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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

8/13/2021 4:00:00 PM

In today’s New York Times—a newspaper with a sad history of treating the arts like a cat’s toy—we are served yet another slice of baby talk in the guise of a cultural “think piece.” “Great is what this art is,” goes the sub-hed of a reflection on the Gardner Museum’s new Titian exhibition, “yet it raises doubts about whether any art, however ‘great,’ can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.”

What art has ever been “considered exempt from moral scrutiny?” Isn’t it possible to walk into a museum, look at a painting by Titian or Thomas Cole or Frederic Remington, and arrive at a double perspective of aesthetics and history all on one’s own? Of course it is. People do it all the time, and they’ve been doing it for as long as there have been galleries and museums.

So it is with cinema. I know many filmmakers throughout the world who admire the work of John Ford but who would never dream of making a film that mixes Apaches with white actors made up to look like Apaches. That convention did not belong to John Ford. It belonged to the time. And during that time, the great producer Val Lewton made his last film, a western called Apache Drums, directed by Hugo Fregonese, which has been restored by Universal Pictures in partnership with The Film Foundation. I am not comparing Apache Drums to My Darling Clementine or The Searchers. It is a small film, described very well by Lewton in a letter to his mother and sister: “The little Western film I made is ready for preview…We do know that it is, at the very least, an extraordinarily well-made film, and made at the lowest price at which a feature-length Technicolor film has ever been made… If it isn’t a hit, then the fact that it has been brought in so cheaply will at least assure me of a job.” Lewton would be dead at the age of 46 two months before the film was released. As in his great RKO horror films, the aesthetic economy and refinement of Apache Drums is remarkable, nowhere more than in the night raid on the church, in which Lewton and Fregonese make exquisite use of firelight, color and—as always—darkness.

The historical context in which Lewton and Fregonese made Apache Drums now seems as distant as the ones in which Titian painted “The Rape of Europa” or Longfellow wrote “The Song of Hiawatha.” Should we really expect them all to be reframed for us through “the lens of the political present,” i.e. from our own recklessly decontextualizing perspective? Or, should we enter the work of art on our own, if it really sparks something in us, and find our own way to seeing its historical context with ever-increasing clarity? In this case, the work of art is minor, but the sensibility and the craft behind it belong to a major figure who died far too young.

- Kent Jones

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

7/30/2021 1:00:00 PM

There are certain films made by artists who respond so deeply and fully to the realization of their own ambitions that they create something that takes on a life of its own. In American cinema, we have Sunrise, Vertigo, Raging Bull, several films by John Ford and John Cassavetes. And we have The Best Years of Our Lives.

When the film was released, it was officially lauded with critical praise, box office success, Oscars, and so on. The backlash came just as quickly, followed by attacks from red baiters. Then, perhaps worst of all, William Wyler’s movie was enshrined and encased in the noxiously perfumed marble halls of Official Greatness. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with the film itself.

When I was young, The Best Years of Our Lives ran regularly on WPIX out of New York. I watched it more than once side by side with my father, who had fought in New Guinea and the Philippines. I don’t remember at what point I came to understand that the film was a kind of living testament, to him and his fellow veterans, an embodiment of the anguish and discomfort they experienced amidst their “rehabilitation.” At one point in the 90s, I asked my father if he and his friends felt that the film represented their situation truthfully. He just nodded his head and quietly said yes.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it over the years. With every new viewing it seems to become more shattering. There are two countervailing forces that run through every frame of Best Years. On the one hand, the spirit of can-do optimism, the sense that we’d all “come through it.” On the other hand, the feeling of dread, loss, inadequacy, displacement, disenchantment, and guilt that lingers for the ones who lived to return, some physically damaged, some psychically or spiritually or all three mixed together. The only way you could have missed it, as many people did, was to look away from it.

There are passages in this film that make my heart stop. There’s no point in trying to describe the Frederic March character’s homecoming—why translate into words what’s been embodied with cinema? The eloquent simplicity of this and many other moments, big and small, is unmatched.

The Best Years of Our Lives was recently restored by the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress, and The Film Foundation, and presented at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. To be able to see it under the very best conditions is a miracle. But I’m also compelled to say that it’s a movie of such inner force and beauty that it transcends the very worst conditions as well.

- Kent Jones

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THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946, d. William Wyler)
Restored by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive and The Film Foundation, in association with The Library of Congress. Restoration funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

7/23/2021 3:55:00 PM

I cannot tell a lie: I Know Where I’m Going! is one of my favorite films. I’m far from alone. In the first volume of Michael Powell’s autobiography, he recounts the Rank Organization’s lack of enthusiasm for the film, and their fear that British audiences of 1945 would find the events of the story completely out of sync with the reality of the country at the time. The film was initially more successful in the United States than it was in Britain, but more importantly, it has become one of Powell and Pressburger’s most beloved films over the years. We resort far too frequently to the language and the value system of mass popularity, which in the end has precisely nothing to do with why a film lasts. I Know Where I’m Going! has been taken to heart, one viewer at a time.

I find it a very wise film, in addition to being constantly surprising, hauntingly beautiful and as tonally varied and rich as all the great Archers films. In outline, Emeric Pressburger’s story, of a woman who wants desperately to get to an island but who finally doesn’t because her life has suddenly changed, is the stuff of American romantic comedy, not so different from The Awful Truth or The Philadelphia Story or It Happened One Night. But I Know Where I’m Going isn’t a comedy, despite the fact that it is often very funny. Nor is it a melodrama, despite the hair-raising sequence in which its principal characters are almost swallowed up by the whirlpool known as Corryvreckan. Powell and Pressburger more or less invented their own particular genre. In their best films, all made in the shadow of war, every landscape is alive with history, myth, and physical beauty, and every gesture of every character is a vital response to the question: am I being true to myself? The dilemma of Wendy Hiller’s Joan is comic, dramatic and existential, all at once.

Powell and Pressburger had envisioned Deborah Kerr in the role of Joan, but her tempestuous love affair with Powell had ended when he refused to go to join her in Hollywood and married someone else…so her casting wasn’t possible. They wanted James Mason for the role of Torquil, but he was so difficult in negotiations that they dropped him. Part of the film’s magic is the completely unconventional casting of Livesey and Hiller, neither of who was conventional “star material.” In every scene they bring unexpected grace notes and intensities, and together they infuse the film with rich undertones and values that wouldn’t have happened with the alternate casting.

I haven’t seen the new restoration, years in the making, which I mentioned last week. It’s the best reason imaginable for showing I Know Where I’m Going! again, and providing more opportunities for people to experience it for the first time and maybe take it to heart the way that I have, along with many of you who might be reading this.

- Kent Jones

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I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING! (1945, dirs. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) 
Restored by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation in association with ITV. Restoration funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. Additional support provided by Matt Spick. 

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The Film Foundation, Film Heritage Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna to restore G. Aravindan's KUMMATTY

7/17/2021 9:00:00 AM

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, a program created by Martin Scorsese in 2007, Film Heritage Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna are pleased to announce a collaboration to restore legendary Indian filmmaker G. Aravindan’s classic Malayalam film “Kummatty” (1979). The film will be restored at the L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, Italy and will have its world restoration premiere at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in late July.

“I’m thrilled to be working with Shivendra Singh Dungarpur once again to preserve and restore director G. Aravindan’s extraordinary film, ‘Kummatty,’” said TFF founder and chair Martin Scorsese. “Aravindan was a visionary director and ‘Kummatty’ is considered among his greatest work. The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project will share this film with the wider audience it deserves, making it a true cinematic discovery. Thanks to Olivia Harrison and her Material World Foundation for making this restoration possible.”    

“Ever since I first worked with The Film Foundation on the restoration of Uday Shankar’s ‘Kalpana’ (1948) in 2012, I have seen how beautifully and respectfully they have been restoring films from around the world and giving these films a new life,” said Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, Director of the Film Heritage Foundation. “Every time I watch a beautifully restored film, I think of so many landmark films of Indian cinema that are crying out to be preserved, restored and showcased in their original beauty once again to the public to be appreciated. Aravindan’s films have been on the top of the list not just because he is a master, but one who I feel has not gotten the recognition he deserves and whose films sadly are not in circulation. It broke my heart when I learned that all the original camera negatives of his films are lost and all we have are prints, not in the best condition.”

“I was delighted when The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project agreed to restore ‘Kummatty.’ I travelled to Kollam in Kerala to meet Mr. K. Ravindranathan Nair of General Pictures, the producer of five of Aravindan’s films including ‘Kummatty.’ He very graciously agreed to give permission for the restoration and for us to access the prints from the NFAI. The NFAI gave us both prints for the lab to check the elements. Fortunately, one of the prints did not contain subtitles.”

“‘Kummatty’ is a film that combines poetry, landscape, nature and folk tale through stunning visuals and an unbelievable use of music and sound design. I regard Aravindan as one of the most poetic filmmakers in the world. He is a poet who writes in the language of cinema and silence. Watching his films is like a meditative experience. I am honoured to be a part of this project and we hope to restore his acclaimed film ‘Thampu’ in the near future.”

Cecilia Cenciarelli of Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna said, "Restoring ‘Kummatty’ reminded us once again of the core mission that The Film Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna embrace through the World Cinema Project; to give a new life to masterpieces, shed a light on obscure cinematic gems, and expand the canon of world cinema in multiple directions. Only two 35mm prints (one with photographed English subtitles) of ‘Kummatty’ survive and are the result of a not-so-distant past when film negatives were copied and then discarded, sometimes leaving behind only projection prints. The two copies were naturally worn-out, very dirty and deeply scratched, one containing a consistent vertical green line on the right-hand side of the image, which required painstaking frame-by-frame work to remove.”

“The film's natural environment, which could be considered one of the main characters of the film, was lit by master cinematographer Shaji N. Karun and had completely lost its rich palette that illuminated the skies, grass, foliage and fields, becoming instead a homogeneous magenta. Thanks to Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory was able to be in contact with G. Aravindan’s son, Ramu Aravindan, and Shaji N. Karun who helped recapture, as much as possible, the original aesthetics as well as the magical  dimensions of the film."

About G. Aravindan
Govindan Aravindan was one of India’s greatest filmmakers and a leading light of the New Indian Malayalam cinema of the 1970s and ‘80s. He was a man of many talents – painter, cartoonist, musician, theatre director, and filmmaker. An autodidact, his films were marked by an entirely original approach to cinema. He has been described as a poet-philosopher with a vision, and he made mystical, transcendental films that showed deep compassion for the eccentric, the marginalized, and the alienated. In a career spanning from 1974 to 1991, he made 11 films and 10 documentaries with almost all of his films receiving national or state awards.

KUMMATTY (1979) (English title: THE BOGEYMAN)
Tadao Sato, one of Japan’s foremost film scholars and critics, described “Kummatty” as a masterpiece and stated that he had not seen a more beautiful film in his whole life. The Malayalam film, written and directed by G. Aravindan, was produced by Ravindranathan Nair under the banner of General Pictures.

“Kummatty” tells the story of a Pied Piper-like character of Malabar folklore called Kummatty. Part myth part magician, he’s the bogeyman of a grandmother’s tale who materializes one day mingling with the children and weaving a spell of carefree abandon. He casts a spell and turns the children into animals. One boy, Chindan, is transformed into a dog, but misses the moment when the other children are turned back to human form and has to wait a year for Kummatty to reverse the spell. Chindan’s life as a dog and his return to a human state is a journey through which he realizes that life is a gift and freedom is precious. Kummatty is not an evil spirit summoned to coax children into obedience, but a genial if mysterious companion who transports them into a world of fun and frolic. “Kummatty” won the Kerala State Film Award for the Best Children’s Film in 1979.

 

THE FILM FOUNDATION
Created in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, The Film Foundation (TFF) is dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history. By working in partnership with archives and studios, the foundation has helped to restore over 900 films, which are made accessible to the public through programming at festivals, museums, and educational institutions around the world. TFF’s World Cinema Project, created in 2007, has restored 46 films from 27 different countries, representing the rich diversity of world cinema. The foundation’s free educational curriculum, The Story of Movies, teaches young people – over 10 million to date – about film language and history.

FILM HERITAGE FOUNDATION
Film Heritage Foundation is a not-for-profit organization set up by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur in 2014. It is dedicated to supporting the conservation, preservation, and restoration of the moving image and to developing interdisciplinary programmes to create awareness about the language of cinema. A member of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) since 2015, Film Heritage Foundation is the only non-governmental organization in the country working in the field of film preservation. The advisory council is comprised of such stalwarts as Kamal Haasan, Girish Kasaravalli, Gulzar, Gian Luca Farinelli, Jaya Bachchan, Krzysztof Zanussi, Shyam Benegal, Mark Cousins, and Kumar Shahani.

FONDAZIONE CINETECA DI BOLOGNA
Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna is an internationally recognized FIAF film archive with a multi-faceted mission ranging from film preservation and dissemination, training, research and publishing. In 2007 Cineteca organised the first FIAF Restoration School in Bologna, where it has regularly taken place every other year since then with participants from over 70 countries. Its annual festival Il Cinema Ritrovato is one of the most awaited venues for film historians, scholars and cinephiles all over the world. In the late 1990s, in partnership with the Chaplin Estate, Cineteca began the long process of restoring all of Chaplin’s short, medium and long features – more than 80 titles overall. Over the last 20 years, Cineteca’s laboratory, L’Immagine Ritrovata, has grown to be one of the leading centers for film restoration, with two international branches in Hong-Kong and Paris.

Cineteca di Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata have worked in partnership with entities and organizations world-wide, including the Academy Film Archive, Pathé, Gaumont, Sony, Institut Lumière – just to name a few – and completed over 800 restorations, including films by Pasolini, Renoir, Fellini, Visconti, De Sica, Leone, Rossellini, Vigo, Keaton. Cineteca’s long-standing collaboration with The Film Foundation and its World Cinema Project has lead to the restoration of masterpieces from Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, Egypt, India, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, Cuba, Mexico, Senegal, the Philippines and more.

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