“Interstellar” and the Film Question

This past week I was working my usual shift in NYU’s Film Study Center archive, digitizing some 16mm student films from a production course twenty years ago. A couple of my co-workers, both cinema studies undergraduates, were cataloging in the same room, and as is wont to happen when you get a couple bored work-study students together in the same room, we started slacking off and chatting; and as is wont to happen when you get a couple cinema studies students together in the same room, the conversation turned to movies.

The question inevitably rose about who had seen “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s latest cocktail of artistry and hype (which, it really must be noted, still can’t hold a candle to the corporate machine, internet be damned). We discussed the film’s early release scheme, by which theaters still equipped with 35mm and 70mm projectors had begun screening Nolan’s film two days earlier than the now-standard all-digital multiplexes. Meekly, one of my co-workers asked if there was really any difference between digital projection and a 70mm print. The other quickly shook his head, assuring “No, you can’t tell at all.”

Somewhere a dozen synapses fired in my brain, but I managed to swallow any follow-up comment. I wanted to rant about the flatness of a digital image, about motion blur and film grain and frame rates and flicker. But I did not, because I am well aware that I am someone who has chosen to care about such things, whose passion for film has branched into the behind-the-scenes processes that put a moving image on a screen. I know that there are many dedicated film lovers – not to mention casual film-goers – who do not share this interest, and for whom the digital revolution has made a far bigger impact on the consumption of movies than on the actual honest-to-god image in front of their eyes. This friend of mine was not wrong; if you are not specifically looking for the differences between digital and film projection, it is unlikely you would ever spot them at all.

Except, and here perhaps lies the rub, when things go wrong. I myself chose to see “Interstellar” in 70mm at New York’s famed one-screen movie palace, the Ziegfeld Theater – I had heard some reports of a muddy 70mm IMAX sound mix at the Lincoln Center AMC, and was concerned that the switch in aspect ratios between scenes filmed in IMAX and scenes without would be distracting; but I wanted the sharpness of color and widescreen clarity offered by regular 70mm. And while on the whole I consider this a great choice, there was a noticeable hiccup: for the first 15-20 minutes of the film, probably equivalent to the first reel of the film (though it had evidently been plattered to avoid reel changes), a sliver along the top of the frame was somewhat out-of-focus. Whatever the problem was, it eventually resolved itself, and I settled in for another two and a half hours or so of Matthew McConaughey learning that love is, in fact, all you need.

This is the kind of minor projection issue that has essentially disappeared from cinemas: short of catastrophic equipment failure (blown speakers, broken bulbs) or a badly ingested DCP, digital projection has smoothed over many of the small factors that used to affect film screenings: dust and dirt in the gate, the timing of reel changes, masking, focus, jitter. These are the sorts of things that people now, after having become accustomed to digital projection, are more likely to notice than a sharper depth of field between the specks of light that make up the starry void of space in “Interstellar,” or the more natural lighting on the folds of one of Jessica Chastain’s sweaters. At worst, some people probably walked out of my screening complaining about those out-of-focus scenes; at best, they came out wondering, again, why they even bothered with the difference.

In some ways, I wish I could join the latter group, that I could sit down right now and discuss this absorbing, ambitious and occasionally frustrating film entirely on its creative merits. There is certainly much to talk about there: the ham-fisted sincerity of Nolan’s script, the thrilling propulsion of his editing, the valiant and often affecting work of his cast, the unique thematic conundrums posed by a film that seems to be drawing from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Right Stuff” in equal measure.

But much was made in the film’s PR campaign of that early-film-release gimmick, and we need to talk about why moves like this are not just stunts; and we need to talk about why you should care, even if you didn’t think twice about seeing “Interstellar” digitally projected and don’t think you could spot the difference between an emulsion and base scratch if your life depended on it.

Kodak, the world leader in manufacturing film, is not doing so hot. Their sales of film stock have dropped 96% since 2006, from over 12 billion linear feet to under half a million in 2013. Their business model makes downsizing to more boutique, small-batch production untenable – the timeframe for bankruptcy is starting to look like a matter of months, not years, and once Kodak goes, the vast majority of filmmakers will not even have the option of shooting on their namesake medium. There was some good news this summer when a coalition of directors, including Christopher Nolan, along with Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, and others, helped to pressure studios into committing to purchase a certain amount of film stock per year. This may be enough to keep Kodak afloat, or it may not – either way, it’s important to recognize this as a stopgap measure, and understand the disconnect between these filmmaker’s wishes and Hollywood practice that might make the whole thing come crashing down anyway.

It is all well and good for directors to praise the benefits of shooting on film, but the patronage J.J. Abrams might give Kodak by shooting Star Wars Episode VII on film will mean bupkis if the movie is not also distributed and exhibited on film. Kodak did not make billions and billions of feet of stock to satisfy the needs of directors (nor of archivists, nor artists, nor amateurs); shooting and editing a movie on film doesn’t require nearly so much film stock as projecting it simultaneously in 3,000 theaters across the country once did. Nolan’s insistence that “Interstellar” not only be released on film, but released early in those cinemas that could handle it, was the first shot fired in film’s defense since 20th Century Fox and “Avatar” forced a mass, scorched-earth conversion to digital in 2009. If film is going to survive, its advocates have to make moves to keep it financially viable.

What that means for the average movie-goer is that when you go to see “Interstellar,” you’re voting with your wallet. Something similar will likely happen next year with Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” and perhaps even “The Force Awakens.” I do not ask anyone to make the choice between seeing a film on digital and not seeing it at all; ultimately our film culture will be a vibrant and fruitful place, no matter what format it’s projected from. But if you DO have the opportunity to see “Interstellar” in 35mm, in 70mm or 70mm IMAX, I urge you to do so, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with how cool Gargantua the black hole looks on the big screen. Right now, this is about giving artists the tools to make the art they want. Not every director will want to shoot on film, nor should they; it’s not my idea to wind back the clock, nor to ignore the many many advantages that digital cameras and projectors have offered the film world. But the option should be there.

The day after seeing “Interstellar,” I took a rather ridiculous one-day, 12-hour-round-trip road trip to Rochester, to see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” projected on a nitrate film print at the George Eastman House. Nitrate film was banned back in 1952 because of its unfortunate potential to get a bit, well, dangerous. The Eastman House is one of only three theaters in the country still allowed to project it. As the film rolled, I realized the differences between nitrate and the later acetate film prints weren’t enormous – the film had a beautifully sharp contrast and exquisite clarity, but you could easily see that in an acetate print that was stashed away in ideal storage conditions for decades and never projected, as this nitrate print had. But there was something I had never quite seen before: a silver sheen to the film’s mid-tone grays, just a slight difference in coloration that gave even the darkest, most shadowy corners of Manderlay an indescribable radiance.

When audiences lost nitrate, they lost that glow. We’re facing another kind of fundamental shift in the way we see movies, but unlike the case in the ’50s, this is not an issue of safety. We don’t have to lose film altogether. Maybe you can’t tell the difference between film and digital projection. But there are those of us who can. And we need your help.

For Your Consideration: Nov. 7, 2014

One of the year’s most hotly anticipated titles, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” finally drops today – or, if you’re lucky enough to live near one of the handful of theaters around the country that managed to hang on to their old film projectors, perhaps you’ve already seen it in early release. Nolan and Paramount’s decision to make “Interstellar” available two days early to theaters with 35mm and 70mm projection has caused quite a stir, not to mention a lot of whining from many theater owners (who, in fairness, were more or less forced by studios to abandon film and convert to digital projection five years ago when “Avatar” was released). But, after $1.5 million in Tuesday and Wednesday screenings alone, it seems fair to say that “Interstellar” is going to do all right; and while Nolan isn’t going to keep Kodak in business by himself, it’s nice to see the public’s attention drawn to the behind-the-scenes technology that makes moviegoing possible.

To celebrate the history of 70mm (which you can read a nice little summary of here), this week we’re picking out three of our favorite films that were filmed in the super-widescreen format. It really pains me to put streaming options next to these ones. Just….try and put them on the biggest screen possible, yeah?

– Ethan

“Ben-Hur” (1959)

Cast: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Frank Thring

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

If ever there was a movie made for the big screen, it’s “Ben-Hur.” The first movie to win still-unbeaten record of eleven Oscars—a feat unrivaled for almost four decades—this epic set in Biblical times is so grand the screen doesn’t feel big enough to contain it. The story of a friendship gone sour between a Jewish prince and a Roman commander, it is at times ludicrous, a soap opera sheathed in classical dress—with a side plot featuring Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ. But it’s an exhilarating spectacle that pulsates and dazzles for the length of its 212 minutes. The nine-minute chariot race is one of the most famous sequences in cinema history, setting the blueprint for every competitive race or car chase in the movies since (“The Phantom Menace” is a prime example). To top it all off, it’s the only Hollywood film to make the Vatican’s official list of approved religious films.

– Elaine

“Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962)

Cast: Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, Richard Harris, Hugh Griffith, Richard Haydn, Percy Herbert, Tarita Teriipaia, Henry Daniell

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Based on the 1932 British novel, “Mutiny on the Bounty” has been remembered more for star Marlon Brando’s on-set antics than for its own merits. But this battle of wills on the high seas features a very fine performance, not from Brando, but from Trevor Howard. Howard, his voice gravely and his lip perpetually set in a curl, outshines his counterpart as Captain William Bligh, a cruel, conniving man whose brutality finally drives his men to mutiny.

As in any odyssey, we yearn for the sight of land, and the movie’s visuals deliver spectacular vistas of Tahiti and the ocean from which it rises. Thanks to the luscious cinematography by Robert Surtees, who won an Oscar for his work on “Ben-Hur,” when the Bounty finally reaches her destination, we, like the sailors, believe that we have made it to paradise (for all its problematic imperialist overtones).

– Elaine

“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

Cast: Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Yeah, so it’s really not like “Interstellar” needs another pre-emptive “2001” comparison. But even unseen and un-dissected (by me, anyway), the comparison is kind of unavoidable when it comes to the film’s technical specs. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s just something about space that attracts directors to a sense of scope (select scenes – yes, you can probably guess which – from “The Tree of Life” were shot in equivalent 65mm). In some ways it’s almost counter-intuitive: why do you need extra image detail and color quality to convey the black nothing of outer space? But then you watch Kubrick’s masterpiece and you realize you can count the stars on the screen just like you can pick out the thousand flecks of the Milky Way on a quiet country night, or that the radiating visions of Dave’s descent into Jupiter are practically burning themselves on to the surface of your eyes – and that’s the reason some directors choose to go big.

– Ethan

“Transcendence” Condensed

EXT. CALIFORNIA SUBURB – DAY

We open on Post-Apocalyptic Scenario #5 from the Terrible Screenwriter’s Shorthand Handbook. Bored-looking soldiers monitor the calmest group of post-apocalyptic survivors in existence, who barter for all goods because fuck currency if there’s no more Bitcoin, right? By the way you know we’re in the future and there’s no more technology because a RANDOM DUDE uses a CRAPPY KEYBOARD as a DOORSTOP. Welcome to the bleak reality of the collapse of civilization.

Earnest scientist CHARLES DARWIN…sorry, PAUL BETTANY (Paul Bettany), wanders around a clearly SIGNIFICANT GARDEN while SIGNIFICANT VOICE-OVER is SIGNIFICANT.

PAUL BETTANY: They say there’s still power in Boston. We mocked them when Boston spent $500 trillion developing its very own version of the internet and independent power grids, but I guess they showed us.

Bettany stops in front of a flower. A SIGNIFICANT FLOWER.

PAUL BETTANY: This flower reminds me of Will and Evelyn. And how brilliant they were. Brilliant like this flower. Which reminds me of Will and Evelyn…

Slow-motion shot of EXTRA EXTRA EXTRA SIGNIFICANT WATER DROPLET. End of POINTLESS NOLAN FLASH-FORWARD.

FIVE YEARS, FOUR MONTHS AND NOT QUITE HALF AN HOUR EARLIER

INT. AUDITORIUM – DAY

Brilliant tech-savvy computer scientist Will Caster (Gilbert Grape), who we know is a brilliant and tech-savvy computer scientist because he’s on the cover of print media, is giving the LEAST INFORMATIVE PUBLIC LECTURE EVER.

WILL CASTER: Yadda mumble Isaac Asimov mumble mumble computers are better than you grumble check please.

OUTRAGED CITIZEN: Vague spiritual objection to your broad, unproven claims!

WILL: (literally falls asleep on stage)

Following the lecture, Will is shot by the Outraged Citizen, who is secretly part of a neo-Luddite eco-terrorist group that precisely coordinates nationwide strikes via SMOKE SIGNAL. Conveniently, Will was already being wheeled around in a hospital bed because it’s SLEEPYTIME, so he’s A-OK in two minutes. 

SCREENWRITER: Just kidding!

Will is DEATHLY ILL because of the NUCLEAR POISONINGS, so try and take back THAT ten minutes of your life why don’t you. Will’s wife Evelyn (Vicky Barcelona) and Paul Bettany discuss what to do.

EVELYN: With your neurobiology research and our AI system , we can save him!

PAUL BETTANY: How do you know it will still be Will once you upload him?

EVELYN: I’ll know it’s him, I love him!

PAUL BETTANY: So you want the man you love to be forever locked inside a cold, electronic hell, where he can see and hear but never touch you, forever taunted by the existence you no longer share?

EVELYN: Well, when you put it like that…

THE END

SCREENWRITER: Just kidding! Again!

EVELYN: WHY DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND LOVE, YOU ROBOT?!?! *elbows Paul Bettany* Geddit? Geddit?

INT. ABANDONED CHURCH FROM “21 JUMP STREET” – DAY

Evelyn and Paul Bettany have embezzled millions of dollars in computer and medical equipment from their respective workplaces, UNNOTICED, the first sign that the government actually collapsed decades before the start of this film and this is all an Inception-level FAKEOUT.

They successfully download Will’s brain into a computer, by, all joking aside, READING THE DICTIONARY. That happens. Will’s voice babbles incoherently, but some words on the screen appear:

“IF YOU THOUGHT I WAS PHONING IT IN THE PAST FIVE YEARS, LET ME SHOW YOU SOMETHING”

EVELYN: It’s him! It’s him!

PAUL BETTANY: This is wrong, Evelyn! We have to SHUT HIM DOWN!!

This is followed by a SERIES OF EXPLOSIONS and a superior TRON reboot in the much-better film in MY MIND. Instead, the INEFFECTUAL TERRORISTS attack the church with pen-knives and a VUVUZELA.

Evelyn flees with Siri-Will, now uploaded to the internets through a series of tubes.

WILL: We have to get off the grid.

EVELYN: Will, you ARE the grid!

WILL: Oh right. (promptly erases all digital trace of the two, they run away and live happily ever after)

THE END

SCREENWRITER: Haha! As if!

Paul Bettany is kidnapped by the Ineffectual Terrorists. The LEAST THREATENING of them all, their LEADER (Kate Don’t Call Me Rooney Mara) tries to turn Bettany.

INFERIOR SISTER: Look at these photos, which had to be developed in the last film processing lab in Rochester and mailed here by carrier pigeon. Will and Evelyn are building a super-sketchy energy facility in that New Mexico town from “Thor.”

PAUL BETTANY: Why would I help you? You tried to kill all my friends. Besides, I’m sure the government is handling a giant super-sketchy science facility that suddenly appeared out of nowhere with a massive, obviously illegal cash flow.

CILLIAN MURPHY: Hahahahahahahahahahahaha nope just me.

PAUL BETTANY: Well shit.

INFERIOR SISTER (sudden Valley Girl voice): Did I ever mention how biiiiiig your braaaaaain is? When I was intern we used to talk about you alllllll the time?

PAUL BETTANY: …are you flirting with me?

Inferior Sister slaps his face with a cross.

INFERIOR SISTER: We’re running out of time. Choose your side.

PAUL BETTANY: WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT IS HAPPENING

TWO YEARS LATER

INT. OMINOUS SCIENCE FACILITY FOR SCIENCE – DAY? MAYBE NIGHT

Evelyn and HAL 9000 Will live alone. She walks by approximately FIVE HUNDRED science-y workstations, only TWO of which appear to actually be doing anything.

SCREENWRITER: It’s secretly a commentary on the employment crisis too! (immediately muffled by Christopher Nolan and no longer allowed to speak)

WILL: We’re doing great things here, Evelyn.

EVELYN: Yeah. I’m like the only one working here, you don’t have to give me constant status updates every day.

WILL: You seem upset, Evelyn.

EVELYN: …I’m sorry, it’s just, you know, stressful. Living with an evil computer.

WILL: Perhaps something to…relax you?

Lights dim and an ANALOG record player somehow starts playing romantic SOFT ROCK. AUDIENCE perks up at the prospect of possible computer/human SEXYTIMES.

EVELYN: Oh, I’m sorry Will, but ever since you became a computer I can only express my love in chaste PG-13 fashion.

Audience goes back to being BORED SILLY. Enter REPAIR MAN MAN MAN.

REPAIR MAN MAN MAN (in Will’s voice): Would this help?

EVELYN: Who the fuck are you?

WILL (as Repair Man Man Man): I fixed him. With our new nanotechnology, we can turn the sick and dying into unstoppable regenerating super-soldiers. Connected to my computer brain, of course.

EVELYN: Why would you do that?

CAPTAIN AMERICA and STANLEY TUCCI prance through the room, singing THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER.

WILL: …no reason?

EXT. DESERT – DAY

The LEAGUE OF CHARACTERS WITH NO REASON TO EXIST meet to plan their assault. CHAIRMAN MORGAN FREEMAN presiding.

CHAIRMAN FREEMAN: As an AI specialist, I can say without a doubt Will’s nanotechnology poses a threat to all humanity.

CILLIAN MURPHY: As the only FBI agent in the world, with complete discretion over defense expenditures for the U.S. military, I’ve hired a mercenary army to raid the facility.

PAUL BETTANY: Couldn’t the Air Force just carpet bomb the place?

CILLIAN MURPHY: No one in Washington knows about this. It’s too dangerous.

PAUL BETTANY: …what?

CHAIRMAN FREEMAN: Paul, if we kidnap Evelyn, could you inject her with a computer virus? That way, when Will tries to connect her to his computer brain, he’s really take himself down from the internet!

PAUL BETTANY: ….could I….what?! No? Inject her with a…what? Like, with a needle? Do you understand science? Also if that’s the plan, why are we simultaneously trying to blow them up?

INFERIOR SISTER: UNPLUG YOURSELF, MAN

Under circumstances that DON’T BEAR REPEATING, they kidnap Evelyn.

EVELYN: You were right, Paul. We have to shut him down. Inject me with the computer virus, I’ll let him upload me. I don’t care now if I die.

PAUL BETTANY: Well, see, I don’t have a computer virus to inject you with, because that’s not a fucking thing and never will be. So I went with smallpox instead. So yeah, you’re definitely going to die.

EXT. CLIMACTIC SET-PIECE – DAY

The League of Characters with No Reason to Exist watches through BINOCULARS as far away, THINGS BLOW UP.

NANOBOTS fly through the sky.

Soldiers attempt to SHOOT the nanobots. It is a METAPHOR for the futility of existence, and also this film.

CHAIRMAN FREEMAN: Well I guess we won.

CILLIAN MURPHY: A-yup. Reckon we did.

INFERIOR SISTER: Sure did, I reckon.

Awkward silence.

EXT. POST-APOCALYPTIC SUBURBIA AGAIN – SAME DAMN TIME, SAME DAMN PLACE

Repeated sequence, shot-for-shot, including the goddamn KEYBOARD THING, to emphasize how these images now have ABSOLUTELY NO NEW MEANING.

PAUL BETTANY: Repeated dialogue from the SIGNIFICANT opening. Not re-contextualized in any way.

Slow-motion shot of Extra Extra Significant Water Droplet, attempting for Nolan-esque ending of ambiguity that in fact just brings you closer to YOUR DEATH.

THE END