Narrator: Peter Brooks.
With: Martin Scorsese, Kevin Brownlow, Robert Rosen, Mary Lea Bandy, James H. Billington.
Aworthy introduction to cinema history, “The Race to Save 100 Years” highlights the urgent need to make strides in film preservation. Featuring the participation of a panel of experts, docu is likely to turn up on the museum and college film studies circuit, as well as TV. But while its message is important, pic caters to a highly specialized audience of cinephiles and scholars and, as such, is unlikely to have the broader appeal of cinema-related docus like “The Celluloid Closet” and “Visions of Light.”
Film opens with disheartening images of decayed nitrate film rusting away in abandoned vaults to illustrate the graphic results of years of neglect. From there, narrator Peter Brooks embarks on a technical history of the early years of filmmaking, adding that as much as 85% of films made in the first 30 years of the century may be lost.
After the advent of sound, few saw fit to conserve early silent pictures, leading to the loss of works featuring legends including Theda Bara, Lon Chaney and Greta Garbo. Still photos and salvaged frames, the sole vestiges of those films, can only begin to hint at the magnitude of the losses incurred.
The alarmingly weak effort at early conservation was further compounded by the problems inherent in nitrate film stock. Highly flammable and extremely vulnerable to temperature and humidity variations, nitrate film, despite its sharp resolution and sparkling image quality, was destined to become obsolete. When nitrate was replaced by acetate safety film, the problem of volatility was supplanted by a new challenge: color fading. As Robert Rosen of the UCLA Film & Television Archive explains, the problems involved in film preservation continue to this day.
To that end, the Film Preservation Board and the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, created in 1988, have helped to raise awareness of the need for film conservation and restoration. But as Mary Lea Bandy of the Museum of Modern Art notes, with many original negatives lost or destroyed, the damage is already irrevocable.
Despite that solemn warning, docu does highlight some successful conservation efforts. Side-by-side before-and-after images from films including “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Gone With the Wind” deftly illustrate the positive effects of such work.
Docu also spotlights the efforts of Ted Turner, whose purchase of the MGM library initiated a campaign to restore and preserve a number of films that would otherwise have been left to decay in vaults. Still, “Race” does tend to whitewash Turner, eliding any mention of his much-criticized attempts to colorize B&W classics in order to popularize them. Small wonder he comes off so well: Turner Entertainment, along with Warner Bros., produced the project.