Bombast: 35, Stayin’ Alive
Digital projection came as a blitzkrieg, and carried the day before most of us knew what was happening. “Who would have dreamed film would die so quickly?” Roger Ebert wrote in November, 2011, asking the question that much of film culture was two years anno Avatar. But the element of surprise is gone now, the trenches have been dug, and the surviving 35mm partisans, having lasted two long winters, are finally mounting an offense.
Earlier this year I devoted this column to a discussion of the aura of 35mm projection —always present, but intensified by the increasing presence of DCP projection, which was already the standard for first-run theatrical distribution, and is now making significant inroads in repertory film exhibition. The title of the article, “This Print Could Be Your Life,” alluded to Michael Azerrad’s 2001 book subtitled Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991, which itself takes its title from the Minutemen song “History Lesson – Part II.” I drew out a tenuous analogy between 35mm projection and live music performance—as opposed to a niche recording format like vinyl, to which it is more often compared—and ended with a Utopian fantasy that celluloid be kept alive by a grassroots network like that described in Azerrad’s book, which had once existed for underground music.
The proposed solution was, of course, patently ridiculous—a vast, well-organized, and well-financed bloc like that which has put DCP over as an exhibition format for films originally shot and traditionally projected in 35mm can only be combatted by an equally vast, well-organized, and well-financed opposition. And while 35mm sectarians have existed since the issue first arose, in last six months we’ve seen forces massing on either side of the border, beating swords against shields, as though a showdown is imminent.
A brief timeline of events in the interim. At a May 23 press conference, held on the occasion of a 35mm Cannes 20th-anniversary screening of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino tells reporters: “Digital projection and DCP is the death of cinema as I know it . . . Digital projections, that’s just television in public.” Over the summer, Tarantino, along with a consortium of “Hollywood’s elite” that includes J.J. Abrams, Martin Scorsese, Judd Apatow, and Christopher Nolan, successfully petition Kodak to continue its manufacture of 35mm stock. The wistful regret over the too-hasty abandonment of analog film evident in this gesture can be encountered throughout film culture. “At risk of sounding pretentious,” Frederick Wiseman says in a Q&A after screening his National Gallery for a Toronto International Film Festival audience, “[film] was more artisanal.” Wiseman is 84, and we expect old men to dig in their heels against change, but then we have 44-year-old P.T. Anderson, for some folks’ money the best we’ve got in American movies, presenting his shot-on-film Inherent Vice on good ol’ 35mm at the New York Film Festival.
“[T]here’s room for both things” said Anderson of the 35mm vs. digital question, though not everyone has been so sanguine. In early September, Tarantino announced that he would be taking over control of Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema, which he has owned for the last seven years, from manager and programmer Michael Torgan, and that his first order of business would be to convert the New Bev into an all-35mm house.1 Not one to be left behind in clout-throwing, Nolan, a vocal and eloquent advocate of shooting on film and the closest thing that studios have to a sure bet commercially, has decided to make his forthcoming Interstellar available two days earlier to venues willing and able to show the film on 35 or 70mm film.
While 35mm production is hanging on by its fingernails, it can’t be denied that we are living in a Golden Age of content farming, and all corners of the Internet movie chat community have chimed in to discuss the merits of dogged allegiance to the musty format, bringing along the inevitable wave of backlash. In the Balder & Dash section of rogerebert.com, an October 8 post by one Aaron Aradillas titled “Film Is What You Use to Make Movies” (http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/film-is-what-you-use-to-make-movies) decries the elitism implicit in prizing 35mm for creating an “exclusionary, what-the-cool-kids-are-into mentality that is quite toxic to the movie-going experience.”
As it happens, I disagree with just about every word in Aradillas’s piece, right from the opening proposition: “Going to the movies has always been one of the simplest, most democratic of life’s pleasures.” I should certainly hope it’s not that simple, lest I’ve wasted the last decade of my life trying to crack it—and were it not for concerned moviegoers, programmers, and filmmakers creating noise enough to form the “division” that Aradillas notes, there would be no way to generate awareness and mobilize opinion in favor of keeping 35mm in play as an exhibition format. This isn’t about exclusion, but desperation; as was proven by Scorsese’s casting himself as the public face of film preservation in the early Eighties, cultural priorities are determined in no small part through squeaky-wheel agitation.
The debate has duly rolled on through the month of October. In Indiewire’s weekly Criticwire survey, posted on the 14th, Aradillas’s piece was given as a prompt for a colloquium posing the question: “How important is it to you to that movie shot on film be seen the same way, and given that that [sic] 35mm screenings are increasingly rare in most parts of the country, is it possible the stance that you haven't ‘really’ seen a movie until you've seen it on celluloid does more harm than good?”2 Finally, just a few days ago, a widely distributed missive from Alamo Drafthouse co-founder and CEO Tim League surfaced, encouraging fellow exhibitors to respect the wishes of the Nolans and Tarantinos, and to band together to “ensure that 35mm never dies.”
As it happens, I visited the Yonkers Drafthouse that League mentions in his column only last weekend, to view a 35mm print of Deathdream aka Dead of Night, Bob Clark’s 1972 Canadian-financed, Florida-shot riff on The Monkey’s Paw, about a KIA Vietnam soldier (Richard Backus) returning home to his unsuspecting family. I’d last seen the movie in Dayton, Ohio in 2000, at one of the annual Horrorama marathons that I attended while at university in the area, hosted by the late, lamented Barry “Dr. Creep” Hobart, former host of WKEF’s Shock Theater, and one of a proud national fraternity of regional horror show hosts. (Paul Thomas Anderson’s dad, Ghoulardi, was another.) The print in Yonkers was courtesy of the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA), an organization formed by League, wife Karrie League, and other Austin, Texas-based programmers. (Anderson and Nicolas Winding Refn are newly appointed board members.) The “[g]reen lines . . . carved into the film from bad film handling or dirty equipment” which League mentions in his piece were much in evidence on the print, and the color had faded to various tones ranging from tomato sauce to tangerine skin. On the ride back, my friend Clyde suggested marketing flip-down shades with various blue filters for 35mm devotees, which would provide a sort of on-the-spot color correction.
For League, the degradation of a film print through the course of its lifespan in exhibition will necessarily “diminish the experience for every subsequent audience”—though I might have chosen the more neutral “alter” in the place of “diminish.” Aradillas, meanwhile, goes to town on the strawman phenomenon of “putting a premium on ‘beaten up’ celluloid,” though the sole source that he cites to confirm that such a phenomenon in fact exists is Tarantino himself, quoted discussing the “character” of his “washed out,” “beat up” print of Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner.
The process of rot and desiccation which film goes through has aesthetic properties of its own—these are on display in the retrospective of Bill Morrison’s work currently underway at the Museum of Modern Art, which I’ve written about, and I’ve long admired Manny Farber’s description in his essay “Underground Films” of the environment in which the action films he discusses are usually ingested, a “nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience, prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, sound tracks infected with hiccups.” Nevertheless, among the moviegoers that I know who privilege 35mm projection—and that’s a lot of them—I’ve never heard anyone express excitement over the shabbiness of a beat-up print or the marvelous tactility of its haptic scruffiness, any more than I’ve heard anyone get out of a show at some rock barn exalting over the sludginess of the sound.
If optimal image quality is desirable, than how can anyone justify favoring perishable celluloid? The issue was broached in a 1981 forum between Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard, held at the Marin Civic Center in Mill Valley, California, during which the topics of discussion include Scorsese’s ongoing struggle to get a more durable color stock from Kodak:
Kael: If you look at a 20th Century-Fox, a wide-screen movie of the fifties, it has faded to a pale blue.
Godard: So what?
Kael: [T]here are a lot of us who would like to see movies in the condition that they were made in.
Godard: Okay, so beginning today or tomorrow, change stock. Do it on videodisc.
JLG is, to use a charming Anglicism, taking the piss, and they are talking at cross-purposes—she about archival prints, he about new work—but his crack gets at the oxymoron at the heart of the argument for digital. “If you want a movie to be consistently ready to play out in something like its original condition,” the argument goes, “you’ll have to play it out on something other than its original format.” And though 35mm remains the preferred archival format, archives have proven less and less willing to part with their celluloid when a DCP replacement exists. David Bordwell, in a recent post about his personal experience with archives at his blog Observations on Film Art, succinctly summarizes the new reticence to lend holdings in anything other than DCP, and the problems that this poses:
“[T]he arrival of digital cinema as an exhibition technology was alarming. For reliable conservation, films would have to be maintained on photochemical supports. But for projection, many titles would have to be converted to Digital Cinema Package files. An archive with tens of thousands of titles faced enormous costs and effort in transferring just a fraction of its collections. Even with DCP conversion becoming faster and more flexible, it would leave thousands of films that could not be shown. Just as bad, with the new format becoming universal, even photochemical prints of indifferent quality became rare artifacts, to be protected rather than circulated. A DCP file can fail without long-term consequences; it can be rebooted or replaced by a clone. A scratched or torn print is damaged forever. It is as if art museums began displaying high-grade digital scans in order to protect their paintings.”
Archives sit on their 35mm holdings, protecting film heritage for future generations by keeping it away from them, and from the greasy fingers and cigar ash of indelicate projectionists. Even a holdout like “To Save and Project,” MoMA’s “annual festival of newly preserved films,” seems gradually to be going to way of “To Preserve and Overprotect,” its dedication to 35mm this year showing the first sign of erosion. (Meanwhile, other venues have been further testing the viability of 35mm-as-marketing-hook, like IFC Center with its “Celluloid Dreams” series, which has apparently enjoyed great success.)
A Tale of Springtime
If nothing else, the increased presence of DCP as a format for the exhibition of repertory films should assure a basic level of that elusive “optimal image quality,” but what constitutes image quality is, of course, a highly subjective matter. As Bordwell notes, “[s]ometimes high-intensity scanning of negatives makes a film too sharp, too revealing.” And how! At a recent New York screening of Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Springtime, my companion and I were able to sit through about 20 minutes of the agonizingly immaculate DCP restoration before we hit the bricks.3 The image had been scoured of its every imperfection, but in the process it had also been cured of its ineffable beauty—and Rohmer, more even than most, evaporates without beauty.
I should add here that Rohmer, who died in 2010, was an early adopter of new digital technologies, having shot his Revolutionary France–set The Lady and the Duke on DV partly for the capability of integrating actors into backdrops redolent of 18th-century paintings, and transferred the result onto 35mm for exhibition. This particular case raises some interesting questions, but in cases where a film (or movie, if you prefer) has been shot digitally with the expectation of its being projected digitally, there’s no pressing reason that priority should be given to its being projected otherwise. Likewise, when screening work from the first 115 years of film history, original format should whenever possible be given priority. All that I and most of my ilk are angling for is to retain some unbroken physical connection to that first century-and-some-change of cinema history. This is a modest enough undertaking, though the line on the 35mm partisan, usually described as a “fetishist,” is that he or she ascribes mystical qualities to film stock, the way that defenders of the embattled book—as opposed to the tablet—supposedly rhapsodize about the smell of paper.
I won’t deny that there is a sentimental element to 35mm partisanship, for this is a format that will age and show wear, as we do, and finally die, as we must. For a moment, watching Deathdream in Yonkers, I even indulged in the fancy that I might be watching the same print I’d seen 14 years ago at Dayton’s Neon Movies, when Dr. Creep still crept among the living. Certainly there was nostalgia aplenty in the first round of eulogies for film which came in 2011, when the first-run theatrical changeover was already well underway and Ebert declared “my war is over, my side lost, and it’s important to consider this in the real world”—but also a fair amount of cautious optimism. I even expressed as much at the time.
My optimism has lessened in direct proportion to my practical experience of the Brave New DCP World. For all the rep calendar ballyhoo about “glorious,” “stunning” new 4K restorations, we seem to be about on par with the Victorians when they started restoring Renaissance paintings to blindingly bright palettes meant, quite inaccurately as it happens, to reflect their original splendor. (Wiseman’s National Gallery is instructive viewing on this matter, and on the matter of contextualizing exhibition.) League writes, “With digital presentation, the movie looks as good at the first screening as it does after playing for months,” but this presupposes that the movie looks good in the first place, as opposed to merely freshly scrubbed. If it doesn’t? Tough titties, you’ll be looking at it on DCP for the foreseeable future anyways, because any print is safely sealed away miles beneath the earth’s crust.
The way we watch movies, like everything to do with them, is inextricably tied up with dollars and cents. This goes for the low-overhead-no-shipping-fees-no-projectionist DCP push, and it goes for the entrenched 35mm opposition as well—aside from a stated preference for celluloid, what Nolan and Tarantino have in common is that they are both quite wealthy. “I've never gone through the Citizen Kane-like labyrinth,” Tarantino was quoted saying earlier this month of his private film stock, from which he plans to do a great deal of the programming at the New Bev, before going on to outline his outreach policy: “If people come, fine. If they don't, fuck them.” The Kane analogy seems apt, as this “I’m rich, bitch” braggadocio has shades of Charles Foster’s “You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in… 60 years.”
The new scarcity of film versus the democratic availability of digital means that the former has now taken on the aspect of a luxury item, as if shooting on 35mm is the hot-shit young director’s equivalent of parking a Bugatti in the studio lot. Per Aradillas, shooting on film is “expensive and time-consuming,” while digital is less of both, and therefore, presumably, more simple and democratic. Nolan’s perspective on this point is interesting, as his pragmatism counters this received wisdom: “I think, truthfully, it boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo. We save a lot of money shooting on film and projecting film and not doing digital intermediates. In fact, I’ve never done a digital intermediate. Photochemically, you can time film with a good timer in three or four passes, which takes about 12 to 14 hours as opposed to seven or eight weeks in a DI suite. That’s the way everyone was doing it 10 years ago, and I’ve just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there’s a good reason to change. But I haven’t seen that reason yet.”
As the debate drags on, I have a feeling that we can look forward to more of the A Movie is A Movie crowd tarring 35mm partisans with the brush of elitism—never mind that, in their open-minded acceptance of changing times, these jes’ folks anti-snobs are effectively championing a corporate dictum that put thousands of projectionists, lab techs, and auxiliaries of old-fashioned celluloid production, postproduction, distribution, and exhibition out of work, all in the name of the bottom line. Come to think of it, I was very nearly one of them—from 2005 to 2011 I worked as the technician at the New York City branch of the Paris-based company Laser Video Soustitres, operating a laser engraving machine that burned subtitles, frame by frame, into the emulsion of 35mm prints. (I also had, before this, a stint as a very, very bad print trafficker.) Only when it became obvious that 35mm subtitling, as a full-time occupation, was about to go the way of Connecticut whaling did I finally transition into the far more stable business of full-time freelance criticism. It remains to be seen what industry I will turn out the lights on next.
If you have banged about with celluloid as much as I have in a lifetime, you become quite incapable of seeing anything sacred or romantic about it. And though there are, as I hope I’ve displayed, ample reasons to stand behind celluloid as a viable and, yes, superior exhibition format, 35mm partisanship has been reduced to a matter of sentimentality and snobbery—for Aradillas, the “emphasis on film stock is shutting out movie lovers who don’t live within a major media market.” He is talking about Nolan’s power-play (and the one that’s to be anticipated with Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight), which is apparently of far greater concern than the forced DCP switch-over that has shut down hundreds of theaters and counting which lacked the backing of a corporate parent company to help foot the bill.
Let’s set aside the issue of new releases—and I have few illusions as to the possibility of the DCP genie being put back into the bottle here—and limit our discussion to the question of screening pre-digital changeover work in original format. In North America alone, there are still venues which have the equipment and occasional inclination to screen repertory 35mm prints from Providence to Silver Springs to Cleveland to Omaha and points west. Granting that the quality of these facilities and their dedication to programming film varies greatly, I will produce a figure from my backside and say that 80 percent or more of the population of the United States lives within a couple hours’ drive from one or more of these locations.
It’s a nice little network to build on—though there are those today who question the continued viability of communal moviegoing, regardless of format. In fact, ever since glowing picture screens first became a fixture in the American home 65-plus years ago, programmers and exhibitors in every city have faced the question of how to get audience asses out of homes and into the seats. Here is where the new cachet of the 35mm print comes in, now granted artifact status and bearing the added (and real) incentive of a unique viewing experience every time. DCP may have a few top-down logistical advantages over film, but it’s got nothing going when it comes to ballyhoo. Recall Film Forum’s failed evocation of This Is Cinerama with their “This is DCP” series in February 2012, as though the term “DCP” could ever be redolent of anything but glass-box corporate parks, or any number of adjectives could sex up the phrase “4k restoration”! It remains to be seen if this bit of 35mm saber-rattling signifies anything more than a bubble of gas leaving the bloated corpse of celluloid, but some of us hold out hope all the same…
For help with the technical gibble-gabble in this piece, I am greatly indebted to Museum of the Moving Image Assistant Programmer Aliza Ma for her invaluable assistance.
1. Tarantino’s managerial tenure has been troubled from the get-go. Shortly after he announced the ouster of Tolson, New Beverly regular and archivist Ariel Schudson took to her blog to question the decision, blaming starstruck QT fanboys for “favoring 35mm over human experience” as well as, echoing Aradillas, condemning a perceived trend of “format fetishization over film appreciation.” More recently, Julia Marchese, a New Bev employee since 2006, handed in her resignation letter over the blogosphere, complaining of a “social media muzzling,” the installation of security cameras, and other Stasi-like tactics instituted by the incoming Tarantino regime. (Marchese’s name may be familiar to non-Angelenos from having been previously attached to a pro-35mm petition, issued in the dark days of 2011.)
2. This attitude may best be summarized by a response that Jean Eustache, an early VCR owner, gave in a 1980 Cahiers du cinema interview: “To speak of television and VCR, there is one very simple thing that I draw from my experience, forced or not: One can take a grand pleasure in re-viewing films on television and VCR, but one has difficulty discovering a film; I believe that you can only discover a film at the cinema . . . Television underlines its conventions; it is an instrument for re-viewing, not for viewing.”
3. By contrast, I have never walked out of a movie showing in 35mm because of a print’s quality, or deficiency thereof. My personal best/worst in this regard was sitting through the entirety of an unspooling of the 1967 Phil Karlson Western A Time for Killing which was a) an almost avant-garde pan-and-scan of what is in fact a ’Scope film and b) out-of-synch by something like two seconds. For whatever reason, this over-articulated image raises my hackles in a way that nothing else does.