There is more than a note of irony (more, actually, a gigantic, resonant chord of irony) that the most vocal defender of motion picture film as a still viable, even necessary, medium for cinematic expression, should come, not from mainstream Hollywood mavens, movie critics or scholars, nor from cinematographers, editors or directors—but from a star of the international art world, a woman whose work is more likely to be seen in chi-chi galleries in London, Berlin, and New York City than in your suburban multiplex. Her name is Tacita Dean.
She wrote an article for the Guardian in February of last year explaining her frustration and fear for the future of film when Soho Film Labs, now owned by Deluxe, announced it would discontinue the printing of 16mm film. This put into immediate jeopardy her project for a museum exhibition:
Dean is the 12th artist to be commissioned for an installation at London’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall, the mammoth entry to the museum that once housed a London power plant. The Unilever sponsored series here has always been a challenge to artists, none more so than for a filmmaker whose very medium is ultimately non-physical—mere moving images on a white surface. Most of the artists have chosen to fill this vast space with a few oversized objects or thousands of small ones. Dean, singularly, has constructed a screen at the hall’s east end, over forty feet high, turned on its axis to a vertical anamorphic aspect ratio. Film perforations frame her 11-minute looped, silent movie titled simply “Film.” Dean created the work entirely on film: all effects are done either in camera or through traditional photochemical processes, a race against time for her as European lab after lab ceases developing and printing of film materials. So rare has film negative cutting become that the original camera negative had been mis-cut in Amsterdam. Dean and veteran British negative cutter Steve Farman rushed to Holland, and in a non-stop session re-cut the negative and drove it back to England, hand delivering it to Tate curator Nicholas Cullinan. The finished film was printed on a rush deadline and shown from a 35mm film projector installed on a bridge in the Turbine Hall.
A short YouTube video gives a sense of the physical space of the installation and of the eclectic content of “Film” itself. There are fragments of scenes, and the work itself is highly impressionistic, a veritable history of cinematic imagery (albeit devoid of human portraiture) and techniques, such as multiple exposure, glass-mattes, even hand coloring. The Turbine Hall’s silhouetted viewers and their shadows seem to become part of the installation.
The 47-year-old Dean is an artist who has made dozens of personal films, notably about other artists, such as the recently deceased Cy Twombly and choreographer Merce Cunningham, whom I featured in my recent essay about composer John Cage:
Dean says “Film is my medium, just like oil is the medium of painters.” And it is this metaphor that becomes the springboard for her defense of film as a continuing vehicle for artistic expression, now and in the future. She refutes the newly conventional wisdom that it is a dying, or, as she says, “nostalgic” medium. She freely admits that the dominant pressure from media, video camera manufacturers, and the studios is to promote the “death of film.” But she insists it need not be. She avers a love of digital—but it is just not her chosen medium; she argues for the efficacy and the magic of both, not digital alone—whose zealots seem to believe that digital media must kill off film in order to validate its own place. This has always struck me as arrogant hubris. Why kill film, anyway? To benefit whom? That, I am sure, will be the subject of a future essay here.
Dean explains her love of film like this: “I am in no way anti-digital. I want to make that perfectly clear. But I love film and I don’t want to lose my ability to make it and I think I probably will [lose it… Digital relies on post-production. No longer do you rely on the moment; you lose a certain vitality of the moment.”
Nowhere is this sense of the “moment” more brought into sharp focus than in her discussion of a film she made last year called The Green Ray. It is a record of her attempt to capture in a film frame that flash of green in the western sky after sunset; a phenomenon that she feels eludes pixels. A video from the Tate offers her introduction to that film. Dean provides a narration over a shot of the setting sun that she photographed in 16mm on the west coast of Madagascar.
This clip segues into a beautifully expressive and moving video interview of Dean as she reflects on the making of her installation for the Tate Modern. The interview is photographed by Stephanie Hardt, edited by Miikka Leskinen, and directed by Zora Hayes.
The film presents a compelling but gentle argument for the human qualities that seem inherent in working with film, not the abstraction via electronics of zeroes and ones. The physicality, tactility, even olfactory qualities of film support an experience that is for her deeply visceral, sentient. This is not about technique, but about the experience of the human body engaged in intimate, direct contact with the medium itself. The still photographer who continues to work in a photochemical darkroom experiences this even more. The juxtaposition of Dean’s narration and the purely sensual images of filmstrips and rolls being loaded onto and winding through the mechanism of the Steenbeck is a hosanna to the beauty of the film experience, not a dirge for its demise.
Midway through the interview, at 6:35, after a sequence of Dean splicing shots together, we see her open a can containing a plastic wrapped 2000’ roll of 35mm film print. For those of us of the celluloid era, we can almost smell the film as she lifts it, a shimmering backlight catching its tight wind around a yellow plastic core.
As the digital era evolves, it is cinematographers who seem the last to yield ground, maintaining a sturdy beachfront against the relentless digital tide until very recently. Many hearty cinematographers keep celluloid shacks along the shore but their flimsy seawall is rapidly eroding as they move to higher ground. I am currently shooting my third consecutive digital feature film this year. My very first digital feature was made exactly twelve years ago, The Anniversary Party. I work hard to stay current, but the technology changes faster than I can follow. I’m not a gearhead; god bless those that are. But keeping abreast of movie technology has always been ground zero for cinematographers. Constantly evolving technology is 0ur singular constant.
You sense in the Tacita Dean interview that it is the editors who most had real physical contact with film, much more than we cinematographers, who once we moved on from being film loaders—never actually touched the stuff. Editors were among the first to make the transition to digital but some of them are still ambivalent about it, even as they embrace the ease of manipulating digital media. I have an inside track on that viewpoint, being married to an eminent movie editor for forty years, being friends with the editor friends of Carol (having listened to their concerns over many bottles of wine). I also photographed a documentary titled The Cutting Edge in 2004, a documentary about the work of editors; it was made well into the digital editing era.
The Editors Guild is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary and is showing a number of films that embody a variety of editing styles. This is a time of retrospective reflection for them— actually, for all of us. Toward the end of her interview Dean explains how she works in film. “I don’t have a plan. I find the way by working… In the end, it is more like a poem than a piece of prose.” The physical tactility of handling film rolls, moving shots through a viewer like the Steenbeck or a KEM, cutting and splicing—all hands-on work at the pace of human, artisanal, rather than electronic, warp speed is not to be taken lightly. Tacita Dean is an eloquent spokesperson for the value of this human scale. It is also the perspective that is the heart of a new book about the recently deceased painter Lucian Freud, an artist who sometimes took years to complete a painting. Freud spoke to sitter/writer Martin Gayford about the necessity of his paintings being realized in human scaled time—the trial and error, the listening of an open mind to its own inner voices:
It’s my conviction that the best filmmaking of today continues to graft the craftsman-like techniques of film onto the digital realm. Film dailies aren’t returning, so neither is editing on film (even though the recent Aki Kaurismäki film Le Havre boasted film dailies and editing on a Steenbeck). But Tacita Dean’s plea to preserve film as an alternative to digital seems to me to articulate a voice of perfect reason.
Several blogs and trade publications have recently announced that “the studios” will cease releasing movies in film prints by the end of 2013. Peter Jackson and James Cameron are at the forefront of new higher frame rates that demand digital projection. As ever, (think of the recent re-incarnation of 3D) new technology is the engine that is driving exhibition—always something new to fill the expanding multiplexes. Also, the price of a DCP that the studios supply the exhibitors is one-tenth that of a 35mm film release print. Fair enough. The motion picture sausage that constitutes the bulk of distribution has always been about the weekly box office bottom line. Cinema art (personal or auteur filmmaking) has always been the exception. Even the Lumières believed their movies were the impetus to sell their camera/projectors.
But what strikes me as most unfortunate today is the personal investment so many seem to have in hastening the demise of film. Why? In Feb. of 2001 I wrote an article for the Sunday NY Times titled, “Don’t Fight: Coexist.” Tacita Dean asks the same question today and it’s no longer mere speculation.
Despite early dire predictions, the invention of photography did not presage the death of painting. In fact, many “artists” now employ photography in their work and certain gallery favorites like Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman see their photos, much like paintings, hammered down at auction for several million dollars.
Even if we are starting to think of film today as an artisanal rather than a purely commercial medium (and I don’t agree), why display such delight at its possible disappearance? It’s a question I pose to fellow cinematographers who insist there’s no longer any reason to shoot film.
All Tacita Dean asks, all that anyone who continues to love film as he or she also works in digital, asks, is this: why not just appreciate that film and digital video are truly two different visual media—each with its unique qualities. And just because one is a “mature” medium, and the other is a ”hot” one with weekly new surprises, it does not deny the simple fact that they both are vehicles to display our lives, our hopes, and dreams.