Liquid Sky

Liquid Sky

Last week, for the second year, I attended one of the best regional festivals that I know of in America, the Maryland Film Festival. There were two 35mm projections on the schedule, both of them old movies. (Last year, I believe Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux was the lone new release that played on 35mm.) This still puts the humble MDFF two prints up on the 22-film Cannes Classics selection, all playing on 2K or 4K DCP restorations. Anyhow, I went to one of the MDFF 35mm screenings, 1982’s Liquid Sky, which was conducted using what was apparently director Slava Tsukerman’s personal print. It was a catastrophe right off the bat. The movie was literally rough-around-the-edges, as it was being projected unmasked. It started playing not once, but twice, without volume. While the people in the booth scrambled to figure out what was going on, a presenter came out to make cracks about “newfangled technology” and to explain that the film had “jumped the sprockets.” (This was, as would be evident to anyone who has ever operated a projector of any kind, not the actual problem.) The first break in the film was a good excuse to shuffle to the exit.

I bring this up not to illustrate the superiority of digital formats (I’ve ceased to keep track of the routine pixelized farts that I notice) or the incompetence of Baltimorean projectionists (I’ve seen plenty of pretty heinous fuck-ups right here in New York, as well as consistently excellent work that goes uncommented on) but something altogether more disturbing. Namely, that 35mm, a format which was an industry standard not more than two or three years ago, is now generally considered to have become part of the distant past, a creaky technology to be regarded with superstitious distrust, which might “jump the sprockets” at any minute.

The big changeover didn’t happen because there was an outcry from the moviegoing public, voicing an objection to 35mm. It was a way for distributors and exhibitors to cut corners with, we were reassured, a practically indistinguishable loss of image quality. Anyways, before digital projection became industry standard, films were already being shot and edited digitally, so this completion of the circle was in a sense inevitable, albeit hastened by Jim Cameron’s Avatar power play in 2009. (Digital projection was co-marketed with the release of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace as early as 1999, but it took the Luddite, lo-fi, rainforest-dwelling Na’vi to irrevocably dismantle the hegemony of tactile film.) 35mm, it was suddenly asserted, belonged to the past. The assertion created a presumption, the presumption proceeded to reinforce itself, and now the writing on the wall is clear: 35mm has become increasingly scarce as anything other than an archival format, and this trajectory is likely to continue. What we do have some say as to is the speed at which this will go ahead. Valuable and even great new motion picture works have been and will continue to be made with use of technologies that don’t use film, and unquestionably this work belongs to the lineage of motion picture history that goes back to the phenakistoscope and the magic lantern. (Some have suggested that these works shouldn’t be referred to as “films,” but I imagine that “film” will stick around as a useful metonym long after what it refers to has become obsolescent, rather like “Hollywood.”) And just as these works should be seen in their preferred format, whatever that may be, so works shot on 35mm should, optimally and whenever possible, be seen on 35mm.

The Phantom Menace

Phantom Menace

Analog film vs. digital projection has been framed as the cinephile version of the vinyl vs. digital argument that has been ongoing for decades in audiophile circles. This is problematic for several reasons: While music, generally, has both its live and recorded dimensions, film is only a recorded medium. (Watching a movie “live” would consist, I suppose, of sitting around on set, which anyone can attest is usually crushingly boring.) If anything, 35mm isn’t vinyl. You never step twice in the same river, you never see the same show twice—and you never see the same print, either, as it changes with the very process of passing through the projector. Given the scarcity of 35mm prints and the unique quality of every projection, 35mm screenings are closer to a live show than an LP.

I think about film culture in terms of music probably more than I should. I became unusually interested in films at the same time that I was killing time in the punk and hardcore scene in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the two enthusiasms have remained inextricable for me. Because my particular corner of the Midwest is made up of a number of comparably-sized major cities separated from one another by a few hours, touring bands tended to pick one city but not another to stop through: Cincinnati but not Louisville, Dayton, Columbus, or Indianapolis, Louisville but not any of the others, et cetera. So one did a lot of driving—and because I traveled for shows, traveling for movies seemed only natural. My hometown rep theater, The Real Movies, closed in 1997 when I was still in high school, so when I was at university in nearby Dayton, the only options for 35mm rep programming—aside from occasional one-offs at The Neon Movies or Sunday matinees of Astaire-Rogers movies for seniors at the multiplex—were the Wexner Center in Columbus (an hour-and-change ride away) or The Cleveland Cinematheque and Cleveland Art Museum (three-plus hours away). So I’d drive to see Beau travail or The Devil, Probably at the Wexner (the latter programmed by Jim Jarmusch in a carte-blanche), Robert Altman’s personal print of Images (he couldn’t come because he was at the Oscars for Gosford Park) and Agnès Varda’s Les créatures at the Cinematheque, or a program of Jean Grémillon at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

This was, for a time at least, usual practice for me, but I have gleaned that it is not altogether usual today, if it ever was. Realistically, my willingness to travel for films had little to do with any sense of purism, and much to do with the particularities of the period in which I was getting into movies—just at the advent of DVD and well before Web 2.0. There was then some sense of urgency, of “If not now, then when?” Had I had access to certain modern conveniences, there’s no way of knowing if I would have left my apartment, much less driven three hours, to see a pretty rotten movie like, well, Agnes Varda’s Les créatures.

Les créatures

Les créatures

Rather than by scarcity, our relationship with the media we consume is now dictated by the myth of everything-available-all-the-time-always bounty, which is pervasive and pernicious. The thinking goes: there is no pressing reason to make it to a screening, because you can see it on DVD, Netflix, Hulu, etc.—nevermind that you’ll be seeing something entirely different when you do, and that the absence of any sense of urgency means that you’ll very possibly put off seeing whatever it is in perpetuity. Meanwhile, in erstwhile cultural capitol New York City, the disappearance of video stores has continued apace with Manhattan’s being denuded of bookstores, meaning that it has rarely been more difficult to see precisely what you want to see, precisely when you want to see it. Hail thee, o Internet, for ushering in this New Jerusalem of cultural bounty!

If you talk to most anyone in the business of programming movies, whatever the format, they will tell you that part of their job involves addressing the constant question of how to push back against a potential audience’s creeping lethargy. How do you, to use a popular piece of marketing slang, “eventize” films, make a screening or a program into a destination—that is, give showtime something like the aura of a band coming to town or, if you prefer, of a gallery exhibition of an artist’s major works? One approach has been to siphon the seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm of music fans: The Maryland Film Festival, to take one example, has done a fine job of tapping into the city’s local music scene, which has had success on the international stage over the past several years. The night after Liquid Sky there was a screening of 1968’s Barbarella presented by Matmos, the Baltimore-based electronic duo of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt, who take their group’s name from the lake of slime beneath the city of Sogo in Roger Vadim’s film. The following evening there was a digital projection of Robert Downey Sr.’s 1969 Putney Swope, introduced by rank opportunist and all-around mountebank DJ Spooky.

While such arrangements may get asses in the seats, what they practically consist of is making the aura of the film in question ancillary to the aura of the musicians who are presenting or live-scoring or what have you. In some cases, the movie can even be disposed with entirely: this fall, New Yorkers can witness Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood performing his dreadful score for There Will Be Blood live at 175th Street’s United Palace Theater. One thing is consistent: when film culture tries to co-opt the cool of the music world, the results usually reek of trying too hard. Picture a tweedy dweeb sitting backwards on chair suddenly spinning around, facing camera, flipping down his shades, and saying, “But you know what really rocks? [Guitar lick. Snap zoom.] 35mm!”


Moulin Rouge!

Despite the efforts of film culture to lift from the music world’s playbook, the stereotype persists that seeing bands is social and sexy and moviegoing is the solitary activity of pale onanists, in no small part because it is generally true. In some respects, film’s relative uncoolness isn’t entirely a liability. Because there is so little youth money to be had, film culture has largely managed to avoid the kind of corporate co-opting that has run rampant in pop (though potential sponsors are welcome to contact me, as I’d be very open to a “Dunk-a-Roos™ Presents Bombast” strategic partnering). Aside from the awkward music-film allegiance, there are other examples of “event” screenings that have gained traction in the last decade, drawing from traditional midnight movie practices—the sing-along, the quote-along, the mock-along. These may move tickets, but I’m not convinced that they do much for building film culture in the long run. I believe that an audience has a finite amount of attention to give, and the common thread between these models is that they function to increase the presence of the spectator, while decreasing the presence of the film. In essence, it’s being giving permission to go to a movie without having to shut yourself off from the world. (To those sickos who nosh a chicken sandwich and tater tots while watching a movie in a movie theater: you are history’s worst monsters.)

Worth referring to in all of this are the comments made in “Repertory Film Programming: A Web Exclusive Supplement to a Critical Symposium,” from Cineaste (Vol. XXXV, No. 2, 2010), particularly those of TIFF programmer James Quandt, who writes of the risk being posed to “the immersive kind of cinephilia rather than the collector-cultish experience, as Thomas Elsaesser construes the two.” The collector-cultist, from a certain perspective, has never had it so good. You can tick off most of the boxes on your “To See” list without leaving your home (or the storied parental basement), and then can advertise the comprehensiveness of your viewing on a number of platforms. I don’t know that there’s been any time in human history where good taste has been so readily accessible—and therefore so devalued. When practically everyone likes the right things, this correctness ceases to have any meaning. Critical culture has lagged behind this phenomenon, largely failing to notice that though an artist may list canonical “inspirations,” this does not in turn mean that there is a causal relation between the art they are consuming and the art they are making.

What I am talking about, however, is the preservation and fostering of the immersive experience. Because we are (allegedly) in the everything-available-all-the-time-always era, it behooves us to impose regulations on what and how we consume, or be reduced to a twitching mass of randomly firing synapses, numbly hopscotching between open tabs, marching through <em>1,001 Movies You Have to See Before You Die, skimming everything and understanding nothing, all while Spotify burbles a half-noticed stream of Best New Music in the background. This extends to how we interface with cultural journalism—that is, choosing not to bite at dangled clickbait, and muting the voices who perpetuate it. It also extends to the way we take in art itself, whatever the medium. It’s no coincidence that the preeminent pop art of the day is that which demands no viewer discretion from its consumers as to how it is consumed. The Golden Age of Television—as a popular perception if not an actual event—is attributable to two forces. Firstly, it corresponds exactly to the acceleration of the cultural news cycle to a 24-7 schedule, which demands an almost constant supply of events to comment on, a supply which is provided by weekly serial television with its neverending parade of Very Special Episodes to be praised, deconstructed, or taken umbrage at. (i.e. Louie and fat-shaming, Game of Thrones and medieval sexual abuse, Girls and whatever it is that happens on Girls, and so on, ad infinitum.) Secondly, and more germane to our conversation, television doesn’t need to adapt itself to what is already America’s favorite delivery system: the small, personal screen. There are no gradations of experience with television—the anxiety about watching shows in their proper or intended format doesn’t exist. (No one would seriously argue, for example, that I Love Lucy needs to be seen on a black-and-white Ferguson 306 to be really appreciated.)

There is a hierarchy of experience in cinema—at least in cinema produced in the 35mm era—and we need to do better in preserving the highest order of that experience. When I say “we,” of course, I mean “I.” Outside of the parameters imposed on me by my vocation, which requires that I do a great deal of preliminary viewing on screeners to cover the rep beat, I want to narrow and deepen my relationship with film history; I want to watch less, but also to watch better.

You Wouldn't...

While programmers try to find value-added hooks to sex up screenings, the fact that cannot be overemphasized is that every 35mm screening is already an “event” in its own right, all the more because the door is very incrementally closing to the opportunity to experience this particular sort of event. A 35mm screening is a show, and arguably more vitally important than a band coming to town. The members of any band who achieve a certain level of notoriety will eventually have their mid-life crises, get divorces, consequently get slapped with alimony, and re-form to cash in on the nostalgia of the people who “remember them when.” They’ll be a little older, a little fatter, maybe missing a guitarist and a little mojo, but there will always be another go-around. On the other hand, if you put off seeing a film on 35mm until the next go-around today, you might very well never get to see it in its original format at all.

All of this is easy to give lip service to, harder to follow through with—especially for people living well outside of the handful of U.S. cities that are still amenable to 35mm projection. Aside from the obvious limitations imposed by geography, there are the ever-greater demands made on workers, in the cultural sphere as elsewhere, to be constantly on the clock, for reasons too numerous to launch into here. In such circumstances, the advantage goes again to the Golden Age of Television: it’s the format that is easiest to doze off to at the end of a long day.

In 2006, the occasional Film Comment contributor Donald Wilson, who has recently kicked up a lot of dust with his op-ed about The New York Times review policy, wrote of the need of film criticism to emulate the model of online music criticism, seen as fostering a “thriving independent music scene in which online criticism is pushing folks to dabble into noise, doom, and other non-mainstream idioms.” From the vantage of 2014, this seems like a ridiculously optimistic appraisal of the Pitchforkification of music culture, and now the best we can hope for is that film culture will resemble contemporary rock culture as little as possible. Let’s envision an alternate system where there’s a cinephile house in every college town in America, like the punk houses of yore, except with working electricity to run the rehabbed 35mm projector. Of course this is science fiction, or maybe steampunk fiction, so let’s leave it at this: If a 35mm print is playing anywhere near you, get in the van and check it out. If you don’t, you’re a Vimeo cinephile, a sell-out, and a poseur.