From Tarantino at Cannes to Collector in El Cerrito, Film Diehards Say Digital Just Not the Same
When I write about movies, I like to substitute "film" or "cinema," in ascending order of pretentiousness. Occasionally I'll even use "pictures," though that makes me feel like Louis B. Mayer.
The thing about the word "film," though -- it's no longer accurate. Because when you go to the movies these days, not only have many of those productions been shot digitally, but almost all are now projected digitally.
"There was a drop-dead date of Jan. 1, 2014," says Adam Bergeron, co-owner of the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. "If you haven’t converted to 35 mm digital, you are not going to be able to get new release content anymore."
Bergeron is talking about the deadline the film industry gave movie exhibitors to install the equipment necessary for screening "Digital Cinema Packages," or DCPs. That’s a sort of hard drive you just plug into a server. Those reels of film that everyone from professional projectionists to any pre-videotape member of the junior high AV squad hoisted onto projectors in order for people to watch a movie -- well, those are fast fading into the hazy realm of nostalgia.
The reason is simple: Movie distributors save a lot of money by providing their content in digital form. But for a small neighborhood movie theater like the Balboa, the switchover was not a money saver. Last year it had to hustle up more than $100,000 through Kickstarter to convert to digital projection.
Many cinema purists don't like it. But the handwriting has been written on the IMAX-size wall for a long time. Director Paul Thomas Anderson spoke out against the coming tide as far back as 1999:
“The biggest scare that I have is digital projection," he said in an interview. "This sort of theory that George Lucas has about digitally projecting his films in theaters. I think that would be a big, big, big no-no. Because ultimately it’s just like watching the best TV screen in the world as opposed to watching 24 frames flicker through light, which is a hypnotic and wonderful experience and should never go away."
But it has gone away. The Balboa still has film projectors, used for showing old movies, but even repertory houses have more and more been showing classics from the studio vaults on DCP. A recent retrospective on Stanley Kubrick at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, for instance, projected most of the program digitally, not on film.
This has left another major film auteur mincing no words about the topic at this year's Cannes Film Festival:
"As far as I’m concerned, digital projection and DCPs is the death of cinema as I know it," said Quentin Tarantino. "It’s not even about shooting your film on film or shooting your film on digital. The fact that most films are not presented in 35 mm means that the war is lost. And digital projection -- that's just television in public. And apparently the whole world is OK with television in public. But what I knew as cinema is dead."
Tarantino has fought back against digital exhibition by operating an old movie theater in L.A. where he shows 35 mm film prints from his private collection. Director Christopher Nolan is also not a digital fan, and his hit film “Interstellar” can be seen projected on film -- in 70 mm IMAX no less -- at some theaters. Anderson also released his 2012 film, "The Master," in 70 mm film.
Keeping the Art Alive -- in an El Cerrito Basement
But it's not just these big-time directors who are clinging to film projection as a purer form of screening movies. Peter Conheim, 45, is known as a member of the audio collage band Negativland. But he is also the former co-owner of a small movie theater in Albuquerque and the current proprietor of The Small Back Room. That’s an even smaller movie theater -- just 17 seats -- which he built himself.
In his basement.
The 35 and 16 mm projectors, he bought. The chairs and couches he found for free.
"Virtually all this is street furniture," he says, giving me a tour one evening before showing "Written on the Wind," a 1956 Douglas Sirk film. "One of the chairs is from my old family home, one of them was my grandmother’s chair, and everything else was found on the street."
Conheim owns about 500 movie prints, in both the 16 and 35 mm formats.
"Most of it is here now, but there was a period of time that I had to store a lot of it in my mother’s shop, in my family home, because I had no room."
He started collecting 16 mm films, a smaller format than the 35 mm prints most of us have grown up with at movie theaters. He graduated to 35 mm while owning the theater in Albuquerque.
"I got the bug about 35mm projection when I had the opportunity to get a print of the Sam Peckinpah film, 'The Wild Bunch.' One night after we had closed at the theater, I put on a reel and it just hit me that I was seeing the actual art object, what is the closest experience possible to the 1969 showing of the movie, from a print that was made at that time and was made to look as good as possible for that time. ... That had a huge impact on me, and I started to think seriously about how I could put 35 mm projection in my home."
Before the audience arrives for "Written on the Wind," Conheim gives me a little intro.
"'Written on the Wind'" is a "beautiful, gaudy high-octane melodrama that uses colors as emotional signifiers," he tells me in a summation worthy of Turner Classic Movies. "It’s particularly enjoyable to watch it on a 35 mm print because the colors really leap out."
After the invitation-only audience settles into their seats, filling to capacity Conheim's homemade El Cerrito movie palace, he puts on a little 1950s-era short subject called "Living in a Trailer," about ... living in a trailer.
"After the twins have cleaned up, they watch television while father reads and mother prepares dinner," the narrator says at the end of the film. "Come to dinner! Father turns off the television. It has been a happy Saturday for the Burns family. They enjoy living in their trailer."
Then comes the feature -- the swelling, grandiloquent opening music followed by Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall going at it.
"So you’re the new executive secretary, huh?" Hudson asks Bacall.
"Well, don’t let that title deceive you, I do everything but wash windows," she retorts.
After some initial Mystery Science Theater 3000 cracks from the audience, any notion of treating the film as pure kitsch simply evaporates from the room. It's surprising with material this ripe for ironic disengagement, but the audience becomes totally immersed in the flickering lights on screen. An initial annoyance, the intrusive whir of the projector, which Conheim keeps in a back alcove (next to his washer and dryer), somehow adds to the immediacy of the experience. I've seen movies here several times now, and I am of the opinion that it would take a very dull picture indeed to render the experience less than inviting.
"The thing that makes film so special," Conheim says, "is it’s organic matter that’s having light shown through it, and it’s a magic lantern effect. It’s an optical illusion happening in a machine for your eyes, and the result is so much more tactile than a computer-generated video image. It’s a very different aesthetic experience. Your brain seems to know that you’re watching an actual object with light shining though it and hitting the screen, as opposed to a replica of 1's and 0's, a sort of simulacrum."
"It’s like magic," says Craig Valenza. "It’s magic. It always was."
Valenza is someone for whom the switchover to digital is not just a matter of aesthetics. He’s the projectionist -- for about 40 years now -- at the Pacific Film Archive, which collects and exhibits old films. When I visit him there, he gives me a tour of the projection room and a close-up look at the 35 mm projector.
"It’s a precise piece of machinery," he says. "If it wasn’t, you would know it. It wouldn’t show a nice steady picture on the screen."
PFA still shows 35 mm prints when it can get them. Valenza has to inspect the print of a movie on that night's bill: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Tout va bien,” from 1972. Valenza spins the film from one reel to another, checking the edges with his hands for defects.
What do you do if you find one? I ask.
"I fix it. Various things you can do. These days a lot of people just slap tape on it. Or maybe you have to cut it out, amputate it. Or notch it, which is an old trick."
But with a Digital Cinema Package, there’s little he can do if something goes wrong. If it does, he has to call someone else in to service it.
"Not much labor," he says of the digital system. "I put the hard drive up and connect it in, and an hour later -- if you’re lucky -- it is transferred to the hard drive on the server. Anyone can run a computer. Theater managers can do it, popcorn people can do it. The profession’s gone. The art, or whatever you’d want to call it, of showing film is pretty much out of there."
PFA patrons are not always on board with the technological shift to digital.
"There are people who don’t come here when we show digitally," Valenza says. "They have never seen one and they don't want to. I won’t say there’s a lot of them, but I know several that are that way. They’ll come here for film, and I hope they’re happy with the dwindling selection."
On the other hand, he says, "I think generally a lot of them don’t even know the difference." He tells me one person who's been on the technical end of the movie business asked him after the show where he got a beautiful print from. "I said, 'It’s digital.' She said, 'Oh, I didn’t know that.' "
But the audience at Conheim’s Small Back Room, well, they do notice.
"I think it being, you know, on film and having the projector, it does have a nostalgic quality, even the sound of the projector," says Jason Stamberger. "To me it looks better. The inherent errors and problems with the film, I like more than the errors and problems with the digital. (Digital) doesn’t have the same quality of image, the same artistry."
"It’s very important to keep this alive," says Mark Wagner. "It’s very much an art form."
Conheim is not alone in his dedication to the old way of showing movies. He notices other projectionists in online forums doing screenings for friends. I ask him what they're like.
"Film collectors are anti-social, that live in caves. They’ve been working in caves, as projectionists oftentimes, receiving intravenous fluids from time to time," he says. "I would say the average film collector is generally an older white guy who started in his teens because his grandfather was a projectionist and he became a projectionist."
Conheim will often trade films with his fellow cave dwellers and sometimes inspect their prints for them. There’s one terrible condition in particular that afflicts many prints. Collectors and archivists call it the dreaded vinegar syndrome, which affects prints made from acetate, a material that was discontinued in the 1980s.
"Acetate, they later found out, returns to its natural state and becomes acetic acid after time," Conheim explains. "It is like film’s disease, and it's contagious. It spreads from one film to the other, and you have to quarantine. I have a quarantine area in my garage. If a print has vinegar syndrome, eventually you won’t be able to project it anymore. It will curl up and shrink. It will turn to goo."
Fear of the vinegar syndrome, among other print pitfalls, has prevented one collector he knows from projecting what’s considered to be the Honus Wagner baseball card of film prints -- a rare and valuable British release of "Star Wars."
"The English prints were in this very stable, non-fading Technicolor process," Conheim says. "Only in England and maybe a few other countries. In America it was printed on what was rapidly fading, horrible Eastman film that turned red very quickly. So to have a 'Star Wars' print from England with the color intact is a very special thing indeed. I never see them come up for sale.
"One of the people that owns a Technicolor print of 'Star Wars' has never unsealed the box. I’ve seen it sitting on the shelf, and he tells me he just can’t bear the possibility of being disappointed."
Aside from the fact that many prints are just "waiting to turn to goo," other obstacles await any would-be projectionist. For one thing, it’s just not as easy as, say, keeping a vinyl music collection going.
"A lot of people throw that around, that film is going to have a comeback the way vinyl LPs have had a comeback," Conheim says. "And it’s a really sweet romantic idea but it’s not going to happen because when LPs came back in vogue, it was as simple as going to a garage sale and picking up a turntable to listen to them. It’s not going to be that way for 35 mm projection because they’re too difficult to obtain. It was a rarefied professional thing. People don’t have those machines in their homes, and it’s not going to be very easy to put one in. You’re not going to know how to maintain it."
Plus, he says, it’s harder and harder to get the parts.
"The maker of the most precision part of the projector that keeps image-rock steady -- that company has ceased to make the parts," he says
It’s also still technically illegal to own 35 mm prints.
"Most people hold their collections very close to the vest," Conheim says. "I know two who have been busted by the FBI back in the day. There are some paranoid people as a result. But today studios don’t really care, so you can sell on eBay. But when it was the only way to see something, there was much greater reason for studios to clamp down and consider it copyright infringement to own a print."
So with all this, why does Conheim thinks it's important to project movies instead of watch them on, say, Blu-ray, which even print enthusiasts agree looks really great?
"I think it’s really important for the history of film and audiences going forward that they’re going to be able to see a film made as close to the way it was originally intended to be seen as possible," he says. "And because of how digital takes you out of that experience. It’s a copy, a replica of motion picture film. It’s just a reference copy, and you should always be able to see what the original thing looked like, imperfections and all.
"It’s the difference between seeing a reproduction in a book of, say, the 'Night Watch,' and going to the Rijksmuseum and seeing 'The Night Watch' in front of you. You have to be able to do that with film, as with any art form like it. You wouldn’t go to the symphony and expect you’re going to pay $40 for a recording. There is an analogy there, and it’s going to be harder and harder as prints disappear."