In a newly commissioned essay for Project: New Cinephilia, archivist and curator Leah Churner puts forward an urgent argument regarding the physicality of film, and pulls out three pervasive clichés in particular:
1. 35mm theatrical projection is the only proper, shame-free way to watch movies.
2. The proliferation of digital delivery systems means people are no longer concerned with proper presentation and format.
3. That all of film history is available at our fingertips thanks to DVDs and the Internet.
Taking on each of these conceits in turn, she suggests “today’s cinephile, like yesterday’s, has to go out and dig.” How much do we subscribe to, or take these three terms as given?
“1. 35mm theatrical projection is the only proper, shame-free way to watch movies.:”
How is it better?
Putting aside the cost, the potential for distraction is enormous.
While I have nothing but respect for the work film preservationists do, I tend to fall on the side of quantity over quality of images. Not that these things should necessarily oppose each other, but when it comes down to it I am much more concerned about trying to collect and save as much of our film history as possible whatever the condition of the prints or files rather than worrying overmuch about the quality of each print. Ideally we could do both, save and restore the films that are still out there in some form, but if there is any trade off to be made I think the variety of voices is the more important consideration. The issue of what is the most sensible path to take given the reality of our society and its lack of concern or interest in funding any of this makes the decisions even more difficult as the limited resources and funds have to be put to the best use. The more famous films obviously generate the most interest in preservation and restoration, but the cost and time for restoring my fear is that the attention given to restoring those more famous films will allow other less known films disappear in the mean time.
Oh, the essay itself was excellent and I hope everyone reads it since the issue is an important one for any film lover.
Greg, do you think there is a lost masterpiece out there amongst the disappearing 90%?
Masterpiece? Who knows? I’m never sure what the definition of such a thing is, but I do know that I’ve seen some pretty nifty films that are out there in the public domain that I’ve come across on the internet or by getting some low quality dvds on the cheap from Alpha video. It’s one of those times where the money making desire actually serves a valuable purpose as it gets the films out there in some form. What I’ve seen from those films leads me to believe that there are any number of others out there somewhere that would be just as interesting, even if they aren’t the kinds of films many people will be hailing as works of unadulterated genius. Part of my interest in these films is that they aren’t high art, but that they set a sort of baseline for the art as a whole and provide a richer understanding of our history both cultural and in the more basic sense of just representing some of the broader ideas being bandied about at different points in the last hundred or so years.
You bring up something in that last sentence. If history is a wave and those objects that make up the crest form the historical narrative, the wave itself is made up of unheralded historical artifacts.
I doubt there are undiscovered masterpieces out there though, Other than a few bombs dropped in WWII (e.g. MOSFIlms), there hasn’t been much of a break in continuity.
Well, as I alluded to, I think looking at this as a way to save masterpieces is the wrong way to go about it. Sure, we need to preserve and restore any Kanes out there, but once one goes beyond the films considered absolutely vital to film history, then I think there is more room for argument over which films are more important to preserve. not only is it an issue of saving a representative sample of our overall history, but what may seem more important today isn’t what is going to seem so tomorrow. For me, I think it would be a much greater loss to film history for a film like The Flaming Urge to disappear than it would be for To Have and Have Not or to save one of the Lum and Abner films is of greater importance to me than to assure that Wings of Eagles survives. Hawks and Ford are the more important filmmakers, but the “great man” view of history creates a distorted view of how film developed, what was or may be important, and how we think about film. To my way of thinking, the loss of one Ford film or one Hawks films when we have other examples of their work and themes is less catastrophic than the loss of something where there is less of a record, less of a “back up” of other works, where there is a different viewpoint being represented that has its own interesting qualities about it, qualities that may nto fit our current definitions of masterpiece, but ones that still deserve recognition and, in some cases, present an experience that is as powerful, in its way, as some of the more polished works of a “master”. The Blood of Jesus was a film i watched recently that I wouldn’t trade for any number of films by “better” filmmakers. The film is raw and unaccomplished in many of the ways we generally measure success in art, but it still manages to be more moving and thought provoking to me than many works with much greater craftsmanship. I have no doubt that many here would disagree with me, but it is partly because the dominant ideology shouldn’t be the only one considered that I believe keeping some of these films is so essential, and in part because I simply believe it is a film that provides a unique artistic experience, one that can’t be found in the usual polished form that I think it is worth saving even more than another iteration of the same themes by directors we may already know.
Of course I am well aware it isn’t as easy as that. I posed a hypothetical situation, but I gave examples of films I found particularly interesting against a couple by more famous directors that I don’t find so important, presuming their other works still survived, which is the issue here, we can’t make that presumption, and we can’t rely on someone to sort out the worthy from the unworthy in anything like a unproblematic manner. That is why I want it to not revolve around fame or some current notion of worth but to be the broadest effort possible, to not lose these films that may not seem important to most because they are important to some of us, and that “some” may grow as our thinking about film history changes over time.
Robert, I prefer the flicker rate, the grain quality, absence of strobe effect during eye trace, and the purity of whites possible. And the lithographic sensation in a good original IB print.
But, I’ve finally turned a corner that I wouldn’t have thought possible even 3 years ago: digital projection likely has the potential to look as good as film stock, and it will probably be much sooner than I thought. Let’s meet again to discuss in…5 years?
Edit: “the potential for distraction is enormous.”
Sure, though I personally find dust, dirt, reel change-overs, etc. less distracting than a typical lack-luster, slightly sallow digital projection. TREE OF LIFE at Landmark Sunshine a couple weekends ago was the first digital screening I’ve been wowed by, both visually and even more-so audio-wise.
Two quick points:
- From the years spanning 2000 BC to 500 AD, only around 40 pieces of music have survived. No matter what format you store them on, every film in the world will in all likelihood be gone forever by the next 500 years, barring some sort of miracle. Things aren’t meant to last forever.
- It doesn’t matter what format it is, but films should be watched on a big screen (as in, bigger than a big screen TV), in a dark room with no possibility of distraction, and run from beginning to end without interruption. The digital age means people (including me) watching movies on their laptops, checking Facebook as the film goes on etc. There’s not much anyone can do about this, but it’s pretty sad, and it’s a much bigger problem than whether or not the format is correct.
@Ben S. — My husband just saw Tree Of Life the other night, he is a film preservationist, and he too was wowed by the quality — he said it looked like film.
Yowzers! Yeah, it was pretty stunning. And the loudest sound design I’ve ever heard projected without blowing out the speakers. Crystal clear.
What you say is largely true Fraser, things fall apart, but as a society we have also changed a great deal since 500 AD, as has technology, so past performance may not be an indicator of future results. It may be that some of our films outlast the human race itself given our procilivity for self destruction.
“do you think there is a lost masterpiece out there amongst the disappearing 90%?”
The footage removed from Welles’ Ambersons after RKO took over editing the film was destroyed to make space in the vaults. The original version of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc , the version we now know as a masterpiece was “lost” for years after the original negative was lost in a fire, and it was only rediscovered as a print in a closet in mental institution in Oslo. Murnau’s Four Devils is lost. There are probably a great many other silent masterpieces that have been lost. Even someone as contemporary as Edward Yang has films that are/were in danger of degrading past the point of no return because that had not been properly preserved.
I loved this article. I hope to enter a grad program for preservation in a few years. I have to get running out of work and to a film screening, but I look forward to reading all of these posts and giving my opinions later tonight!
While I do agree with the notion that an ideal experience involves projection of filmed image, I have to concede at the same time that any actual experience involves a certain degree of corruption of the ideal. I’ve seen many BD that look better than the prints of the film currently in circulation, and many, many projectionist do a lousy job, sometimes because they’re (presumably) incompetent, and sometimes because the venue doesn’t provide them with the resources to do the job properly.
“Finally, there’s the widespread assumption that “everything is available” now, thanks to digital delivery. This is patently false”
This, to me, is a very important point.
“It doesn’t matter what format it is, but films should be watched on a big screen (as in, bigger than a big screen TV), in a dark room with no possibility of distraction, and run from beginning to end without interruption.”
Which is why I encourage anyone who can to purchase a projector instead of a flat screen TV.
Sacrifice a room of your house and make a mini-theatre. My guess is that, if done properly, it won’t actually constitute a sacrifice.
It might be any cinephile’s finest endeavor.
I’ve seen many BD that look better than the prints of the film currently in circulation…
Last year I saw a print of John Ford’s 7 Women with an introduction by Fred Camper. He said that the print we were about to see was the best one out there, and it was pink all over. I had seen a ripped VHS of the film twice before, and other than image size, I felt my experience with the VHS was better than the print. I’m glad I was able to see it, but yeah, sometimes the image quality is better at home.
Also, the BD of Days of Heaven is waaaaaaaay better than the print I saw a few years ago. There might be better prints out there, but…
I’m all for a perfect film presentation, but the key word is “film”—I’ll take a few scratches here and there if it means seeing the movies on film rather than DVD. Also, Leah forgets something in her first point—the presence—dwindling though it may be—of 70mm film.
Great article. Although, I found it to be pretty damn ironic to see a Netflix ad at the bottom of the page.
“Today’s cinephile, like yesterday’s, has to go out and dig.”
The final line is the best. I take great pleasure in digging out rare films. 100% of the time those films are on VHS or DVD, often copied from a television broadcast. That’s just the way it is and I’m fine with that. The true archivist has to worry about finding original materials and preserving them. I’m just worried about the finding.
I think DVD quality is just peachy (not to mention BD). Now that DVD encoding has reached a certain level the argument about film vs digital seems as redundant as the old argument folk used to have about vinyl vs CDs. CDs are just fine, and that’s from someone who used to spend thousands on hi-fi equipment. Nowadays all that stuff’s for the birds imo. Sure a pristine 70mm print in a dark and cosy theatre with no distractions is what we’d all prefer, but as long as everything on whatever screen you’re using is clear enough surely that’s what matters. If it comes to a choice between tarting up a pretty good print of some canonical staple or saving that Edward Yang film that’s hanging by a thread then spend some time rescuing the Yang I say.
“That’s just the way it is and I’m fine with that. The true archivist has to worry about finding original materials and preserving them. I’m just worried about the finding.”
And, of course, “finding” films on second-generation VHS dubs, can potentially reignite interest in a film, which can eventually lead to it being given greater priority for preservation of the original elements or whatever is available.
“The original version of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc , the version we now know as a masterpiece was “lost” for years after the original negative was lost in a fire, and it was only rediscovered as a print in a closet in mental institution in Oslo.”
What??? This almost sounds like some kind of movie plot…
It’s true, there may be something of a false set of alternatives being suggested here, which I had a large part in promoting due to the questions about viewing asked in the essay. The restoration of films and the preserving of them needn’t be seen as competing directly, there are limited funds available, but it isn’t clear that lessening the emphasis on restoration would preserve a single extra film, in fact it may be just the opposite as restoration can bring interest to preservation. I don’t know how the economics of this work, I can only speculate some, so I hope no one took my earlier post in the wrong manner, suggesting that there is an opposition between the finding/preserving and the restoration of films. There is a lot more to know before I could even begin to seriously speculate on that myself. I’d love to hear more about the issue if anyone knows anything about how it does shake out financially.
“What??? This almost sounds like some kind of movie plot…”
Film preservation isn’t necessarily about finding lost elements. It’s also about convincing studios to get off their lazy asses and open up their vaults. I was part of the effort to convince Columbia to release their Boetticher negatives for restoration. There are thousands and thousands of negatives in studio vaults that haven’t seen the light of day in 60 years.
@Jerry — um yeah, I’ve been hanging around film preservationists for over 10 years. This is a HUGE problem with the studios, but even archives have been known not to take care of their … gasp … NITRATE stock. It’s actually a violation (OSHA, I think) to not take care of nitrate stock.
That mental asylum well… I guess people wouldn’t care much if a place full of mental patients burned down… wait, are we talking about studios here?…
Mentally disturbed people who have no idea what they have in their closets. Sounds like a studio to me.