For about a year and a half after the theater went dark, the light of a single bare 40-watt bulb, visible from six stories below in the parking lot, told me there was still electricity up there; then that last bulb went dark, and the booth became, in my memory, a shadowy dream space, its hulking pedestal-mounted carbon-arc projectors a fantasy I had to struggle to recall.
Even then our projectors were antique, a technology which used actual fire to illuminate film as it passed through the gate — as primitive in what had then become the age of xenon and platter projection as quill pens and inkwells.
Every technology is superseded by the next, and the next. What would Gabe, the grizzled old union projectionist we overpaid back then, think tomorrow, if he climbed the stairs to the booth and found, in place of two behemoth projectors of ancient vintage, a laptop? In this most digital of ages, not only has film itself fallen into mortal danger, but so is the thing once called “projection.” If Tarantino, Scorcese and Nolan are right, the death of film is the death of film art. Is film — hard to transport, easy to scuff and scratch, hard to preserve, environmentally un-friendly,--really better (sharper, richer, just plain more authentic) than digital imagery? Would my old friend and teacher, Hollis Frampton, a structuralist film-maker who died in 1984, agree?
On the activist side of the argument stood, in 2015, a small but impressive band of directors: Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies), Laszlo Nemes (Son of Saul), Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible —Rogue Nation), Adam McKay (The Big Short), Todd Haynes (Carol), J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: Episode VII), Judd Apatow (Train Wreck), Sam Mendes (Spectre), Scott Cooper (Black Mass), Bill Pohlad (Love and Mercy), Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs), and David O. Russell (Joy). All of the previously-mentioned movies were produced in 2015, using Tarantino’s newly-tweaked Ultra-Panavision (2.76:1 aspect ratio) 70-millimeter film process. Beyond that, roughly 100 movies were produced that year on film.
But, (as Ron Popeil of Ronco used to say) “...wait! There’s more!” The slow anticipated demise of film technology that’s been going on since the millennium isn’t just about aesthetics; it’s about people’s livelihoods. Over the last several years, since Paramount became the first major distributor to announce that it would no longer produce or distribute film as a physical project, mom-and-pop cinemas and smaller chains in the U.S. have been packing up their popcorn, the way we did in 1977, closing the doors, and going home. To combat this, and to create a platform for the new 70mm phenomenon, the previously-mentioned A-list directors went to EBay looking for old projectors to rebuild. In 100 cinemas nationwide, they installed the new systems, their aim to create a viewer experience reminiscent of the fifties, when the palaces were still at a high shine.
In 2011, A.O. Scott of The New York Times, trying not to sound too nostalgic, observed: “The machinery of production and distribution is in the midst of an epochal change, part of the rapid and convulsive digitalization of everything under the sun. If you go to a movie theater, you are less and less likely to see a film in the traditional, literal sense. Cans and reels have been replaced by hard drives and digital files, and some of the old material hallmarks of cinema — the grainy swirl of emulsion as the light passes through the stock, the occasional shudder of sprockets sliding into place, the whirr and click of the projector — are quickly taking on an aura of antiquity. Movies are shot and shown digitally and increasingly distributed that way as well, streaming onto the screen in your living room or in your hand.”
Have the activist directors turned back this tide?-- or just plugged a temporary hole? Do/will audiences miss that “grainy swirl of emulsion?” Is film arguably better, in the way some argue that vinyl is richer than CD’s were or downloads are? “Digital projection is just television in cinema,” Tarantino maintains. Is he right? What is it about technology that supersedes itself constantly, putting whole industries and thousands of small storefront operations inadvertently out of business? It isn’t just storefront businesses, either.
Kodak, once the “jolly yellow giant,” as one filmmaker friend used to call it, drifted into deep trouble, around the time Scott was waxing poetic about grainy emulsion. The company was losing 100 million dollars annually. Now thanks to Spielberg, Tarantino and the gang — not to mention Nolan and Scorsese, and a growing crowd of others, the big K is back, anticipating profits in 2016, for the first time in years.
On to the next challenge: processing labs, many of which no longer exist. Unbelievably, according to Ed Lachman, who shot Carol, “the New York Film Lab [a partnership between Deluxe and Technicolor that was created to respond to film’s shrinking footprint] is closed. They were going to throw out all the equipment. I inquired about it, and the general manager let me have the lab equipment. I have it in storage. We can develop film at Fotokem in Los Angeles, which is a very good lab. ... But there's a market and [we need] a lab on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.”
Perhaps enough theaters capable of projecting film will be able to stay in business — which brings me to a thought I’ve been harboring as I read about all this Errol-Flynn-like brinksmanship. What if — way back at the St. George — we’d been required to replace those old carbon arc relics with digital projectors? I have a vivid memory of one Saturday night in 1976, having to hop on the ferry (the St. George Theatre was and is in Staten Island) and schlepp via subway to the porn district in Times Square. We’d run out of carbons to operate our antiquated projectors (probably because we hadn’t paid the supplier). The porn houses were virtually the only theaters left in NYC that had our kind of projection. They loaned us the carbons, and we soldiered on. What if Dog Day Afternoon, Cuckoo’s Nest and The Exorcist could only have arrived in a lovely beam on our wide stained screen if we had the latest technology? Xenon, the techno breakthrough of that time, was way beyond our reach. Fortunately, nobody required us to upgrade: as long as we remained in the movie palace business, smudged and scratched prints, more than one of which burst into fire on-screen, continued to arrive each Wednesday in heavy steel canisters our intrepid ushers managed to lug up seven flights to the booth.
P.S. Check out this interesting example of reverse discrimination, exhibitors miffed over having already done the digital conversion, rendering them unable to project Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014.