Versatile Austrian writer-director-editor Michael Palm ruminates on the problematic evolution of his chosen art form in Cinema Futures, a likeably wide-ranging documentary that will be catnip for celluloid-centric cinephiles. Marginally wider audiences may be attracted by the presence of Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tacita Dean among the slew of talking-head contributors, although such luminaries' contributions are tantalizingly brief, especially in light of the doc's generous two-hour-plus running-time.
Having premiered in at Venice in September, the picture — commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vienna's Austrian Filmmuseum in 2014 — will play in January at Rotterdam, plausibly springboarding from the Dutch jamboree to North American festival and small-screen exposure.
"I feel like a stonemason justifying my use of marble," comments Nolan, who — like fellow 35mm-diehards Quentin Tarantino and Scorsese — misses very few opportunities to vocally defend the old-school, supposedly obsolete format. "Use it or lose it!," exhorts the Dark Knight auteur.
Palm meticulously traces the oft-discussed transition from analog to digital that has steadily — some would say stealthily — taken place in the 17 years since the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This process has regularly generated fractious controversies — such as the current flap over the (spoiler alert!) CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing in Rogue One — and Palm, narrating in slightly dry German (he's no Werner Herzog), guides his audience through most of them.
Cinema Futures functions best as a useful primer not only on the whole digital-vs-analog business (as previously addressed by the Keanu Reeves-produced 2012 documentary Side by Side), but also with regard to the role and importance of archives, and contentious matters of preservation and restoration. Scorsese, as always, provides maximum value in his intermittent appearances, beating his familiar drum that "movies need people to take care of them, and to keep taking care of them."
Palm clearly agrees, returning again and again to such shrines of restoration/preservation as the Vienna Filmmuseum (despite its name, this "museum" is in fact a rep cinematheque boasting a considerable archive) and two stateside counterparts: the Library of Congress near Washington — whose vaults, we learn in a typically offbeat aside, were previously used as the Federal Reserve's gold stash — and George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y.
At times during these sequences, the film veers uncomfortably close to the boosterish tone of a fund-raising project, and Palm is on more engaging ground when expounding on the grander philosophical contexts and implications of moving-image preservation. Each of the three principal locations provide intriguing vistas and no end of enthusiastic geekery from those employed therein ("We're gonna be making film for many years," effuses a bigwig at Rochester's Kodak), although a broader geographical/sociological spread wouldn't have gone amiss.
In the second half of the doc, Palm does finally escape the West, though even at Mumbai's Reliance Mediaworks — devoted to the painstaking business of restoration — his interviewees remain Anglophone. All the more welcome, then, that Jacques Ranciere and Nicole Brenez are also on hand. True to the French intellectual tradition that has long been associated with the more rarefied interpretations of the cinematic medium, they muse expansively on film's role as "a vast reservoir of possible histories," and the importance of "conserving a part of the collective memory — the memory of humankind" while avoiding being trapped by "dominant historical discourse."
Palm, who periodically appears on camera with his crew, strikes a generally successful balance between various levels of analysis and approach, and bookends his speculations with a charming, anecdotal, illustrated memory of himself being captured on 8mm film as a small child.
But there's ultimately a sense that Cinema Futures perhaps overreaches itself in its attempt to appeal to too wide a demographic. Palm's own filmography has alternated unpredictably between the relatively accessible (2004's Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen) and the more spikily experimental-esoteric (2011's Low Definition Control: Malfunctions #0), with Cinema Futures occupying a slightly uncomfortable in-between zone: too basic for experts, too esoteric for newcomers. Then again, given cinema's perpetually unresolved no-man's-land locus between the glorious analog past and a hazardous, digital-dominated future, perhaps there's something to be said for falling gracefully between stools.
Production company: Mischief Films
Director-screenwriter-editor-composer: Michael Palm
Producers: Georg Misch, Ralph Wieser
Cinematographer: Joerg Burger
Sales: sixpackfilm, Vienna (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In German, English, French, etc.
Not rated, 126 minutes