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Monday, April 8, 2013

When celluloid film bleeds over the screen

Posted By on 04.08.13 at 03:35 PM

An image from Agnes Vardas Vagabond, sans halo
  • An image from Agnes Varda's Vagabond, sans halo
On Saturday afternoon the Gene Siskel Film Center projected Agnes Varda's Vagabond from 35-millimeter film. Throughout, the celluloid image appeared just larger than the screen, and so a halo of light flickered on the wall to its left. I realized during the screening just how much I value this property of film projection. (I also thought of the painting Rabo Karabekian unveils at the climax of Breakfast of Champions, but that's neither here nor there.) When images bleed over the parameters of the screen, they become more immersive. Their edges disappearing into the black of the darkened theater, they create the illusion of going on forever. And the grander the movie, the more powerful this illusion becomes. I remember seeing Apocalypse Now Redux on the extrawide screen at the old McClurg Court Cinemas; it was one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life. Sitting in the front row, I often lost sight of where the images stopped—which seemed fitting, given the scope of Coppola's epic nightmare.

I rarely experience this anymore when I go to first-run theaters. Movies projected digitally seem to fill the screen only just so—and in some cases, the digital image doesn't even reach the edges, exposing dead screen space above or to the sides of the frame. The worst part of this latter phenomenon is that it makes the images assume these hard corners, as if someone's taken a razor to them. It's a subtle effect, just like the bleeding of celluloid projection, but I think it makes a difference. If a movie appears confined within the screen with no hope of escaping, does this limit its ability to enter the spectator's imagination? I can't say for sure. I've been well aware of the parameters of every painting I've seen exhibited, and that didn't impede my enjoyment of any of them. Still, the movies are a different medium; the pleasures they offer are more immediate and sensual. I'd like to think that as digital exhibition develops, it will approximate more of the pleasures I associate with celluloid.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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