FESTIVALS: Cannes Revisited Through Digital Debate
by Anthony Kaufman
To digital or not to digital, that continues to be the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the expenses and negatives of outrageous celluloid, or to take arms against a sea of technophobes, and by opposing end them? To die: to shoot DV... Perchance to film: ay, there's the rub.
That lamentable rub was ever-present at Cannes 2000 where the digital debate raged on. With newfound supporters like Arturo Ripstein and Darren Aronofsky and everyone from Brian DePalma to John Waters with a dissenting opinion, the international film industry is still by all accounts quite mixed on the matter of a certain digital revolution.
While Cannes' technology pavilion, MITIC, hosted daily panels, discussions, and demonstrations dominated by such high-end players as Sony, Kodak, Barco, Dolby, etc. and screenings of the first "all-digital features!" were announced often -- all heralding the wonderful possibilities of a new media future, reaction on the Croisette was widely divergent to those digital representatives of the present.
In the Official Selection of the 53rd Cannes Film Festival, I count five digitally shot features (Lars Von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark," Agnes Varda's "The Gleaners and I," Kristian Levring's "The King is Alive," Griffin Dunne's "Famous," and Arturo Ripstein's "Such is Life" [Asi Es La Vida])
And depending on whom you talk to, the present state of digital filmmaking is either a blessing or a curse. While Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum championed, "Dancer in the Dark" as the "most exhilarating and original work of cinema in Cannes," "a triumph of form, content, and artistic integrity," "a benchmark for the creative possibilities of digital video," and "as new and big a vision as '2001: A Space Odyssey,'" the Village Voice's Amy Taubin countered, "von Trier has become such a DV proselytizer that he ignores the medium's expressive limitations," adding "until DV technology vastly improves, I'll stick with Brian DePalma, who remarked in his press conference for 'Mission to Mars' . . . that DV is best used by novice directors who no longer have to wait five years for someone to take a chance on their projects."
And yet French auteur Varda and Mexican veteran Ripstein are hardly novices, having made well over 50 films between them -- and their use of the new medium, even Taubin admits, is quite laudable. Varda's "Gleaners" was one of the quiet revelations of the festival, a documentary on French citizens who are essentially scavengers, ranging from poor peasants to professional chefs to found object artists. The intimacy with which Varda captures her subjects was undoubtedly aided by her use of the small digital equipment.
Ripstein's "Such is Life" was also heralded (Variety's Leonardo Garcia Tsao called it "nothing less than a masterpiece") -- the story of a jilted wife and her struggle to survive. Ripstein, who competed in Cannes '99 with "No One Writes to the Colonel," does an about-face from that film's theatrical stasis and florid cinematography. With "Life," single hand-held shots by DSR-500 digital cameras capture each scene with visceral emotion. And a 35mm transfer at Paris-based GTC is impeccable. (They couldn't afford "the mecca of transfers, Swiss Effects," Ripstein commented during a case study panel hosted by Next Wave Films' Peter Broderick.)
"We didn't want it to look like film," Ripstein said. "It doesn't need to look like a movie or television, or a hybrid. It has its own unique position." Ripstein called shooting digital "exhilarating," "a new medium with new possibilities" that allowed him "immediate storytelling." And it also allowed him to work. Perhaps DePalma may not need to wait for financing, but even experienced directors like Ripstein -- neither wealthy nor 'hot' -- need all the help they can get. "It's the difference between making a movie and not making a movie," he said. Riffing on an old joke, Ripstein concluded, "When filmmakers get old, they either die or go digital."
Director Kristen Levring, who is relatively young, shot with multiple mini-DV Sony PD 100 cameras and managed an astonishing 35mm transfer at Denmark-based Hokus Bogus (www.hokusbogus.dk) for his Dogma 95 film, "King is Alive." And while others may disagree, this viewer found the image-quality of the transfer superb, writing from Cannes: "'King' is the kind of intimate and penetrating psychological portrait that makes for a perfect match with the new technology. Director Levring shot the film in sequence, and came away with 150 hours of footage. Some of the scenes - like a sandstorm that he hadn't planned to include - are among the most powerful, gorgeous imagery ever captured on digital video."
At the case study panel, Vibeke Windelov, producer of both "King is Alive" and von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" (which was shot on Sony PD 100 and Sony DXC D30ws and also transferred at Hokus Bogus), said she was "very happy when we started to do it on digital." It's in contrast to her work on von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," where they shot on 35mm and "spent a hell of a lot of money making it look like it was made on video."
Fortunately for Griffin Dunne's work on "famous," a pseudo-documentary about two New York actors and their rise from obscurity, he needn't shoot sandstorms -- just faces, city streets, and the occasional wideshot of Times Square. And because the story is told from the filmmaker within the film's point of view (Dunne himself), digital video was a perfect fit -- and it looked pretty darn good. In a press release from DuArt, who did the film's film-to-tape and tape-to-tape transfers, producer Dolly Hall said, "Portions of the final film [which was shot on Digital Beta, Mini DV and Super 16] look like they were photographed on 35mm negative." Though Hall might be biased, I was sold on the look, and so was Strand Releasing, which acquired the film during the festival.
At the IFP's annual American Directors panel in Cannes, Dunne said, "Digital video was perfect for the kind of movie that I was making." But commenting on the whole digital debate, he added, "It may mean that a great deal of really bad movies are going to be made or a lot of really, great undiscovered talent will be made. But it's not for every film. And it doesn't look like film. I don't think it ever will; film has texture," he said. "It's luscious and I don't think anything in our lifetime will match its beauty."
Applause followed Dunne's rousing ode to celluloid, but then a heated debate followed suit. On one corner, Karyn Kusama ("Girlfight") and Elias Merhige ("Shadow of the Vampire"), on the other, Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream") and James Gray ("The Yards"). Critic Roger Ebert, who moderated the panel, framed the sides along the lines of either George Lucas, who'd like to work in a "totally digital universe" and Steven Spielberg who has said, "as long as there is one laboratory film on earth that manufactures film, I'll shoot on film."
Aligning herself with the Spielbergs of the world, Kusama said, "What's disturbing to me is that we're so seduced by the deceptive convenience of digital filmmaking that we forget the beauty of filmmaking is that it's difficult, and that the texture requires so many choices to create something great. And those choices are part of the process of making art."
"I think there is a tendency to laud new technologies and forget the old ones," Merhige took the argument further. "I'd rather see inventions in [film] emulsions than how digital should be used." He continued, "I'd rather see somebody in an obvious Corman-esque rubber suit than some digitized dragon with Sean Connery's voice. I think looking backwards is more interesting than looking forwards because there's a lot that's been lost in the struggle to make the latest, greatest thing." "That everyone can buy," Kusama added.
"Personally, I buy it," interrupted Aronofsky. "I'm on the Lucas end of things. If Jar Jar taught us anything, it's that he looked almost as good as Ewan McGregor. I think we