Digital / Film. Some Notes.
"As far as I'm concerned, digital projection and DCPs is the death of cinema as I know it ... The fact that most films now are not presented in 35 mm means that the war is lost. Digital projections, that's just television in public. And apparently the whole world is OK with television in public, but what I knew as cinema is dead." "Back in my day, you at least needed 16mm to make something, and that was a Mount Everest most of us couldn't climb. But why an established filmmaker would shoot on digital, I have no f------ idea at all."
What strikes me here is that Tarantino is talking about a delivery system. Television has been filmed on celluloid for years - Friends, MASH and NYPD Blue were all originated on film. Tarantino is raging against the death of the print. The whir in the distance, the flickering light in the darkness. There was a tension with the film print. It could break at any moment. It could stick and it could burn. To watch celluloid is to experience life with the possibility of disaster. Like life it can be repaired but it will always bear the scars.
The digital projection, though pristine, can only fail catastrophically. Like most things to do with computers the digital ‘print’ cannot be repaired easily. It can be wiped or rebooted. Both suggest no link with history or time. Like Hollywood’s obsessive need to reboot Spiderman; treating the audience like amnesiacs who can’t remember the first Spiderman 2 from ten years ago.
Recently I bought a record player. The first thing I listened to was my wife’s copy of Modern Life is Rubbish by Blur. The vinyl is 21 years old. What we listened to was more crackle than music. “I played this record to death when I was young.” She said. What we witnessed were her memories encoded in the decay of the message. Each imperfection was a trace of a previous play. As such this specific copy of Modern Life… has far more meaning in its imperfection than a high bit rate FLAC file has in it’s unchanging perfection.
I remember that when I was about 18 my Dad drove me and my mate Ian to watch Touch of Evil at the UCI Cinema Solihull - a cinema chain and building that have long since disappeared. This was our first real visit to see a ‘proper’ film release at the cinema as college students. The print we saw was scratched, jumpy and the sound muffled. I half remember a scene at the top of a staircase where a hand enters on to a banister momentarily before disappearing. This jump cut is literally that - a jump on screen from a cut in the celluloid where some piece of damaged film has been removed. I have studiously avoided Touch of Evil since; not wanting to find out if that hand was there or not. For me then that print was specific. It felt very alive. It had history.
There is a quote from Godard (I think) that states that “Cinema is death at work.” To make a film is to freeze a moment in time. In it’s journey between screenings the print will accumulate dirt, fingerprints, scratches and may lose a frame or two. When we see it again these replays will have been encoded into the material of projection. We are watching two films at once here - the story of the narrative and the history of the audiences watching the film. The dilemma being that as it is watched it is slowly destroyed.
I love the faces of my friends because they age. The imperfections are the story of their lives. Those people who have plastic surgery lose their story.
The digital restoration of old classics into brand new full 4k brilliance is itself a face lift. The original story is there but the second story of the print is lost. As the years are removed and the blemishes sandblasted off we are left with a fake original. Not how it looked new but how it looks new now. Just like the 50 year old with the hair plugs and tight skin doesn’t look 50 he doesn’t look 25 either. He becomes out of time and out of his story. For films to be subject to the same ravages of mold, entropy and time as human bodies is to accept them as beautiful and precious. The housewives in Orange County seem unloved and desperate to be accepted. I get the same feeling from restored classics digitally projected. It must look new to be accepted.
It also strikes me that we have the ghost of celluloid with us. Where the Dogme 95 films brought about radical experimentations with improvisation (tape is cheap) we know have an obsession with the ‘film look’ and celluloid working methods on set. If anything we have a haunted digital technology that is approached with all of the straight jacket rigours of film but none of it’s poetry. The freedom that digital offered has hardly been investigated.
What will be the digital archive of the future? What of the material shot now or in the last 20 years? Anyone who has ever tried to play an old video file on a new computer will agree that there are far more issues around the preservation of digital material that celluloid. However much I disagree with it on a personal level celluloid can be recovered. When digital fails it fails with very little chance of recovery. The capitalist march of progress leaves in it’s wake our memories forever unsupported by future updates.
As we race ever forward through HD, 2k, 4k, 6k resolution we will soon reach a point where there will be no difference between video and reality. Cinema exists as a poetic rendering of life - it is about what is left out as much as what is left in. We ignore that maxim when we judge the image only on an alienated numerical value of ‘resolution’. The Dogme 95 films were lo-fi, scuzzy dream images of reality. When projected from 35mm film they created an alchemy of video and celluloid. It appeared handmade in the best artisan sense of the word - not like all of those flatpack artisan restaurant chains or instagram filters that look hand made. Now we get the BBFC certificate popping up with all the awful clarity of a powerpoint slide delivered at a sales conference just off the M42.
Video is ultimately capitalist now. As soon as you upgrade to a widescreen TV then you need HD. Now UHD 4K. Recently I watched a UHD TV in Selfridges. A woman next me remarked that “She could see more with this than with her own eyes.” In this way digital video is now like advertising. It tells you you are lacking and forever catching up. It is inhuman.
Godard’s recent use of video makes me think that the capitalist machine is now destroying technologies before we have had a chance to discover their abilities. It is a shame that no one has continued doggedly working with minidv to find out what it could have done.
The video artist Bill Viola has said that the two forces that most affect human life are technology and revelation. This may be true when artists had hundreds of years to work with egg tempera, marble or oils. Now technologies move past so quickly we cannot discover their revelations.
The Cannon Cinema, Redditch. Early 1990s. An advert plays. Heavily scratched footage of a man climbing the face of a mountain. Then text - “No Matter How You Get Here”. More scratched footage - a dingy being thrown about in rapids. More text “It doesn’t matter.” Scratchy images of a team walking through the arctic. Text “As Long As You Get Here.” Fade out. More text ‘The Balti Raj’ Unicorn Hill. This advert played in front of every film I ever saw at The Cannon. For a while I admit I was in awe that the Balti Raj could afford to make such an advert until I eventually realised that this was a generic opening that different local businesses could have their name sellotaped on to (I think Mount Pleasant Windows and Doors used it for a while too). At the level of projection celluloid was an open medium - it could be messed around with by the projectionist. Digital’s democracy is all locked DRM and secure keys counting the amount of screenings.
This is not an isolated issue with digital projection. In 1997 Robert Zemeckis used some digital tool or another to alter Jodie Fosters performance in Contact. The morality of celluloid is defeated. Later when George Lucas continually restored and re-edited the first three Star Wars films we had a glimpse at a possible future. In this future the film is forever rewritten, forever re0released and your memories are forever reformatted. The previous version was old and obsolete (such a digital term) - this is film 2.0, 3.0 and onwards forever. Film is not lost and remembered but history remade. There was a time when you could no longer get the original untouched trilogy on any format. Here the capitalist impulse of digital sleep walked in to Winston Smith’s role in the archives of Oceania.
Celluloid is a relic. Light has touched it - light reflected from the face of a long dead star. That light fixed silver nitrate. That was developed and that negative touched the rush prints. There was a final neg struck and then prints made from that. The print you saw in the cinema of Port Talbot, Didcot, Hyde or where-ever had a direct magical connection to that moment. The digital print is a copy. It’s cold data. It has no family tree or history. Celluloid is closer to the frozen shadow in Hiroshima than it is to digital video.
I once met a man in a central London pub; a friend of a friend - you know the score. He told me his job was to digitally airbrush out spots frame by frame on the face of a famous actress. He had been doing so for weeks on a low wage. The work had sent him almost insane and he could now empathise with mass shooters or domestic terrorists. The DCP is the final manifestation of a problem that has been growing for maybe 20 years.
The celluloid image had to be developed and overseen at the lab. Pornographers or the makers of stag films would have to find creative ways to smuggle material through. Self styled grandfather of gay pornography Peter De Rome (RIP) would shoot innocuous material at the start and end of each reel correctly assuming that few technicians on a long shift would watch past the thirty second mark. Digital is amoral. It will let anything past. The digital image is built for furtive distribution. Obscenity can occur thoughtlessly and in seconds. It has the coldness of a serial killer. The celluloid image is playful in it’s scrapes with the law. More spiv than sociopath.
I frequently misquote Francis Ford Coppola - “In the future an 8 year old in Missouri will make a masterpiece on a home movie camera.” This never happened. My friend Rob and I frequently discuss an imaginary filmmaker in Hull who makes a masterpiece on DV while living above a chip shop. Whatever democracy was touted with the coming digital revolution never materialised. The proselytizers of digital had the same loose relationship to democracy as the west does in the middle east.
Idea - maybe the debate around the ‘death of celluloid’ actually marks a greater issue - the death of writing about cinema. For us all to be focussed on something so insignificant as the technology maybe suggests a greater inability to write about cinema? Or maybe a more significant lack of attention to give to it? The last few times I have been in a cinema there has been plenty of little blue lights flickering on and off in front of me. The cinema is a room for attention and contemplation.
Celluloid used to be a materially different experience to anything else. Celluloid was a window to something else. When in the mid 80s I went to see Transformers the Movie with my Dad the image on the screen was significantly unlike the TV in our living room. The image flickered slightly and jumped around every 20 minutes as the reels changed. Celluloid was rare and meaningful. Now that digital video has become ever present the trip to the cinema seems less different and less meaningful. The difference I think is that digital video is used to distance us from life - just think of any show, wedding or school play you’ve been to where people witness the event through the screen of their tablet or phone. These videos are rarely ever watched back. Digital video is a distraction, a screen placed in front of the raw organic reality of the world. Celluloid is part of that organic reality. Celluloid is a biproduct of cotton production. It is organic. Gelatin originally set the silver nitrate crystals to the film. Film emerged from nature; from life.
I am in search of a conclusion. Yet I have deliberately written this piece in a way to not form an argument. A finishing off then? Maybe I should admit that as a man in my mid 30s my thoughts are turning frequently to my mortality? Digital video is not like you. Celluloid will age and scar and decay like you will. For that reason we should love it.
“The [digital] image is no longer truthful.” Martin Scorsese