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Nashville Scene New Again

Film restorations offer added bonuses, but how often are they justified

By Donna Bowman

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  The past is back, playing at a theater near you, and--if you believe the hype--it's better than ever. Yet revivals of film treasures are nothing new. Studios have been raiding their film libraries and rereleasing their most glamorous classics for decades. Disney made a science--and huge profits--out of bringing back its animated masterpieces on a rotating schedule. Now studios regularly plug holes in their schedules with rereleases, restorations, and special editions of old movies. Rereleases have evolved from simple attempts to make money on a studio's inventory to prestigious efforts to preserve history, and back again--only a veneer of conservation and improvement now hides the simple financial motive.

The two rereleases currently playing around the country, The Wizard of Oz and The Big Chill, illustrate the trend's contradictions. One is a beloved golden-age classic; the other is an '80s hit that struck a nerve with baby boomers. Neither is in any danger of being lost through deterioration or neglect, unlike nearly half the films produced since the invention of moving pictures. Nor were they released originally in mangled versions, requiring cinematic archaeology to recover their true form. Yet, at least in the case of The Wizard of Oz, the new prints are being promoted as the cinematic equivalent of a new national park.

It wasn't always this way. The world of film revivals changed forever in the early '90s, when cinephiles emerged as a market force. Robert Harris and James Katz masterminded the restoration of Spartacus in 1991 and Lawrence of Arabia in 1992, both times adding scenes that had been cut from extant prints. The research and reconstruction of these epics was itself on an epic scale, and the new material--previously the stuff of backlot legend--became the hot topic among film aficionados.

Distributors discovered that audiences appreciated the restorers' meticulous attention to detail and exacting cinematic standards. Cinephiles demanded the proper viewing conditions for such films: pristine digital sound, and true 70mm for movies originally shot in that rare format. Studios and theaters alike found that their target audience was willing to drive far out of its way to see a film that promised a special theatrical experience. These restorations raised the bar for all future reissues; from then on, studios would need to promise some sort of enhancement to justify their rereleases--a remastered soundtrack, at the very least, or restored color.

To generate all-important media buzz, a rerelease also needs prestige, and the preferred way to promote the film's intrinsic importance is to emphasize all the work that has been done to present it in a spectacular new version. The new Wizard of Oz, for example, promises the original burn-your-eyes Technicolor and a digital stereo soundtrack, improvements that will seem marginal to most filmgoers.

But once you start enhancing old films with up-to-date technological gimcracks and gewgaws, what's to stop you from "improving" them even further? A little technology can give big ideas to people with a native tendency to meddle with history. Images or even whole scenes that never existed in the original can be generated, with the aid of computer editing and outtakes. The "special edition" is born.

Most notable among these second passes at movies we never knew were flawed in the first place is Star Wars: The Special Edition, released in 1997. The makers of the new Star Wars reimagined history, convinced that if the original filmmakers had had the technology we have now, they would have added this bell and that whistle to their movie. Such revisionism has to be suspect, even when the same filmmaker (George Lucas) is behind both versions.

What a director can wish for is dependent on his sense of what can be accomplished; putting wishes in the minds of our predecessors is really present-day wish fulfillment. Films like Death Becomes Her, a hideous comedy whose only premise was "look what we can do with our computer," should have disabused us of the notion that state-of-the-art techniques are always better. But the special-edition mentality hews closer to an Everest rationale: The added special effects are justified by the simple fact that the technology to produce them was there.

Harris and Katz may have started us down this road with their reconstruction of the "snails and oysters" scene from Spartacus, using a silent outtake and a new dialogue track of Tony Curtis and Anthony Hopkins (doing a Lawrence Olivier impression). Auteur-minded directors quickly picked up on the idea that whatever has been altered in a movie against the director's wishes should be put to rights. Pioneered by Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1980, and popularized by Blade Runner in 1992, "director's cuts" became all the rage--if not in theaters as rereleases, on video as alternate versions.

While it's instructive to see the "uncut" Dances With Wolves, so that you can decide which version works better, there's nothing really artistic about proliferating different versions of the same work. Part of the appeal of art, and of narrative art in particular, is surrendering to the experience as it stands, flaws and all. You can disagree about the ending, but you can't paint a smile on the hero's face or put words in his mouth. Alternate versions are curiosities, footprints on the road not taken, even if they purport to represent the road the director wanted to take.

And the proliferation of these "improved" reissues suggests that their perpetrators aren't really interested in restoring or improving the original vision, but creating wave after wave of completists--fans who feel they're missing out on something if they don't have every version.

Thus the new Wizard of Oz isn't a new version at all--it's two. Few filmgoers will get to see the best prints, produced by a modern analog of the three-strip Technicolor process that generates deeply saturated color; those are playing only in the biggest markets. The rest of us make do with a lesser restoration--and frankly, only the sepia tones in the Kansas segments are noticeably better than the TV print seen every year. This suggests that the studios are concentrating their hype where it will do the most good: in the nation's media capitals, where cinephiles will write rapturously about how much better the film looks. No expense has been spared to bring them the best prints.

Most movie lovers, myself included, would always rather see a classic movie in a theater than on video. But the penchant to revise the past--to tidy it up and, above all, to sell it to us as if we needed it--removes some of the delight from recent rereleases. And I worry that we're retreating into the safety of the past. After all, the rereleases have already been tested on the world's best focus groups--the market and time. Put a good revival house in every town, and save the first-run screens for the new films, with all their flaws and glories. Movies need to move--into the future.

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