Friday, 17 June 2011

Considering the Reel

Sitting here with a freshly resuscitated laptop, I am forced to come to terms with the fact that, like it or not, I have hopelessly and completely moved into a digital age. Sure, naysayers and the autocratical nature of sheer technological progression have pointed to this for many years (I distinctly remember my first 'real' computer almost a decade ago, and how that was supposed to be my big move), but I never really felt it until I was unable to access digital copies of my film collection.

Many of us lament the aging 'film' print, as theaters are not only closing up shop, but those who struggle to survive are also investing in digital projectors for even the most un-blockbuster-ed of films. (There's that word again, the film. Can we even call a movie a film anymore? What entails a digital 'movie?' Am I simply watching an even higher-tech version of a DVD I can stream on my home computer? What's the point in going out and spending $13 for this?) I distinctly remember a roundtable discussion set up by The Hollywood Reporter two years ago between directors Katherine Bigelow, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Jason Reitman, Lee Daniels, and Quentin Tarantino. The videos of the interviews themselves appear to have been taken down at some point in the past year, but I feel the need to paraphrase something Mr. Tarantino said that has rung loudly in my ears since he mentioned it. To paraphrase, the hotshot director (and fellow adoring film geek) said that once the medium has completely turned to the digital format, it would be the appropriate time to kill himself. The question I ask is why?

If I were able to call myself one thing (and by god I will, seeing as this is my blog entry), I would consider myself an analogue enthusiast. This term comes with some conditions, however, as I am referring simply to the means and not the details. The overarching argument of such a term culminates in the apex of an idea that I really just like returning to the roots of a situation. My growing record collection is a testament to this, where I would prefer to pick up a rare variant of an old hardcore record (preferably for a fraction of collector costs) to listen to, ogle over, as well as love and appreciate. It's at moments like these - finding that elusive record put out in obscurity during the 1980s or simply finding a copy of a record that you love - that act as a time machine into another era. A vinyl record is a relic of the times (provided it isn't a repress!), and you know that you're holding something and listening to music that was physically engraved onto the wax. I feel the same way about movies. If Fight Club taught me anything (both the novel and the film), it's that the unionized projectionist really is the apex of blood, sweat, and tears on a long and winding road from inception to treatment to script to shooting and what have you. Watching a movie on film in a theater, those cigarette burns at the top right hand corner of the screen - those flashes of spots that aren't as distracting as they are welcomed - signify the physical layover from one projector/film reel to the activation of another. This is difficult work, and with these burns the labour of the production is retained within the theater setting. You are watching something that has physically been imprinted onto film stock, looped into a reel, then having to be taken care of and 'flipped over,' much like a record. You can still go into archives and look through negatives of preserved movies knowing that it simply 'exists.' It is an organic being, a culmination not only of particles and matter, but also of the hard work by producers, actors, directors, and projectionists.

But, as much as I adore the old-fashioned 'film on film' approach, I consistently find myself being transferred into the camp of the digital, becoming a slave to its advances and conveniences. When I want to listen to a record on my turntable, I plug my preamp through the 'line-in' on my laptop and run it through to my speaker system. The laptop is simply an excellent solution for a sound equalizer/mixing board that would run me quite a bit of money in an analogue medium. Additionally, when I feel like watching an older restored film, like when Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success was touched up and reissued on DVD by the Criterion Collection, the first thing I did when I got home was pull a comfortable chair in front of the desk in my bedroom and watch it on my laptop. Granted, it has a wide screen and I have it hooked up to a decent surround sound system (because I like to nerd out like this), but I often get roped into thinking that this is the way that movies should be seen. "Look at that image," I'll think aloud. "The grays are so crisp, nothing bleeds into one another. The audio has been touched up perfectly and it's still in mono!" But then I think about what it would have been like to see this in the theater. So I throw on my shoes, call up a friend, and head out to a movie. But even there I am bombarded by "digital surround" and "digital projection." It feels as if there is no escape.

Overall, this is a pretty meaningless rant. What do I hope to achieve or change about this? Maybe digital is the way of the future. Should we regress back to film prints and keep it 'organic' or 'original?' I know for a fact that my first real instance of learning to love film came in my science fiction film course last year. We saw the original Star Wars in its original form. No touchups, no additions, no digital. Much like Jake's father wrote about Raiders of the Lost Ark in the Toronto Star this morning (thanks for mentioning us Mr. Howell!), Star Wars acts as my little bit of nostalgia. However, it is a tad bit inverted. I saw the late 1990s touchups first (being a kid and all), but was then exposed to the true original later. It inspired me and made me nostalgic. Maybe digital is better, but I'd like to think that the true lifesblood of movies exist in the film print. Digital masking is too cold and robotic.


  1. Hardly meaningless, dude. It's cool to see you admit the difficulty to keep the analog love, but still try anyway. I had no idea films had cigarettes burns on the corners — I always wondered how they were making those. Great post.

  2. You would have really loved the Cinema and Technology 400-level seminar that was offered at Innis last fall. We talked about this issue a lot, and I think that as long as it's still possible to preserve and project 35mm or any physical film format, it's pretty safe to say that there will be an audience somewhere to watch them.

  3. Physical film is the only true archival material. Digital formats shift and evolve over time, but the reality is that something compressed today may not be available tomorrow due to constantly shifting technology changes.

    I received an email the other day in which film scratches were referred to as "love bites" and that rang true with me. Last summer I saw a print of Marnie at the TIFF Cinematheque, and it was the first time I had seen it. It was a fairly good print, but as all aging film prints go, the beginnings and ends of the reels are scratched and noticeable, but I find the physical defects in the prints to be an attractive part of the movie going experience. Like you said, whenever I see a digital projection, it feels cold and robotic. Sterile and uninviting.

    On the home entertainment front as we move from DVDs and Blu-rays to streaming videos, we are constantly reminded that streaming video should not be considered a replacement. Sony Pictures currently is having legal issues with the deal they have made with Starz and Netflix, necessitating that all Sony Pictures films be removed from Netflix Instant Watch in the states. Even the Kindle had problems where a distribution license was challenged, and as a result customer's copies of 1984 and Animal Farm were removed without notice. Unless you have the physical object in front of you, there is no guarantee that it will remain.

    I too wish I had taken Cinema & Technology. That's what I'm interested in. Dumb move on my part for not taking it.