The American film critic Manny Farber said that every movie transmits the DNA of its time. One of the really great science fiction films of the golden era of American cinema is Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was made in 1951, in the early years of the cold war, and it has the tension, the paranoia, the fear of nuclear disaster and the end of life on planet earth, and a million other elements that are more difficult to put into words. These elements have to do with the play of light and shadow, the emotional and psychological interplay between the characters, the atmosphere of the time woven into the action, all the choices that were made behind the camera that resulted in the immediate film experience for viewers like myself and my parents. These are the aspects of a film that reveal themselves in passing, the things that bring the movie to life for the viewer. And the experience becomes even richer when you explore these elements more closely.
Someone born today will see the picture with completely different eyes and a whole other frame of reference, different values, uninhibited by the biases of the time when it was made. You see the world through your own time—which means that some values disappear, and some values come into closer focus. Same film, same images, but in the case of a great film the power—a timeless power that really can’t be articulated—is there even when the context has completely changed.
But in order to experience something and find new values in it, the work has to be there in the first place—you have to preserve it. All of it. Archaeologists have made many discoveries by studying what we throw away, the refuse of earlier civilizations, the things that people considered expendable and that accidentally survived.
For example, there’s a Sumerian tablet that is not a poem, not a legend, but actually a record of livestock—a balance sheet of business transactions. Miraculously, it’s been preserved for centuries, first under layers of earth and now in a climate-controlled environment. When we find objects like this, we immediately take great care with them.
We have to do the same thing with film. But film isn’t made of stone. Until recently it was all made of celluloid—thin strips of nitrocellulose, the first plastic compound. For the first few decades of cinema, preservation wasn’t even discussed—it was something that happened by accident. Some of the most celebrated movies were the victims of their own popularity. In certain cases, every time they were rereleased, the prints were made from their original negatives, and in the process those negatives became degraded, hardly usable.
It wasn’t so long ago that nitrate films were melted down just for the silver content. Prints of films made in the 1970s and 1980s were recycled to make guitar picks and plastic heels for shoes. That’s a disturbing thought—just as disturbing as knowing that many of those extraordinary glass photographic plates taken of the Civil War not long after the birth of photography were later sold to gardeners for building greenhouses. Whatever plates survived are now in the Library of Congress.
We have to look beyond the officially honored, recognized, and enshrined, and preserve everything systematically. At this point in film history, many people have seen a 1958 picture directed by Alfred Hitchcock called Vertigo. When the film came out some people liked it, some didn’t, and then it just went away. Even before it came out, it was classified as another picture from the Master of Suspense and that was it, end of story. Almost every year at that time, there was a new Hitchcock picture—it was almost like a franchise.
At a certain point, there was a reevaluation of Hitchcock, thanks to the critics in France who later became the directors of the French New Wave, and to the American critic Andrew Sarris. They all enhanced our vision of cinema and helped us to understand the idea of authorship behind the camera. When the idea of film language started to be taken seriously, so did Hitchcock, who seemed to have an innate sense of visual storytelling. And the more closely you looked at his pictures, the richer and more emotionally complex they became.
For many years, it was extremely difficult to see Vertigo. When it came back into circulation, in 1983, along with four other Hitchcock films that had been held back, the color was completely wrong. The color scheme of Vertigo is extremely unusual, and this was a major disappointment. In the meantime, the elements—the original picture and sound negatives—needed serious attention.
Ten years later, Bob Harris and Jim Katz did a full-scale restoration for Universal. By that time, the elements were decaying and severely damaged. But at least a major restoration was done. As the years went by, more and more people saw Vertigo and came to appreciate its hypnotic beauty and very strange, obsessive focus.
As in the case of many great films, maybe all of them, we don’t keep going back for the plot. Vertigo is a matter of mood as much as it’s a matter of storytelling—the special mood of San Francisco where the past is eerily alive and around you at all times, the mist in the air from the Pacific that refracts the light, the unease of the hero played by James Stewart, Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score. As the film critic B. Kite wrote, you haven’t really seen Vertigo until you’ve seen it again. For those of you who haven’t seen it even once, when you do, you’ll know what I mean.
Every decade, the British film magazine Sight and Sound conducts a poll of critics and filmmakers from around the world and asks them to list what they think are the ten greatest films of all time. Then they tally the results and publish them. In 1952, number one was Vittorio de Sica’s great Italian Neorealist picture Bicycle Thieves. Ten years later, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane was at the top of the list. It stayed there for the next forty years. Last year, it was displaced by a movie that came and went in 1958, and that came very, very close to being lost to us forever: Vertigo. And by the way, so did Citizen Kane—the original negative was burned in a fire in the mid-1970s in Los Angeles.
So not only do we have to preserve everything, but most importantly, we can’t afford to let ourselves be guided by contemporary cultural standards—particularly now. There was a time when the average person wasn’t even aware of box office grosses. But since the 1980s, it’s become a kind of sport—and really, a form of judgment. It culturally trivializes film.
And for young people today, that’s what they know. Who made the most money? Who was the most popular? Who is the most popular now, as opposed to last year, or last month, or last week? Now, the cycles of popularity are down to a matter of hours, minutes, seconds, and the work that’s been created out of seriousness and real passion is lumped together with the work that hasn’t.
We have to remember: we may think we know what’s going to last and what isn’t. We may feel absolutely sure of ourselves, but we really don’t know, we can’t know. We have to remember Vertigo, and the Civil War plates, and that Sumerian tablet. And we also have to remember that Moby-Dick sold very few copies when it was printed in 1851, that many of the copies that weren’t sold were destroyed in a warehouse fire, that it was dismissed by many, and that Herman Melville’s greatest novel, one of the greatest works in literature, was only reclaimed in the 1920s.
Just as we’ve learned to take pride in our poets and writers, in jazz and the blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, our great American art form. Granted, we weren’t the only ones who invented the movies. We certainly weren’t the only ones who made great films in the twentieth century, but to a large extent the art of cinema and its development have been linked to us, to our country. That’s a big responsibility. And we need to say to ourselves that the moment has come when we have to treat every last moving image as reverently and respectfully as the oldest book in the Library of Congress.