It’s good that Michael Palm joins the ranks of directors making documentaries highlighting the significant problems accompanying the analog-to-digital revolution (or is it a coup?), but it would have been better had he allowed someone else to do the voice-over. Or even the writing of the voice-over. “Cinema Futures” is rich in excellent interviews, stuffed with important information, and bursting with unanswerable questions that need to be asked. Yet the film lacks one major element: the pleasure factor. Barely anywhere in the more than two-hour documentary is there a spontaneous, unanalytical emotional response to the joys of cinema, and without this, Palm’s doc becomes a passionless compendium that raises alarms without stoking the fire.
Without the narration, “Cinema Futures” could easily see significant TV sales, but given that Palm’s monotone delivery and deadpan philosophizing recall Mike Myers’ Dieter character, it’s hard to imagine much play outside continental Europe, apart from scattered festivals. It’s a great pity, as the director brings together an impressive array of talking heads and draws attention to issues, such as preservation and custodial problems, that preoccupy the archival world but have yet to filter into the popular consciousness. Unlike Chris Kenneally’s “Side by Side,” which discussed similar matters, Palm’s documentary definitely takes sides and mourns the disappearance of celluloid, yet doesn’t do enough to bring out the aesthetic losses – which really are quantifiable – inherent in the wholesale ejection of analogue.
Much is made of a photo from the late 1990s showing a group of industry people gleefully advertising the death of film stock in anticipation of the premiere of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” though it’s unlikely anyone in the picture had any idea of the scope of the revolution to come, when Yoda himself would become a mere digitized simulacrum after once being played by Frank Oz. Pity that Palm doesn’t mention Ari Folman’s criminally underrated “The Congress,” with its hard-hitting approach to this very subject.
Blame for the collateral damage of film’s demise is squarely leveled at Hollywood, symbolized by a nighttime aerial shot of L.A. designed to make the city appear like the Death Star, accompanied by John Williams-type music. Fortunately, film historian David Bordwell takes a subtler approach, discussing the disproportionate allocation of power to the distributors who call the shots. By now the train of events has become fairly well-known: the stranglehold of the multiplexes, together with the force-feeding of 3D, coerced theater owners into digitizing their cinemas to the point where now it’s difficult to find movie houses that can project acetate.
The decline of Kodak is addressed, and the very real concern that, despite the company’s reassurances, the continued manufacture of film stock may not be financially viable in the near future considering how few directors continue to shoot on celluloid. Even when they do, the movies still need to be transferred onto digital in order to get released. Perhaps the biggest value of “Cinema Futures” is that it makes viewers aware that digital files need to be migrated and updated every five years or they lose cohesion, whereas acetate can last over 500 years when stored in the right conditions. What still hasn’t sunk in for the general public is that, as hypothesized by conservation student Laura Alberque, the rate of digital deterioration combined with the lack of understanding that files need to be migrated means that we’ll have far fewer watchable home movies in 20 years than our grandparents had. Yet apart from a handful of Cassandras, no one appears to be screaming about this.
Because Palm wants to tackle all the issues inherent in the analogue-digital divide, he inevitably drops several important points, most notably that while some might like to think we have the ability to screen films as they once were, it’s not true. Even if nitrate were projected (as it is at George Eastman Museum’s annual Nitrate Picture Show), the projectors themselves have changed, and it’s impossible to fully reproduce carbon arc lighting. We can look with fond nostalgia at the shimmering dust particles caught in the bright light of the projector’s throw, but in truth we’ll never be able to replicate the filmgoing experience of the past, also because photochemical emulsions are unstable. That gives them their warmth and beauty, argue Tacita Dean and Christopher Nolan, but also makes it impossible, as pointed out by Eastman curator Paolo Cherchi Usai, to pretend that any print is exactly how it was meant to be.
On the plus side, the documentary champions the work of archivists and acknowledges the monumental challenges they face in terms of preservation. It would have been good to include a few words about the scandalous lack of funds accorded these institutions for the crucial work they do – anyone thinking Martin Scorsese’s World Film Foundation has either the money or the time to save every “worthwhile” movie is living in a fool’s paradise. Also not mentioned are the benighted policies of certain governments that force archives to destroy their nitrate once preservation prints are made, robbing future conservators with improved technology the chance to extract better material from the original sources. Surely that would have been more meaningful than hearing Palm opining that film is like a vampire in a coffin.