Topic: William Friedkin's Newly Remastered FRENCH CONNECTION Blu-ray, Or "The Artist's Responsibilities Towards His Fans"

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The French Connection wasted no time stirring up controversy when it first made its Blu-ray debut in 2009; a gaggle of insightful bonus features such as retrospective documentaries and audio commentaries couldn’t distract viewers from director William Friedkin’s new “restoration” of the film.  Now, even in 1971 The French Connection looked only slightly more picturesque than a snuff film (thanks to vérité-style camerawork and grimy location textures), but people weren’t complaining about too much grain or unavoidable print defects.

Here’s what went down: Friedkin created a brand-new HD master, one designed to represent the best possible version of his work.  The limitations of low-budget, ‘70’s era filmmaking meant the clean-up could never be perfect, but Friedkin still removed a lot of crap from the picture.

Had he stopped there, no one would have batted an eye; however, I haven’t gotten to Step Two.

Step Two: Friedkin created a second master using the restored print, only he digitally leeched all the color out, creating a monochrome image.  He then layered the black-and-white master over the color one, desaturated the color print down by about 50%, and called it a day.

The result was…well, see for yourself.

Inspired by cinematographer Oswald Morris’s work on Moby Dick, Friedkin wanted The French Connection to have an even rougher, colder look than it already had (as if New York City in winter lent itself to sweetness and light), one where what little color “appear[ed] to be brushed on to what is essentially a high-grain, black-and-white image.”  The implication: Friedkin was just trying to create an effect too expensive to fit comfortably within his $1.8 million budget.

Objectively?  It’s…interesting work.  Between the enhanced fine detail and steelier color palette, parts of The French Connection on the 2009 Blu-ray have a visual grammar that recalls a lost Michael Mann film; if nothing else, Friedkin’s extensive tinkering stands as a potent reminder how graphic design alone can alter a movie’s entire tone.

If you sense a “but” coming, you’re cooking with gasoline.  “But” #1:  That painted-on color look?  It might look interesting or even attractive in a still shot, but in motion?  That’s a horse of a different color.  Colors bleed right off of their moving surfaces, with the most galling example occurring early on when star Gene Hackman runs down the street wearing a Santa suit; the red trails behind him in a cloud.  “But” #2: Friedkin didn’t offer the film on Blu-ray without this radical visual interpretation.  If you wanted a non-sorta-black-and-white French Connection, you had to go DVD, and DVD only.

Movie wonks went nuts.  For every movie expert that kinda liked the new ‘do (Robert Harris, Glenn Erickson, or DVD Beaver’s Leonard Norwitz), you had seven or eight violently condemning the HD upgrade.  My favorites came from blogger/overall crackpot Jeffrey Wells, who let fly a screed the likes of which his Hollywood Elsewhere readers only see whenever Jason Segel makes a movie or someone praises a Spielberg film (so, about once a week), calling the Blu-ray “awful, a rip-off, a desecration, and a five-alarm burn.”

Friedkin didn’t help his case much after his French Connection DP, Owen Roizman, revealed that he “wasn’t consulted [about the 2009 Blu-ray]. I was appalled by it. I don’t know what Billy was thinking. It’s not the film that I shot, and I certainly want to wash my hands of having had anything to do with this transfer, which I feel is atrocious.”  With typical bluster (this is a man who once fired live ammo on his movie sets to shock his actors), Friedkin replied that, “Owen was not invited to be involved in the making of the Blu-ray or the DVD or the print…it is by far the best print ever made of The French Connection…[Roizman] happens to be wrong.  You’re hearing this from the director of the film.”

Well, three years later, he’s finally thrown the (many) dissenters a bone.  This week, Best Buy quietly released a new “Filmmakers’ Signature Series” Blu-ray of The French Connection, and this disc boasts a copy of the restored color master.  Gone are the smeary hues and gunmetal tones; the Blu-ray presents the film as it was in 1971 (only cleaner).  Very telling: the Blu-ray box states that both Friedkin and Roizman collaborated on the new transfer.  How I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during that discussion.

Here’s a quick visual comparison, courtesy of Blu-ray.com:

FROM THE 2009 BLU-RAY

FROM THE 2012 BLU-RAY

This current Blu-ray has most of the same features as the 2009 disc had (a good-but-not-essential BBC documentary didn’t survive the transition); it’s clearly designed as a mea culpa.  I’m still confused about why only Best Buy has the rights to this highly anticipated Blu-ray, as well as why the retailer and Twentieth Century Fox didn’t promote the change at all.  Maybe they figured someone would find out, and news would spread over the Internet, thus saving the distributor millions in advertising costs—but I digress.

Still, what sticks in the ribs is the age-old question: to whom are the filmmakers beholden?  We can grouse when George Lucas screws with Star Wars; we can grumble when Oliver Stone reworks Alexander for the eleventh time (no amount of polishing will fix that turd); we can even snore when Giuseppe Tornatore adds a whole (useless) hour to his Cinema Paradiso.

We may wish they’d learn the difference between explanation and condensation (Is Friedkin allowed to tinker with his movies?  Yep.  Should he be required to offer an “original” HD version to those with differing opinions?  It’d be nice if he did, but no.  Does he need to be such a dick about the whole thing?  Absolutely not), but ultimately, the niceties (or lack thereof) are moot.  At some point, one fact remains: it’s their movie, not ours.  We can have our preferences, but we can’t have it, body and soul.

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