17 October 2012

DCP vs. Film

A couple of years ago, Film Forum played a digital restoration of The Bridge on the River Kwai, which I eagerly attended. Visually, it was a disappointment. The film didn't look terrible, mind you, but it definitely had that stretched-out-Blu-Ray quality. In my mind's eye, I recall seeing actual pixels on the screen. (These digital restorations are usually listed with the initials "DCP." Bridge was a "4K," though I'm not sure the difference between the two or how they're related, and I am too lazy at the moment to research it. I would like to think it doesn't matter to my overall point, but I am certainly wrong.)

After that, I resolved to avoid DCP/4K/digital restoration screenings. (Modern films I'm okay with. I think they're largely shot in digital and/or set up to not look like dreck when projected digitally. At least, I assume so.) It's been hard to do. Film Forum frequently touts a restored film, I begin to make plans to see it, and then my eye catches the letters "DCP," and I immediately change my mind. Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia are two of the most recent restorations I was extremely tempted by, DCP or no. "Surely seeing it on the big screen, even if the quality isn't equal to film, is still worth it?" I ask myself. Logically, that sounds right. Emotionally, it doesn't. Especially with New York City prices, the limited amount of time I have for film/television viewing in general, and the generous amount of pop culture that still awaits me.

As time went by, of course, I began to second guess myself. Film Forum is one of the top theaters in the city, and therefore the nation. They wouldn't project crap, would they? What about The Red Shoes? That looked gorgeous there, didn't it? It was probably a DCP/4K projection too, although I wasn't smart enough to check at the time. Soon enough, the Museum of the Moving Image, which is conveniently located in my own neighborhood, began screening DCPs as well. Their venue and methodology is the best of the best, and if they were throwing their bona fides behind the technology, well then, it must be on the up and up, mustn't it?

This was on my mind when I woke up Saturday morning and checked Twitter. (Yes, I'm that kind of person.) The Museum tweeted about a 2:00 pm DCP screening of Ashes and Diamonds, one of those classic, universally acclaimed films I've never seen. Better yet, film critic David Thomson would be there to talk about the film and his new book and whatever else he had to plug. Having nothing better to immediately do, I resolved to attend the show and settle my opinion once and for all about DCP.

And so I did. And you know what? I would still prefer to avoid it.

Admittedly, the DCP wasn't all terrible. For most of the running time, my technologically stupid eyes couldn't tell the difference between it and real film. And certain shots and images were clear and stunning, no doubt about it. DCP has a lot to recommend for it, and if the choice is between seeing a film on the big screen in DCP or seeing it on the small in Blu-Ray, I'd go for the former (if life were to ever provide such a clear cut decision).

But then there were the times when the projector had no idea what the hell it was trying to display. I first noticed it with the tank treads. Ashes and Diamonds takes place at the end of WWII, and many shots have Soviet tanks moving by in the background. The treads of these tanks were always an unnatural digital blur. "Well, okay, but that's a small thing," says my mind. "If that's the worst of it, then you've been overreacting." It wasn't. There is a scene in the film where two characters are talking in bed. It's shot largely in close-up, in low level lighting. For the entire scene, the actors' faces were a too-smooth digital haze, as if they were the victims of a poor PhotoShop job. It was appalling. Outside of that, I would notice a softness of the entire image every so often, as if parts of it were out of focus. It was subtle, though, and I couldn't be sure if it was an actual defect, or just me being overly paranoid.

After Ashes and Diamonds, the Museum screened Yotsuya Kaidan, directed by Kenji Misumi. This one was a 35mm print, so I stuck around to watch it (one of the great things about the Museum is that you only pay one ticket fee, so if you see the early show, you can watch the rest for no extra charge). The quality wasn't appreciably better than the best the DCP had to offer - not to my untrained eyes, at least - but there were also no obvious lapses into digital crap, either.

Still, the screening gave me a thrill, an excitement, that the DCP hadn't provided. That was because the 35mm print was old. There were scratches and flaws and the soundtrack frequently popped and crackled. Having grown up before the proliferation of digital technology, these were things I was familiar with, and should have also considered lapses. And yet it's so infrequent that I see a genuine film print, and an old one at that, that the defects here felt like a treat. They signified an authenticity, a gritty reality that DCP screenings lack. It felt, somehow, new and alive, rather than old and decaying. Perhaps it was nostalgia, but I realized then that I would gladly pay a surcharge to see a film shot on film projected on film, rather than a digitized version with the latest whistles and bells.

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