One supposes that it was inevitable—that someday, some extremely conscious men of vision would use the most advanced, sophisticated, versatile digital imaging technology extant for the purpose of making a given film look like an immaculate, scratch-free print of a '70s eight-millimeter porno loop.
Do I exaggerate? A little. Maybe. I'm still not sure. I looked at the new Blu-ray of William Friedkin's 1971 The French Connection last night and have to say I'm still of several minds about it. Rather than use digital technology to make obvious, you know, fixes—like really nail down whether that Santa Claus bust scene at the beginning takes place at night or during the day—Friedkin and his tech cohort performed a radical overhaul of the film's look, stripping away any traces of studio-process sheen and going for a very detailed brand of grit. In a DVD extra on the second disc of the Blu-ray package, Friedkin cheerfully and cogently explains his new color-timing scheme, which involves first oversaturating and hence de-focusing the color, then reverting to black-and-white, and then "mixing" the two resultant images (John Huston experimented with a similar process, albeit in the analog domain, for his 1956 Moby Dick.)
Restoration expert Robert A. Harris, sharing some thoughts at Home Theater Forum, says, "Personally, I like what Mr. Friedkin has done with the film, and as the director, [he] has the right to update and change the film." As I hinted at in my Popular Mechanics article on Blu-ray a couple of months back, rights are a funny thing in the new digital world, as are obligations. Miramax Home Entertainment, for instance, was under no contractual obligation to consult either Martin Scorsese or Thelma Schoonmaker when it was preparing a Blu-ray of Gangs of New York; it did not, and I suppose one could say that it had the right to put out the plate of digital hash that was that particularly disgraceful disc. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has the right, some say, to impose his "universal" aspect ratio of 2.0:1 on all the DVD transfers of material he's consulted about; this despite the cries of enthusiasts who believe this less-wide-than-the-original rendering almost fatally compromises Storaro's own compositions in films such as The Last Emperor, Reds, and Apocalypse Now. The issue of who gets to do what to which films is an ever increasing thicket these days, and good for Friedkin that he's engaged and energetic enough to assert the right that Harris refers to. That said, it wouldn't necessarily have killed anybody had a very good transfer of what the picture looked like in theaters back in the day had been included in the French Connection package. (UPDATE: I ought to have added, on originally posting, that Robert Harris is of the same mind about this, although he puts it a bit more diplomatically: "I would add a third disc—the film is certainly worth it—with the original Academy Award-winning version of the film, as seen in 1971...")
Because, considerations of cinematic ethics aside, Friedkin's re-visioning of the picture really is a radical one. I tried to capture it with paused frames I shot with my camera, but I fear those aren't really representative (I've really got to get a Blu-ray drive so I can start doing direct rips—sorry). The top shot, while a poor crop, is the best I could do, particularly in terms of capturing the resaturation/desaturation result. The film itself still plays like mad, but I have to be honest—there's such grain (not digital-artifact-fake-grain, mind you, which is all over the Gangs of New York Blu-ray, mind you, but genuine, low-light/fast-but-not-fast-enough-film grain) in certain parts of the picture—the bar scene where Tony LoBianco first rears his head, for instance—that I was actually concerned that suddenly the configuration of my home theater system had gone somehow wrong. So this morning I sampled a few recent Blu-rays of snazzier fare: A History of Violence (am I a bad person for always cracking up at the "Are you laughing now? You motherfucking, cocksucking son-of-a-bitch?" bit?), The House Bunny, Tropic Thunder, Space Buddies. Nope, nothing wrong with the system. Which leaves Blu-ray folks with a French Connection that a lot of them might, let's say, disagree with. The reviews are starting to trickle in; "Wank," says Jeffrey Wells. He won't be the last.