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Christopher Nolan’s 70mm screenings: format folly or cinema’s Dunkirk spirit?

“There’s a very real danger in watering down the theatrical experience,” warned Christopher Nolan about the death of film in 2015. “With the confusing proliferation of digital technology,” the cinephile’s cinephile continues, “there isn’t any stable digital archiving medium.” One can half-imagine this self-anointed savior of celluloid emerging from his lair each night in a cape and cowl, committing acts of cinematic vigilantism. But with the rollout of his newest project, Dunkirk, he may not have to.

Warner Bros is trumpeting that Nolan’s second world war epic will be the most widely released 70mm film in 25 years. They are piggybacking, to some degree, on the Weinstein Company’s work convincing theater owners to procure functioning 70mm projectors in advance of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. In a Directors Guild dialogue between the two directors, you can watch Nolan extol the “increased level of formalism” that the larger format brought to Tarantino’s western. Whether than means anything to average ticket buyers remains to be seen.

But for a certain strain of film snob (and I admit I’m one), all this talk of shooting on 70mm has us eager for Dunkirk like a One Direction fan yearning to see Harry Styles in fatigues. Before 2015’s The Hateful Eight it was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master back in 2012 that had us last asking if an a larger film frame (twice the size of traditional 35mm) and its richer resolution automatically made for a better filmgoing experience. A key difference that may win more converts is that Dunkirk is type of story that exploits the scope of the format.

The Master and especially The Hateful Eight didn’t quite deliver on what many were hoping for, a return to epics like Laurence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tarantino, who made a big stink of finding old lenses that hadn’t been used for decades, opened the movie with a few sweeping vistas, but then spent most the running time shooting a play indoors. We got a great view of Samuel L Jackson’s pores.

Dunkirk, I’m told by those who have seen the film, is like “one unending big moment” and the decision to shoot on 70mm “delivers a completely immersive and intense experience that you just can’t get on a traditional digital print”. It is considerably less expensive to shoot motion pictures on video than on film, and modern audiences are increasingly unaware of the difference. (Some directors, including Steven Soderbergh, like to lean into video’s “snap” and avoid filters and processes that go for a “film look”.) But even when a new movie is shot on film (recent examples include Wonder Woman, The Beguiled and Baby Driver) chances are you’ll actually watch a video file called a DCP, or digital cinema package, a system that has been both a blessing and a curse.

What’s good about DCP is that it is considerably cheaper to produce, copy and ship, so for independent film-makers and festivals, it has made the exhibition of work far easier. For remastering of old movies, it means every arthouse gets a “clean copy”. But it also means the death of grain, and a kind of overall glazed sheen.

But Christopher Nolan has the clout not just to shoot on film, an increasing rarity, but to get actual film prints out to theaters, an even bigger rarity. And not just film prints, but 70mm film prints. We’re in Sir David Lean territory here, especially in today’s horrible download-the-newest-episode-to-your-phone environment. Dunkirk will also show in Imax auditoriums, but unlike the typical studio fare that is up-converted for the specialty screens, much of Dunkirk is actually shot using the Imax process, typically only used for nature and Nasa documentaries.

For cinephiles and snobs (or just people old enough to want to re-experience how things “used to look”), seeing something captured and projected on film is instantly recognizable. The obvious comparison is a vinyl record compared to a digital recording. It’s the little flicker, a tiny imperfection in the black leader before the movie even starts.

Of course, a narrative film can’t be saved by its format if the story doesn’t connect (there are plenty of bad 70mm movies on the list). But I’ll confess that to me, the added arduousness – both on the set, with the less nimble equipment, and in the boardroom, squeezing the extra nickels from the studio – gives Dunkirk an automatic boost before I even see a frame. If this is an unfair way to sneak automatic prestige to what could be just another war picture, I say there are far worse ways for Nolan do it.

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