License to Kill Time (digital film restoration)

Curator's Note

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.



After reading your commentary here and thinking about your idea of restoration as the eradication of time's passage, I couldn’t help but notice how frequently words like “clean” and “fresh” come up in the interviews. These words seem to cover over a tension in the restoration process between two very different relationships to history (two contradictory practices of historiography): 1) clarifying the original recorded image as means of excavating the indexical: “reinvestigating…going back to the original negs and getting as much as possible…revealing details never seen before”; and 2) eradicating the disruptive, e.g., getting rid of the camera crew in the mirror. Despite the desire for a timeless Bond, every restoration decision draws a line between 1 and 2. And in that distinction, a very historically-specific subjectivity asserts itself.

Yes, the word "clean" does hold a particularly central place in the industry. It does seem suspiciously overused, as you suggest--as if it covers for the archaeological aspect to restoration, the unearthing of new details, which would imply a certain dirtiness, and also admits that restoration is a creative practice, not mere cleanup work. It is like a closeted avant-garde movement, in this sense (especially given its drive to push the cutting edge, technologically). And most certainly a historically=specific one.

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