Preservation on Scorsese’s mind at Cannes

Director at fest for World Cinema Foundation

While most directors come to Cannes to tub-thump their films, Martin Scorsese would not even address questions about “Shutter Island” or the Frank Sinatra biopic he might direct.

Scorsese came to the Croisette for another passion project: the ongoing effort to restore and preserve films he said are fading and turning to vinegar all over the globe. Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation announced a new executive director in New York Film Society associate programmer Ken Jones, and took the plunge into digital distribution of restored titles by aligning with web distributor The Auteurs, and marketing and ancillary distributors B-Side Entertainment.

It marked a major step for Scorsese, who said preservation has been a priority since he attended a retrospective of Fox films at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and was shocked by what he saw.

“We watched ‘Niagara,’ which was in beautiful Technicolor, and then ‘The Seven Year Itch,'” he said. “We were told they were putting a filter in front of it, and it was literally pink and blue, this film that had only been made a year or two later than ‘Niagara.’

“This opened up to me a whole area of what was happening to these films, which started with color fading, and storage problems, but became about the celluloid itself, which is subject to things like nitrate burning, and vinegar syndrome. Technicolor films don’t do this, but all other films at some point become vinegar, and it’s like going into a salad bar. The smell of vinegar is overwhelming, and if you take one reel and put it next to another reel that’s not vinegar, it gets infected.”

Scorsese took the problem to his filmmaking friends.

“Brian DePalma, Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader, Coppola, that whole group, we realized we come at this from a totally different viewpoint,” Scorsese said. “When films were made back in the ’20s and ’30s, they really didn’t expect them to last that long. But we grew up with these things and said, ‘Wait a minute.’ These people were dying off naturally, and they didn’t understand the value of what they had given us. So we started what became the film foundation.”

Scorsese said most major studios have taken up the challenge to systematically restore their own negatives. And while he’s concerned that the global recession will hamper the Foundation’s efforts to raise funds and secure prints to restore, Scorsese said he has found enthusiastic allies in countries like Africa, Mali, South Korea, Dubai, Turkey and Brazil.

Both he and Jones feel the web distribution effort will be a boon, bringing overhauled prints to a larger group of movie lovers. While Scorsese said such films are best viewed on a bigscreen, his path to the director chair was forged by images he saw flickering on a TV screen.

“My family was working class, and there was a television on all the time,” he said. “I’ve seen great classic films, from ‘Citizen Kane’ to ‘The Third Man,’ ‘The Tales of Hoffmann,’ to ‘Force of Evil,’ ‘Open City’ and ‘The Bicycle Thief,’ all on a very poor-quality television, with commercials, usually dubbed into English. That made me seek them out to see them on a bigscreen. This was my introduction to world cinema, and I began to learn about other cultures through watching these films.”

Scorsese feels the WCF’s vid campaign might light the spark of future filmmakers.

“These films used to go from festivals to repertory theaters, but with the advent of video and DVD over the past 10 years, repertory theater has become home cinema, and that’s why DVD and online is the most sensible way to go about this,” Scorsese said.