Annual Wexner Center festival celebrates film restoration

The value of film preservation (any preservation, for that matter) is self-evident. And while restoring these works of art ensures that they will be available for current and future generations to see, it's the actual seeing that affirms the process.

For the fifth year, the Wexner Center for the Arts celebrates both ends of the preservation process through Cinema Revival, a festival that presents restored films and, when possible, shares the story of the restoration process. The center's Director of Film/Video, Dave Filipi, who curates the festival, said that premiering recently restored films is exciting, but finding films whose restorations have interesting stories is just as important. And, in every case, screening the films for the public is the reason the festival exists.

“Sometimes the stories behind the restorations are interesting, and make for a more interesting program,” Filipi said, referring to the many films in the festival that will be introduced by someone involved in the restoration process. “But in any case, showing them in this context, so people can see them in a theater, gives these films new life. Whether a film is 20 years old or 100 years old, it takes on a different resonance in this setting.”

This year's Sunday slate (which falls also under the umbrella of the Wex's Zoom family programming series) includes screenings featuring titans of early film comedy. Buster Keaton's “Battling Butler” is among a significant set of the actor/director's films held by Columbus-based Cohen Film Collection. Many Keaton films were not formally archived, and some years later were found in a garden shed at one of the filmmaker's former homes, said Tim Lanza, vice president and archivist for Cohen. His firm has undertaken to have the films in its collection restored in large part because of that haphazard storage.

“We have original camera negatives for some, but in other cases we are using whatever surviving materials remain in print,” said Lanza, who will introduce the screening of “Battling Butler.” “A lot of the decision of how we go about restoration is based on historical importance and artistic importance, although we do hope that there will be an audience for the film. Access is the most important thing.”

Lanza said “Battling Butler” is reported to have been among Keaton's favorites of his films, highlighting both the actor's love of character transformation and his athleticism. Keaton's character, a dandy who is mistaken for a boxer, finds himself pulled into situations beyond his control. As you might guess, hilarity ensues.

“Battling Butler” follows a slate of four Laurel and Hardy films, presented courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Scott MacQueen, head of preservation, said the ongoing effort to restore its Laurel and Hardy holdings takes on added importance given that “they've all been terribly abused.” Because of the comedy team's ongoing popularity, changes have been made to the original prints to accommodate changing projection technologies and the home video market that have occurred over the 50 years or so since these films were made.

“The negatives and rest of the surviving materials have all been pounded to death. They've been beaten up and wreaked havoc with,” MacQueen said. “People [now] will actually be seeing more information on the screen than anyone in 80 years.”

“In the past 25 years or so, Laurel and Hardy have sort of quietly vanished. Until then, every generation grew up pretty much knowing them. As we're exhibiting all of our restorations theatrically, they're hopefully getting some exposure, and we'll see what today's audiences will make of them,” MacQueen said. “Our mission is to make sure they remain.”

“It's great to introduce these films to potentially new audiences,” Filipi said. “The comedy is timeless, and when we show them, kids especially respond to them.”