Wherever the diagnosis came from, numerous critics and writers have recently been responding to the proclamation that film is dead. As of late, A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, The Onion‘s Scott Tobias, Salon.com‘s Matt Zoller Seitz, IFC’s Matt Singer, Jean-Luc Godard (about 40 years after his initial apocalyptic prophecy), director Peter Greenaway, cinematographer Roger Deakins, British artist Tacita Dean, neurologically-inclined critics in Psychology Today, and many others have dealt with the possibility that the medium of celluloid, after only about 125 years of flickering existence (long enough to reshape the way we viewed mediation and reality; positively newborn, though, in comparison to most other visual arts), is giving way to digital technologies. The responses above have ranged from panicked destitution to enamored zeal to melancholy resignation, but most of them agree on the facts: as digital cameras and projectors are becoming more technologically-advanced, elevating their pictorial qualities to something near the level of newly-struck film prints (or above and beyond, according to Deakins in the article posted above), moviemakers, distributors, exhibitors, and manufacturers are gradually pushing cinema towards the digital realm.
Those facts are incontrovertible. Kodak is phasing out production of celluloid film; Aaton, AARI, and Panavision will no longer make film cameras. Theaters that turn to digital projection are usually required to get rid of their celluloid projectors (for reasons that are unquestionably more economic than technological). Many film-processing companies have closed down, and new 35mm film projectors are no longer being manufactured.
How you respond to this news depends, of course, on your willingness to embrace change, to accept the fact that technologies evolve and displace what came beforehand; or on your nostalgia-steeped affection for an art form that has unified audiences for the better part of the last century, and which is becoming something of a romanticized antiquity. Like most movie-lovers, we here in the Walker film and video department greet the emergence of digital technologies with ambivalent melancholy. Like most moviegoers of certain generations, we all have euphoric memories of a projector’s lightbulb flickering through a physically-present strip of chemically-imbued film (my personal favorite: an astonishing 35mm restoration of Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman); none of us want to see this shimmering art form vanish from theaters. Luckily, for screenings at the Walker, it doesn’t have to: a recent grant furnished to our film and video department has allowed us to upgrade our projection equipment, facilitating not only a new digital projection system (with 3D capabilities) but also a celluloid projection system for both 16mm and 35mm (with variable frame rates for, perhaps, the occasional 18fps silent-film screening). All of these advancements will be sure to get a workout in the winter and early spring of 2012.
While it doesn’t seem like there’s much to add to the plethora of articles posted above, it bears repeating that celluloid is not dead; bleak as the prognosis may be, film has a long way to go before it approaches its deathbed (if that ever happens). Digital may be taking over, but there will always be museums, college campuses, cinematheques, and specialty houses that preserve and champion the projection of celluloid. (And there will always be film buffs who crave, at least occasionally, the glorious imperfections of celluloid—the scratches, the flickering grain, even the muffled hums and clicks of the projector in the nearby booth.) Furthermore, the communal experience of watching movies with an audience in a darkened theater will not die; whether projected on film or digitally, cinema’s value as a social gathering cannot be vanquished by developing technology. (This was the same fear that arose with the popularity of television in the 1950s; if TV couldn’t kill movie theaters, neither will Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, or cell-phone downloads.)
A last bit of irony I’d like to mention: the year 2011 saw what was probably the highest number of cinematic death knells in the history of movies, as die-hard celluloid purists could not ignore the fluctuations of the industry any longer; but 2011 also may have been the strongest cinematic year at least since the new millennium, with good-to-masterful new movies by the likes of Terrence Malick, Raúl Ruiz, Jean-Luc Godard, Aki Kaurismäki, Abbas Kiarostami, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Werner Herzog, Elia Suleiman, Steve McQueen, Kelly Reichardt, Errol Morris, Cristi Puiu, Lars von Trier, and Lee Chang-dong, and upcoming releases from Béla Tarr, Jafar Panahi, Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg, Lynne Ramsay, Takeshi Kitano, and Wim Wenders—not to mention re-releases of films by Godard, Truffaut, Fassbinder, and Roeg, among others. For an art form that’s supposedly dying, it’s incredible how much it seems to be thriving at the same time.