Essays · Movies

In Praise of Celluloid

By  · Published on September 13th, 2016

118 years to the day since its patent, we celebrate the original physical medium of film.

On the 13th of September, 1898, Hannibal Williston Goodwin received a patent for celluloid film. This was neither the birth of cinema nor the invention of the physical medium onto which it was recorded for its first half century, but it is a convenient entry into a rumination on cellulose, film as material object, and cinema as a metaphysical entity.

As a matter of chemistry, the first step to creating celluloid film is by creating nitrocellulose. This combines cellulose, an organic compound essential to the makeup of green plants (with which you may be familiar), with controlled amounts of nitric acid. The nitrocellulose is then combined with camphor, another organic compound, among whose uses are for embalming fluid and religious ceremonies. If we’re following along, what we have then is a material that derives from something every living thing comes into contact with in some form or other, prone to sudden explosive action, and preserved in a fixed state to be exalted. That sounds, to me, like the movies.

If we presuppose the interconnectedness of all things – and, really, who doesn’t – the link between the physical state of film and the metaphysics that result from shining light through it is manifest. The chemistry of celluloid film and the attendant poetics are not necessarily (or at all) on one’s mind when watching a movie projected on a screen, but the unavoidable fact of their being what they are cannot be dismissed as a force connecting the movies with their audience. After not too many layers of connection, celluloid film is us, and we are it.

The fact that celluloid film catches fire easily, explodes violently, and often decays radically of its own accord if not preserved under very particular conditions led to the development in the 1950s of acetate film, which immolated and/or blew up less frequently and was thus preferable. Whether by pure coincidence or not – there were, let’s be clear, other factors in play – there arose a tendency in the late 1950s, manifested in the various world cinemas’ New Waves of the next decade plus, toward a self-reflexive interaction between cinema’s past and present, in everything from the often didactic fourth-wall breaking of Jean-Luc Godard to the lush autocritique of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, a period which more or less defined all cinema since. Whether this was because of the transition to a more fixed and less volatile physical medium is anyone’s guess (guessing “no” is perfectly acceptable); I am, as they say, Just Saying.

A more immediate and decidedly less full of shit testimonial to the power, both material and spiritual, of celluloid film can be found in Quentin Tarantino’s altogether splendid 2009 film Inglourious Basterds. Meshing conveniently with my everything-is-connected-maaaaan argument thus far, Inglourious Basterds in a cosmic sense is one movie about all movies, a piece of cinema synecdochically cinema as an institution unto itself. Its microcosmic details are scaled down aspects of its macrocosmic whole, which is to say the bad guys are Nazis and the good guys are out to kill Nazis because good versus evil is the prevailing iteration of dramatic conflict, going back before the formal innovation of drama to the beginning of time. The two simultaneous plots to kill Hitler and his high command in the movie exist symbiotically, with Melanie Laurent’s plan to burn the movie theater to the ground providing the necessary chaos to allow Eli Roth and Omar Doom to burst into Hitler’s opera box and machine gun him into a bloody pulp. Roth and Doom represent the protagonists, and Laurent’s pyre of celluloid is, literally, a burning heap of flammable material and simultaneously the dynamic by which the cinema renders impossible feats larger than life.

Even if now, in cinema’s second century, many “films” only exist as ones and zeroes on silicon, it was born and attained maturity on celluloid film, organic (if manipulated) material, the same stuff as us. Digital cinema is capable of great things – late-period Michael Mann and the majestic Mad Max: Fury Road but two examples – but cinema began on film and those who truly love it should support the preservation of the medium that gave it birth. It’s the very stuff that gives us life.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all