Beginning this year, I steered in a film adventure. It started with Mark Cousin’s documentary series, “The Story of Film”. It’s a 15 hour spectacle taking you around the world to learn about film history. Though there are sections where the focus is on Hollywood, it doesn’t linger there too long. Cousins talks about film as a global language. Starting from the beginning of film with the Lumière brothers, Cousins works his way through the silent era but relates it to modern day cinema. As a viewer, you’re taken back and forth through films of different eras, understanding how one generation of film makers borrows from the film language of a previous era.
The series had a profound effect on me. Being able to see people make film from a hundred years ago and more tells me there are commonalities in human behavior and events that cross generation and millennia. I had a similar revelation when studying art history, though that was not as profound because the interpretations of the art were typically from secondary or tertiary sources. In film, there are primary sources from documentarians interviewing directors and cast members. For example, MoMA exhibits Van Gogh paintings, but its descriptions are written by the art curator. As an extra on the Blu-ray of Stagecoach, you can watch an interview with John Ford talking about directing his film.
Thanks to recommendations from some readers, I checked out the Stanford Theatre. I don’t know why I hadn’t gone sooner. I watched “The Blue Angel” from 1930. The film shows its age with the crackles and pops from the audio and dust and scratches on the film. I couldn’t care less. I was invested in the eventual downfall of the professor. I was taken aback by of Lola’s song as a harbinger. I witnessed a screening uncommon for today.
While the majority of this year has been watching restorations, original prints or something close to it is just as important. The Stanford Theatre showed me the value of old film. It’s the living print that has been stored for decades before and will continue to be our go-to until we can restore prints to the highest quality. That definition might be the highest pixel density you can get before there is no discernible detail in the film grain.
Thank goodness there are film preservationist keeping these films alive. Preserving the reels is a tough job. This is worse for film with ammonium nitrate that’s highly combustible, prevalent in film before the 1940s. Some films are lost forever because of neglect from the studios, archive fires, and other damage.
Despite digital taking over, film still has a place in our world. The latest Star Wars film was shot partially on film to give it the aesthetic of the original trilogy. Tarantino swears by it because he believes it gives that bit of authenticity to movies. Is it enough to keep this medium alive? I wouldn’t know. I’m not in that industry. But I will appreciate film for what it’s worth, if it means going to events at Stanford Theatre, SF MoMA, and Berkeley Art Music and Pacific Film Archive. I love this experience of film and would love if everyone could go watch.