Previously, I lamented the trend toward digital film distribution and away from 35mm film. Now Eric Kohn over at Indiewire has weighed in with his view, and I have to confess, it got me thinking and reevaluating.
His essential takeaway is an attitude I need to be considering more, mainly, that while digital processes may not be good for film, they are at the same time very good for film. Kohn contrasts two recent experiences that shed light on what should be fairly seen as the adolescence of digital film. First, he recounts a tale of attending a critics screening of The Avengers in New York that seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of time to start. Eventually, a representative from the studio came forward to apologize and explain that someone had accidentally deleted the film and the theater was having to re-download it from the server. While it only took fifteen minutes to remedy the situation, it shows that digital distribution, while ostensibly more efficient, is not without its own problems. There was also a similar incident where a theater in Australia was given a software key that didn’t work, resulting in a long delay for patrons while customer service reps on three continents tried to sort out the situation. It is true that there’ll be the occasional hiccup with any nascent technology, however, with many studios already having announced their intent to stop shipping films altogether in the not-too-distant future, it’s also reasonable to expect that more be done to avoid these errors. At the risk of sounding too conservative, I wonder this is really progress?
What really got me thinking, though, was Kohn’s description of having watched a recently restored 35mm print of Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion. Having a noticeably sharper image than before, this version owes much to digital processing that might not have been possible without the film industry’s recent embracing of all things digital. Also, assuming the studios properly back up their servers, this film should be available for the rest of time, with no loss in quality over the aeons. Using burgeoning technology to enhance and preserve classic films is certainly an idea I can get behind. That is, so long as we’re not talking about Ted Turner and the fiasco that was colorization. Also, some films I’ve genuinely enjoyed recently, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Black Swan come to mind, would have been substantially different, perhaps even inferior, without the use of digital processing.
There’s no stopping the film industry’s inexorable march toward digital distribution and we’re likely to be experiencing an increasing number of problems as more theaters make the transition. (Seriously, even going to the movies now could involve a call to customer service?!) However, the ever-growing use of digital technology by the filmmakers themselves and those seeking to preserve film history has the potential to increase the quality of current films while also maintaining the availability of classics that might otherwise be lost to time. Viva le numérique!
[While writing this post, I visited the blog of the Astor Theatre in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. It’s worth going to their page just to see the photos of the interior. It is, in a word, stunningly beautiful. If I ever make a trip Down Under, I’ll certainly be taking in one of their famed double-features.]