Scorsese and Spielberg join in elegy for celluloid

Posted by · 11:51 am · October 13th, 2011

I haven’t yet seen British artist Tacita Dean’s installation, “Film,” at London’s Tate Modern — in which she both celebrates and mourns the medium of celluloid, in the face of the overwhelming dominance of digital filmmaking. It opened yesterday and has received considerable acclaim even from non-anoraks, saying she makes an emphatic case for the eternal superiority of outmoded 35mm.

She certainly has some lofty names in her corner, as the book accompanying the exhibition includes testimonies from such names as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. It might strike some as a little rich that they’re taking part in such a nostalgic project in the very year that both directors are venturing into unfamiliar technical territory — 3D for Scorsese in “Hugo,” 3D and motion-capture for Spielberg in “The Adventures of Tintin” — that threatens the original medium’s survival, but it’s possible to an advocate for both preservation and progress. 

Here’s Scorsese’s tribute to the purity of celluloid, as relayed in The Guardian

“Those incredible recreations of [Manhattan street] Mulberry Bend in [DW Griffith’s] The Musketeers of Pig Alley, and of turn-of-the-century San Francisco in [Erich von Stroheim’s] Greed, as delicately textured and rendered as the first photographs. The glistening close-up that introduces Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express: the richest and most brilliant blacks and whites, greys and silvers – even the air feels alive. Gene Tierney in her white robe and dark glasses and red lipstick, in the polished wooden boat on the turquoise water with the green pines behind her, in Leave Her to Heaven. Ava Gardner – the thick dark hair, the skin like perfect porcelain – in a gold dress under an emerald cape against a midnight blue sky in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

The cinema began with a passionate, physical relationship between celluloid and the artists and craftsmen and technicians who handled it, manipulated it, and came to know it the way a lover comes to know every inch of the body of the beloved. No matter where the cinema goes, we cannot afford to lose sight of its beginnings.”

Of course, according to those who saw the incomplete version of Scorsese’s “Hugo” at the New York Film Festival recently, those beginnings still seem to be very much on the director’s mind: though I’ve been glossing over specifics to conserve my own enjoyment of the eventual finished film, I’ve lost count of the number of reviews and reactions referring to the film’s last half as a hi-tech valentine to the origins of cinema, keenly advocating its preservation. Between this and “The Artist,” audiences may start feeling a little hectored by cinema nostalgists before the holidays are out.

(I’ll be seeing “The Adventures of Tintin,” by the way, on Sunday. Fingers crossed.)

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