Monday, February 20, 2012

The Monday Musings #4 - A Week of Quentin Tarantino at CU Boulder gets me thinking about the wonders of 35mm film


I'm reviving a weekly feature I abandoned a long time ago - "The Monday Musings" - because I had some rambling thoughts on an issue near and dear to my heart - the downfall of 35mm film - that I wanted to share.  Don't take this as an indication that the "Monday Musings" is back, because in all likelihood...it isn't.  

But for now, enjoy the article, which answers the longstanding question of who my favorite director is, talks a little bit about the great film culture at the University of Colorado, and has some pretty pictures.  

Read my thinly-veiled love letter to 35mm film after the jump....

People often ask me who my favorite filmmaker is, and if forced to choose, gun to my head, my answer would be Quentin Tarantino.  His directorial style, more so even than his superb writing, connects with me in a way no other filmmaker does.  If I directed movies, I would direct them like Quentin Tarantino.  And with the unfortunate exception of “Death Proof,” I’m equally passionate about every movie in his small but wondrous filmography. 

Pam Grier in "Jackie Brown"
So imagine my excitement when I got back to school (at the University of Colorado) this semester to learn that the fine folks at the International Film Series, the campus’ historic, never-ending film festival, had programmed a week of Tarantino films, starting with his debut picture, “Reservoir Dogs,” and continuing through to “Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown,” and both parts of “Kill Bill.”  If you’re wondering why the blog has been somewhat quiet over the past week, that’s because Tarantino time finally arrived at CU, and I was busy enjoying some of all-time favorites.  It was a very special week; Miramax gave us pristine 35mm film prints of all but “Reservoir Dogs,” and Pam Grier – Jackie Brown herself – came to do an hour-long Q&A after her film, one of the most magical experiences I’ve had as a film geek.  If you ever get the chance to hear Grier speak, do so – she is as insightful, inspiring, and thoughtful a celebrity speaker as I’ve ever heard.

Now, normally I would have been writing about all of this, and I seriously considered taking this opportunity to finally lay down my thoughts about each of Tarantino’s classics.  I even took copious notes at Pam Grier’s Q&A just in case.  Ultimately, though, I decided I just wanted to enjoy these movies as an audience member, not a writer or a critic; it’s a different, less stressful perspective than I usually get to have, and made this a very special couple of days. 

But I can’t ever stay away from writing 100%; the Tarantino program clarified a modern film presentation opinion I’ve been struggling with, and I feel now is as good a time as ever to declare the following:

I love 35mm film.

A screencap of the Blu-Ray of "Pulp Fiction,"
which nicely replicates the 35 mm experience
I love it more than digital projection, in nearly all cases.  I’ve been trying to suppress that opinion recently, because a love of 35mm can only end in heartbreak in today’s world, but after watching the pristine, mint-condition prints Miramax gave CU Boulder for “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill,” I can no longer deny myself….there’s something about 35mm that digital, even at its best, can’t replicate, and to be perfectly frank, I don’t know what that is.

Is it the level of detail?  The strength of the colors?  The warmth?  The grain structure?  I don’t know, and I doubt I ever will.  4K digital projection can replicate all of that.  Mathematically, our brains have trouble telling the difference between a 4K and 35mm presentation.  I have no problems whatsoever watching a film in 4K; it always looks gorgeous, and as movie theatre chains start adopting them in favor of the cheaper, inferior 2K digital projectors of old, I find myself a little more assured about the future.  Film projected through a state-of-the-art 4K system is film in good hands.

But it’s still not as good as 35mm, and no matter how long I ramble, I won’t be able to tell you exactly why.  Watching “Jackie Brown” last night, though, and again with “Kill Bill” today, I simply know that digital, even at its very best, can’t do what those pristine, spotless prints did.  I notice it the most in facial features.  A close-up of a performer in 35mm goes beyond looking realistically human; it looks artistically human, the warmth and grain structure of the physical film making every person on screen look radiant, whether they are beautiful or not.  Then there’s the detail.  Sets, props, nature, etc…every aspect of the environment can be seen clearly in 35mm, no matter how far back it is in the image.  It all looks life-like, but to a larger-than-life degree.  Dark lighting conditions always benefit from a 35mm presentation.  Everything the camera saw is printed right there on the film for everybody to see; that’s not always the case with digital – even the best Blu-Rays on the market sometimes struggle giving a proper level of clarity to nighttime environments.  In my experience, this problem cannot be found on a 35mm print, assuming it is projected competently. 

A screencap from the Blu-Ray of "Kill Bill Vol.2"
I may be a wee bit biased on my thoughts of 35mm tonight, given just how amazing the “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill” prints looked.  In fact, the projectionist thought the “Kill Bill” print had never been played before, a wondrously rare treat indeed.  Except for the first couple seconds of each reel, there was no physical damage – dirt, scratches – to speak of, and the prints hadn’t faded in the slightest.  They simply looked gorgeous, the best-looking 35mm prints I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing.  So like I said, I could be a little biased tonight.  But the truth is, I’ve always liked 35mm the most, and the Tarantino series only clarified that position.  Even when a print is beat to hell, I simply love looking at it; the Landmark Esquire in Denver shows 35mm prints of old movies every Friday and Saturday at midnight, often dirty and damaged, and it’s always a tremendous experience.  You can abuse the hell out of a 35mm print, can even project it with subpar screen/lighting conditions (an unfortunate side-effect of the Muenzinger Auditorium at CU, the venue for the International Film Series), but once the image is up there on the screen, it simply exudes magic.  Digital isn’t as forgiving.  A digital projection has to be presented perfectly; the focus, the lighting, the screen, the sound…all of it has to be done just right to look good, and given how little training theatre employees get these days, that’s almost never the case.  35mm obviously has its own complications, and I of course desire physical prints to be displayed properly, but when there are problems, 35mm film can hide a surprising number of sins.

It’s actually the same way I feel about Vinyl records.  Yes, digital audio can be, in a mathematical sense, just as good the LP.  If you get a lossless or high-bitrate encode of the music, it can sound damn close to the Vinyl, if not objectively superior, considering the physical damage Vinyl can take.  But even if the record is dusty, the turntable’s needle dirty, and the sound equipment sub-par, I’ll almost always prefer the vinyl.  Why?  I’m not sure.  It sounds more immediate and powerful to my ears.  The same goes for 35mm.  In my heart of hearts, I know a pristine 4K digital presentation will give a better visual experience than a battered old film print, but that will never stop me from choosing the print when given the choice.  I’m wired that way.  I follow the magic, and the magic still lies with 35mm.  The dirt and scratches are an endearing part of the experience.    

This isn’t true in all cases.  Some movies really do look better digitally, no matter what.  CGI animation, for instance, suffers on 35mm, because it was created in a digital realm, and if a live-action movie is filmed with digital cameras, it stands to reason that a digital projection is the best way to do it justice.  Some filmmakers, like David Fincher, are wizards with digital photography, and I prefer to see their movies in a 4K auditorium. 

But in most cases, I still consider myself a 35mm filmgoer, and that’s becoming increasingly difficult in today’s world.  Most major theatre chains are switching to all-digital projection; Cinemark and Harkins have already done so, just to name two, and Regal Cinemas is rapidly heading in that direction.  When I go to a Cineplex, I now expect digital, and find 35mm to a welcome surprise.  Consider this depressing statistic: 7 of the 9 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars were shot on Kodak film, but Kodak recently declared Bankruptcy and was forced to take their name off the iconic Hollywood Theatre that has hosted the Academy Awards for years. 

35mm is on its way out the door.  I know that.  I’ve accepted it, and I’m trying to start making my peace with it.  Watching such superior, beautiful prints like the ones CU got their hands on for the Tarantino series makes the death of 35mm all the harder to swallow, but the format isn’t dead and buried just yet.  Most film festivals, major and independent, still prefer 35mm when they can get their hands on it.  Art-house theatres, like the Landmark locations, or the wonderful Denver Film Center, always go for 35mm when it’s available.  It’s still out there, and as long as there are enough ardent supporters, it will be for some time.  Nevertheless, I’m going to treasure each and every 35mm presentation I see from here on out, and if you agree with what I’ve written so far, I suggest you do the same.

Film going digital won’t be the death of the filmmaking, as some crazy people have suggested.  Movies will be just fine.  But ten years from now, when 35mm will, I imagine, be all but extinct, a little bit of the magic will be gone, and we should enjoy it while it lasts.

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