Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

Sweet Little 16mm

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Taking a busman’s holiday at MoMA’s Werner Schroeter retro, I saw a beautiful 16mm print of the late German director’s “Death of Maria Malibran” [above] and was knocked out by the sheer 16mm-ness of his 1972 masterpiece. Even blown up to 35mm, Schroeter’s brilliant first feature “Eika Katappa” (1969), also shot on 16mm color reversal stock, retained specific, distinctive 16mm qualities.

The colors in 16mm movies are denser and more concentrated while black and white 16mm seems more ethereal (yet at the same time, rawer and more material). There’s a sense in which 16mm, which is naturally more impressionistic or even pointillist than 35mm, photographs atmosphere. The pronounced film grain makes the image softer and more forgiving—not only of faces but mistakes which, as retakes are limited, cannot but be accepted. (Mismatched shots are practically a given.) Even the most impoverished 16mm production cost a self-financing filmmaker a frightening amount of money. Kenneth Anger once compared himself to a goldsmith fashioning art out precious metals—and, with their supersaturated Kodachrome II colors, his 16mm movies looked like jewels. Had amateur video existed in 1965, it’s likely that Andy Warhol’s greatest cinematic works would have been taped rather than shot. If so, the profligacy of his method would have been meaningless; the screen tests and early talkies would have lacked the presence and gravitas conferred by 16mm.

Although this “non-professional” format served as the basis for much of the 20th century’s greatest cinema, 16mm connotes spontaneity and serious amateurism; it signifies cinema verité, not to mention authenticity and youth. “Breathless” was shot on 16mm! [Not–see below, JH] For a while in the late ‘60s, the Village Voice had a regular column on underground movies that was called 16mm. Revisiting Schroeter at MoMA, reinforced my conviction that, at once ridiculous and sublime, his 16mm opera films–acted by his collection of superstars as though they were in silent pictures–were among the very greatest of underground movies, comparable to Ken Jacob’s “Star-Spangled to Death,” Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures”, and Warhol’s Edie Sedgwick vehicles. When Schroeter abandoned 16mm for 35mm in the mid ‘70s, his genius diminished; he became a maker of European art films. (There are excellent appreciations of Schroeter in the current issues of Film Comment and Artforum, although neither is on line; you can find my brief 2010 obit here.)

Not that 16mm disappeared. Jim Jarmusch, to name only one, used the format for “Stranger Than Paradise.” Back in 1984 however there was no DV. These days, you have to be willfully retro to work in 16mm. Thus, Vincent Gallo bucked history to shoot his film maudit “Brown Bunny” on 16mm color reversal. Mumblecore godfather Andrew Bujalski has shot all three of his features on 16mm; post m’core Alex Ross Perry shot two features on 16mm—the more recent, his off-affect screwball brother-and-sister road film “The Color Wheel,” opens today for a week’s run at BAM. Perry has discussed his 16mm aesthetic in interviews with Steve Erickson and Dennis Lim. Since for almost anyone born after 1990, a 16mm projector is a more bizarre contraption than a pre-electric typewriter, this allegiance to the format is all the more notable.

Indeed, despite a relative lack of festival exposure, “The Color Wheel” has been the most highly praised American indies of the past few years, precisely because of its old-fashioned values. Speaking for his cohort, an editor at Cahiers du cinema e-mailed Lim that the movie “reminds us of a New York independent cinema that we loved—black and white, shot on film, spontaneous, with funny and intelligent dialogue—and that seemed to no longer exist.” Perry has suggested an affinity to Philip Roth but this comedy of embarrassment has more in common with American new wave comedies like Philip Kaufman’s “Goldstein” or Adolphas Mekas’s “Hallelujah the Hills” or even Robert Downey‘s shambling, lackadaisical slapstick “Babo 73″ (all 16mm black-and-white), especially since the filmmaker himself [left, with co-star Carlen Altman] plays the somewhat hapless lead.

“The Color Wheel” has been blown up to 35mm for exhibition but 16mm is forgiving in that sense as well. It still looks like 16mm, even when digitalized. “Babo 73,” included in Eclipse’s Downey set is a case in point. The movie is Downey’s most underground, mainly because it features the great Taylor Mead [below] as a hilariously cretinous United States president; the DVD not only preserves Mead’s splendid performance but the slightly washed out immediacy of the original 16mm.

And, if I can change my hobby horse mid-stream: While it’s great to have Downey’s quasi-underground work available on DVD, what about the two, truly crazy, early ‘70s “blockbusters,” he made in the wake of his greatest hit “Putney Swope,” namely the acid-Western “Greaser’s Palace” and indescribable film maudit “Pound” (as in a place where dogs are sent to be put down). Someone must have the rights to these rareties. I read that “The Avengers” is likely to net Robert Downey Jr. a cool $50 million. The kid played a puppy in “Pound.” Maybe he can rescue those two strays for Father’s Day.

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  1. Bill Orcutt says:

    Breathless was shot in 35mm using a Caméflex Éclair 35mm camera

  2. jhoberman says:

    The Cameflex was also 16mm, no? My mistake if not.

  3. Bill Orcutt says:

    Later in the 60’s, yes there were 16mm models. Regarding Breathless, I found this quote from Coutard online:

    “I’m aware now that what we made was iconic, but at the time… no. I used a Caméflex Éclair 35mm camera and they always say oh, “handheld” photography. It’s true that it was light and easy to move and reload quickly but it made one hell of a noise. I still have that terrible din in my ears. Do I still have the camera that captured those iconic shots? No, no, no. It was a cheap movie. We hired the camera and had to give it back.”

    This specific detail aside, I loved your piece, thanks!

  4. jhoberman says:

    Corrected above–thank you! JH

  5. Justin Roby says:

    Interesting side note: until the advent of digital, many single-camera TV shows were shot on 16mm. The first two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were shot on 16mm before they could justify the cost of 35mm. Apparently, Veronica Mars was shot on 16mm for all seasons, but it must have been scope (or matted) because it has a 16:9 image on DVD. I’m sure there are many more.

  6. Actually, a considerable number of recent indiewood films have been shot in 16mm (actually super-16) recently. Some of them, including Black Swan, where blown up to 35mm scope and still looked great, They didn’t have that 16mm look.


  7. Mark says:

    The Walking Dead and Friday Night Lights are also 16mm productions that look great!

  8. rv branham says:

    altman shot “come back to the 5 & dime jimmy dean, jimmy dean” on super-16

  9. buddy says:

    Shot on 16mm recently: The Hurt Locker, Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy, Moonrise Kingdom, The Paperboy, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the Wrestler, the Squid and the Whale, and parts of the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Tabu. It’s continued popularity is probably due to it’s relative low cost for the aesthetic that is achieved: as a filmmaker, I have discovered the strange paradox that, comparing costs of stock, camera rental, processing, transfer and editing, it’s actually cheaper to shoot on 16mm than on intermediate level professional digital workflows (the Red, the Alexa) which at best only approximate the ‘filmic’ look.

  10. Mark says:


    How are the Red and Alexa “intermediate” level? Those are the same cameras Hollywood uses on their most expensive productions. And haven’t you considered that maybe the best use of these cameras is not to approximate a “filmic look” at all, but to achieve something unique to the medium?


    It’s always funny reading a piece like this (they are quite common), written by a critic who seemingly has only a layman’s grasp of the technology used to create the art he/she critiques. 16mm film now is not the same as 16mm film in 1984 is not the same as 16mm film in 1960.

    Stocks have evolved, become better. 35mm film stocks often look more digital than digital now.

  11. buddy says:

    Mark: What I meant by ‘intermediate level’ is that, at least at the time of my writing that comment, the Red and the Alexa were significantly less expensive than other digital cameras like the CineAlta which dominated the first significant wave of large scale digital productions.

    As for my comment about the ‘filmic look’, I think it’s somewhat disingenuous to not acknowledge that it is the makers and champions of the Alexa and Red who are making the claims about those cameras’ ability to approximate 35mm.

    Finally the claim that ’35mm film stocks often look more digital than digital now’ is just an unsubstantiable soundbite.

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