Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Musing Pictures: The Rules of the Game (1939)

I was fortunate to catch Jean Renoir's 1939 classic, "The Rules of the Game" at this year's AFI Film Festival.  They showed a very watchable, newly restored print of the French film.  I say "very watchable" because many earlier prints were in very bad shape (including those from which VHS and early DVD copies were made.)  The film itself has a unique and unusual story -- it was thought to be lost when the originals were destroyed during allied bombing in World War II.  After the war, bits and pieces of the film were reassembled from partial copies and fragments, often with Renoir's explicit feedback.  It added a layer of magic to see a film that was really a re-construction of itself.  There's no way to know how close the re-construction is to the original.  Would we think Frankenstein's monster was a human if we had never seen a human?

I wonder this, too, because I can't imagine an artist, given the opportunity to tweak his own work, would re-construct it (or agree to its re-construction) without tinkering here and there.  I know that if I were to re-construct any of my own films, they would all certainly take on slightly different forms.  Some scenes might be cut short, others might be re-arranged.  And it's not always the best thing for the movie.

We see this, in a different way, with re-releases of certain films.  When Lucas restored "Star Wars" in the '90s, he re-released those films with significant changes.  What we got to see in theaters weren't merely restorations, but updates -- films that contained scenes and effects that never came close to appearing in the original.  As a result, some of the power of "Star Wars" got somewhat drained out of the film: Han Solo's famous shot in the Cantina is somehow fired in self-defense, the creatures of the film which were once so tangible (because they were puppets) are now ethereal (because they're CGI animation), etc.  When Spielberg restored and re-released ET, we were presented with some cute scenes that weren't a part of the original film.  Also, the police officers who had been toting guns originally, were now holding walkie-talkies.  The sense of jeopardy just isn't the same.

How can we know that Renoir's re-constructed film is true to his original creation?  Frankly, we can't.  The original is lost, and was actually seen by very few to begin with.  In this particular case, it's the re-construction itself that is the masterpiece.


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