If the purist ideal of cinephilia can be at least provisionally and minimally defined as access to the screening of 35mm prints of international “art films” in a reasonably current and timely manner, then for all intents and purposes, I would have to say that what little cinephilia I have experienced was mostly limited to the years 1973-75, and ended for most intents and purposes with the US release of Sauve qui peut (Jean-Luc Godard, 1979) in 1980 or 1981.

So, at the outset, I must admit that my cinephilia is of a pretty limited variety compared to most of the other contributors to this journal (see the “Permanent Ghosts” sections, Issues 4 & 5). Also, my cinephilia resulted almost immediately in my desire to actually become a filmmaker, so my energies shifted from viewing films to attempting to get involved in making films.

But, I would guess that not many of our various degrees of cinephilia can approach what I would consider the “Golden Age” of cinephilia: Paris, France in the 1950s (roughly between the founding of Cahiers du Cinéma and the death of André Bazin).

Whose cinephilia in this day and age could compare to that of the individuals Henri Langlois (of the Cinematheque Francais), Georges Sadoul, Jean Mitry and André Bazin, or the group of film critics/wanna-be directors at Cahiers du Cinema during the ’50s? Of those critics and/or theorists currently writing in English and immediately accessible, I would venture to say that Jonathan Rosenbaum is the only one who comes even remotely close.

But I don’t want to dwell here on cinephilia for cinephilia’s sake, or as an end in itself, but as an entrée into what I consider to be a much more important aspect and/or yardstick of cinephilia and a topic of film criticism/theory/analysis in general: the issue of cinematic specificity.

One of the things that made the cinephilia of 1950s Paris unique was the kind and degree of cinematic specificity that existed not only on the technical and perceptual level , but on the level of the criteria of selection which determined which films were shown at the Cinematheque Francais (an almost totally random and non-canonically or non-generically hierarchized daily selection).

On the technical level, the films were shown in their original 35mm format. That is very important, because I don’t consider the borderline between cinephilia/non-cinephilia to be located at the film/video juncture, but at the more primary juncture and technical/perceptual crevasse separating 35mm film projection and 16mm film projection.

Contrary to André Bazin, the alleged perceptual transparency of the photographic aspect of film production in no way exists at the projection stage, and this non-transparency is not homogenous and/or equivalent across all film formats, but unique for each of the three formats (35mm, 16mm, and Super 8mm).

At the apex of the pyramid of cinematic specificity is the 35mm projection process. But that process is not either completely transparent and/or homogenous. The informational transmission frequency (24 frames per second [fps]) of 35mm projection is not the same as either the frequency base for the perception of the illusion of motion (16 fps), or that necessary to mask the “flicker effect” (approximately 45 fps) that is inherent in the projection of motion picture images. (1)

The central technological fact is that a 35mm motion picture projector has a two-bladed secondary “shutter” distinct from the primary shutter which is dedicated to synchronously allow light to be projected through each of the 24 discrete photographic frames that appear in front of the projection lamp during each second of a 35mm photographic/narrative motion picture.

The 24fps speed at which the images are projected is enough to cross the perceptual threshold of the illusion of continuous motion (16fps), but not enough to cross the threshold of the perception of flicker (45fps). So there are two discrete perceptual “layers” occurring during the projection of a 35mm motion picture.

1. The “informational” layer, in which 24 discrete photographic image frames are illuminated per second in alternation with 24 equal periods of darkness.

2. The “flicker” layer, in which each period of illumination occurring on the informational layer is also interrupted again by the passing of the secondary projector shutter blade across the projector’s aperture during the period when each discrete photographic image frame is being illuminated and projected.

The spectator of a 35mm motion picture is exposed to 48 flashes of light per second, but the visual information being presented only changes 24 times per second, so that spectator is not seeing a transparent duplication of what was recorded by the motion picture camera, but, basically, a very high speed slide show where each discrete photographicimage is projected two times in succession.

This is the primary technological/perceptual basis for the specificity of the 35mm motion picture experience, the much-discussed “montage effect”, and also the inherently expressionistic bias of the visual “channel” of 35mm cinema, which must be consciously addressed by any filmmaker who wishes to explore a more contemplative vein of film stylistics.

In contrast, the 16mm projector, in order to allow it to be able to project silent films at the rate of 16fps and simultaneously cross the flicker effect threshold, has a three-bladed secondary shutter, resulting in the projection of a normal 24fps 16mm sound film at the rate of 72 “flickers” per second, with each of the 24 discrete photographic image frames being projected three times in succession.

This results in at least a 50% reduction in the “montage effect” versus that which occurs during the projection of a 35mm motion picture, and a serious reduction in cinematic specificity, in my opinion. Plenty enough to justify the opinion that if you haven’t seen a particular film in 35mm projection, then you haven’t “really” seen the film, not to mention the other, but not quite as perceptually important, problem of the difference in aspect ratios of the projected images.

Endnotes

  1. Teresa DeLaurentis, The Cinematic Apparatus, Saint Martin’s Press, New York, Dec. 1985.

About The Author

Bill Flavell, a 52-year-old Scottish/Welsh cineaste/film director wanna-be in Las Cruces, NM, USA, welcomes your feedback at [email protected].

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