I've written elsewhere (here, in fact) on how actual prints of films reflect the history and the wear they've acquired as they've travelled through the world, through many projectors, and many hands. Each showing of a film, by dint of its physicality, is different than the one before. Different tolerances, different age and conditions, and slightly (if you're lucky) different wear. And that doesn't even take into account the audience watching, and their response each time.
A film showing to an empty theatre brings up philosophical questions about spectatorship, mechanical reproduction, and semiotic phenomenology that I don't have the space, inclination, or ability to go into here.
Professor Paolo Cherchi Usai has the inclination - he teaches film at University of Rochester in NY, and champions archiving and preservation, especially forgotten silent films. He's gone further than most, however, by suggesting a discipline that looks beyond merely restoring some "perfect" or original version of the film, and considers each copy of the film to be its own unique variant - that reflects the age and treatment its received, changing and veering away from the original state (assuming there is an "original" state of any work of art, which is another phenomenological barrel of wax).
Each print becomes a version - damaged and repaired, spliced or edited, altered for regional, legal, aesthetic, or personal reasons. The usual suspects are film workers, projectionists, and censors, but also may include museum curators, collectors, and even film fetishists. (Pace the numerous prints of "Blow-Up" from 1966 that had frames of Vanessa Redgrave nudity surreptitiously cut out.)
This aesthetic embraces and celebrates the plastic nature of film - the actual physical surface of the stuff, made up of images captured chemically. It's sculpture, and is not "committed" to a final state once released into the world. Each print becomes an interactive and ever-changing and never-completed alternate. Which challenges the concept of "restoring" a film.
Digital restoration processes traditionally remove flaws to recreate a "pristine" copy. But it's not the original, only a representation. While this is useful for access and distribution, it ignores the issues raised by the state of the primary source (or sources).
This entire outlook directly challenges our relationship to physical objects. Are we preserving /recreating a copy that is only an idea of what it "should" be, or should we preserve the actual artifact?
Usai argues that it no longer matters. The original print, no matter how bitched-up and fingered, is an actual source. And the actual state of the variant should be preserved as a historical palimpsest.
This actually isn't as daft as it may first seem. I've heard of this before - many horror films of the '70s and '80s, particularly of European descent, often had different versions tailored to the markets. Trashy films like Lucio Fulci's "Perversion Story" or Franco's "Female Vampire" had violent cuts, or sexy cuts, sometimes even having hardcore scenes cut in by some unknown hand (making the "restored Continental versions" more highly prized to the underground bootleg horndog market).
But this also comes up in the documentary on the recent Kino DVD of Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin." The restorers found a negative of the film in Germany, dating from the late '20s, in the best shape they'd seen by far, but shortened by many shots. They began recreating the film from this censored print, until research discovered that this version was cut by Eisenstein himself to conform to the censorship requirements in pre-Nazi Germany at the time. In other words, a rare (and apparently unique) variant by Eisenstein himself, as valuable as the original.
So the next time you see scratches on a print of the latest Adam Sandler film at your local multiplex, consider it history wrote in celluloid.
(Those interested may find more to read here:)