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Watching A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) in 35mm; And Musings on Celluloid vs. Ditial

December 14, 2015

When the images of A Streetcar Named Desire began to illuminate the screen in 35mm at Landmark Cinemas, I could hardly contain my excitement. For the past month I had mentally hyped up how great this film would look plastered on the big screen. I repeatedly told myself, “the lighting will be extraordinary”, “Marlon Brando is going to look beautiful”! I convinced myself that I was about to embark on a remarkable journey that involved seeing this legendary film as it was once intended to be seen by audiences of the past. The open credits began. The names of those involved in the productions jumped around in a barely contained frenzy of unsteady motion. The images on screen moved and crackled distracting me from my fantasy of watching a film in 35mm, instead placing me directly in the reality of doing so. My attention to the movie itself diverted before it had even started. The credits faded to black before coming opening the film on an establishing shot of a train entering Louisiana. While Blanche DuBoise rode that train, I squinted at the screen then thought, “wow the picture sucks”.

The debate over digital and film has prevailed among cinephiles and photographers for decades. There is no right or wrong side. The debate is a matter of preference as to what you enjoy, and for years I had been in the film camp. But, while watching this screening of A Streetcar Named Desire a few nights ago I wondered would this experience convert me to the digital side. Would this make me forgo all of my love for the imperfections of film for the reliability of digital filmmaking? As A Streetcar Named Desire continued I couldn’t help but contemplate my stance.

The mono-tracked sound in my theater was terrible resulting in sound so low that I had to strain to hear Tennessee Williams’ quick-witted, poetic lines. The focus from the projector was too tight cutting off the tops of character’s heads and making beautiful shots, like when Vivienne Leigh’s close-up fills the screen, seem subpar due to disproportionate angling. Moments of intensity got marred by skipping film. Certain shots became characterized by their lint trappings that marked shots with scratches and pieces of black and white stripes across the screen. This obviously was not a pristine copy of the film nor was this the way I wanted to introduce my good friend who joined me that night to the art and elegance of celluloid film. I worried on and off throughout the first half of the film paying too close of attention to the technical experience of what was on screen.

Then, immaculate moments would happen. The lighting would wash the face of the actors in a silver glaze inviting shadows to transform moods and ambiance. Depth and a rounding fullness of figures and objects were captured with poignant precision reminding me how these still images were getting ran through a feeder at 24 frames per second. The results of this action procured these faces and settings to this tiny strip of film to forever be refashioned for future audiences. As long as the film itself had light and a projector it possessed life.

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I finally stopped watching with a harsh critical eye and fell once again into the intense story that follows a woman on the verge of mental breakdown. Director Elia Kazan uses his cinematic prowess to unfold the story of Blanche’s reemergence into her baby sister, Stella’s, life and how it shakes up the household inciting a bitter battle between this woman and her brother-in-law, Stanley. The battle between sophistication and commonality, between new age and old times, between high and low-class, between lavishness and modesty. Blanche is a new-age woman with new-age problems; mental health, loose morals, fantastic ideas. On the other hand, Stanley is the physical embodiment of traditional mentality, a working-class man that abides by social norms. The two can’t coexist together. They simply refuse to let the other be just as we tend to do it in our current status with our start distinctions in political ideology and social definitions.

Then there’s Stella. Sweet little Stella is in the middle. Too comfortable to leave the simplicity of a common life filled with physical pleasures, yet too sensible to return to the social norms of an aristocratic life she once knew. Stella is practical never fully accepting the notions of upper echelon, high classiness of the life her sister wants her to return to especially when the temptations of fulfilled desires with Stanley stands in the way. This indecision creates a powerful tension among both sides who try to pull Stella in either way. Stella ultimately gets caught between past and present unsure of her future. Kim Hunter’s performance brings life to the tentative Stella through an appropriate balance of reserved laxity and fierce strength sparking a chemistry between Brando and Lee rooted in sheer naturalism.

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Let it be known that no performance in this film can be discussed without mentioning Brando or Vivienne Leigh. Brando was simply made to play Stanley Kowalski, even portraying him in the stage version a few years prior to the film adaptation. Brando seeps a smoldering, heart pounding sex from his aura as Stanley, a man drunk off passion and ego. Leigh is heart-breaking retreating into her own personal demons and delusions to bring them boiling to the surface of Blanche DuBois, a woman too advanced for the society she was born in.

Blanche is promiscuous in a time of staunch conservatism, elite in a place of commonality, and mentally disturbed with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and possibly bi-polar disorder, but in a world too callous and unprepared to deal with it. Stella rides the middle line aware of these issues and the sides represented in her husband and her sister, but unsure how to take power into her own hands for action until the film’s last iconic scene. All of this powerful material displayed itself bright and silver-tinged on a large screen in front of me while Harry Stranding’s cinematography emanated dancing shadows on the character’s silver faces and soft glows here and there.

The debate over film and digital has always come down to preference. Watching A Streetcar Named Desire in 35mm highlighted something I’ve ignored in admitting to myself for a while; the technical superiority and an appreciation of digital. In the past I have disregarded Blu-ray copies of movies and completely written off the digital method of filming as if it’s a scourge to the medium. I’m realizing digital is superior in remastering and retouching images. The chance of imperfections are rare and everything is clear and focused. Digital captures images with finesse and refinery adding a clear, shiny coat to them.

But, nothing beats film. Nothing beats that smooth sheen of color that emanates from celluloid film or the dazzling way light reflects through an image on screen. Similarly, the look of lint, dust particles, and scratches when they appear brings character to the images reminding you of the extraordinary technical process that goes into making each frame come to life. Celluloid gives objects a dynamic depth, an effect heightened with the skill and precision of a projectionist aware of how to feed and frame the film. It’s not the “best” method for watching a film if you want a pristine image. Film is instead what you choose when you want a warmth and deep tone in your images. It’s like choosing the sun over a UV lamp, or a pine tree over a plastic tree during the holidays. There’s a divine breath that exists within film and for that I will always appreciate and love it. Only next time I run out to see a classic in 35mm I’ll lower my expectations of the projectionist’s skills and not the medium itself.

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SEE IT. Or any film that you can in 35mm to understand the aesthetic differences. Which do you prefer?

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