Oppenheimer and the Technological Sublime


edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.

Published November 6, 2023


After what seemed like an hour of scrutinizing seating plans of New York’s AMC Lincoln Square Theaters, I secured the sole premium seat left for the first run of Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer. Earlier that day, The New York Times had jolted me into action with a review of the technology used by Nolan under the headline “For Some Films, Go Big or Go Home.” It seems only 30 screens in the world, 19 of them in the U.S., were equipped to exhibit IMAX as 70mm film.

Actually, the real surprise here is that any full-blown IMAX-equipped theaters exist, and that Nolan had gone out on a limb to make a movie in the exotic format. Ordinary 70mm film is rare enough. The French comedian-director Jacques Tati virtually bankrupted himself producing his final satirical masterpiece, Playtime, in 1967, then needing ultrawide screens and special equipment to project. Having seen it years ago, I can testify that the astounding level of detail — a grown-up Parisian version of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s children’s games — can be fully appreciated only at the original scale. 

But there’s another way to look at it. In a world of technological wonders, most of which seem like magic to everyone who never got beyond high school physics, there seems to be room for what amounts to retro tech — wonders of an earlier era that survive because … well, that’s worth exploring.

Glorious Throwbacks

Back to Oppenheimer for a moment. To those viewing the 70mm IMAX version, the capabilities of the format were at their most stunning in the Trinity bomb test sequence and in the final vision. Almost equally striking, though, were the results of using 70mm IMAX to film more intimate scenes. The medium rendered masterly performances, settings, makeup and costumes even more vivid, and made Oppenheimer sublime in the colloquial sense of superb.

“Technological sublime” is a favorite phrase of American historians, referring to wonders like the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges, the Statue of Liberty and the Hoover Dam. There’s also a second sense of sublime defined by the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke in 1759:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

And in that Burkeian sense, Nolan’s Trinity fireball in 70 mm IMAX format was in a class of its own.

Motion pictures are still called films, but they mostly reside either on streaming servers, on optical disks, or, for theatrical exhibition, on specially encrypted anti-piracy hard drives to be mounted in matching theater projectors. Most movies are thus lighter than a disk drive or weigh nothing at all.

The plastic film for IMAX, by contrast, is sublimely substantial. All told, the projection print is 11 miles long and weighs 600 pounds. Other 70mm IMAX statistics are equally jaw-dropping. Each IMAX camera costs a half-million dollars, and over the course of making Nolan’s three previous blockbusters — The Dark NightThe Dark Night Rises and Dunkirk — three of them were ruined. The camera, by the way, is as noisy as a small diesel engine, and some of the photography takes place near the actors’ faces — a terrifying experience that can bring out the best in portraying psychologically fraught situations.

It’s easy to conclude, then, that 70mm IMAX is a legacy format that should have been replaced by a new generation of digital cameras. In ways it is, indeed, an anachronism. For example, the control module for the projector is a virtual emulator of the two-decade-old Palm Pilot personal digital assistant, now a curiosity on the order of, say, a Betamax video recorder.

But this anachronism is still alive and kicking (at least a bit). Not only did the IMAX Corporation and Kodak develop a special black-and-white film stock for Oppenheimer, IMAX is planning to build four new 70mm cameras over the next few years. The lesson is that the survival of legacy technology often depends on the ingenuity, courage and marketing savvy of the users to translate its unique advantages into commercial success.;

Paradoxically, the ubiquity of home theater and streaming helped to create the 70mm IMAX renaissance. What prophets of the all-digital future did not realize was that it created a new market for the extremes of analog. According to the Associated Press, some enthusiasts drove 18 hours round trip to see the ultimate version of Oppenheimer. I personally noticed how many of the New York audience were young people who might never have seen real film projected, even in 35mm format.

More Glorious Throwbacks

The success of Oppenheimer left me wondering how many other analog devices have overcome obstacles of size, cost and limited utility to hold their own in a digital world. Vinyl audio recordings come to mind, of course, as do still film cameras like the gorgeously minimalist black Leica M viewfinder series. But hard-core sublime survivors often have something more — apparent disadvantages that somehow translate into the opposite.

Take the Nagra IV series of portable reel-to-reel tape recorders, a longtime favorite of filmmakers and wiretapping FBI agents alike. It never had a prayer of remaining commercially viable after the introduction of digital audio recorders. But the Swiss-based Nagra continues to service vintage models and there’s still a narrow niche in which they are superior. According to NPR, Nagra analog audio recorders remain state-of-the-art in recording loud and sudden sounds like gunshots.

Another Swiss company with a much higher profile has nurtured the life of its legacy analog products even longer than Nagra. Among Rolex watches, famous for resisting fast fashion and evolving at stately paces, the one I consider most sublime is the mechanical GMT Master II. It is less accurate and more fragile than a $20 Casio, let alone any old $200 smartphone. Even the coveted Daytona model, best known as Paul Newman’s Rolex, has chronograph features inferior to that of a smartphone.

Don’t worry, though. The Rolex is not going the way of the Filofax. Customers unwilling to spend a year or two on the waiting list — e.g., your stereotypical Wall Street bros — pay thousands extra to jump the line. And the company is building three new factories to better meet demand after years of seeing scalpers cream off the premiums.

It has always been challenging to prove the superiority of one technical medium over another, for one person’s sublimity may be another’s overkill. What matters is not necessarily measurable differences but subjective perception — even the power of suggestion created by advertising, marketing, and product design.

There are ironies within ironies here. While the watches themselves reflect (the best of) 19th century technology, the new factories are decidedly 21st century. Huge computer numerical control modules guide machines that yield hair-thin parts without human intervention. 

What applies to Rolexes (and other ghastly-expensive analog watch brands) doesn’t apply to ultra-high-end still cameras. The photographic sublime was long the Hasselblad 500C camera — say, fitted with a Planar f/2.8, 80mm lens like the one used by astronaut Wally Schirra during the 1962 Mercury 7 mission. Another Hasselblad, in the hands of Bill Anders aboard the command module of Apollo 8 six years later, captured the iconic image Earthrise.

Hasselblad is no longer a candidate for analog sublimity, though, because the professionals who shell out five figures for cameras value utility over nostalgia. The Swedish company discontinued the successors to the 500C line in 2013. Today all its “medium format” cameras in production are digital.

For connoisseurs of the retro analog sublime, vacuum tube audio may be the ultimate frontier. They may not be suitable for accompanying home projection of films like Oppenheimer — nearly all home theater amplifiers are solid-state — but it is the ultimate in purism. Best of all, tube amps are no museum pieces. They are still in development, with engineers further perfecting the perfected, like IMAX film.

The most recognized vacuum tube products are made in the U.S. by a long-established upstate New York State company, McIntosh Laboratories. (Steve Jobs’s trademark application for his fledgling home computer was originally turned down despite the minor spelling difference. But after several years of negotiation, he obtained a license for the “Macintosh” name for an undisclosed fee.)

The ultimate in McIntosh tube amplifiers, the MC1502, now sells for $13,000. With 150-watt output and 16 vacuum tubes (which many audiophiles prize over silicon chips because the resulting sound is warmer), it delivers 600 watts of power and weighs 118 pounds — sublime specifications, indeed. For best performance it can be paired with McIntosh’s top tube preamplifier, the C2700, which adds another $8,000 but weighs in at a mere 50 lbs.

It has always been challenging to prove the superiority of one technical medium over another, for one person’s sublimity may be another’s overkill. What matters is not necessarily measurable differences but subjective perception — even the power of suggestion created by advertising, marketing, and product design. As the sociologists William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Thomas observed almost a hundred years ago, if people believe something to be true it can become true — the Thomas Theorem.

Stopping Time

So what differentiates enduring legacy technologies from the ones left to gather dust in the attic? One obvious decider is star power. A Christopher Nolan has the chops to justify not only maintaining a technology that would otherwise have been retired but investing to improve it. Rolex, for its part, has wisely paid an unparalleled roster of athletes and other mega-influencers to sprinkle fairy dust on the GMT Master II and its other classics. Stefan Kudelski, founder of Nagra, was his own celebrity within the Hollywood community, winning three Academy Awards achievement among other honors. McIntosh Labs’ proudest tribute was the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound” show at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1974, featuring 48 McIntosh MC2300 amplifiers delivering an over-the-top 28,800 watts of power.

Ownership also matters. IMAX is a publicly traded company that not immune to Wall Street’s impatience, but 70mm IMAX might not exist if it had been the property of one of the studios that lives and dies by next quarter’s profit. As a privately owned company, Rolex has been able to resist what might have been shareholders’ demands to extend the brand to other luxury goods and overproduce new models. Rolex’s will remain scarce by design even after the new factories open. McIntosh, for its part, is also privately held, and by owners who seem to be maximizing something other than profits.

Another subtler element to survival: while some retro technologies are doomed by progress, others paradoxically hitch a ride on it. While the manufacture of a Rolex includes labor-intensive elements, automation is key at crucial stages of manufacture and testing. Keep in mind, moreover, that Nagra’s enduring support of reel-to-reel recorders is probably subsidized by profits from the parent company’s success in solid-state models and innovations in digital security technology.

Conversely, a purely analog technology, no matter how superior to digital versions, will always rest uneasily if it lacks a deep-pockets owner to bask in the reflected glory. Color collotype, the finest art reproduction system — it uses as many as 27 multiple gelatin-covered plates rather than the usual four halftone separations — ended in North America with the shutdown of Black Box Collotype in Chicago in 2004. It survives in only two shops in Japan that depend on orders from the nation’s Imperial Household. Seems that shrines and temples, with priceless centuries-old works that are showing their age, can commission vibrant replicas that roll back time while the originals are displayed only on rare occasions.

• • •

I have no interest in owning any of the sublime analog devices I have praised above — the gorgeous Rolex is a mugger magnet. But I am glad to know they exist, and that rich amateurs and traditionalist pros support them, just as I am gratified that the Japanese imperial family still extends their patronage to the nation’s shrinking pool of master artisans. 

More broadly, I’m pleased the drive for efficiency that dominates corporate thinking seems to give way occasionally in the face of the potential for the sublime. The gifted artists and technicians who made the 600-lb, 70mm IMAX version of Oppenheimer possible have helped us rediscover the profound feeling described by Edmund Burke centuries ago.

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