Steven Soderbergh saw this all coming. Back in a 2006 Entertainment Weekly interview, Soderbergh, while opining on the greatness of digital distribution, noted how easy it would soon be for exhibitors and theater chains to show classic movies: “The ease of uploading a film onto a server would mean that a theater in Indiana could show the Godfather films [to] a whole generation of moviegoers who’ve never seen them on a big screen.”
The problem with this: Even if you’re seeing a film, you’re generally not watching it on film. And even if you’re not a photochemical purist, you’re often paying first-run theatrical prices to see an image the quality of which you could replicate at home with a high-def TV and a Blu-ray player. As Quentin Tarantino put it in a recent Hollywood Reporter director’s roundtable, it’s like “television in public.”
Tarantino is an especially interesting director to make that statement, in light of the highly publicized, one-night-only digital rereleases of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction happening next week in honor of the former film’s 20th anniversary (and the upcoming release of Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained). The screenings are being organized by Fathom Events, a company that has been openly called out in the past for actually actually just showing DVDs instead of streaming higher quality digital prints. In recent months, Fathom has mentioned in press releases that screenings will be “presented using new digital cinema projection systems,” though that language is so vague ithat it’s impossible to know what they really means. In any case, Tarantino is already anti-digital to the point where he threatens retirement because of it in that aforementioned roundtable, so it’s hard to imagine that even he is thrilled about these re-releases.
Should he be though? And moreover, should we be? Soderbergh’s statement is prophetic in retrospect, but also idealistic, and the concept of seeing beloved, classic movies on the big screen is one that should never be taken for granted. As New Yorkers, we’re already pretty lucky in this respect – Film Forum, BAM, MoMA, Museum of Moving Image, and a multitude of other art houses are always great running retrospectives, often even on 35mm prints. However, for the rest of the country, as the digital changeover charges onward and screenings of photochemical film become harder to find, this is a real opportunity to experience movies in a theater and with a crowd that you might not get to otherwise. Earlier this year, Fathom played Casablanca on 500 screens with a special introduction, complete with a new behind-the-scenes retrospective. Even when Fathom is frustrating, it’s really hard not to get excited about the events they put together.
Maybe the projectors in question have been getting better, and even if not, it’s probably worth it to see Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs on the big screen anyway. What we do know is that over the summer, we took in a screening of the original Total Recall at Film Forum. The colors were sharp and bright. The image was textured and crisp. Hearing Arnold deliver the line “Screw you!” before jamming a giant drill into a guy was a blast to experience with a crowd. The print? A new digital restoration, and a beautiful one at that. If it’s good enough for Arnie, let’s hope it’s good enough for Tarantino.