As a worker in a modern-day movie theatre, part of my job is to make up 35mm prints to show. Yet, while much ink is being spilt around this year's and next's new and now digital extravaganzas, the digital revolution hasn't quite reached the movie theatres.
Movies are still shown on those old loud clattery projectors. They come on 2000-foot reels, each lasting about 20 minutes a piece, and while in the old days those reels would have been changed back and forth (and if it was done right, you couldn't tell), nowadays you splice them all together onto a platter so once you hit start, the entire film - about a mile long all together - runs through without (if you're lucky) a hitch.
The reason they do this is that multiplexes couldn't survive financially if they needed a union projectionist manning each and every film. The automated platter system allowed less-professional workers (like me) to run the booth with a minimum of damage to the film, and now that most films barely last more than 2 or 3 weeks in theatres, the level of catastrophe possible is mitigated by the fact that you don't have much time to do it, or if you do it doesn't stick around long enough to be a problem (or in a worse-case scenario, if one of the prints of “Superman” is damaged in the first weekend, you just ship that one out first as soon as you reduce your prints next weekend).
What progress the magical future of digital projection has gained has partly to do with the amount of hay the PR guy have made touting downloadable (and presumably security-locked - we'll see how that goes) film files that never fade, scratch or age. This is in theory true - platters, or more specifically, the kids who run film on them, are rough on prints. The digital prints are however susceptible to crashing unexpectedly or become fatally obsolete within months. But presumably after it no longer matters. (You could find a 90-year-old reel of Chaplin and put it on and view it - I doubt you could view or even identify a digital film file from more than 5 years ago.)
(The digital prints have the benefit of becoming obsolete/unreadable right about the time it goes to DVD (or whatever the new format will be). And that's okay - who will want to look at "Don't Mess With The Zohan" 10 seconds after they saw it the first time?)
Digital files also are prone to fail if you get too strong a magnet too close to them. Or it doesn't boot. Or a phone rings too close to them. Celluloid, mortal and deteriorating format it may be, remains the most stable and reliable medium of choice, scratches and all.
Film is plastic, and not just theoretically (the academic discussion of the aesthetic nature of projected film as visual sculpture will come in the future). Indeed it's a long ribbon of plastic, a mile-long series of small photos that run through machines.
Heir as all physical artifacts in this atom-based world are to misfortune, it displays its wear and blemishes like battle scars, projected larger than life onto the screen. Like inadvertent tattoos acquired without its knowledge, the well-used reels of film each display characteristic traces of reckless behavior, each unique, from careless fingers that abused or ignored the curving leading leaders as they inadvertently slapped against the rough edges of the make-up bench, or rolled onto the uncarpeted floor unattended, left to collect dust and scars while other more seductive distractions kept the keepers - the projectionists - from paying proper, more affectionate, attention.
I made up a print of DePalma's 1983 “Scarface” for a midnight show last year, which had been built up and broken back down innumerable times in the last 25 years. Jesus, DePalma's “Scarface,” a midnight cult perennial. Who would have thought it? Ben Hecht is turning over in his grave. (Still. He made a career out of it.) Each reel end showed all sorts of splices at all spots, often cut at any random place, sometimes several feet and seconds into the film, with a panoply of different colors of tape.
This print had its history visible like a palimpsest.
But I was able to put it together, and run it for another couple of dozen of po-mo fans of gangsta retro Pacino chic.
The most crippled film I've had in my hands was a print of the 3-d porn film “Hard Candy,” a typically lame sex film (I use the term literally, as there was sex depicted in it...lamely) with - if you can believe it - the red-and-green 3-d effect most used on old science fiction black-and-white prints. This on a color film from 1973. Not that it was a good idea to begin with, but now the print was faded Kodacolor and turning the distinct red they're want to do (and of course, throwing the supposed color-coded eye separation effect completely out of whack).
This print had been travelling for 30 years, and it seemed that with every edit, with every attachment of the leaders to each head and tail of each reel, more and more frames had been lost, discarded by sloppy edits that cut frames or feet off, probably shortening the film by minutes (not to mention the horndogs that had pulled frames or shots out of the good parts in the middle) by the time we got a hold of it. And the scratches at the reel starts and ends began long before and ended way after the actual reel changes happened. All irrefutable evidence of the mishaps in previous booths, dumping onto the floor or being dragged from table to platter, with no concern for hygiene or the print's future.
It's an interesting experience to actually be cued - visually and even aurally - with scratches and pops to when each and every reel is coming up, like an infernal instinctual clock marking every 20 minutes. This print should have been retired about 100 make-ups ago, but human nature kept this film in circulation and in profit.
Digital mastering seems to be changing everyone's standards for perfection in presentation. Nowadays reviews of DVDs discuss bit rates, aliasing (jaggies on straight lines), pixelation and other digital artifacts. Most of film's blemishes are adjusted out, saving us from witnessing - or even being aware of - imperfections.
Yet physical film damage has developed its own fetishistic appeal. David Fincher takes time out from his fussy narrative in"Fight Club," directly from a scene in Chuck Palahniuk's book that should have been cut, to discuss the cue marks in the upper right-hand corner of each reel (which still appear on films (downward capability rules), but are much more noticeable on many old films shown on t.v. from prints, and in many older VHS and laserdisc transfers(some with hand-made cues). Palahniuk calls them "cigarette burns," like the industry insiders he professes to have walked with. What "industry insiders" really call those cue marks are "cue marks." Really. I think Palahniuk made the whole thing up. Get over yourself.
And reel damage was lovingly recreated in Tarantino's/Rodriguez's “Grindhouse” in 2007, really too late for anyone to really appreciate it, but is instructive as how the “plastic” aspect of film is sometimes more interesting than the film itself. (Eisenstein may have been trying to get to this as well, but didn't have the benefit of having had 42nd street to be inspired by. ) Rodriguez's “Planet Terror” damage was all done digitally, and he even duplicates a reel gone missing (in a bit that transcends the film in ways he doesn't quite have a handle on, but is wildly convenient for his narrative purposes). Tarantino reportedly took his footage out to the parking lot and damaged it the old-school analog way, dragging it across the asphalt. I really appreciate the thought behind this, although I believe it about as far as I can throw Chuck Palahniuk. QT's too precious about his trash being just so to leave it to random chance.
The “damaged goods” wave has migrated downward on the cultural scale - Digital Playground's trailer for their porn film “Naked Aces #3” brilliantly duplicates for 2 minutes a faded, scratched print of a 30-year-old trailer (culled from the film itself?) better than the film itself can possibly deliver on.
But the best in-home entertainment duplication of bad in-theatre presentation I've seen - best precisely because it was unintentional - was a VHS copy of an Italian pre-record I acquired from the fine folks at European Trash Cinema (see link) of a early '80s Italian Serena Grandi sex comedy - at each reel change, on this prerecord, the image would go out of frame and move up or down within seconds, back in frame. Like the projectionist was asleep up in the booth. Now, they transfer these films on an expensive telecine machine, and presumably they line the reels up before pressing “record,” right? Yet they managed to get each reel, one every 20 minutes, out of alignment, on an official release.
Not that I'm missing bad projection. There's still plenty of that in the real world.
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I won't give you the link to the Naked Aces #3 trailer. Do not google it. Do not type in Naked Aces 3 trailer.