath of Father Time. Though this is an assumed turn for the better, some tend to disagree. So the question materializes… restore or not to restore?

The genre that is likely to warrant the most opposition is the crime drama. Old detective films of the 1930s and ’40s were built on a foundation of dread. Many of these films fall into Film Noir, a mood rather than a genre, usually discernable by its low-lighting, bleak urban setting, isolation and paranoia. Film Noir, or “black film” in French, became a staple in cinema near the end of World War II. Soldiers returned home thinking that life would resume as they’d known it before leaving. What they found, however, was a society much different. Many of their wives had been unfaithful, jobs had laid them off and opportunities had disappeared. They did not find open arms, but rather cold indifference. This began a chain reaction of anger and frustration, stemming from the ordinary citizen to Hollywood’s lavish neighborhoods. Tinseltown started to put a creative face to this mindstate, churning out some of the most cynical works the screen has ever shown. There have been commercially successful noirs and detective films; however, the 1940s saw an explosion of B-level pictures, such as Detour (1945), that futher solidified the intended look and feel. Naturally, the technology of the day was not as advanced as it would become. We see these films retain their scratches and hiss, and it brings us back to that time. We can feel the movie. You don’t expect to see a Cagney movie set in a beautiful flower garden…because it’s too vibrant. The characters need an angry landscape, a distorted canvas on which to paint their angst. Restoring a film of this caliber would erase some of that, serving as virtual paint thinner.

On the opposite side lies an argument with its own justification. There are those who argue that restoring an old film breathes new life into and brings it to a new demographic. Some of the younger generations frown upon black-and-white movies. They’re considered outdated and primative in comparison to the multi-million-dollar blockbusters of today. The modern theater has become a gateway to a smorgasboard for the senses. Enhancements such as CGI effects and digital sound are the standard. In order to hold the public’s attention, measures are taken that offer more than a two-hour story with an interesting plot. That is no longer enough. Moviegoers need stimulation. Film restoration comes to the rescue in this regard. Some companies have gone further to colorize films originally shot in black-and-white. This is an obvious attempt at debunking some of the negative stigmas attached to older movies. However, there seems to be one flaw in this process…it sometimes has a “fake” look to it. It almost becomes the equivalent of a child’s coloring book. Though not as old, the 1962 thriller “Carnival of Souls” was colorized for DVD. Above you see a comparison of the two results…

Another downfall of this process is “color assumption”. What proof exists that the dress was red/pink? This subconsciously removes the audience’s imagination. It’s also apparent that the colorized version looks washed out in its own right. The colors look very dull and pastel-like. However, some still maintain that even washed-out color is a world above simple black-and-white. Therein lies the heart of a seperate debate. A great divide of generation will usually spark a passionate debate on both views. Is there really a right or wrong? Adding to the opinion that restoration brings a film back to life, is the stance that it also presents the movie as it was intended to be seen in its particular day. This is a logical argument. Those opposed, however, question if using high-powered audio/video cleaning methods contradicts the result. The picture and sound may be clear, but perhaps too clear, a level of clarity that could only be achieved by modern technology. They argue that if the tools of today are the only way to bring such vibrance, then it couldn’t possibly have looked that way in its debut. Again, is there a right or wrong?

When it all boils down, restoration is simply left to the tastes of the individual. Where one may find damage, another may find progress, and vice versa. The millions of film buffs spanning the globe can present convincing arguments either way but there is no supreme decision making entity. The video companies are likely to continue their particular practices, regardless of backlash or lack therof. Some of the lesser known companies take their sources straight from the public domain and distribute the movie with all its signs of wear. The disadvantage is that there is no supplemental material. These discs are generally lower in price. The larger companies jump through the hoops and try to dazzle the audience. They tend to release “special editions”, “ultra editions” and the like. Naturally, these discs run higher in price.

Gary Sweeney began The Midnight Palace in June 2006 as a way to express his opinions on classic films and to attract other classic film buffs. In addition to running The Midnight Palace, he owns a web/graphic design business called 39 Images, and is working on the first ever biography of Leila Hyams, an actress of the ’20s and ’30s (which he promises to eventually finish).