Sunday, September 16, 2012

The passing of celluloid dreams

Things change.

My first music reproduction device was a 78rpm kid's record player made out of tin.
As a child, I had a record player
exactly like this one.
Before long records changed to 45rpm, then to 33 1/3 long playing lps. Soon there was high fidelity and then there was  stereo. All that in the space of 10 years Flash forward past home tape recorders, cassettes and the birth of mix tapes (sigh), CDs with clean but cold sound, to mp3s which allowed thousands of songs to be stored on a device the size of a slightly thick playing card, to mp3s which must be paid for and which have licensing and copy protections in them so you can't share them with your friends. It's a wonder they haven't come up with a way to make you pay every time you play a particular song.

TV in my lifetime changed from a small (except we didn't know it was small then) black and white flickering picture to large 19 inch sets that were designed as furniture for the living room. Color arrived in the mid to late 1960's (now there's a loaded statement).

Sometime in the early 1980's, I can remember walking the streets of Greenwich Village the night the Public Broadcasting Service presented a Metropolitan Opera performance "simulcast" in stereo on local radio stations and hearing what was it, La Boheme?, wafting through the windows of every single block on my way home. Then ABC began simulcasting music videos late on Friday nights. It wasn't long before tv sets had stereo built in. Along the way, there was BetaMax, VHS, Laser Discs, DVDs, and now we have available very large wall sized flat screen high definition surround sound stereo devices that mimic and rival the quality of movie theaters. And there's the rub.

Over the years, film has come in many sizes and formats. But it was film, celluloid. The images would be projected onto large screens, 20 to 40 feet wide. Those images had a special kind of magic. They captured and inspired our imaginations. And those images have changed over the years. Film stock used to be nitrate, which gave a special glow.

35mm nitrate image from the silent German film "Metropolis"

Nitrate film stock was unstable and flammable. Safety stock came in, but the rich blacks and silver glow of the images were gone. Stunning technicolor images (also with rich blacks) gave way to more economical and less complicated Eastman stock and its imitators, in which the colors were more subdued and quickly faded. There have been any number of other changes, from the size of the film itself to special lenses for widescreen, stereo, multi-channel  stereo Sensurround, various 3D systems, and etc.With each change, the way we perceive the image itself, and the story we are watching, has changed. But the image was still on celluloid.

Image from a 1950s era 35mm IB Technicolor print
Image from the Blu Ray DVD "restoration"
(Thanks to David Bordwell's website on cinema from which I purloined these two images.)
Many movie theaters now project digital images. Celluloid is being phased out. This was all predictable. Indeed, the only surprise to me is that it took so long. When I was put out of a job in film distribution in the mid 1990's, I fully expected celluloid to be completely gone within 10 years. But the time is now. Movie theaters are already having problems getting 35mm prints. There is about a year left. Theaters must either pay about $70,000.00 per screen to covert to digital, or they will find themselves out of business.

I can't begin to estimate how many 35mm prints in
cans like this I've slung around over the years
Most film images wash over you at the rate of 24 frames per second. There is a momentary display of a picture in a concrete all there at once image, interspersed by moments of darkness as a flywheel blocks the light while the next picture is brought before the light source, aperture, and lens. Persistence of vision creates the moving image.  (Ingmar Bergman used to note that people seeing his movies were really paying to sit in 20 minutes of darkness. He wasn't talking about his themes.) Digital images, on the other hand, are based on a scan line. One line is filled in by electrons hitting a display, skipping a line, going on to the next line, skipping a line all the way down an image. The electron beam then goes back and fills in the missing lines. Even though this happens very rapidly, the display never has a complete image on it - it is a mental process which puts this picture together. That process puts the viewer into an alpha state, accepting what is shown in a much more uncritical and relaxed fashion. This was detailed in a mid 1970s book "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television", which claimed that tv was, therefore, lulling people into passivity ripe for autocratic rule. This effect is not based on content - it is based on the psychological effects of watching tv - the problem here is the medium itself.

Aside from those scary implications, part of the sadness I feel over this change concerns the auditorium experience of going to the movies. Once, there were giant screens fronting a sea of seats in "an acre of dreams". As television took hold, the theaters became smaller, there were less seats, the auditoriums were less grand. When I was a kid, one entered the theater to music playing softly in the background. There were curtains in front of the screen. At the appointed time, the house lights would dim, the music would swell, colored lights would engulf the main curtain which would open as images began to appear on the screen. An inner curtain would close after the coming attractions, newsreels, cartoons and short subjects and reopen for the feature. Movie going was an experience, a shared worship. Today's smaller auditoriums still offer a shared experience, but the ceremony, the ritual of presentation, is gone. Most of the big old houses have been multiplexed, losing their balconies, their size, their prestige and their showmanship in the process.
(Check out my post on one of the great movie palaces, The Roxy.)

I could go on, but I won't. This article started because I looked something up. I stumbled upon a news story that the Strand Theatre in Ocean City, New Jersey might close for good - unable to afford the cost of digital conversion. It currently has five screens and is a shadow of its former self. I saw many a movie there before it was multiplexed. It was one of the homes, nay, the temples, of my celluloid dreams.

The Strand as it is now.

Back in its glory days when the Strand was new.

One entered through those doors, walked down the hallway past illuminated pictures of movie stars (concession stand on the photo left, which would have been on the right as you entered.)

Even the back of the auditorium was a grand and huge space. Well, the Strand did seat 1,200 after all.

As you entered the auditorium, art deco lighting greeted you.

The auditorium
Close up of the design on the main curtain
The Strand Theater has been listed for sale. I want it to survive, but its time has gone and it really ceased to exist years ago. In memory (was it real?) I see myself saunter past on a rainy windswept night, the glow of light reflected on the wet boardwalk, lost forever in my own noir world of blue neon dreams.


mybabyjohn/Delores said...

This was a beautiful post that brought back so many memories; of the old Admiral tube TV that was always in the shop, going to the movies with my parents to see Bambi, the newsreels and cartoons before the show, the feeling of being part of a grand adventure. Wonderful golden days .... ah, but, was it all a dream?

Austan said...

And the loveliness of going to the movies is finally killed and cremated. So many things have been ruined- traveling, shopping, working, sports, television, foods, cosmetics, cars, voting, just everything. I give up. Bring on the comet.