The Celluloid Lottery and Revival Cinemas

Every time I’m on the train heading to the Astor to see an old film print, at around South Yarra Station I start to question whether or not it’s going to be money well spent. Faded and near destroyed prints of films like McCabe and Mrs Miller always make me worry about whether it’s going to be worth the honestly pretty reasonable ticket price. It’s a ridiculous thing to question, for someone like me at least, because of course it’s worth it. But for every print I’ve seen that, even after more than half a century, is still in brilliant condition, I must have seen a dozen that were barely watchable. So why bother?

Back in 2015, the Melbourne Cinematheque hosted a month of Paul Thomas Anderson pictures. His first five films all on original 35mm prints and there was something said during the introduction of Hard Eight that really stuck with me. Turns out, the print we saw that night of Anderson’s first feature was one of only three known to still exist. “It seems it’s easier,” said the speaker, “to find prints of films from 50 years ago than it is to find prints from 15.”

Seeing Hard Eight up on the big screen, I almost couldn’t believe how rich the colour and grain of the print was, something that’s completely lacking from both the last official DVD release and the HD-TV rip that’s floating around. Details this minute and obsessive may seem a bit trivial, but it was incredible how much more I felt myself just lapping up how the film looked seeing it on 35. And while I have absolutely no idea how many prints of Hard Eight once existed, perhaps it was only ever three, I can’t help but think that if we don’t ever get that long awaited Criterion Collection 4K restoration the experience I had might not be possible in a decade or two.

It’s an oft-repeated statistic that close to, if not more than, half of the films made before 1950 are lost forever, and there’s no question that to have a film on sub-par rushed DVD release only is better than having nothing at all. But, as is often quoted in the forums, films should evoke or stay true to the period they were made in. Everyone knows the most flagrant example of this in George Lucas’s infamous Star Wars Special Editions, but even Blu-Ray releases that are, by most people’s standards, pretty damn good often are subject to small changes that arguably make a lot of difference.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the perfect example. Its 4K release and the accompanying Blu-Ray is one of the best, it’s gorgeous to look at and feels relatively true to what the original intention was. There’s no egregious CGI, no digital “cleaning” of film grain that ought never have been touched, no recuts and re-edits no one asked for. But, turns out, it’s a far cry from what anyone originally saw in 1981. Every release of that film, since the original Laserdisk to now, has been subject to warmer and warmer colour corrections. That iconic heavy red hue over the Nepal bar sequence towards the beginning? Turns out, that was never there in the original theatrical presentation.

If I were ever going to develop some kind of a gambling problem, the closest thing to it would be these film print screenings. Because that’s what it is, it’s a gamble. Sure, there’s every chance it’ll be barely watchable. But nothing beats the scratches, the legitimate film grain, the idea that there’s some passionate person loading the reels and waiting for those cigarette burns in the top right corner.

And all too often now, taking the gamble that the print you’ll see at the Astor Theatre or ACMI will be any good is the only way you’ll ever be able to see a film the way it was originally intended. No one should wait around for the studios to release yet another restoration of films they’ve already worked on more than half a dozen times, and the beautiful obsessive amateur film restorers on forums like can’t do everything, but if you see that there’s an original release print of a film you haven’t seen at all or seen a thousand times before, go see it. Take the risk that it’ll be a mess. Just see it, chances are you’ll have an experience you may never have a chance to repeat ever again.

Written by Tom May
Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and columnist with a vast knowledge of film, BBQ and Paul Thomas Anderson.