Retro active: why film-makers are getting stuck in the past | Film
In the same way that vinyl has made a comeback in the face of digital streaming, so cinema is in the throes of its own analogue revival. A certain breed of movie aficionado cherishes the soft richness of photographic film over the garish perfection of digital. Some are going even further, into the realms of what you might call artisanal film-making.
From that perspective, new British movie Bait sounds like an absurd extreme in defiantly keeping it old school. It was filmed on a 1976 Bolex camera, with black-and-white 16mm film, hand-processed by director Mark Jenkin in an old Bakelite tank, using processing materials including washing soda, vitamin C powder and coffee. Yes, but what kind of coffee, you may ask – Sumatran or Javan?
As a result, despite being set in modern-day Cornwall, Bait has a convincing retro feel that’s somewhere between Italian neorealism and 1950s public information films.
This kind of faux-retro aesthetic (I once called it “retrovision”) has become a fetish for certain film-makers. Canadian auteur Guy Maddin has based much of his career on it, as has Peter Strickland, whose recent In Fabric replicated the visual style of its early-90s setting perfectly. Michel Hazanavicius deployed retrovision to Oscar-winning effect with The Artist, shot in digital but faithfully mimicking silent-era movie-making. Then there’s Todd Haynes, whose 50s-set dramas Carol and Far from Heaven emulated the techniques of the era. Quentin Tarantino, meanwhile, once called digital projection “the death of cinema as I know it” . Not only is his latest, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, shot in 35mm, it also incorporates flashbacks and asides shot in other retro formats, such as Super 8 and 16mm. Tarantino also filmed The Hateful Eight in the obscure 70mm Panavision format, then urged cinemas to reinstate the projectors to play it.
As with vinyl, this could all be seen as the last stand of an endangered medium. Does this craft of film-making make for more “authentic” movies? Or is it just beard-stroking affectation, designed to separate the digital masses from an analogue cognoscenti? What’s striking about the above film-makers is that, despite the obsessive retro stylings, these are stories you could never have told at the time, from Strickland and Maddin’s eccentric twisted tales to Haynes’s taboo romances.
Bait actually moves the artisanal revival on even further. Ignoring the aesthetic, the story is bang up to date: a saga of Cornish fishing traditions clashing with gentrification, against a backdrop of Brexit-era austerity. What’s more, the formal experimentation is ravishing to behold. It makes your average digital, mainstream movie look staid. Maybe sometimes you have to go back to move forwards.