Is Film Dead?

in 68th Venice Film Festival

by Eva af Geijerstam

“Film history is burning! Film is turning into ashes!” the young Japanese Shuji exclaims in the beginning of Amir Naderi’s Cut, screened in the Venice Orizzonti section. He subsequently goes on a pilgrimage to the tombs of his great countrymen/directors Kurosawa and Ozu and bows to the masters. In the evening he shows illegal film copies with Buster Keaton in the open air on the roof of his apartment building. The projector rattles. The young audience laughs.

Shuji is pursued by the police, when he’s venturing through the streets to make his own film.

Cut is thus far a melancholy tribute to film and film history in its purest form. But it contains a paradox. It’s recorded digitally and evolves into a somewhat static gangster story filled with references to Japanese film. If you like, it can be termed a sad meta-film about the profit hungry film industry of today, the death of the cinema theatres and the love of a fundamental film experience as the one on the roof. As Shuji exclaims in Cut as a last samurai of film: “Film is not a whore! Film is art and we should respect it!”

Someone who, like me, carries along the excellent little essay book “The End of the Film. Etc.” feels a deep sympathy. The book is written by Swede Jan Holmberg — Ph.D, university teacher, once director of the Stockholm Cinematheque, and since 2010 in charge of the Bergman Foundation. Among many other things he points out that very soon no one will understand the opening sequence of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona”, where the film gets stuck in the projector and the image melts and burns. Or for that matter understand the Venice Festival vignette with its sound of projector rattle and its perforated filmstrips floating by on the screen. With Jan Homberg’s brilliant book in your hand — may it eventually be translated for others to read — you can wander through the festival cinemas and contemplate his far from nostalgic run through of the effects of our Brave New Digital World. On a material — film — its projection, its places, its history.

I’m watching a newly restored copy of Nicholas Ray’s final, deeply personal and postumely screened film We Can’t Go Home Again from 1973. It’s thus a film over thirty years old, which beats all of today’s art videos with its richness and emotional power. Ray used all available filmformats; 8 mm, 16 mm, 35 mm projected simultaneously within the frame of one image. In 90 minutes the audience watches three, maybe four hours of film, mirroring how none of us lives or thinks in straight lines and reminding us of how our individual history develops at the same time as the story of others, which in turn influence our own. A kind of prototype for reality-TV, if you like. But definitely on film.

I see fine exemples of digitally recorded ‘films’, such as the multi-talented James Franco’s tender and dense story Sal, about the last day of actor Sal Mineo. The teenage idol from Rebel Without a Cause was murdered by chance 37 years old, on the verge of a rejuvinated and brilliant acting career. Jan Holmberg would express worries about the original’s ability to survive in the archives. As compared to film, no one can tell how to best preserve any digital format. Let alone, how long it will last.

I met Andrea Arnold, who has made the brutal and fierce Wuthering Heights on 35 mm film in the almost extinct square silent film format 4:3. It’s very beautiful. She loves the format, she says, taking reference from examples like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It frames the faces. It makes the people visible. It catches all the nuances of sky and landscape. In the cinemas it will be screened in a digital copy, while loads of older films gather dust on the archive shelves. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll appear on a DVD if — as they say — it is worth the money. Wuthering Heights doesn’t suit the big screen television. But it does suit the cinema screen, as long as there’s still someone willing to show something besides the broadest kind of entertainment. And as long as there are film samurais like Shuji.