What's Up, Doc?

Even America's greatest living filmmaker doesn't think celluloid has a future

Durham, North Carolina--

They haven't called it the Cannes of doc fests for nothing. But this year the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival surpassed even its own high standards with the help of longtime doc-maker and -lover Martin Scorsese, who enjoyed the fest's distinctly Southern hospitality for the first time. (Scorsese has served as board chair of the annual event since its inception in 1998.)

Not a big fan of air travel, to say the least, the New York-based director of The Aviator dared to make the trip to Durham, and, once there, he made the most of it. (Or the most that anyone could make without staying overnight, anyway.) The catholic cineaste's five-and-a-half-hour communion with Full Frame attendees included his clip-filled tribute to mid-'50s documentarian Vittorio De Seta, and the fest's clip-filled tribute to Scorsese. Both feature-length programs were, like Scorsese's own films, packed with detail: The man has an encyclopedic mind and he talks fast--so in five and a half hours, he can cover not only the waterfront, but the entire ocean and every cloud above as well.

Yet these tonally melancholy tributes, it seems to me, were chiefly concerned with acknowledging the departed--to borrow the title of the crime thriller that Scorsese will begin shooting in Boston next week. De Seta's 10-minute portraits of Sicilian fishermen, miners, and farmers--most in shockingly vibrant color and Cinemascope--capture a "world in twilight," as Scorsese put it, "my ancestral culture at the end of its history, on its way to the realm of myth."

This description applies as well to the autumnal vibe of Scorsese's work in middle age: Pointedly downbeat clips from The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, and The Aviator--chosen by the director himself--were the picture of paradise being lost over and over again. "The order is rapidly fadin'," another prophet once claimed in song. No wonder Scorsese's next documentary is a film about Bob Dylan.

With the passing of time very much in mind, I took an entire minute to ask a question of my most cherished artist during the brief press conference that was held in between the two tributes. The question had to do with film preservation at this, the dawn of the digital age: Do you think there's anything we can do, I asked the maestro, to make sure that celluloid continues to exist outside of museums? And can the new, corporate distribution and exhibition of digital cinema stay somewhat open to independent filmmakers?

The following is Scorsese's four-minute reply, unbroken save for two interruptions: one from a publicist and one from a cell phone, as befits the ongoing battle between humanity and technology that may lie at the heart of film preservation in 2005 and beyond.

 

"Yeah," says Scorsese."I mean, the problem with digital projection is that it's the exhibitors who have to pay for the extraordinary equipment. The image looks pretty good, from what I've seen--it looks pretty interesting. And ultimately that's where things may be going.

"The issue is what we've all been talking about: the death of cinema--the idea that eventually, at some point, in a hundred years from now if we're still around, the last film projected on a big screen might be [only] in a museum somewhere. But you think about the 19th century: the type of plays that were put on in the 19th century, the type of music that was played, the change in the auditoriums, the use of sound systems. Every artist or craftsman uses the tools of the time.

"I prefer celluloid--there's no doubt about it. Yet I know that if I was starting to make movies now, as a young person, if I could get my hands on a DV camera, I probably would have started that way. We even thought of making Taxi Driver in black-and-white video because [initially] we weren't able to get the money to do it as a [filmed] feature. And so I think there's certainly an advantage to the digital video.

"You could say, Well, everybody's making films now. Yeah, but eventually, those [films] will sort themselves out: The ones that have something interesting to say, they'll remain, you know? There's no doubt I'm an older advocate of pure celluloid, but ultimately I see it going by the wayside--except in museums, and even then it [could be] a problem.

"However, in preservation, the issue is this: The studios and everybody starts thinking digital, digital, digital, but the reality is that the audiences now--this is one of the interesting things about DVD--are expecting quality. The consumer expects quality, too, when they buy a DVD. And so to keep the quality going, one has to go back to the original source. The original elements have to be in good shape--and those [elements] are usually celluloid. So [there's a cost to] the owners of films--I'm not talking about the public domain films, the orphaned films, the documentaries that are sitting in somebody's vault or somebody's closet.

"You know, ultimately, we're trying at another level at the National Film Archives to preserve those [films] in the long run. But the big issue is that no matter what they do in terms of their business thinking, they should never neglect that original negative, that original element. Yet there are one or two major studios--I won't get into who it is--now restoring major films [digitally]. They're doing well with it, too: making digital negatives and getting rid of the old nitrates."

One more question, says the festival's publicist to the crowd of several dozen journalists.

"It's okay, it's okay," says Scorsese, signaling that he has enough time to finish this answer before moving on. "I gotta tell you, there's some other things, too. There's this film I just looked at called Beyond the Rocks, made in 1922. They found a copy of it in the Netherlands Film Museum, with Dutch intertitles. And I believe they restored a lot of it digitally. And another one, The Loves of Pharaoh, by Ernst Lubitsch, they had to restore the whole thing digitally: very expensive. The original [celluloid] elements--even if they [had] fixed them somehow--were still not projectable. So there's still an advantage to going digital in certain cases."

We're sorry, an obnoxiously loud cell phone suddenly blurts from somewhere in the audience--a digital-age phantom haunting the room. The Nextel number you're trying to reach is not in service at this time.

Scorsese doesn't miss a beat. "I'll call 'em right back."

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