seen @ Bow Tie Cinemas Ziegfeld Theater, New York, NY
Is film - the physical medium - dead? Hollywood studios have endorsed digital photography as the cheaper way to go, and movie theaters have been forced to compensate by installing digital projectors, at great expense for some. A small-but-growing number of filmmakers, however, have asserted that they have every intention of keeping celluloid alive for as long as they can. Many of them have gone on the record about this, and the reasons why have been discussed in detail.
Earlier this year, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino took over as programming head of the LA theater he owns, the New Beverly, and he has made it crystal clear that he's going to make every effort to preserve 35mm film there, for both old and new releases. Recent films such as The Master, Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Beasts of the Southern Wild were all shot on celluloid, by directors, old and new, with a strong preference for the medium. And preservation of older films is a cause that has grown in support in recent years thanks to directors like Martin Scorsese.
And then there's Christopher Nolan. The British auteur was part of a consortium of Hollywood filmmakers, including Tarantino, who helped keep Kodak in business by brokering a long-term deal between Kodak and the studios in which Hollywood will keep buying a given amount of Kodak film every year. Nolan firmly believes in celluloid in general and the IMAX format in particular, as this interview from 2012 makes clear:
...For the last 10 years, I've felt increasing pressure to stop shooting film and start shooting video, but I've never understood why. It's cheaper to work on film, it's far better looking, it’s the technology that's been known and understood for a hundred years, and it's extremely reliable. I think, truthfully, it boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo....
...no one is taking anyone’s digital cameras away. But if we want film to continue as an option, and someone is working on a big studio movie with the resources and the power to insist [on] film, they should say so. I felt as if I didn’t say anything, and then we started to lose that option, it would be a shame. When I look at a digitally acquired and projected image, it looks inferior against an original negative anamorphic print or an IMAX one.
Interstellar, Nolan's latest film, continues his tradition of shooting on celluloid, in this particular case, on 70mm film. When Nolan announced he would release it in both digital and celluloid formats, some theater owners protested, saying they didn't want to accommodate film again after going to so much trouble to adapt to digital. However, Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse chain noted the financial benefits that he personally gained as a result of using 35mm film as well as digital, and he also emphasized the long-term benefits of theaters as "cultural centers" to "build a young cinephile audience."
I sympathized with the majority of theater owners who didn't want to have to go through the trouble of reinstalling 35mm again. I had read numerous stories of small theaters in small towns who struggled to raise money to accommodate the digital format, and how some were in danger of closing their doors forever if they didn't. I still believe in the theatrical movie-going experience, and I didn't want to see theaters sacrificed on the altar of progress. And I admit, I wasn't entirely convinced that the difference between digital and celluloid was that noticeable to the average viewer.
So I decided to take advantage of the availability of Interstellar on 35 and 70mm and to see it in that format. I went to the Ziegfeld in Manhattan, the place where I saw The Master on 70mm and where Interstellar is also playing in 70mm. The Ziegfeld is a single-screen theater with an enormous auditorium. When I saw The Master there, I sat fairly far back. You could say it was towards the back of the center, if you get my drift. As a result, 70mm didn't seem quite as majestic as I thought it might. I had visions of the desert sands of Lawrence of Arabia and the spinning space station of 2001 in my head, and The Master is a slightly more intimate film, by comparison, so that may have been another reason why I felt a little let down.
For Interstellar, I made sure to sit much closer to the front of the auditorium. I think I was about eight or nine rows in front this time. There's also space in between the screen and the first row to accommodate seating for panel discussions, like when I saw Hugo there, so it's not like I was sitting scrunched up against the screen looking up into everyone's noses, like I had to for Middle of Nowhere.
The difference between film and digital is as plain as day, if Interstellar is any indication, and I'm kinda ashamed that it wasn't more obvious to me from the start. There's a certain texture to the celluloid that one notices right away, one that's familiar to anyone who remembers seeing it growing up (anyone in my generation, anyway). The colors do seem richer, the blacks more opaque. Plus, there were some more familiar signs: at one point about a third of the way into the film there was a hair on the negative, just to the left of the center, that lingered for about a couple of minutes. And I could even see that telltale circle in the upper corner of the screen that indicates it's time to change reels!
It really did feel like I was watching an old(er) movie. I mean, I'm used to seeing old films on celluloid because I go to revival houses like the Film Forum and the Loew's Jersey City, places that use celluloid as a matter of course. But I couldn't tell you why I never noticed the difference between 35mm and digital before. Maybe because the transition was so gradual? Maybe because it never made that much of a difference to me before? I'm reminded of the time, several years ago, when I was in a Brooklyn coffee shop that played vinyl records. I had grown up with them like everyone else in my generation, but when I embraced CDs, I never looked back. Now, all of a sudden, I was really listening to vinyl for the first time in so many years and the difference was breathtaking and obvious from the get-go.
I've argued here before that sometimes we're too quick to embrace modern technology without thinking about the consequences, and I'm more certain of it now than ever. Outside of using a crystal ball to see the future, I'm not sure what can be done about that. Technology seems like it progresses faster than ever now, and we're all too eager to keep pace. While I'm not against such progress, I would hope that future generations will at least try to consider the long-term ramifications of throwing out the old in favor of replacing it with the new.
That said, the 70mm print of Interstellar I saw wasn't perfect. The bombastic Hans Zimmer score drowned out the dialogue in a few places, and towards the end, the sound dropped out completely for a few seconds. The film did not start on time for some reason; perhaps it had to do with the reels themselves? Don't know, but this wasn't the only example of questionable audio reported for Interstellar. Not by a long shot.
As for the film itself, I thought it was good, but the more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of similar films like Contact (another Matthew McConaughey movie!) and The Abyss: humanity explores unfamiliar territory with a helping hand from strange, unknowable aliens, and in the end, it comes down to one human who must make contact with the aliens for some great purpose. There's a lot of hard science that makes it hard to follow sometimes, but it all makes sense in the end... kind of. It truly is storytelling on a grand scale, and even if it doesn't hold together as completely as it should, give Nolan credit for dreaming big.