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The sudden death (and promising afterlife) of film

The sudden death (and promising afterlife) of film (photo)

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115 years is a pretty long life for anybody. It’s almost perverse to feel sad for something that dies at the age of 115. If your grandfather died at the age of 115, you’d be sad, but you wouldn’t be inconsolable with grief. The guy lived for 115 years! That’s a damn good run.

Good run or not, I still can’t help feeling more than a little depressed by Roger Ebert’s blog post “The Sudden Death of Film,” in which one of movie criticism’s staunchest advocates for the medium of film — literal film, light projected through celluloid — concedes that is dead. Now it’s all about digital:

“I insisted, like many other critics, that I always knew when I was not being shown a true celluloid print. The day came when I didn’t. The day is here when most of the new movies I see are in digital. You and I both know how they look, and the fact is, they look pretty good… We live in a time few people could have foreseen on that day in Hawaii. I now view movies on Netflix and Fandor over the internet on my big-screen high-def set, or with an overhead projector on a wall-sized screen, and the picture quality pleases me. The celluloid dream may lives on in my hopes, but digital commands the field. I imagine there will always be 35mm projectors at film festivals and various shrines of cinema. Most of the movies ever made have probably not yet been digitized, and in many cases there may be no money for that. But my war is over, my side lost, and it’s important to consider this in the real world.”

I’ve got a great deal of affection for film too, and I’ve got plenty of my own personal memories of going to movies as a child and falling in love with that mysterious flickering light emanating from the back of the theater. Having worked in college at my school’s student-run cinema, I also know a thing or two about the less romantic side of celluloid: the impossibly heavy cans distributors ship prints to exhibitors in, the tedium of splicing the reels, the difficulty of threading an ancient 16mm projector — all things that are eliminated with digital. Digital may not be as sexy or as tactile as film, but give it this: it is practical.

Though an executive from Kodak chimed in on the comments section of Ebert’s piece to announce that reports of film’s death have been greatly exaggerated, I don’t think his large points are controversial: film is the past, digital is the future. If film’s not quite dead yet, as Monty Python would say, it’s certainly a dead man walking, as Tim Robbins would say. That much is inevitable.

It was funny to read Ebert’s words on Friday and then spend Saturday steeping myself in film history at the beautifully renovated Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. A day examining the exhibits, which include film cameras and projectors dating back to the earliest days of cinema, culminated with a screening of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” in a restored 70mm print. Film had just been declared dead and yet here it was, up and walking around, as if it had become its own zombie movie before our very eyes.

It was a nearly full house; an impressive turnout for an almost fifty year old film that’s widely available in assorted home digital formats. We were all there for the same reason: to cross “See ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on the big screen, preferably on 70mm” off our film nerd bucket lists. It was worth the wait. And the hype. There may no better argument for film than “Lawrence” in 70mm. Everything you could want is up there on the screen.

In every possible way, “Lawrence” was made to be watched big. It is the anti-iPod movie. The 70mm images of men as nearly imperceptible specks on the heat-baked horizon would be impossible to appreciate in the palm of your hand. Lean’s pacing is equally resistant to iPhone viewing habits. It’s deliberate and methodical, the only way to really convey the arduousness of Lawrence’s journeys through the deserts of Arabia. On your mobile device? You’d get a whiff of the arduousness and run screaming to your email. This is a film from another time and place, made for another time and place’s tastes.

But here’s the thing: people in our time and place came to see the film on film and they were enraptured. Going to the theater, sitting in the dark, turning off your goddamn phone for a couple hours, and watching something together; that’s not going away even if the medium that brought that concept into existence is. We, the audience, are still here. That’s a reason to be hopeful. Actual film may be dead; “going to see a film” will live forever. When it’s good — like “Lawrence” in 70mm — it’s downright heavenly.

Are you upset about “the sudden death of film?” Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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