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How the left was lost: the need to relearn what true progress means

Incomprehensible scholasticism, emanating from the nether darkness of academia where nothing grows, has contributed with its jargon to the left’s failure.

Image: Sonia Roy/


The word “progress”, which signifies a “going forwards”, cannot have a fixed meaning. In these quickly changing times, we have to ask what is really future-directed and in the majority interest, as the far right advances. If “progress” is not to be measured by the statistics of “growth”, by the pretended success of a “pro-competition and pro-enterprise agenda”, by open borders, by a moral free-for-all and the rest of it, what is the alternative?

Certainly it is not “socialism”. Its time has come and gone, whether in its state-socialist or in its innocently idealist forms. In particular, the “working class” has never been further from dethroning capital, and has itself been near consumed by market forces. The classless utopia dreamed of in Marx’s heaven was an illusion, while the collapse of communism took socialism down with it, too.

Rifling through the goods on the free market’s stalls from Milan to Moscow and Birmingham to Beijing, the productive “proletarian” has turned into a mere shopper, poor as may be. It is market-thought (not Marxist thought) which now promises humanity’s salvation, and with the same degree of illusion. In times that have brought Starbucks to Hanoi, even the word “socialism” – let alone “class” – is increasingly avoided in public debate, including by most British “progressives”; and few readers of the New Left Review or the London Review of Books would swap Islington and Hampstead for Pyongyang or Havana.

State socialism’s failures have made the privatisation (or theft) of public goods seem to many a virtue, and the common good appear synonymous with the good of the market. Even modest measures of economic regulation and social intervention – let alone renationalisation – are condemned by the free marketeer as “socialist”, while the freedom to exploit others is seen as an expression of freedom as such. There is little “working-class solidarity” now, and protest is sporadic.

The out-of-date “progressive” must therefore reckon with the fact that despite the free society’s dangerous inequalities, bank crises, cuts in welfare provision, real-estate bubbles and youth unemployment, today’s collapsing liberal democracies cannot be saved from themselves by socialists of whatever stripe or kind. They had their chances and blew them.

In Britain, to make matters worse, the trade unions have been harmed by their Tammany practices, falling memberships and overpaid leaders, while MI5 “Trotskyites” skilfully discredited the British left in the 1970s and 1980s, steering it to self-destruction. Even May Day was cancelled by Mrs Thatcher, while “Blairism” ate away at the old Nonconformist and upright Labour ethic to its very core, an ethic of mutuality, decency, equity and co-operation. Or as Peter Mandelson declared in October 1998 when he was Labour’s trade and industry secretary, “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” It was the most repellent statement made in Labour’s name since the party was founded.

In order to stake out new ground for the true progressive, nothing less than a new (and very old) chapter in political thought is needed. Most sectarian “left” intellectuals – who always needed the working class more than it needed them – are not much use for the task, endlessly talking to themselves in their private enclaves. Some, like Tony Benn, were mere flatterers of the “lower orders”. Other pretended class warriors went off to well-paid jobs in the US once the Marxist tide in Britain had ebbed, while more moderate left and pseudo-left thought was impoverished by banal “Third Way” nostrums made of chalk and cheese.

Incomprehensible scholasticism, “fluttering over its bookes”, as Thomas Hobbes expressed it, and emanating from the nether darkness of academia where nothing grows, has contributed with its jargon to the left’s failure. Talk of “class struggle” was plain enough. But it gave way to the mystifying nonsenses of structuralism and semiotics, with their “narratives”, “discourses” and “tropes”, their “moments”, “shifts” and “ruptures”: the language of political and moral paralysis.

With socialism at the end of its historical evolution, the “left” now lacks a coherent sense of what progress is. It has only a ragbag of causes and issues, rational and irrational, urgent and idle: a politics of personal rights and “lifestyle choices”, of anti-racism and environmental protection, of multicultural separatism, individual identity and gender, and much else besides.

Neither rhyme nor reason – and certainly not socialist reason – can be made of it, especially when mere transgression is confused with progress. In fact, we are now landed with a “left” concept of freedom which is little different from Milton Friedman’s “right to choose”, a libertarianism that has overshadowed the social in what used to be socialism. It is itself a market freedom; after all, self-restraint has less market worth than self-indulgence. Nor is today’s “freedom’n’liberty”, whether right or “left”, the freedom fought for in the Reformation or in the revolutionary overthrow of the anciens régimes. It is not the freedom for which the 19th-century emancipationists and the suffragettes struggled. It is the freedom to do what one wants and the devil take the hindmost. No wonder that the far right is advancing.

There is ignorance, too, in this pseudo-left libertarianism. It is reactionary, not progressive, to promote the expansion of individual freedoms without regard to the interests of the social order as a whole. Those who want the right to choose, and who object to moral or social restraint as “authoritarian”, cannot logically object to the rights of Capital to do whatever it wants also. The rapacious equity trader has as much right to be free as you or me; these “rights” differ only in scale and consequence, not in essence.

Together we are smashing the essentials of any society, and especially a free society, in the name of a false notion of freedom. “Doing what one wants, as happens in democracies, is the very reverse of beneficial,” as Aristotle put it. Instead, as I will argue, restraints on some forms of liberty are essential to both individual and public well-being, and therefore essential to a new definition of what is truly progressive.

Yet most on the “left” have lost their way in the political desert created by socialism’s demise. Or, as Ed Miliband declared in his first conference speech as party leader in September 2010, Labour’s purpose – with “growth” as “our priority” – is to “expand freedom and opportunity for all our people”. This was Milton Friedman’s aspiration, too. “I am determined to make Labour the party of enterprise,” Miliband added for good measure. In February this year, he also pledged to govern with the same sense of conviction as Thatcher. It is not possible. The damage done by Tony Blair to Labour purposes and to its former movement has been too great, and Miliband’s political inheritance is too incoherent, for such resolve. It is also unfair to accuse him of being “weird”. Anyone attempting to make public sense of Labour’s “project” would be hit by a speech defect.

But that Labour should be wandering about in circles in ideological limbo when a “top football star” earns as much in a week for kicking a ball as a nurse earns in ten years for the care of the sick remains astounding. “Growth” brings wealth to some and increasing indigence to many, yet the discrediting of socialism is such that increased public spending or hiking the minimum wage raises the spectre of a “leftism” that would be “anti-business” and “hostile to wealth creation”, rather than helping to save a disintegrating free society from itself.

All that remains for Labour to do, it seems, is to work on its “brand” – but it has no “brand” – and give its leader a cosmetic makeover. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of trade unionists are said no longer to vote Labour, and rootless consumption rules. “What I’m about is how do we make markets work properly in the public interest?” Miliband clumsily declared in May; his “Trotskyite” father, with his professed contempt for “parliamentary socialism” itself, would turn in his grave to hear of a project so paltry. Instead, these times of greed, “growth” and globalisation – while Islam advances and free societies degrade to the benefit of the far right – demand bold reconsideration of what being “progressive” should mean today.

Most important of all, now, is the defence of reason. Today, true progressivism must above all be secular. It must pit itself against the advance of obscurantism in the free society in order to protect
our – yes, our – Enlightenment’s hard-won conquests in the realms of political and ethical thought.

What obscurantism? The obscurantism that is expressed, for example, in racism, or in the more benighted provisions of sharia law and Islamic practice, which would impose its ways even in non-Muslim lands. With the arms of reason, but if necessary by authoritarian sanction also, progress must hold out against all who would intrude darkness of mind upon us, an intrusion increasingly justified by libertarians in the very name of liberty.

Certain forms of feverish or hysterical belief are merely absurd: superstitious food taboos, for example – halal or kosher. Others are fearsome, as is the case with the barbarisms of FGM, against which western feminism has been able to do little. The excision of the clitoris is not Enlightenment’s work, yet “progressives” have not turned out in their thousands in Trafalgar Square to protest it. Reason is also repelled, and mental progress also set back, by the stigmata of a Padre Pio or the obsessional nitpicking of ultra-Orthodox Hebraism. But the fatwa death sentence against Salman Rushdie was in a league of its own.

Islam is right to scorn the “infidel’s” bending of the knee to plaster saints, holy relics, bleeding martyrs and other idols. But Islam is wrong and must be fought by true progressives – Michael Gove is one such, in this respect – if it should seek to shackle our hard-won freedoms of thought and speech, and most grossly wrong if it attempts to do so in education’s name.

Instead, it is the most important of all truly progressive causes to help each new generation, whatever its origins, to make sense of our increasingly embattled and complex times. The rule of reason must be taught; it is Enlightenment’s continuing task as a means of societal self-defence. Yet educational standards are falling at the very moment when the need for knowledge of our – yes, our – history and culture, traditions, language and literature is growing. Why the need? Because such knowledge is future-directed, in the interests of the majority, and therefore progressive; while the true reactionary of today, backwards-looking, describes as “elitists” those who want to see higher standards.

Here, as in so many areas of debate, truth about the free society’s woes is stopped in its tracks by “political correctness”. It is a creed as rigid as any religious dogma. In some instances it dictates a just sensibility in language, and objects to insult and incitement, but for the most part it is a form of reactionary self-censorship driven by cowardice. It blocks reason with repressive taboos about what may be said and (almost) about what should be thought. At its command, crime rates are said to be falling even when they are rising, and educational standards rising when they are falling. The true progressive must reject such political correctness as yet another orthodoxy of mind, a product of fear of the truth.

The pseudo-progressive’s “non-judgementalism”, holding its tongue, is no virtue either. Without moral judgement of our mounting ills there will be no true progress in social reform. Equally dishonestly, pseudo-progressives, letting down the secular cause, keep quiet about aspects of the morality of Islam that they would not tolerate for themselves. Similarly, fear of being thought an “Islamophobe” is more potent among pseudo-progressives than fear of radical Islam itself. True progressives in the 1930s were not so scared of reason’s foes. They knew unreason for what it was, and rallied their political and intellectual forces against it.

On the right, bad faith is also rife, as when it denies the worldwide harms that corporate interests and free markets cause. On the “left”, equal falsehoods rule: “Family life’s the best it’s been for a thousand years,” a Guardian columnist told readers in May 2012. Moreover, phoney progressives make their own pick’n’mix selection of ills on which to focus and ignore others, or oppose measures to deal with them. Their politically correct, “non-judgemental” and random concerns are easily understood. They help fill the hole in the ground where the “socialist project” once stood, and are surrogates for real belief.

The pseudo-progressive’s refusal to face up to the lost sense of identity, place and nation in today’s free societies leaves the field even wider open to reaction. Indeed, “political correctness” denotes as “right-wing”, or even as “fascist”, those new and true progressives, or forward-thinkers, for whom tradition is not a “deadweight”, “law and order” is not a matter for mockery and mass migration not a boon, and for whom belief in nation does not make one a Nazi. What was the New Statesman called from 1931 to 1957? The New Statesman and Nation. Perish the thought, says the dumb political corrector.

Today, true progressives must come to terms with a hard fact: that neither socialist nor libertarian prescriptions can deal with the free society’s accelerating disintegration. Wishy-washy centrists, for their part, need to recognise that a market-driven liberal democracy such as ours, with a few human rights protections thrown into the mix, does not stand at the summit of political evolution.

Meanwhile, the far right waits at the ruined city’s gates. Why ruined? Because the combination of a market free-for-all and pseudo-progressive libertarian excesses is bringing the whole lot down. Yet some on the loony libertarian “left” believe that we are living in a “police state”; they did not know Honecker’s East Germany or Ceausescu’s Romania, as I did. The truth is quite different: civil society, which was wrecked in the “Soviet bloc” by state socialism, is being wrecked now in the name of “freedom”.

Indeed, most members of the free society are no longer real citizens at all. What was once a polity is now largely composed of rights-bearing isolates, wheeling their trolleys through a shopping mall in unending file. Disoriented by its swirl of entitlements and choices and overwhelmed by incomers – forget the political correctness – democratic politics is increasingly helpless in the face of the free society’s disorders.

Mainstream parties are in fluid motion, most of them searching in confusion for the “centre ground”. “What is to be done?” is an old political question. It is a question that most of our democratic politicians cannot answer, while the far right’s knocking at the door gets louder.

The true progressive must start recoiling in earnest from the free-for-all in the market’s merry-go-round, in which most bounds are broken, relationships founder, the collapse of self-esteem quickens, and the search for palliatives grows more despairing. It is also clear that redemptions by coke, Botox or a gastric staple are poor alternatives to the devout Muslim’s vision of Paradise Garden.

Even the sense that we belong to a social order is evaporating. It is untaught in school and lost from view in the digital limbo most of us inhabit, while the term “civil society” is largely unknown. There could be 15 billion people in the planet’s global market by 2100, bringing even more flux and disaggregation.

Yet despite the quickening dissolution of the free society, public institutions that stand at the heart of the body politic continue fatally to be sold off, to the harm of the ethos of community service itself. Private contractors in free societies now collect taxes, manage citizen databases, gather military intelligence, conduct army recruitment, patrol borders, control air traffic, preside over and even own prisons, deport illegal migrants and operate key areas of the social security system – for profit. As citizen-identity wanes to disappearance, it is a civic philosophy, not “socialism”, or “statism”, which demands the taking-back of the purloined public domain. The provision of public goods by public authority is an essential component of civil society’s very existence.

Worst of all is the unscrupulous belief that nothing is owed by us for the rights we possess. Instead, true progressivism in a free society demands a politics and ethics of duty. If freedom is to survive, we must fulfil our obligations to the civic order to which we belong (or may have recently joined), the civic order that serves us. There must be reciprocity between our rights and our duties, or the far right will insist upon it for us, to the greater harm of millions.

It is a civic consciousness, not a class consciousness, that we need. Pluralism, yes; but we are citizens before we are Christians, Jews, Muslims, or freethinkers.

That is the true centre ground, or foun­dation, on which state, civil society and nation stand; indeed, a lively and popular sense of nation is a valuable source – among others – of identity in dangerously identity-less times. Above all, to rescue our sense of civic belonging and obligation from the self-regarding libertarianism and anti-“moralising” of the phoney progressive is the work of true progress, if the far right’s hankerings for a “new order” are to be countered. 

David Selbourne’s “The Principle of Duty: an Essay on the Foundations of the Civic Order” (1994) was republished by Faber & Faber in 2009

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Can celluloid lovers like Christopher Nolan stop a digital-only future for film?

Despite proponents like the Dunkirk director, physical film is finding it tough in the modern age. 

“Chris Nolan is one of the few producing and directing films right now who could open that film. He is one of the all-time great filmmakers.”

No prizes for guessing which new release Vue CEO Tim Richards is talking about. Aside from its box office success, aside from its filmmaking craft, aside even from its early reception as an Oscar favourite, Dunkirk sees Nolan doing what Nolan does best: he has used his latest film to reopen the debate about celluloid.

Until relatively recently all film was projected from that old, classic medium of the film reel - a spool of celluloid run in front of a projector bulb throwing images on to a screen. It comes mainly in two forms: 35mm (standard theatrical presentations) or 70mm (larger, more detailed presentations most popular in the 60s and 70s). Fans say it provides a “warmer” colour palette, with more depth and saturation than modern digital formats.

But now it’s hard to even see movies on film to make the comparison. After George Lucas, godfather of the Star Wars franchise, shot Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones entirely in digital rather than on physical film, the rollout of digital progressed with clinical efficacy. Within ten years, film was almost wiped out, deemed to be impractical and irrelevant. Modern cinema, it was argued, could be stored in a hard drive.

Christopher Nolan set out to change all that. He championed film as a medium against the industry trend, producing (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar) in super-detailed, super-sized IMAX 70mm. With Dunkirk, Nolan has taken that further by screening the film in 35mm, 70mm and IMAX 70mm.

Nolan is not the medium's only poster boy – it is symbolic that the new Star Wars trilogy, 15 years on from Attack’s groundbreaking digital filming, is now being shot on film once more. This summer, Dunkirk may well be seeing the biggest rollout of a 70mm presentation in cinemas for 25 years, but in 2015 Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight saw chains and independent cinemas having to retrofit 21st Century cinemas for a 20th Century presentation style. It was a difficult process, with only a handful of screens able to show the film as Tarantino intended – but it was a start.

Today, celluloid is, ostensibly, looking healthier. A recent deal struck between Hollywood big wigs and Kodak has helped. Kodak will now supply celluloid to Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Sony. It’s a deal which is not only helping keep Kodak afloat, but also film alive.

Kodak has also gone a step further, launching an app to help audiences find 35mm screenings in local cinemas. Called ‘Reel Film’, it endeavours to back Nolan and co in ensuring that celluloid is still a viable method of film projection in the 21st century.

Even so, whether Nolan’s film fightback has actually had any impact is unclear. Independent cinemas still screen in film, and certainly Vue and Odeon both have film projectors in some of their flagship screens, but digital dominates. Meanwhile, key creatives are pushing hard for a digital future: Peter Jackson, James Cameron and the creative teams at Marvel are all pioneering in digital fields. Whether or not film can survive after over a decade of effacement is a difficult – and surpisingly emotionally charged – question.


Paul Vickery, Head of Programming at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, is the kind of person you might expect to talk all about how physical film is a beautiful medium, key for preserving the history of cinema. History, he tells me, is important to the Prince Charles, but it's a surprise when he saysfilm is actually more practical for their operation. Because not every film they screen has been digitised, access to old reels is essential for their business.

“If you completely remove film as an option for presentation as a cinema that shows older films,” he says, “you effectively cut 75 per cent of the films that you could possibly show out of your options, and you can only focus on those that have been digitised.”

Vickery says the debate around film and digital often neglects the practicality of film. “It's always focusing on the idea of the romance of seeing films on film, but as much as it is that, it's also to have more options, to present more films. You need to be able to show them from all formats.”

That’s a key part of what makes the Prince Charles Cinema special. Sitting in London's movie-premier hub Leicester Square, the Prince Charles is renowned for its celluloid presentations of older films and has made a successful business out of its 35mm and 70mm screenings of both classics and niche films.

“If there is the option to show film and digital, we tend to take film as the option because it's also something you can't replicate at home,” he explains. “It's also just the nature of how film is seen on screen: its image clarity, its colour palette, the sound is just something that's very different to digital, and I think that's something that's very worth saving.

“Not many people have 35mm projectors at home. If you have it on Blu-Ray or DVD, to see it on film is a way of dragging someone out from their house to come and see it at the cinema.”

Currently screening is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm. It’s an incredible presentation of what Vickery says is a seven or eight year-old print struck from the film’s original negatives: the colour of the picture is far richer, while the fine detail in some close-up shots is on par with modern movies. Even more impressive, though, is that the screening is packed. “Fifteen years ago, there would be cinemas where that would be almost on a circuit,” laments Vickery. “We've just stayed the course, and that's something that's just fallen away and we're one of the last, along with the BFI, to show films from film.

“There’s still a bit kicking around, but as we do more and more of it, we seem to be pulling out those people who are looking for that and they seem to be coming back again and again. The repertory side of our programme is more popular than ever.”

That popularity is seemingly reflected in its audiences’ passion for celluloid. Vickery tells me that the PCC’s suggestions board and social media are always filled with requests for film screenings, with specific questions about the way it’s being projected.

For Vickery, it’s a mark of pride. “It sounds like inflated ego almost,” he begins, as if providing a disclaimer, “but it's why I think the work we do and the BFI do and any cinema that shows films from film is about history. By us continuing to show film on film, studios will continue to make their film print available and keep them going out. If people stop showing films on film, they'd just get rid of them.

“Once they're all gone, they only way we're ever gonna be able to see them is if they're taking these films and digitising them, which as you imagine, is always going to be the classic set of films, and then there'll be very select ones will get picked, but it's not gonna be every film.

“You have to keep showing films from film to keep the history of cinema alive in cinemas.”


History is something that the BFI is committed to preserving. 40 per cent of their annual programming is projected on celluloid, and they loan around 200 prints to venues each year. Their new “BFI 2022” initiative will produce 100 new film prints in the next five years.

Most recently they have focussed on safeguarding their archive, the BFI’s creative director Heather Stewart tells me when we meet her in her office in the BFI’s artsy offices just off Tottenham Court Road.

“We got money from the government to renew our storage which was a big deal because the national collection really wasn't safe,” she says  “There was work at risk because it was warm and humid and we have bought a fantastic, sub-zero state of the art storage facility in Warwickshire in our big site there and our negatives are there. So our master materials are all in there safe - all the nitrate negatives and all that. In 200 years, people will be able to come back and make materials from those, whether digitising or analogue.”

Stewart tells me that it’s important to do both: “Do we at the BFI think that audiences need to see films in the way the filmmaker intended? Yes. That's not going away - that's what we're here for. Do we want as many audiences as possible to see the film? Yes. So of course we're interested in digital.”

The restoration and printing project is attracting lots of “international interest” according to Stewart: just one example is that the BFI are looking into partnering with Warner Bros in their labs in Burbank, California.

“We're becoming the only place left that actually loans film prints around the world so that you can see the films the way they were intended,” she says. “So if you don't have any kind of renewal programme, you'll eventually just have blanked out, scratchy old prints and you can't see them."

They're getting financial support too, she says: “There are people like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson [director of Oscar-winner There Will Be Blood whose 2012 film The Master was shot and screened in 70mm], a lot of people who are very committed to film, and so there's conversations going on elsewhere and with the film foundation about bringing other investments in so we can really go for it and have a fantastic collection of great great 35mm prints for audiences to look at.”

As a fan of the film reel, Stewart is passionate about this. I put to her the common suggestion that lay audiences can’t tell the difference between screening on film, and digital. “I don't agree with that", she says. "If you sit with people and look at it, they feel something that you might not be able to articulate.

“It's the realism the film gives you - that organic thing, the light going through the film is not the same as the binary of 0s and 1s. It's a different sensation. Which isn't to say that digital is 'lesser than', but it's a different effect. People know. They feel it in their bodies, the excitement becomes more real. There's that pleasure of film, of course but I don't want to be too geeky about it.”

Yet not every film print available is in good condition. “There's a live discussion,” says Stewart. “Is it better to show a scratched 35mm print of some great film, or a really excellent digital transfer?”

There’s no neat answer.

But Stewart is certainly driven by the idea of presenting films as closely as possible to the filmmakers’ true vision. “If you're interested in the artwork,” she explains, “that's what the artwork has to look like, and digital will be an approximation of that. If you spend a lot of money, and I mean really a lot of money, it can be an excellent approximation of that. But lots of digital transfers are not great - they're cheap. They're fine, but they're never going to be like the original.”

The process of restoration doesn’t end with digitisation. Keeping film copies in order to have originals is hugely important given how quickly digital media change. Film is a constant form of storage which does not alter. As Stewart defiantly puts it, “all archives worldwide are on the same page and the plan is to continue looking after analogue, so it ain't going anywhere.”


The BFI were kind enough put on a display of how film projection works in practice. Tina McFarling, Media Advisor, and Dominic Simmons, Head of Technical, provide a tour of two screens at BFI Southbank. Chatting in the projection room above the screen which hosted the 70mm première of Dunkirk, their passion for celluloid was on display.

Standing next to two mammoth 70mm projectors, Simmons talks through the real-terms use of film, and the technical expertise behind it. “It's a lot more labour intensive than sticking digital prints on, but it's something we want to do,” he says.

One of the projection booths at the BFI

During the visit, the team are prepping a rare 35mm screening of the documentary I Am Cuba to be shown that afternoon. Simmons says that operating a celluloid projector is a “more complex operation” than digital. Looking at the endless labyrinth of film and sprockets, it's easy to believe.

“If you're screening from film in a cinema,” he says, “then you need engineers, technicians who are capable of doing it, whereas a lot of multiplexes have deskilled their operation.”

Simmons says that, while larger chains have one engineer to oversee every screen with the actual process of running the films centralised with a centre loading playlists, the BFI has twenty-two technicians, each closely overseeing the projection of a film when on duty.

“There's so much about the different elements of the presentation that you need to know that all comes together with the sound, the lighting and the rest of it.

“When you're starting a film, it's more of a manual operation. Someone needs to be there to press the buttons at the right time, manage the sound, operate the curtains, and attach the trailers to the feature.”

Having skilled operators is all very well, but of course you need to have the equipment to operate in the first place. “We have to make sure that the equipment is kept and utilised as well as making sure the prints are available, and then the skills will follow”, he says.

Simmons says many are likening the film fight back to vinyl’s resurrection, but has a rueful smile when he talks about film being described as “hipsterish” and “boutiquey”.

He also points out that the quaint touches that make film attractive to this new, younger audience – blemishes, the occasional scratch – are a headache for projectionists. “For me,” he says, “that's quite difficult because a bad print of a film is never a good thing, but if it's a bad print of a film that can't be seen any other way...” He trails off sadly.

The threat of damage to film prints is constant, he says. “Every time you run a film print through a projector there is some element of damage done to it. You're running it over sprockets at loads of feet per second.”

He switches a nearby projector on – it’s loud, quick and, after leaning in to look more closely, it’s easy to see that it’s violent. “It's a really physical process,” Simmons continues. “The film is starting and stopping 24 times a second.”

The idea that shooting on film, for which the very raw material is in short and ever-decreasing supply, is endangered is a tragic one. “There's a finite amount,” Simmons says. “People aren't striking new prints, so if you damage a print, the damage is there forever.”


The Prince Charles and the BFI are in a privileged position to protect endangered film stock. A friendly partnership between them, which sees the BFI lending reels to the Prince Charles, as well as benefitting from the business of London’s rabidly cinephile audience, allow them to prioritise screening on film the majority of the time. Not every cinema is so lucky.

While the historic Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford does have a 35mm projector, owner Becky Hallsmith says that it’s mainly the digital projector in use “for all sorts of logistic reasons”.

Though Dunkirk’s push for film projection was a welcome one, it still didn’t make sense for the UPP to screen it. “Certainly we thought about it, but I felt that if you're going to see it on celluloid, you probably want to see it on 70mm, so we decided not to get it on 35mm.”

Economic factors come into effect here too – the UPP, based just out of the city centre in Cowley, vies for Oxford’s filmgoers’ love with the Phoenix Picturehouse in nearby Jericho. While they do have slightly different markets, Hallsmith was aware that the Picturehouse was already set to screen Dunkirk in 35mm, leading her to decide not to.

 “It's not like I'm saying we never do it” she clarifies. “But there are reasons I haven't this time.”

Hallsmith was also aware that not all of her projectionists are trained in screening film, saying that, by screening Dunkirk in digital, she was “taking that little headache out of the equation”.

For the UPP, practicality of this kind trumps sentiment, given the cinema’s small operation. “I'd love it if I had the time to work out what films had beautiful 35mm prints and programme accordingly,” she says, “but I just don't have the time to put that amount of thought into details of programming. We're tiny. I'm doing all sorts of different jobs around the cinema as well. The programming is by no means the least important - it's the most important part of the job - but there is a limit to how much one can do and how much research one can do.”

Despite the practical issues related to 35mm, Hallsmith is still glad to have the option available, saying that when the digital projector was installed in 2012, there was enough room for the installation to account for the 35mm one – and to revamp it.

Despite many 35mm projectors being sent to an unceremonious death in skips, some projectors that are replaced for digital successors are cannibalised for parts. Hallsmith was a beneficiary. “Most of the bits on our 35mm projector are quite new,” she explains, “because they had all this stuff that they were taking out of other cinemas, so they upgraded our 35mm for us because they had all the parts to do it with.”

But Hallsmith is grounded when I ask her if having both projectors in operation is important. “It's important for me,” she laughs. “One of my real pleasures in life is to sit at the back near the projection room and to hear the film going through the sprocket. It's one of the most magical sounds in the world and always will be for me.

“But I know that for a lot of our customers, it is neither here nor there, so I have mixed feelings about it. It's not like I think everything should be on 35mm. I love it, but I can see the practicalities.”


It is certainly practicality that’s governing cinema chains. Cineworld, Odeon and Vue have all seen huge expansions in recent years. Vue chief Tim Richards, says celluloid is a “niche product”, but the admission is tinged with sadness.

“The problem that we had,” he says about the 70mm screenings of Dunkirk, “with the conversion to digital that happened globally, there are literally no projectors left anywhere, and it's very, very hard to get one. We managed to find a projector and then we couldn't find anybody who actually knew how to run it. There are very real practical issues with the medium.

“To reinforce that we have a new look and feel to our head office, and I really wanted to have an old analogue 35mm projector in our reception and we couldn't find one. We had thousands of these things, and we had none left. We couldn't even get one for our reception!”

Even with a working projector and a trained projectionist, Richards says the format has “very obvious issues” with mass consumption. Again on the subject of Dunkirk, this time in 35mm, he says, “One of the prints that arrived was scratched. It's something that's been in the industry for a long time. If you have a big scratch, you simply can't screen it. You've got to get another print, especially when it will run through part of the film.”

It’s something that saddens Richards, who still says that projecting on film forms part of the “philosophy” of Vue. “We’re all big supporters [of film] and we love it. We've all been in the industry for between 25 and 30 years, the whole senior team. We genuinely love what we do, we genuinely love movies.”

That said, Richards, who is a governor of the BFI, is firmly committed to refining digital, more practical for Vue’s multiplexes. “If you go down and look at what we opened up in Leicester Square, our new flagship site, it's a 100 year old building where we shoehorned in new technology so it's not perfect, but it gives you an idea of what we're doing."

The new site has two Sony Finity 4K resolution projectors working in tandem – as well as the brand new Dolby Atmos sound system. The dual projection gives the screen a brighter, deeper hue. From a digital perspective, it is bleeding edge, and the set up is being rolled out across the UK and Germany, with 44 sites and counting. Richards is, as you would expect, enamoured with the results, claiming “that screen stands up to anything in the world”. What might be more surprising are the reactions he claims that it has elicited from celluloid devotees.

“There were a lot of old hardcore film fans there who were pleasantly surprised at the quality” he says. “People think of digital as being that new, TV-at-home which has got that clinical feel to it, and they don't feel it's got that warmth and colour saturation. This [Finity presentation] has that warmth of an old 35mm or 70mm, so I don't think the future is going back.”


For Richards and Vue, the future appears to be as bright as that 4K Sony Finity screen in Leicester Square - for celluloid, not so much. While the appetite for watching movies on film might be growing at a promising rate for indie exhibitors, the list of technical and logistical problems is still insurmountable for many smaller venues - saying nothing of the race against time to preserve easily-damaged prints.

The main concern is an ephemeral one: the preservation of the knowledge needed to run a film projection. When the BFI’s Dominic Simmons speaks about the skills of his team and the need to pass those skills on, it evokes near forgotten skills such as thatching and forging. If the BFI and the PCC have anything to say about it, those projection skills will live on, but it’s unclear how far their voices can carry in a digital multiplex age.

As for the voice of celluloid-lover-supreme Christopher Nolan, even he too is shouting down what seems to be an unstoppable march towards a convenient digital future. But in a groundswell of growing interest and passion for the film reel, it seems that a director so obsessed with playing with time in his films seems to have bought exactly that for celluloid. Time is running out on the film reel, but there might be more of it left than we thought.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story