Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Seven Centimeters

What a spectacular shot. It's a dramatic moment in Lawrence of Arabia. We've been following a certain character through a particularly difficult, waterless ordeal in the desert. Then, off in the distance a tiny speck appears on the line between sand and sky, still too small to be confirmed as anything other than a mirage. But now, just as Maurice Jarre's triumphant score swells on the soundtrack, we can just barely make out that the speck has become a moving object, approaching the camera, surrounded by a screen-full, a world-full, of empty space. Here's a freeze-frame of the moment:

Oh, you say you can't see the speck on your computer screen? Funny, neither can I. Such are the limitations of standard DVDs. No Blu-Ray release of Lawrence of Arabia has occurred, nor is there any officially on the, ahem, horizon. It hardly needs reminding that for the overwhelming majority of us, home and mobile video have long since become the default methods of viewing movies more than a month or so old. No wonder; digital and video have made the alternative that used to be the norm, the theatrical revival screening, seem inconvenient and expensive by comparison. For those lucky few of us who live in places like New York, Paris, Berlin and even San Francisco, however, classic films still live and breathe in theatres, where their makers expected them to be seen.

It's hard to imagine a better time for a San Francisco movie lover to partake in the by-now almost subversive act of watching a great classic film in a cinema, than when our city's architectural pride and joy, the Castro Theatre, devotes its screen to a 70mm film series, as it will for eight days starting this Saturday night, when it plays West Side Story, which repeats on Sunday. Monday and Tuesday bring Jacques Tati's Play Time, which I'd like to see in 70mm at least once every year. Another movie I can never tire of plays Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The series wraps up the following Saturday and Sunday (June 11 & 12) with twice-daily showings of Lawrence of Arabia.

Yes, all four of these titles are available on DVD. One of them (guess which!) is even available as a Blu-Ray. But it's still a hotly-debated topic whether or not Blu-Ray can look as good as a pristine, well-projected standard (35mm) film projection. I don't want to get too technical here, but I'll just say that I'm aware of almost* no-one who's claiming that digital formats can compete with 70mm film, projected from strips about twice as wide as in a standard film reel, and with roughly four times as much resolution. The clarity of 70mm is simply unbeatable in my book.

The Castro is the only San Francisco theatre equipped to show classic films in 70mm, but this is their first such series in two years. It was intended to be even more ambitious as originally planned. Two films, Tron (which I've seen in eye-popping 70mm with a sold-out Castro crowd) and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (which I've never seen) were hoped to be part of the series, but because the Castro's 70mm projection equipment needs an expensive repair before it can handle certain prints (getting technical again, they can only show prints with DTS Audio timecode at the moment) those two titles had to be canceled. I hope audience turnout for this series encourages the Castro management that there's an audience hungry for 70mm, making the prospect of shelling out for the repair a no-brainer. If all goes well, maybe we'll be able to see Tron and other films in 70mm relatively soon after all. Take that, DVD!


  1. As the "almost no one" referenced in your post, I feel I should qualify my remarks. I was talking about a specific film (Mysteries of Lisbon) using a specific acquisition technology and projected by the best possible equipment on an enormous, bright screen. Not everything shown via DCP is going to beat 70mm, but according to my naked eye it CAN. That point aside, I'm irreverent about image quality and filmmakers' intentions more generally. I watch plenty of "important" films as badly compressed files; I blithely stream Netflix titles to my iPhone. Incidentally, I've made some films, and I hope my intentions are defied every time someone sits down to watch one of them. I know plenty of people turn them off, walk out or fall asleep--my intentions are in a dialectical brawl with theirs.

  2. I get the point you're making, Brian, and I can applaud the fetishism as much as I can applaud my own affection for vinyl. But using a cheap-o screencap from a standard DVD as an argumentative exordium for what is really a 70mm vs bluray debate is akin to pitting a pristine plastic waffle against an mp3 ripped @ 128kpbs. Unless, of course, your irritation is with the general inaccessibility of high quality copies of films, regardless of how they'redistributed. In which case I agree whole-heartedly, because, as you point out, sacrificing visual quality often sacrifices narrative competency & symbolism in subtle ways.

    Though, for the record: I can see the dot. And if I were watching the movie on a scratchy, un-restored 70mm print I'd potentially see a shit ton of dots. (I'm cutting this off before I start dropping names like Rene Wellek while I'm supposed to be working...but I'd be interested in getting more "technical" one of these days.)

  3. In a way, this act of subversion that Brian refers to is also a sort of irreverent defiance of the filmmaker's intentions, who presumably never gave a thought to the idea of the exhibition of their work being anything other than thoroughly contemporary. That I'd attend with a nostalgic mindset, to experience a sumptuous slice of history, must be similar to the Twitter-split attention one pays to a film on their iPhone, right?

    When espousing the virtues of celluloid, I personally try to stay away from arguments of resolution, because if digital doesn't surpass it today, it's only a few powers of two away.

  4. Not quite true, regarding no Lawrence of Arabia blu-ray plans.

    "Regarding future catalog releases from Sony, the VP informed while the negative of Lawrence of Arabia has already been scanned (at 8K), restoration is not completed yet and 'will certainly take a year to complete.' "

    It isn't a full-out official announcement, but it would seem imminent.

  5. This is the second Lawrence of Arabia reference I've read today, the first being this post discussing the concept of Elastic Cinema:

    As someone who ventures regularly to the Castro and the Paramount to see movies as they were originally meant to be seen, that post made me cringe at the concept of watching a movie on a phone.

  6. Thanks for all the great comments, all! Sorry I haven't been able to reply within 24 hours- an eternity on the internet.

    Jennifer, I really appreciate that link. This 'elastic cinema' idea is something I've never heard articulated in this way before. Though most film directors and cinematographers have been framing their compositions with multiple platforms and aspect ratios in mind for decades, I've rarely heard anyone talk about the potential virtues of doing so, other than the commercial ones. And I think it's likely that there are some worth thinking and talking about.

    I'm actually not a purist when it comes to filmmaker intentions- perhaps I could be if I really felt I knew what those intentions were, or that I could trust what directors say when they talk about their intentions. On the other hand, I don't take particular pleasure in resisting their intentions when I can make a reasonable guess as to what they might be. Kurtiss, it's interesting to guess about whether filmmakers of the fifties and sixties might have thought they were making products that would withstand the test of time. I think it's fair to say that few silent-era or even early sound-era filmmakers considered that their work might be appreciated outside of its historical moment, but that by the fifties the concept of retrospectives and revivals at museums and other places (on television, for instance, to get back to the previous paragraph!) was entrenched enough to tempt prestige filmmakers to think their their films contained the potential for lasting value. The Cormans of the world? Maybe, maybe not. The Leans? Absolutely.

    A Blu-Ray of Lawrence is expected? Great! (I didn't know, but it sounds not-quite-official as you note, Zach)

    Digital resolution soon to surpass film? I'll believe it when i see it, but I hope, for their sake, that nobody's holding back on seeing films in 35mm or 70mm (or Blu-Ray) because they're patiently waiting for the next, superior technology to come around.

    I'm glad you qualified your comment on Mysteries of Lisbon, Alejandro- wish I'd seen that particular screening. It was visually spectacular when I saw it in September at the Toronto's Bell Lightbox as well, but it didn't occur to me to compare against 70mm Playtime.

    Jon, I envy your computer monitor or your eyesight or both. And you have piqued my interest regarding this "Rene Wellek" person, who I've never heard of before. And I admit I knowingly stacked the deck to make a point. My irritations with inaccessibility indeed are general and some can be applied to technologies other than film. However, I do think there is something unique about the way light projected through strips of film images, at 24 frames per second, looks. It's difficult to describe this effect clearly and convincingly, which is why I sometimes use other arrows (resolution, filmmaker intentions, unfair comparisons between film and low-grade digital video) in my argument quiver.

    Mainly, I lament that too many people seem to think of film as "dead already" when it's clearly not, nor should it be. Did you know that the West Side Story 70mm print showing here day after tomorrow was struck only a couple years ago? (in 2008, I believe). I think it's worth trying to help such people rethink their assumptions, even if it makes me seem like a reactionary in this modern age.