So far, digital cinema has been about distribution economics — saving millions on prints and shipping — and special effects. Good as far as both go, but there hasn’t been much else gained in the tradeoff of losing the celluloid medium, dismaying traditionalists, critics, and many Hollywood directors who love their craft and their position in it.
That has started to change in the last couple years, since digital technicians attained higher image resolution and the cameras that could capture it: 4K, as the shorthand goes. The 4K refers to the digital resolution of 4,096 pixels across the horizontal axis of the frame. Combined with the 2,160 pixels on the vertical axis, the image has twice the data on both axes, or four times the overall picture detail for movies shot and screened in 4K compared to the until-now standard 2K. That is a huge difference. No wonder once-dubious cinematographers are starting to enjoy it. At this point, it seems likely that 8K may be possible for cameras, although it is expected to be reduced in postproduction to a 4K final print.
Now the first real revolution in movies since color arrived 75 years ago is making beauty, as two movies screened here recently testify. The trickle of 4K movies is about to turn into a small stream; after that, le deluge?
A 4K digital restoration of the nearly 100-year-old expressionist landmark, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, was done in Germany last year directly from the camera negative. It looked like a different movie when shown on the big screen of Ambler Theater’s main auditorium. The film is clear, smooth, detailed, and beautiful, not the murky herky-jerky of 16mm knockoff prints that you saw at your college film society or — even worse — on television.
In Caligari, the newly cleaned image reveals much more of those angular, foreshortened sets, maximizing their expressionistic queerness and foreboding. And the haunting shot of Dr. Caligari’s hurried, humpbacked shuffle off to his lair remains striking, but looks true and pathetic rather than stilted and silly. Audiences don’t laugh at it now.
Scenes are tinted sepia for day, blue for night, and pink for the female lead’s bedroom, and that works, too. The slow pacing of the silent era can’t be fixed, and one or two iris effects looked odd, but at least we can see the full display of why this pioneering psychological suspense classic has long been admired.
And more than that. There are shadows and facial details on the screen now that no one ever saw in the original 1920 release. Traditional bulb projection fell far short then and even today can’t match this level of digitized clarity. Restoration technicians tell us the extra image is there on all the older celluloid films. That intriguing fact is why many more 4K restoration revivals are coming, to theaters where we can see it all, and to the high-end, Ultra High-Def home video market, where technology is racing to catch up — and probably will later this year, in Blu-ray at least. So, ironically, one of the blessings of digital is to show us what was on that lovely celluloid, but that we were actually missing.
(Caligari is being shown May 29 at the Kimmel Center, with live organ accompaniment. Unfortunately, it will not be in the 4K restoration, but in an older version instead. Why? An opportunity lost.)
Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language stands at the other end of the chain of cinema history. Godard used an array of 4K-capable video cameras, plus the super-low-cost GoPro 3D Hero — but my eyes can’t swear to what got into the final print, a dazzler that came out in 2K 3D. Godard’s 3D is not like others’, needless to say.
This is a movie he would never have been able to finance on celluloid. Though it won a Cannes jury prize, it has grossed only $500,000 to date, including its lone Ambler screening to a small band of fans and the curious last month. Give Ambler’s programmers credit for making this foray into an almost surely money-losing proposition.
Godard burst onto the scene in the 1960s with a series of brilliantly erratic movies whose informality and lightheartedness were accompanied by a great instinct for striking images and powerful montage. Alas, he came to prefer pronouncements to drama, and his strain of doctrinaire super-leftist politics destroyed his audience and his career. You didn’t know if you were about to be executed, rhetorically, as a bourgeois or bored to death — usually both.
Language, life, love
But this one was different. Trying to crack the code, I took every line of “dialogue” (often quotes from writers) as Godard speaking directly to us viewers. It seemed to work. The onetime Maoist confounds his title’s expectations as he attests that language, rather than an obsolescent artifact of retrograde humanity, is our connection. It is life, it is love — he offers both those affirming equivalences flat out.
And what is Godard’s own language? All his life, making movies. At age 84, he is saying goodbye to it. So watching this became almost inexpressibly sad — his farewell (perhaps!), a love letter to movies and the audience and life itself. It was full of striking images, the 3D of a ship coming into harbor past the wharf pilings; nighttime footage from a car where the optical limitations are treated as a virtue. There is (of course) a naked young Frenchwoman and a teasing homage to the late Ingmar Bergman.
Godard also had many shots of his dog, running, swimming, scratching, sleeping, and looking up with those brown eyes — a nice warm note. The dog and his loving eyes didn’t know enough to imitate the cardboard human characters, who were busy kvetching about their alienation. Even Godard seemed more interested in the canine than the humans.
Late in the movie, what seemed so sad started to brighten. Somebody, perhaps narrator Godard, says, “This is not a tragic tale.” And by the very end, it becomes playful. In between musing about war and horror and men and women fighting one another, the film succeeds in touching us. The baggage that sank some other Godard movies is there, but the underlying sweetness redeems it. It is probably good that it runs only an hour and 10 minutes; still, if you ever loved anything about Godard, this is worth seeing.
So here are two movies, a renewal with rediscovery and an original that never would have existed without digital and its advances. A nice counterbalance to the handwringers and the doomsayers.