PRINT October 2015

Amy Taubin

Nathaniel Dorsky, Hours for Jerome Part 1, 1966–70/1982, 16 mm, color, silent, 21 minutes.

“IT'S POIGNANT TO ME that the end of the celluloid era might be found in these fragile 16-mm poems,” said Nathaniel Dorsky, one of the most celebrated American avant-garde filmmakers. We were discussing the looming demise of photochemical material—i.e., film—for the recording, printing, and preserving of moving images. The “16-mm poems” are the films that Dorsky has been making for fifty-one years. Thirty-three of them are currently being presented (Sept. 28–Oct. 2) in a retrospective of his work at the Fifty-Third New York Film Festival. The program also includes five films by Jerome Hiler, Dorsky’s life partner and companion in five decades of underground filmmaking. Every work in the retrospective was shot and edited on film and is being projected on film. Hiler, who, if possible, is even more radical than Dorsky in his commitment to the photochemical, will show three of his films as camera originals rather than as prints, because for him, the color-reversal film on which they were shot is so “luscious” that he wants to share it even at the risk of permanently damaging the film in a projection accident. (I pity the projectionist who is responsible for this screening.)

Opportunities to view avant-garde films as film projections are increasingly rare. For that matter, it’s difficult to find commercial theaters that haven’t switched from film to digital projection. This year’s antithesis to Dorsky’s 16-mm poems, Quentin Tarantino’s baroque western The Hateful Eight (opening Christmas day), punctuates its trailer with the title card “See It In Glorious 70mm (Ultra Panavision 70).” Like a handful of Hollywood directors, Tarantino is still committed to shooting on film, but only a small percentage of his audience lives in cities where The Hateful Eight will be shown as a 70-mm film print. Most viewers will see it in theaters as a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) or digitally streaming on their personal devices—the way I’ve just seen the trailer. And while there is some loss involved, the digitization of narrative films doesn’t undermine their aesthetic qualities and meaning as severely as the digitization of certain, although not all, avant-garde films does theirs. The narrative remains, as do the actors’ performances and the film language (editing, mise-en-scène) employed to tell the story. I personally find that even the best digital transfers of filmed narratives look disconcertingly like glossy magazine scans of paintings, but I’ve taught myself to avoid looking deeply at the image, and occasionally vibrant colorization makes up for the loss. The sensuous reds and yellows in the digital version of Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence (1993), made from a film master, are a case in point.

For the American avant-garde film, however, and particularly for the work of filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, Andy Warhol, Dorsky, and some dozen more, who share the modernist project of centering meaning, form, and expression in the specific characteristics of the materials and the processes they employ, the obsolescence of film materials and technology is devastating. Missing when a moving-image work created as film is transferred to digital formats is what P. Adams Sitney—writing in these pages in 2007 in a piece about Dorsky—termed the “elemental visual magma”: notably, the grain of the projected film strip; the movement of the film in the gate, which is never perfectly regular; and the flicker of the projector beam—the pulse of the film. In his 2003 essay “Devotional Cinema,” Dorsky wrote that when he first encountered avant-garde film in the early 1960s, he gravitated to “those that were discovering a language unique to film, a language that enabled the viewer to have the experience of film itself and, at the same time, allowed film to be an evocation of something meaningfully human.” He goes on to write that “film’s physical properties seemed so attuned to our metabolism that I began to experience film as a direct and intimate metaphor for our being, a model which had the potential to be transformative.”

One might argue that any artist immersed in her medium will have experiences similar to what Dorsky describes. Steven Soderbergh, one of the rare narrative moviemakers who shoots and edits the work he directs, and who began shooting in digital in 2002 (exclusively so since 2009), never hesitates to proclaim his distaste for film as material, for anything smacking of fragility in the recorded and projected image—scratches, cinch marks, tears and splices, dirt, instability. For him, digital recording allows “absolute fidelity to reality-based light sources” without any pesky film grain getting in the way. That is not to say his images are artless or that they don’t bear the signs of their medium. But Soderbergh’s immersion in the digitization of images has affected the way he sees a hundred years of photochemical cinema, leading him to write, perhaps polemically, on his website,, that the best viewing experience he ever had of a film he considers a masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, came not via a projection of the best possible film master in the best possible circumstances, but at home, watching the Blu-ray on a Pioneer Elite plasma KURO monitor. (Don’t try to buy one; they’ve been discontinued.)

With complete awareness that the manufacture of film stock is dwindling, that every year there are fewer labs that process film, and that perhaps only fifty-odd museums, cinematheques, media centers, and educational institutions have 16-mm projectors and projectionists trained to use them, Dorsky continues to go out every day with his 16-mm Bolex because—even using the new Eastman polyester negative stocks, which are calibrated to interface with digital media—his film camera is more sensitive to capturing the movement of light than are digital cameras. “My skills are higher than when I was nineteen or twenty,” he remarked in a recent conversation, “so why would I stop?” Later he added that he thinks 16-mm film shows will become more like a live performance. “You might travel to see an opera. You have to go to Madrid to see certain paintings. It might even make film more valued.” Dorsky is not completely alone in this idea. Robert Beavers works exclusively in film, and the Temenos project—conceived by Beavers’s late partner, the avant-garde filmmaker Gregory J. Markopoulos, and carried on by Beavers after Markopoulos’s death in 1992—involves both an archive in Switzerland, where the work of the two filmmakers is restored and preserved exclusively on film, and a remote open-air space on the Peloponnesian peninsula where, it is envisioned, the complete cycle of Markopoulos’s films—edited into a single eighty-hour work, Eniaios (1947–91)—will be projected quadrennially to a growing community of devotees from around the world. I doubt that when Dorsky talks about film screenings as performances he has anything as wildly quixotic in mind as the Temenos.

Jonas Mekas, Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man, 2012, 16 mm and video transferred to digital video, color, sound, 68 minutes.

“FILM MUST BE preserved as film” said Jonas Mekas, looking at me as if I’d taken leave of my senses for asking. Mekas, who in the ’60s and ’70s built an infrastructure for the distribution and exhibition of avant-garde film (the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, Anthology Film Archives), turned his attention to the question of avant-garde-film preservation in the late ’70s, providing what filmmaker Ken Jacobs described with some amazement as a permanent home for work that had no commercial value and that wasn’t even on the radar of the Hollywood studios or the big film-preservation initiatives worldwide. Anthology is not the only institution that preserves avant-garde film, but unlike the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley; the UCLA Film & Television Archive, where Ross Lipman restored Bruce Conner’s 1976 Crossroads (see his account of the restoration in Artforum, October 2013); the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles, where Mark Toscano has been working for more than a decade on preserving Stan Brakhage’s films; George Eastman House in Rochester; the Film Foundation, which is Martin Scorsese’s baby; the Library of Congress; and the National Film Preservation Foundation (the last is not an archive but instead channels funding for preservation to the aforementioned organizations and dozens of smaller moving-image archiving projects), Anthology is the only major American film archive that focuses entirely on avant-garde films—those in its own Essential Cinema Repertory and many others as well.

Andrew Lampert, Anthology’s curator of collections, explained that there were more than aesthetic considerations at stake in Mekas’s decree. In fact, Mekas, who in the late ’80s put aside his Bolex to shoot in video, was also one of the first avant-garde filmmakers to transfer his films to video for home viewing and study purposes. Film, however—specifically the new polyester negative stock—is far more stable than digital media. It will, if stored in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment, last at least one hundred years. Digital media, on the other hand, is subject to “data extinction” and the interrelated and more pervasive problem of needing to be “migrated”—or, worse, becoming obsolete with every new generation of digital software and hardware. Lampert, who works with extremely limited funds and with artists who are protective of their work but who can also be grossly negligent with respect to its long-term conservation, warns that “there are no definitive solutions in preservation, only temporary fixes, which often lead to new problems.”

There are two basic methods for 16-mm and 35-mm preservation. One is purely photochemical: transferring the best existing film materials directly onto a polyester negative master, making any corrections and clean-ups during that film-to-film process. The other is substantially digital: scanning the original film materials frame by frame into a DPX digital master file, where corrections can be made, and then outputting the corrected DPX files onto a film negative (the preservation negative). The DPX files can also be used to make an internegative from which exhibition prints can be struck, or to directly make film prints—or DCPs or Blu-rays, if the filmmaker wants the option of exhibiting the work digitally.

For Dorsky, the use of a digital intermediate to generate 16-mm master negatives of his films is unacceptable. Indeed, only one of his films, Hours for Jerome (1966–70/1982), has been preserved, and that via the film-to-film transfer method, using funds from the Pacific Film Archive. For three others, he has made internegatives in order to generate exhibition prints. But most of the films in the NYFF retrospective are prints that have been made directly from edited camera originals, as are the single-frame enlargements that will be exhibited next month in Dorsky’s solo show at Peter Blum Gallery in New York. In part, Dorsky’s decision to stick as closely as possible to camera original is aesthetic. But it is also a matter of money. Since he refuses to allow his films to be digitized, preserving them will not generate revenue, as do the Brakhage films that have been released on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion and as do Bruce Conner’s films, which can be sold as limited digital editions by the Conner estate and by the art galleries that represent him. “Museums should be stepping up to preserve avant-garde film, which is an important part of twentieth-century art history,” says Lampert—and some have, albeit to a very limited degree.

Mary Lea Bandy, until 2006 the chief curator of film at MoMA, initiated the preservation of the work of one of avant-garde filmmaking’s modernist masters, Ernie Gehr. MoMA currently maintains in its vaults film-preservation negatives of Serene Velocity (1970), Rear Window (1986/91), and Side/Walk/Shuttle (1991), all of them photochemically transferred onto 35 mm. Gehr says that MoMA is working on preserving more of his twenty-two films. He insisted on 35 mm because he believes that 35-mm projection will exist long after 16-mm projection is no more and because the image, at least in these three works, is richer on 35 mm. For the moment, he refuses to allow any of his films to be made available digitally, despite the fact that for nearly fifteen years he has been working exclusively in video and digital media. He explains that toward the end of the twentieth century, he had to face the economic reality that film had become too expensive for him to use. Out of his interest in the long history of cinema, which predates and postdates the century dominated by photochemical, he turned to digital image making in 1998, again with the encouragement of Bandy, who commissioned several video installations from him, including Panoramas of the Moving Image: Mechanical Slides and Dissolving Views from Nineteenth-Century Magic Lantern Shows, 2005. Digital projection has opened a new context for his recent work in museums and galleries and has allowed him, in site-specific installations such as the fascinatingly layered Surveillance, created in 2010 for Madison Square Park in Manhattan, to continue his representation of cityscapes. And while Serene Velocity remains a stunningly kinetic transformation of the representation of a single space into a pulsating, shimmering abstraction, his more meditative Brooklyn Series (2012) is its digital corollary. Gehr notes that while he has been asked to issue some of his photochemical films on DVD or Blu-ray, and he hasn’t quite closed the door on the possibility, no one is interested in producing and distributing discs of his digital work.

Bruce Conner, VIVIAN, 1964, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 3 minutes.

WITH THE SUDDEN obsolescence of film projectors, avant-garde film history is being radically rewritten. There are virtually no film projectors in the classrooms of university film departments or art schools, and most of those institutions now have only digital equipment in their theaters. Thus, someone teaching the history of avant-garde film is able to show Brakhage films only on Blu-ray, no matter that, despite the care and technical knowledge that has gone into transferring them, they are denatured in that form and as a result make less impact than did even the worn, faded film prints one so often had to settle for. On the other hand, Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) and the other two films of his great camera-movement trilogy (1969’s Back and Forth and 1971’s La région centrale) are available only as film prints and therefore almost never shown in classrooms anymore. Wavelength, which has been preserved photochemically on 16 mm, could not survive digitization, for two reasons: First, the visual cues through which we read space are different in film than they are in digital, and Wavelength is nothing if not a forty-five-minute journey through a space indexed by the optics of the zoom lens. And second, Wavelength is an homage to film grain and to the wild variations in representation created via the splicing-together of eighteen mismatched hundred-foot 16-mm film rolls—a celebration of the relativity of all film images.

Unfortunately, Wavelength is out of reach except on the occasions when it screens in a museum or cinematheque, which is also the case for Dorsky’s films and for Warhol’s silent portrait movies—though these last are shown improperly on digital screens every time you turn your head. Such works are impossible to digitize—and not only because the “visual magma” is not translatable, but because many of Gehr’s early films, including Serene Velocity; all of Dorsky’s films; and all the Warhol silents must be shown at silent speed (16 or 18 frames per second), which is a third slower than sound speed. (Although it is hardly remarked on, this is a problem in the digital exhibition of silent narrative films as well.) And currently, digital players and drives are set to run only at sound speed, or 24 fps. The “fix” is to approximate silent speed by doubling every third frame, which causes a noticeable stagger (despite attempts to cover this up by means of “frame blending” software that throws everything out of focus). For the avant-garde films that are specifically intended to be shown at silent speed, what is lost is the contradiction between the real time of the viewing experience and the representation of time on the screen—what Dziga Vertov called the Kino-Eye’s “victory over time.”

Some of Ken Jacobs’s films survive digitization wonderfully, as do most of Jonas Mekas’s films—in part because much of their focus is the history of people and places and performance, and only to a lesser degree the materials and qualities of film itself. Working digitally has allowed Jacobs to transfer and complete works such as his seven-hour Star Spangled to Death (1956–60/2001–2004), which had become too costly and unwieldy to finish on film. It has also enabled him to preserve signature works that otherwise exist only when he performs them live using specially configured projectors, and has offered him an affordable (and less ephemeral) means of making new works that, like his Nervous System performances, explore illusions of depth in found 2-D footage. But in all the digital exhibitions I’ve seen of avant-garde works that originated on celluloid, only one maintained its integrity: Bruce Conner’s VIVIAN (1964), projected at the Paula Cooper Gallery this past spring as part of a show of Conner’s figurative work in a variety of media. Conner’s films respond well to digitization because their power lies in the kineticism created by his percussive editing rather than in the beauty of sustained images subtly cut together, as in Dorsky’s films. According to Michelle Silva, Conner’s longtime editor, the important thing is for the exhibition digital transfer, made from the 16-mm film negative, to be projected in the format in which it was made (HD ProRes HQ) rather than being further compressed, which, she says, too many galleries make the mistake of doing. In any event, VIVIAN was as exciting as ever, and I watched it five times in a row—something that would not have been possible had it been projected on film. “When it works out well,” says Lampert, “you don’t really have to think about whether it is film or video. It’s simply a moving image.”

The problem remains, however, that it doesn’t always work out well—indeed, in many cases it can’t.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.