The last new movie I saw projected on 35mm film was Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby. In a packed cinema that had not yet made the switch to digital projection, the screening played out like a Mystery Science Theater-styled roast. Zach Galifianakis and other comedians lined the front row, watching this travesty of a film unfurl, while they skewered it mercilessly over a loudspeaker.
A hyper-digitized spectacle, flaunting high-tech tricks and blinged-out production values, the movie was never intended for 35mm, and the comics seemed to know it. They made short work of its many pretensions, but they poked particular fun at the failure of its 3-D effects – made even more ridiculous by being flattened into two dimensions for this analog format, the print often visibly nicked, or peppered with motes of dust.
Here was film itself, undermining Luhrmann's monument to digital slickness. Film, that soon-to-be outmoded format, had stripped away the pretense of the digital, disclosing the shoddy falsity behind Gatsby's baubles, the gawkish Jay Gatz beneath Hollywood's glitzy surface. Watching that screening, it was as though film, in the final moments of its commercial validity, was exacting a kind of revenge: After being hunted and hounded for decades by digital, film had turned and bared its teeth, at last.
Too late, alas: I doubt I'll ever see another new movie in wide release on 35mm again, although as recently as three years ago the format was still the industry standard. Today, all new "films," though they may be shot on 35mm, now premiere in the format known as DCP ("digital cinema package"), while older films, too, mainly circulate in new digital restorations. Like it or not, digital is the new normal. Watching a film, on film, is now an out-of-the-ordinary experience.
But on those rare occasions when audiences actually do see a film print, as I learned watching Gatsby, they now tend to notice those things that digital can't duplicate, the qualities distinguishing film as a medium. There's the hypnotic imperfection of film, for example, like the shimmer of its photographic grain. Or there's the way a strip of film obscures or moderates light, producing the kind of deep blacks and nuanced whites that are impossible with digital. Aesthetic qualities like these come to the fore, now that film's an oddity. As film gets ever scarcer, its beauty becomes more apparent.
I confess that my own appreciation of film likely results less from its endangered status than from my own professional training. As a some-time projectionist, my hands-on interaction with film taught me to treasure its textures and rhythms in ways I couldn't otherwise have expected. My film-viewing experience is inextricable from the whir of the projector, the dark of the booth, the flickering lamp; my consciousness is attuned to the framing of the image, the length of the reel, the cutting and splicing of footage and leader.
So, for me, film's allure is rooted in the tactile. The most beautiful films I can remember seeing weren't on the screen, but in my hands. Inspecting a 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey – a film gauge where each frame is the size of the screen on your phone – I watched its austere symmetry and trippy psychedelia spool past me in crystalline clarity. Examining work by avant-garde filmmakers, I'd see prints that bore little relation to what ended up on screen – flicker films, say, that alternated frames of colour in mathematical, Mondrian-like patterns, or hand-painted films, whose projection revealed only glimpses of their artists' sprawling, film-length canvases.
But film's physicality is precious in another way, too.
Sifting through boxes of family photos on a recent nostalgic afternoon with my mother, we came across a yellowed old packet from Woolco. Inside was a single roll of 8mm film – a home movie that no one, evidently, had ever watched. Unspooling the film and holding it up to the light, I saw dozens of tiny pictures of mom in her youth, beaming with smiles, followed by shots filled with aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents. The warm, amber light suffusing each frame isn't just due to the seventies predilection for earth tones on everything. That look also comes from the film's Ektachrome stock, which registered light in a tempered and welcoming way that helped colour the memories of several generations.
Kodak stopped making Ektachrome recently. Our home-movie projectors long ago shuddered their way into obsolescence. Some of my family has been gone longer than I can remember. But this film is still here, and it speaks to me, out of the past.
The flicker-film pioneer Peter Kubelka delights in predicting how, when our civilization lies in ruins, its hard drives and data will stymie future historians – the equipment required to decode a DCP will be useless, defunct. A film strip, on the other hand, will always be an object that speaks for itself: Here are images of life, printed in sequence. If a film is nothing else – whether it's Luhrmann's poor Gatsby, or my mother's home movies – it is history, recorded in light. And that, in the end, will be film's lasting beauty.