NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

02/11/2021

About 25 years ago, a writer I knew gave me a call. He was writing a piece about film restoration and he was taking a contrarian’s point of view. He didn’t have a problem with the actual practice of restoration and preservation per se, but with the advocacy for the practice. He had a Darwinian perspective: he maintained that the best films would always be cared for because they were the ones that had stood the test of time, while the less good ones would simply fall by the wayside and go the way of extinct species like the Perenian Ibex or the Dodo. I listened patiently, and then explained to him, as calmly and in as much detail as I could, that he was out of his mind.

There was the fragility of film itself, and the many ways that earlier stocks could deteriorate. There was the reality of vault fires, which had destroyed the negatives of many films that were long considered classics. There was the fact that the greatness of certain films was recognized only long after their initial releases, at which point they were deemed disappointments or failures—that list is endless, but The Night of the Hunter, which we covered a few months ago, is a perfect example.

And then there’s the question of changing standards. At this moment, there is a great obsession with “accessibility.” Is a given film too “esoteric?” Does it only appeal to the “elitist tastes” of “auteurists?” Such clichés are now rampant. At the highest levels on the accessibility meter would be films made within the last 10 years, officially sanctioned by the AFI or AMPAS (English language only, of course). At the very lowest levels would be avant-garde cinema, whose audiences are always small, dedicated and tightly knit. And within the world of the avant garde, the early work of the great Canadian musician, visual artist and filmmaker Michael Snow would surely register near zero. If one were to follow my old acquaintance’s test of restoration worthiness, the negative for Snow’s 1969 film <_ _ _>, also known as Back and Forth, would be wedged into the bottom of the stack at the darkest corner of a mildewed cellar. “This is the worst kind of art film,” begins the synopsis on the Directors’ Fortnight website (probably written by the filmmaker). “BACK AND FORTH takes place almost entirely in an empty classroom. Various people show up now and then. The gimmick here is that the camera continuously moves back and forth, at an ever-increasing rate of speed, and by the end of the picture everything’s just a blur.” In a 2007 interview, Snow fondly recalled a 1969 MoMA screening. “10 minutes into it a guy jumped up and said, ‘This is basically a piece of shit, I want this stopped,’ and another guy said, ‘Shut up, we want to watch this.’ They were facing each other and they started to fight. There were 20 or so people in the audience, all of whom got up and left once they started fighting.”

<_ _ _>, which was restored by Anthology Film Archives with the assistance of The Film Foundation (Anthology is now at work on Snow’s earlier Wavelength), brings to mind Snow’s frequently quoted 1967 statement: “My paintings are done by a filmmaker, sculpture by a musician, films by a painter, music by a filmmaker, paintings by a sculptor, sculpture by a filmmaker, films by a musician, music by a sculptor … sometimes they all work together.” A flat-screen kinetic sculpture, a plunge into the heart of perception itself, a transformation from the absolutely mundane into the uncanny right before our eyes… As a student, I remember the amazement of watching this film for the first time on a KEM. Was I going to run out and rave about it to all my friends who weren’t into movies? No. Was I going to call my parents and tell them to see it (if they only could) and take all their friends? Nope. Did I have an issue with the commercial film industry for “marginalizing” Snow’s work? No—two separate worlds. Was it “accessible?” Well, it was accessible to me, an audience of one. And if I reject the term “elitist” as a means of describing my solitary experience, that’s because I’ve come to see that it’s always a matter of one person at a time, with all the arts. Even a “mass art form” like the cinema—it’s great to experience anything in a crowded theatre, but in the end it’s always just the movie and you.

- Kent Jones

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THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955, d. Charles Laughton)
Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. with funding provided by Robert Sturm and The Film Foundation.

BACK AND FORTH (1969, d. Michael Snow)
Restored by Anthology Film Archives with funding provided by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and The Film Foundation.

WAVELENGTH (1967, d. Michael Snow)
Restored by Anthology Film Archives and The Film Foundation. Funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

The Film Foundation

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