Celluloid Now, More Than Ever

by Olivia Hunter Willke

On my way home from the first program of the all-analog avant-garde film festival organized by the Chicago Film Society, Celluloid Now, I received the call that my grandmother was dying. The next evening, as I sat watching the beautiful 35mm program unfold, my grandmother was read her last rights and I was confronted by the film III. (2022) by Alexandre Larose. The last film of a trilogy, the larger context of the work may have been somewhat lost, but as a standalone film, I found myself weeping as the images cascaded over me. The subject photographed, Larose’s father, Jacques Larose, is multiplied through superimpositions infinitely, collapsing into new form, something eternal, more than human. Ghostly figures emerge through these delicately timed layers of an extended limb grasping a banister or hair rustling center frame. It is made up of 8mm and 16mm—later blown up to monumental 35mm—in addition to some native 35mm material. There’s a softness in the stacking of these images, a tender collision. The steady trickle and meeting of these blankets of B&W intimate textures create a feeling of glimpsing a loved one after bidding them farewell, swiftly turning your head to glance at their image once more as they leave, but only able to grasp pieces of them in a blur. It’s an overwhelming work, familiar and alien in equal measure.

II. by Alexandre Larose

Immediately after the ascension of Larose’s III., the audience descended into (a work in progress screening of) Cameron Worden’s Digital Devil Saga (2023), a mirage of perverse and adorable internet images painstakingly assembled frame by frame and set to Chicago drill music. A transcendent and assaultive cacophony of memes, Twitter feeds, stock images, video games, porn, animation, propaganda, satellite imaging, and more. GIFs and YouTube videos are separated into individual frames forced apart by split-second—seemingly random, but methodically selected—snapshots of digital lore. Digital Devil Saga is a work of pure will and stamina, one that most would not have the stomach to even conceive of, let alone assemble coherently. 

Floating through each of these varying and eclectic programs, one thing remains constant: the whirring of a film projector. It’s a warm sound, one associated less with the metal object itself, and more with what moves through it: images and light. Celluloid. The film programs are presented as single-running entities, with no stops between films, no switching projectors. We see the entire object, leader and all, countdown, cues, static, white, black. On the importance of an all-analog experimental film festival, filmmaker and programmer for CFS, Cameron Worden said, “Since I started attending screenings here in Chicago in 2011, there’s been a prevailing narrative that analog film projection was on its way out. I was in an artists’ moving image grad school program at the time, and despite the department having ‘film’ in its name, I had a hell of a time getting support from the department to actually work with film as a material. The line on analog filmmaking was that it was ‘nostalgic’ and anybody programming work by moving image artists should be looking to the exciting new horizons of video and computer art. The decision to broadly discontinue support for film projection wasn’t made by artists, and it wasn’t made by the people going to screenings, it was made by programmers, distributors, and six-figure salary administrators. The thing with film is that it’s an incredibly stable technology with a cultural imprint that goes back more than a century, neither of which is true of electronic image-making methods. Great work was still being produced on film during ‘the lean years’–2013-2017, before film started to become an enticement venues advertised–because artists retained a passion for the medium even through a drought of institutional support. Audiences still hungered for it too, regardless of how institutions contorted themselves into thinking this wasn’t the case.”

Fuego Rápido by Jimmy Schaus

The coziest screening of the long weekend manifested in Buddy, a shop selling art objects in the Chicago Cultural Center. Super 8 films were projected onto a small portable screen, attendees gathered to sit on the floor, forming a half circle. Of this batch, Fuego Rápido (2022) by Jimmy Schaus was the film that I found myself gravitating to most. A spirited, intimate film primarily recorded on Noche de San Juan, the eve of the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, in Madrid. There’s a light, playful energy through the images captured and instinctual in-camera editing, a feeling of lived spontaneity with intentional seizing of a moment. Schaus explained, “The creation of the film was a reaction to and channeling of the energy of the night, so I think the balance achieved is more of a byproduct of my presence and participation with the camera than something I intentionally maintained. I was conscious of it, though—the excitement and danger of the bonfires, the arrival of the police and their lights and the ensuing scattering of bodies, the careening emotions of drunk teenagers, all washed over and charged by the year’s brightest moonlight—and it affected the way I shot (and therefore edited), which in turn heightened how I perceived, which again affected how I shot, and so on, like mounting feedback. Then, there is the refuge and calm of the indoor shots of my friends playing with the artificial moon of the light table and film strip. The spirited, jovial feeling is also a result of shooting at 12 frames per second, which allows for the highest exposure with the lowest level of light, and projecting at 18 frames per second.” 

Blanca Garcia’s that this is (2023) was a pleasant reminder that, although texturally different, the light captured on Super 8 can look just as full as other film formats. The lower grade allows for murkier manifestations of space than the dreamy haze of 16mm. Often associated with small-scale personal use, Super 8 films are all too rarely screened in their native format. “The medium’s roots are in amateur filmmaking and home movies projected in living rooms, and when projected from a booth in the back of a proper cinema, Super 8 can feel like a fish out of water. This expands the possibilities for alternative modes of exhibition, exemplified by Celluloid Now’s decision to screen its Super 8 program on a small screen inside of a shop, with attendants seated on the ground close to both the screen and each other. It was an exceptionally intimate and anti-illusionistic experience that would be difficult to replicate with another medium,” Schaus added.

In the first program on Sunday, the final day, the focus turned to optical sound. Six Seventy-Two Variations (2021), a live performance by Tomonari Nishikawa, manipulates the soundtrack on a loop of 16mm film, creating a rhythm of thick knocks, pops, and scratches. The printed sound appears on screen in increasingly rapid succession, sound trailing behind at a fraction of a second, an echo of the etched image. Rose Lowder’s Impromptu (1989) concocts a potent and beautiful work about the processes and composition of film on a material level. Trees wave in the breeze, shot by interweaving frames as the film strip passes the lens several times so there is a jolting, lively movement happening with each in-camera stop and start. A moment of black screen was meant to serve as a resting place between chosen trees. Instead of blank, silent space, the film lab where Impromptu was developed accidentally inserted black slug that contained audio from various other random films (accordion music and someone speaking French, likely from a French television program). Lowder found this humorous and decided that, through sheer accident, this would become the final product. It creates a jarring, funny, and profound work about intention and chance. It also serves as a reminder that what you are watching is not a congregation of pixels or code, but a material reality, one that many people have touched.

Impromptu by Rose Lowder

Chicago Film Society’s herculean efforts to preserve and champion analog film could very well turn intimidating, but Celluloid Now circulated nothing but warmth through its four days of programming. Community-centered and artist-forward, the nonhierarchical structure of the festival saw filmmakers and artists mingling with programmers, attendees with presenters, all there with the same intention and love of film. “Film as a medium has been marginalized for long enough that the only reason it even hangs on is due to community efforts spanning the globe,” Worden said of the focus on solidarity and connection. 

“There’s the necessity of maintaining a support network to keep Kodak and commercial film labs alive for artists who need those things. Pooling equipment is essential to keep this medium open to people who can’t afford their own projectors or cameras. This is also at the heart of the artist lab movement, which I think is going to be the crux of 21st-century analog artist filmmaking. Skills sharing is essential as less and less support is given to teaching the fundamentals of working with film on an academic level. We need each other to make film a thing that keeps happening, and if Celluloid Now can be a place to make these connections between artists, technicians, and enthusiasts, then it’s doing its job. It’s telling that the two big programs here in the US doing this work, Celluloid Now and Light Field, are both run using nonhierarchical models and are programmed by artists, technicians, and other people who fall outside the typical arts administration rubric. This kind of programming exists because artists and art lovers have recognized they need to create a support system for themselves outside of institutions, which serve neither the people making art nor the people with a hunger for it.” 

As the lights rose in the theater after the last program had ended and the festival wound down, I couldn’t help but return to the one recurring thought I’d had throughout the weekend – when I die, I hope to see the deep well of black on film, experience the fullness of feeling that gathers throughout the body while watching it flicker, light peering through the imperfections and scratches, to whatever other world awaits me. Hopefully there will be celluloid there, too.

Dedicated to Carol Willke

Olivia Hunter Willke is a film writer, analog filmmaker, and programmer based in Chicago by way of Texas. Her work blends political urgency, formal analysis, and emotional revelation.

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