By Ray Pride
For a long time, I resisted using the word “film” for anything except motion pictures shot on film and projected on motion-picture stock. (When George Lucas’ “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was released in 1999, the Newcity review ended with the words, “Transferred from video.”)
But now “film” is something else, not limited to theatrical exhibition. Lucas and James Cameron and the major distributors have won the day, even if the likes of JJ Abrams, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow and Quentin Tarantino rallied the troubled stock producer Kodak to continue producing film for production and archival reasons. Tarantino, who insists that his New Beverly repertory house in Los Angeles will only show 35mm henceforth, is the most adamant voice. “As far as I’m concerned, digital projection and DCPs [are] the death of cinema as I know it. It’s not even about shooting your film on film or shooting your film on digital, the fact that most films now are not presented in 35mm means that the war is lost and digital projections—that’s just television in public. Apparently the whole world is okay with television in public but what I knew as cinema is dead.”
Yikes! That goes a few steps beyond simple nomenclature. I caught up with “Interstellar” on its second weekend, shown at Navy Pier in IMAX on 70mm celluloid, and the most charming aspect to the show, even beyond Nolan’s desire to drown out multiple passages of dialogue with thunderous sound and even more thunderous music by Hans Zimmer, was a piece of dirt that got caught in the projection gate. The dark, dark palette, ripples of grain and the sandy-brown skin tone of Matthew McConaughey on film stock boldly announced the anachronistic character of Nolan’s film-for-film project. (The uncharitable might describe several scenes as emulating the look of film when a projector bulb is beginning to burn out.) But on that stories-high screen, the small detail that made the intergalactic-wormhole-father’s love-daughter’s loss seem like an old-fashioned movie-movie was the spectacle of that bit of crud sitting in the center of the screen, bouncing up, moving from sight, returning to the bottom of the frame, riding up again. Now that’s film! Just like the old days.
Several terrific Blu-ray releases and restorations released in the last weeks of November put the distinction (or distraction) of “what is film” into starker relief, including six of my favorite movies, which I’ve seen projected on film many times. The roster includes two early features by still-productive director Monte Hellman, the Jack Nicholson-starring westerns, “The Shooting” and “Ride in the Whirlwind.” “In the U.S.,” Michael Atkinson writes in the Criterion liner notes, “the two movies entered the vast slipstream of forgotten and mostly unseen and rediscoverable cinema, bobbing up every now and then on some local TV station late at night… Throughout the heyday of VHS home video… they were available only in crummy public-domain copies ripped from neglected TV prints.”
Seen on Blu-ray on a large flat screen, the two bold, stylized movies are as starkly compelling as anything being made today, elliptical dreams of a time past from a time not so far past. Equally resonant is the reissue of Robert Altman’s bitter (and bittersweet) private-eye satire, “The Long Goodbye” (1973), noted for cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s experiments with film stock, chronicled in an extra about the “flashing” technique he used to create a more dreamlike feel to the sun-kissed and night-bitten movie. And for even more finely detailed dreams, there are magnificent high-definition digital restorations of two long-unseen movies by American-born director Leos Carax, beginning with his black-and-white night-set mid-punk debut, “Boy Meets Girl” (1984), about a twenty-two-year-old who wants to capture all his most romantic longings as a filmmaker. Then there’s “Mauvais Sang” (1986), a swooningly poetic fable about a virus that strikes down those who make love without being in love. From bold colors to even bolder, lyrical images—there’s a parachute jump for the ages—Carax’s twenty-five-to-thirty year-old youthful emanations seem like dispatches from the future, as well as from well, film.
And then there’s the one “film” from this bunch showing theatrically in Chicago, Bernardo Bertolucci’s recreation of Italy and its 1930s politics in “The Conformist,” (1970) drawn from the 35mm negative, and restored under the watchful eye of its director and its cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. There are few more gorgeous arguments for “film”—movies—cinema—being a culmination of Wagner’s idea of the “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a synthesis of every artistic element at your disposal, from literature to drama, from image to sound, from elegant, swooping camera movement to dramatically abrupt editing, to a brooding claustrophobic mood like the fevered delirium of guilty dreams. Oh, just another masterpiece, like all these reissues.
What’s in a name? To make an elemental, almost banal point: maybe it’s just stories that count. Whether they’re playing on video-on-demand, in your bedroom with blackout curtains drawn tight, or on Christopher Nolan’s sometimes square, sometimes widescreen, always bold canvas. Enjoy the film!
The restoration of Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” plays at Siskel December 6-8 and 10. “The Conformist,” Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” and Carax’s “Boy Meets Girl” and “Mauvais Sang” are now available on Blu-ray. Below: Monte Hellman and Roger Corman talk about the making of “The Shooting” and a trailer for “The Conformist.”
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.