R.I.P., the movie camera: 1888-2011

By Matt Zoller Seitz

We might as well call it: Cinema as we knew it is dead.

An article at the moviemaking technology website Creative Cow reports that the three major manufacturers of motion picture film cameras — Aaton, ARRI and Panavision — have all ceased production of new cameras within the last year, and will only make digital movie cameras from now on. As the article’s author, Debra Kaufman, poignantly puts it, “Someone, somewhere in the world is now holding the last film camera ever to roll off the line.”

What this means is that, even though purists may continue to shoot movies on film, film itself will may become increasingly hard to come by, use, develop and preserve. It also means that the film camera — invented in 1888 by Louis Augustin Le Prince — will become to cinema what typewriters are to literature. Anybody who still uses a Smith-Corona or IBM Selectric typewriter knows what that means: if your beloved machine breaks, you can’t just take it to the local repair shop, you have to track down some old hermit in another town who advertises on Craigslist and stockpiles spare parts in his basement.

As Aaton founder Jean-Pierre Beauviala told Kaufman: “Almost nobody is buying new film cameras. Why buy a new one when there are so many used cameras around the world? We wouldn’t survive in the film industry if we were not designing a digital camera.” Bill Russell, ARRI’s vice president of cameras, added that: “The demand for film cameras on a global basis has all but disappeared.”

Theaters, movies, moviegoing and other core components of what we once called “cinema” persist, and may endure. But they’re not quite what they were in the analog cinema era. They’re something new, or something else — the next generation of technologies and rituals that had changed shockingly little between 1895 and the early aughts. We knew this day would come. Calling oneself a “film director” or “film editor” or “film buff” or a “film critic” has over the last decade started to seem a faintly nostalgic affectation; decades hence it may start to seem fanciful. It’s a vestigial word that increasingly refers to something that does not actually exist — rather like referring to the mass media as “the press.”

In May 1999 — a year that saw several major releases, including “Toy Story 2,″ projected digitally for paying customers — editor and sound designer Walter Murch wrote a piece for the New York Times headlined, “A Digital Cinema of the Mind? Could Be.” In it, Murch pointed out that only two major aspects of the analog filmmaking process had survived into the late ’90s, the recording of images on sprocketed celluloid film and their projection onto big screens by casting a beam of light through the images. Murch predicted that once digital projection became widespread, it would “trigger the final capitulation of the two last holdouts of film’s 19th-century, analog-mechanical legacy. Projection, at the end of the line, is one; the other is the original photography that begins the whole process. The movie industry is currently a digital sandwich between slices of analog bread.”

Near the end of 1999, my former New York Press colleague Godfrey Cheshire published a two-part article titled “Death of Film/Decay of Cinema“, which in hindsight seems eerily prescient. He predicted just about everything that would happen within the next decade-plus, including the replacement of old-fashioned film print projection by digital systems, the replacement of film cameras by digital cameras, and the near-total takeover of traditional cinematic language by techniques that had once been the province of television.

“Camera, projector, celluloid,” Cheshire wrote, “the basic technology hasn’t changed in over a century. Sure, as a form of expression, film underwent a radical alteration with the addition of sound, but that and other developments – color, widescreen, stereo, etc.–were simply embellishments to a technical paradigm that has held true since photographic likenesses began to move, and that everyone in the world has thought of as “the movies” – until this summer. [...] For the time being, most movies will still be shot on film, primarily because audiences are used to the look, but everything else about the process will be, in effect, television – from the transmission by satellite to the projection, which for all intents and purposes is simply a glorified version of a home video projection system.”

Although I’ve become more of a surly classicist with age, I was an early defender of movies shot on video, and I really don’t see the point of doing a Grandpa Cinema routine, waving a cane and hollering that the movies somehow “equal” film. That’s silly. Cinema is not just a medium. It is a language. Its essence — storytelling with shots and cuts, with or without sound — will survive the death of the physical material, celluloid, that many believed was inseparably linked to it. The physical essence of analog cinema won’t survive the death of film (except at museums and repertory houses that insist on showing 16mm and 35mm prints).

But digital cinema will become so adept at mimicking the look of film that within a couple of decades, even cinematographers may not be able to tell the difference. The painterly colors, supple gray scale, hard sharpness and enticing flicker of motion picture film were always important (if mostly unacknowledged) parts of cinema’s mass appeal. The makers of digital moviemaking equipment got hip to that in the late ’90s, and channeled their research and development money accordingly; it’s surely no coincidence that celluloid-chauvinist moviegoers and moviemakers stopped resisting the digital transition once they realized that the new, electronically-created movies could be made to look somewhat like the analog kind, with dense images, a flickery frame rate, and starkly defined planes of depth.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Now that analog filmmaking is dead, an ineffable beauty has died with it. Let’s raise two toasts, then — one to the glorious past, and one to the future, whatever it may hold.


The coming Canada-U.S. tax war

Arthur Cockfield

On Dec. 16, 1773, Samuel Adams and his group of patriots, the Sons of Liberty, swept aboard a cargo ship filled with 45 tons of East India Company tea, which they promptly dumped into Boston Harbor. The Americans were rebelling against a three-pence tea tax imposed by the then-ruling British government. Like a Canuck version of Sam Adams, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently took the highly unusual step of upbraiding his American counterparts in a public letter for the “far-reaching extraterritorial implications” of their onerous tax laws that apply to Canadian taxpayers.

Under these laws, any U.S. citizen, whether living temporarily or permanently in Canada, must annually report on all accounts above $10,000 and file a U.S. return. There are roughly a million U.S. citizens living in Canada, more than anywhere else. If these individuals don’t comply, they could be subject to penalties that include 25 per cent of the amount of the undisclosed assets plus repayment of back taxes plus interest penalties plus possible imprisonment.

The U.S. laws apply even though these individuals may have disclosed and paid Canadian tax on all of the relevant income, often at higher rates than U.S. ones. Even King George III would have blushed at the suggestion of such confiscatory tax measures.

And the situation may get worse. The Obama administration promoted new laws that, beginning on Jan. 1, 2013, will force Canadian financial institutions to collect account information about these Canadian-based taxpayers for eventual remittance to the Internal Revenue Service. The Finance Minister correctly pointed out this “would turn Canadian banks into extensions of the IRS and would raise significant privacy concerns for Canadians.” The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has also raised the alarm, since it would permit a foreign government to gather and store detailed financial information about many Canadians.

The Canadian government can take a number of steps to address this situation.

First, it should continue to press the Americans for an exemption for all U.S. citizens who have lawfully paid taxes on their income to Canada, and thus have never taken steps to hide their assets. The Finance Minister neglected to mention the main reason why it makes sense to provide Canada with an exemption. The two countries have already agreed to significant tax information exchanges, including information about cross-border portfolio investment income (interest from a corporate bond, for example), through co-operative measures they don’t share with any other countries.

Second, Parliament should table legislation that renders the recent Obama legislation of no force and effect in Canada. Foreign governments should be entitled to a reasonable amount of financial information to help enforce their tax laws, but turning Canadian banks into a branch of the IRS goes too far.

Finally, assuming this matter can’t be settled between the two countries, Parliament should pass retaliatory legislation that imposes the same enforcement regime on U.S. financial institutions that deal with Canadian “tax” residents. Under Canadian tax law, these residents, including many Canadians who live in the U.S. and maintain assets and social ties in Canada, must pay tax to Ottawa on their global income.

This final approach will serve two purposes. It will bring to bear lobbying pressure from the U.S. financial industry that won’t want to sustain the administrative costs of determining whether they’re dealing with a tax resident of Canada.

Perhaps more important, the measure will stir up the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who live in the U.S. –there are almost a million in California alone. That’s right: We may need to enlist Mike Myers, Celine Dion, Jim Carrey and other true patriots in a coming war against Yankee imperialistic taxation.

Arthur Cockfield, a law professor at Queen’s University, is the editor of Globalization and Its Tax Discontents: Tax Policy and International Investments. He testified about tax evasion and offshore bank accounts in February before Parliament’s standing committee on finance.