Monkey See
6:58 am
Thu June 21, 2012

Silverdocs: 'Time Zero' For All Those Heartbroken Polaroid Photographers

Time Zero: The Last Year Of Polaroid Film begins as a sort of slow meditation on an art form a lot of people don't even think of as an art form: instant photography. Specifically, Polaroid photography. It introduces you to photographers who adore Polaroids; who plaster their walls with them and have thousands of them in boxes. Director John Waters explains that he takes a Polaroid of every single person who enters his home (well, any of his homes) for any reason, from the plumber to perhaps not very memorable one-night-only visitors.

These are not people who love to take Polaroids ironically or because it's retro; in many cases, they can explain to you exactly why they consider instant photography to be like nothing else, and some of those reasons really do make sense: It gives you a physical object you can hold right away. It gives you a photo you can hand to the subject of the photo right when you take it. It appears within a recognizable white frame that, as long as it's there, is a pretty good guarantee the photo hasn't been doctored from what the photographer saw. It has an intriguing color palette that looks different from other films.

Unfortunately for all these lovers of Polaroids, the company decided in the mid-2000s to move away from the instant cameras that made it a giant and toward televisions and digital frames and so forth. They still make some instant cameras, but they're really just digital cameras that print immediately, and while that might seem to satisfy some of the enthusiasts' demands, you can bet it's not enough, based on what they say in the film about digital in general. They want real film that develops. They want what's called "integral film," which is the develops-with-chemicals-inside-the-camera kind. So they were devastated – really, they were devastated – when Polaroid announced in 2008 that it had decided, a few years earlier as it turns out, to stop making it.

Instantly, people started snapping up what remained of the film that worked in traditional Polaroid cameras, particularly the beloved SX-70, the model introduced in the early 1970s that became the classic Polaroid. People still love the SX-70, and these artists became artists by working with it and cameras like it. So what do you do when the only company that sources the medium in which you work just ... stops making it?

First, you grieve. These artists explain in interviews how much they love instant film, how much they hate digital photography, and how they cannot imagine having to spend more hours at their computers looking at images when they already spend hours at their computers doing everything else. One proudly points out he doesn't work with images anyway – he takes photographs, for crying out loud, and with a digital camera, most images will never live to become photographs. The story bogs down a little bit in the middle and turns to telling rather than showing as everyone earnestly explains how everything real is disappearing, the next generation won't have any memories, and so forth. This is the part you've seen in a lot of other places in debates over everything in media from music to books, and it's the least interesting section of the film.

But things pick right back up again when something unexpected happens: somebody else expresses interest in making instant film again. Not Polaroid film, exactly; it turns out that for lots of reasons, you can't go back to just producing the same film Polaroid used to put in the SX-70. But might there be another way to make it? That's the theme of the film's third act, which follows an audacious project that everyone agrees is highly unlikely to succeed but that seems to run purely on the enthusiasm of the potential audience. Can they figure out how to make new film for an old format?

There are times when Time Zero is a little too broadly sentimental in delivering the message; it could have done with a little less beatific lighting in places and a little less dreamlike wooziness in the score. There are times when it looks – in style, not in content – a little bit like a Super Bowl commercial about a tech company leading us into the future.

But over and over, the photographers return you to the story, to their love of what they do, and to their desire to keep doing it. It really is a particularly modern film, in that it's pretty rare these days to run into the problem these people are facing. We don't lose access to consumer products we really, really want – on the say-so of a single corporation – very often anymore unless they're replaced with things that are at least kind of similar. When Polaroid film went away, there was nothing. If you were an instant photographer, you had the boxes of film you had, which weren't especially generous at 10 pictures to a box, and when they were gone and what had been manufactured got too old to be any good, you would have ... nothing. Nothing to put in your camera, not unless somebody else came up with something. And that gives this film a chance to ruminate on art and scarcity in a way that eBay has made rare.

You'll have to track down a chance to see the movie for yourself sometime (which I really hope will happen, though it seems it's early days) to find out whether it worked. And hey — don't Google it and spoil yourself; that's no fun.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.