Why Film Is Forever
Two months ago, I lauded to skies a digital revolution that was here whether any of us liked it or not. Now that change has taken hold, I'm for devil's advocacy in film's favor, and so am back to lament the wonderful thing we've lost. What I've had to face over ease into zombie-like digital acceptance is static quality of disc-driven imagery that mirrors passivity I've come to as a viewer. No longer is watching the active engagement of yore, with reel changing, print inspection, finding of prints. Now it's just lay back and let wash those reliably perfect images over a supine me. I never fell asleep over years of viewing 16mm. Now it happens all the time. Has digital left onlookers lazy and disengaged?
Here was the wonder of film: It truly lived and breathed. Every print had been places. Even bad prints had integrity. Among treasured relics of mine was The Three Little Pigs in 16mm black-and-white. And what of The Searchers in IB Technicolor with splices come to call at ends of Reels One and Two? I half expect, and perhaps yearn for, those jumps to reassert themselves as Warners' Blu-ray predictably plays flawless before me. Owning The Searchers thus in 1975 was privilege beyond measure, a thing I ponder upon sight of Wal-Mart virtually giving it away in bargain bins.
There's exaggerating afoot as to superiority of digital over alleged rotten prints we used to look at. Recent case to point: Dracula. Yes, the Blu-Ray is better, a miracle in fact, but let's not consign Dracula's celluloid ancestry to evermore
I knew the upgrade fever well, having chased transcendence of a perfect print over years collecting. Was there a Yankee Doodle Dandy with proper gray scale as opposed to flattened contrast preferred by TV broadcasters? Did Blonde Venus exist with the first reel bathing scene MCA took out upon release to syndication? These were such concerns as drove us to double, triple, and beyond dips into 16mm vaultage, eyes alert all the while to rightful owner catch-up to our below-board pursuit. Here was strongest argument to uniqueness of film: The fact you couldn't get it (or at least the best of it) without genuine risk. Collecting was not for the safe and sane.
A collector passed away recently who took secrets of film's eternal superiority with him. Dave Snyder was decades handling celluloid and knew myriad ways that digital could not compare with it. He'd show you a cartoon on 16mm and explain how a DVD of the same subject missed by miles the animator's intent. We accept now what discs give us because owners have locked their version in, whatever revision or "improvement" that amounts to. Classics henceforth will be forever defined by whatever DVD or Blu-Ray circulates ... you take what they offer or leave that movie alone.
I know a collector, or rather an at-home archivist and preservationist, who gathered three different prints of the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and assembled from these a final cut with total footage beyond what Warner sells on DVD. Each print had a history and story of its own --- combining the three was alchemy none of us disc dopes could approach, whatever pyramids we build in the name of home theatre. There was another basement dweller, I'll just say he's a genius and leave it there, who cleaned out a long abandoned rental library and brought home what proved to be the only extant print of a short Babe Hardy appeared in back in the teens. This 16mm wasn't just alive ... it vibrated for being a last one left. My collector friend spent, by his reckoning, eighteen hours over an edit table to repair every splice and nicked sprocket there was over four hundred feet of this unique reel. His pride upon showing the outcome to guests can be imagined. Suffice to say, no DVD could leave so deep an impression upon him or us.
No two prints of film are alike. Stack up a dozen Duck Soups and they all will differ. Each had characteristic others lacked. 35/16mm film, like human beings, have fingerprints. If one I owned forty years ago came back in my hands, I'd know it right off. It occurs to me that this paragraph, nay the whole post so far, traffics in past tense to describe film, a reason why being grim recognition that most prints, 16 and 35mm, have likely been junked by now. Movement was apace in that direction even in last 90's days of my own collecting, and I suspect the mission is fairly well complete by now. All that's left at ramparts is noble remnant of celluloid rescuers who saved what would otherwise be lost and hold forth yet at screenings where what you'll see is never what digital has dulled your mind to expect. I'll exalt the beauty of a Singin' In The Rain on brilliant Blu-Ray, but not remember the experience half so long as when a member of celluloid's vanishing fraternity unspools the print he's nurtured over most of a lifetime. That's the viewer experience that lasts forever.