Thursday, June 23, 2011

Size Dosn't Matter, Right? And Life Begins at 35!

The Castro Theater had a 70 mm film series in June. I watched two films.

Play Time starring & directed by Jacques Tati; (1967)
Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn & Alec Guinness; directed by David Lean; (1962)

Both film are well known. I saw Play Time at the PFA (listed as Playtime in their program) last year. It's unclear from the on-line listing if PFA screened the 70 mm print. I don't know if they have that capability.

I've seen Lawrence of Arabia on television a few times but not in one sitting. It turns out I had seen 95% of the film from my multiple viewings.

I won't write much about the films. Play Time stood up well to a second viewing. The office and restuarant scenes are still crisp and funny. I still lose focus in the middle part where he visits his friend's apartment. I also noticed a lot of red herring Hulots in the film. A lot of actors were dressed as Hulot and mistaken as Hulot by the audience and characters in the film. I believe Hulot's traditional overcoat was a beige or khaki MacKintosh which the imposters wore. In Play Time, he switches to a houndstooth or herringbone coat.

Lawrence of Arabia also stood up well to multiple viewings. O'Toole piercing blue eyes after he has been tortured (presumably sodomized) by the Turks are unforgettable. I noticed how the English characters are rather staid except Lawrence and how the Arab characters are colorful except Faisal (Guinness). The sweeping panoramas weren't quite as impressive on 70 mm as I was expecting. I don't think there was a single actress with a speaking part in the film.

Actually, I thought the prints or the projection were flawed. I periodically noticed some vertical lines on the edge of the screen on the stage right side for both films. I was sitting right of center for both films. So although the films themselves did not disappoint, the much ballyhooed 70 mm prints left me underwhelmed. I've seen a handful of 70 mm prints in standard theaters (as opposed to IMAX) before. I don't recall ever being impressed by 70 mm per se. The widescreen format impresses me as much in 35 mm as 70 mm.

When it comes down to it, the attributes that well suited to 70 mm or widescreen formats are not the most important aspects of a film for me. That begs the question of "What are the most important aspects of a film to me?" I'm not sure I know the answer. Perhaps it's like Potter Stewart and pornography, I can't define it but know it when I see it. I know that plot and dialog factor heavily into my enjoyment of a film.

Getting back to 70 mm, perhaps my appreciation of cinematography is lacking such that I cannot enjoy the splendor of 70 mm. My feeling is that you don't need 70 mm to make a great film and a great film will be just as great in 35 mm (or even digital nowadays). There are all kinds of arguments as to how 70 mm can enhance a film or film experience but those are largely pearls before swine and embarrassingly, I have porcine qualities as far as 70 mm is concerned...perhaps with respect to other parts of my life as well.


I exchanged some comments with Jason Wiener regarding 35 mm prints on his blog. To clarify my comments, I believe that films that were shot in 35 mm were crafted by the director, cinematographer, set designers, lighting crew, etc. with specific consideration of the medium. To see the film they made, it should be screened in 35 mm. The same can be said for any medium or watching a film on a television screen.

Because of my taste in films, I've seen a lot of 35 mm films in theaters so I may have a bias towards 35 mm films. However, I think the bias is subconscious if it exists at all. For several years, the general release films I see at multiplexes have been a combination of 35 mm and digital depending on the theater. I haven't noticed a drop off in quality of the viewing experience that can be attributed to digital vs. celluloid. I've seen a few low budget digital films that looked like crap but that was a few years ago and their low budget probably affected their choice in cameras or ability to light the set or even have a set.

I'm not a filmmaker but even I know that the Red One digital camera has made high quality digital films available at relatively reasonable prices. I have nothing against well made digital films. Still my bias shows up in small ways. When digital films pixilate, it mildly irritates me. When 35 mm prints show scratches, I fondly think grindhouse or that the scratches are proof that the film is worthy of viewing since it's been screened so many times before.

I'm also fully aware that major studios will shortly stop striking 35 mm prints for their new films. I'm fine with that. Striking a print for each venue or even screen, is inefficient and expensive. In almost every other aspect of society, I would commend and understand the cost saving (as well as environmentally friendly) move and I do so for new films. Can it still be called "films" if there is no film stock in the production and projection?

Studios and archives have invested a lot of money in storage of film negatives and prints. Will they digitize the inventory in their film vaults? I would think so if they could. Perhaps there will be some movement to declare 35 mm prints historical landmarks and thus require their preservation. I don't support that and doubt it will happen.

As technology improves, I believe it will be possible to digitize a 35 mm print such that a human cannot tell the difference when it is projected. At that point (are we there yet?), I think most of my nostalgia for 35 mm prints will evaporate. I used to be able to spot a digital film a mile away and I guffawed at festivals when an audience would ask if it was shot 35 mm. Lately, I can't tell the difference.

I read that Woody Allen's latest film (Midnight in Paris) was shot on 35 mm but used a digital intermediate meaning it was digitized during the editing process. If Woody can switch to digital in his 41st film, I can make the switch too.

Jason mentioned in his post that Super 8 was screened digitially (with D-Box!). Director J.J. Abrams put the whir of a film projector on the digital soundtrack to give it an old-timey feel. Clearly, I'm not the only person who waxes nostalgic for celluloid.

No comments: