Do you remember the pre-virtual flatties? Don’t worry… no one does.
But a small band of so-called ‘film preservationists’ at UMCA have joined forces to restore and present these curios to anyone with the courage and patience to “sit through them.” Most flatties are missing and presumed lost, junked due to their near-total lack of commercial value when the first “immersive media experiences” (as they were then called) flashed onto parietal, temporal and occipital lobes around the world.
“What survived, survived piecemeal,” according to Sky Hepburn, who calls herself a ‘film preservationist’ even though, strictly speaking, there is no ‘film’ left to preserve. “We work with a variety of binary source materials which are themselves re-encodings of long-obsolete single-perspective external media. Sometimes we have just one channel of information to work with, so we can only approximate the original experience.”
“Approximating the experience” is challenging, to say the least. We asked Hepburn to comment on her most difficult restoration work.
- Planet of the Apes (1968) – “We have the picture element and a commentary track by Roddy McDowell. All attempts to recreate the original dialogue through lip reading have come up empty.”
- Cabin Boy (1994) – “We have a complete set of all the raw footage as well as the soundtrack mix elements from this classic comedy, but no information as to how it was assembled for release.”
- Follow That Bird (1985) – “Again, picture elements but no sound. We’ve recreated the portion of the soundtrack spoken by human beings, but all Muppet sequences are currently mute.”
- The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) – “A heartbreaker. The only John Huston film we have, other than Annie – and our print is missing the last reel. Surviving documentation indicates that the film featured Kirk Douglas, George C. Scott, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster, but we can only confirm the participation of the first two.”
- A Cinerama Space Odyssey (2001) – “The last twenty minutes look as if the original negative was exposed to light during darkroom development.”
There have been successful restorations, however. All of the materials survived for Memento (2000), but the film was, according to Hepburn, “…a hopeless mess. After years of fruitless analysis, somebody, I forget who, suggested we reverse the order of the sequences.” This provided a ‘Rosetta Stone,’ although Hepburn admits that the now fully restored film is “…kind of boring.” The ‘tails out’ technique has been attempted with other films for which all elements still exist, “…with mixed results,” according to Hepburn. “It improves some films, like Citizen Kane (1941), which is far more understandable when you know what ‘Rosebud’ is from the outset.” For other films – like those of David Lynch, for example – the technique yields no discernible effect.
Preservationists may differ in their judgment of individual flattie titles, but all are in agreement as to the most rewarding aspect of their work: discovering and identifying titles that have maltinized.
“We don’t fully understand the process,” says Hepburn, “but apparently, as a film ages, it becomes susceptible to maltinization.” Regardless of content, maltinized films expand over the years, ‘growing’ new opening and closing sequences. Thankfully, these are easy to detect, since the added sequences do not involve players or characters seen in the original film, but rather ‘a universal character’ whom Hepburn believes may well have been the most beloved ‘movie star’ of all time, judging by the sheer number of appearances he made. “Like the Greek chorus, this character exists to explain the story and indicate how an ideal audience would react,” says Hepburn, who’s currently working on “Glasses, Beard and Lapel Pin,” a loving two-week tribute consisting exclusively of excerpted maltinized material. “We believe these sequences stand on their own. They deserve to be seen and appreciated without having to endure the 90 to 130 minute ‘feature films’ that follow and/or precede them. You need to know about these ‘motion pictures,’ but you probably don’t want to actually watch them.”
The first program, subsidized by