processing the death of celluloid

  The Master  , 2012 (Weinstein Company)

The Master, 2012 (Weinstein Company)

I like making coffee. I like the process. I like putting time aside to grind some beans, give it a shove into a compact little puck and wait for the elixir of life to dribble forth from the chugging compressor. At the end there is an opportunity to grade my efforts and my skill as I sip away and make note of how badly I’ve burnt the grounds this time. I think my intake of caffeine would radically decrease if my tiny little espresso maker died and it was replaced with a Nespresso (or more likely the Aldi equivalent) because sometimes it is not the coffee that I’m craving, it is the act of making it. This silly little analogy brings me a little closer to understanding why some filmmakers aren’t interested in making the jump to digital filmmaking.

Those of us on the outside of the industry see very little of what it means to actually make a film. We get some idea from interviews and behind the scenes pieces but even those are heavily edited versions of events. The final product is the part that we get and that’s where we make all our judgements. Yes, there are outside forces that influence how we feel this way or that: we hear gossip about how hard the work was or how hard the actors were to work with; we have these oddly intimate relationships with the creatives involved, having tracked their careers from afar for years; and we have our own ever expanding lists of previously-watched films that we can compare them to. All we have at the end of the day, however is the pretty flickering light that we see on the wall on the other side of the darkened room. For some of us, that is the only part that matters. Surely a story can be told equally as well on digital as it is on film. How much of a difference can it make?

  West Side Story, 1961 (United Artists)

West Side Story, 1961 (United Artists)

For some films, maybe most films, this might be the case. The purpose of the film is to tell a story, and the mode by which that story is told has little impact on the final qualities that enable the story to be told. When narrative is central, and everything else is subordinate, it is hard to argue that the medium by which the images are captured make a difference. This perspective is the outsider’s. They are the ones who receive the coffee, not the ones who make it. For some filmmakers it isn’t necessarily about the final product. It’s about the process. It’s about the journey. It is about the medium. When we think of film as art, this idea can become a little more concrete. We didn’t deride painters who continued to paint still life because the camera was invented. We didn’t push them all to digital painting when the technology appeared. Those who work in oils won’t move to watercolours and we shouldn’t make them. Why is film different then?

Unfortunately, film is possibly the most commercially entangled art form that exists. It is possible to make films on micro budgets but the definition of micro budget for film is still astronomical in comparison to those needed for graphic arts. Let’s put it this way, you don’t see homeless people selling their mumblecore masterpieces on the sidewalk alongside their isometric line drawings as a way to make money for dinner. Film is expensive. Digital is cheaper. Having two types of projectors is a pain. Audiences haven’t noticed the difference, so the easy (cheap) option is the one that sticks.

The debates surrounding the “death” of cinema as the “death” of film approaches rest on several questions. What is the purpose of film? Is it the process, or is it the product? The questions can continue to “is film art?” but that can lead to questions about the nature of art itself, a topic which would require just a little more investigation. As a viewer who does not feel any notions of nostalgia towards the age of film and wouldn’t be able to identify the last time he saw a film on film, I don’t feel I am the best to champion celluloid. I would say, however, that it is always going to be disappointing to see those who have transferable skills decide to say goodbye to the form.