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If You’re Gonna Show 35….

NB 1

A few weeks ago I went to the New Beverly to see some movies. I actually saw two separate screenings, a Sam Peckinpah double bill and a William Witney double bill. I want to start by saying that I appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s commitment to showing films in 35mm (or on occasion 16mm). Digital is fine, and given the economics of distribution and exhibition, there’s no way we’re going back. But it’s important to remember that, from the beginning of cinema history up until just recently, film was the standard, and that 35mm is an excellent medium for projecting an image on a screen.

That is, if you’re using a decent print. If the print’s not in god shape, you can run into all kinds of problems, and that’s why I’m writing this post. For the Witney bill, they showed Master of the World and Stranger at My Door. Stranger at My Door looked good. The print was in good condition, and it was a pleasure to see it on a big screen. On the other hand, Master of the World looked awful. The print was still pretty crisp, but the color was completely degraded, to the point where the whole movie looked pink. I doubt William Witney would have been happy if he’d been in attendance that night.

The Peckinpah bill was worse. I guess you could say the print they showed of The Getaway was acceptable, but it obviously had a lot of miles on it. Watching Junior Bonner, though, I got angry. The color was so bad, I’m not even sure you could call it color. It looked as though somebody had dumped the reels in a bathtub full of bleach. This is not the way the movie was meant to be seen.

It was especially frustrating because I loved the movie. I’d never seen Junior Bonner before, and it’s definitely one of Peckinpah’s best. Those who know him only for his action flicks don’t fully understand who he was as an artist. Junior Bonner is a low key film about a fading rodeo star who rolls into his hometown and reconnects with his family. It’s a beautiful character study, the cast is great, and Steve McQueen is especially impressive.

I’m glad that Tarantino is programming stuff like this, but he really needs to find better prints. Aside from my personal frustration at seeing a print so badly faded, I wonder what impression this gives younger viewers of 35mm. What would somebody in their early twenties think watching the Peckinpah double bill? They’d almost certainly come away with the impression that film was an inferior format, and that they were lucky to be living in the digital age.

Revival houses have always had to struggle to get decent prints, and these days it’s probably harder than ever to show movies on film. It’s great that Tarantino has a huge private collection, but he’s not doing anybody a favor by showing stuff in this condition. Older audiences will be frustrated. Younger audiences won’t get a chance to see these movies the way they were meant to be seen. And I think many filmmakers would be furious at the way their work was being presented.

So if you’re gonna show 35, it’s gotta be good 35.

Trouble at Home

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If you don’t live in LA, you’ve probably never heard of the New Beverly Cinema. Even if you do live in LA, you may never have been there. But for a small group of people who love film, the New Beverly has been a home away from home. I think I started going there back in the eighties, when it was run by Sherman Torgan. Sherman died several years ago, and since then his son Michael has taken over. For both of them, running the theatre wasn’t a job, it was an act of love.

I’ve seen so many movies at the New Beverly. It’s been so important to my life. These days I don’t go as often as I used to, but I still check in a couple times a year. Not too long ago I saw Reflections in a Golden Eye there. It’s a very interesting and very obscure film, directed by John Huston from a novel by Carson McCullers. I never expected to see it in a theatre, but the New Beverly ran it as part of a Marlon Brando retrospective. I was so happy to see it on the big screen. But it’s not just the programming that makes the New Beverly a special place. It’s special because it’s always been run by people who care about film.

Quentin Tarantino has provided support for the New Beverly for years, and actually bought the property when Sherman died in order to keep the theatre alive. I know it means a lot to him. But apparently there’s been a dispute going on about how the New Beverly should be run, and Tarantino has decided he wants to be in charge, effectively taking control of the theatre away from Michael. I just learned of this recently, and I’m not privy to all the details, so I suggest you follow the link below to hear the story from someone who’s been a witness. Ariel Schudson has been part of the New Beverly family for years. Here’s the post she wrote about the situation….

What Price Hollywood?

Honestly, I don’t know what to say about all this. I feel like a kid watching Mom and Dad argue. I don’t want to take sides, and the whole thing just makes me feel really awful.

Would You Buy a Digital Camera from This Man?

Gatsby 4
Okay. Digital production, digital projection are now pretty much the norm. Most everything I’ve seen in a theatre lately, except for revival theatres, is presented in one digital format or another. While the quality is mostly good, I have to say I’m still not a total convert. But to be honest, I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what I’m seeing.

First, let’s talk about The Great Gatsby, which I have to say I loved. Not sure why the critics had such a hard time with it. Fitzgerald is my favorite author, and I thought Luhrmann, DiCaprio and all the rest did an amazing job of bringing his vision to the screen. Anyway, to get back to the digital thing, I saw the film twice. The first time was at the Arclight, Sherman Oaks, and I was totally overwhelmed by the experience. It was one of those times where the images and the sound just washed over me and I was enthralled. I didn’t notice any problems with the image. I was just swept off my feet.

The second time, however, was a little different. Part of the reason I went back again was to pay more attention to the quality of the digital projection. This time I saw it at the Arclight, Hollywood. I still loved the movie, but watching it a second time I had some problems with the image. In the first place, it seemed just slightly fuzzy, as though the resolution was not quite adequate. I also felt that the colors were a little too soft, which I’ve noticed in other cases with films shot and projected in digital. It didn’t seem to have the richness or depth of color that you’d get with film. The blacks just weren’t black enough, and the image in general looked faintly washed out.

I went to IMDB, where I found that the film was shot with Red Epic cameras using Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. Under “Cinematographic Process”, it said the master format was digital intermediate (2K), and the source format was Redcode RAW (5K) (dual-strip 3-D). I won’t pretend this all makes sense to me. In the reading I’ve done about digital, I understand that even though there’s a lot of talk about 4K, most films we see are not coming from 4K masters. And I’m wondering why the master format for Gatsby was digital intermediate.

Not long after Gatsby I saw Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell at the Laemmle, North Hollywood. Just briefly I’ll say that it knocked me out, and I recommend it highly. As opposed to a big budget commercial feature like Gatsby, this is a small scale documentary. My guess is that it probably cost a few million to make. Like Gatsby, it was shot on digital, though the equipment and process were different. It’s important to say, too, that the finished film is a mix of processes, assembled from both digital footage and Super 8. But I thought it looked great. Where there is a deliberately bleached, grainy quality to the Super 8 work, the interviews (shot with a Sony CineAlta HDW-F900R) look crisp and there is a richness and texture to the image that seemed to me superior to Gatsby.

There could be a number of reasons for the difference in image quality in the two movies. It could be the cameras that were used in shooting. It could be the type of files that the content was transferred to. It could be the projectors. And I wonder if the size of the screen could be a factor, since the screens at the Laemmle are much smaller than those at the Arclight. Also, in reading about 2K and 4K, I’m learning that often people on the exhibition end don’t worry too much about the difference. Films can be shot in 4K, but then distributed as 2K files. Apparently it’s not uncommon for a film to be shot in 4K, distributed in 4K, but shown in 2K, since some projectors need to be switched over manually, and some projectionists don’t give a damn.

As you can probably tell, I’m confused. I know that with any new technology there’s going to be a certain amount of chaos, since you’ve got different companies with different technologies competing for a share of the market. But with digital I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what I’m seeing. If there’s anybody out there who can make this clearer, please feel free post a comment. I need help.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and James Taylor

Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and James Taylor

This is a movie made by guys about guys. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play two gearheads whose lives revolve around their car. We never get to know their names, and the credits just list them as The Driver and The Mechanic. Warren Oates is an amiable eccentric who picks up hitchhikers in his yellow GTO. The three meet on the road and bet their pink slips on a cross-country race. For the rest of the film we follow them as they travel down country highways, stopping at diners or garages, racing to make a few bucks when they need to.

It’s that simple. This movie discards all the conventions we expect from commercial films. It’s not played for suspense or for laughs. There’s no love story. We just follow these guys as they drive across the country. The lone woman in the film is a hitchhiker who joins the group early on. Played by Laurie Bird, the character is only identified as The Girl, and like the other three she seems to be drifting aimlessly.

Two-Lane Blacktop is a road movie in the purest sense of the word. Director Monte Hellman decided to shoot the movie on location and in sequence, and so the crew spent weeks travelling across the US, shooting on country back roads and in small towns. Though the film plays out against the backdrop of the vast American landscape, it’s actually very intimate. It’s a portrait of three guys, and in spite of their obvious differences, they’re all united in their obsessive urge to keep moving. Through car windows we see lush forests and grassy fields sliding past. We ride through endless, dusty plains, under blue skies filled with tiny cloud tufts trailing off to the horizon. The small towns that appear now and again seem to be nothing more than a few buildings gathered along a stretch of road. Hellman and cinematographer Jack Deerson give us a detailed panorama of rural America. They capture the cities and the towns and the forests and the hills, but just as important, they also capture the spaces in between.

The film also takes advantage of another kind of space, and that’s the “silence” between lines of dialogue. I put the word in quotes, because it’s not really silence that we’re hearing. Actually, we’re listening to the sounds that most movies push into the background. The clatter of dishes in a coffee shop. The murmur of conversation in a bar. The drizzle of rain falling in a tiny rural town.

The film seems to catch life as it’s happening. The performances are so natural and unforced that they appear to be improvised, though the director says he followed Rudy Wurlitzer’s script closely. According to Hellman, there are only two scenes that stray from what was written. The Driver and The Mechanic speak very little to each other, and when they do it’s almost all about cars. How the engine is running, how the car is handling, where they can make repairs. At the opposite end of the scale is GTO, who loves to hear the sound of his own voice. None of the three, though, says much about what they’re feeling. A crucial exception is the brief scene when GTO seems to open up and start talking about how his family is falling apart. The Driver quickly shuts him down. No need to hear about each others’ problems. There may be a world of pain inside each one of these guys, but it’s better not to talk about it. Just keep driving.

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I went out of my way to see Two-Lane Blacktop at the Aero in Santa Monica. I had seen it once before years ago at the New Beverly, and wanted to watch it again on the big screen. Monte Hellman was there and after the screening he talked about the movie. It was interesting to hear his comments on the making of the film, and it was also interesting to hear him talk about this particular screening.

The credits list the authors of the screenplay as Will Corry and Rudy Wurlitzer. According to Hellman, he gave Corry’s original script to Wurlitzer, who said he couldn’t get through more than a few pages. Hellman says he then told Wurlitzer to go ahead and write what he wanted, and that all they used from Corry’s version is the concept of two guys in a car.

Hellman went on to say that the film bombed at the box office, which he blames on lack of support from Universal. Apparently Lew Wasserman, who ran the studio back then, saw the movie and hated it. So while Two-Lane Blacktop was shown at theatres nationwide, Universal did nothing to promote it. Aside from a rave review in Esquire, the critics were not enthusiastic. But over the years it has gained a sizable audience.

One of the audience members said he had last seen the film at a drive-in when it first came out. Hellman at first responded enthusiastically, and said that’s the way it should be seen, on a huge screen. But then he talked about the print we had just watched and said that the colors were not as rich as they had been in the original dye transfer prints. I was kind of stunned when he went on to say that these days he preferred to watch the film on Blu-ray, because the image was crisper and the sound was richer.

But I’m still glad I saw it on the big screen.

Experiencing Movies

 

I think I was twelve years old when I saw 2001 at the Egyptian in Hollywood. It blew my mind. The movie took me from the dawn of man, to the depths of outer space and beyond the infinite. I’d never experienced anything like it.

That was when I started really paying attention to films. I’d already spent a lot of time in movie theatres, but nothing had ever had that kind of impact on me. By the time I was in my teens I was heading out to see films with my friends as often as I could. This was the seventies. Not only was it a great time for movies, it was also a great time for movie theatres. Aside from the Egyptian, in Hollywood alone you had the Chinese, the Paramount, the Pacific and the Pantages. In Century City there was the Plitt, and out in Westwood you had several more. The screens were bigger than ever, and innovations in recording and playback were making sound better than ever.

These days I spend a lot of time watching DVDs. I still go to movies, but the convenience of DVDs is hard to resist. You can watch a film any time you want, pause it as often as you want, and if you want to look at something again you just play it over. You also have a huge selection to choose from, whether you’re buying or renting, and some day you may have just as much to choose from via download. We’ve gained a lot in terms of convenience and accessibility.

But we’ve also lost something. In fact, we’ve lost quite a lot….

When we’re watching a movie in a theatre, it has our complete attention. We’re sitting in a darkened auditorium facing the screen. Ideally, there are no distractions. At home we’re well aware of our surroundings and there are endless distractions. The phone may ring, somebody may walk into the room, or we may decide to just take a break and raid the fridge. We may or may not be focussed on the film, and we’re entirely in control. We can start and stop any time we like.

More important, we’re not experiencing the film the way we would in a theatre. With some exceptions, watching a film in a theatre is very different from watching it on TV, even if your TV is huge and your sound system is killer. At least until recently, most films were made to be seen on a big screen. Watching 2001 all those years ago, I felt like I was inside the movie. The Searchers is an epic where the landscape plays a major part, and that can only be really felt watching it in a theatre. Even with older films shot in standard format, scale is still important. Stars like Bette Davis and James Cagney were larger than life. Their personalities were powerful enough to fill the big screen. A few more examples….

Part of the beauty of watching Sunrise is being pulled into the swirling expressionist poetry created by Murnau and his collaborators. The film was designed to dazzle the viewer’s senses, to make you feel what the characters are feeling, to make you experience the world through their eyes. This effect can only be diminished by watching it on a small screen.

I’ll never forget seeing Bladerunner in Pasadena at the Hastings when it first came out. The film’s vision of twenty-first century Los Angeles was breathtaking, frightening, overwhelming. Skyscrapers towered above me, the city stretched to the horizon, and neon flickered through the haze. Ridley Scott, Jordan Cronenweth and dozens of others knocked themselves out to create those dense, detailed images. Even if you watch it on the largest home screen, you’re getting about eight percent of what you would on the smallest movie screen.

P.T. Anderson has gotten a lot of praise for the way The Master looks, but the sound is just as impressive. Footsteps echoing in department stores. Conversations mingling at a posh dinner party. The buzzing of a motorcycle as it cuts through the desert air. Hearing the movie in a theatre, the sound creates space vividly, and much of that will be lost viewing it on your iPad.

I’m not arguing that we should give up our TVs, or toss our DVDs and Blu-rays in the trash. What I’m saying is that people who love cinema should not get lazy about seeing movies in theatres. When you watch a film on a small screen you can still enjoy it, you can still be moved by it. But when you watch a film on a big screen in a dark theatre, you can really surrender to it. You let go, and allow it to take you somewhere else. That’s what it means to really experience a movie.