May 04, 2010

Celluloid Lovers Alert — Save Plus-X!

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!

Comments (9)

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    @a. stanley and Dad is Sad: unfortunately, I have bad news for you both: the vast majority of Super-8, and, as I understand it, all slide film, is “reversal”, not negative. That is, what you shoot is what is processed and then returned back to you as the film, either on reels (for motion-picture film), or in frames (for slides). Therefore, there’s no “copy”.

    The really sad thing is the con-job sold in our society re. film, and how it needed to be transferred to video for “preservation”. Kodachrome, the usual film stock used for color Super-8 and slides for most of the history of these mediums, is the only color stock ever invented not known to fade. All those gorgeous color film images you see in TV documentaries, dating from the 30’s on, were shot in Kodachrome. Anyone who’s held on to their family or personal films shot in this stock are holding on to undiminishable history (at least, in terms of normal human time scales). But many of us were sold the bill of goods that films deteriorate easily and we have to get them transferred to whatever new technology is fashionable at the current moment. Those transferring their films to VHS in the 80’s and 90’s were quite likely to dispose of the originals, and now only have cassettes which are either rapidly decomposing or are on their way to doing so. Video, unlike film, is not a mature medium — it has yet to find a stable form, or a form which doesn’t disintegrate much faster than film; those buying into today’s digital shenanigans, and transferring their films to such, will find their media has become obsolete and unviewable with changes in technology.

    This is painful to me personally: my own father was sold on a scheme, transferred his Kodachrome to VHS, then stored the originals in the basement. There was a flood, and the film was damaged irreparably. All I have is a disintegrating (and comparatively ugly) VHS copy which, ironically, I’ll have to rephotograph onto 16mm film if I wish to have it in a stable form. This will, of course, be a very expensive procedure, and the results won’t have anything close to the beauty or stability of the original Kodachrome.

    Hang onto your Kodachrome, people! You have in your possession the filmic memories of the last 75 years. If properly stored, it should last lifetimes. Don’t get sold a bill of goods, even if labeled with with the seductive term “digital”.

  • Dad is Sad says:

    Asking about the same question as a. stanley, does Kodak keep ANY archives of old Super 8 films? My father entrusted me with our family Super 8 reels filmed from 1965 until 1972. Like a fool I held on to them, the idea was to convert to VHS (This was 1992 keep in mind) and surprise him. Much to MY surprise, an ex girlfriend moving out, got vindictive and took them and dumped them. My father was crestfallen and if there were ANY way to buy the old films from Kodak I would do it. Most likely a shot in the dark but wanted to ask.

    Thank you

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    As all things will, SiviStojko. The polar ice caps, for example. Should we stand by and do nothing?

  • Sooner or later it will disappear, like it or not.

  • a. stanley says:

    If there is some place where old kodak (kodachrome color) or old color slides are archived? Or are they once developed and bought by the customer the only copies? Seems like there ought to be some place where film brought in and developed by the store is kept for a period of time.

    If there is such a place, I would like to know how to get in touch with it.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    @Carl: Don’t forget Super-8 Reversal, and 35mm Negative — there’s still time to purchase rolls before Sunday — they’d make excellent Mother’s Day presents!

    @Elizabeth & Jamie: there’s a meme out there that for digital to cement its legitimacy, it must triumph over celluloid film. Your art practices disprove this, and show how the various moving-image media can co-exist, and profitably interact. Don’t despair quite yet — there’s still plenty of Plus-X to buy, and possibly time to dissuade Kodak from jumping off the cliff by eliminating half of their b&w motion-picture film stocks…

  • Jamie Noakes says:

    I also use super 8 as an artist for my film and video works. I use a wide range of filmstocks from colour to black and white. Plus-X has always been my most cherished filmstock for the super 8 medium. There is nothing else like it for its resolution and tonal reproductions. Shooting Plus-X gave a unique view of the world and to an artist it was an invaluable tool. I am devastated that it has ceased to exist.

  • thanks for the name-check, brecht. what can i add to the inspired points made already? in the race to make scads of money fast and cheaply, we’re forgetting the art and beauty of film. sign the petition, folks, and once you’ve signed it, call up kodak and order a couple rolls of 16mm reversal.

  • Elizabeth Collica says:

    I use super 8 film as an artist for my videos and photography. I would be highly devastated if the production of any of these mediums were to disappear.

See all responses (9)
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