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Restoring glory to classics

IT ALL began with "Lawrence of Arabia." Lean's desert epic was a favourite re-run on television and a hot video rental. When Hollywood wanted to re-release it in theatres in a brand new print they discovered to their horror that they couldn't: the original camera negative was badly damaged. It was apparently found in rusted cans in a warehouse in Long Island City, Queens, New York.

A handful of directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and De Palma, who adored the movie, were appalled. They decided to do something about it and put their collective weight on the studios and persuaded them to restore it.

A team of experts was quickly assembled to clean up the original negatives - a painstaking, complex, artistic process where the negative becomes a canvas and the restorers, artists dipping their paintbrushes into a palette of colours to restore it to its original glory. While restoring it, the team found extra footage that had never been seen — footage that had been left on the cutting room floor.

Excited, the studio re-released it theatrically all over the world as "Lawrence of Arabia: The Restored Version." The concept was a hit. Lean's great desert epic had found a new audience all over again. While fans of the film relived the experience all over again, a whole new generation of movie-goers finally saw it the way it was meant to be seen — in 70mm. ("Lawrence" was one of the last films to be shot in 70mm — as opposed to contemporary films which are blown up to 70mm from a 35mm negative).

The Restored Version became a trend. Why not, wondered movie buffs, critics and filmmakers, restore and re-release classics from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s? Vintage classics from the 1930s and 1940s had already done the rounds, now surely it was time modern American classics got their due?

The first film to be honoured as a modern American masterpiece was Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Recently, it was re-released in a fully restored version with digitally enhanced sound and seen for the first time in stereo. It has become the revival event of the year. Hitchcock's hypnotic suspense-drama about obsession and madness still had the power to seduce a new audience and mesmerise them the way Kim Novak mesmerised poor Jimmy Stewart.

An interesting spin-off of restoring and re-releasing these films is that it has given critics and audience alike a fresh opportunity to re-view and re-evaluate them. Do they hold up as classics today? "Lawrence" and "Vertigo" passed the test but would the next big re-release, "The Graduate," make it? This hilarious, astute generation gap fable from the 1960s not only made it, it had a newer, younger audience asking ``Why doesn't anybody make movies as good as this anymore?'' Some critics rightly pointed out that while it was still funny and terrifically acted and directed (not to forget the great Simon and Garfunkle soundtrack) its idealism rings a little phony today. Its young anti-hero, Benjamin Braddock, detests the `plastic', hypocritical world of his parents and their generation.

The 1960s was a tumultuous, idealistic time in America and yet Benjamin's single act of rebellion, his all-consuming goal is to marry Elaine, the pretty, rich all-American girl next door.

``Now that,'' pointed out one critic, "was not exactly the defining ambition of all those who aligned themselves against all things plastic."

But "The Graduate" is without doubt a modern American masterpiece, which, along with "Easy Rider", influenced the style and content of American movies for a whole decade.

Surprisingly, the one great American modern classic that failed to make as big an impact on its recent re-release is "The Godfather". While critics once again hailed it, the audience seems to have stayed away from it - choosing instead to go and see the refurbished "Star Wars" trilogy. This is baffling. If any movie has the power to grow on you, it is this gangster epic that is, in truth, not about gangsters but about the corruption of America. The American Dream rotting into a nightmare. It was also a family epic - the pull of family love and loyalty and the unpardonable sin of betrayal. "The Godfather Trilogy" remains a vibrant film experience even on a video viewing. Why it didn't happen on screen is a mystery.

The Restored Version led to The Director's Cut which in turn led to The Special Edition: "Cinema Paradiso" is one recent example. But when are we in India going to do the same? What about restoring our classics and re-releasing them: "Pakeezah", "Pyaasa", "Shri 420", "Kagaz Ke Phool", "Devdas" to name just a few.

A whole generation of moviegoers has never even seen them — or seen them only on video. And what about regional classics? The irony is that the films of Ray, Ghatak and Adoor Gopalakrishnan have been restored in America and France, not in India.

What's more is that these beautiful prints have been touring nearly every country in the world except India. And what about revivals, retrospectives? There must be an audience hungry to see the great films, their favourite films, the way they were meant to be seen: on the big screen.

What the readers said:

In response to the column on July 19, readers suggested the following films as underrated: "Nammavar", "12 B", "Thottal Chinungi", "Aalavandaan", "27 Down", "Peecha Karo", "Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar", "Zakhm", "Iruvar", "Hey Ram", "Anthapuram", "Thulli Thirintha Kaalam", "Ah-ha", "Sangamam", "Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander", "Khadhala, Khadhala", "Om".

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

(pradeepsebastian@hotmail.com)Visuals by Netra Shyam

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