In last week’s New Statesman, Helen Alexander and Rhys Blakely investigated the shrinking world of 35mm film. Hollywood is making the transition to shooting, screening, and archiving everything digitally, doing away with actual film. But directors claim that film is aesthetically superior, and archivists say that the rate of change of technology, coupled with the lack of backward compatibility in most software means their task has become close to impossible. It is producers, the holders of the purse-strings, who are driving the change.
Back in the UK, attempts are being made to keep film alive in both its 16mm and 35mm versions. Cigarette Burns, an army of one that has been organising screenings on film since 2009, is currently touring The Last House on the Left in locations across the country including Leeds, Brighton, Edinburgh, Sheffield, and Glasgow.
Josh Saco, who runs Cigarette Burns, has not, however, made life easy for himself. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left was released in the USA in 1972 to a chorus of controversy – perhaps not surprisingly: six characters are murdered during the course of the film, two of whom are also raped. “Projectionists were so offended, they would just cut up the film as they were watching it,” Saco said as he introduced a showing of Last House at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square last week. “I’d ask people, ‘How cut is your version?’ They’d say, ‘It’s not as cut as some of the others I’ve seen’ – that’s hardly what you want to hear!”
Last House did not fare much better in the UK. It was only in 2008 that the British Board of Film Classification permitted the film to be shown in its entirety, which means it has been screened just a handful of times in the UK, despite a history of being championed by prominent film critics, such as the Observer’s Mark Kermode.
“I’m not a big nostalgia fan,” Saco, dressed all in black, with rings in his lip and right eyebrow, tells me over a couple of beers before the showing at the Prince Charles. “You need to get on with life – everything moves.” The point of screening 35mm and 16mm films, for Saco, is that this is how many older movies were designed to be seen – for instance, the wires supporting Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode IV are only visible in the digitally re-mastered version. “They make everything sharper, but you don’t want that magic ruined, do you?”
From a historical point of view, as well as an aesthetic one, the approaching end of analogue is no trivial matter – this has been the medium of the cinema for over a hundred years. Digital comes closer and closer to fully imitating film, but as Steve McQueen put it, “Why try to mimic it when you’ve already got it?” Hollywood staff, as Alexander and Blakely reported last week, are a tad emotional about the serendipity of film. “The texture of film is perfectly random,” Tim Sarnoff, the head of the digital productions division at Technicolor, said. “It’s hard to get that same randomness in a digital form. It’s too perfect.”
As well as the supposed superiority in projection, film may, a little counter-intuitively, be easier to work with in the post-production stage. With digital, creative choices are delayed, because they can be, whereas film required quicker decisions. “One would think that digital is simpler,” Sarnoff said. “But our lives have become far more complicated.”
As a lay person, I found it difficult to know whether Last House on the Left was any better for being projected in 35mm rather than digitally. The tone was softer, certainly – it felt like looking at photos from my childhood, rather than going to the cinema. There were lots of blotches, too; the imperfections of the film were not hidden. Perhaps what I most enjoyed was the sense that what I was looking at bore little resemblance to the sharp computer screens I seem to spend my life staring into.
There is obviously an element of nerdiness to collecting old films, as Saco himself admits. But it is a surprisingly mixed group who show up to the Prince Charles later that evening. There were people by themselves and the quirkiness of facial hair was greater than would be found in an average sample of the population, but it was not the geek-fest you might imagine would be.
In general, Saco tells me, approximately equal numbers of men and women attend Cigarette Burns’ screenings, and the ages range from about twenty five to fifty five. “It upsets me I can’t get kids in,” Saco says. “But I suppose it’s just about where you are on your journey of discovering film – I stumbled my way into this.”
Such diversity must augur well for the future of 35mm. Interest spans the generations. Saco, himself, says he is a realist about the future prospects of film. “There are voices that are holding out, saying, ‘We don’t just want glorified TV.’ And film can last 120 years in the right conditions – it won’t just die.”
“Fortunately people are realising before it’s too late,” he adds, “but not by much.”