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Critic’s Notebook: Deleting ‘The Avengers’ and Other Misadventures From the Digital Frontier

Critic's Notebook: Deleting 'The Avengers' and Other Misadventures From the Digital Frontier

Journalists get used to perks, avoiding long lines chief among them. However, when a New York press screening for “The Avengers” ran into a technical snafu last week, we had no choice but to wait. Standing in line with a horde of critics and other members of the media, waiting for a loud, fast, expensive franchise movie, I nearly assumed they were keeping us in limbo merely to build our expectations. Then a studio rep popped out with a surprisingly different explanation for the delay.

“We accidentally deleted the movie,” he said. “We’re downloading it from the server now.”

We’ve all faced the pain of an unexpected software malfunction or human error destroying hours of hard work. But the notion of a deleted movie — a deleted Hollywood blockbuster, no less — had an alarming ring to it. In the few minutes I had before security confiscated everyone’s phones and let us into the theater, I fired off a tweet:

Eventually, the problem was fixed, our phones bagged, and the movie began. Two-and-a-half hours of dizzying superhero combat later, I emerged from the theater to recover my phone and found that I had received a long string of retweets and gained a new army of followers. More than one suggested the theater projectionist press “Ctrl + Z,” that universal keyboard command to undo.

That was only the beginning. Over the next week, several blogs and news outlets picked up the story. Some details were blown out of proportion. (We had to wait about 15 minutes, not two hours.) Slate opened its coverage with a screengrab of my tweet and quoted veteran projectionist Steve Kraus, who confirmed the ease with which a digital movie file can go kaput: “It’s click to delete from the server and an ‘Are you sure?’ confirmation,” he said. In other words, as fallible as anything else.

“The Avengers” snafu illustrates a moment of extreme uncertainty as more and more theaters convert to digital-only projection and Hollywood gears up to stop shooting on film altogether. “The Avengers” symbolizes power in many ways — financial power, technological power, superhero power — but in this instance it gave ammo to film purists about the instability of new media.

They have plenty to grouse about. Theaters have been suffering from digital projection issues as it were a disease. Earlier this year, a Melbourne theater ran into severe delays with a screening of “Take Shelter” because the key provided to unlock the digital file didn’t work, forcing theater staff to hop onto a lengthy cycles of phone calls to gain permission for a new access code. (If it had been a film print locked inside a canister, of course, one could just call a locksmith.) More recently, reports surfaced of digital “Casablanca” screenings around the country that infused the image with terrible blue-green and magenta tones.

In the journalism world, it is often said that three of anything makes a trend, and in this case the pieces have aligned to make a compelling case against the advance of digital projection. The argument goes both ways, though: Film itself is also highly unstable and requires tremendous care to avoid deterioration, especially after repeated use.

As Gendy Alimurung explained in a recent L.A. Weekly story, digital projection also saves studios a lot of money: It costs around $1,500 to print and ship one 35mm copy, ten times more than the price of a digital file. Conversely, the abandonment of film has a trickle-down economic impact as trained projectionists lose their jobs and labs close down.

Digital projection may soon become the norm, but it faces an uphill battle in the quest for operational quality that 35mm has navigated for over a century. Digital projection is the perfect method for screening “The Avengers,” a snazzy CGI spectacle that screams digitization in virtually every shot — except when somebody deletes the movie or, in another recently noted Boston theater incident, fails to properly calibrate the projector, resulting in an ostensibly colorful movie looking like a comic book that went through the wash.
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.

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