Critics and art historians will argue that cinema is dead, a dying art in the age of technology and digital media. As many following in the footsteps of James Cameron and J.J. Abrams would claim, “It’s all about 3D,” or in reference to the latter, Abrams’ signature computer generated lens flare. But us film nerds know better than that.
When it comes to restoration, color gradients and film supplements, just who reigns supreme? Many would cast their vote for Criterion Collection without any hesitation, while an enlightened few may consider up and coming rival Arrow Films. The bottom line: both offer a catalog of the best of the best to appease cinephiles of all ranks. What it really boils down to is personal preference and the conditions surrounding the film.
Without Criterion or Arrow, who else would dare to endeavor the painstaking task of working to preserve old cinema and that 35mm look we love all too much? From the classics brought to us by Orson Welles to art house films that touch on the foreign works by Antonioni, Renoir, Bergman and Fassbinder, it’s both an eclectic selection and honorary obsession. A concoction of one part art and one part history assembled by spine numbers, cover artwork, cult genres and special features is enough to make any cinephile drool. I myself am guilty of this decadent indulgence. Does this make me a film snob or any more culturally affluent than the average movie-goer? No. Does this make me a connoisseur of film? Certainly.
And now it seems this appreciation and manic passion for cinema has finally been reciprocated by the powers that be with the rise of 4K remasters. What is 4K, you ask? In layman’s terms, 4K is ultra high definition with image resolution ranging from 3840 x 2160 to 4096 x 2160, enough room to allow eight million pixels to inhabit the screen. Think of it as an early holiday gift. Sometimes it’s difficult to stay abreast with the barrage of tech upgrades, but this advancement is hands down a firm step in the right direction as far as film preservation is concerned.
Though the debut of Blu-ray back in 2009 demonstrated the evident differences in video quality within the digital realm, it still neglected to address the needs of film (the forgotten classics that had been locked up in studio vaults for decades, now tattered and torn amidst a collection of 3D and CG eye candy). Did anyone care about the livelihood of the “greats” anymore? (Mind you, many people have been asking this question for years, and now those needs have finally been answered.)
In many ways, 4K imaging came in the nick of time as technology progresses and continues to drive old school techniques (i.e. film) to the edge of extinction. The introduction of 4K was a rescue mission, whether intentional or not, blessing multiple titles with digital immortality. And the improvements are easily recognizable. 4K brings perfect clarity to the screen in a tedious process that scans original prints frame by frame, leaving an immaculate trail of digital prints in its wake. The results are pristine; devoid of any hair or grain of dust to blemish the screen, full of detail and firm edges.
Somewhere in New York and Hertfordshire resides the unsung heroes working to shelter the cinema of yesteryear from the harsh elements of contemporary ethos, and it’s far from glamorous. Among a vast library full of endless titles and colorful swatches of enclosed reels filling rows upon rows of shelving under poor fluorescent lighting in a temperature controlled basement, these noble technicians have dedicated themselves to preserving one cinematic masterpiece after another. From Ghostbusters to Satyajit Ray’s much anticipated Apu Trilogy, critics and collectors everywhere anxiously await the next round of titles to be announced.
But what happens when technology takes away from the essence of film; the scratches and the hairs that trademark film grain, and the soft flicker of 24 frames per second being projected onto the screen? Is all that lost as Blu-ray and 4K replace nostalgia with modernity? Lord, no. Digital isn’t acquainted with the funnel of dust streaming down into the fabric screen, nor is it keen to the low hum as the film is continuously threaded through spinning reels or the smell of must and rusted metal yielding a slight tinny taste to the air. Digital respects its boundaries, attuning itself to the needs of the spectator and its modifications are, for the most part, subtle and noninvasive. To say the least, 4K simply breathes new life into old stories; it invigorates.
Thus, the cycle continues same as before; a young wrinkle situating itself upon this specter of a spectacle whose eyes open wide, forehead slightly furrowed, absorbing the flash of images and color. Listening for the sound of footsteps echoing through a cobblestone alleyway, a shadow lurking in the distance. This is love and addiction; an inspiration and a heartache. Whether or not it’s shot on digital or 35mm, cinema is one of the greatest illusions known to man, playing tricks on our eyes for amusement. This is what cinema was and is: it can make you laugh and it can make you cry.