It’s always satisfying to see mainstream filmmakers fight for the team, to champion cinema itself rather than simply their own work. Martin Scorsese’s been at the forefront for years, of course, with his Film Foundation, while Quentin Tarantino has made a typical commitment, with his New Beverly cinema in LA, to show films only on celluloid.
Both men, too, have never been shy of plugging their heroes.
And it was with both hats, art form champion and fan, that Christopher Nolan hit the London Film Festival this week, offering one of the festival’s most stimulating evenings so far.
The "Dark Knight" and "Interstellar" director has become quite the draw, judging from the crowds at the BFI South Bank – just the kind of person you need to promote important discussion and the marvelously esoteric.
He was first on stage, alongside visual artist Tacita Dean and Alexander Horwath, director of the Austrian Film Museum, for a discussion on “the future of film.” Nolan and Dean will only ever shoot on film, with Dean refusing even to have her work digitized. Horwath, whose “exhibition space” is a cinema screen, only shows films in their original formats.
This appears to have been a sister event to an encounter between Nolan and Dean in LA’s Getty Centre earlier this year, the themes being the urgent need to ensure that films continue to be projected on celluloid, and to determine new archival and exhibition standards “to support film as film.”
BFI creative director Heather Stewart kicked off the event with a clip from David Lean’s "Lawrence of Arabia" – in particular, the memorable scene in which Peter O’Toole emerges from the desert having rescued one of his servants, which Nolan thought an excellent example of the issues at hand.
“It’s sometimes difficult to articulate what it is about film projection that’s missing in digital projection,” he said. “It can be the very subtle shadow details, the particular tonality of skies. Here you can see them on the camel as they first come out of the desert far sooner than you can on Blu-ray.
“One of my favorite films when I was growing up was ‘Blade Runner.’ When I was a kid I watched it on VHS. It wasn’t until I was at university that I saw it on film and there was no ambiguity – I knew exactly the difference in what I was seeing. And that difference needs to be pointed out to everyone.”
With an estimated 98% of films in the UK projected digitally, and the widely held assumption that there is no qualitative difference for a film shot on celluloid, Dean declared that “I don’t think there has been a moment, historically, where a medium ¬has come under such threat. We have to protect the original experience. Not in a way that’s perceived as going back in time, getting the multiplexes to pull out their digital projectors. We just need to ensure the possibility that you can go to see a film projected as film.”
Nolan told the audience that Dean, whose large-scale exhibition FILM at London’s Tate Modern was a glorious testament to the medium, introduced him to the art-world doctrine of medium specificity, which is sorely absent in film industry dialogue.
“The medium is very much a part of the content," he said. "You can’t separate the two things. When you go to an art gallery you don’t look at a photograph of a painting, you look at the painting. But in the film world they’re very happy to show a DCP of ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ With the best will in the world it can only be an approximation of what the film really is, yet it’s billed as the film itself."
"I’ve had conversations with studio heads," he continued, "where I’ve been advocating passionately for shooting on film and projecting on film. And someone will say, ‘Well at the end of the day doesn’t storytelling triumph?’ And I say, ‘No it doesn’t. If it did, we’d make radio shows, because they’re a lot cheaper.”
While praising digital technology for offering “tremendous access to the history of cinema,” Nolan said that audiences were not being made aware of the fact that any transfer from film “is only ever going to be your best translation.” He also criticized exhibitors for a lackadaisical attitude to projection, not least in LA, and those U.S. independent distributors who are now providing Blu-rays for projection in theaters.
“If the experience for the audience isn’t valued, and if you’re not giving them value for money, they will stop going,” he warned. “Cinema attendance is relatively stable at the moment, but it’s not standing up the way it used to. Exhibitors should be putting their best foot forward. There have to be standards about this.”
As for the oft-cited justification of digital projection – that it’s cheaper – Nolan quipped: “Well, we’re paying the same for a cinema ticket as we were before, so where are all these marvelous savings? I love what Quentin Tarantino is doing with ‘The Hateful Eight,’ putting 70mm projectors in cinemas in North American for the original run of his film. He’s said it’s difficult, but it’s worth it.”
Nolan’s "Interstellar" was itself launched early on 70mm and 35mm prints.
The speakers also discussed the challenges the industry faces in archiving photochemical films, the rewards of shooting on film and, of course, what it was about the medium that they loved.
The most telling example of the latter was second hand, something Nolan had heard recently from the revered editor Walter Murch.
“Walter Murch said this beautiful thing. You shoot an empty room with a chair and an open door. You shoot it on film and you shoot it on video. When you watch it on film you feel that someone is about to come through the door; when you watch it on video you feel that someone has left.
“On digital you lose your sense of time passing, and with it that sense of expectation that you absolutely have with film.”
After a short break, the director was back in the same auditorium, in a different guise, this time as host of a triple bill of short animations by the Quay Brothers, two of Britain’s most idiosyncratic, cult filmmakers.
Nolan told the audience that the first Quay film he saw was the one that heralded their unique blend of puppetry and stop motion, "Street of Crocodiles." “As soon as you see an image from that film you can’t take your eyes away,” he said. “It has some of the most extraordinary things that have ever been photographed.”
With the identical twins standing rather bashfully next to him, he admitted that, “all sorts of people in the mainstream have been influenced by these animations – and I was one of them.”
Nolan himself selected the program of "Street of Crocodiles" (1986), "The Comb" (1990) and "In Absentia" (2000), for which brand new 35mm prints were made. These were accompanied by Quay, an eight-minute film he’d made himself, in which he observes the brothers at work in their studio.
“There’s something about the handmade quality of these films, the passion and care that’s gone into their world that really comes to life on the big screen,” he enthused. “It’s a real joy to be able to show them to audiences.”