My friend Timoleon Wilkins recently sent me an email conveying the dire news that Eastman Kodak has announced they will be eliminating production of their low speed black & white motion picture film, Plus-X, in both Negative and Reversal forms, and in all gauges (35mm, 16mm, and Super-8), and asking me to sign this petition which urges Kodak to reverse this shortsighted decision. Tim makes a compact and trenchant argument:
“Kodak’s decision represents a serious blow to the film community because there is no equivalent substitute for the tonality and resolution of these films—many cinematographers agree, even the best digital methods fall short. These are the classic black & white films of Hollywood, independents and students. These are the films we cut our teeth on: Whether you are a filmmaker, preservationist or just a passionate film watcher, it’s important that our voices be heard. Decisions like this can have dire consequences for cinema culture and our ability to preserve cinema in the future.
There’s much talk about the future being digital, and certainly it will dominate. But I ask: did people stop playing instruments simply because the synthesizer was invented? Please vote for a future of more choices, not less—and if you know anyone at Kodak, please take another moment to contact them directly.”
Tim hits the nail on the head in saying this is about choices. Should a painter be told he/she must choose between oils and acrylics, and if the decision is made for old-fashioned oils, he/she will face on-going phase-outs of colors? While it’s true that demand has fallen for specialized film stocks, sales of motion-picture film have remained strong, and if Kodak and other celluloid manufacturers are to nurture their market, they must emphasize (or at least preserve) those areas radically different from other moving-image media. Kodak’s future success in celluloid and digital media need not come at the expense of a relatively small, but still profitable boutique market of specialized film stocks.
Another filmmaker who’s currently one of the world’s most avid shooters of Plus-X Super-8 takes the argument further:
“Black and white film stock is a digitally unreplicable chemical-photographic process, wholly unique in the history of art. Its loss will not just be a reduction in choices for filmmakers and artists, but the end of an art form and end of a particular way of seeing and existing in the world. There is no such thing as digital black & white. The step from celluloid black & white to digital is a step from the real world into a simulacrum… there’s no purpose in having monochromatic black & white in digital images, simply because there’s no organic, technical reason for it, besides going for ‘a look,’ which, at best, is an inorganic approach, artful only in the less attractive sense of the term.”
To bring the matter very close to home, the precise aesthetic expression, as well as the impact on audiences of Bruce Conner’s camera-originated works in film would be unthinkable without the film stocks he used—most of them were made in 16mm black & white Reversal from Kodak. The artistic choices he made are enmeshed with the physicality of celluloid—his films are less edited, than sculpted: he often spliced together pieces of film only a few frames long. Their hand-crafted nature is intrinsic to what these works are.
Twenty-eight years ago, with the introduction of the Compact Disc, it was presumed that vinyl LPs were doomed. While their manufacture has been pared back drastically, they still remain the medium of choice for many audiophiles. Unlike CDs or LPs, however, the celluloid film medium exists in a state somewhere between reproduction and art object—films are ultimately more creations than recordings, and the experience of seeing them shown in the manner for which they were designed is essential to their being understood and appreciated.
Whatever the future holds for moving-image media, lovers of celluloid film must rally to protect our access as artists and film viewers to as many possible varieties of what Carl Martin, my comrade in the Film on Film Foundation, has termed the “blessed medium”. We’ve already lost Kodachrome — Don’t let Plus-X become Minus-X!