“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: May 2, 2014

Admit it. On Wednesdays, you wear pink. You fight the urge to say “you whore” whenever someone boos, you would seriously consider changing your name to Glen Coco, and sometimes you just have a lot of feelings. No one foresaw it on April 30, 2004 when “Mean Girls” hit theaters, but 10 years later, it reigns supreme as the most quotable movie of the century. But more than that, it is a membership card to a generation. Being able to quote Regina George or Janis Ian off the top of your head marks you as one of the millennial club, giving “Mean Girls” an iconic status few movies have been able to achieve. In honor of its 10th anniversary, we picked three other movies that take place in that most treacherous of jungles—the hallways and hangouts of high school.

– Elaine

“Rebel Without A Cause” (1955)

Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Dennis Hopper

Available on Amazon Instant streaming, on iTunes, and on disc from Netflix

It’s hard to say why Jim Stark is angry. Is it the dysfunctional relationship of his parents, his new surroundings, or the pretty girl next door who already has a boyfriend? As “Rebel Without A Cause” unfolds, we learn that it’s all and none of these things. Jim Stark is angry because he is. 

Jim, the new boy in town, struggles to adjust to his new life, falls in love with an equally troubled girl, Judy, and befriends a disturbed younger student, Plato. As Jim, James Dean gives the performance of his all-too-brief career, fusing the uncontrollable rage of youth with the mournful vulnerability of a lost soul to tap into the heart of adolescence. In an iconic scene, Jim and Judy “adopt” Plato, pretending to be the parents he never had. It’s a wonderful moment that captures the confusion and absurdity of adolescence. Caught between childhood and adulthood, they mime their future by reaching into the make-believe of the past. We may never have been as angry as Jim and Judy are, but their confusion and pain resonate. Sixty years on, Nicholas Ray’s classic remains one of the most compelling portraits of how difficult—and how angry—growing up can be.

– Elaine

“Dazed and Confused” (1993)

Cast: Jason London, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Shawn Andrews, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Sasha Jenson, Marissa Ribisi, Deena Martin, Michelle Burke, Cole Hauser, Christine Harnos, Wiley Wiggins, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey

Available on Amazon Instant, iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Richard Linklater’s time-bending ambitions started long before “Before Sunset” or “Boyhood,” as with his second feature the Texan native effortlessly transported audiences back to 1976 for one of his patented rambling, observational films. Linklater follows his rowdy and rambunctious group of teens over the course of one day and one night – but not just ANY one day and one night, no. It’s the last day of school, and the first, sweet hours of summer. For the students of Austin, the impending aimlessness is both liberating and just a little nerve-wracking: rising freshman are learning what it means to be thrust into adolescence, while graduating seniors contemplate whether they are doomed to become Matthew McConaughey (in what remains, even an Oscar later, his signature role). The characters inhabit more or less archetypical high school roles, but the near-total lack of plot makes this feel less like a manipulated world and more a relatable, inhabited one.

– Ethan

“Saved!” (2004)

Cast: Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Heather Matarazzo, Eva Amurri Martino, Mary Louise Parker

Available on Amazon Instant, iTunes, and streaming on Netflix

Coming out only a month after “Mean Girls” hit theaters, the equally witty (and more scathingly satirical) high school comedy “Saved!” couldn’t quite make it out of Lindsay Lohan’s shadow, grossing only a modest, indie-level-success $10 million. Of course, despite its likable cast of young actors (this was before Culkin started singing about pizza, remember), “Saved!” wasn’t nearly so “audience-friendly” in Hollywood’s eyes – its Christian school setting and tackling of polarizing issues like teen pregnancy, homophobia and religion may have warded off the cinematically unadventurous. But they missed out, as “Saved!” is raunchy, sharp, and touchingly earnest about its characters’ struggles, handling hot-button topics with compassion and hilarity. As high school goes in real life, the emotions flow so loud and large that sometimes you just have to break down laughing.

– Ethan

Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.