To accept the death of celluloid

May 13, 2011

The subtitle to this blog celebrates the organic, hands-on work it takes to bring both music and movies to audiences. I owe my wife credit for coming up with “Handmade with vinyl and celluloid,” as she knows me well enough to understand my passion for the material side of the subject matter covered here. Over the couple of years the Independent Ethos has existed, I have more than noticed the quiet death throes of celluloid. Though vinyl will exist at least until the end of my generation, celluloid is already nearly mythic in its existence. This grew ever more apparent from a couple of articles I recently read in “Film Comment.”

I love celluloid for similar reasons I appreciate vinyl. There indeed exists a handmade, organic craft between it and the medium it captures and keeps us humanly connected with the work. Digital transmission of the man-made art of music and film has always left me worried, like the cautionary heart that has dwelt in the background of sci-fi movies such as the Fly, which deals with the teleportation of people from one location to another via transmission devices that break down every molecule in a person’s body to reconstruct them at another location. Is the result even human? Thus, there is something unsettling about the quality of movies and music as digital computer files, and, I will always argue, it shows. Look no further than the vinyl reviews scattered throughout this blog (Aurally de-flowered by Faust: A review of Faust IV LP reissue, David Bowie’s Space Oddity gets 40th Anniversary vinyl reissue, MGMT grow with Congratulations, Vinyl review: Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space reissue).

However, when it comes to film, there is little audience demand can do to keep it alive in the theaters. As institutions of higher learning like Yale tries to preserve film, giant movie chains have quietly dumped their 35mm projectors for digital machines.

In the latest issues of “Film Comment,” several of their forward-thinking critics and writers continue to document the changes in the cinematic experience. In their year-end issue (Jan/Feb 2011, Vol. 47, No. 1), within the collaborative article “State of the Art: Taking the Pulse of Cinema in 2010” and under the sub-headline “Death Watch,” film critic Scott Foundas noted the losses he saw in 35mm. He wrote, “In the course of organizing an Eric Rohmer retrospective last summer, I learn that the U.S. rights holder to his iconic ‘Moral Tales’ … is in the process of dismantling its print rental service and purging its vaults of all 35mm elements … by destroying them.” He also noted that a source at Universal told him the major Hollywood studio has turned to raiding their 35mm warehouse to begin “chopping [movies] up into material to make sleeping bags.”

Check out instructables.com, a website I found that  shows you how to make a handbag out of 35mm film:

At least they are using a worthy film print for the source material: Jackass (click on the image above for the “How to guide”).

Then there was an article “Rollover Blues, Digital Cinema and Its Discontents” in the Mach/April 2011 issue of “Film Comment” (Vol. 47, No. 2). In the article, Edward E. Crouse writes about he quiet decline of the craftsmen behind 35mm film projectors in movie theaters. Crouse mostly gripes about the loss of the artistry that union projectionists brought to the operation of old-style double projector 35mm presentations, which went out of fashion as long ago as the early seventies, according to the author, with the advent of the platter system of projecting film (click on the image to below for an explainer on how it works). But one point relevant beyond the politics and into the artistry of the film projection came from the observation he made of “a packed house” watching the Black Swan projected in 35mm at a Los Angeles multiplex. He said as much as “a quarter of the frame” was out of focus, and what he described after his observation came as little surprise to me:

More jarring than the hazy focus, though, was the fact no one in the crowd spoke up. I was about to collar a manager, but decided not to. Instead I opted to risk serious nausea and observe the audience reaction. As the end credits rolled, the blur was still there . No one said a word. And when no one says anything, it means that everything’s fine, right?

These articles and my recent years experiencing movies in my favorite place to see them: from the seat of a cushy chair in a movie theater, has made me pause to wonder about the relevance of the “celluloid” part of the subtitle of this blog. First off, I am fine taking my appreciation of celluloid to my grave, even if no one else can appreciate the format, hence do not expect the subtitle to go away. As Crouse points out, does it really matter much anymore? Things have changed, and no one seems to notice or care.

I’ve witnessed some horrible things done with 35mm in my many years at the cinema. I remember seeing Takeshi Kitano’s version of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi with stuttering sound. This was a projection issue, as the soundtrack on 35mm runs along the frame of the film (see the soundtrack imbedded between a movie still from Inception and the perforations of the film strip below). Despite numerous complaints during the movie, those running this multiplex of a particular theater chain— I believe the Sunrise Cinemas in Plantation— could not get it right. The theater manager gave me a pass to see another movie afterward.

Then there was the time I was two-thirds of the way through Luc Besson’s The Messenger— a two-and-half-hour mediocre epic— at the now long gone Town and Country AMC in Kendall, and I watched the film print sputter before burning away before my eyes. Here’s a demonstration of what that looks like:

There’s no rewind and replay for that. I would have to go back to the theater to see how it ended (I think I used my resulting free pass to see something else and later sneaked into an in-progress screening of the Messenger just to see how it ended).

In “Rollover Blues,” Crouse notes the lack of experience of the new breed of “manjectionists” that both run the theater and make sure the movies start on time with the push of a button. It’s a sorry state I noticed repeatedly during my early years as a college student when I followed the new wave of American independents by the likes of Tarantino, Anderson and Soderberg, to name a few, not to mention great foreign works by directors like Yimou, Jacquot and Almodovar. During many experiences watching 35mm, I had grown tired of the scratched up prints I had to suffer when I caught movies toward the end of their runs, a time I have always preferred over premiere weekends, as the movie houses would never be so crowded.

In recent years, I’ve noticed more than ever a deterioration in today’s 35mm projection standards. I first noticed it at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema. Digital screenings there had grown more frequent as 35mm screenings became more scarce, and when I did see them, something inevitably went wrong. As the digital screenings improved in picture quality over the years, the rare 35mm screenings became, more than ever, botched experiences.

During a short series of screenings dedicated to Ingmar Bergman at the Cosford, I watched Wild Strawberries from reels that obviously had varied histories. From the apparent scratches in the film at the start of the reels to a tonal shift in the shading of the monochromatic black and white the film was shot in, I felt, why should they even bother showing this debacle? Then there was the second-run screening of I’m Not There. I hazard to guess that a student volunteer must have put the reels together because no professional projectionist would have spliced the reels together before the cue dots that, back in the old days instructed the projectionist to switch between reels. Instead of seeing the black dot flash in the upper right corner of the screen, the film jumped a few beats to the next scene, making for a jarring movie experience. So even a cinema catering to the art house crowd can slip up.

Just last week, I especially noticed changes in the multiplex with digital versus 35mm projection. Out of four movies I caught at three different theaters in the Miami-Dade area three were digital and one 35mm. Two were bad experiences, including the single 35mm experience: Insidious at the Regal Kendall 9. Let me say that the flashes of brilliant red in the demon’s face probably would never have looked as good or felt as startling on today’s digital format. But then, as expected, there were the deep black vertical lines that lingered on the screen for too long during several scenes (see an exaggerated example of a scratched film image to the right). These lines are the result of dust particles landing between the print and the lens. The grain of dust will gouge the print and leave a vertical scratch going across many frames as the film passed through. It’s a predictable sign of a lack of care to the print while at the movie house. It will probably end up trashed at the end of its run. There was also at least one repaired break in the celluloid.

Prior to the Insidious screening I caught Sucker Punch at a local multiplex that has already gone all digital: the Cobb Dolphin 19 Cinemas. After Insidious, I caught Hanna at the AMC Sunset Place 24, a theater, like the Regal Kendall 9, that projects partly in digital and partly in 35mm. Hanna was shown in digital, and like Sucker Punch, looked so clean, I barely missed the character of 35mm. Granted, Hanna wasn’t the hybrid of green screen digital “cartoon” mixed with live action that defined Sucker Punch. The only moments that may have lost some of the impact of 35mm were the title cards, punctuated by a harsh sonic sting, of the title: “HANNA” scrawled in skinny white letters against a bright red background would fill the screen from one corner to another, framing the action from the start of the movie to its end. It had an over-the-top, campy effect key to setting the film’s frivolous though intense tone, and it would have looked and felt awesome on 35mm. Still, Sucker Punch and Hanna, for the most part, felt like fine experiences in digital.

However, the last movie I saw that week, also at Sunset Place, Source Code, was digital, and even as a digital presentation, it still had some serious issues. Just like Crouse’s experience watching Black Swan, part of the frame was out of focus, and no one seemed to notice, and this was not even a film print. Bringing this to the attention of two employees at the start of the screening resulted in no action, so I suffered through the movie. It jarred me out of the experience upon many occasions. To top it off, when I complained at customer service, the girl at the desk was leaning over texting on the phone with some other employee sitting on the other side. They questioned why I had not complained earlier. After told I them I did but nothing was done, and I didn’t want to miss the movie any more than I already had, they forked over a pass to another screening. The staff at these places: another of the many reasons multiplexes offer horrible experiences. I could go on a whole other blog post on that alone.

So, even though the digital transition cannot always ensure a clean image, the majority of the screw-ups at screenings come from the incompetent use of 35mm, which happens more often than not. I must acknowledge one exception as far as quality 35mm presentation in my region of Miami-Dade County: The Coral Gables Art Cinema. It is probably too soon to put all my hopes of celluloid into one movie house, as I have only seen one 35mm film at that theater. Still, when I saw the White Material there last year, the 35mm projection was flawless.

In his article, Crouse notes the scarcity of some of those nineties-era films I saw as scratched up and abused prints in the multiplex. Well, the reality of those damaged prints, and the studios’ lack of interest in archival servicing, has since come to reality. Crouse cites Mark Toscano, a film preservationist (check out his blog “Preservation Insanity” for a real feel of the state of 35mm) who told him, “Phone calls are now coming in requesting prints, not for older films but of things like Magnolia.” Crouse also said independent art houses with 35 mm capability, like the Coral Gables Art Cinema, are few and far between. “DVD and Blu-ray seem to be the destiny of independent exhibition,” Crouse stated in his article.

Here is where a reserve myself to not deny my enjoyment of cinema just because a movie is not shown in 35mm. As my experiences have laid out, digital does not always mean an exhibition without flaws. Even the Cosford messed it up when I tried to see Antichrist there (Open letter to IFC: send 35 mm to UM’s Cosford Cinema). However, the days when directors like Stanley Kubrick would actually visit movie theaters or plant spies in order to see whether his movies are done justice are long gone. More than ever, it is the passionate indie theater owner doing justice to cinema, even if it’s all in digital.

In a recent “SunPost” cover story celebrating the new home of the Miami Beach Cinematheque on the ground floor of Miami Beach City Hall, the theater’s founder Dana Keith, seems to have long come to terms with the movie-going experience sans celluloid. His venue, going back to its existence in a storefront tucked away along Espanola Way on South Beach, has only ever projected in digital. In the article “Burden of Dreams” by local film reporter and critic Ruben Rosario, Keith stated, “The art of cinema, to me, should be shown on a screen where it controls you rather than you controlling it. [Watching films] on television, you’re in control. In the cinema you’re allowing the artist to take control, and that’s very important, because to me these are creations by an artist.”

Part of my coming to terms with digital screenings was at a preview screening for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (read my review here) all alone in Keith’s theater. I might have noticed some haloing in the images— if I looked for it. But when I allowed myself to be swept away by the movie and its stirring pace and imagery, who cares? The theater has comfortable tiered seats and projects digital very well on a large screen and offers enveloping acoustics. So coming to terms with the death of celluloid comes with accepting digital without prejudice. When the passion is there in the presentation, the quality will follow, be it in digital or 35mm.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

4 Responses to “To accept the death of celluloid”

  1. PodRED Says:

    I am a projectionist in a busy pre-release screening room in London, England, and bad projection standards have been quite prevalent in multiplexes for some time now. It is a sad fact that many modern multiplex projectionists are not the highly trained technician-operators of the past. A good projectionist is the master of the technical ins and outs of his machines, whereas many modern projectionists are taught only the basic skills required to get a picture on screen.

    However I would say that some of your unfortunate 35mm cinema experiences described above may not actually have been the on-duty projectionist’s fault.

    I am a highly professional projectionist and I, too, have been forced to screen 35mm prints that were not perfect.

    For example the 35mm “frame jumping” issue you have described during “I’m Not There” was almost certainly not due to bad splicing on the part of the projectionist at that theatre, but is much more likely the result of having received a print which had already had several frames removed (one at a time, over a long period, at several theatres) from the end by sub-par projectionists at other theatres. When this happens there is no choice but to splice the reels together as you receive them. Still, the blame does lie with a careless or lazy projectionist somewhere. Similarly the reel variation during “Wild Strawberries” is probably out of the projectionists hands, as the reels they were sent have been assembled from different prints – most likely this was the only way to assemble a complete version of the film due to reel loss and damage and is down to a decision at the distributor.

    As for the film burning, accidents and technical failures can happen sometimes. However where you say “There’s no rewind and replay for that” I must disagree ; while it will take the film off screen there is no reason the projectionist could not have removed the burnt frames, re-spliced, re-laced, and resumed the screening from just before the burn, rather than forcing the audience to come back another time. I once attended a screening in Nottingham (of the silly actioner ‘Armageddon’) where this is exactly how the theatre handled a film burn.

    I have long been saddened by the mis-handling of 35mm film. The saddest thing at all is that this can only hasten the demise of 35mm projection. Regardless of your opinions on the quality of digital cinema, the day that 35mm disappears completely will be a very sad day for cinema.

    • indieethos Says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post and adding your thoughts. I appreciate your defense of the Cosford Cinema. I do appreciate the work they do in screening the films they do, but at the very least a warning before I’m Not There may have been warranted should they have received such a print. The same goes for Wild Strawberries. If anything, being prepared for such prints can make the experience more bearable and also offer an educational experience to the audience who could certainly benefit in knowing more about 35mm projection.

      My comment of “There’s no rewind and replay for that,” came from the limits of my choice of words for too short a sentence that assumes a lot of inference by the reader. It was meant to capture my cynical attitude for the multiplex mentality that would rather make sure the other screenings go on time, as any repairs would have probably made the film go on beyond schedule. I also doubt the “manjectionists” working at that place had sufficient experience to make a quick repair to the print or maybe even have a true interest in making for a satisfying screening. Glad to see that people cared more at your screening of Armageddon.

      I do appreciate any comments that offer hope for the 35mm format. Though I may sound reserved to accepting digital over 35mm, I still prefer 35mm when done right. It’s just become so rare nowadays, I tend to go for the format that provides for a more engrossing movie-going experience. More often than not, it’s digital. Still, make no mistake, I do prefer 35mm. This post was more an exercise in trying to accept what seems to increasingly be an inevitable fact.

      I will also note that the director of the Coral Gables Art Cinema wrote me an email expressing its commitment to 35mm screening. From the little I saw there, I know they are serious about their 35mm presentations, and it seems to be the place in Miami-Dade County to go for such screenings. I plan to visit it more often.

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