When Interstellar’s credits rolled, I felt satisfied and relieved – not only because I enjoyed the stunning but imperfect film, but because the very experience of seeing the film on film went smoothly. In a packed house at an Indianapolis IMAX theater late on a rainy midweek opening night, all sub-three hours (and an unfathomable number of feet) of 70mm film cycled through the light of the projector without incident. I had heard stories of disastrous projection experiences at advance screenings from London to San Francisco, and the theater’s manager didn’t assuage my concerns about the volatility of the epic undertaking when he announced, via microphone, how full the plate of 70mm film is, and how Nolan’s 168-minute work could not be a minute longer without the celluloid literally falling off.
Even though the 70mm projector and all its needs were invisible to us, Interstellar was not the only spectacle on display that evening – the existence of the apparatus that made the experience possible was a powerful reminder of the increasingly rare experience of filmgoing as an event. And what a strange experience it is to emote over the same massive images with a room full of strangers.
I had this experience twice in 2014 – once with Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood epic, and the other with Goodbye to Language 3D, the most recent work of octogenarian cinematic provocateur Jean-Luc Godard. Though it’s hard to imagine two theatrically released 2014 films that are more different, each of these works fully inhabit and embrace the one-of-a-kind space of the movie theater – a space that is becoming ever more decentralized from filmgoing – and use it to explore cinema’s storied past and uncertain future.
Interstellar is such a rare creature in this current movie moment that it’s surprising the film got made even despite the fact that Nolan helmed two billion-grossing superhero films. As a multimillion-dollar work that’s not an adaptation or part of a franchise, Interstellar is unabashedly cinema-specific, a film that exists as an autonomous production rather than part of the potentially endless narrative universes that drive contemporary Hollywood logic.
But Interstellar is also film-specific in material terms, pushing against the overwhelming direction of comprehensively digital movie theaters. A deliberately counterintuitive, perhaps even radical film disguised as a blockbuster, Interstellar is both a paean for the celluloid film culture of days gone by and a glimpse through a black hole into an alternate universe of what our blockbusters could be if they embraced the unique possibilities of cinema-specific craft over pre-sold audiences, transmedia storytelling, and digital wizardry. Somewhere in Nolan’s fantasy is a Hollywood that competes within a market of ideas rather than a field of safe bets.
Interstellar is far from a perfect film, but it is a distinctly rare film. As Interstellar’s approach to the fantastic elements of filmic storytelling are, in David Ehrlich’s words, “intoxicated by the real,” its presentation is distinctly indexical and material. Like the books on Murph’s shelf, Interstellar is a tactile object, and its projection exhibits the grain to prove its distinction from a surrounding sea of cinematic data. Against the crisp digital “perfection” characteristic of much of movie projection in this century, the seemingly muddy hues of several of Interstellar’s early shots require some adjustment of the eyes. The draw of celluloid film is its depth, not its resolution. And though calls to save celluloid are frequent, film stock (especially 70mm) is a receding bastion of privilege for the few powerful filmmakers who have gained enough economic and social capital to see their purest cinephilic dreams realized.
More than a clarion call for film to reside alongside digital as simply one of many ways to make movies, film’s occasional contemporary use is increasingly turning the photographic process into a fetish object wielded almost exclusively by a well-respected digital-averse club of filmmakers like Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson. As vinyl requires one to hear music in ways different from the crisp definition of the compact disc or the mp3, film itself has become a marker of distinction, a spectacle from the 20th century that demands one return to a way of seeing that is fundamentally nostalgic. Insterstellar is not only an epic work of science fiction, but an epic demonstration of a way of making moving images happen on a mass scale that will likely be completely unavailable sometime soon.
Where Interstellar is a film set in the future that demands an older way of filmgoing, Goodbye to Language 3D is a film that provokes a newer way of watching movies from one of cinema’s most established figures.
Goodbye to Langauge 3D
Somewhere along the way to his now-sixth decade of filmmaking, former New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard somehow successfully straddled the worlds of the arthouse and the avant-garde, maintaining the relative profile allowed by the former while breaking cinematic boundaries in a fashion characteristic of the latter. A dedicated experimenter with video collage since the 1980s, Godard has long possessed little need for celluloid itself, and has instead challenged the medium of filmmaking without the utilities and trappings of film. As a result, his career evinces that “the movies” have never been stable objects, but texts whose identities and uses are always in flux based in factors related to politics, social convention, economics, and technologies.
One of the most evident signs of cinema’s state of constant flux are the “added value” aspects that commercial filmmaking has sought to bring to the movie theater, from Cinerama to 3D to Smell-o-vision. Such attachments are rarely the invention of filmmakers themselves, but have invariably indexed attempts by cinematic institutions to pursue inflated ticket prices and greater ticket sales. Such profit-seeking efforts in ancillary forms of spectacle emerge from a fundamental insecurity about cinema’s relevance in the face of other technologies of media leisure: namely, the presence of the moving image at home, first in the form of television and later the Internet.
Cinema has become such an unstable object – possessing an ability to be experienced on numerable screens and devices screens well outside the movie theater – that it is nearly impossible to separate cinema from its associated media. What Goodbye to Language accomplishes is a radical commandeering of “added value” in the form of 3D, one that’s leveled against its commercial function yet towards a moving image experience that can only occur in the movie theater.
Instead of producing a conventional illusion of 3D – an empty spectacle built on the lie that we don’t already see 2D images in three dimensions – Godard uses the doubled overlay of images required of 3D against itself: what we see is not the popping out of a uniform image, but two images violently, simultaneously competing for our visual attention. Sometimes this occurs overtly, as in the brilliant, Eisenstein 2.0 moments in which one of Godard’s two 3D cameras move to the point where we witness two images at once, and our eyes are free to choose which we’d like to see. Other times this decision is subtler and physiologically grating, as when a doubled overlay of the same image is stretched just far enough apart that the 3D effect is almost lost, and our eyes are instinctively stuck in between, straining to attempt the impossible task of bridging these two images together.
Like yet so very unlike Interstellar, I found Goodbye to Language to be an exhausting, taxing experience, even in its brief 70-minute runtime. My eyes and brain were in light but real pain in the wake of the effort of watching and making sense of it. And that, I felt, was a major part of the point: I had never, to my memory, been so directly, physiologically affected by the act of watching a film, and neither had the crowd with whom I shared some necessary, deflating laughter after the lights came on. The digital 3D Goodbye to Language pushed at the boundaries of cinema and its associated technologies, yet the experience of watching it was so impactfully, specifically, yet unprecedentedly cinematic.
Making the unique privilege of experiencing it even rarer, Goodbye to Language has endured a troubled distribution history, as few arthouses have the capacity to show films in 3D. In an ironic reversal, our corporate movie theaters and multiplexes are perfectly well equipped to show the newest Godard film, while our arthouses and repertory screens would likely be able to better avoid the technical snafus that have accompanied the rollout of Interstellar on film.
With Interstellar and Goodbye to Language, I realized that in the space of November I had done something twice that I rarely ever do, something that feels incredibly alien in 2014: I experienced a movie in a movie theater in a way that I couldn’t anywhere else.
Though I would very much hesitate to call these the best films of 2014, Interstellar and Goodbye to Language – in their form, content, and exhibition – represent provocative explorations of the limits of filmgoing and filmmaking that put into stark relief received wisdom about the limitless possibilities of media in the 21st century. Exploring questions about where cinema has been and where it might be going, these films embody the crossroads of our present moment in movie culture, demonstrating the contradictions between technologies and modes of viewing both old and new. By providing filmgoing experiences that challenge passive spectatorship and conventional projection practices, they remind us of the unique qualities of cinema in an era in which it seems that all media forms are converging as one.
Hopefully, every now and then, we’ll be reminded of the fact that cinema can’t necessary happen just anywhere.
Related Topics: Christopher Nolan