What is the 21st Century? is the weekly column where Ignatiy Vishnevetsky tries to find an answer to the titular question.
An overcast Friday morning; I went down to the Film Center for a screening of Rossellini's Vanina Vanini (1961), which they'll be running this month. I sit down in the front row, the film starts. The opening credits, mustard lettering over a Venetian red background; an Italy somewhere between Doomed Love and Under Capricorn, all Schüfftan effects, painted backdrops and decor so detailed that there's no distinction between inside and outside (the story goes that they built the sets before they had a script). There are some Freemasons and the sort of evenly-lit intrigue that Rivette would make his twenty years later (daytime suspense is always more nerve-wracking: it's possible to escape from a shadow into the light, but from the light the only option is to go further into darkness).
The movie is being projected from what I'd unthinkingly call a "very good print." But why do I think this print is good for this film? And why these concerns—Rossellini, film prints, everything so 20th century—here? Because when we talk about the 21st century, we inevitably bring up the 20th. Why? Well, first off, because there's a lot more of it. Second, because a key feature of the 21st century is its direct interface with the 20th: there has never been as much history and culture as there is now, and never has there been so much access to it. Even though its unavailable on a Region 1 DVD and rarely screens, it's easier for a dedicated cinephile to see Vanina Vanini today than it would've been in 1970. There's an illusion of immediacy: the 20th century is hard to let go of because we've surrounded ourselves with its details. It was a potent century—so potent the atomic bomb couldn't destroy it. We are, so far, the museum century, the boutique century; the preservation of previous culture has become a more popular issue than the creation of a new one (it could be said that we're too busy cataloging Modernism to move past it or our reactions to it); we are expanding instead of building.
I'll sometimes say that I'd rather watch five different subpar prints than the same "good" print five times, one of those crisp numbers that faithfully inverts the original camera negative (the negative has always been something like a mold, and it provides a link between filmmaking and casting, lithography or metal sculpture—though the loose decoupage of much digital filmmaking and the large amount of editing and adjusting involved is closer to marble sculpture, which has always had a place in cinema, especially in the non finito technique of late Welles). A film print isn’t just a representation of a movie (or half of a movie; the other half is provided by the audience), but a history and an experience in and of itself. Scratches are both scars and brush strokes. If we're going to lament the slow disappearance of the film print, it shouldn't be because of a loss of quality (yes, for now 35mm is better, but technology moves fast), but because of a loss of variation. Sometimes even a loss of imagination; I remember a print of Lola Montes so pink you had to imagine what the colors must’ve looked like. And then there's the arbitrary structure imposed by reel changes; there aren’t many things better than when half of a two-projector set-up breaks down, widening a print’s seams (two intense experiences that resulted from such situations: Mother and Son broken up into passages or even stanzas, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, whose long takes meant that there was a five-minute blackout after every couple of scenes, turning the movie into a serial).
There's a beauty to the imperfect print, and a wonder to the bootleg DVD; imperfect reproduction substitutes new elements, shifting color, adding grain and distortion. It’s not erasure; an unfaithful copy contains as much information as a perfect one, but the difference is that it has introduced new elements. Two possible reactions to an imperfect copy: you can focus on those elements that you assume are perfect (say, "blurry images, but at least the sound is crisp,” that sort of thing) or you can enter the copy as you’d enter a room with the lights off; you wait in the dark as your eyes adjust to the low light—you begin to discern shapes and colors, but you can never be completely sure that what you’re seeing is really there or just a product of the darkness. Both choices are sabotaged: the first by its reliance on a fallacy (that a perfect, absolute copy exists; the insistence of many film and video artists on particular screening procedures for their work is really a struggle to control meaning in a way the popular conventions of movie-watching deny), the second by that doubt that grows out of an insistence on certainity. A person could argue that we’re “misunderstanding” something when we see it “the wrong way,” but how many great movies were born out misunderstandings? So much originality is failed imitation; the greatest artists were for the most part failed forgers. No American could’ve made Once Upon a Time in America. The jump cuts of Mickey One were no different from Bob Dylan trying to be Woody Guthrie: the New Hollywood was the result of a game of broken telephone; Paul Schrader made his best films by misunderstanding Bresson.
Movies survive all forms—or, really, they are distinguished by their ability to thrive through transposition into new formats, approaches, into memory and culture (is this why filmmakers are so often attracted to Shakespeare, whose work constitutes a sort of cinema, beginning as something certain and growing in potency over the centuries until it's able to survive as a phrase or a characterization?). So let's not forget that there are elements of an image that only reveal themselves when the image is miniaturized, just as there are feelings that come through strongest on a big screen. The truth is that there are aspects of movies that we can see now that were invisible to audiences when they were first released, and it goes the other way as well. Vanina Vanini was made for a specific audience, for a specific purpose, all of which we are currently negating. Here it is in a crisp print, with the sort of pins and needles grain that made the recent print of Bigger Than Life so tactile. Rossellini's films always constitute a resistance to idioms, and this tactility makes that resistance even more jarring. But if I was watching it on a crappy video copy from a tiny screen, I'd notice new things: maybe the zooms would feel less liquid and more structural; with the artificiality of the sets less noticeable, maybe the images would give me a different feeling. At first, you would only have been able to see Vanina Vanini in Italy, then France, then it ran for a bit in the UK. Then the US and probably some retrospective screenings over the years; now anywhere in the world, a person with an all-region DVD player or a passion for torrent sites can have a copy in a week. Vanina Vanini is no longer just this Italian film from 1961 that may sometimes get revived; it's become a cultural object any person might conceivably have access to. The flourishing of options, and of uncertainty, is the flourishing of meanings.