License to Kill Time (digital film restoration)
by Rene Thoreau Bruckner — University of Southern California
December 14, 2012 – 00:00
This video compiles selected bits from a 2004 promo for Lowry Digital Images’ restoration of Universal’s library of James Bond films. I’ll draw three broad critical points from it.
1. Digital film restoration expresses a desire to escape time. The stated goal of any film restoration is to erase the marks of age on analog film and reproduce it in its original state (a fantasy that Paolo Cherchi Usai calls the Model Image). As John Lowry explains in the video, there are three problems to face: "the degradation of time, handling, and multiple generations of film." These are three aspects of material time, which the restoration industry treats as losses in value (see Decasia for a cinephilia that sees something other than loss in age). Digital tools have made it easier to erase damage, but they have also strengthened the accompanying notion that the goal is to fix the film forever (see Jaws restoration promo for another expression of this idea). Also a fantasy: many developments since 2004 have shown how the Bond restorations are themselves "rooted in the time they were made."
2. This is a "bad thing." It is disheartening to see material time erased—not only because cinephilia feeds on scratches, hair, decay, etc., but more urgently, because the idea of a final, "timeless" Bond film supports an ahistorical attitude. Would it not be a symptom of psychosis to desire a perpetual repetition of the same film?
3. This is a "good thing." Digital erasure provided a whole new set of Bond films. Despite its explicit goal to eradicate time, restoration is an undeniably creative activity: an art of subtraction, refined trickery. Take, for example, the technique for replacing a damaged area of one frame with similar elements from the frame before or after it, literally mixing one instant with another. This may betray a film’s claim to photographic "indexicality," but then again, cinema is the art of undermining the integrity of the still image. There is something truly restorative about this art that perpetuates a cinephilia of illusionism—a love for images that play fast and loose with time.