Best Ways to See a Classic Movie

The best way to see any theatrical feature–classic or otherwise–is in the theater, preferably with a competent projectionist and an enthusiastic audience. But that’s a given.

I’m here to cover a more controversial topic: From what type of media should an old movie–and let’s define that as any one made before 2000–be properly projected for that audience?

Hereare the current major options for professionally projecting a movie today. I’ve listed them in order from best to not really acceptable–in my own personal opinion, of course. Disagreements are welcome.

One caveat: I’m only considering the vast majority of films shot on standard 35mm film, and intended to be screened that way. Movies shot or meant to be shown in special formats have their own best formats.

The Very Best: Archival Print in Good Condition

If the print is special, so is the presentation. Archival prints allow you to see a film as close as possible to the original experience. The print is, in itself, a treasured object, and screening it becomes a rare treat.

This is especially the case if the print was made using a now-defunct technology such as dye-transfer, nitrate, or chemically-tinted black and white. I realize that someday soon, film itself will fall into this category. But that’s still in the future.

Unfortunately, if the print is rare, screenings will be rarer. If you have the only nitrate dye-transfer 35mm print of a particular title, you’re not going to let just anybody project it. And if you insist on only seeing classics this way, you’re going to see very few classics.

The Best Common Experience: Digital Cinema Package

Now comes the point where I piss off the purists.

Assuming that it was decently transferred (and they usually are), a DCP will look better than almost any 35mm print. Scratches, faded colors, and that slight vibration are not part of the artist’s intent–or proof of the film’s authenticity. They’re flaws in the presentation medium. Digital removes them.

I know that a great many cinephiles disagree with me, and to a large extent this sort of esthetic disagreement can never be objectively resolved. But I’ve now seen several classics on DCP, and with most of them, absolutely nothing was lost that the filmmakers would have wanted. And most of these I saw through inferior 2k projectors.

Yes, I know–these films were meant to be projected from 35mm film. But unless you’re watching something relatively new, the chemical nature of film stock has changed drastically since the time of the filmmakers’ intent. So has the light in the projector. I’m not convinced that modern-day film stock can reproduce the look of a nitrate dye-transfer print any better than can digital. In fact, I suspect that digital can do it better.

Which isn’t to say that every DCP of an old movie looks great. There are bad transfers. A good transfer can only be done by someone who cares, knows what they’re doing, and has a decent budget to do it.

Still Wonderful: Conventional 35mm Print in Good Condition

Until very recently, 35mm was the norm. And it still looks great. If I had my choice, I’d probably pick the DCP, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see a great movie the old-fashioned way.

Acceptable in a Pinch: Blu-ray

On two occasions, I saw what I assumed was a DCP, only to discover after the fact that it was a Blu–ray disc. But that was before I saw any classics off DCP. I don’t think I’d be fooled again.

Blu-ray’s resolution is almost as good as 2K DCP, but resolution isn’t everything. Smaller color space and heavier compression compromise the picture in ways that aren’t noticeable at home but are visible on a theatrical screen. I’ve seen slight color banding on projected Blu-ray discs–especially on blue skies.

The result is inferior to 35mm–assuming the 35mm print is in good condition. But if the print is heavily scratched, horribly faded, or chopped up with an abundance of splices, a Blu-ray becomes the lesser evil.

Not so Good: Conventional 35mm Print in Really Bad Condition

When you buy a ticket, you don’t know the quality of the print. And if the print is bad, it can really put a damper on your enjoyment.

Kind of Acceptable Under Certain Conditions: 16mm

Back in the 1970s, I saw a lot of movies in 16mm–mostly in classrooms and lecture halls, but occasionally in theaters, as well. Sometimes it wasn’t bad.

With a frame about a quarter the size of 35’s, a 16mm print has less detail and projects dimmer. Scratches and splices are more noticeable. The sound is significantly worse. Yet it fills the screen better than any pre-HD video format.

But 16mm becomes truly unfortunate for a widescreen movie–which is pretty much any Hollywood feature made after 1954, and foreign features after 1959. That little frame just can’t handle letterboxing well. Worse, a great many prints are panned and scanned..

Of course, some films are made for 16mm, including much by the great, recently departed Les Blank. Last summer I saw a pristine, brand-new archival 16mm print of Always for Pleasure. That print will always be a pleasure to watch. But that really falls into the top category of archival prints.

Why Would You Want To: DVD

Is it ever acceptable to charge people admission to see a DVD? Only, I would say, if there’s something very special about the screening, such as live accompaniment,  and no other source available.