When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
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The Way of All Flesh: 16mm Eastman Commercial Film and the Human Body

[This post was written in conjunction with the For the Love of Film:  The Film Preservation Blogathon this week.  Please DONATE to the National Film Preservation Foundation.]

The need for film preservation eventually reduces to a discussion of film stock.  It’s the effects of age and the unstable chemicals in the physical elements of film that cause cinema to be the most fragile of art forms.  Primary attention has been justifiably placed on the toxic, flammable and self-destructive nitrate stock of early film, which has caused many classics to turn literally to dust.  Yet I’d like respectfully to address the stock in wide use thirty years ago by non-Hollywood filmmakers:  sixteen-millimeter color reversal film. 

“Like the haunting formations at Avebury, Lewis, Stonehenge, those old images now please us while implying a logic whose order we’ve alas forgotten – and their preservation may be altogether more precarious,” as Ross Lipman wrote on 16mm reversal film in the Journal of Film Preservation.

The long-discontinued Eastman Commercial Original 7252 film stock (“7252” or “ECO” as it was called by indie and student filmmakers during its availability from 1970 to 1984) gave the viewer more than a representation of skin tones; it seemed to embrace and exalt flesh itself.  Its warmly saturated, low-contrast palette plus its medium-grain emulsion worshiped the human body in a way that was not dissimilar to the sensual celebrations of 19th century French painting.  Its tonal reticulations celebrated the essential carnality of all genders, all races, all bodies.

To put it another way, sixteen millimeter film was the perfect medium for pornography.

The creation of this medium during the Golden Age of Porn was a miracle of timing.  Sixteen millimeter filmmaking was already a sensuous affair:  the unexposed raw emulsion emitted a wondrous scent as it was removed from a film can, the tactile pliability of the film felt comfortable in the hand compared with the weblike threads of 8mm or the hearty bulkiness of 35.  The new movie film’s visual softness and warm colors augmented the voluptuousness of low-budget movies during the underground sexual revolution in America.  By the time of ECO’s demise, home video had transformed that movie scene and its aesthetics from underground to homebound.  The change in media also changed its look to a bluish tinge on images, delineated by the scan lines of a TV tube and eventually the cold micro-frames of pixels.

“Reversal film” such as ECO/72252 was movie stock that didn’t create a negative; what you saw was what you got.  “There is something lovely and elegant in the camera-original that, bypassing the negative, simulates directly the tones and colors of the world as seen to the eye,” again quoting Lipman.  In addition to the skin trade, independents and film artists gravitated to this filmstock since bypassing the motion picture negative step in filmmaking dramatically cut the cost of production.  Plus, artists were drawn to it for its wonderful visual aesthetics. 

[A beautiful example of a short art film shot on sixteen millimeter reversal film was Dan Curry’s WAITING from the 1970s, which can be viewed HERE.]

Time has not been fair to 16mm films.  Their colors gradually fade due to unstable dyes in the original, and the mechanics necessary for positive-to-positive film generation has pretty much vanished.  The result:  marginalized / rebel / experimental works from the 1970s and early 1980s are disappearing.

If I had to choose one 16mm color film from the ‘seventies for preservation, it would be Joe Gage’s L.A. TOOL AND DIE, a 1979 polysexual porn flick.  My rationale in this decision is not glandular, but resides in its historical and conceptual values.  The movie captured post-Vietnam fatigue and contrasted it to the desire for physical engagement.  [I should mention here that the film actually had a plot, as did most porn before home video when fast-forwarding knocked story content out of the genre.]  The film addressed sex as a healing process (the protagonist was a Vietnam veteran) and gave the audience this thesis:  if we as a culture had been more engaged in eager, consensual love-making, we might not have been so eager to go to war. 

The non-Hollywood, outisder films of that era are a bouquet of visual delights when screened in their original 16mm format.  I applaud those who work towards preserving them so others may experience their indulgent bliss.  You can make a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation here.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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6 Comments to “The Way of All Flesh: 16mm Eastman Commercial Film and the Human Body”

  1. Marilyn says:

    As always, Doug, you’ve wowed me with the originality, pertinence, and fascination of your blogging. This more contemporary example of endangered films, and particularly your take on L.A. TOOL AND DIE, shows that the hippie ethos was alive and well as long as ECO stock lived. Thanks so much for this wonderful post!

  2. Joe Thompson says:

    Thank you for reminding of the smell of raw film stock. One of the things we’ve lost with digital. Good post.

  3. Tim Halloran says:

    “…the mechanics necessary for positive-to-positive film generation has pretty much vanished”–it is the little details like this which sadden me. Because of one small step in the chain becoming out-moded, literally the whole workflow chain will disappear. Great history, fantastic post.

  4. Doug says:

    Thanks, Tim. At the Association of Moving Image Archivists conference last year, I learned that 3/4″ videotape is the next medium to disappear. Literally millions of hours of tape will not get digitized because the demand is more than the combined lifetime of all the remaining, working tapedecks.

  5. jon says:

    it was also used for the original texas chainsaw massacre.

    • Doug says:

      I didn’t know that, Jon, but when I remember how MASSACRE looked, I can definitely see how ECO must have been its filmstock. Thanks for dropping by!

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