The Romanticism of Lost Films (2015 For the Love of Film Blogathon)

[This is an entry in the For the Love of Film Blogathon, which supports film restoration and preservation. Please enjoy the post, and look for the link to donate at the bottom.]

Lost movies appeal to our sense of doomed artistry. The movies in your head are always much better than the movies you sit down to see. We build up heroic concepts of certain directors. Then, when their work is lost, we imagine what we’re missing as even better than the movies we have. In that sense, we need lost movies. They fortify our Romantic ideal of cinema, that’s cap-R Romantic of course.

That’s a quote from a character in Farran Smith Nehme’s Missing Reels; Nehme is perhaps better known in these parts as The Self-Styled Siren, co-founder of the For the Love of Movies Film Preservation Blogathon (though she is not hosting it this year), so you’ll have to forgive me for appearing to suck up a bit by beginning with a quote from her novel. In fact, I didn’t know what I was going to write about for this year’s blogathon (or in fact, if I would manage to come up with anything at all) until I happened across this quote.

The speaker in the story is Andy Evans, a colleague of main character Ceinwen’s boyfriend Matthew. Andy is a math professor who happens to be a big collector of silent film memorabilia (and silent films themselves, as well). Nobody likes him much, and in fact, this particular quote is followed by all the other characters saying that this particular sentiment is balderdash, and that Andy’s spent way too much time hanging out with the humanities crowd.

I’m not F.W. Murnau, I’m not Tod Browning, I’m not interested in my own puny concept of what they’d have done. I want to see those movies. I don’t want to get my kicks imagining little scenes with Janet Gaynor.

Harry Engleman in Missing Reels

Perhaps it’s my own background in the humanities (I spend a couple of years doing a masters in English lit, where I did in fact do a very intense semester on Romanticism), but Andy’s words make sense to me – after a fashion. He’s talking here about capital-R Romanticism, meaning he’s referencing the 18th-19th century aesthetic movement of Romanticism and its collective ideals.

Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830), a notable work of Romantic art.

Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), a notable work of Romantic art.

The 18th century in Europe was dominated by Neo-classicism, an aesthetic that harkened back to the forms and ideals of Greek and Roman art and literature. Neo-classical art and literature (which was largely drama and poetry, as the novel had not yet come into its own) held to strict rules in terms of format and content, and strived toward simplicity, nobility, and perfection. In response, Romanticism favored emotionalism, individuality, imperfection, and roughness. They latched onto the concept of “the sublime,” a quality Immanuel Kant defined as belonging to entities so vast that they could not comprehended, which contrasted sharply with the ultra-rational Neo-classicists.

In terms of Andy Evans’ invocation of Romanticism, a hallmark of Romantic literature is the value of the unattainable, a concept that slides right into their understanding of the sublime. Something attainable can be comprehended, thus something unattainable will always be more sublime than something attainable. Think of seminal Romantic works like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) – Werther is sorrowful because his love for Lotte is not returned, and (spoilers) he ultimately kills himself because his unrequited love is so powerful…and sublime. Werther was so popular that young men all over Europe began to adopt Werther’s style of dress, and it even prompted copycat suicides. Or consider the hero of Cyrano de Bergerac, which is not itself a Romantic work (its 1897 date places it about 50 years too late), but exemplifies the trope of unrequited love. It’s often been suggested that Cyrano’s interest in Roxanne is in great part BECAUSE she does not return his love. If she loved him back, if she was attainable, that love would not be sublime, would not be worth writing poetry and plays about. Romanticism, as Andy is using the term, is necessarily about the unattainable, about absence, and about loss.

Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

Cyrano de Bergerac (1950 film version)

Is there any value in something being unattainable? “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” goes the proverb, and though we think of that as a limited-time absence that eventually ends in a happy reunion, Andy’s taking it to its logical end. His claim is that we create Romantic notions in our heads about lost films, that we build up the reputations of specific directors based on the films we don’t have. If those films were found, chances are they wouldn’t live up to our expectations, therefore lost films are better than surviving films, purely by virtue of their lostness. And though I certainly agree with Ceinwen and Harry that I’d rather actually see the films than postulate about their potential quality, Andy’s not wrong that often unchecked expectations can lead to disappointment.

At this year’s TCM Film Festival, one of the premiere restorations was a 1919 Harry Houdini film called The Grim Game, a rediscovery that got top billing in the early festival promotions and a coveted closing night timeslot. A day or two before the screening (which I was sadly unable to see), a friend confided that she was kind of scared to watch it, because she was afraid it might not turn out to be very good. When I asked people who did see it how it turned out, the reaction was actually quite tepid – interesting to Houdini scholars and aficionados, but not much beyond that. On the flip side of the coin, one of the major premieres at the very first TCM Film Festival was the Complete Metropolis, restored with an extra 30 minutes that had recently been located in Argentina. Now, Metropolis had never been lost. But the addition of the extra 30 minutes restored an intriguing subplot that made the film as a whole more comprehensible, aided with the third act pacing, and ultimately restored an already great film into an even better one.

If there is a Romantic conception of lost films, what does it mean to actually see them? How does attaining the unattainable actually feel? Well, sometimes things aren’t as good as we hoped they might be (cf The Grim Game); sometimes they don’t show as recognizable an authorial stamp as we may have wanted (cf The White Shadow, supported by this very blogathon three years ago); but sometimes they’re better than we ever dreamed (cf The Complete Metropolis, or my favorite film at this year’s TCM Fest, Why Be Good?). And even if they don’t live up to the expectations fueled by Romantic longing, even if they don’t represent a hitherto unknown masterwork by a favorite director, there is still value in seeing where those directors started and indeed even in preserving any part of our cultural heritage, and there is an incredible sense of awe in being privileged to see something that no one has seen for 80 or more years. Perhaps the attainable isn’t as sublime as the unattainable – but the once-unattainable made attainable? There’s something quite powerful in that.

Why Be Good (1929)

Why Be Good (1929)

The Romantics gave us a great body of literature, art, music, and more. They course-corrected a lot of the rule-boundedness of the Neo-classical era. And they ushered in, for better or worse, a focus on individual subjectivity that defines most of our culture today. But let’s face it, having someone to stand by you, to warm your bed, to love you when the going is rough, is better than the most sublime far-off person who doesn’t return your love. The attainable may not be as capital-R Romantic, but it’s much more satisfying. When lost films are found, they represent the best of both worlds – the Romantic notion of long-unattainability combined with the satisfaction of attainability.

Later in the Missing Reels, Andy is discovered to have a vast collection of nitrate that includes some films previously thought lost. Perhaps he was trying to maintain an aura of Romantic lostness for those films? Perhaps he simply didn’t know what he had. In any case, while I can understand his point that lost films fuel our sense of Romanticism, and I do in fact feel capital-R Romantic about lost films, that pales in comparison to the feeling of elation at actually getting to see something that was lost and has now been found.

This year’s edition of the For the Love of Movies Blogathon supports the restoration and a new score for Cupid in Quarantine, a 1918 one-reeler about a young couple conspiring together to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak. Donations will go to the National Film Preservation Foundation and cover lab costs for the restoration, a new score, and putting the film online for everyone to see. I know I’m certainly curious to see something with that logline, so let’s get to it! Forget Romanticism; Cupid in Quarantine is attainable, and let’s attain it! Please click the button below to donate, and enjoy other entries in this blogathon listed here, here, and here.



American Movie Critics: Cecelia Ager


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  1. Silents, Please!

    This is a very interesting and thoughtful post, thank you for writing! The Romantic ideas about ruins may tie in here, too.

    It really burns me up how many films that I want to see are lost, but on the flipside i appreciate so much what has survived and is available.

    • Thanks for the comment! Yes, I’m sure there are a lot of ways the Romantics tie in with lost films – nitrate certainly crumbles like a ruin if it’s not cared for! I’m sure there’s lots more that could be pulled out of the concept of ruins. I wrote a couple of papers on the idea of the sublime and what it meant to the Romantic imagination, so I took the approach I’d already studied. :)

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