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Is the film dead?

The most amazing bit of digital magic this year is probably the removal of Marion Cotillard’s legs — including in scenes in which she wears a bathing suit or nothing
at all — in Jacques Audiard’s gritty
Rust and Bone — A.O. SCOTT

In the beginning there was light that hit a strip of flexible film mechanically running through a camera. For most of movie history this is how moving pictures were created: light reflected off people and things would filter through a camera and physically transform emulsion. After processing, that light-kissed emulsion would reveal Humphrey Bogart chasing the Maltese Falcon in shimmering black and white.

More and more, though, movies are either partly or entirely digital constructions that are created with computers and eventually retrieved from drives at your local multiplex or streamed to the large and small screens of your choice.

Right before our eyes, motion pictures are undergoing a revolution that may have more far reaching, fundamental impact than the introduction of sound, colour or television. Whether these changes are scarcely visible or overwhelmingly obvious, digital technology is transforming how we look at movies and what movies look like, from modestly budgeted movies shot with digital still cameras to blockbusters laden with computer-generated imagery.

The chief film (and digital cinema) critics of The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, look at the stuff dreams are increasingly made of.

Is the FILM OVER?

A.O. SCOTT: In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1987 movie Keep Your Right Up a movie director (played by Godard) declares that “the toughest thing in movies is carrying the cans.” Those once-ubiquitous, now increasingly quaint metal boxes contained the reels of exposed celluloid stock that were the physical substance of the art form. But nowadays, the easiest thing in digital movies might be carrying the hard drive or uploading the data onto the server. Those heavy, bulky canisters belong to the mechanical past, along with the whirr of the projectors and the shudder of the sprockets locking into their holes.

Should we mourn, celebrate or shrug? Pre-digital artefacts — typewriters and record players, maybe also books and newspapers — are often beautiful, but their charm will not save them from obsolescence. And the new gizmos have their own appeal, to artistes as well as consumers. Leading manufacturers are phasing out the production of

35-millimetre cameras. Within the next few years digital projection will reign not only at the multiplexes, but at revival and art houses too. According to an emerging conventional wisdom, film is over.

MANOHLA DARGIS: Film isn’t dead yet, despite the rush to bury it, particularly by the big studios. Film does not have to disappear. Film isn’t broken — it works wonderfully well and has done so for a century. There is nothing inevitable or natural about the end of film, no matter how seductive the digital technologies and gadgets that are transforming cinema.

SCOTT: Throughout history artistes have used whatever tools served their purposes and have adapted new technologies to their own creative ends. It takes nothing away from the genius of Gregg Toland, the cinematographer on Citizen Kane, to note that the astonishing deep-focus compositions in that film were made possible by new lenses.

Long before digital seemed like a viable delivery system for theatrical exhibition, it was an alluring paintbox for adventurous and impecunious cinéastes. To name just one: Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot many of the Dogme 95 movies and Danny Boyle’s zombie shocker 28 Days Later, found poetry in the limitations of the medium. In the right hands, its smeary, blurry colours could be haunting, and the smaller, lighter cameras could produce a mood of queasy, jolting intimacy.

Image quality improved rapidly, and the last decade has seen some striking examples of filmmakers exploring and exploiting digital to aesthetic advantage. The single

90-minute Steadicam shot through the Hermitage Museum that makes up Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is a specifically digital artefact. So is the Los Angeles nightscape in Michael Mann’s Collateral and the rugged guerrilla battlefield of Steven Soderbergh’s Che, a movie that would not exist without the light, mobile and relatively inexpensive Red camera.

Digital special effects, meanwhile, are turning up this season not only in phantasmagorical places like Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi, but also in movies that emphasise naturalism. To my eyes the most amazing bit of digital magic this year is probably the removal of Marion Cotillard’s legs — including in scenes in which she wears a bathing suit or nothing at all — in Jacques Audiard’s gritty Rust and Bone.

I love the grain and lustre of film, which has a range of colours and tones as yet unmatched by digital. There is nothing better than seeing a clean print projected on a big screen, with good sound and a strong enough bulb in the projector. But reality has rarely lived up to that ideal. I spent my cinephile adolescence watching classic movies on spliced, scratched, faded prints with blown-out soundtracks, or else on VHS. Like anyone else of a certain age I have fond memories of the way things used to be, but I also think that in many respects the way things are is better.

DARGIS: I’m not anti-digital, even if I prefer film: I love grain and the visual texture of film, and even not-too-battered film prints can be preferable to digital. Yes, digital can look amazing if the director — Soderbergh, Mann, Godard, David Fincher and David Lynch come to mind — and the projectionist have a clue. We’re seeing too many movies that look thin, smeared, pixelated or too sharply outlined and don’t have the luxurious density of film and often the colour.

CINEMA HAS TO BE MAGIC

SCOTT: I agree that digital has introduced new visual clichés and new ways for movies to look crummy. But there have always been a lot of dumb, bad-looking movies, and it’s a given that most filmmakers will use emerging technologies to perpetuate mediocrity. A few, however, will discover fresh aesthetic possibilities and point the way forward for a young art form.

An interesting philosophical question is whether, or to what extent, it will be the same art form. Will digitally made and distributed moving-picture narratives diverge so radically from what we know as “films” that we no longer recognise a genetic relationship? Will the new digital cinema absorb its precursor entirely, or will they continue to coexist? As dramatic as this revolution has been, we are nonetheless still very much in the early stages.

DARGIS: Does taking film out of the moving image change what movies are? We don’t know. And it may be that the greater shift — in terms of what movies were and what they are — may have started in 1938, when Paramount Pictures invested in a pioneering television firm. By the late 1950s, Americans were used to watching Hollywood movies on their TVs. They were already hooked on a convenience that — as decades of lousy-looking home video confirmed — has consistently mattered more to them than an image’s size or any of its other properties.

From there, it’s just a technological hop, skip and jump to watching movies on an iPad. That’s convenient, certainly, but isn’t the same as going to a movie palace to watch, as an audience, a luminous, larger-than-life work that was made by human hands. To an extent we are asking the same question we’ve been asking since movies began: What is cinema? A film image is created by light that leaves a material trace of something that exists — existed — in real time and space. It’s in this sense that film becomes a witness to our existence. Then again, I learned from the great avant-garde artist Ken Jacobs — who projects moving images that he creates with shutters, lenses, shadows and his hands — that cinema doesn’t have to be film; it has to be magic.

The New York Times News Service

Will film survive the digital onslaught? Tell t2@abp.in