When the movies were still projected from film reels

I’m old enough to recall the time when couriers still zipped between moviehouses, reels of film on their shoulders.

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Since 2008’s The Dark Knight, I’ve been anticipating every Christopher Nolan film with the excitement of a teenage girl waiting for the next One Direction album. Such is my confidence in the quality of Nolan’s films that I splurged on an IMAX ticket to see his latest film, Dunkirk, without reading a review or hearing anyone’s recommendation beforehand. (Dunkirk is a film that the aforementioned teenage girl would have also looked forward to, because One Direction’s Harry Styles is in its cast.)

I had forgotten how impressive, how immense, these IMAX screens were. I plopped down on my seat and, wild-eyed, gaped at just how immersive the projected image was. The screen was alarming in its vastness, in how it covered so much of my field of vision. Dunkirk began with a scene of soldiers running from gunfire; when the camera started shaking, I worried that my eyeballs also had to jerk around so much just to follow the action on-screen. Thankfully, the rest of movie had its camerawork done in steady hands. By the end of it, I was satisfied, thinking my cash was well-spent.

Wooden sculptures of a sitting figure (a Cordilleran bulol) and a movie camera, from an exhibit by Kidlat Tahimik.
A depiction of the Cordilleran bulol as a filmmaker: detail from a Kidlat Tahimik exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, during Cinemalaya 2014. (Photo by the author.)

It helped, of course, that Dunkirk was made particularly for IMAX. I knew this much before going to the cinema, having read over the years about Nolan’s enthusiasm for the format, and it was part of the reason I was so willing to pay the premium price. When I got home, I engaged in geekery and read up further about IMAX film formats. I learned that the best way to see Dunkirk would have been on IMAX 70 mm film; this is film as in film stock, analog, celluloid. Digital kids might sneer at the antiquity of film, but they might be interested to know that the equivalent digital resolution of IMAX 70 mm film is 18K. Compare that to the typical digital cinema’s 2K, and it means that the ‘old-school’ format is capable of displaying so much more visual detail than your average movie theater. Pundits agree that IMAX 70 mm is the best cinematic experience available in the world.

Among the handful of IMAX theaters in the Philippines, only one has the capability to project on film—the oldest one, at Mall of Asia in Pasay City. This is why the screen there is larger—taller, to be precise—than on all the other IMAX venues. However, the theater has reportedly retired their film projector already, and exclusively uses digital IMAX now. The last time they spun up the old projector was for special screenings of 2014’s Interstellar, Nolan’s previous opus. What this means is that I saw Dunkirk on IMAX digital, a ‘second-best’ format, not on film, as I had hoped. But it was impressive nonetheless, and still a good bang for the buck. Nolan calls the full Dunkirk experience on IMAX “virtual reality, without the goggles,” and what I saw—wide expanses of beaches and seas and skies projected on an encompassing screen—was close enough.

This buzz about cinematic experiences and events surrounding Dunkirk had me reflecting on the movie-going experience and how it used to be truly much more of an event, not only a casual leisure activity, but a formal social gathering. In the earliest days of cinema, soon after the invention of moving pictures, people would take the trouble of dressing up before attending these projection shows in Europe, even if in those days movies were nothing more than short clips of mundane scenes. The legend goes that the experience was so novel, that one particular movie of a passing train spooked audiences. The people would scream and scramble at the sight of the coming train, their eyes tricked, their suspension of disbelief so thorough, that for an embarrassing moment they believed they are about to be crushed by a steam engine through the theater screen.

The legend was likely just a rumor; people weren’t really such fools. But there is a scene from 2016’s Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis—a film that, at eight hours long, is itself quite the cinematic event—where this legend is localized and subverted. The film includes a fictional account of the first moving picture exhibition in the Philippines at the end of the 19th century. The colonial bourgeois attending the show was sent scrambling not by a train on the screen, but by the appearance in the theater of a tikbalang (a half-horse, half-man creature). The unsuspecting spectators, expecting a technological illusion, ended up witnessing a supernatural apparition; the movie event turned out more spectacular than they could have possibly imagined.

These days, movies are all around us. I can’t take the train or ride the bus without spotting someone mesmerized by a movie on her phone display, the LCD feeding her eyes animated images, the earbuds feeding her ears accompanying sounds. Screens of all sizes, blasting videos, are everywhere. Even the billboards that pollute highway views have morphed into blinding LED canvases.

I do not wish to conclude that the change in technologies and habits have degraded the value or experience of watching films in some ill-defined aspect. Maybe it has, but I’ll leave that for now for true scholars and critics to debate. I would merely point out, that even before the advent of digital technologies, people have had haphazard ways of viewing movies. I’m old enough to remember the time before moviehouses traded their film projectors for digital ones. I used to watch couriers running up mall staircases carrying cylinders on their shoulders; my mother would tell me those are the movie reels, and that if those are delayed then the movie would sputter to a stop and the irate audience, their movie illusion jolted, would be clapping and shaking their fists at the projectionists.

That was the time when tickets still entitled patrons not to a single screening but to a single entry, which meant that moviegoers could enter the theater in the middle of a matinee, then stay in their seats after the credits have rolled to catch up the part they missed on the next screening. The purist, present-day me hates watching movies this way; it’s a crime against the filmmaker’s vision, I would say. But now I realize, that decades before Nolan wrote his crazy non-linear stories, Filipinos have been turning even the simplest movies into non-linear experiences just by being our usual non-punctual selves. We would enter the cinema in the middle of the film, watch the ending, and from that guess how the movie started while chewing popcorn in the intermission; we would hang around until the reels start rolling again, then watch the beginning, and thereby confirm or debunk our little theory.

The habit is so common, a cultural given, that priests would rant about the faithful who treat their Mass attendance as they would their movie screenings: arriving at church in the middle of the Gospel reading, receiving Communion and the final blessing then milling around, waiting for the next Mass as if liturgy was just a story to be completed in chopped-up servings. But the analogy no longer makes sense to the younger kids today, those who grew up with the cinemas already restricted to single-screening admissions.

In addition to the free pass for repeat viewings, the single-entry policy also turned the moviehouse into a place for killing time. It is rather inconvenient now to consider hanging out the cinema even if you have several hours to kill before your date arrives, with the strict screening times and the potential for scandal if you do try to stay beyond one screening. (I have yet to see someone forcefully booted out of a movie theater; that would be an interesting sight, a YouTube moment.) Yet every now and then, while reading stories, like a Lualhati Bautista novel or Erwin Castillo’s recollection of the first time he met Nick Joaquin, I would encounter a character going to the movies mainly to pass the time, and I would just know that it’s an old story. I wonder if theaters were like this in other countries too, and if citizens there were all so casual; the movies themselves aren’t a reliable record in this matter.

I’m not worried about the future of film, as in film stock. Nolan and Quentin Tarantino and all the other celluloid auteurs are just fine. Digital is not the enemy of film; it is in fact its savior. A movie on its third or fourth week of release in the days of celluloid was a show of specks and scratches; the physical medium is simply prone to degradation. But the color and clarity of digital is evergreen, and so to save our cinematic heritage, we digitize them.

And the digital filmmakers of the present are fine too. After all, wasn’t it the advent of digital cinema that democratized the technology of moving pictures, and granted us, among other things, a new golden age of Philippine cinema? When Lav Diaz finished editing Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis, he went to his producer Paul Soriano, and gave him a copy of the eight-hour film not on a heavy set of film reels, but in a handy hard drive.

The real anxiety I feel about films is the same as that felt by a booklover entering a massive library: there are so many fine films in the world, so many rich stories to see, and yet too little space in a lifetime to experience them all.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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