05 November 2011

Film may be dead, but should we mourn it?

Roger Ebert (see link below) has announced "the death of film" in the face of the unstoppable digital wave and new movie-watching options, like Netflix or movies-on-demand services on XBox 360 and the like. But how tragic an occasion is this, really? Certainly, film (real celluloid, that is) has always had a particular vibrancy to it that the coldness of digital falls short of matching. It has an ineffable texture to it that exerts a strong appeal on film buffs everywhere. I remember seeing the re-release of Apocalypse Now way back in 2001 (I was way too young and certainly had far too indulgent parents). That was real film. Technicolor. Big IMAX screen. Big IMAX speakers. It was one of the major filmic events of my life. It enveloped you, visually and sonically, like nothing else.

Experiences like that form the backbone of Ebert's lament on the death of film. It is indeed almost primally appealing to sit there in the dark, with a similarly rapt select group of your cinematic compatriots, and let the vivid, near-tangible image and clear, dominating sound wash over you and transport you away to a magical land... for a couple hours, anyways. This is the ideal cinematic experience, and it does happen every once in a while, and it's a rare joy when it does.

But is this the reality of going to the cinema today? Not too often. Often, the movie fails to grab you and that aforementioned alchemy doesn't quite happen. Celluloid or digital wouldn't make much of a difference in improving the overall quality with these middling examples. Sometimes, the "cinematic compatriots" instead become adversaries, distracting with their phones, their mouths, and their bodies by texting, talking, or kicking... or chewing a little too loudly. Rarely, but often enough to be annoying, the projection fails in some way and your experience is viciously interrupted - even if it's set right soon, it's hard to get back into that state of mind.

And when this type of experience becomes too frequent, it's comforting (maybe not as comforting as the ideal cinematic experience, but close enough) to know you can just sit at home and watch a movie at your leisure, albeit on a smaller screen (a wayyy smaller screen if you're me and not rich and don't have a home theatre set-up), albeit on a crappier digital version, albeit without that ethereal communal vibe. For most movies these days, that, unfortunately, does just fine. The option is there, at any rate, whenever you should choose to partake of it.

While Ebert does well to point out the inferiority of digital to celluloid, just as he aptly denigrates 3-D (though to too great an extent sometimes) in favour of 2-D (I'm all for 3-D in the extremely rare instances it's done well and adds something to the finished product), but he misses the other reasons why real film's death has become rapidly apparent. It's not just the convenience factor or the audience's preference to digital, but that the movie-going experience so rarely achieves that special alchemy that would justify its continued existence.

Of course, Ebert has denigrated these kinds of distracting audience behaviours in his previous writings, so he may have just willfully decided to focus on other aspects for this post. And indeed, I'm as baffled as him why digital is winning the battle over film in theatres, not just in terms of home viewing options. But while I love the ideal film experience with such an ardor that it will be hard for even any romantic connections to match it, the ideal doesn't happen nearly as often as it should. And many movies with average production values work just as well on a private small screen as a public big one. Reality is a cold bitch that way.

Digital should hardly be considered a substitute for film w/r/t the best and brightest movies out there, but there's a reason cinema attendance is dwindling. Film may be dying, but to what extent should we mourn it? Or is there anything we can do to resuscitate it (and the experience associated with it) so that it can brighten our cinemas another day?


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