The Campaign to Save 35mm, which thus far is mostly a web petition and some commentary diffused across the film blogosphere, was begun this past fall in response to a trend, increasingly obvious within the film programming community, of studios refusing to rent out prints to repertory houses—they can’t, apparently, be bothered with the hassle of maintaining, storing and shipping celluloid. (You’d hear stories of small venues being stonewalled on the availability or even existence of a perfectly well-known title, only to see it show up months later at Film Forum or other most-favored rep venues.) And now, I’m told by local programmers, the worst offender, Warner Brothers, has effectively shut off access to their repertory library to even Film Forum; they’re advising rep houses to simply buy the film on DVD. Blu-ray, if it exists. While still paying the usual licensing fees.
Local venues are now routinely programming their repertory calendars around the vast and essential Warner Brothers archive; or else scrounging prints from academic and museum archives, or even private collectors (while, again, still paying the usual licensing fees to WB, on top of that); or else projecting DVDs on a screen that, unlike a much smaller TV, magnifies the picture quality lost in the compression to a commercial digital format.
Right now, DCP—Digital Cinema Package, with a 4K or 4,000 pixel resolution—can project a picture roughly commensurate to 35mm in quality, provided venues like Anthology Film Archives are able to spring for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of new equipment. But the incentive is mixed at best, since, as the critic Dave Kehr has been pointing out for decades, only a fraction of titles are ever considered viable enough to make the leap to whatever the next format is; there’s acres of studio vaults that never made it to VHS, let alone DVD, Blu-Ray, or, now, DCP. Just as venues like Film Forum, or outside boutique distributors, have been able to arrange for new prints to be struck, you may start to see instrumental rep venues pushing for high-quality digital restorations as cornerstones of their calendar, if that’s what’s easiest to get.
But even then… In a couple of his weekly columns on Sundance Now this fall, Nick Pinkerton has observed, correctly I think, how incredibly self-defeating it is for studios—as they scramble to keep up box-office numbers and cultural primacy in the face of ever higher-res device options—to phase out the one thing other than the pause button which differentiates home viewing from a theatrical experience. It’s doubly mystifying when you consider that the studios obviously know this: several of this past holiday season’s crowd-pleasingest movies invoke the grammar of old film technologies as their nostalgic hook.
The Muppets, which opens by evoking an idealized American childhood in a time before the felt icons were presumably superceded by newer models, begins with a mockup of Super 8mm home movies. The film’s getting-the-band-back-together plot makes explict this “reboot”’s implicit plea for the primacy of Jason Segel’s childhood pop culture (and writing an author-surrogate into the mythology is a familiar fanfic ploy), but the musty references to 70s and 80s B-listers, and even the climactic variety-show call-in marathon (taking over a reality show’s timeslot) suggest an idiosyncrasy that dares to date itself. Michel Hazanavicius, director of The Artist, is actually knowledgeable about silent film grammar: the silent star’s nightmare, in which he’s beset by Foley effects from every phone and buzzer, recalls the brief period of synced music and effects tracks—say, in Sunrise, whose future-shock traffic The Artist also lifts—that preceded talkies. (And Hazanavicius’s wife, Berenice Bejo, has Olive Oyl moxie.) But his use of the camera and editing rhythms are pitched to the roving eyelines of modern viewers; The Artist’s connection to the silent cinema seems largely a matter of self-congratulatory glossaries like the one Tad Friend provided in a recent Talk of the Town piece, even as many of the references seem like nods towards nothing in particular (“… sideways 'wipes' between scenes... pencil mustaches... headlines that pinwheel from the frame..."). The film’s Brilliantined hamminess evokes a vague, idealized naïveté.
One instructive difference between The Artist and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is that the latter actually makes a moving, persuasive case for the artistry of silent movies, which aren’t pastiches to give a smile of recognition but rather a living art form seen to enrapture relatable kids. Adapting Brian Selznick’s illustrated young-adult novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret—which has a Paris qui dort reference and, for a hero, a feral, romantic thief of milk bottles drawn to resemble the young Jean-Pierre Léaud—Scorsese provides lovely and specific tutorials on in-camera special-effects and other resourceful early tricks of the silent cinema (he pulls back from a seemingly underwater establishing shot to locate a colorful fish tank in the foreground), and draws parallels to contemporary movie-magic, using some of his own technology to allow Ben Kingsley’s Méliès to wow a crowd by disappearing into his younger onscreen self.
Another one of the aging Movie Brats also returned to childhood by way of overprocessed 3D—though Hergé’s slapdash, colonialist, frequently violent Tintin strips are at least as true to the attention spans of excitable kiddies as Selznick’s backwards-gazing wonderment. In The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg indulges in a fan’s tendency to dream on the original—in between restaging treasured sight gags, he tinkers with CGI’s far more dynamic color palette, and upscales Hergé’s exotic, sequential chases, most notably in that single animated “take” scrambling down a hillside port city. The motion-captured actors’ skin looks vulcanized, but what’s most noticeable is how little thought Spielberg gives to the technical limitations of an earlier medium. It’s the future, and it’s winning.