- Festival Il Cinema Ritrovato 2004
At first glance, a festival of films that have recently been restored may seem a rather esoteric event that is probably more of a curiosity than anything else. After all, film restoration attracts a very small and well-connected constituency of people whose drive and fascination with film history is without exception exclusive and all-consuming. One reason for this situation is that all the materials that underpin the discussion take time to view just to establish their significance. And then, of course, when something important does come up it has to be looked at all over again—at least half a dozen times to discover why it may be worth studying. For the past two decades this has been made much easier by the VCR, which not only allows the film scholar to view on demand but also enables variable speeds from fast forward to freeze frame, something that earlier scholars could experience only at the viewing table in an archive (at enormous expense). The benefits of electronic technologies have been manifest in the growth of interest in cinema studies in universities (and schools) and the growth of a critical mass of published material that has created a certain independence in film studies from more inclusive discourses (such as media studies). The aesthetic losses incurred by these gains are, in comparison, relatively minor, but it is well to be reminded of other more important reductions that the electronic replacement of cinema history can effect. In the first place, reducing film to an image (with or without sound) encourages the current academic hegemony of visual culture, which erodes the experiential differences that are part and parcel of the creation of meaning. Watching film, for example, not only takes time, but also has a corporeal impact, as the viewer may get noticeably hungry or hot (for example). Moreover, up until the 1990s a movie was a product intended to be viewed in a public space, in the dark and in the company of an audience who had gone out of their way to experience it, an experience quite separate (no more or less valid) from watching a tape.
For most of the 20th century the cinema meant a collective and public interaction with technology that was extended into other technological media such as music, print, fashion and so forth. Whatever differences cinema audiences came away with in the shape of perceptions of stars and stories, they almost all shared the same ideas about technology as an all-encompassing—almost inevitable—dimension. Moreover, for all the anxiety technological change produced, in the cinema technology made the impossible plausible. Restoring a film, then, is as much an act of material recovery as an archaeological reconstruction of an earlier imagination, not that of the directors, actors or writers but the public's collective dreams about the world and its future. The film archivist's function is not just to restore film but also to recover the popular consciousness of an earlier technological environment.
It must always be remembered in this context that the cinema, until quite recently, was the intersection of architecture (bricks and mortar) and film [End Page 264] (celluloid and acetate), where art, technology and audiences made up of ordinary people met and interacted. There can be no definitive version of what this idea meant ( just as there can be no definitive version of a film). Recovering old movies is not a nostalgic indulgence but an ongoing interpretative and discursive act only made possible by successive generations continually looking at the films in order to use history as a tool in the ongoing exploration of what it means to be human. As a consequence, to lose film material is to lose crucial evidence of what the majority of people thought and/or imagined when they were not working (and possibly even when they were supposed to be working). To lose cinema—that is, to stop watching film as film (strip)—is to abandon the desires of ordinary people to the...