It's a running debate that reflects a generally problematic assumption: that any hotly contested issue requires an allegiance to one side over the other. In fact, digital and film technologies frequently work in harmony, most importantly in the preservation of film history.
I recently attended a screening of Jean Renoir's "The Grand Illusion," newly restored as a 35mm print for its 75th anniversary. Set to open next week at New York's Film Forum ahead of a national tour, the restoration owes much to digital refinements that have sharpened images gleaned from the original camera negatives. The movie looks fresher than ever: Renoir's roaming camera explores the glimmers of humanity shared by ostensible enemies in a war camp with extraordinary clarity -- right down to the blindingly gorgeous close-up of Erich Von Stroheim clipping a geranium from his character's window sill moments after making peace with his deceased foe. Renoir could not have known it, but the lasting splendor of "The Grand Illusion" owes much to the impact of digital progress. As Pierre Fresnay, playing the French captain felled by Von Stroheim, tells the other man as they decry the demise of their aristocratic class: "Neither you nor I can stop the march of time."
Like Fresnay and Von Stroheim, both sides in the digital-versus-film kerfuffle need to admit the other's potential strengths and unite in a quest for quality. In an online forum, archivist Robert Harris posted the essential paradox: "Digital projection is the greatest thing to hit cinema since 1894," he began, adding, "Digital projection is the worst thing to hit cinema since 1894." Finding a resolution to that contradiction matters more than attempting to discount the inevitability of a digital future.
For those of us whose home entertainment options began with VHS, the concept of cinema has always been defined through multiple formats. The essence of motion pictures has less to do with the materials than their invisibility -- a gorgeous movie should look stunning no matter where you see it. Now that Blu-ray and streaming video have offered a greater amount of access to innumerable movies, our platform agnosticism has grown stronger than ever before. And yet this seeming ambivalence must sound jarring to those dedicating their lives to the noble act of film preservation, an invaluable service to keeping existing 35mm prints in good shape. Movies committed to digital files have only just begun to gather their own army of preservations. We live in a Golden Age of warring formats.
As digital stumbles clumsily into young adulthood, it faces the trials that any new medium must endure. Nitrate film, no longer in circulation, was highly flammable; digital cinema is highly deletable. "The Avengers" incident sounded like a major fuck up but only because somebody chose to announce it; one has to wonder how many times each week, in thousands of multiplexes around the country, that same error gets made many times over. At a certain point, pressing "Ctrl + Z" won't cut it.