16mm: “A Thing of the Past”

16mm film canister

16mm film canister. From Wikimedia Commons.

This fall, I am teaching Experimental Film at Pratt Institute. It’s one of my favorite classes because many of the films we screened in class were life-changing for me. Last year, when I taught the class, I relied mostly on DVDs to screen the films. To me, that seemed remarkable because a decade ago, many of the filmmakers of the American avant-garde refused to transfer their films to DVD, preferring to rent and sell 16mm prints. However, by the early 2010s, the situation had changed and many of them had embraced the format for reaching a wider audience, although many remain steadfastly opposed to releasing their films on video… so they end up as poor quality transfers on YouTube instead.

The New York film world is going crazy for the John Waters retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which starts today and continues into the following weekend. Although I was a rabid fan of Waters’s earliest work and loved screening VHS copies of his films to confused and disgusted friends in college, I don’t consider his work experimental, per se, though it certainly had many anti-commercial tendencies and influenced scores of filmmakers.

In a recent interview with Gothamist’s Rebecca Fishbein, John Waters discusses showing some of his earliest work at the retrospective, including a 16mm print of Mondo Trasho (1969):

I’m going to show one of my very last prints of Mondo Trasho. They might burn up in the projector, but that would be okay because even if they ever even come out again, they’ll never be made on 16mm prints. That’s a thing of the past.

What struck me is his characterization of 16mm as a “thing of the past.” I understand his point: it’s very difficult to find facilities that process 16mm film anymore and the film stock itself is just as scarce. However, many of my students in the experimental film class complained that we watched too many videos of these films and that we should screen actual films in a film class. Last night, I screened a DVD copy of Entr’acte (1924). It was horrible. One of the students jumped into action, verified that Pratt owned a 16mm copy, and we screened that. It was a much better experience.

However, it’s sad to think of 16mm as a dying form. It’s true that we can still screen it in a university course, but it’s also true that we can still study Latin in college, too.

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