Criticism — From the June 2015 issue

Legends of the Lost

The discreet charm of movies we cannot see

Download Pdf
Read Online

In the old days, when a new movie arrived at the theater, it was a collection of heavy, cumbersome cans containing the reels of 35-millimeter film. That physicality has nearly vanished. Today, a movie consists of a so-called Digital Cinema Package and looks like a plump DVD. It’s inserted into a player at the theater, and the distribution company transmits an electronic key that frees the film for screening.

On a film set, of course, the director of photography still frames an image and adjusts exposure and focus. But there are no silver salts on celluloid, waiting to be burned into. When the film is edited, there are no reels to examine by eye and cut by hand. I don’t mean to sound wistful, and I realize how much money these advances save, but few now hold film stock between their fingers or think of it as something alive, the material of story. A bond with reality has gone, and sometimes you wonder whether that fosters our feeling that movies are a fleeting art.

Photographs of film strips from The Magnificent Ambersons by Alexander Perrelli

Photograph of film strips from The Magnificent Ambersons by Alexander Perrelli

In a similar sense, when movies are virtual rather than physical, they become unstable. Near the end of 2014 we had a hysterical interlude with Sony and The Interview. It went from finished movie to terminated entertainment within just a few days. Then it was back as a liberated thing, ready for our fun. Many who saw the film almost wished that it were still banned — that certainly would have enhanced its legend. Imagine a scholarly conference, decades hence, at which Seth Rogen and James Franco could rhapsodize over the chimerical Interview as if it were Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons.

Now, that was a physical movie once, a story in cans, and a glorious one, but disliked by its owners. The Magnificent Ambersons was released in 1942 by RKO, and it does exist, at eighty-eight minutes. You can get it on DVD; you can sometimes find it playing on a big screen. But the Ambersons that Welles wanted to make was more than 130 minutes. Though the film we have is ravishing, the full version might have eclipsed Citizen Kane. Some sources suggest that the excised footage was dumped in the Pacific Ocean along with deleted material from many other films.

That which is lost is especially desirable. So people have been searching in the abiding hope that there might still be a print of the entire film, in a cellar or an attic or a Rio de Janeiro favela. And perhaps there is — I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s consider the curious nature of lost or out-of-reach films and what makes them so precious.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 6

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
is the author of more than twenty books, including Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (Knopf) and Why Acting Matters (Yale).

More from David Thomson:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.