Classics in SFIFF

Posted April 20, 2009 at 5:57am by Carl Martin, edited April 23, 2009 at 1:16pm

The San Francisco International is nigh upon us, and those for whom medium specificity is one of the underpinnings of cinematic pleasure ask once again: what is being shown on film and what isn't? SFIFF was kind enough to give me the skinny, which is reflected in the Bay Area Film Calendar.

In light of the many gaps in this listing (Opening Night, for example), a more accurate appellation might be SFIFAVF, but undoubtedly a wholesale abandonment of film would follow quickly on the heels of any such name change, so let's not press the issue.

The tougher question, one for which I have as yet little privileged information, is which films were originated and post-produced on film, and not merely recorded onto film from a video source--in short, which are the true films. I hesitate to proscribe outright how artists ought ply their trade, but in judging the results I maintain that working methods do matter, and that truth, beauty, and meaning flow most felicitously through photochemical channels.

A half-dozen classic films will be presented in the festival. These were unquestionably completed and initially exhibited wholly in the analog domain. Thankfully, SFIFF will show them on film, and for the most part, though they have been restored, they are free of the digital taint.

The major exception is Antonioni's Le Amiche. Why the Cineteca di Bologna felt compelled to go the digital route on this I cannot say. As recently as two years ago, the PFA ran a print from Cinecittà, which I'm told was fine. Unfortunately, travel kept me from verifying this for myself, all the more regrettable if the pre-digital version should become unavailable.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a restoration by YCM Labs, in whose work I have great faith. One reel, however, having gone missing from the negative some time ago, was deemed by Fox to require digitization to "match" the rest of the film. I've avoided specifying the reel... see if you can pick it out. I've never seen the film, so I'll be there.

Ross Lipman at UCLA Film & Television Archive, the man behind the restoration of Cassavetes's masterful A Woman Under the Influence, assures us that the digital influence did not extend to his work on this film. Except, that is, for the soundtrack, where perhaps it isn't quite so objectionable. As with sound mixing, soundtrack restoration in the digital domain is now near-ubiquitous. Sad but true.

Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (like A Woman, a brilliant vehicle for his respective wife), however, was restored in the 1990's, 100% analog all the way. This version, which re-incorporates the "Man with the Sack" sequence excised after the Cannes premiere, is no doubt the most familiar version today. I saw this version in 1998 and am excited to revisit it, having recently seen Bob Fosse's fantastic musical remake Sweet Charity at the Castro. Fosse was a great admirer of Fellini's (though Fellini seems not to have returned the sentiment), and though, in general, I'm not as huge a fan of his work, Cabiria is probably my favorite Fellini.

The SFIFF program proudly proclaims that the restoration of Sergio Leone's penultimate Western Once Upon a Time in the West was achieved photochemically. Of all the films to trumpet in this way, it's an odd choice. OUATITW was shot in Techniscope, a format whose half-height, non-anamorphic frame was ideal for the extreme close-ups and depth of field shots from which Leone constructed his trademark operatic showdowns, but which tended toward graininess. So it's likely that the image quality of this film will not quite equal that of some of the others. But it's one hell of a movie, and I'm not complaining.

Finally, I've just had word that The Lost World, a silent dinosaur picture being presented with accompaniment by Dengue Fever, was pieced together entirely by analog means, from 35mm and 16mm elements. Additionally, a simulation of the original tinting was accomplished via the Desmet method. This is probably the best that could be hoped for--outside of the avant (arrière?)-garde, hardly anyone's been doing any actual tinting since the silent era.

STOP THE PRESSES! My inbox contains news of an added classic film: Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People. Warner Bros. has a new answer print "manufactured from the original camera negative and soundtrack using traditional photochemical process at Technicolor Labs." So: not a restoration at all, but the real deal! Good show!

Thanks to Hilary Hart, Caitlin Robertson, Ross Lipman, Bruce Goldstein, Caroline Yeager, and Ned Price for providing restoration details on these films.


Posted April 26, 2009 at 12:18pm by Maya (unregistered):
No one could have offered this survey more expertly than you, Carl. Thanks so much for the information and your unwavering devotion to celluloid.

Posted April 27, 2009 at 1:11pm by Carl Martin:
Gosh, thank you! And you're welcome!