Medium Rare

Nick Pinkerton on “This Is Celluloid” at AFA and “Glorious Technicolor” at MoMA

Raoul Walsh, The World in His Arms, 1952, 35 mm, color, sound, 104 minutes.

LET’S TAKE FOR GRANTED the received wisdom which says that the “average moviegoer” can’t tell the difference between a 35-mm print and a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) projection. The conclusion we should draw from this isn’t that there is no difference between these formats, but that the arbiters of film culture, including critics, curators, and absolutely everyone else, have failed entirely to educate a wider public as to what this difference is, and how to talk about it. Cinema is usually a narrative art, but it is always a visual art. Nevertheless, the discussion of the former aspect has traditionally eclipsed the latter, save for within specialized circles, and when visuals are mentioned at all, it’s usually so that they can be dispensed with in a hat-tip namecheck of the cinematographer and a few shopworn, well-tested adjectives (“crisp,” “brilliant,” and other usual suspects).

A brief history of DCP changeover: In March 2002 the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) was created through a joint venture by the six major movie studios, with the stated purpose of setting the standards for digital projection systems in anticipation of an eventual no-hitch conversion. Their connivance bore fruit in the year 2009, coinciding with the release of Avatar. Theaters that wanted to play James Cameron’s awful new movie in 3-D would need digital projection to do so. Those who could afford to—that is to say, those with corporate backing behind them—made the change en masse, while many independent, neighborhood, and seasonal theaters without the benefit of outside support were left behind, and those that didn’t close outright were gradually starved of product in the years that followed.

Today, DCP has supplanted 35 mm in virtually all first-run venues, and though some holdouts—most prominent among them celebrity auteurs Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino—are keeping analog celluloid alive as a distribution option, it seems very unlikely that the digital genie will be going back into the bottle. At the same time the repertory film circuit, the institutions with a vested interest in film history, and the archives that service them have carried on an ongoing debate about the merits of DCP versus original format (that is, in any feature film made before the mid-to-late aughts, usually celluloid). In early 2012, Film Forum offered a program called “This Is DCP,” inviting its audience to compare digital restorations of canonical items like The Searchers (1956) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) with 35-mm prints of the same films, with the implicit intention of helping customers stop worrying and love digital. (Press releases without fail refer to 4K DCP restorations as “stunning” or some variation thereof, which falls under the category of “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”) Some New York rep houses, including Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Museum of Modern Art have remained, for the most part, staunch in their dedication to presenting films on original format, though in this venues are often at the mercy of the lending policies of archives, some of which will only loan out titles in DCP.

Film Forum’s “This Is DCP” was a reference to This Is Cinerama (1952), a showcase for the (ultimately flash-in-the-pan) widescreen process. Anthology Film Archives’ “This Is Celluloid” is, then, a response to the Film Forum program—as well as a challenge, part of a groundswell of efforts to increase the lay viewer’s understanding of what, precisely, they’re looking at when they go to a movie.

Never before has there been such a glut of programming designed to highlight and increase awareness of format. AFA’s three-week program is the first leg of what will eventually be a tripartite series, with subsequent sections highlighting 16-mm and 8-mm prints. In early May, the George Eastman House in Rochester presented its first Nitrate Picture Show festival, a showcase for the particular qualities of nitrocellulose—“nitrate” to its friends—the highly combustible, silver-rich stock which was the industry standard until 1951, while BAMcinématek, beginning around the same time, surveyed the best and worst of “3D in the 21st Century.” A week after the 35-mm section of “This is Celluloid” begins, MoMA will commence its tribute to “Glorious Technicolor,” celebrating the centenary of the color process. This follows a similar program at Eastman House, from whom many of the prints are on loan, while, beginning in mid-June, Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lighthouse has its own “Dreaming in Technicolor” program. (Happily, all of these print-based series have resuscitated the near-dead practice of the press screening.)

The bill of fare of MoMA’s “Glorious Technicolor” spans from the silent era to the end of the 1950s and covers every conceivable genre. I was privileged to see a VistaVision print of Martin and Lewis comedy Artists and Models (1955), the first of Jerry Lewis’s eight collaborations with former Looney Tunes director Frank Tashlin, and a vivid bohemian burlesque incorporating aspects of Abstract Expressionism (spilled paint buckets), Pop art (billboard graphics and Jerry’s Bat Girl comic books), and Op art (a gag involving distorted faces seen through a water cooler) into the fracas—the last before it had even been named. Like “Glorious Technicolor,” Anthology’s “This Is Celluloid” doesn’t have a unifying artistic, thematic, or cultural throughline. It has been organized according to one principle and one principle only: the beauty of the materials shown. AFA screened what its program bills as an “IMMACULATE PRINT!” of Dreadnaught (1981), a deliriously entertaining Hong Kong kung fu movie directed by Yuen Woo-ping, later to become the most acclaimed fight choreographer in all of cinema, with credits including the Matrix and Kill Bill movies and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). Dreadnaught—a festive, brazenly artificial riot of reds, yellows, and oranges with a mugging, Lewisesque lead performance by Yuen Biao—blows away several of Yuen’s later, more high-profile projects for sheer exhilarating ingenuity. It can be seen at AFA alongside an opposite-end-of-the-spectrum item like Joseph Losey’s 1951 Hollywood remake of Fritz Lang’s M, which applies high-contrast black-and-white photography to the grubby streets of downtown Los Angeles. (Far from softening the original material, Losey goes even deeper into documentary-style lower-depths verisimilitude, while Lang is represented at AFA by his sublime 1955 Moonfleet, set in a studio-confabulated coastal Georgian England.)

Mary Pickford Technicolor test for The Black Pirate, 1926, 35 mm, color, 5 minutes. Print courtesy of George Eastman House; image courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek.

Some of these prints are passing through AFA’s projectors for not the first time. I saw what is presumably the same print of Raoul Walsh’s knockabout Technicolor adventure The World in His Arms (1952) in 2009 at its “One-Eyed Auteurs” series, and was happy to encounter it looking every bit as dashing six years later—evidence that the attrition of “the usual wear-and-tear” is greatly exaggerated, and usually attributable to careless projection. (Less a concern, one hopes, as 35-mm exhibition becomes an increasingly specialized undertaking.) The World in His Arms is part of a big showing for historical yarns, including Moonfleet; Roger Corman’s color-coded The Masque of the Red Death (1964); Delmer Daves’s CinemaScope Western The Last Wagon (1956); John Boorman’s mist-draped jewel box Excalibur (1981); and Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), Douglas Sirk’s second collaboration with Rock Hudson, in which the man who would go on to direct Imitation of Life (1959) evinces the same interest in American racial pathology that marks that later film, and shows himself as a crackerjack director of outdoor action to boot. The most recent work in the series is Vincent Gallo’s 1998 Buffalo ’66, distinctively shot on color reversal stock; along with Mark Romanek/Harris Savides’s 1997 video for Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” it deserves much of the credit and blame for popularizing the flashbulb-lit, Polaroid-porn look that would become ubiquitous through the twenty-first century thus far. Anthology’s program has been assembled through a combination of institutional memory and archival crowdsourcing. In cases of prints that have not recently screened at AFA, archives have been asked to put their best holdings forward. (Due praise for “This Is Celluloid” should be shared with all the lenders, including The Library of Congress [M], Academy Film Archive [Taza], and the American Genre Film Archive [Dreadnaught].)

The DCP changeover, in both first-run and repertory exhibition, came so swiftly—and with the backing of such a powerful consortium of interests—that its unconditional victory seemed assured before the conversation had even begun in earnest. Belatedly—perhaps too late—the issue of DCP versus original format is now having its moment in the court of public opinion. “This Is Celluloid” and “Glorious Technicolor” make explicit what is implicit in any repertory series that prioritizes original format exhibition: There’s more to what you’re watching than just a title. If nothing else, it’s another chance to see what you might soon be missing.

“This Is Celluloid” runs Friday, May 29–Sunday, June 21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. “Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond” runs Friday, June 5–Wednesday, August 5 at the Museum of Modern Art.