The old adage about movies is that they are not what they are about, but how they go about it. And in today’s day and age, there is more discussion than ever about how we are watching movies. Back some eighty odd years ago, the only place you could ever see a film was in a glamorous movie house one theater only!) with a full audience. And part of that experience was the sound of the reels passing through the projector and an imperceptible flicker between each still. But today, go to any multiplex in New York, and the chances you are watching a 35 millimeter (mm) print of a film is astonishingly scarce. Many modern cinemas only use digital prints, which is perfect for big budget extravaganzas. Movies are delivered in eight pound hard drives and deliver a crisper, cleaner picture with no worries about changing reels.
But how should we enjoy our classic films then? That’s the big question that is emerging from a weekend series at Symphony Space this summer. Symphony Space is showing new prints of the best works of silent comedian Charlie Chaplin and Japanese master Akria Kurosawa throughout the summer. The twist? All the prints are in high definition.
To many, the idea is blasphemous. When cinephiles go to see a classic film down at Film Forum or Lincoln Center, they see them in the way they would have been shown at that time. But Symphony Space doesn’t believe in such tradition, going with arduously restored versions of these sometime eighty-year-old films in digital glory.
Take one I saw—Chaplin’s The Circus from 1925. The Circus features Chaplin as his classic character the Tramp as he makes a mockery of a local circus in town, becoming the hit of the audience and the disdain of the ringleader. Last summer, Film Forum showed The Circus, along with most of Chaplin’s works, in new 35mm prints that had been arduously cleaned and reconstructed. And this summer, their retrospective on Buster Keaton has not only done the same, but has an actual pianist accompanying each screening to truly recreate the feeling of being transported to that time. Additionally, many have found that preserving and restoring films as film can be cheaper than digital preservation. At a recent event I attended, Patrick Loughney, the Chief of the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, explained that the costs of preserving prints of film (basically a cold storage room) are actually cheaper than digital (which requires numerous computers and constant updating to stay with the latest software).
Going into The Circus, I was more than skeptical of watching a high crisp print. But it only took minutes for me to forget about the lack of a flickering light in the back. The HD print was gorgeous, bringing out the best in the blacks and whites, allowing the focus of the characters to come through. Chaplin’s expressions—so crucial to both his comedy and his pathos—were clear, heightening the comedy. Sure we didn’t have a pianist in the room (the print came with a newly remastered score that was composed by Chaplin in 1967), but because the picture was so beautiful, I realized that an HD print of a classic can bring us back into the film. Sure, a great 35mm print can be stunning (the recent restoration of The Red Shoes by Martin Scorsese and the Film Foundation is a masterful stroke of preservation), but HD makes you think less about how the film looks than what the film is showing. These films look like they were made today, so you treat them like modern films—you focus on the story, the characters, the editing, the shots, the film itself! You can be swept away into the bizarre humor of Chaplin as he rummages through the circus, finding himself trapped in a lion cage or on top of a tightrope.
If we are truly entering a digital age, where fewer and fewer filmmakers will even shoot on film, perhaps our collective nostalgia for a time we never knew must change as well. If we really want to watch a movie the way it was made in back then, let’s also remove the air conditioning and sit on wooden seats. What Symphony Space’s HD retrospectives remind us is that maybe it was not how we watch the movies, but the movies themselves that enchant us. And with these new prints, they can enchant us all over.
The Chaplin and Kurosawa retrospectives run on Saturdays and Sundays at Symphony Space throughout the summer. Students, staff and CAAL members can buy tickets for $9 by using the discount code when they purchase online, or presenting their CUID or the CAAL card at the box office.