Ideas

Ideas | Alan Wirzbicki

Dying arts can be saved — but is it worth it?

Turner Entertainment/New York Times/File

When cinema buffs celebrate the 50th anniversary of “2001: A Space Odyssey” next year, an uncomfortable question will loom larger than a malicious monolith. Does the epic sci-fi movie — the one that to its most ardent fans delivers a near-religious experience — have any future?

To true believers, the 1968 Stanley Kubrick cult classic must be viewed in its original wide-screen 70-millimeter format, an immersive visual experience augmented by the classical music score. Lauded for its crisper colors, deeper blacks, and higher-resolution images, fans see 70-millimeter as the highest expression of Hollywood artistry. The format was popularized in the 1950s to showcase movies’ technical superiority over television, and reserved for major productions like “Ben-Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” But today, with Hollywood’s near-total shift to digital projection, the format faces an uncertain future — and is only held together, as a labor of love, by the efforts of a passionate community of movie fans.

The worst case scenario is that, in a generation or two, the movie theaters may still exist, but the practical skills to build, fix, and use the specialized projectors will have vanished. Moviegoers of the future may have to settle for a digital approximation of the film’s opening sunrise and HAL 9000. And that, scoffs Ian Judge, director of operations at the Somerville Theatre, would be like “looking at a postcard of the Mona Lisa.”

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Theaters aren’t alone in confronting a peculiar preservation challenge of the 21st century, which has been marked by disruptive threats to trades from printing to piano tuning. When advocates talk about historical preservation, they’re almost always referring to the preservation of stuff: buildings, objects, artwork. But the practical skills needed to use that stuff can become endangered, too.

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Counterintuitively, it’s the most recently developed skills that may be the most vulnerable to disappearing forever. We tend to think of skills as solitary pursuits. But learning to project a movie, for instance, depends on a web of other professions also remaining viable, and a critical mass of other practitioners trading expertise. Anyone can go buy paint and try to mimic Leonardo da Vinci’s portraits. But more recent artistic works like music and movies may not be possible to bring to life without preserving elaborate but commercially obsolete technical skills that can take years to learn and require expensive, specialized machinery that may no longer be produced.

In interviews with theaters, projectionists, and machinery specialists, I posed this question: What would it take to ensure that audiences can still marvel at “2001” in 50 years? The consensus is that an entire ecosystem of specialized crafts and esoteric skills would somehow need to survive: Kodak would need to keep producing film; the sole remaining 70-millimeter lab would have to maintain the ability to produce and distribute new prints; theaters would have to spend years training new projectionists; companies would need to pass down an understanding of how to make obsolete parts for which the original designs may have disappeared.

In short, it’s not as simple as just hanging the Mona Lisa on a wall.

Ultimately, preservationists face a decision: Which niche skills are worth keeping alive when technology and the market move on? To fans, the value of every element that goes into a screening of “2001” may be self-evident. But compared with a digital version, the vast majority of moviegoers will never notice the supposedly better blacks, greater clarity, and intangible superiority of the original. Is preserving the original movie format really analogous to preserving the Mona Lisa — or is it more like insisting that the painting be viewed by candlelight? Where does preservation of important cultural heritage end, and antiquarian pedantry start? Is the way the movie is projected incidental to its artistry, or essential to it?

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In other words, is saving the “2001” experience, in all its original glory, really worth the effort it would require?

MOVIES A scene from the 1968 science-fiction movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' Credit: MGM published in NYT 10/26/84 (daily) published in NYT 07/30/89 (Guide) Published in NYT 04/01/97 Published Caption: Above, an image from the film "2001: A Space Odyssey." Published Credit: MGM Published in NYTimes 01/07/01 WEEK IN REVIEW section Published Caption: ''2001: A Space Odyssey,'' the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film that launched a thousand cliched headlines. (MGM) Published in NYTimes 10/21/05 WEEKEND section Published Caption: A scene from "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), at the Museum of the Moving Image. (MGM) Library Tag 02252008
MGM/New York Times/File

For the moment, the raw materials needed to preserve the format are safe: Kodak still makes the extra-large film, and Los Angeles-based Fotokem still turns it into movie prints, though both companies are the last of their kind standing. Andrew Oran, a vice president at Fotokem, said that producing prints had shrunk to a small part of its business, but that the family-owned company was committed to 70-millimeter. “If we were just looking at the bottom line, we might have gotten out of the lab business a long time ago,” he said.

Theaters face a more urgent problem. Qualified projectionists are aging, and the expertise to refurbish the machines resides in a single company in Boston.

Projecting a movie takes skills that only develop with experience. Once the movie arrives in packages weighing hundreds of pounds, it needs to be carefully laced into the projector. Chapin Cutler, whose Boston Light and Sound has played a pivotal role in preserving 70-millimeter projectors, rattled off a list of things that can go wrong: dry grease, stripped gears, burst bulbs that cost $1,000 to replace.

“People don’t understand how much work goes into the projectionist job,” said Nick Lazzaro, the head projectionist at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, which also still presents both 35- and 70-millimeter movies. “You’re in the dark. You’re locked in a room. You’re not supposed to be seen or heard.” The state of Massachusetts requires a license and knowledge of basic fire suppression.

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The shrinking number of physical reels of film produced, he said, also complicates the ability to teach new projectionists. “We can’t afford to make the mistakes you could learn from 10 years ago.”

A single mistake can ruin a print forever — not such a big deal when studios made thousands of prints, and would send a replacement if needed, but a much greater problem when the theater borrowed an irreplaceable print from an archive or paid for it itself. Judge, at the Somerville Theatre, paid “five figures” for a new print of “2001” from Fotokem, but the theater has a projectionist with four decades of experience.

To pass on the knowledge, Cutler’s firm trains trains projectionists, and the Coolidge Corner has an apprenticeship program. But most theaters, if they show traditional movies at all, rely on retirees.

An estimated two-thirds of the world’s supply of working 70-millimeter projectors, meanwhile, came from Cutler’s warehouse in Brighton. The company pulled off a Herculean feat in 2015, scrounging the world for 70-millimeter projects and putting together 120 refurbished projectors that were used to show Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.”

But that campaign was a one-shot deal, he says. “When this stuff goes, it’s gone — you probably couldn’t find another 120 70-millimeter projectors in the country if your life depended on it, and it’s only going to get worse.”

The company’s project was underwritten not by consumer demand, but by a production company’s marketing budget. “There’s no way we could have done it or tried to do it on our own,” he said.

“The Hateful Eight” helped boost interest in the format, which is now enjoying a bit of a resurgence. “Dunkirk” was also released in 70-millimeter, and “Murder on the Orient Express” had a limited 70-millimeter release. Those films piggybacked on the investment in “The Hateful Eight.”

But if the effort helped showcase the lavish artistic capabilities of the format, it also may have inadvertently exposed its rickety financial foundation. The “The Hateful Eight” project had a generous Hollywood patron that may not be much help in the future.

The Weinstein Company, after all, has other worries now.

The prospect of losing the skills that provide access to an art form isn’t entirely far-fetched, and it’s not confined to movie theaters.

Building a traditional pipe organ — the kind that Johann Sebastian Bach composed for — costs tens of thousands of dollars, takes years to complete, and produces a sound that its fans say is unrivalled on earth. “It is a cultural travesty that we even have to contemplate a situation where these [Bach compositions], some of the most sublime achievements of the human mind, might one day become unplayable on any but a few extant instruments maintained as little more than museum pieces,” wrote British organ expert Colin Pykett in 2011.

With emptying churches and falling demand, though, he fears that the critical mass needed to sustain the immensely complicated instruments will collapse. If that occurs, he says, the industry would be “next to impossible” to recreate. The skills of pipe makers, voicers, and the other craftsmen needed to support the instruments would fade away.

Digital organs have increasingly made inroads. They’re cheaper and, to nonspecialists, sound almost exactly the same. If pipe organ building proves more resilient that movies, it may be because the industry wasn’t as tightly connected to the market in the first place. “Pipe organ building is quite philanthropy driven,” said Greg Bover, at C.B. Fisk, a Gloucester organ builder that makes traditional instruments and has steady demand from universities and religious institutions. “Once you’ve played the real thing, the digital imitation is generally pretty boring. They’re too perfect, is what the problem is.”

The Gloucester firm offers an apprentice program, which attracts applicants worldwide. “There aren’t any schools for organ building in the United States, so the shop has always functioned as one.”

“Most of it you have to learn from doing,” he said, a challenge the he says the company thinks about as employees age. “How to pass on the accumulated knowledge and bring a younger generation along?”

To Greta Bertram, the secretary of the Heritage Crafts Association in Britain, the struggle to pass on skills highlights a blind spot in the historical preservation movement. “We don’t say of our historic buildings, it needs to be financially self-sustaining,” she said. “We value it because it’s part of our heritage.”

Bertram’s organization compiled a “red list” of imperilled crafts in Britain, ranging from vellum making to swordsmithing to hand-stitched cricket-ball manufacturing. The ability to produce traditional musical instruments — including harps, horns, and organs — figures prominently on the list, threatened by mass-produced or digital replacements.

Advocates put such skills in the category of “intangible cultural heritage,” which the United Nations has recognized as a historical preservation priority. The term is most often used in the context of things like folk songs or old-timey pursuits like artisanal basketmaking.

Some of those fields may only have — and may only need — a few practitioners to survive. The organization counted fewer than 50 British armorers and helmet makers, but that was enough to be “currently viable.” Others, like knitting, survive by transforming into hobbies.

More modern technology, though, tends to require a network of suppliers, businesses which themselves may be endangered. And they’re beyond the scope of individuals or hobbyists; you can’t make a pipe organ in your basement.

In Britain, Bertram said, there is little government support for preservation of skills. And if governments or philanthropies were to start bankrolling that sort of preservation, it would require making some judgment calls about how much authenticity is required. Is it cheating to use modern tools? And who decides what to save? The comparison to historic buildings cuts both ways: while it’s true that many are preserved, they’re a small minority. Every day, the wrecking ball claims buildings somewhere.

BOSTON, MA - 7/26/2016: The Longfellow Bridge that spans over the Charles River under reconstruction seen viewed from Boston. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff Photo) SECTION: METRO TOPIC 05longfellow(2)
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File
The Longfellow Bridge renovation has used an old form of riveting that had fallen out of use.

A difference, of course, is that destroyed buildings are gone for good, while in theory a future projectionist or basketmaker could revive the craft. In Boston, workers relearned obsolete riveting techniques to renovate the landmark Longfellow Bridge, and hunted down materials no longer produced.

But the bridge project, which is more than a year behind schedule, also highlights the practical difficulty of reviving skills, and the genuine tradeoffs involved when we bend over backwards for the sake of historical authenticity.

With a boost from technology, at least some fading skills can be kept alive at less expense. Preservationists in Britain have compiled YouTube videos of traditional arts such as wooden ladder-making. They are meant to be digital time capsules for future generations. But Bertram is skeptical that a video can capture the intricacies of jobs that required years of apprenticeship.

“There’s all this tacit knowledge. Nothing replaces that,” she said. “Basically, you need skills and knowledge transfer that is face to face, person to person.”

Cutler has similar misgivings about movie projection. “It’s all going to be learned by doing,” he says. “There’s no school, there’s no textbook, there’s never really been a textbook.” Even if there are still working projectors available in 50 years, an untrained projectionist starting from scratch won’t know how to deliver the experience that 70-millimeter diehards treasure. And practical barriers to relearning — like the ruinous cost of rookie errors — will likely rise inexorably.

What it means is that without a strategy to fund the preservation of those skills, the paintings of the 15th century may soon be available in a more authentic form than the music and movies of the 20th.

And many viewers might not care. Or even notice. But if you’ve ever wanted to see “2001” in its original splendor, the Somerville Theatre will debut its brand new print soon, to mark the movie’s 50th anniversary. Don’t wait.

Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at alan.wirzbicki@globe.com.