Features & Columns
As Time Goes By
Seeking to put into words what's being lost in the switch to digital projection, I'd seize on a bug. Note the "cigarette burn," a letter "o" which flashes for a few frames in older films. It still turns up on cheap public-domain video and DVD. It's the circle of light that flashes and vanishes in a corner, informing the projectionist that it's time to change reels.
Rather than a distraction, the cigarette burn gives a movie a sense of the time passing. Post-cigarette burn, motion pictures seem to have gotten longer.
De Anza College's Vizcarrando describes what it was like when she was learning her m–tier at the UCLA archives years ago: "There's always some damage there in the prints. Your love of the damage clouds things. People talk about the accuracy of the image, or if it holds up to the best example. Film didn't have perfection—the hairs, the scratches—you don't want perfect."
Bay Area critic Mike Monahan notes, "I find I'm always torn. The aficionado in me gasps at the pristine beauty of a digital presentation and often experiences the feeling of watching an old movie for the first time when seen in scratchless perfection. On the other hand—even with lovely DVD prints of the Universal horrors on my shelf, I'll still sometimes dip into a murky VHS of a television broadcast, because that's how I first saw them. I guess it comes down to 'Sometimes you experience the film, sometimes you experience the nostalgia.'"
Since digital has all but triumphed, the technology needs no excuses. But Vizcarrando notes there are reasons to celebrate. Digital takes away the need for print delivery by fleets of smog-belching trucks. The oil for the plastics for those thousands of prints is no longer necessary.
"Even if we're not talking about the saving of money, there are all sorts of good reasons for stepping away from the Good Ship Celluloid," Vizcarrando admits. "And while I'm not completely thrilled by the digital shore, it's an awesome place to be."
She adds, "The first time I thought I was getting it was watching 28 Days Later. I saw the instances of what makes digital photography unique in the separation of foreground and background. More specific nuances are lost, even to me. I see the shit tones—the way the camera loses color. When the visual shifts are deliberate, those things can be interesting calling cards."
She continues, "But the critic in me wonders: how to broach a subject that exists in ambivalence? I am honest. I do not have the most sensitive eye, and I have to decide if I'm going to waste space in an article on technical things."
Awesomeness aside, the controversy hasn't ended, as seen in Chris Kenneally's Side by Side, shown at the Palo Alto International Film Festival this summer. The documentary contrasts the rise of digital and the fall of "celluloid." Side by Side argues the value of 35mm aesthetics vs. the democratic qualities of digital photography and projection. Can we have both? Directors aren't so sure. Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids) declares movies-on-film dead and useless to him.
Leos Carax of the upcoming Holy Motors told The New York Times that the shift to digital "reminds me of the way the pharmaceutical companies invent medicine. It makes me feel, what is this supposed to cure?"
P.T. Anderson announced that 70mm film is the proper way to see his film The Master, despite how few theaters there are left that can do that. Anderson insists on the quality of the grain, the image size and the non-machine-made smoothness of 70mm film. Anderson's rival for the title of the Kubrick of Today, Christopher (The Dark Knight Rises) Nolan, swears by the power of IMAX on film. It's an old-tech bent in Nolan, a belief in the practical effect: that is, the special effect that really exists on the street, instead of a hard drive.
Nolan recently told the Director's Guild: "For the last 10 years, I've felt increasing pressure to stop shooting film and start shooting video, but I've never understood why. It's cheaper to work on film, it's far better looking, it's the technology that's been known and understood for a hundred years and it's extremely reliable."
The war was over before there was a battle, however, and the only consolation is that the Bay Area still allows the old-time experience of archival 35mm prints. If you get a chance, before it's too late, experience the matchless clarity of the crimsons and greens of a vintage nitrate 35mm print of The Wizard of Oz, projected with an arc projector—a print that could only be shown at the Stanford because of the overstated risks of fire from nitrate stock, which was replaced years ago with more stable mylar.
Film noir seen in nitrate is a different animal: the charcoals are without smudge, and the blacks gleam. This rare archival experience is the best way of seeing what was intended by the filmmakers of their age.
I can't prove that 35mm ultimately had a kind of soul to it, a sense of dimension caused by the light coming through film as opposed to the image bringing its own light. But in the few classic movie theaters that are left, watching a film is simultaneously the experience and the nostalgia for the experience.
Digital photography already has a tradition and a past, enough so to inspire the retro approach. The indie film Bellflower tried to recall the goldenrod-colored flares, jaundiced sunlight and flatness of old digital video in its attempt to hybrid crappy early digital and Super-8 film. It was made to look like something shot in 1999.
Says Vizcarrando, "Think about the progress since The Celebration was shot on digital video in 1998. Digital skipped adolescence. It could look artful or artless or make a statement of its own awkwardness. There's no reason for us to decry the loss of quality anymore. We're past complaining about that. Digital has technologically surpassed film, and film is in our rear-view mirror. But if our technology gets colder, the story needs to get hotter, and I don't mean erotic. It used to be directors put all their faith in the director of photography, and going to watch the rushes was like going to church. Now there's no sense that there's a need for discipline or the craft."
Ultimately, no matter what the delivery system, Vizcarrando argues that it is the essence of the movies—the direction and storytelling—that needs to be worthy of the technology.
"Cinema is all product, and we're not cynical for knowing that. Some compromises need to happen—I'm not going to complain about the technological marvel of Batman, because I saw it, and I get it and I enjoyed it.
"It's the theoretical side, the emotion. That's what needs to be worked on. It's like the line in Metropolis has it, there's a gap between the head and the hands."