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Rotterdam 2010: Videodam

Like many major film festivals, the International Film Festival Rotterdam has a "video lab" that lets members of the press, and I believe members of the market there, Cinemart, to catch films they missed the theatrical screenings of at the festival on iMac video monitors.  It is a very useful enterprise, since IFFR had over a hundred features and countless short films, and it is inevitable that films don't fit into your schedule, something slips through the cracks, or you hear about a work well after its lone screening has occurred.   Rotterdam's digital lab was the most extensive I have yet seen; I would say the vast majority of all non-retrospective titles in the 2010 lineup had been digitized and put on their local online server.  This last point, that the videos are hosted online, seems small and logistical but is in fact crucial: not only could you watch the film from the video lab, which had 30 or so Apple computers set up for industry viewing, but if you were in the building and could connect to the industry wifi network, you could stream these films to your computer (or, presumably, other portable video devices like an iPhone).  If the lab was booked full (as it sometimes was), or I felt like having a coffee or beer while catching up, I could whip out my laptop in the press and industry area lounge and watch Ben Russell's FIRPESCI award winning Let Each One Go Where He May, or Pedro Costa's Ne change rien, or some of the experimental shorts that I had missed. Neat.

Except for one issue.  That issue is the high percentage of films I saw at Rotterdam theatrically that were being shown digitally.  Movies that were shot on film.  And video that was being projected on video, often poorly.  As celluloid advocate David Phelps commented, "so people pay money to fly to Rotterdam and sleep in nice hotels and condos so that they can watch stuff they might as well watch on their projector? Why doesn’t Rotterdam just add a separate, online sidebar, save the journalists the trouble, and give everyone else better access?"

Indeed, two things were clear: one, that the decision to screen so many films digitally in their theaters paradoxically negates the need to be in a physical theater in Rotterdam for the festival; and two, that the technology on display in the video lab implies that Rotterdam could have put essentially their entire core festival online.  Each one of these trends by themselves does not indicate a crisis, but the two together does, as the combined implication is that the International Film Festival Rotterdam as a physical event is superfluous.

So why go?  Well, in theory the geographical requirements of the festival (or any other) intrinsically gathers together a community of people.  Even if all attendees watch films in a darkened video lab all by their lonesomes, they still exit that room into a hall filled with people who have likely seen the same films.  (Although considering the breadth of the lineup at giant festivals like Toronto or Rotterdam, this may not be as common as one would think or hope.  Not a day went by when someone hadn't recommended a movie I hadn't heard of in the festival; and two days before IFFR ended a friend came back praising an entire sidebar I hadn't been aware of.)  Festival communities even in a generalized and abstract sense, that of people from disparate places and backgrounds coming together to discover cinema, is a critical and defining atmospheric attribute to most film festivals.  This is one reason why so many small, local film festivals continue to survive despite poor programming.  But is that atmosphere enough to bring people together when they have no need to be all in the same place at the same time?

Perhaps the question is less when will these trends aggregate to either enrage festival goers (who pay quite a bit of money to see these films) or members of the industry (who either pay to travel to see these films, or are financially responsible for these films, which are detrimentally not being shown in an ideal way), but when will a major festival be the first to embrace the creative possibilities of digital exhibition.  Imagine if the Berlinale put all their films online but made them accessible from a couple dozen micro-cinema venues spread around the city—small theaters, cafes, rented spaces—and they then gave individuals or groups the ability to curate or sub-program the festival's entire linup by digitally scheduling and queuing a series of films.  Would this semi-empowering kind of audience engagement be worth the trade-off of seeing, say, the new Alain Resnais premiere projected on video (as it was in Cannes) if some madman could show that film in a digital double-feature alongside the new Michael Bay film?  Despite the vital material questions this would entail, in a sad way the real question probably comes back to community and geography—would you rather see that pairing with people than by yourself?—rather than would you rather see a movie on film or on video.  That latter question may soon be revised to "would you rather see a movie on video or not at all?"

“Imagine if the Berlinale put all their films online but made them accessible from a couple dozen micro-cinema venues spread around the city—small theaters, cafes, rented spaces—and they then gave individuals or groups the ability to curate or sub-program the festival’s entire linup by digitally scheduling and queuing a series of films. Would this semi-empowering kind of audience engagement be worth the trade-off of seeing, say, the new Alain Resnais premiere projected on video (as it was in Cannes) if some madman could show that film in a digital double-feature alongside the new Michael Bay film?” + the inevitable: “‘would you rather see a movie on video or not at all?’” Hell yes. Thank you so much for writing this, Danny.
Great article. And why do I feel like David Cronenberg in At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World now?
Daniel, could you please give at least a couple of examples of the films shot on film that were screened digitally? My impression was that a vast majority (if not all) of non-digital films were shown from celluloid but I may be wrong. P.S. Every time I was streaming a film on my laptop or on the videolab iMac, I kept having nightmarish flashbacks to the annoying public service announcements preceding every screening at the Toronto Film Festival about “piracy” (“night-vision technology may be used to monitor the crowd!”). Another reason to come to Rotterdam: the atmosphere is much more relaxed and there is no Big Brother lurking under every movie theater seat.
Hi Dimitry, Unfortunately I didn’t keep notes to specific titles and how they were shown. I would like to note with pleasure that nearly all retrospective titles (except Olaf Muller’s program of often very, very rare material) I saw were screened on film, as were virtually all experimental shorts shot on film.
“The decision to screen so many films digitally in their theaters paradoxically negates the need to be in a physical theater in Rotterdam for the festival.” Really? You’d be just as happy watching a film on your laptop at home as watching it on one of those enormous Pathe screens at Rotterdam? Just because it was being screened digitally? I wish you did have some examples. I don’t remember seeing anything on screen in Rotterdam that didn’t look “right”. There may have been 35mm films that were being projected digitally, but none that I noticed or that were degraded by being shown in that way. There were plenty of films that were obviously shot on low-grade video but even those benefitted from being seen on a large screen. You and I saw Tsai Ming-Liang’s new short that must have been shot on a consumer camcorder and even the grain of that held up remarkably well on an enormous multiplex screen and the experience of seeing it in a theater was far preferable to watching it in the videotheque. In fact the only bad digital experience I had with a Rotterdam film was back in New York, a few weeks later, at BAM (sorry BAM, you know I love you) when MAMA, a film I was sorry to miss in Rotterdam, was press screened digitally and the buzzing video was a real distraction in a film in which the image was everything.
Thanks for the comment Adrian. Ah, but there are large screens in New York and in Bumpkinville as well! I didn’t say I’d be happy watching the films digitally at home, I said there’s no need to be at a theater in Rotterdam. We could see those movies in a theater anywhere. To me, a film shot on film and intended to be projected as such is always a degraded experience watching digitally, and that includes on DVD. It’s not what the film was made for, and it’s not how it looks best.
But most of those films won’t ever play in New York, and certainly not in “Bumpkinville” (really?). THAT’s why you go to Rotterdam to see them. I thought your point was that if they can make them available to be viewed online why travel to the Netherlands? Also, if you can’t TELL that a film is being screened digitally (as I could, sadly, with MAMA) does it matter? And since you can’t name a single film that was shot on film and screened on video then maybe it didn’t really affect your viewing pleasure all that much.
Because even now there is the technology to stream stuff online to digital projectors in theaters. The step to be able to project a film from Rotterdam into a small theater in a small town is not very far away. I am often but not always able to tell if something is screened digitally. And really, what kind of argument is that? So if someone takes a replica of the Mona Lisa on tour and you aren’t a painting expert and can’t tell the difference, it doesn’t matter? Give me a good reason not to fight for celluloid. The viewing experience is dramatically different when you see something on film, dramatically. You are seeing material, physical material that exists.
Come on. You know I’m not arguing for digital over celluloid. I’m arguing for theaters over laptops, period. I’d rather see a film projected digitally in a good theater (as long as its so seamless that I don’t even realize it, as was the case in Rotterdam) than watch it on a computer screen. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t above all want to watch on film. But I love the theater experience in Rotterdam and I do often feel I’m wasting my precious time there when I’m in the videotheque, as convenient as it is. You seem to be implying that watching films in theaters in Rotterdam is a waste of time instead.
Ah I think we are arguing different points here. I don’t want to watch the Rotterdam lineup on my computer either, I’d rather watch it digitally in the theater as well. My thought process was: (more and more films are being shown digitally at film festivals) + (films are becoming easier and easier to stream online) = specific geographical theatrical experience is becoming irrelevant by the practice of a festival like IFFR. However, I am implying watching some films in theaters in Rotterdam was a waste of time. As I’m typing this I see that Oxhide II just went up on a torrent site. My friend has wall, a DVD player, and a projector, so why go abroad? Looking at it another way, seeing the Resnais digitally at Cannes was also a waste, because I need to go see that on film in a theater.
I know what you mean in the first para, but, as you yourself say, there is so much more to going to a film festival, especially one in a foreign country, than just watching films. And I can’t believe you’d say that about Oxhide II and Wild Grass. You LOVED both those films and you loved seeing them when you saw them. Are you really going to say that both those screenings were a waste of your time?
I’m saying I could replicate the Oxhide II viewing experience right now. Wild Grass I still haven’t seen on film, I need to see it again! Same with Shutter Island. They are rich films, and I want to see those films on the material they were shot on, as they were intended. If I had seen them on film I wouldn’t need to see them again for this reason, so in a way it was a waste of time.
There’s a difference between not noticing something’s projected digitally when there’s no print to compare it to and when there is. It’s no longer a simple matter of pixilization: there’s simply a difference in the light itself through celluloid or on an LED; most Hollywood directors seem to shoot with as bland a stock and color scheme to make a muddle of these differences, but there are many—Bay, Spielberg, Polanski, Tarantino—who insist on film for a reason. Scorsese is one of these, but a digital “print” of Shutter Island doesn’t just look “digital”; it just looks flat, bland, not good. Whereas friends have attested the film print is gorgeous. At the same time, in many cases I’d prefer watching a movie on my laptop to spending hundreds of dollars to camp out in Rotterdam to see them in a theater. Why can’t we have both? James Quandt, here: “It’s little wonder that film programmers joke about our imperiled profession and our future as door-to-door consultants for home-cinema owners. I recently wrote an article on the “new cinephilia” for Framework’s fiftieth edition, which will probably be lambasted for its defense of such outmoded notions as original format, and for its critique of our tacit acquiescence to a film culture that is an abasement of the art we supposedly serve. As many of us attempt to nurture, defend, and promote the traditional modes of exhibiting and viewing cinema, we also participate in a faux film culture, by pretending that we have “seen” (and heard) a film when we have merely consumed a degraded version of it, in the delivery systems you identify in your question. Recently, an on-liner rejected my claim that our touring Nagisa Oshima retrospective was “rare,” arguing that most of Oshima’s work can be easily streamed from the Internet, so is readily available to all. (He helpfully offered the necessary links.) Aside from the legal and ethical issues involved, how can anyone actually claim to have seen and heard an Oshima film in that diminished manner? Is cinema art or is it information? And why do we as critics, scholars, commentators, and curators do our visual and sonic analysis of films from such approximate (and often misleading or inaccurate) materials, and blithely present it as though we have worked from the original? What other art form allows such dissimulation? (I am as guilty as the next one for relying on screeners, but try to abide by the rule that they act as an aide-mémoire rather than a substitute for seeing the film on screen.) Two of Tsai Ming-liang’s recent films, Goodbye Dragon Inn and It’s a Dream, are requiems for the classic cinemagoing experience. Tsai has suggested that technology and esthetics increasingly exist in inverse proportion, the advance of one diminishing the urgency of the other: “I am not happy about the whole DVD medium, in fact. The quality of film experience is crashing. People are now satisfied just watching a film to find out what the story is. The experience is almost being reduced to a kind of information gathering. What is going on? Who is it? My films are really for the big screen only.” But Tsai’s films will be seen mostly via the medium he decries, their enigmas rendered all the more mysterious by visual illegibility. As someone who had the good fortune of making a career of giving others the opportunities I had as a developing cinephile, to see, say, Godard’s Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle or Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan for the first time on screen, and thereby attempting to foster the same “film love” that once consumed me—the immersive kind of cinephilia rather than the collector-cultish experience, as Thomas Elsaesser construes the two—I rue the thought of anyone’s initial encounters with these Scope masterpieces on a computer or television monitor, no matter how large or deluxe. Complications arise from the counterargument, which assigns ultimate value to access. Is the proliferation and ease of access to cinema from every period, every country, not a miracle of “open museum” cultural democracy? Do the extras on Criterion and Masters of Cinema DVDs not serve as the kind of film education I would have cherished as a geographically isolated, self-taught cinephile? Hard to argue otherwise, but I think we have to be cognizant also of what we lose in the process. Regarding your second question, it would be dishonest and ungrateful not to point out that there have been immense benefits from the DVD boom of the last decade. The many restorations, undertaken by the studios for DVD release, often result in new prints being struck and distributed. I would never have been able to accomplish organizing the Oshima retrospective without the immense involvement of Janus Films, which made new prints of many of his films, including some rather esoteric ones, which I assume will eventually appear on Criterion DVDs. A mainstay of our Sunday afternoon series of classics are Schawn Belston’s amazing restorations of Fox titles. And so on."
Danny, I don’t seem to remember you returning from Cannes and saying “I saw the new Resnais film. What a waste of time that was!” but I get that you’re bending the truth to make a point. So you have to see it again? Don’t you want to anyway? (As for Shutter Island, I feel for you there.) And you couldn’t replicate the viewing experience of Oxhide II right now, unless you’re honestly saying that screen size and communal viewing has no bearing on the film experience (or you saw it in Rotterdam’s tiniest theater on your own).
Thanks for the comments David! I really enjoyed Quandt’s remarks. Adrian: actually I did come back talking about how shocking it was the film was shown digitally, the people in Cannes I talked to focused on it too, to such a degree that Resnais was asked about it at a roundtable. I’m not bending the truth, as I feel I need to see it again to get the experience down. That theatrical experience, when compared to seeing it on film, will be seen as a waste of time. In regards to OXH2, there were something like 10 people in that theater, and it was the tiniest screen there, so in fact we could duplicate that experience very easily, sadly!

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