The unexpected success of The Artist, nominated for 10 Academy Awards last week, would have one believe that a silent cinema renaissance is under way.
It ain’t necessarily so, says George Eastman House Motion Picture curator Paolo Cherchi Usai. Instead, the applause for The Artist signals the eventual museumification of the original cinematic experience.
That experience — millions of images on 35-millimetre film flickering at 24 or 16 frames per second — is on its way out, replaced by flicker and celluloid-free digital projection. Soon, archives and museums intent on maintaining 35 mm projections will be the only places to see silent and talking pictures as they were meant to be shown.
Cinema as we have known it will go through what Cherchi Usai calls “the wax museum syndrome. For a while, it will be a matter of nostalgia, folklore. ‘Look mommy, that’s the way people were looking at this image.’”
For the time being, however, silent cinema, once relegated to the margins of film-going, has returned to the mainstream cinemas of its heyday, and that pleases Cherchi Usai.
“The more the merrier,” he says of those whose interest in silents has been piqued by The Artist. “When I got into the business over 30 years ago, people interested in silent films were considered a bunch of eccentrics. Nobody was interested in these images.”
But those images, if shown digitally, are not authentic — the cinematic equivalent to a Cezanne lithograph.
The digital marketplace does have its champions. Bret Wood, executive producer for silent film distributor Kino Lorber, explains its advantages: “Because digital film mastering and distribution is relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of making film prints, distributors can significantly increase the number of films released, and also widen the variety of films.”
Cherchi Usai, while enthusiastic of anyone promoting silent film awareness, warns of a looming digital dark age: “I don’t believe the audience will have access to as many films as they think. The cost of these digital transfers is far higher than the business case of commercial entities.”
Only a fraction of the 150,000 silent films photochemically preserved throughout the years have been digitized, and many of them are not fit for theatrical presentation.
“Archives will soon end up with thousands of prints that will be of no use except to other archives,” says Cherchi Usai. The result would create a spiral effect: first, the archive becomes inaccessible, then endangered because it is useless, then lost.
Digital means of preservation are also becoming the norm within the cash-strapped archival community, replacing conventional analog and photochemical methods. “We are in the middle of a major transition,” says Cherchi Usai. “The number of archives that preserve films photochemically is decreasing.”
There was a time when both methods could coexist — the hybrid approach, he calls it — and it had many advantages, allowing digital tools to contribute solutions not available to analog technology without betraying what Cherchi Usai calls the original cinematic experience.
That betrayal is happening right now with digital technologies, and Cherchi Usai insists original, photochemical preservation is crucial in order to maintain the way in which future generations will experience cinema.
In October, a digitally colourized version of George Melies’ early science-fiction gem A Trip to the Moon (1902) was presented to a packed audience at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, a silent film festival catering to archivists and scholars.
A laborious and cost-intensive restoration was undertaken by Paris-based Lobster Films, but Cherchi Usai was not impressed with the results. “I was appalled by it,” he remarks. “The icy flatness of the image, the tepid colour reduced to the status of stained glass. Fifty years from now, this is how the viewer will look at A Trip to the Moon and they’ll think that’s how the film was meant to be seen. If this is all that survives, we will have no way of arguing about the way it looked in its original cinematic form.”
Wood thinks too much emphasis is placed on the technology driving the film and that the experience is “defined more by the communal experience of laughing, gasping and crying in an audience of strangers, or of hearing a musician perform live accompaniment.”
Marshall McLuhan did say “the medium is the message,” referring to a vast array of inklings, feelings, experiences in which presentation technologies shape our response to things.
Losing this accessibility through means of technology would “narrow our understanding of the human experience,” says Cherchi Usai. It would be like waking up in a world where books exist only electronically, and those that were never digitized, well, sorry — we lost the keys to the library.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star’s Insight section on January 28, 2012.