i recently posted a question on the Internet bulletin board rec.arts.movies.current-films asking what percentage of films screened in film courses are shown on video rather than film.
This response, from an intro film student at the University of Massachusetts, was typical. "All the films will be screened on laser disc. We are supposed to watch at home, and then discuss certain parts in class. Laser makes it easier to jump to certain sections, and it looks cleaner when you freeze the frame. Our first movie is Rear Window."
This pause-ability of laser discs should create some interesting classroom discussions. Back when we screened celluloid in the classroom, we could at least be certain that we had all seen the same film, however wildly we differed in interpreting what we'd seen.
But at the end of the 1970s, I saw the future. From somewhere, a magical machine appeared in my university's film department. It used a laser beam to play a movie off a big, shiny disc the size of an LP. Sharp image, excellent freeze-frame function. Aside from the hardcore film cultists who spent large sums for Criterion LDs, laser disc didn't catch on until the discs got to the small, comfortable size of compact discs.
A technological leap forward generally renders its predecessor obsolete and at the same time makes an impact on aesthetics. Once you have photography, for example, no one needs painters to faithfully reproduce nature. And once you have cheap, readily produced books, you have Tom Clancy.
Video, however, is turning into a very unusual technological advance. It hasn't yet displaced its predecessor, film, though it has newfound respectability as a production form and, if the Hollywood studios have their way, as a delivery system. Twenty years ago, the video future seemed like a dream: movies you can watch in your own home -- no more waiting for a hot item to show up at the rep cinemas.
No more worries about the vagaries of international film distribution to bring the latest from Abbas Kiarostami or Jim Jarmusch. Even if your local Blockbuster doesn't have it, you can order it for a reasonable price -- more reasonable than it was 30 years ago to track down a 16mm print, pay the rental and shipping, and if you had space in your apartment, set up a projector and a screen.
I recently picked up Arnaud Desplechin's La Sentinelle, the most intriguing film at Cannes in 1993, and one I'd despaired of seeing. No one had acquired North American theatrical rights, but someone had picked up the video rights. Two clicks and it was mine.
General video availability has affected non-first-run programming in other ways. James Quandt, program director of Cinematheque Ontario, observes that it used to be difficult to get an audience for American classics. "I always put the low turnout down to these films' availability on video and television. However, there's been a change over the years, and we now have an audience for classics. Some of this has to do with a new sensitivity to the quality of the presentation.
"When we do show a classic that's not available on video, or only on poor- quality copies, we get more interest in it. We just showed the new Billy Liar print. The video was panned and scanned, cropping much of the Scope image, so even those who had seen the film wanted to see it in CinemaScope."
On the other hand, if you can see almost everything whenever you want to, you never need to see anything. It's on tape. Those of us who grew up with film exclusively have an almost preconscious awareness that, even under optimum conditions, watching a movie on television is inferior to watching a projected film in a theatre.
The size of the screen affects the experience. We expect less of television than we do of movies -- it is, as Dorothy Parker noted, where bad little movies go when they die. And it doesn't matter how good your video set-up is. Lawrence Of Arabia loses an awful lot on a box in your living room.
Surprisingly, the interest in digital- quality video has had another, this time encouraging, side effect. According to Quandt, "The success of many re-releases and of retrospective programming has made distributors aware of the commercial potential of the studios' back libraries. Many take the opportunity when making videos or DVDs to also make a new 35mm print."
Film students are now being raised on video -- that is, they're in the position of art students forced to study art through reproductions, only worse. The art history student is very aware of the difference between a slide and an actual painting, while today's film student grew up seeing far more films on video or television than in a theatre.
According to Peter Brunette, who teaches film at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, "Virtually nothing, anywhere, is on film. Film only happens in 35mm at places like UCLA, with lots of money and lots of films in the archives. We show DVDs whenever possible. The DVD is also much easier to use in the classroom for analysis.'
Brunette notes that during the shift from film (usually 16mm) to video, "there was a big debate about this in professional circles, but not any more. The 16mm films I did rent, toward the end, were virtually unwatchable because the prints were so bad."
Having run an analytical projector for a professor who had a heavy hand with the pause button back then, I can tell you first-hand that those prints were bad because they were shown in film courses. Besides, movies are made to be watched uninterrupted. It's part of the dreamlike quality of the cinema that it's something out of our control. Video is something we control as viewers. (And how often, in the midst of a dull film, does one wish for a fast-forward button?)
The shift from tape, with its limited bells and whistles, to DVD, with its apparently endless capacity for bells, whistles, special features, alternate soundtracks, has certain advantages. I'd love to have Cocteau's La Belle Et La Bête available with both the original dialogue and Georges Auric's exquisite score and then, with the flip of a switch, the opera Philip Glass composed to accompany the film. There are laser discs with director commentaries that are as valuable as a couple of years in film school. Check Carl Franklin's commentary on the Devil In A Blue Dress DVD if you doubt it.
But DVD also encourages the watching of films in bits and pieces. The questions I hear about new films -- "Is it the director's cut?" and "Will more scenes be added to the DVD?" -- suggest that this generation doesn't view film as a finished artifact. But wanting everything the director shot is bizarre; people think cutting a four-hour rough assemblage to 135 minutes is a form of vile interference in the artistic vision.
I admire Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, but I don't need to see the hours of Stillwater concert footage he shot. The new technology also creates the opportunity for filmmakers to be less disciplined -- "We'll save this stuff for the DVD...." It should be an interesting decade. *