The Last Bow for 35mm Film

Culture Watch


Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its annual candidates for the gold stature on January 24, it came as no surprise that Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist and Martin Scorsese's Hugo dominated the rankings. It will be a surprise if neither grabs top honors when the global extravaganza is broadcast on Feburary 26. Both are excellent films, but I think the reason the motion picture professionals in Hollywood took this particular double bill to heart is that both are about a fading legacy of movie history—35mm projection.  2011 marked a tipping point year for a motion picture revolution that has been unreeling since the changeover from the twentieth to the twenty-first century: the replacement of venerable old celluloid film with high-def digital imagery at your local multiplex. Texas Instruments, the outfit overseeing a lot of the re-tooling in America, estimates that over half of U.S. projection booths have now gone digital with the march to a complete transition as inevitable as a sequel in summertime.  

For a medium born in the nineteenth century, 35mm motion picture projection has had a remarkably long run. The system was initially fired up in 1895 in Paris, when the pioneering filmmaker-entrepreneurs Auguste and Louis Lumiere first projected 35mm celluloid onto a screen in public space for money, which is a pretty good definition of the movies. Throughout the twentieth century, the 35mm format remained the standard gauge for filming and exhibition. The Kodak film stock got more sensitive, the resolution sharper, and the light cast on the screen more powerful, but the size of the strip remained the constant gold standard for the spectacle of cinema, the difference between a big night out at the Bijou and a mere home movie, the latter being shot in formats of 16mm, 8mm, and super-8mm, before videotape cameras deep-sixed the lower film gauges.  Practically every director in Hollywood had to pose for the same publicity shot: unspooling a strip of 35mm at an editing board, he narrows his eyes and pretends to inspect the image on the frame.

After a century of unquestioned hegemony, however, 35mm is being wiped off the screen. Perhaps not coincidentally, the close of 2011 witnessed this pair of heartfelt elegies for the old medium: Hugo, a love letter to early cinema and film preservation, and The Artist, a homage to the silent era and an argument for the superfluity of spoken dialogue. Both, appropriately, have deep-French connections, both luxuriate in all things filmy, and both showcase protagonists who get literally entwined and almost consumed by strips of 35mm celluloid.
Although auteur and film scholar Scorsese is sleeping with the enemy by trafficking in 3-D, Hugo embraces an older dimension in its cinematic affinities. Set in Paris in the 1920s, it imagines a world where the teen demographic thrills to the sight of Harold Lloyd comedies and pours over volumes of early film history. The ritual passage of the eponymous title character eventually cedes screen space to the story of the real life magician of fin de siècle cinema, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), now a bitter, forgotten old man. He is restored, of course, by his early film work, which is itself also restored. With near religious awe, a film scholar lovingly threads a vintage movie projector with the only extant 35mm print of Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), the one where the man in the moon gets poked in the eye with a rocket.

Even more retro in its cinematic affinities is Hazanavicius's brilliant The Artist, a Hollywood-on-Hollywood homage by way of Paris that flaunts its antique aesthetic—silent, black and white, intertitled—as if the sound, much less the digital, revolution had never happened. Just as Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain (1952) were backwards looks at the end of the silent era produced when Hollywood was traumatized by an even greater technological challenge, namely television, the appearance of The Artist—in which a suicidal silent film star nearly incinerates himself in a web of 35mm footage—seems to speak to the ongoing digital anxiety. "I am big," insists washed-up silent siren Norman Desmond, played by washed-up silent siren Gloria Swanson, in Sunset Blvd. "It's the pictures that got small." Today it's the pictures that got digitized, zapped into cyberspace.  No wonder films like Hugo and The Artist are fetishizing the tangibility of 35mm film—its material existence, there in a can on the shelf or whirling through the projector, not streaming down from somewhere in The Cloud.  

Back on earth, though, before too long, 35mm projection will be consigned to a select cadre of repertory houses, museums, and university film programs. The purist arguments against digital projection are all valid—that it muddies the vibrancy of the color spectrum, that it fails to render the subtleties of the monochromatic scale, that the light is murky and dull—but the commercial incentives and technical advantages of the new format will snuff out the old, aesthetics be damned. One can only hope that, like the transition from silent cinema to the talkies, the switch from celluloid to digital will just replace one kind of magic show with another.  

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