A second look for old films

Cinema: Restoration experts James Katz and Robert Harris take aging negatives and create a new version that resembles the original as much as possible

The Maryland Film Festival

April 27, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

To say that James Katz and Robert Harris restore films is like saying Babe Ruth hit home runs -- you're right, but you're seriously understating the case.

When it comes to film restoration, these guys mean business. They take thetime (in 13 years, they've restored only five films), spend the money (Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" cost about $650,000 to revamp, his "Vertigo" about $1.2 million) and do the research to ensure the films are as close as possible to what the director originally had in mind.

Katz and Harris will be on hand to present three of their restorations this weekend at the Senator: "My Fair Lady" at 1 p.m. Saturday; "Lawrence of Arabia" at 8 p.m. Saturday; and "Spartacus" at 2 p.m. Sunday.

"Our main concern is that we save these films," Katz says during a telephone interview from his Los Angeles office.

That doesn't mean, the two men stress, simply cleaning up an existing print or giving the existing negative a once-over, as most studios do before releasing a new VHS or DVD of a film, often with an accompanying label saying the movie has been remixed, remastered, restored or otherwise retooled. Long-term restoration and preservation, they say, is rarely the ultimate goal.

"What really happens," Harris says from New York, where he lives and works, "is that someone in home video will call over to someone in the [film studio] vaults and eke out just enough information to put out a usable DVD. Ten years from now, they figure, it'll be someone else's problem."

But by the time Katz and Harris are finished with a film, they've created an entirely new negative, featuring brightened colors, a heightened soundtrack and nary a scratch in sight. Frequently, their projects go beyond that.

For "My Fair Lady," they digitally reconstructed the opening credits. In the case of "Spartacus," they revived footage that had been trimmed by the studio, and even hired Anthony Hopkins to supply the voice of the late Laurence Olivier.

"We asked Joan Plowright, Olivier's widow, for permission to revoice," Katz says. "She never exactly said yes, but she said, `Get Tony Hopkins, but he won't do it. He used to do Larry at cocktail parties, and he did him very well.' We asked Hopkins, and he couldn't believe what we wanted to do."

The subject was the homoerotically charged scene in which slave Tony Curtis is giving Roman aristocrat Olivier a sponge bath, all the while listening to Olivier declaim on the relative merits of clams and oysters. A tad risque for 1960, the scene never made it into theaters until Katz and Harris entered the picture.

"When Curtis and Hopkins were doing that scene, we had [director] Stanley Kubrick on both the telephone and the fax," Katz gleefully recalls.

Age and deterioration will eventually destroy any film, the two men agree, but the real problem is what Harris described as "penny-pinching and greed" at the studio level. Although the technology exists to preserve films, studios have historically not been willing to invest the time and money.

"We need to find socially conscious executives who realize this is an art form that needs to be protected, as well as a business where you need to make a buck," Harris says.

Fortunately, such awareness is starting to take hold.

"These executives realize they are the guardians of these [film] libraries during their tenures," Harris says. "They are the curators. And you wouldn't want to be running the Louvre the day the Mona Lisa falls off the wall."

On screen

Archival and repertory films at this weekend's Maryland Film Festival:

"Cooley High," directed by Michael Schultz

"Cyrano de Bergerac," directed by Michael Gordon

"Lawrence of Arabia," directed by David Lean

"My Fair Lady," directed by George Cukor

"One-Eyed Jacks," directed by Marlon Brando

"Spartacus," directed by Stanley Kubrick

"Trash," directed by Paul Morrissey

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," directed by John Huston

"Wattstax," directed by Mel Stuart, "The Wizard of Oz," directed by Victor Fleming

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