Film is dying, but the cinema still lives. To mark the death of one cycle in the age of motion pictures and the beginning of another, Film Forum recently ran a series called "This Is DCP" to introduce us cinephiles to our inevitable digital future. DCP, for those of you who’ve been hiding in a mineshaft the last few years, stands for Digital Cinema Package, the new industry standard for digital projection that has just recently replaced 35mm film as the most common means of presenting movies in the United States. On the first day of the series, I went to see a presentation by Grover Crisp—Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Executive Vice President of Asset Management, Film Restoration, and Digital Mastering—that was billed as Dr. Strangelove Side-by-Side but which probably should have been called Dr. Strangelove A-Few-Minutes-of-One-Followed-by-a-Few-Minutes-of-the-Other. Film Forum projected a version of the movie on an un-restored 35mm print and on a Digital Cinema Package simultaneously, and some factotum up in the booth (most likely with no pension plan and a veritable Everest of student loans) held up a piece of cardboard in front of one projector and then the other so that we’d see a minute or so of an airplane shot from above with flecks and scratches here and there followed by a minute or so of pristine black-and-white with beautifully detailed billowing clouds.
Grover Crisp seemed smart, friendly, and capable, but he must’ve suspected that we jaded New Yorkers saw him as some sort of Corporate Other from The Golden West because he felt the need to emphasize—more than once—how he actually was the kind of guy who scoured the revival house calendars for screenings of newly restored 35mm prints. I felt safe in his hands, but I’m not an idiot. I mean, I went to graduate school and read Marx (and have even harbored deep and profound thoughts about someday skimming through Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness or Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks): I understood that he was an emissary sent by Capitalism itself and that despite his obvious passion for movies, he was embedded so deeply within The System that he must have come to believe the hype about digital projection himself. Nevertheless, I felt calm. He looked like a moderate Democrat version of John McCain. With our future in the hands of a man like this, I knew the coming digital apocalypse couldn’t possibly be as bad as I feared.
Crisp wanted us to pay attention to the flawless details, of course, but the most arresting difference for me was that the 35mm print had a bluish-green tinge while the DCP was a perfectly immaculate black-and-white. As I understood it—and I may be wrong because I have no head for technology (honestly, I can barely figure out how to Like a comment on Facebook)—this tinge didn’t come from the print itself but from the lamp in the projector, and if we’d watched the entire movie our eyes would’ve adjusted and we’d come to understand the print as black-and-white; it was only in comparison with the impeccable DCP that we even noticed the bluish-green tinge.
The 35mm print had some flecks and scratches that the DCP didn’t have, but they didn’t bother me. Crisp pointed out the sharper details of some bottles on a table in the background in the digital image, but I don’t need to read a paper by an academic with the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image to know that if Crisp hadn’t pointed out those bottles to me, I never would have bothered to notice them—at least, not while George C. Scott was talking and strutting across the screen.
For me, the most important difference was that the 35mm print did seem a bit more “alive” than the DCP. They say that this is because the film print is moving through the projector and the micro-millimeter flexings of the film every 1/24th of a second does make the projected image quiver ever so slightly. If you concentrate on the subtitles, you can sometimes notice the edges of the letters vibrating the tiniest bit. When you’re watching a movie, though, your eyes adjust and you don’t notice it, but these subtle movements do seem to add a vibrancy that the DCP lacks.
The differences between film and digital projection reminded me of the differences between LPs and CDs. When CDs came out, the music industry boasted that they sounded crisper and cleaner, that they’d never have pops and crackles, and that they’d never skip—that last part turned out not to be true, of course—but there was a fervent band of conscientious objectors who never bought the corporate sloganeering. Records produce continuous sound from a needle moving through a continuous groove, whereas CDs produce a series of sounds and silences as a laser touches down between millions of microscopic “pits” and “lands.” Scientists—also known as “voodoo mathematicians”—will tell you that the sampling rate for CDs (or their successor, computer files) is so high the human ear can’t possibly detect the non-continuity of the sound it produces, but every audiophile I know still prefers LPs. Digital audio tends to strip music of presence and weight; it sounds like a detailed plastic hologram of the recording. LPs sound warmer, more human, and more musical. Besides, the type of people who complain about crackles and pops on LPs are the same type of people who rhapsodize about heretofore undetectable maracas that their $30,000 sound system has liberated from the depths of the orchestra in a track from Captain & Tenille’s late, decadent period. Perfection, indeed, is often the enemy of art.
I’m not going to lie to you, though: the DCPs I saw looked and sounded great. Later in the series I saw 2001 and enjoyed it as much as the last time I’d seen it on a 70mm print at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The movie was stunning. I’d never noticed how expertly Kubrick had utilized the stereo channels—HAL spoke only from above me on the left, while all the high-pitched hisses of the space modules seemed to emanate from the ceiling in the front of the theater. The depth of color in The Searchers was revelatory: I’d never noticed the shades of purples and greens in Monument Valley’s rocks (though John Wayne’s cheeks did occasionally seem a tad too charcoal-like in the shade of his hat brim). The Red Shoes looked amazing, too, though honestly, I forgot all about digital projection whenever Anton Walbrook, with his manic possessed eyes, opened his mouth to speak.
Most of the cinephiles I know are fairly agnostic, but we tend to treat movies as sacred objects. That’s why the geriatric nutjobbers who crinkle lozenge wrappers during MoMA screenings are so annoying—not just because they make it difficult to hear the dialogue, but because they don’t treat the film with the proper degree of reverence. I mean, even the atheists among us wouldn’t guzzle Coors from a beer hat at a baptism no matter what they thought about religion. The need to revere the sacred seems to be an innate human trait, regardless of one’s degree of faith. We want to believe in the idea of perfection, perhaps because the phenomenal world and the mind’s capacity to make sense of it are both so clearly imperfect. This is why avatars and incarnations and the belief in a world of idealized forms or a heaven is so important to so many of the world’s religions. But this is also why we agnostics tend to imbue the world of art with this same sense of the sacred.
But to treat a movie as the manifestation of something sacred is a mistake. I agree with Rick Altman, who said that we should think of a film not as a “text” but as an “event.” That is, when we see a movie, we’re not watching one idealized entity. In fact, no such Platonic ideal exists. Every print—whether a spanking new 35mm release or the worn-out 16mm print you programmed in your college’s film series—has different specks and scratches and its own particular warps in the soundtrack. Every theater has different acoustics and a different brand of speakers in a different state of disrepair. Everyone watching a VHS tape or a DVD or a Blu-Ray at home has a different size of TV and different set of speakers.
Some people equate the Platonic ideal of a film with its original negative, the source of the release print or DVD. But the negative itself is merely a roll of still images and the soundtrack is just an optical or magnetic blur. You can’t see the moving images or hear the sounds that accompany it if you hold a negative in your hand. And even these original negatives deteriorate over time. The three original negatives for the three-strip Technicolor The Red Shoes, for instance, had all warped at slightly different rates so that if you put them back together as they were, you’d create a bluured image. The original negative of Dr. Strangelove, meanwhile, has been lost for years; we weren’t watching a restoration, but a prettified facsimile of a facsimile, an educated guess of what the idealized image should be. The movie and the negative are not equivalents. The negative, rather, is like a seed.
Then consider that scholars can’t agree on what an ideal version should be for some of the most famous films in the history of cinema. Metropolis and Touch of Evil are two of the most well-known examples, but the problem is much more common than most people think. How many film buffs are even aware that the original negative for a movie as famous as The Rules of the Game was destroyed during the war? Or that it has existed—depending on which source you read—in 113, 100, 94, 85, 82, and 106 minute versions? Even new Hollywood blockbusters inevitably seem to include a director’s cut on the DVD so that we can all more perfectly appreciate the auteurist vision of Roland Emmerich or Jorma Taccone.
So films are not like avatars or incarnations. If movies are events rather than texts, we don’t watch one Psycho, but dozens; every time we see it—and listen to it—we’re experiencing a different work of art. It’s not logical to treat 35mm prints with reverence. Maybe the best reason to prefer film to digital projection is for the sensual aspects of the medium—its vibrancy and warmth—but how will you know that the print you’re about to see is in good condition and that it will be projected with care and the proper equipment until you’re actually experiencing it?
Maybe this is why no one seemed despondent after these DCP screenings. I saw a lot of people in the New York film community after the Dr. Strangelove presentation—magazine editors, programmers, critics, fellow film buffs whose faces I’d seen dozens of times before. But the Film Forum lobby did not feel like a funeral. Maybe this was because we were all a little surprised how good the DCP image looked. Or maybe because we all knew that the digital future was beyond our control. Even Grover Crisp, the executive in charge of making these decisions for one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world, just shrugged: We all know that the world will go digital eventually, he told us. We just don’t know when.
The irony, though, is that despite my rational arguments for the acceptability of digital projection, I know that I won’t be be seeking out any more DCP movies any time soon. In fact, I know that if I see something advertised as digital projection I won’t bother to go. And I know it’s not because of the sensual aspects of the image. I’ve seen plenty of crappy prints over the years and like I said, the DCPs that I saw looked great. It doesn’t really make any sense. I know it’s not rational to revere film as a manifestation of a Platonic ideal, but that misplaced reverence, irrational as it is, may be why we were all drawn to art in the first place.