- Unwrapping Archives:DVD Restoration Demonstrations and the Marketing of Authenticity
We are in the film Metropolis; we are in an engine room. It's a symbolic room for this film, a famous decoration. It's also a symbol for what we're doing now. We are taking a look into the restoration of a film; we are looking in an engine room to which normally the audience has no access to.—Koerber, Metropolis
Since films were first deemed worthy of archival preservation, film history has been in the business of restoring memories. From Henri Langlois's pioneering efforts to store and re-present films at the Cinémathèque française to Hollywood's perpetual theatrical rotation of canonical re-releases to lost film reconstructions and the current inundation of director's cuts, the recycling of authentic experience for new audiences has always been central to the reputable marketing of cinema as art. While film "restoration" in its most strict material definition refers to a range of specific cleaning and cut-and-paste strategies performed by archivists on fading and badly damaged original prints, there is a second tangible method by which the term operates through artificially restoring movie audiences' memories. Unlike an art gallery, where a masterpiece can be revisited, before the age of home video authentic film experiences were one-offs—projected rarities in space and time to be sought out at great expense. As filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci remarked in a February 2005 interview with USA Today, prior to home video, "going to the movie theater was like going to a church, and seeing the movies with other people was like being able to have a collective dream" (Snider par. 5).
Adding to this loss of cinematic aura is the inevitable material damage to celluloid over time. Industrial and archival practices of historical film restoration attempt to reclaim authentic film-going experience as much as possible by returning us to filmmakers' original intentions through the conservation and reassemblage of the most pristine segments of available prints. Yet these salvaging efforts are also indirectly motivated by the theoretical absence of superior elements insofar as it is conceivable that more ideal fragments may eventually be located. In this sense, film restoration acts under the implicit assumption that better surviving components, even if only single frames, might be found at some unknowable future point in some heretofore unexplored archive and hence be materially incorporated into the lifeblood of the newly "restored" work of art. Driven by this archival obsolescence of both film material and film memory, the work of film restoration proper, that is, preserving the historical authenticity of cinema as art, has always been open to the renegotiation of what might be, disguised in the nostalgic, even moralizing rhetoric of what might have been. The dialectic of restorative authenticity is therefore a necessarily double movement toward an ideal historical image of cinema as much as a movement away from what can never be represented again. The rhetorical illusion of authenticity seems embedded in the presumed teleological progress of cinema itself, as if there is a nascent ideal historical moment to be captured and represented at all.1 Thus, the archival fetish of exceptional material elements hides what I consider to be the real work of historical restoration: attempting to recover and cage obsolescent human memories along with the associated affect of aesthetic perception.
Amid these competing restoration narratives, digi-talization is merely the latest paradigm of preservation attempts to shore up material closure on cinematic memories. However, digital restoration is significant because it is physically changing the content of film history. With restoration technology we can digitally scrub an image to hyperreal ends, where it can seem like history never happened. Techniques range from hand-painting [End Page 18] individual errors or applying color correction at the click of a mouse to using software that automatically restores lost information through frame sequence comparisons.2 Digital restoration is labor and cost intensive, but the result is never perfect. Automatic correction software used too heavily may actually induce digital artifacts, resulting in the loss of visual information. Hence, digital assistance must be performed artfully to avoid changing original...