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Veneration and Its Discontents

Digital projection is replacing 35mm film as the industry standard, and revival houses and museums may soon follow suit. Why should we care?

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.

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Nice article. I love it when people admit how good digital looks but still say they prefer old prints. But isn’t it a little late in the game to continue to wax emotional about the death of film? It’s 2012!
Kind of weird to compare a beat up print of a movie with no negative (and, thus, no possibility of striking the new prints Film Forum likes to advertise having) to its digital version. Also, it’s strange that they chose to use a black and white film as their example since issues surrounding how color looks in digital projection seems to always be an issue for filmmakers. It certainly wouldn’t make me start seeking out DCP screenings over 35mm screenings, but I still eagerly await the chance to see both actually projected side by side and in synch.
I too have seen a lot of crappy prints in repertory screenings or campus. But I have also seen a lot of crappy digital screenings in first run theaters. The same argument needs to be made for digital screenings as for film: at its best, it is very good, but how often do we get the ideal screening? In one week in December, I saw advance screenings of both “My Week with Marilyn” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” Aesthetics aside, the former was dim, indistinct, never quite sharp enough, and altogether uninvolving because of it. The later was vivid, intense, immediate, a superb digital print of a film shot digitally, projected correctly. That kind of fluctuation is even worse in digital screens today than it was for film prints ten years ago (when projectionist indifference was the biggest problem for screening quality), and until THAT issue is corrected, the best digital masters are still going to suffer next to actual film through actual projectors.
Seanax, I’m pretty fond of beaten-up prints; as odd as it sounds, the thing I think I’ll miss the most about 35mm projection — should it disappear altogether — will be the scratches and specks, which always relay a sort of history. They’re the stickers on the luggage. Ghost Protocol, by the way, was shot on entirely on celluloid (Kodak Vision3, to be precise).
Seanax — You make a good point. I rarely see the new Hollywood films in the big theaters, so I don’t see a lot of digital projection, but it’s always shocking when you’ve paid $13 to see a new blockbuster and the whole movie looks flat and dim. More and more, I’m coming to think that theaters should be required by law (a kind of “mandate,” if you will) to post essays outside the theater explaining what medium the movie is on and how it will be projected. I remember about a year ago asking at one of these giant stadium-seating AMC theaters whether they were projecting in 2K or 4K and all I got were befuddled looks from a series of people who worked there. One reason the digital looked so good at Film Forum was because they generally care about what they’re doing. On their current calendar they clearly label whether each movie is a “new restoration,” a “new 35mm print,” or an “archival print.” At least you know what kind of sensual experience you’re going to be getting. None of the other revival houses are as explicit about what it is you’re actually seeing. And Ignatiy, I know what you mean. I know a lot of artists were extremely upset about the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. The painting, they said, was meant to age just like a bottle of wine. I’ve only seen S.C. after the restoration (and was blown away), but I wonder if I really did see it at all.
Agreeing with Ignatiy, it is the scratches, smudges, specks all the signs that a film is being projected on actual film, that I will miss. As one of my old professors used to say, “Each print has its own life,” and its imperfections tell its story.
One must also remember that the concept of image transfer is different for each mode of exhibition. Color timing has control over contrast, color, saturation, and even clarity, and each are adjusted differently for each medium in which any “film” must be presented: Positive Film print, Digital Image for theatrical projection, DVD, Blu-Ray and internet streaming all have a different image, so in fact you are not ever seeing the same film, even if you watch the film in a digital theater and immediately go home to stream it the same day. The same goes for screen size, sound mix, surface of image and distance from the image to the audience eyes. What does seem to be missing in today’s world are makers/studios/executives that overlook these facts and plan accordingly so that a “film” image can accommodate all. A firm example lies in the futile debate over a “ideal” aspect ratio, we must not forget that when cinema was transitioning into the current state of theater/home viewing that filmmakers were adjusting and composing for both. When watching “The Shining” it’s important to see both the full frame 1.33 image at home as it is to see it in 1.85 in the theatrical environment, as the frame size and distance from the audience will affect our response to the information on screen in different ways. It is apparent when viewing works in various aspect ratios offered in contemporary 16×9 tvs that more contemporary works are not up to multiple viewing situations as much as they were during the late 70s and early 80s (despite pan & scan, which is it’s own discussion), and perhaps such concepts should be given more attention by all parties involved, from makers to exhibitors to audience members. We all hold the keys to understanding, but also demanding these uniquely individual “experiences” as all legitimate depending on the circumstances.
I have seen DCP versions of ‘An American Werewolf in London, The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, The Shining, The Ward and The Dark Knight – and I have also seen them in 35mm. I can honestly say that there’s no comparison. The silly argument that the DCP picture is clearer = better is the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard. The grain and resolution are SUPPOSED TO BE THAT WAY and are perfect as they are. If the companies are continuously making changes like taking out the grain and sharpening the image, it becomes an insult, especially as a lot of the original filmmakers are no longer with us and would probably not approve. Making the image too clear has also resulted in some cases of matte lines showing up, which then results in even more “restoration” going on. The only way to screen those old 35mm movies is with traditional film projection. To not is sacrilege. I’ve had this discussion many times in the past and don’t want to get into a long rant, but I heard last week the Kubrick estate have withdrawn Stanley’s prints to archive them – in other words, just stick them in a cupboard and let them rot. They should be out there so people can see them. Strike new prints while you’ve still got the chance. It’s not as though they can’t afford it! Trust me if the distributors prevent cinemas showing classic 35mm prints in the future I will never attend the screening of a film shot on that format again. Ever.

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