As the credits begin to roll, Kodachrome (dir. Mark Raso, Netflix exclusive, 2017) leaves its viewers with a mic-drop moment: “Shot On 35mm Kodak Film.” While it was obviously not shot on Kodachrome itself, this final proof of integrity is important in a film so obsessed with the intangible quality of what can only be described as “realness”—”Have you ever felt [augmented breasts]?” asks Ben Ryder of his son in one of the many moments where the film builds a substantial message behind a sometimes-humorously and sometimes-painfully vulgar veneer. There are moments that are almost too self-indulgent, but the pay-off outweighs any negatives.
For those unfamiliar, Kodachrome is a sharp, unflinching drama with a heavily documentary attitude, seasoned with a bit of romance for the general movie-going palate. Officially, it’s based on a Dec. 29, 2010 New York Times article by A.G. Sulzberger, “For Kodachrome Fans, Road Ends At Photo Lab In Kansas,” which is an unusual pedigree, but the article does little more than lay the factual foundation for a fictional story about a struggling agent at an independent record label, Matt, his dying father, the famous (fictional) photographer, Ben Ryder, and Ben’s nurse, Zooey. Ben demands that Matt drive the whole crew from New York City to Parsons, KS, to hand-deliver four rolls of rediscovered Kodachrome for development before the chance is lost forever.
I won’t give away the plot, but the movie runs on five separate trails of development simultaneously, so there’s plenty to keep you interested. As I see it, Kodachrome is driven by the following tensions:
- Photography and its uneasy position in a changing world, especially analog photography
- The old versus the new, on a macro level
- The old versus the new, on a micro level (2 and 3, naturally, reinforce one another)
- Father versus son
- Man and woman (romantic tension)
Matt claims to reject the old world embodied by his father, but even his position as a record label talent scout/agent seems a bit antique in light of “SoundCloud rap” and the supremacy of Spotify plays over radio numbers. Zooey, unintentionally verbalizing the nameless fear gripping each character, asks Matt: “Nothing good comes from living in the past… you know?” Later she adds, “One moment we’re just cruising… and the next we’re driving off a cliff. I thought I was someone to be reckoned with.”
The words may as well have come out of the mouth of an anthropomorphized roll of Kodachrome. Introduced in 1935 and manufactured all the way into 2009, it is hailed by many as the best color film of all time. Almost 40 years into the run, Paul Simon himself wrote a hit song about it. (For you millenials, note that Conor Oberst stepped in with an ironic, eulogizing cover of the song in 2009 as well.) The film industry as a whole hit a pretty big slump in the 2000s, but even so, Kodachrome seemed like it’d be the one to survive, if any. Yet, on January 18, 2011, fellow independent imager Dwayne’s Photo used the last batch of processing chemicals for Kodachrome ever likely to be produced.
Note: If you still have rolls waiting to be developed, don’t despair! Bring them to any Mike’s Camera location and we can return them developed as black and white negatives. No one, anywhere, can develop Kodachrome in color, but sometimes the images are worth it in whatever form. Call for pricing and turnaround times—the runs are infrequent, so it’s not quick.
If you’re interested in learning more about the way the end of Kodachrome played out in real life, take a look here: National Geographic: The Last Roll of Kodachrome. The short film features one of the most famous photographers to ever shoot Kodachrome, Steve McCurry—Afghan Girl, anyone?—who talked Kodak into providing him with the last roll of Kodachrome to be manufactured. (The last roll to be processed, in the interest of fairness, was one owned by Dwayne himself. The last photo? A group shot of the crew at the store. Love it!) It was somewhat reassuring to see that someone with so much experience and so much skill is just as nervous as anyone else about how a roll might come out… “when I saw it go through the dryer, I knew that we had images on the film,” is a thought many of us can relate to.
Based on Kodachrome‘s frequent references to work in Afghanistan and India as well Ben’s unwillingness to trust any method of shipping the rolls but hand-delivery, Mr. McCurry was also undoubtedly an inspiration for Ben Ryder. He is quite well, of course, and there is no reason to believe that Ben’s horrible attitude has any connection to his semi-counterpart in reality, but it’s another instance of the way the film tries very hard to be real.
Ultimately, this seems to be the solution to at least part of the conflict outlined above. (Again, I’ll avoid spoiling the narrative plot.) Through a variety of debates over the relative values of old and new ways, surprising reversals, and no shortage of mint, vintage camera eye-candy, Kodachrome brings its viewers along with its characters to the revelation that the value of photography lies not in its technique nor its technology, but in the way that moments can be made more than they are, transmuted from the ephemeral realm of experience into physical objects capable of touching hearts for all time.
Or, as Ben puts it in one of his most sympathetic moments, “Human nature made tangible.” Whatever camera you’re using, don’t underestimate its power. Keep shooting, friends.
Anyone with a half-frame Olympus Pen (yes, half-frame – 72 shots on a roll!) up to a full-on Nikon pro setup had to know Kodachrome, then K25 and K64, as the most satisfying film for most any outdoors shots. Technically grainless, it gave excellent enlargements from 35mm. The nitpickers may have described the saturation as a bit overproduced, hence the irony in the Simon tune, but it was NatGeo’s required film for good reasons. Digital manipulations today can quickly over-produce eye-Candy Crush lush fantasy worlds, but that only shows how the nuances of Kodachrome served drama as well as beauty. Its saturation created an emotional equivalent to the reality seen by photographers, and rich subtle tonal variations were preserved, so the final image felt correct.