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35mm v Digital: The Cinematheque's Jim Sinclair talks Economics, Nostalgia and Tarkovsky

10/21/2013 01:52 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

On at least one occasion last year, before a screening of Don Coscarelli's Bubba Ho Tep at the Rio Theatre, programmer Rachel Fox, by way of introducing the film, took a show of hands to ask if it made any difference at all to the people in attendance, when it came to coming out to such shows, if they were being projected on 35mm or digitally. Of course, she was asking the wrong people -- she needed to poll the people who hadn't come to the cinema that night, to see if they'd stayed home because it was a Blu-Ray projection. Alas, polling the absent is understandably difficult to do.

Still, her question caused me a moment of earnest reflection. Actually, it made no difference at all to me; while I do sometimes make an effort to see 35mm restorations of classic films -- because 35mm is a somewhat precious, endangered species -- the main criteria for me in choosing films is the film itself, followed by social considerations ("who can I go with that needs to see this?"). As long as I trust that the alternative to a film projection is sufficiently high-resolution (Blu-Ray or better), I don't worry so much about what format a film is being shown in.

This is particularly relevant after the VIFF we've just had, since the vast preponderance of films were projected digitally (Vancity programmer Tom Charity confirms that only four out of 340 films at the fest were actually shown on film). Every film I saw looked and sounded great, insofar as there were no scratches, missing chunks, stutters, mis-projections, or glitches. It's hard to argue with perfection.

That said, a new 35mm print of a film like Tarkovsky'sNostalghia -- his first film made after leaving the Soviet Union, shot in Tuscany with Ingmar Bergman regular Erland Josephson in the first of two roles he would play for Tarkovsky -- is a cause for great excitement, and more than merited a talk with the Cinematheque's programmer Jim Sinclair about film vs. digital, Tarkovsky, and other upcoming film fare.

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Allan: I wanted to start by asking you about 35mm film restorations. We've seen an almost entirely digital VIFF come and go. Is the Cinematheque committed to 35mm film?

Jim: The Cinematheque has always been committed to showing works in their natural format. For films that were shot and released on 35mm, that has meant 35mm films. Works that were shot by digital means can be presented in the appropriate digital format. But the fact of the matter is, and the reality we're facing, is that 35mm is being phased out as a format --certainly for new films, and in many cases for restorations and re-releases. So while we are still pleased as punch when we can get a new 35 restoration of a film like this Tarkovsky, and will endeavor to keep bringing those to Vancouver, I think we'll be faced very soon with a situation where these kinds of re-releases, in the future, won't happen on 35mm. We're still committed to presenting things in the best possible way, in the most appropriate and natural way, but as you know, there's been a major shift happening.

Allan: Absolutely. I have to admit, I did not expect to enjoy so many of the films so much this year at the VIFF, seeing them digitally. But I actually liked it a lot, and I can see the advantages. It must surely be a lot cheaper -- you must be paying quite a bit to ship a 35mm print of a Tarkovsky to Vancouver.

Jim: There will be considerable savings when we switch to DCP, which is going to happen in the next several months, and you're right: shipping heavy 35mm film cans is really expensive. I mean, we spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on film shipping. We may save 30, 40, 50 per cent or more in our annual'film trafficking costs, once we get DCP and are relying increasingly upon it.

Allan: When we see something like a new print of Tarkovsky being struck like this, what motivates the restoration, generally?

Jim: I think it's the last vestige of this kind of work that's been going on in specialty circles for awhile, in that there are still outlets like the Cinematheque in Vancouver -- and other institutions in North America -- that still have an interest in screening 35mm prints. But circling back to what I said earlier, I'm not sure that in the next year or two or three we're going to see many more of these kinds of restorations. Except to the degree that sometimes restorations of 35mm prints have been undertaken to facilitate pristine digital releases, like Blu-Ray or DVD. As films have been released on Blu-Ray and DVD over the last decade, many of the studios --the ones that are more meticulous and careful about their work -- often restored 35mm prints to make these digital releases. And then for archives and cinematheques they would make these new, restored 35 prints available. We may soon see a situation where they keep these things in the vaults, they keep them pristine and they don't circulate them, so therefore people will have to rely on DCP.

Allan: There's some wisdom there, too.

Jim: You mentioned enjoying digital projection at the festival. One of the benefits of DCP is that they don't deteriorate every time you play them, whereas every time you put a 35mm print through a projector, there is wear and tear. Of course, if you've ever seen old prints, there are scratches, there could be sprockets missing, there could be frames that had to be cut out because they've been damaged. Some people like that -- it's like the texture, it's like listening to vinyl records. But many people don't care about these things as much, and welcome the pristine, always-like-new presentation of a digital projection.

Allan: Actually, my first ever experience of the Cinematheque that I remember - there were others, previously, but this is the first I can pin down -- was seeing a tribute to John Cassavetes there, shortly after he died in 1989. And there was a 16mm print of Husbands -- it was the only copy you could track down, and it was so scratchy and choppy and damaged that the theater manager was on hand at the end to apologize and hand out complimentary passes so we could come see another movie at a later date. We didn't even have to complain.

Jim: Well, those were the good old days! Twenty or 30 years ago there used to be all these 16mm prints of major films that were struck for university film clubs and classrooms and things, and you could actually put together a retrospective relying on whatever 35 prints you could find, and whatever 16mm prints you could find. We used to do it all the time. You could put together a Godard or Fassbinder retrospective and find lots of old 16 prints in Canada -- some of them pretty battered up, as you say. Those days are long gone also.

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Allan: Let's talk about Nostalghia for a bit. What's your estimation of this film? It always struck me as an unusual film in Tarkovsky's canon.

Jim: Well, I have to say, of all of Tarkovsky's features, it's the one I know the least, which is why I'm kind of excited about this restoration. We've got our hands on a print once or twice in the past, but for me this film is the least known quantity in Tarkovsky's work; of course, it's the film in which he separates himself from the Soviet Union, and it's the first film he makes abroad. And it's the first film that he makes with many of Bergman's people -- cast and crew. Tarkovsky died so abruptly and left behind so few films that I'm not sure what this work was pointing to, but this film does point a bit to The Sacrifice, in its apocalyptic leanings.

Allan: The ending is certainly startling. I've only seen it once myself, and that on a bad Chinese bootleg, so I'm excited by this screening as well. Would you say -- I try to avoid hyperbole, and it would normally seem like bullshit to say that "Tarkovsky is the greatest artist of cinema of the 20th century," except that I find I'm actually comfortable with that statement, given the immensity of what he achieves, despite his small body of work. Would you agree with that?

Jim: I'd have to think about that! I think, I wouldn't go that far, though I'm constantly amazed by his work when I see it, and am reminded of what a singular artist he was. Although there's a whole element of his Russian-ness and his sense of mysticism -- they always say that it's part of the Russian soul, and part of what makes him an interesting filmmaker is that Russian mysticism tied to his great cinematic vision. I'm very partial to his work -- I probably wouldn't put him in my five or ten of all time. Which is not to diminish his work, which is absolutely amazing.

Allan: Well, I think he accomplishes things that no other filmmaker comes close to. The power and beauty of his images is so overwhelming that he stands alone.

Allan: Let me ask about some of the other classics you have coming up. You have screenings of L'Avventura, Wings of Desire, Orphée, Nosferatu... Do classic screenings help finance more adventuresome programming, like the New Wave in African Cinema -- which seems a bit more daring? Do you get a more reliable turnout for the classics?

Jim: I would say that that's a fair estimation. It's obviously part of our mandate as a cinematheque to show this work. One of the things that I take great pleasure in after so many years is that that kind of work still finds an audience, and also brings in a bit of money that allows us to do things that don't necessarily pay for themselves. So yes, I would say those kind of classics -- there is an audience for them, people do want to see them, and it does help us present the things that are more challenging. Absolutely.

Allan: One last timely thing - any comments on Alan Franey stepping down?

Jim: I have the greatest respect for Alan and VIFF. They're going to miss him -- though I guess he's going to stay on in some capacity, or that's the word at this point. He's done an amazing job over the years at building the festival, making it such a great community event, with great community roots. It's a testament to his vision: Alan's a smart, no-bullshit guy, and that's always been the great strength of VIFF. It's going to be an interesting transition for them, because he's been there for so long. There's a lot for them to build on.

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With thanks to Steve Chow; in memoriam Otto Sander. All images from Tarkovsky's Nostalghia

Read more from Allan MacInnis at Alienated In Vancouver.