This past weekend, I found myself settling down to watch The Goonies not in the comfort of my living room on my hi-def, blu-ray powered home theater system but at the local old movie palace-turned-community arts theater that was screening the film for free as part of its 25th anniversary celebrations. And as the lights dimmed and the film started, I found a strange feeling passing over me, as if welcoming an old friend who I had just realized I had been missing for some time. It wasn’t so much the fact that I was seeing The Goonies on the big screen for the first time since the film originally was released 25 years ago, but because of how I was seeing the film – on a slightly worn and scratched film print.
First, a digression that bears some relevance –
I am old enough to remember the transition from analog music recordings on records and tapes to digital recordings on compact discs and eventually MP3s. Everyone was amazed at the clarity of digital recording and quickly everyone took up digital as the new standard for listening to music. But when I would go back and pull out an old record and set it on my turntable, I quickly realized that there was something about the music listening experience that had been lost. It was those imperfect artifacts of analog, the slight pops of a vinyl record or the hiss of magnetic tape and the warmer feel to the sound that wasn’t compressed out of existence that gave experience character and kept it from being cold and sterile.
It was the age-old lesson of not appreciating what you have until it is gone. And that’s the lesson I found myself learning all over again this past weekend as I sat there watching The Goonies.
From the moment the Warner Brothers shield appeared onscreen and as a baby-faced Sean Astin led his friends on an adventure to find the fabled One-Eye Willie’s pirate treasure, I found myself relishing every scratch, all the reel-change cigarette burns and even slight fluctuations of brightness in the picture. It wasn’t just born of a nostalgia for the film itself, but out of appreciation as to what was added to the experience by virtue of the projection medium. Like a cherished record being spun on a turntable all the little minor imperfections gave the film an additional character that would have been squeezed right out of a cold and sterile digital presentation.
And it blew the hell out of the number of times I’ve watched Goonies on both DVD and blu-ray.
Back when digital projection was first being touted as the future of theatrical exhibition, there were many who claimed that the new technology would not recreate the same experience that we were already experiencing. They argued that the 24-frames-per-second created a semi-dreamlike state of mind that was not recreated by digital’s 30 frames per second frame rate. And while I always thought that there was some weight to those arguments, it wasn’t until that afternoon did I really come to appreciate the differences between the two and the way that seeing a projected print is just a far more enjoyable and visceral experience.
Now I am not some Luddite calling for the reverse of projection technology back to only celluloid prints. I’m reasonably sure that James Cameron would send his assassins out for even daring to suggest such a thing. The studios have invested too much money in the upgrade and save too much money with digital distribution and projection to ever change back.
But I think we need to remember that every advance in technology doesn’t just replace how something was done previously but destroys that experience as well. And in the arts, that means a change in how we perceive and experience that art, no matter if it is curling up with a slightly-yellowed comic book versus a digital download on an iPad or listening to an old 45 versus downloading a single from Amazon.
I’ll still enjoy movies as we move ever forward into the digital era, but when it comes to revisiting the films of my youth, a slightly worn film print is like wrapping myself up in an old comfy blanket, a warm and fuzzy feeling that can’t be beat.