Film, actual celluloid, has been in steep decline for several years now, culminating in the bankruptcy of Eastman Kodak in early 2012. Three of the major brands of motion picture camera, Aaton, Arri, and Panavision, have ceased production of celluloid based cameras over the past year in favour of their digital counterparts. According to Arri’s VP of Cameras, Bill Russell, demand for these cameras on a global scale has “disappeared.” The transition is not to be debated – harsh economic times and the affordability of digital media is successfully pushing film to the side in independent and major motion pictures – but rather lamented. However, it is not my intent here to create an elegy or even perform a close reading of a text that dwells on this issue, only to point out a trend in which Hollywood begins to propose their answer to the crisis of this evolution.
Hollywood is no stranger to major transitions to cinema technology. With the advancement of sound, pro-filmic colour, anamorphic dimensions, and 3D, today’s films are nearly unrecognizable from their early history. Generally, with the exception of film formalists who may see the films of the twenties as the truest form of art, these changes have been widely accepted and once perfected, became prized aesthetics of modern film. However, for all the upheavals through which the film industry has progressed over the course of its life, few are as personal – particularly for filmmakers – as its transition from celluloid to digital formats. It is a rite of passage for many young filmmakers to work with film. We are often trained in stages, from black and white film stock, to colour, and finally sound. But we all have felt the celluloid on our fingertips, heard the clicking of the camera, felt its vibrations that meant you were making film, recording shadow and light for a unique purpose. And when this changes, when film is no longer utilized, and thus the rituals and accommodations afforded it vanish as well, it cuts us deeply. On the other hand, the change is good; digital is cheaper and quicker. Perhaps art may sneak through more abundantly when film does not need to cater to the lowest common denominator in order to make its money back.
What is left of early cinema if not for celluloid itself, its play of shadow and light exposed through chemical reactions? There is indeed a crisis among the film community who clutches at these traditional ideals while embracing newer, cheaper technologies. However, you personally perceive it, film is changing, and 2011 had a lot to say about it. Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men films, comments on this year’s Academy Award nominees, noticing the shifting sands beneath the industry: “Some of the top nominees are reflecting back on silent films, the era of filmmaking in the 1920s and 1930s. I think they’re also looking for clues as to how we move forward, recalibrate if you will, for the future of storytelling in a rapidly changing cultural landscape.” This article speaks particularly of Hugo (Martin Scorsese), The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius), War Horse (Steven Spielberg), Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen), The Descendants (Alexander Payne), The Tree of Life (Terrance Malick), and even Moneyball (Bennett Miller) in order to inform us on Hollywood’s reaction that, though different in the outcomes, relishes in the discussion. Each of these movies deals with the conflict of reconciling past and present, and offers its own solution and resolutions that while not always practical, satisfy us emotionally. In each we find the pain of nostalgia, the problem of transition, and the power of, and need for, the past.
A quick rundown of the plots in these films along with some highlighted moments will showcase the dilemma afflicting modern Hollywood. Three of these films, Hugo, The Artist and Midnight in Paris, are blatantly and aptly self-referential. The title character in Hugo meets Georges Méliès, in Midnight in Paris Owen Wilson’s character Gil is a melancholic Hollywood screenwriter, and The Artist’s George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a Hollywood actor trying to find his place in the world of “talkies”. This metafictional nature is always a sign that the film is about film. The cinema is screaming to be heard on this matter with a few voices rising above the jocund din.
Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, without giving away crucial plot points, is framed with a family’s choice to hold on to two key aspects of their past: the dying wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), and a section of Kauai that has remained relatively untouched for generations. There is obviously a longing for the past (something which can never be obtained again) and a desire to move forward, or at the very least, the film shows that one is able to move forward (whether desired or not). Many of the films deal with this nostalgia, a term formed from two Greek words, nostos and algos, “homecoming” and “pain”. Another translation might be: “a painful desire to return home.” Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life, consists almost entirely of nostalgic memory and shot with a style that lingers on the feel of the past. The main character – and at times narrator – remembers with pain and fondness a childhood that delights in the little moments of life, moments captured visually in his mind. This visual playback of the past is analogous of film. Will celluloid be missed with this type of nostalgia? Will it forever feel like home to many filmmakers?
Beyond nostalgia, Spielberg’s War Horse demonstrates one’s ability to live through transition. Upheaval and the introduction of new technology brought about by innovation during the war, is survived by an older war technology, the horse. Can old technology win out? Will the past survive? Are we able to navigate through the trenches of modern conflict while remaining true to our past? Spielberg proposes that we can. Though battle, economic strife, or family ties try to separate us from the past, it is our choice to decide how strong the bond will be.
Several more films nominated for Best Picture this year tackle the problem of transition, and they go beyond just surviving it. Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, is all about transition. The A’s are looking for something new, something that will allow them to accomplish great things on a tiny budget – sound familiar independent filmmakers? It is an abrupt transition, one that (in the logic of this film) requires immediacy and belief in order to be accomplished. It is a gamble. Transitions in this film are talked of in violent fashion. “Would you rather get one shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?” as Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane puts it. If this may be read as a metaphor for film, it is a plea to take the hit quickly, transition swiftly. “I know you are taking it in the teeth, but the first guy through the wall, he always gets bloody, always. This is threatening not just a way of doing business, but in their minds, it’s threatening the game. Really what it’s threatening is their livelihood, their jobs. It’s threatening the way they do things, and every time that happens, whether it’s the government, a way of doing business, whatever, the people who are holding the reins – they have their hands on the switch – they go batshit crazy.” Beane’s speech sets up the specific situation as a metaphor by comparing it to politics, business, “whatever.” The film not only implies an immediacy but a desire to lead the change: “But if we win, on our budget, with this team, we’ll have changed the game. And that’s what I want. I want it to mean something.”
Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist centres on an actor’s inability to transition to the world of sound. Presented as a silent film, the movie showcases a world before the major transitions of sound and colour. It mirrors the conflicts presented to today’s filmmakers while it wrestles with such a change. The logic of this film progresses the conflict through a major vice that warns modern-day filmmakers that pride, an unwillingness to change, threatens to destroy us. Transition in this film is inevitable; join or disappear. As the winner of Best Director, Best Lead Actor, and Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Costume Design, and Best Music written for Motion Pictures, it was clearly the Academy’s favourite film. It should also be understood that all these films touch on what The Artist has done in exaggeration. While others hint at movies of the past, at old stars and technologies, as they look to previous ways of dealing with transition, The Artist is this at its very core. The Artist actualizes our trepidations and presents this face to the world without a mask.
Midnight in Paris, winner of Best Original Screenplay, follows Gil, a self-proclaimed “Hollywood hack,” as he literally looks to the past, travelling back in time each night in Paris. In doing so – meeting the writers, surrealists, artists, musicians in the Paris of the twenties – he is able to deal with the present. However, the film also depicts a danger in thinking that the past is somehow better than the present merely because it is not the present. As Gil comes to understand, “That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.” Midnight in Paris represents the true conflict in today’s transition period, a necessity for the past in order to inform the present while a reliance on that past (that is to say, the past’s inability to progress beyond itself) will prove to be problematic. And where Allen’s film may present the question, Scorsese’s Hugo points toward an answer. As Mama Jean (Helen McCrory) puts it, “Georges, you’ve tried to forget the past for so long, but it has caused you nothing but unhappiness. Maybe it’s time you tried to remember.” Hugo (winner of Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Visual Effects) not only remembers the past, but also believes that in order to effectively move forward, one must embrace the past. The story is a search for the past while embracing new technologies (according to the Academy, this embrace proved successful). And with the use of brilliant RealD 3D, the film itself is a look to the past while utilizing the newest of equipment, the art of the past mixed with the most modern technology. This is the answer Hugo gives to the conflict of transition, a plea to look backward in order not to lose something, something dream-like, magic itself.
The film industry is in a state of mourning, wondering just exactly how to proceed. It is a transition that is messy, that is filled with nostalgia, that is centred on adapting. The cinema will continue to wrestle with where it has been while moving forward. Industrially the newer, cheaper technology will prevail. We have seen the signs. It is in its own way exciting and lamentable. However, these films warn, the technology of the present must not forget the past. For filmmakers, for audiences, it is a delicate time not being taken lightly.
- Bill Russell, “Film Fading to Black”, Creative COW. Web. 27 Feb. 2012. http://magazine.creativecow.net/article/film-fading-to-black
- Ralph Winter, “Lessons from Oscar”, Christianity Today. Web. 27 Feb. 2012. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/movies/interviews/2012/ralphwinteroscar.html