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What will be cinema? An example, ‘Patricia Highsmith’s Fiction on Film’.

Posted by keith1942 on June 26, 2020

Patricia Highsmith can now rest easy; it would seem that we are less and less likely to see her works as movies from now on.

This article was originally posted in 2017 on ‘The Case for Global Film’ . But now, during the lock down with cinemas closed and Festival cancelled, large numbers of cineastes rely on streaming alternatives as well as video transfers and television programming. That is fine as far as it goes. What worries me is the absence of almost any discussion of how different this is from seeing the same titles in cinemas. Much of the publicity for these screenings implies or even claims that this is an equivalent to theatrical projection. I disagree strongly with that view. This article is interesting [I hope] in that it provided detail for a number of related titles and screenings and the basis for comparisons of the different formats..

‘Adapting Highsmith’ was a programme of adaptations based on novels by Highsmith and included 13 titles. It was organised by the Filmhouse, an independent cinema in Edinburgh, with support from the British Film Institute and Waterstones book chain. The programme was circulated as a package to independent exhibitors and there were screening around the UK, including at the Leeds Hyde Park Picture House. This was a really interesting idea, well put together and supported by a package of materials provided online.

However the programme was also extremely limited in terms of what audiences were able to see as the packages relied on digital formats, and just not theatricals DCPs but also digital video. This is a problem that is now endemic in British distribution and exhibition with few venues actually offering a distinction in their publicity between actual photo-chemical film, theatrical digital and what is essentially home based digital video. My comments are less a criticism of Filmhouse itself and more a critique of common practices in British ‘film’. I would add though that initially Filmhouse provided details of the transfer when I inquired, but replies stopped when I continued seeking information. The problem continues in the streaming facilities where the producers rarely provide information on how and from what the title has been sourced.

As far as I can establish all the titles were available to screen from DCPs. However, these were sourced from a variety of materials:

    “Other films in the season are a combination of materials already in electronic form, some being standard definition and some high def.” [Information from Filmhouse Cinema]

This variation first came to my attention when I saw a circular from Filmhouse to exhibitors regarding one of the titles:

” I’m just getting in touch about the DCP of ENOUGH ROPE.

It looks very good, but it is a straight scan from a print, not a restoration. This means that the image will have some scratches and dust, especially at reel ends. The sound is a bit crackly in parts.

The main reason I’m mentioning this, is that audiences nowadays are use to digital restorations and a clean image. This is the only material available to us. I just wanted to warn you in advance in case anyone comments on this.”

I think this is not just about ‘restorations’ and in fact few of the films in the programme appeared to have been restored. Moreover, the use of the term ‘restoration’ has become quite careless. I have seen publicity for digital versions of films which use this term when in fact what has occurred is the transfer of photo-chemical prints to digital with no use of the many techniques available for restoring film. Added to this is the question of the different characteristics of photo-chemical film and digital. The ‘random silver halide grain’ in film is of a different order from the pixels in digital. The industry has been working to achieve similar characteristics on digital, hence we get the surface grain added to digital versions. But in my experience in most digital packages the contrast, definition and colour palette is at least slightly different. This is less of an issue with 4K DCPs but all these titles appear to have circulated on 2K DCPs. In fact 4K DCPS are a rarity in British distribution. In 2019 I was able to see theatrically four titles on 4K; this was far less than the number of 35mm  prints I managed that year.

Filming ‘The Price of Salt’

The most recent titles in the programme, like Carol (UK, USA, Australia 2015) presumably did not appear noticeable in this regard as they had already been transferred to digital for the initial release; and most will have had digital techniques applied during the post-production process . Even so, in the case of Carol there was also a 35mm print which I found superior in colour and contrast. For this programme only the DCP version was available. In a similar fashion The American Friend / Der Amerikanische Freund (West Germany, France 1977) was on a DCP though the BFI have a reasonable 35mm print of the film.

I did not make much of an effort to see the films that I had seen recently in a theatrical format. When it came to the older films, some of which I had never seen, I was slightly wary. Apart from the differences between digital and photo-chemical formats I have discovered that there is a serious variability between digital versions of film. I remember watching a DCP of Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (USA 1959). The screen image was fuzzy and lacked good definition : the only explanation I could think of was that a video version had been uploaded onto a DCP.  I have since discovered from talking to projectionists that this indeed is quite technically easy and does indeed occur. So I now not only check the format for the screening but, as far as possible, what the source might be.

This proved to be an issue with some of the titles in the ‘Adapting Highsmith’ programme. Several of the European titles had no release dates recorded for the UK on IMDB and neither was there a record of a BBFC Certificate being issued on that website.

And there were serious problems with some of the older films which appear to have been transferred into some digital format for this programme. This meant I saw few of the titles. Fortunately my colleague Roy was exemplary in seeing them and reviewing them. And he included comments on the quality of the screenings.

Deep Water / Eaux profundes, France 1978. No UK release listed on IMDB and no BBFC record.

“The films in the season appear to be new DCPs. I found Eaux profondes to be very watchable with strong colours (Huppert wears scarlet or blindingly white outfits in several scenes). The weakest element of the presentation was the sound which seemed very loud and overly ‘bright’, lacking the subtlety of a stereo soundtrack.

The Glass Cell / Die gläserne Zelle (West Germany 1978) No record on IMDB for the UK or on BBFC.

“My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller …”

Enough Rope / Le meurtrier (France, West Germany, Italy 1963).

I did go and see this film but it was not exactly as the Filmhouse note led me to expect. As Roy noted in his review:

“I understand that Keith Withall is going to write something about the overall technical aspects of the prints in this season. In this case, we had been ‘warned’ that the DCP had been created from a worn 35mm print and that we might expect scratches. These turned out to be very minor. There were two issues for me. The print was quite soft and faded – as if there was a lack of contrast in the black and white images. This meant that several interior scenes which appeared to have been lit/designed to create film noir images were instead simply grey or murky. The second issue was that the presentation was supposed to be 2.35:1 as the film was shot on ‘Franscope’. To my eye, although it looked like a ‘Scope shape, the image was squashed vertically so that the characters were slightly flattened and ‘fattened’. Gert Froebe became even more immense, but so did Maurice Ronet and Marina Vlady, the ‘glamorous couple’. I’m not sure how this could have happened and it could have been an issue about projector settings and the DCP as much as with the transfer from film. Finally, as with the two previous screenings, the mono sound seemed ‘bright’ and ‘harsh’.”

I did ask regarding this and the aspect ratio issue did not seem to be a projection problem so I assume that there was some problem with the transfer. Aspects ratios are a recurring problem in digital transfers. I frequently find that both academy ratio and the earlier 1.33:1 are cropped in digital versions. And something similar does happen with Scope images where the side edges are cropped; this occurs quite often with early CinemaScope and also with the Italian format, Techniscope.

This Sweet Sickness / Dites-lui que je l’aime (France 1977)

IMDB does not have a UK release listed for this film though it did receive an X Certificate from the BBFC in 1979. This would have been on 35mm film but it seems that no copy is now held in the UK. So it seems likely that some other source was used. Roy noted in his review:

“I must note (for Keith’s benefit) that the film was projected as 1.66:1, the standard European format for the period and that the digital copy we saw seemed to have been copied from a video source which hadn’t been properly ‘de-interlaced’ so that the image ‘feathered’ every now and again.”

Roy added that in these cases he was able to watch the film and basically overlook the flaws. This was mainly true for myself with Le meurtrier. But I also think that this affected my overall impression of the film. I certainly think that the craft people who worked on these films deserve to have their handiwork seen in the manner and format intended.  Of course, this is not a new problem with the advent of digital. In the days when 35mm was the norm there were frequent variations in the quality of the image and sound that audiences experienced in cinemas. Once video arrived the possibilities expanded. I remember in the 1980s going to see Mandingo (USA 1975) at a multi-screen. The quality was extremely poor and I discovered after the  screening that the source was a VHS video back-projected. Since then it has become  technically easier with digital.

There is an example of providing older films on digital where the standards offered were higher. This was ‘Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’, launched in 2014. Some of the titles were on film but the majority were on DCPs. I saw quite a number of these and the standard was uniformly high. Of course Scorsese is an important figure in restoring and circulating classic films. Moreover he had the assistance of The Film Foundation and Polish Film and Cultural Institutes. But how come this package was clearly superior to one involving the British film Institute? More recently the Hungarian Film Archive restored digitally a number of titles by Marta Meszaros. I saw a screening of her first feature, Adoption /  Örökbefogadás (1975) at the 2019 Berlinale. It was a 4K DCP and the quality was excellent.

A related example is by the Cinémathèque Française. A friend told me that they had declined to license a proposed public screening of one of their titles as the screening was being sourced from a  digital video. An example other archives should follow.

Apart from any objections to the loss of quality there are other reasons to question this practice. The specifications for DCP agreed internationally lay down quality criteria. But sourcing from video, analogue or digital, subverts these standards. Also it is likely to have a long-term detrimental effect on the exhibition sector. I have several friends now who for much of the time opt for home video viewing over visiting the cinema. One of these has a high-quality projector and Blu-Ray player: he claims there is not a lot of difference between that and seeing the film at the cinema. In the case of films sourced from video this is clearly correct. And the complication here is that the offenders are by and large distribution companies whose incomes include non-theatrical sales and rentals and who therefore are to a degree immune from the effects in the exhibition sector.

But exhibitors aggravate the problem by their failure to adequately inform the public. Two of the cinemas I visit regularly do include information about titles that are on digital or film and/or whether the DCP is 2K or 4K. But nether provides information on the use of other formats like DVD or Blu-Ray. And most exhibitors do not provide even this information. I know of several Film Festivals that do provide detailed information about formats, [one being The Leeds International Film Festival but no longer in 2019]: but there are many Festivals that do not. I think I am a little of a pain for some of these with my constant inquiries regarding the format for a particular screening.

This ambiguous treatment of film and digital formats is further complicated by ambiguous use of terms like ‘cinema’. It use to be that the alternative to the cinema was a film society, usually offering 16mm. Now many of these use digital video and quite a lot use the title of ‘pop-up cinema’. There is something of this ilk near where I live. It uses a non-theatrical Projector and either DVD or Blu-Ray sources: and publicizes itself as a ‘cinema’. I expect cinemas to follow theatrical standards but that often seems a vain hope.

There are many Web Pages regarding the comparison between 35mm film, D-Cinema and digital video. There does not seem to be a consensus but the archivists I have spoken too tend to think that good quality 35mm film has a higher resolution than 4K DCPs. There is less consensus regarding contrast but chromaticity diagrams show differences across the colour palette. One colleague argues the equivalence would be at about 7K. 35mm film prints varies due to lighting, movement, stock, and the transfer but I think there is no doubt that none of the digital video formats are in any way equivalent.

Currently many of the alternatives to the closed cinemas and cancelled festivals are streaming titles. And this seems as problematic as video. Amazon Prime’s standard is below Blu-Ray and Netflix’s standard is below Prime. Whilst You Tube standards depend on whoever if posting on the platform; some is viewable, some is not. A friend reckoned that the streaming platform MUBI was better quality. And industry professionals are already voicing concern about what the situation will be like after the lock down. Transitions in technology in the industry to tend to be both disruptive and subversive of quality. This was definitely the case with the advent of sound and this had parallels when wide screen cinema arrived. Several writers have used the phrase ‘the death of cinema’. This seems an unlikely extreme but I do wonder if quality will re-assert as was the case after the disruptions of sound and wide screen. The caution by Filmhouse that audiences would expect the ‘clean image’ of digital when viewing films from many decades earlier does worry me. And anecdotal evidence from comments after screenings suggest that this is true for possibly a sizeable part of the modern audience. Matters are not helped by the British flagship magazine Sight & Sound; their latest issues starts with Netflix titles and then runs Television reviews alongside those for theatrical screenings.

The essential reading is ‘FIAF Digital Projection Guide‘ by Torkell Sætervadet, 2012 – International Federation of Film Archive.

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