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Editorial, Feature

Editorial – Nitrate Celluloid Bitrate

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending a screening of John Hillcoat’s Lawless at the Curzon Soho, complete with Q&A session from Hillcoat and his creative collaborator on the film, the musician Nick Cave. While my thoughts on the film itself have been well covered elsewhere, it was a situational aside that really got me thinking. Hillcoat had requested that the Curzon screen the film in 35mm…

While such a request might not sound too odd, Lawless was shot digitally, which makes Hillcoat’s preference for 35mm for exhibition purposes all the more interesting. Citing the tonal subtleties that digital (DCP) projection still cant quite replicate, Hillcoat expressed some disdain over the decision of that most prestigious of film festivals, Cannes, to not show the movie in his preferred format earlier in the year, claiming that Cannes is now one of the many film festivals that operate on a “digital only” policy.

The “Hillcoat incident” as I’ve since come to refer to it, thus began a curious chain of events exposing and highlighting the world of the post-digital cinema in a couple of different ways. The new issue of Cineaste arrived the next morning, which it contained within an entire section called “From 35mm to DCP”, billed as “A Critical Symposium on the Changing Face of Motion Picture Exhibition“. Some of the world’s great theorists and commentators on the subject feature. In a further curious fluke, Film After Film, the latest book by J. Hoberman (who also contributed to the Cineaste piece) arrived on British shores following a late August publication in the United States. The book charts the landscape of the post-2000 cinema, a time in which the medium faced unparalleled change and modification according to not only the technical, but also the political upheaval faced by the US in the face of the events of 9/11.

So yes, you might say that my thoughts have been somewhat drawn to the subject this week.

As regular readers will probably know, the digital revolution is of keen interest to me, and is reflected thoroughly in the content of the site. The site itself is obviously a digital commodity, and we’ve ventured in to several other directions within the digital realm over the past couple of years now. I’m very much pro-digital, and often cite an opening weekend theatrical screening of Michael Mann’s Collateral as one of my defining cinematic experiences, with that particular film opening up the possibilities as to what digitally aided filmmaking was truly capable of. In the years following Collateral I’ve paid close attention to progresses made within the medium, with each benchmark within the revolution proving endlessly fascinating. Digital came of age with my own tastes, and while I’ve hopelessly fallen for the charms of celluloid’s handsome younger sibling, the Hillcoat situation opened my eyes to a problem previously gone unnoticed by my own eyes: that of our old friend “directorial intent”. Less than one month ago I was bleating on about the importance of respecting a filmmakers wishes, yet all the while and unaware of this whole other layer of directorial charge. Regardless of the shooting format, I’ve never once stopped to think about how the filmmaker may have intended for the film to actually be seen, always assuming that it be the equivalent projection medium to the one on which it was filmed.

While it remains to be discovered just how many filmmakers are as keenly protective of their formatting decisions as John Hillcoat, I do believe there is more to it than simply being “precious” or pedantic about their work. Hillcoat referred to 35mm as “the new vinyl”, which was something of a throwaway remark, yet ultimately telling in the language used: any reference to celluloid as “new” in any capacity is always going to provoke discussion. It’s easy to write this whole thing off as something nobody really cares about, not least the filmmakers who have made the transition to digital themselves, but as the Hillcoat situation shows, that’s not necessarily always going to be the case.

So how do we respond to this situation? One idea suggested during the Hillcoat Q&A was the possibility of special theatres, whose screenings revolve around specialty formats, although I’m not sure that ghettoization is the answer. New Wave, the distributors behind Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, a film to which the medium is inherently important, seem to have responded to the demand for celluloid in an interesting and productive way. Gomes’ picture is currently on theatrical release in the UK, with several DCP’s forming the brunt of the film’s run while a lone 35mm print backs them up. The print in question is currently screening in London and will then move on to various venues around the country. Could this be the future? With calls for 70mm screenings of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master already reaching fever pitch, one could see such road-show type screenings become increasingly more commonplace.

The Hollywood actor Keanu Reeves explores the production aspect of the digital revolution in his new film, and directorial debut, Side By Side. The documentary charts the history of both film and digital photographic techniques, with figureheads of the industry offering up their thoughts on the matter. While Reeves may at first seem like an odd choice for such a project, one only need step back and take a look at the actors own career for an understanding as to why he might actually just be the perfect candidate for such a task. Reeves’ career in front of the camera stretches across all three ages, Film, Video and Digital. (The role of early video techniques is surprisingly important when looking at the bigger picture, due to it being so poorly received that, as J. Hoberman suggests in Film After Film, it set the digital revolution back by some years. One might say it’s only natural for one to stumble in the wake of a revolution.) As such, Reeves is in an ideal position to judge and comment on just how the industry has progressed and been affected, as one of the few major stars whose careers has spanned all three ages.

It’s not just the production and wide distribution of film that has had to adapt to new technology. The complete spectrum of the cinematic medium has been changed by the digital revolution. As shown by Hillcoat’s revelations not even the film festival, the ultimate refuge of cinematic indulgence, any longer relies on celluloid, nor in many cases do they even entertain the idea of projecting anything other than a digital source. The digital archive debate is another subject entirely, but one can’t help but be concerned by the notion that the vast majority of cinemas are no longer equipped to screen a film that hasn’t been afforded a digital upgrade, while online rental firms like Lovefilm and NetFlix have rendered the neighbourhood video-store, an industry powered by independent traders in many ways, obsolete.

Nor is film criticism safe. The digitization of film criticism has already seen a great number of casualties, among them J. Hoberman himself, who was let go from a long-held post at the Village Voice at the beginning of 2012. In a situation akin to the democratization of any thing that was once the realm of the professional, media outlets are increasingly turning to the keen amateur to fulfill obligations that would once have been the realm of a full-time worker.

Speaking of Hoberman, in Film After Film he suggests that the all-digital cinema that surrounds us now was an inevitability of the environment in which it exists, with Hollywood a culture building upon the digitization of its commodity from the 1982 double-bill of Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart and Disney’s Tron. If one approaches the debate from this perspective then it’s difficult to side (to re-apply Reeves’ wording) with celluloid, especially if it is being suggested that to side with the digital is to back a destructive and dangerous force: rather than being the evil, dollar-saving exercise claimed by some (although to be clear, I have no doubt in my mind that it is being used as such by many), the philosophical or academic realisation would be one ground firmly in the inevitable, or the logical.

A wholly digital cinema was always going to be the answer, in a post “Myth Of Total Cinema” landscape, the Bazin theory rendered (pun intended) moot by advancements in the wake of the French writer’s own lifetime. The cinema is an evolutionary matter. It’s organic, even if the natural material is one ground in computer code these days, and flows to the mood of the world that surrounds it. This latter idea is explored at great depth in Antoine de Baecque’s Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema, and a similar line of enquiry forms the second section of Hoberman’s tome. Ordinarily I don’t feel particularly inclined to hold much stock in any theory other than Auteurism, but have become increasingly intrigued by this mode of thought of a cinema informed by it’s contemporarily surrounding events. Perhaps it’s because this is the age I have grown up in, making it easier for me to relate say, to the events of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina with that of the cinema which I have seen develop in real-time in theatre’s every week, or perhaps it has more to do with the fact that all I really know of actual history I’ve taken from the movies, leading to gaping holes in my understanding of how the world actually works.

The harsh truth of the whole situation is that celluloid never stood a chance in the war on grain. It’s greatest soldiers, those cinéastes with enough of an understanding of the medium to truly push for their vision have laid down their arms. Martin Scorsese’s bow from the medium was the final fall, at least for the mainstream American cinema, with the resignation of the cinema’s most vocal and influential filmmaker perhaps the final genuine moment of note in the digital revolution, being that the landscape from forever on ought to be known as one that is primarily digitized. Let’s all hope that we haven’t jumped in too soon.

Adam Batty – Editor-In-Chief

Further Reading

Film Is Dead? Long Live Movies. How Digital Is Changing the Nature of Movies. A New York times article from earlier this week. This editorial was already being written when A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis caused something of a discussion point on the usual social networks, and it seemed like apt timing for today’s piece.

The Changing Face Of Film. The editorial from this month’s Cineaste, which deals with this very subject.

Film criticism after film criticism. The J. Hoberman Affair. A Cinema Scope article from CS50 that looks at the fallout from the sacking of Hoberman earlier this year.

A Brief Photo Survey Of Abandoned Video Stores. The author refers to the manner in which digital outlets such as NetFlix toppled the humble video store.

Also…

My entry for last weeks IndieWire Critics Survey On Movies To Remember Come Awards Season.

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