Re-visiting Celluloid

The Breakfast Club
Last month I read a news story on the Entertainment Weekly website about the movie The Breakfast Club being re-shown (the 30th anniversary of its original release in 1985), for a limited time, in select movie theaters across the country. The headline for the article gave me pause because all at once it reminded me of how quickly I am approaching middle age (ouch). My other immediate reaction was to question the value of seeing an old movie projected onto a large screen in a theater: What is special about seeing an already widely available movie (that virtually anyone can see for free one way or another) in a movie theater? Is doing so somehow a more authentic way to “experience” a movie? But is not a movie’s cultural value inherently separate from where it is watched (although as I type these words I distinctly remember, for some reason that eludes me, seeing Raging Bull projected outside in the open on a Friday summer night in Dublin years ago). Or are re-released-in-theaters movies only ever merely a kind of scam - a quick, cheap way for movie studios to make bank on consumer nostalgia? The more I think about the issue, the more questions I seem to have.

All right, what is unique about seeing an old movie in a theater? Is it the format? In nearly every case, absolutely not. The Breakfast Club was shot on 35 MM film print. The theatrical re-release in question will be a projected digital file (made from the original 35mm negatives). Already there is a Blu-ray version of The Breakfast Club available which I can watch for free in my room at home (in comfort on a large HD screen).

One celebrated film maker who openly condemns the idea of going to a movie theater to see a digital projection is Quentin Tarantino, who stated at a recent Cannes Film Festival: "As far as I'm concerned, digital projection is the death of cinema....The fact that most films aren't presented in 35mm means that the world is lost. Digital projection is just television in cinema." In the same breath he describes film as "...the real thing." Tarantino is not so alone in his estimation of digital film making eclipsing celluloid. Movie Director Christopher Nolan continues to shoot movies on film rather than digital until digital is "as good as film and it makes sense.” Director Martin Scorcese prefers to shoot movies on film because he believes film still "offers a richer visual palette than HD." Yet despite what these talented filmmakers say on the issue, Hollywood movies that are shot on film are transferred to digital at some point - at least for projection in the vast amount of theaters where it will be shown - if not for post-production effects and editing. And there are many, many others who disagree with the above sentiments about film versus digital. Director Mike Leigh, in response to Tarantino’s quips about digital, called his views "ludicrous" and "backward-looking." The debate continues.

Aside from format, perhaps there is something special about the communal aspect of seeing a movie in a darkened theater with strangers? Maybe it becomes more of an "event" because one has to arrive at a movie theater at a designated time, park the car, buy tickets, find a seat, etc? Film critic Roger Ebert once remarked: “Old theatres are irreplaceable. They could never be duplicated at today’s costs – but more importantly, their spirit could not be duplicated because they remind us of a day when going to the show was a more glorious and escapist experience. I think a town’s old theatres are the sanctuary of its dreams.” Notice he specified "old theatres" as opposed to today's ubiquitous megaplex franchise theaters.

The last movie re-release I saw in a theater was the Wizard of Oz on an IMAX screen. I went with a co-worker after we discussed how good old movies can look on Blu-ray. What caught my interest about this re-release was the technology used to complete it. But I must admit that, to a small degree, I still have some sense of nostalgia for the moments in my childhood when I watched this movie when it was shown annually on network TV (in those days we did not have a color TV set and I still picture that film entirely in black and white). In fact I was the Tin Man in my kindergarten class’ play version of the movie (not the original book). After the IMAX screening, I suppose I did not feel like I enjoyed watching it again so much as I felt like I had crossed off seeing it in full HD glory from my bucket list. And no, the 3D aspect of this release was not really that enthralling. But if I had the chance to see The Wizard of Oz one more time –if it was somehow film projected onto a big screen – would I go? Maybe.

- Jay Oliver


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