Friday, September 5, 2014

Film: The Unspoken Contract

I recently went to see a 70mm screening of Spartacus--for two reasons--I’d never seen it shown in a theater--in any film format--and since it was also photographed in 70mm, I couldn’t pass up the chance.

The version they showed was in fact a 1991 print--the Robert Harris restoration. At this point, I could tell you that seeing this movie projected filmically vs. digitally made all the difference, made it the best experience I could have had.

I would be lying, though. The fact is that I would have had no problem seeing Spartacus in a digital venue--in fact, I only just missed a chance to see a Fathom Events presentation of it at a chain cinema, a month earlier. So seeing Spartacus on film as opposed to off of a hard drive and through a Sony 4K DLP system was more a matter of convenience than choice.

I have no problem with digital projection. Mainly because, as most spectators, whether they grew up with film, as I did, or not, would probably agree, digital cinema is perfect--no scratches, no splices, no image snapping up and down at the mercy of a mechanical transport, no crackle and pop on the soundtrack, no faded color dyes or hue shifts--nothing but consistently sharp, consistently vivid images--in fact, in some cases, arguably better than the original release prints fresh from the lab.

Of course I’m overlooking the reality that, like music sampling, digitizing film negative loses something in the translation, perhaps something essential.  But whether that it is true or not, I don’t care.

Any misgivings that I might have had, I shed two years ago, when I saw a 4K presentation of David Lean’s desert epic--for the record, I have seen Lawrence of Arabia in every format, over the decades, including a 16mm IB Technicolor print. So I was skeptical when I bought my ticket. But what I saw  was free from all of the familiar, age-old imperfections of a film print unspooling through a mechanized labyrinth. I could nearly count the grains of sand, at some points, as I watched. It wasn’t better than a 70mm film print, at the end of the day, but it looked and sounded clean. The whole experience, for me, exuded a sense that what I was seeing and hearing was invulnerable to chemical breakdown and relentless, mechanical wear and tear.

Purists may hate me for saying these things but I just don’t miss all the speckles and dirt and myriad of other distractions--watching that 4K LOA was pure viewing. “To Hell with film prints,” a part of me said.

But there is another part of me that feels quite differently. Every summer, here in Austin, Texas, the Paramount Theatre, screens hundreds of 35mm and 70mm prints of all manner of classic movies, across all genres. And every summer I find time to watch several of these. I do this because, yes, some of these movies you can’t find anywhere else, including Blu-Ray. 

But there is the side of me that grew up with this organic,chemically-based, mechanically read medium, that is prone to all kinds of flaws and even utilizing some of them--cigarette burns to mark reel changes, for example--flaws that early on in film became accepted almost as conventions themselves.

We let our brains filter these defects out or, in my case, even looked forward with, if not expectation, then an easygoing acceptance at seeing a battered print that had been shown over and over again, worn out. Not even just old re-released prints, but new releases I saw growing up that had been in the local mall multiplex for months on end--threaded into and run through what I’m sure was not the best maintained projector with not the most competent--and certainly not the most gentle--projectionist manhandling every frame.

I’ll point to a 35mm 4-Track print of The Empire Strikes Back I saw in 1980, when I was fourteen.

After maybe about three hundred showings, all summer long, it had become scratched, spattered with debris on almost every frame, its quadraphonic soundtrack creased and dimpled so that the theater speakers gave a deep, electrical whoop atleast once in every reel, like when someone taps their finger on a microphone hooked up to a PA system. A giant tentacle of dust reached into the “Wampa Ice Creature” sequence at one point, making its way across what would have otherwise been a great crane shot revealing how Luke was trapped upside down in the creature’s icy liar. The cherry on the cake was a patch of torn sprocket holes that made the entire image buck up and down on-screen as the rebel troops formed into battle lines to face the Imperial Walkers.

But I’ll never forget that first time I saw Empire, marred as it was. Watching it that way felt right--for me, it was right. Once I got caught up in the story and plights of those characters, the
art direction and frenetic editing, I forgot all about those many flaws--my brain just started filtering them out--I was caught up on the high of being entertained, captivated.

The same goes for so many other prints that failed me technically: the “new” Doctor Zhivago print that broke in the projector as the end credits came up alongside the hydro-electric dam shot  that symbolized the rise of a new society that Uri Zhivago could never be a part of--and the director’s cut of The Abyss that also snapped, just before the alien ship came up out of the ocean . But the audience forgave. I forgave. I only left the theater remembering the substance of those films--artistic, emotional, ideological--things that transcended chemical substrates being endlessly forced over rollers, and drums before a hot lamp, until they fatigued and gave out.

I believe that this describes the cognitive process for every moviegoer in the pre-digital cinema ages. No matter the movie or the subject matter, great artistic content or simple actioners, in the end you accepted and in turn forgot about the technical problems inherent in film projection.

How could we do this? Why did we do it? Because we didn't have a choice. Film was it—and yes we got crisp, even amazingly high resolution details, facial features, landscapes, surround sound that often created a kind of immersion so that we felt like we were in that place or time—and the price we paid was putting up with all of the imperfections--in short, we had an unspoken contract with the medium of film.

This takes us back to Spartacus. That night I felt a sadness,  after experiencing so much digital cinema by then--a sadness because that print, while it wasn’t damaged anymore than any other print, from age, from wear, from improper storage or threading over nearly twenty-five years, was almost primitive to look at--an experience founded on chemical breakdown and the human inefficiency of a projectionist--this latter represented when the next to last reel change was bungled and the audience was treated to “FINISH” and the clockwipe countdown, shorthand for the technicians behind the curtain, never meant for the audience to see.

Almost everybody in that old-style movie palace, probably all cineastes and fans of epics and classics, laughed, at the barbaric, clumsy thing that film projection can be. And I laughed right along with them--I’m not proud of that.

Finally the worst happened--once we got passed the ragged end of the reel, the screen went white--no image, nothing.Then I did stop laughing. This means of presentation had failed us altogether. Nothing new for me, although I’m sure for many of the millennials in those seats quite the initiation.

But it was only two or three seconds, then the next reel came on and I did what I’ve always done in that case, I built a bridge, in  my mind, from the last shot before the blankout to where we were at now--reminding myself that nothing was lost, we the audience only had to be patient with the interruption. As the guy sitting next to me pointed out, it could have been much worse, at least we were spared the agony of the film breaking and then waiting for the projectionist to tack it back together.

At the end of Spartacus, as the Exit Music was playing, this neighbor of mine who, to my shame, hadn’t laughed at all during the reel mishap, looked over at me and I told him how, these days, I tend to treat the experience of film projection like it was more akin to live theatre--one never knows quite what is going to happen during the presentation. He agreed.  

Afterall, when we see a film print, we are by necessity having a human interaction, albeit an indirect one, with the projectionist whom we must rely on and, like the stage actor, must hit his cues or else the whole experience suffers--and like the actor, must improvise on occasion when the print breaks or gets tangled in all those gears--he, like those of us in the audience, is at the mercy of film and its flaws and he accepts and understands this unspoken contract just as we do.

Maybe that’s why I come back to film occasionally--both it and digital have their respective allures. This must be true for many other people, as well. I say this only because, thirty years ago, when The Wizard of Oz had just been been digitally remastered and put out on VHS, one of the criticisms was that the film’s soundtrack was “too clean.” There were people who had become accustomed to the dust-encrusted hiss and crackle underneath Judy Garland singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” They had the chance for a perfect presentation but they wanted it back the way it used to be--they missed some of the flaws--they wanted to keep honoring the old contract.

Maybe we were more tolerant of these flaws in the past--we had no choice--the technology of film could only give us so much and no more, and so we learned to accept and build on it and ultimately glorify it as the foundation medium for all moviemaking, the best that we had.

Now, with digital cinema, for shooting and presentation, we have the promise of perfection, a new “best”, if you will--so that we can let go of the other, the poor second. The contract with film we had for so long can be trampled underfoot.

But do we need this perfection? In time maybe I'll forget film altogether and come around the way some others of my generation have.  But I don’t think so. Besides, I have to remind myself that “best” is always a relative term, especially in technology.

I’m not ready to give up torn sprocket holes and botched reel changes yet.

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