“Film Is Dead? Long Live Movies,” read a loud and stupid headline blazoned across page one of The New York Times’ Arts section last September. The coverage over the last four or so years of this “film versus digital” debate has led to some woeful hyperboles and conjecture. I wanted no part in it — that is, until I saw Side by Side, a documentary that, as its peacemaking title implies, balances the pros and cons of both celluloid (physical film stock) and digital filmmaking and leaves judgment up to the viewer.
But not even Keanu Reeves, celluloid advocate and Side by Side narrator, can dodge the facts and sensible arguments that point toward one conclusion: Digital is here to stay, with complete domination in its sight. While celluloid still has many years until it shuffles off this mortal coil, financiers and amateur filmmakers have long preferred digital filmmaking technology since it is cheaper. “But film is an art! I won’t sacrifice 35mm just so Lena Dunham can film herself play naked ping-pong with Patrick Wilson in an increasingly inconsistent HBO sitcom!” you may say (you being I). To you, Side by Side makes the most crucial case of them all, in the form of modern auteurs like David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher and Danny Boyle all voicing unqualified praise for digital technology.
Christopher Nolan is one of the few talking heads, along with a conflicted Martin Scorsese, who makes an impassioned case for the old-school approach. As much as I believe that film stock captures the superior image, his argument defies objective reasoning. This is a religious matter, devoted to the 115-year-old medium of his forefathers — this time, it’s personal. Nolan’s passion for celluloid has paid off so far: Inception won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 2011, the only movie shot on film to do so since Slumdog Millionaire broke the mold in 2009. Poor Scorsese and cinematographer Bob Richardson, both vocal celluloid stalwarts, dabbled in digital 3D just once with Hugo, and the Academy slapped Richardson with his third Oscar. We welcome you and Marty to the 21st century, a blood-written note taped to the bottom of Richardson’s Oscar probably said. Don’t look back.
Indeed, Scorsese’s next movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, will be a film-free production; Life of Pi and Skyfall, two digitally-filmed, color-corrected visual feasts, are the favorites to win the Cinematography statue Sunday night; and the Nolan types are a dying breed. Almost all young filmmakers now start with digital cameras, reared on attractive equipment compatible with their MacBook Pros. Out with the old, in with the new. “But, still, is it good? Is all this right?” you plead. I know not all the answers, young lad, though it pains me to realize that the medium responsible for all the enrapturing images in my Ingmar Bergman film seminar will, certainly in my lifetime, become extinct. Yes, well — wait … how is my class watching these Bergman films, you say? They are screened from an HD projector, off high-quality DVDs. It beats watching movies in my dorm.
And this is where this this silly debate hits home. As a viewing platform, film started to lose its footing with the invention of VHS in 1977 (digital movie cameras only took off in the early 2000s). Since then, the home video market has seen Laserdisc, DVD and now Blu-ray and Netflix Instant. Blu-ray represents the pinnacle of any physical storage medium for commercial movies, with its 1080p high-definition resolution and lossless (code for “real sweet”) audio. Specialty distributors like The Criterion Collection have dedicated themselves to re-releasing the treasures of American and world cinema — the works of Fellini, Kurosawa, Fassbinder, Powell & Pressburger and Malick — in pristine condition, albeit in digitally-encoded files.
Over the weekend, however, I noticed a telling update on The Criterion Collection’s Facebook page. In honor of Valentine’s Day, Criterion was streaming all its titles for free — on Hulu. Apparently, you can break up marathons of New Girl and The Bachelor with a little Michelangelo Antonioni or Jean-Luc Godard. I’m all for more access to film, but what if a poor connection renders Yojimbo to look like the screen is smothered in Vaseline? What if someone views Wings of Desire on a 13-inch laptop, at lowest brightness? What if, God forbid, some heathen watches Solaris on his iPhone?
Cinephilia, “the love of cinema,” is dead, provided that “cinema” not only signifies “movies” but also the movie theater as well as the physical medium of film itself. To the millions of you who still go to the movies, chances are, whether you watch The Avengers at Regal Cinemas or even Side by Side at Cornell Cinema, you are watching a digital projection. For the casual moviegoer to the obsessive collector, film is long gone. For filmmakers, it’s on the way out. For all of us, we’ll cherish our access to all the films in the world even as we debase visual and audio fidelity in the process. Just set some limits and don’t you dare watch a film on, to quote David Lynch, “your fucking telephone. Get real.”
This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.