IF A MEDIUM FALLS IN THE FOREST…

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A message from Northwest Film Forum programmers and the announcement of a special screening.

Anyone familiar with the wide-ranging programming at the Film Forum knows that we are not your traditional film purists. Part of our job is indeed to preserve the legacy of cinema, to show cinema’s history and exhibit classic works in the manner that the filmmakers intended. But we also take very seriously the other part of our job, which is to constantly rethink cinema, to embrace a variety of attitudes, approaches and new technologies. The all-too-often devisive and oversimplified debate of “film versus video” first began around the time of our organization’s founding 15 years ago. Although the word “film” is central in our name, we decided long ago to adopt a malleable approach toward the meaning of that word, to openly redefine it as an expanding art rather than a particular medium, and to emphasize its shifting and growing implications through embracing the more important word in our name, “forum.” As we’ve presented classics on 35mm celluloid alongside works in every imaginable format of film, video and new media, our staff, audiences, involved artists, instructors, students and volunteers have been engaged in an ongoing exploration of all possible tools, techniques and content of cinema. While the development of various new filmmaking technologies and high quality home viewing formats have presented tricky challenges for cinemas, we’ve generally approached these as fascinating cultural twists and relevant issues to sink our teeth into as curators and presenters.

But we were recently taken aback by the announcement of a series called “Sci-Fi on Blu-Ray,” showing at SIFF Cinema this month. While the selection of historic films in the series is impeccable, we found the screening format of these classics, and the fact that the video format actually shares the bill with the content, perplexing. We were quickly reminded of a traveling series that came to Seattle last year, “Hi-def Hitchcock,” which bragged that the great auteur’s masterpieces were being shown “for the first time in HD!” “Isn’t 35mm film higher def than HD?” we thought? “And weren’t most if not all of those Hitchcock films available for exhibition on 35mm prints?” We have the same questions about the blu-ray screenings in this Science Fiction series, which SIFF programmers describe as “superior presentations.” Aren’t these so-called high-tech presentations of classic films acts of convenience and promo glitter, when in fact the analog medium on which these movies were shot and intended to be shown is both superior and available for exhibition? There’s no doubt that SIFF Cinema’s video projection system is outstanding, nor doubt that the movies in this series are strong enough to withstand exhibition in the unintended format and remain entertaining experiences. And the average viewer may not want to concern him or herself with such issues of presentation. But professional presenters have a duty to make careful, sometimes subtle but no less important distinctions when choosing and communicating such things.

We fully support digital presentations of digital works, but as we see the producers of the country’s largest film festival championing blu-ray as a superior format to 35mm film and disregarding the original intentions of master filmmakers, the issue becomes not simply a question of digital vs. analog, but one of the legacy of cinema and the responsibility of its arbiters. The discussion among our staff has raised interesting questions and some differing opinions, but there is complete agreement here that films such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet Of The Apes (both featured in the “Sci-Fi On blu-ray” series) are best presented in 35mm. After some investigation, we found that there are, in fact, great 35mm prints of many of the films in the series available for exhibition. So we are left wondering why the prints are not being shown. Are film programmers no longer discerning? Does the public no longer care? If this is indeed the end of a dying era of 35mm film then wouldn’t screening available prints of classics be all the more important? Or should celluloid be put to rest?

In order to engage in a discussion with Seattle audiences and film professionals, we invite you to join us for a screening of a glorious, pristine 35mm print of the 1968 film PLANET OF THE APES on Thursday January 28th at 7pm. The journey into the classic film’s imagined future will be followed by an informal discussion with Sean Axmaker (MSN.com formerly of Seattle PI), Dennis West (Cineaste), Jeff Shannon (Seattle Times) about the future of film exhibition.

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2 Responses to “IF A MEDIUM FALLS IN THE FOREST…”

  1. Ryan Says:

    ps. the comment action for this post is happening on our facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/nwfilmforum?ref=mf

  2. Erik Says:

    Thanks for calling attention to that odd SIFF idea. I thought it was weird too — and with a big name like SIFF behind it, the concept gets sort of a credibility I don’t think it deserves.
    Frankly, this kind of thinking is why I pony up every year for my NWFF membership and not SIFF.
    regards
    Erik
    Seattle

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