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    I developed 35mm film in homebrew beer

    I recently bought a roll of Foma Retropan 320 film – it comes in a nice hipster brown canister and the 320 speed is obscure enough to make it vaguely interesting. I was half way through the roll when it occurred to me to investigate how to actually develop it, and some research revealed two things: for best results you should be using a film-specific developer, and that others have commented that the film does not play well with rodinol.

    I wasn’t about to go out and buy a new bottle of developer just for one roll of film, so I did the next most obvious thing – I developed it in beer..and some other stuff…

    This idea was mostly prompted by this video and some further research into what was actually going on in the developing tank when you add beer, vitamin C and washing soda.

    I won’t bore you with the details, but I was a little dubious about what the beer was actually bringing to the party, when you are adding two other things to a mixture that look suspiciously like chemicals you do wonder, but I pressed on nonetheless.

    So there are a couple of things to note about the video – the first is that whilst we are told, explicitly, to use ‘washing soda’ the soda that is actually used is Bicarbonate of Soda. The beer in the video is Guinness. No one mentions what speed the film is…it might matter, it might not, but its not mentioned. The final thing is that the beer has to be warmed to 30 degrees.

    So here is how I deviated from the video, the first way, as you might have guessed from the title of this post is that I didn’t waste a can of guinness on this experiment – I used homebrew. Well, we actually brewed it at London Beer Lab, but it was brewed by me and my buddies. We didn’t follow the recipe very well, and no one will ever be able to make this beer again because we didn’t record what we put in it. Anyway, the beer we made was a black IPA. The second way I deviated from the video is that I bought washing soda, which is sodium carbonate, not bicarbonate of soda. The final way is that I couldn’t really be bothered to check the temperature of my beer, so I eyeballed it (IE – I put the bottle in some warm water before I started).

    So with all these variables I was not particularly hopeful that I’d be seeing anything amazing when I broke open my developing tank – and my suspicions were correct – it was crap. I had perhaps seven pictures from a roll of 36, and these were so poorly developed that I nearly threw everything out thinking that there was nothing there.

    However, messing with some settings on the scanner I was able to coax a couple of good images from the roll, I didn’t do any post-processing on these, so we can confidently say this is what ‘beer’ would look like as an instagram filter. Also, you’ll notice that because I wasn’t confident that there was anything there at all, I didn’t pay too much attention to getting the film clean before I dried it:

    I was also able to coax a few far less impressive ones:

    You’ll notice a lot of my cat being a model in there, I told her about my beer developing mission and she wanted to get involved, and I am glad that one of the best images is of her.

    So it turns out that film developer exists for a reason, I think even if I had followed all of the instructions this wouldn’t have given me anything like the quality I can usually obtain from 35mm. Second, when you are developing with beer, everything smells a lot nicer than when you use conventional chemistry. What is pretty cool about the whole experiment though is that no one will ever be able to develop film in that beer again (we made 60 bottles, and have drunk most of them), these are the only images that will ever come out of that beer, not like all those boring guinness developed images that are probably out there. Will I do it again? No. Are my unique one of a kind images the best I have ever shot? No. Was it good fun? Yes. Should I have just consumed the beer instead? Probably.

    An ode to Rodinol

    I am a huge fan of Rodinal for much the same reasons as many other photographers:

    • You can make up tiny batches so it lasts forever (or for long enough to not have to write a date on it
    • Measuring out the amounts you need with a syringe makes you feel like a cool scientist
    • It is basically an ancient formula, so using it feels especially apt when using older cameras
    • All of the instructions (should be) in German, which … is fun

    There are loads of blogs out there discussing the various benefits of using Rodinal in terms of things like sharpness, grain size and other photographer type things – I’d recommend this one from Ed Buffaloe if that sort of thing is important to you – but what I want to talk about here is how Rodinol represents a turning point in my journey as a photographer.

    I have explained elsewhere how the decision to explore 35mm photography was primarily a result of receiving a not insignificant amount of expired 35mm film for free. It was because the film had expired that I didn’t want to invest money that I didn’t have on having it developed professionally (is that the correct term? Are the people working at fotofast professionals?), just in case it was too far gone. So, after a fair amount of ‘how to’ watching, I ordered the cheapest developing chemistry I could find, in the first instance, Kodak D-76, and some Ilford fixer. It didn’t occur to me that mixing chemistry from different manufacturers might be something some people frown upon, or that carefully weighing out D-76 powder and working out ratios to make up just the right amount to develop one film was anything but normal.

    And it remained normal – making up a new bottle of developer was a chore, I’d save up films for a good while so I could use a batch before it lost all its good developing power, and I built a solid collection of brown plastic bottles from manufacturers with stern sounding names that promised to keep everything airtight but that all eventually succumbed to what I am calling ‘chemical degradation’’. Either way, it was my process, and, because it worked, it never really occurred to me to change it.

    Fast forward a good number of years from when I first began my adventures in 35mm, and my understanding had progressed to the extent that I was seeking out stores that sold film, and these stores also (quite logically) also invariably sold chemistry. More importantly, by this time I felt comfortable speaking about my process to other people, particularly, people who happened to work in those stores that sold chemistry. This was really the turning point – I could answer questions about what I wanted in terms of my process, could confidently say what sort of films I was using in different circumstances, and what I was doing in terms of my photography – and this meant I could unlock all of the knowledge that I wasn’t getting when I was buying D-76 on the internet.

    It was a very short hop from here to someone recommending Rodinal – when you are asking which film is cheapest its pretty obvious that recommending a developer that will last for ages and can be made up in whatever amount you like is going to get you a sale. The biggest thing about this was that it all made sense to me – a conversation that would have made absolutely no sense to me a few years before now sounded completely normal, and it really hit me how much I had learned about 35mm photography.

    None of this changes whether my pictures are good or not, but it has meant that everything has become more affordable and predictable, meaning that I am happy to take a 35mm camera on holiday instead of my digital camera, and have embarked on projects that will require the development of a not insignificant amount of film – all of which I am undertaking with confidence and enthusiasm because of the power of Rodinal, and the knowledge that I had to acquire to discover it. Perhaps if I had been smarter I would have done more research when I bought that first batch of developer, but it makes me far happier to consider how far I have come, and to look forward to the discoveries of the future. 

     

    The ‘Mobile’ Film Scanner

    For the second (and final) part of my ‘digitising 35mm film’ series my plan was to use one of the many mobile phone apps that promise to help you take pictures of your negatives and turn them into something Instagram worthy. Whilst thumbing through the app store though I experienced a strong sense of deja vu – I had definitely done this before.

    A quick rummage through my old photographs revealed the culprit – the very first roll of film that I ever attempted to develop at home. The story of that roll of film is here, along with some scans from my shiny (still 10 years old) new 35mm scanner. At this point I didn’t know if taking pictures with 35mm was going to be anything I’d be taking seriously, so I invested the princely sum of zero pounds on an app that essentially converted negative images to positive ones. This was basically all it did, the interface was terrible, it could only manage one image at a time, and the results look a little like this:

    As you can see, there are a number of pretty major issues with this – there are basically about three shades of grey here, the app said to itself ‘well this seems close to white, I’ll make it white, and this seems close to grey, I’ll make it grey’ and then retired to wherever it is that apps hang out when they are not being used. The other major issue is clearly that it’s nearly impossible to get the framing right when wrangling a film strip and a phone in front of a window for some back-lighting, and the app didn’t include anything to crop the image down.

    But this was in 2014, and surely even if ‘I don’t want to pay any money’ app technology has not progressed, phone camera technology must have?

    So to the app store! First hit is ‘LumoScanner II’ from Lumography. These guys are all about making analogue photography Instagram worthy, so I have high hopes. Even on the landing screen I can see that app technology definitely has improved – I didn’t pay for this app, just like that first attempt many years ago, but this one actually has an interface that looks nice. One of the options is panoramic though, which I am fairly sure isn’t a film format that anyone is using (quick click to confirm, no idea what you’d use it for) so I am beginning to think this isn’t for purists. Maybe it’s a lumography specific format? Anyway, I click on ‘regular’ cos that’s just the sort of guy I am.

    Pretty much the same format as my 2014 app – a nice square to put my negative into and a big red button to take the image – however now I have a few options! I can tell the app what sort of film I am using, and there are a whole bunch of other things to mess with, including exposure and contrast – Helpful! There is also a little icon with a mountain on it, but clicking it doesn’t seem to do anything, though I feel like I may just not be cool and ‘lumo’ enough to understand it. So the app looks better, how are the images…

    All of the issues that I had back in 2014 remain, getting the negative centred, and in front of a good light source is nearly impossible, and whilst the app looks better, the images absolutely do not. My old app gave an image that is almost the same size, but with a much higher resolution – the detail, dynamic range and sharpness are light-years ahead in my first photo, pretty ironic considering it was taken five years ago.

    This isn’t to trash the Lomography app, there is a place for this, and if you have the time to set up the negatives, and a really high quality phone camera, you can get usable images from this, or at least ones that you could Instagram filter into something usable – but for me, looking for quality, this just didn’t work!

    The moral of the story? You are probably going to struggle to get really good images from 35mm black and white negatives with anything but a dedicated film scanner, and this isn’t necessarily because this is where you are going to get the best resolution or DPI, but because this is the only place that you’ll be able to completely control the amount of light hitting the negative, get it completely flat, and do everything quickly for more than one negative. So thinking about buying a 35mm camera? Factor in the cost of an 11-year-old film scanner at the same time – mine cost me 40 quid!

    My First Roll of 35mm Film

    So I know many people have been following my epic mission to digitise my 35mm negatives…no? Well I know at least one person has been following my vaguely interesting mission to digitise my 35mm negatives, and they will know that I have concluded that it is impossible to do without a dedicated scanner. Enter the Canon CanoScan 8400F – an absolute behemoth of a flatbed scanner that was released onto an unsuspecting public in 2004. Best thing about it – it is all about the 35mm scanning, with fully backlit dedicated film scanning strip…things, oh, and it cost me £40.

    This isn’t a review of the scanner – its old, its clunky, it scans things, it was a nightmare to get working on windows 10 – it works (oh you actually want a review…? Here is one from 2004!). This is the story of my first roll of 35mm film.

    It all began when I responded to a freecycle advert from a guy giving away a whole bunch of expired 35mm film. I didn’t own a film camera, I hadn’t a clue how to shoot film, I didn’t even know what it actually meant for film to be expired – I went along and got it anyway. When I arrived it transpired that he had been a professional photographer for most of his life, and was finally making the switch to digital. He wanted to get rid of a whole bunch of other film developing stuff, some chemistry, an enlarger, I think even some paper – I had no idea what that stuff did at the time, so I didn’t take it – something I regret to this day!

    Nonetheless I went home with my box of what must have been about 40 canisters of expired film. There was a bit of everything, ancient Kodachrome, some medium format which I gave away to someone who knew far more about photography than me, some Kodak 400 (also given away) and some apparently not so out of date Kentmere and Ilford rolls.

    One charity shop visit later, and armed with an ancient Ricoh KR-10, which subsequently developed a truly epic light leak, but which I still have the beautiful Pentax 50mm from, I went on my first photography mission.

    I didn’t go that far, all the pictures were taken within about a 10-minute walk from where I was living at the time, which just happened to be next to a railway line. The pictures were not actually too bad considering I was shooting in manual mode without really understanding what difference aperture, shutter speed and ISO were going to make to my images.

    The fun came though when I developed my first roll. I had decided that this was something I had to do at home in my bathroom – I would never be beholden to those corporations making vast sums of money developing people’s photos. Sums so vast that by this time they had mostly shut down, and I am assuming happily retired. A number of internet how-to guides and a trip to the library later and I was prepared – I had my developing tank, and epic Soviet-era looking thing that I still use to this day and my mismatched chemistry – I distinctly remember using Kodak developer and Ilford fixer. And that was it! My ‘changing bag’ was a very dark cupboard, my stop bath didn’t exist, and I prized open the film canister with a monkey wrench (I still to this to be honest).

    I have to admit that I am pretty proud of the results! The main issue was that I hadn’t had any practice in winding the film onto the developing tank roll, so there are lots of places where it was touching and the developer couldn’t reach it – aside from this though, simply following the instructions on the developer, and being intensely careful (far more so than I am now) about the temperature yielded some pretty nice results – especially now I have put them through my new (old) scanner – and thus began my love affair with 35mm.

    You can read the story of my first attempts to get these negatives digitised here, and my first foray into a dark room is a story for another time – but I will always be grateful for that guy who gave away a biscuit tin full of film rolls to someone who had no idea what to do with them.

     

    The ‘Cardboard Cutout’ film scanner

    Having survived with a 5 mega pixel (read – cheap and crappy) 35mm scanner for a number of years now I have decided that it is finally time to invest in something that produces higher quality images, that hopefully can be used in places other than Instagram. So I have been exploring the confusing world of DPI values and various ‘in scanner’ touch up tools. The strange thing about all of this is that it seems that since the advent of digital photography there don’t seem to have been any major leaps forward in scanning technology, it’s almost as if all the major manufacturers said, “We’ll, you can scan your film now, what more do you want?”. This is means the process is a very involved review of hundreds of ancient scanners on ebay – and the requisite trawl through websites that were last updated in 2008 to find reviews. I’ll keep you updated. Anyway, as this fabled scanner may be a rather long way off actually arriving, I thought I’d have a go at seeing what other 35mm-to-digital options there were out there – and first in this series (of probably…two…) is the method I am christening ‘the cardboard cutout’.

     At its heart this method basically uses a digital camera to take a picture of the 35mm negative. So, armed with my digital camera and a roll of pictures taken in the Scottish Highlands I embarked on my experiments.

    Experiment one, simply holding the negative in front of a light source, and taking a picture worked ok. It was too difficult to hold everything in position though, and there were some pretty major bright/dark spots from the uneven light source and because it was fairly bright (too bright!) the image doesn’t really have the contrast we need.

    You’ll notice there is a lovely vignette on the image too, this is simply because I used a lens hood for a 50mm lens on a 28mm lens – entirely my fault, and nothing to do with my scansperiment (scanning experiment). The image is a pretty challenging one, a lot of snow, clouds and generally not a huge amount of contrast, but you can see here that even the grass and field borders in the distance are not very well defined. It gives a fairly nice effect – something akin to an old print, but its definitely no improvement over my crappy 5mp scanner.

    So for experiment two I cut a negative sized hole in the end of a box, and with some leftover card and tape created a rudimentary negative holder. I then used a piece of tracing paper to diffuse the light-source, and put my camera in the other end of the box. Holding everything still with the box meant I was able to spend a lot more time getting the focus spot on, and could play with the aperture until I had it where I needed – I figured wide open, as I’d be focussing on effectively a very flat plane and wouldn’t need any depth of field at all, would work best.

    And the result is improved on attempt one. My ‘negative holder’ gives a nice lumo frame that wouldn’t look out of place as an Instagram filter from five years ago, but the results are still far from optimum.

    The tracing paper solved the issue of the very bright spots though, and the contrast is much better (it is a more contrast-y image anyway, but it definitely helped. Its also much sharper, probably because of the extra attention I could pay to focusing. 

    I did some playing around with one of the images, cropped it and worked on the contrast, and the conclusion – a new film scanner is still required! You can see the rest of my images on this roll below anyway. I’d post a picture of my cardboard cutout scanner, but it went in the recycling as soon as the experiment was over.

     

    Review: The Great Wall

    Its pretty obvious from the millions of pictures of it online that China’s ‘Great Wall’ remains standing. The answer of how much remains, or even how long it once was depends very much on who you ask, but what we do know is that neglect, and a lack of effective conservation means that its slowly disintegrating. However, it remains that there is still thousands of miles of wall for modern visitors to choose from.

    Given that there are clearly some issues around the lack of funds being spent on the wall, and absolutely miles of wall to choose from, its interesting that 2016 monster film ‘The Great Wall’ seems to have been made with an entirely CGI wall. Surely, even with some embellishment in the CG studio, filming just a couple of scenes on an actual, pre-built, historically accurate wall might have been a smart starting point for this movie. An added bonus could have been a little contribution to the upkeep of the wall, and given that you can, apparently, go on a day trip to the wall from Quigdao (where most of the film was made) it doesn’t even seem like a big ask.

    This would have made sense, but like everything else in the movie, things that make sense are apparently not a part of the process. Matt Damons insane accent opens the film, because someone decided for no discernible reason that he should be Irish, or perhaps American…or maybe Spanish/English. Then there is the guy who does all the cooking in full armour. Then there is the really effective weapon that is only deployed momentarily in the second battle (after lots of people died in the first one). Then there is all the female warriors (great!) who are ostensibly only there because they are lighter than male warriors (not so great!). In fact, there is really nothing in this movie that makes any sense at all, every scene is plagued with strange and incomprehensible decisions.

    Forgive it perhaps, as an epic spectacle, then retract this as you realise that no matter how many giant monsters come at the protagonists, you don’t really care whether they live or die at all, because at a (thankfully) short 101 minutes long there isn’t time to explain why anyone does what they do anyway, let alone spend some time fostering a connection with the audience.

    Anyway, as we watch Matt Damon (a white guy) come and save some Chinese people from some monsters they have apparently been fighting off successfully for over 600 years, its worth remembering that whoever made this film didn’t even take five minutes to consider whether it might be a good idea to shoot some film at the wall they were making a film about, so all of the other egregious decisions really are just part of whatever special process was used to make this mess.

    What does X-Pro II even mean?

    So you have found yourself here, reading a blog post about an Instagram filter – probably not because you are remotely interested in reading about Instagram filters, but because you want to know how anyone could possibly write a 725 word blog post about them. Well let me tell you how we got this point. I once had a lot of fun at a party by asking people I had never met before what their favourite Instagram filter was. I had recruited a friend to fortuitously join the conversation after the question and volunteer their favourite, thus kick starting a ridiculous conversation about the (entirely made up) pros and cons of various filters. Our first victim didn’t see through the joke, but did think we were ridiculous, and told us so. This, as far as I was concerned was a victory, but it was not quite as amazing as when our second victim joined in, volunteering – ‘my favourite has to be x-pro two’. At this point I felt a little guilty at our ruse, and unable to detach myself from the situation of my own making I was compelled to actually take this favourite filters conversation seriously. 

    The conclusion? The Instagram filters have ridiculous names. Much like paint colours and perfume, filters need names that allow us to refer to them as something other than things like ‘the one that makes everything a bit more red’ or ‘the one that makes it look like sunset all the time’. These names are too long, too descriptive, too much effort. So the Instagram team plucks names out of the air, apparently, if the internet is to be believed, based on artistic styles, their coffee intake, or the name of their dog. There is however one Instagram filter that is named after something slightly more meaningful. X-Pro II, though I didn’t know it the six or so years ago at that party, before I had even picked up a 35mm camera, is named after the results you get from processing a 35mm film in some way other than how it was supposed to be processed. This gives you the nice vignette, higher contrast and popping colours that we see when we use the filter. Hence the name. 

    Except, it is not all as simple as that. X-pro is a short way of saying cross processing. If you are unfamiliar with the way in which films are developed, it is basically a chemical process – you leave the film in various chemicals for certain amounts of time and the film comes out of the end of the process developed. Films are supposed to be developed by using specific chemicals for specific amounts of time – like a recipe. However, because we’re grown ups and no one can tell us what to do, we can develop films with other chemicals, make up random amounts of time to develop for, or even use things we have found in the kitchen in place of our chemistry. Its a bit like getting ready made cookie dough, throwing away the cooking instructions and doing your own thing. Now much like the cookie dough analogy, sometimes this can be delicious, and sometimes you can end up with an inedible mess – the instructions are there for consistency, but not always creativity.

    So what does this mean for x-pro II? Well basically that you very much could cross process a film and get something that looks just like you have applied the x-pro II filter, or you could get something that looks equally cool but completely different. The image below was taken on colour, rather than black and white film. Colour film involves a complicated chemical process to develop (colour film also has to be printed in complete darkness, and nobody has time for that, just one of the reasons all my pictures are black and white), but I chose to develop it with chemistry that is designed to be used with black and white film. Of course, because the manufacturer doesn’t suggest that this is a good idea, they have not told me the amounts of time I had to leave the film in the chemicals for. So I made it up. 

    This next image was processed in exactly the same chemicals. Again, it was colour film, and because I quite liked the blue tint on the first image I decided to process it for the same amount of time (writing down these ‘recipes’ is a good idea). The one difference is that this particular roll of film was from a different manufacturer.

    Two images that are stylistically completely different (they are actually of the same bridge, which is somewhere in Ipswich I think) from two colour films, with black and white chemistry.  This, really, is why cross processing film is more exciting than putting filters on Instagram – you never quite know what you’ll be getting, and if you don’t like it, unfortunately there is no swiping on to the next filter, you are stuck with it forever. Consider this next time you use x-pro II: out there, somewhere, is someone putting random film through random chemicals, and giving their images a look that no one has ever seen before.  

    Fake News, and how to escape it

    A game: Choose a word at random, the more innocuous the better, things like ‘salad’ and ‘robots’ work well. Then take the sentence ‘Can … kill you’, and insert your word. Head over to the website of popular right wing newspaper that shall not be named and put your Frankenstein sentence into their search engine. The results are good fun, the two sentences above yield results that inform me that “it is ALREADY too late to ban killer robots’” and that “the SALAD DRAWER is putting your family at risk”. Those are their capitals not mine by the way.

    I sometimes work with a-level media students, and we play this game at the end of our sessions. After the first couple of weeks they start coming along with words they want to try – I am suspicious that they have often taken a look before the session to find something particularly amusing, but we all pretend we are discovering them for the first time. The incredulity of these 16 and 17 year olds quickly turns to cynicism, it only takes a few weeks before they can successfully predict the types of stories they are going to see. Being a responsible educator I do try to steer clear of profanity, but we have a caveat when we are playing the game, we call it what it is, bullshit.

    Something interesting happens though, and it has happened every time I have played this game with a student for more than a few weeks, eventually, after they have worked out the pattern, they ask one of the most important questions of their media education “if these stories are bullshit, does that mean they are all bullshit?”. It is a long-winded way of teaching that not everything you read is true, relevant or worthwhile. From there we start the long process of deconstructing media texts, asking questions like ‘why was this written’, ‘who benefits from this’ and ‘how do they convey their ideas’. It is a lot less fun than the game, but by the end of the year, as well as learning everything else they need for their A-level (they can usually write a killer case study, and have a pretty good understanding of the word ‘postmodernism) their bullshit detectors are finely tuned instruments, at least when it comes to the media. They are so finely tuned in fact that they don’t just identify the obvious (“British supermarket jihadi reveals Jaffa Cakes and fish fingers are the only things he misses since leaving the UK…” is the headline you’ll get if you try “can fish fingers kill you?”) but they can also identify media bias, discrimination, sexism, racism and any of the other isms which our popular media is shot through with.

    Whatever your stance on the outcomes, the outsized role of the media in the recent brexit vote, or the election of Donald Trump is undeniable. Within this the role of new media, that ethereal catch term all we use to talk about social media and everything else that isn’t a TV network, film or newspaper, is especially noticeable. What is immediately obvious to the students I work with is that this new media serves as a sort of bullshit echo chamber, amplifying the most ridiculous tales to levels previously only dreamed of by even the most persistent media oligarchs.

    The game becomes especially interesting when it goes from identifying bullshit to asking why it is happening. Usually the answer is money, it’s as simple as bullshit sells, however when we move into the new media realm the reasons are less obvious. Unless you are very fortunate there is no financial ramification to your social media ramblings, and even some of the more ardent YouTube conspiracy theorists are likely not taking home enough at the end of each month to keep them stocked up on survival rations. But actually, why the media, and the rest of us humans engage with the bullshit echo chamber is because we like stories.

    Narratives help us to make sense of the world, give us goals and common ground. The narratives which appeal most widely are the ones that seem to matter the most to the most people. Though it also helps if they are interesting (killer robots), out there (murderous salad drawers), or just plain scary (all people who are not British are evil). The exciting thing about the new media is that we have the ability now to at least feel like we are part of that narrative – it doesn’t necessarily follow though that we are shaping it, we’re often just along for the ride, motorcyclists riding the walls of the infinite bullshit echo chamber.

    Stepping off is simple though, it doesn’t even take an a-level media degree to do it, although it will definitely help. There could be a sinister narrative here about the current government’s increasing persistence in removing just the types of subjects which switch on students bullshit detectors from the curriculum, but we try to keep away from such conspiracy theories. Playing the game is the first step towards stepping outside of the chamber and looking in. Laugh at what you see there then tell your friends about it, because the more people who are outside of the chamber looking in, the more ridiculous the clowns on the motorcycles look when they make claims that work only because there is an appealing narrative bubbling beneath them.

    Is La La Land becoming a victim of its…

    I have not seen LA LA Land, but I want to tell a story about it, and the point of this story is to raise a couple of interesting points about the power of film reviews. The film was first screened in august of 2016, making its way around a heap of high profile film festivals for the rest of the year, before general release over the holidays. It was well received, seriously well received.  Of the 80 or so reviews posted to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes during this period a grand total of four give the film a negative score. Here we are using, and acknowledge the issues with, the blunt force metric of Rotten Tomatoes own ‘fresh/rotten’ measure.

    The positive reactions to the film continued when it hit the cinemas for general release. The number of reviews increases significantly at this point (to over 300). Alongside this increase, perhaps inevitably, we also see an increase in less than positive reviews.

    I have put all the reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes into a graph. It simply marks a positive review as a +1, and a negative review as a -1. You can see that the graph is clearly top heavy, those negative reviews on the bottom are barely making a dent. What is interesting though is the box I have marked in red. Aside from that one outlier later in February, the negative reviews seem to dry up.

    1

    So what is going on? It’s clear that people are still reviewing the film, the general level of reviews is certainly reduced in comparison to the amount published right after the film is released, but it has not dried up to nothing. To illustrate what I think might be going on I have replicated the same graph, but on this copy I have stood a little Oscar right on the date when the Oscars nominations were announced.

    2

    Look at him there, guarding that square of nothing but positive reviews. So did the Oscars make the film untouchable? As bastions of taste, even at their most candid I cannot imagine a reviewer admitting to being influenced by something as ephemeral as an Oscar nomination. But 14? Maybe that is different. There perhaps something about the Oscars, as awards that a nominated within the industry, that marks them as especially noteworthy.

    So what about that brave soul who managed to swim against the tidal wave of positivity and publish a negative review all the way out in late February? Well Cole Smitheys review is actually not alone. His review is part of a wider discourse about the film that begins to develop in February that did not make it on to Rotten Tomatoes because none of it was ostensibly reviewing the film. Smithley just does not think the film is that good, but he is joined by other dissenting voices that question the film in some potentially far more important ways, asking if it demonstrates questionable attitudes to race and gender, and wondering about the disingenuous lack of gay characters.

    Alongside a long discussion about whether the film does Jazz any favours, a guardian article titled ‘The La La Land Backlash’ sums up these other issues, then notes:

    “… it’s hard to imagine any of these complaints getting much traction if La La Land were not such an enormous hit. Had it been met with indifference by critics and audiences, my hunch is that nobody would care so much about its racial or gender politics.” – Noah Gittell

    Akin to asking, does anyone care, if no one notices, which, given the amount of films with questionable attitudes to almost anything you can think of that are released every year (The Bechdel test isn’t going away anytime soon, for example) seems like it might well be a truism here. However, we need to look at what we mean by ‘enormous hit’ – because with La La land we are probably not talking about outright box office success. The film had an epic opening weekend, probably a result of all that film festival hype and those endless positive reviews. But depending which absolute measure you look at, there are still 18 or so films sitting above La La Land in terms of box office takings over the past year. Beyond this, even with all of those amazing reviews, with an undoubtedly high 93% (critics) rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is not some sort of mega success outlier in the top twenty. This means that La La Lands ‘enormous hit’ status is discursive, people talk about it being an enormous hit, whilst it is in real terms, or as real terms as something like this can ever be measured, probably just a high performing big budget movie.

    So what does this mean for film goers, or, perhaps more importantly, reviewers. There is evidence to suggest a discursive echo chamber has formed around the film here. A film perceived as a successful, enormous hit will be discussed as such, a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves to push the film deep into the public eye. In the case of La La Land, perhaps a little too deep – because up that close its far easier to see the inconsistencies between what is being said about the film and what one’s own reality of experiencing it is. So did positive reviews kill La La land? I guess we’ll find out on Oscars day.