Restoring Cinema’s Past

Restoring Cinema's PastAs the Oscar season begins to heat up, there are always a few winter blockbusters thrown into the mix to help relieve some of the public’s apprehension of going to a movie with the fear of seeing something “too smart,” aka boring.  This season is no different, with James Cameron’s new special effects epic Avatar.  To some, such films are a welcome release, for the audience can sit back in a theater chair and just watch without thinking too much about the plot, but rather enjoy the action.  But what are we really watching?  Simply this: blue pixilated aliens interacting with other blue pixilated aliens, being chased around a pixilated forest by a pixilated alien dinosaur.  This is not what cinema should be about, but in a lot of cases, it’s what it has become.

Today’s movies rely on Michael Bay-style explosions and special effects, which, although are expensive to produce, only serve to provide the audience with cheap thrills rather than actual substance.  This is because even so-called “ground-breaking” films like Avatar choose eye candy over plot, character development, and just plain old good storytelling.  Instead of special effects, filmmakers would use hundreds of live actors to create a grand sense of things.  It was more engaging for an audience.  Back in its classic days, audiences would get seriously invested in and connect with a movie.  It was a great experience going to the movies, and people kept that with them for a long time, whereas today’s audiences are bombarded with such a barrage of endless filler that they pay $9 to see a movie one night, only to forget it in a week when something shinier and newer comes along.  To truly respect the art of cinema, one must see and appreciate what has come before now.  If it were not for the classics of the past, there would surely be no contemporary classics.

This is not to say that new technology is a bad thing.  On the contrary, new, innovative cinematic technology is vital to cinema.  There used to be a day when filmmaking evolved from just being able to shoot a moving picture, with the likes of the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, or Thomas Edison’s many “Black Maria” shows.  After the technology moved from being able to just capture a moving picture, ideas from filmmakers began to focus on the actual narrative of films.  This led to the Classical Hollywood era, where studios ran Hollywood, and it would be common for the likes of Charlie Chaplin or Shirley Temple to be seen in up to ten films a year, because the studios knew they could make money off of these stars.  This era came to an end in 1939, arguably cinema’s finest year, when Poland fell in three days and the world’s focus shifted into another direction.

During the time of WWII, studios scrambled to make whatever films they could.  This led to the darkest era of film up to that point, but at the same time, some of the absolute greatest films as well.  Citizen Kane, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and Sunset Boulevard are just a few to come out of this period.  However, as we look at the present and the newest form of technology that is dominating Hollywood, the innovation of Hi-Definition home viewing and Blu-ray films, the question arises: why are some of these iconic films not available on the new format?  And it’s not just limited to noir pieces of cinema, but all films of the 1940s-60s.

One of the main problems with reminding audiences and Hollywood alike of what film was once like and could still be is that most of the classic films are still relegated to outdated formats.  The fact is that there is a divide in the spectrum of movie watching, in which some people still watch videotapes, while others are constantly striving to find the next best thing.  When an older film appears in DVD format, it looks grainy, which takes away from the overall viewing.  Seeing classic films in an innovative new technological format brings out the beauty that cinema has lost recently, and the beauty that audiences can be reminded of when they see these essential films on Blu-ray.

This is a screen shot from the beautiful Blu-ay transfer of Casablanca.

This is a screen shot from the beautiful Blu-ray transfer of Casablanca.

At the same time, not all great films have been forgotten; Carol Reed’s brilliant The Third Man, Michael Curtiz’s timeless Casablanca, and even the masterful Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris have all seen beautiful and vibrant transfers.  Even Errol Flynn’s classic incarnation of Robin Hood has never seemed as colorful as it does today on Blu-ray. 

Now we have to question why certain films are being left out of this dazzling new format.  Citizen Kane will always be found at the head of many of “Top Movie” lists, and for good reason; yet amazingly it’s not on Blu-ray.  An American in Paris is a pure delight to view, but while watching it, one begins to question, where is Kelly’s best known film, Singin’ in the Rain?  This is a question that has most filmgoers scratching their heads.  Listening to Orson Welles’s monologue in the Ferris Wheel in The Third Man will always be captivating, but afterwards, some minds will wonder as to why this film noir has been transferred, but something like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is still only available on regular DVD.

DVD Screen Shot of The Strangers

Here's a DVD screen shot shot from Orson Welles's 1946 noir The Strangers.

One issue is that the technology is slow in finding its way into American homes; some people still use VCRs after all.  We in the cinematic community must be patient.  Someday we will see our most beloved films on Blu-ray.  Indeed we must. For if the only Blu-ray experience modern audiences are exposed to are pixilated fighting giant robots, then some of the greatest works of art will be lost to the next generation of film lovers.




8 Responses to “Restoring Cinema’s Past”

  1. Chris

    You illustrate a fine point that is most assuredly over looked. I watched 2012 last night. John Cusacks crappy acting couldn’t carry the burden of the lengthy and poorly written story. “Acting” truly has taken a back seat to special effects. Generally my biggest issue with almost any modern movie is that it doesn’t make me think, it’s a “Non stop thrill ride” or “hip, stylish and cool”. Modern movies are just laughable and half the time the over use of CG ruins the effect of the effects anyway.

    Interview with a Vampire. Great movie. Antonio Banderas interpretation of Armand was compelling, commanding and to the point. You don’t see that in film anymore. The past 10 years have been about covering up poor skill with grand illusion.

    It is unfortunate that classic film will be lost. Its even worse that Megan Fox will set the guidelines for another generation of morons on the silver screen.

    Kudos sir.

  2. Cardigan Sue

    I wholeheartedly agree. Rooooosebud! Good read, thanks.

  3. Fahad

    I don’t think you can place the blame solely on Hollywood for the lack of substance we see in mainstream American movies, you need to blame us. We are the ones who are patronizing the theaters, we are the ones who eat up any and all tie-in merchandise, we are the ones who demand sequel after sequel because we can’t stand not knowing what happens to Such-and-such after he saved Whats-her-face in La-De-Da Part 3. If we didn’t constantly (and willingly) gorge ourselves on such menial drivel, we wouldn’t have this problem. Hollywood is a business, and a successful one at that.
    And keep in mind, those that we concider “classics” now were the Avatars and Drillbit Taylors of their time. People looked down at Double Indemnity the same way we are looking down at Micheal Bay, because in their eyes you should be reading Hawthorne or using the time to better serve the community. I tell you, if there was a means to show people living in that time movies like Bad Boys 2 or Transformers they would eat it up, instantly abandoning the movies we treasure now……that is, of course, after the initial shock of seeing two Negroes as cops and Giant Space Monsters that become automobiles.

  4. shea

    very true!

  5. Adam Ambro

    I agree with a lot of what you said Fahad, but comparing Drillbit Taylor to Double Indeminty?

    Double Indemnity was nominated for the following oscars:

    Best Actress
    Best Cinematography
    Best Director
    Best Music
    Best Sound
    Best Writing

    what was Drillbit Taylor nominated for again?

  6. Fahad

    I wasn’t comparing DI to DT I was merely stating that validity is subjective. Movies that we hold in high regard now, were seen as trash by some.

  7. Brian White

    Adam…this is a very interesting read. Your knowledge on the subject is second to none. Even if I wanted to disagree with you I could not 🙂

    The “blue pixelated aliens” line had me in stitches.

    I have to agree with Fahad’s first paragraph. I actually just read a case study not so long ago on that same very subject.

    I do agree, however, that we are sorely missing out on a numerous great titles on the Blu-ray format. Not just the few you mention above, but a lot of the classics have no representation on the Blu-ray format and for some strange reason…people seem just fine with them on DVD (yuck!). Instead, studios release titles that the lay person would not even want to see on the DVD format. It makes you wonder who really picks these titles up and of course, who buys this garbage? I can sit here and list titles on end which I think should be given the Blu-ray treatment, but until I figure out that magical Hollywood formula I will just be spinning my wheels. And all of these new Blu-ray packaging schemes of lets give the people a bonus DVD or introduce Blu-ray flipper technology is not helping the cause either. After all, there’s a reason why I have not watched a DVD since 2006.

  8. The Inept Navigator

    The Matrix is on Bluray now. Yet Brick isn’t
    Jennifer’s Body is on Bluray. Any movie worth mentioning isn’t.
    I spent 12 at the theaters… and nothings worse than watching movies with others!
    You’ve just proved a point that makes me want to sail my ship into the ocean and become shipwrecked.