While watching the new Criterion DVD release of the exquisitely creepy Island of Lost Souls (1932), some of the black & white images photographed by Karl Struss took my breath away. There are scenes with Charles Laughton in almost complete darkness, where all we see is a tiny glint in his eye, or his face is illuminated by a cigarette match. The film is full of incredible moments like this. Talk about chiaroscuro…
Today, digital artists can paint any picture imaginable, as Robert Rodriguez did in his visualization of Frank Miller’s graphic novel Sin City, or Zach Snyder did in last year’s—
—awful Sucker Punch. But there is something about black & white 35mm silver nitrate film in the hands of a master like Struss that stands apart. (He was also a brilliant still photographer. You can read more about him on cinematographer John Bailey’s blog, HERE)
Some would argue that the medium is not the message, that it’s more dependent on the artists involved. If Struss or John Alton were around today to “light” a digital canvas the results might be just as impressive as their work on celluloid. We’ll never know for sure. I’m just happy their work survives, and I’m delighted to have a great-looking copy of Island of Lost Souls. (The movie’s original negative no longer survives, so Criterion went to great lengths to create this version, drawing on a 35mm fine-grain positive with considerable wear, a 35mm nitrate print from UCLA Film and Television Archive that had lines of dialogue that were later censored and haven’t been heard since 1932, and a 16mm collector’s print that helped fill in damaged frames. This is a perfect example of digital technology as a crucial tool for film restoration.)
Ironically, my admiration for this example of great camerawork comes at a time when motion picture film is becoming an endangered species. Every week, it seems, we get another piece of bad news. The latest: Panavision has stopped making film cameras. You can read more about this in a comprehensive article by Debra Kaufman in Creative Cow Magazine called “Film Fading to Black.” It isn’t all doom and gloom, by the way: some very smart people in the world of filmmaking (and film preservation) are proceeding with caution, I’m happy to report. Click HERE.
At the other end of the spectrum, a new book that accompanies an exhibition at the Tate Museum in London features odes to the motion picture medium—that is to say, celluloid—by some of its finest practitioners, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Jean-Luc Godard. You can read some eloquent passages in this article from The Guardian.
I was actually heartened to notice a cue mark during a screening at Warner Bros. last week, which meant we were watching a 35mm print, not a digital copy—a rarity these days.
Incidentally, it looked perfect.