April 13, 2012
If you’ve been lucky enough to visit Lake Placid, New York, you’ve probably passed the Palace Theater, a fixture on Main Street since 1926. “The Pride of the Great North Woods,” as it used to be advertised, The Palace has hosted everything from vaudeville to organ recitals and silent film festivals. Now with four screens showing first-run films, the theater draws residents and visitors who are either exhausted from outdoor activities or seeking a respite from Adirondack storms.
Newcomers and old hands alike find a warm, friendly theater graced with period details and modern enhancements. Since 1961, the Palace has been owned by Reg Clark, who runs the theater with his wife Barbara and their children. “It was a wedding present,” Reg told me, standing in the lobby between shows. “We got married in 1960 and I bought the theater in 1961. I went to her and said, ‘Barbara, I just bought the Palace Theater.’ Almost had a divorce on my hands.”
“He said, ‘How much money do you have? I need to borrow some,’” Barbara adds. “And he said right off this would be a family project. We have five children, and they all have helped here. Right now one daughter does all the advertising, the other works in the box office, one son gives out passes, and the other does a lot of the little things that always need doing.”
In 1926, Lake Placid business leaders decided that the town needed a first-run theater to attract visitors. (An earlier theater, The Happy Hour, closed soon after the Palace opened.) They spared no expense, outfitting the venue with a stage and proscenium, and installing a Robert Morton pipe organ that still attracts aficionados.
“When we bought the theater, the people who had it were going to enlarge the proscenium arch,” Reg recalls. “They were on ladders drilling out the wall when they came to this cable that had hundreds of colored wires inside. They asked the contractor, ‘What do you do with this cable?’ It was from the pipe organ.”
Barbara picks up the story: “Each wire was the equivalent of a note, and a note had to match the wire or the sound wouldn’t pass through. We had a young man at the school who taught music, and he and our manager at that time did the matching.”
The Clarks have made other changes to the theater. “In 1980 we doubled, or twinned it, we put a wall between the downstairs and upstairs,” Reg explained. “In 1983 we tripled it by putting a wall that split the upstairs theater. And in 1985, we took the stage out and built a new theater there.”
But the Clarks made sure to hold onto the details that made the Palace so distinctive when it opened. A large fireplace sits behind the concession stand, and the lobby boasts hand-stenciled designs that evoke patterns from the 1920s.
Films are screened twice a night year-round, with weekend matinees in the winter and daily matinees in the summer. Although the Clarks recently raised admission prices for the first time in ten years, tickets are a bargain by anyone’s standards: $7 for adults at night, and $5 for children. Plus, candy and popcorn are a steal. “We could charge more,” Barbara admits, “but we like to see more people.”
Barbara believes that the Palace serves as a sort of anchor for Main Street. Reg agrees: “When I used to work here, the Palace was the center of everything in town, and it still is.” The Clarks have a working relationship with the Lake Placid Film Festival and the nearby Lake Placid Center for the Arts. The Palace occasionally screens silent films, with Jeff Barker coming up from New York City to accompany on the organ. In cooperation with the Lions Club, the theater shows The Polar Express free for local children every December, bringing Santa Claus in for the occasion.
In recognition of the Palace’s importance to Lake Placid, TAUNY—Traditional Arts in Upstate New York—added the theater to its Register of Very Special Places in July, 2010.
Summer is a wonderful time to visit Lake Placid, and every night crowds gather under the Palace marquee. But even on cold, wintry nights, lines can stretch down the block. Entering the theater is like stepping back into a time before tablets, cable, before television itself hijacked our nights.
The theater’s biggest recent hit was Titanic, which played for fifteen weeks when it opened. But the Clarks are too busy to actually attend their screenings. “We have a date night once in a while,” Barbara admitted. “I don’t watch too many,” Reg said. “If I’m here and it’s quiet I’ll go in and watch some of the show.”
Tell us about your favorite movie theater in the comments section.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me @Film_Legacy.
April 11, 2012
Opening Friday, April 20, To the Arctic 3D is the 35th IMAX documentary from MacGillivray Freeman Films. Narrated by Meryl Streep and with songs by Paul McCartney, the film examines how polar bears and other Arctic wildlife are struggling with climate change. But the real draw to the film is the astonishing cinematography by Greg MacGillivray and his crew.
The foremost name in large-format filmmaking, MacGillivray Freeman has been making IMAX documentaries for over 35 years. It is the first documentary production company to earn a billion dollars in box-office receipts. The company began in the late 1960s when surfing fanatics Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman pooled resources to work on documentaries and commercials. They gained a reputation for aerial photography after their 1971 short about Mexico, Sentinels of Silence, won two Oscars.
The company won a commission from the Smithsonian Institution to make a large-format film about aviation as the opening attraction at the National Air and Space Museum (and to tie-in with the nation’s bicentennial). To Fly!, the second highest-grossing large format film of all time, is still regularly screened at the museum. (Jim Freeman died in a helicopter accident two days before the premiere of To Fly!)
With titles like Everest, The Living Sea, and Hurricane on the Bayou, MacGillivray Freeman not only helped legitimize the IMAX process, it helped establish a new audience for films. Dozens of museums and educational facilities have built IMAX theaters, and large-format wildlife documentaries have become a right of passage for a generation of schoolchildren. “And IMAX is growing by leaps and bounds in developing countries,” MacGillivray adds. “Particularly China. In five years there will be over 200 IMAX theaters in China.”
Large-format filmmaking requires different skills than those for feature films and television. “The shots are longer, and you’re shooting wider—wider lenses and wider scenes so that the audience experiences the material in a kind of interactive way,” MacGillivray told me by phone last week from his Los Angeles offices. “In a normal movie, the director controls what you look at. The shots don’t last very long because you’re getting the audience to look at specific things. An IMAX shot, on the other hand, can be twenty or thirty seconds long. The audience has time to look around the frame, see the birds flying in the distance, a flock of geese coming overhead, the wind whipping up in the background. The viewers aren’t manipulated, they’re experiencing it on their own terms.”
The opening shots of To the Arctic 3D, a majestic aerial view of a glacial shelf complete with calving icebergs, puts MacGillivray’s theories into practice. The images have a startling beauty and clarity, and patient filmmaking gives viewers time to appreciate them fully.
The director is coming to grips with inevitable changes to the IMAX process. IMAX offers both film and digital projection systems. Digital is required for 3D projection, but it won’t reach 4K resolution for another two years or so. And according to MacGillivray, 4K is necessary to duplicate the IMAX experience on film.
Most IMAX theaters in museums are film based, and will remain so for at least three or four years. “It will be bad if theaters change over to digital before the quality is there,” MacGillivray believes. “The films could lose their audience.”
MacGillivray still shoots on film for 70 percent of the time, even though an IMAX magazine holds enough for only three minutes of footage. Plus it can take ten minutes to load a new magazine when you’re working in sub-zero temperatures. “That becomes tricky when shooting wildlife,” MacGillivray points out. “You have to plan when you will be reloading.”
Why work in such a cumbersome process? “When you’re capturing on IMAX 15/70 film, you’re getting ten times the resolution of the highest form of digital today,” MacGillivray says. “4K digital, for example, is about 12 million pixels per frame, and IMAX in 15/70 film is over 120 million—some say 150 million— pixels per frame.”
MacGillivray hopes the digital process will eventually reach 8K, at which point it could duplicate or even better the resolution from the film system. But there will still be differences in how each process looks on screen.
The film image, for example, is built from grain that forms when silver halide particles are exposed to light. MacGillivray explains that the grain particles form a random pattern. “Grain isn’t structured like a screen door that you’re looking through, but pixels are. Film-based grain is just all over the place, one frame totally different from the next. So your edges are coolly sharp and have a different feeling, an organic feeling rather than this mechanic feeling you get with digital. A lot of people relate it to the difference between vinyl music and digital music.”
Another difference between film and digital: “Film has far more color shades. It’s called bit depth in digital terms. And most bit depth in digital is about twelve, but film bit depth can be twenty to thirty. And so you just have more shades of yellow and red and oranges and everything. You can get extra shades of color with digital if you had more storage, but then you’re defeating the chief advantage of the process because everything would get bigger and more expensive.”
If the color, organic look, and smoothness of film are superior to digital, why switch processes? “With digital you do have the advantage of having an absolutely rock steady image because there’s no projector gate, no perforations, no film weaving through a machine. And there’s no dust, and no scratching.”
MacGillivray also finds digital easier to work with, “a lot easier until something goes wrong. And then you have to close down for two days so an expert can come in.”
To the Arctic 3D is being presented through the One World One Ocean Foundation. Founded by MacGillivray and his wife Barbara, this new initiative is intended to raise awareness to ocean issues through IMAX and feature films, television specials, YouTube videos, and other social media. The director cites the work of Jacques Cousteau, who in the 1960s would broadcast as many as three or four ocean-related television specials a year. “The ocean needs a voice in the entertainment base, and we’re going to try to bring the same continuity of effort that Cousteau did some 40 years ago,” he says.
Read about how astronauts were trained to use IMAX cameras on the space shuttle on our Around the Mall blog.
March 16, 2012
Some tickets are still available for what is lining up to be a major event for film buffs: four screenings of Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, on March 24, 25, and 31, and April 1. This 5-1/2 hour restoration of Gance’s silent epic will be also mark the U.S. premiere of a full-length orchestral score composed by Carl Davis, who will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra.
This is the most complete version of Napoleon since it opened at the Paris Opéra in 1927, and the first U.S. screenings of the film with an orchestra in over 30 years. Due to the technical and financial demands, there are no further screenings scheduled in this country, and no plans for a digital release of any kind.
This version of Napoleon is the culmination of work of over 45 years of work by filmmaker, author and historian Kevin Brownlow to save and restore what had become a neglected masterpiece. Brownlow, the only film historian to receive an Oscar, first encountered the film as a student, viewing a cut-down, two-reel version on a 9.5mm home movie format. Even in poor shape, “It was the cinema as I thought it ought to be and yet hardly ever was,” he told me by telephone from his offices in London.
Brownlow befriended Gance in the 1950s, a relationship that lasted until the director’s death in 1981. As a result, he had access not only to the director’s archives, but to his recollections of how he made Napoleon.
Gance employed several technical innovations for Napoleon, including hand-held cameras and rapid cutting. A sequence of a snowball fight, a montage built from several angles and filmed over a series of days, used shots as short as single frames. A pillow fight had as many as nine multiple exposures. These are remarkable achievements, especially considering the equipment Gance was using. But to Brownlow, they raise another of the director’s innovations.
“In Napoleon, Gance wanted to make an actor of the audience,” Brownlow said. “He wanted to break viewers’ inhibitions and force them to become participants in the story, so that they are being punched in the nose during the snowball fight, or dancing around and running away and coming back into the action. It’s an astounding use of technique.”
The most famous of Napoleon‘s special effects is Polyvision, a three-camera widescreen process Gance used to close the film. Like Cinerama, Polyvision required three projectors running in synchronization. They expanded the screen image dramatically. Gance used the process sometimes to show broad landscapes, but also to break the screen into complementary or discordant images.
Few viewers in 1927 had a chance to see Polyvision, which despite considerable publicity was available for a limited time in only eight cities. It was an expensive and complicated process that required exhibitors to re-outfit theaters and hire additional projectionists. Brownlow himself didn’t see a Polyvision version of Napoleon until he attended a festival of multiscreen films in the 1960s. Before then, “The last reel was just shots of soldiers marching from left to right and right to left,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
When Brownlow viewed a restoration of the Napoleon triptychs by Marie Epstein, the sister of noted experimental filmmaker Jean Epstein, he saw that titles were missing and sequences were out of order. Although “it was a very illegal thing to have done,” he gathered enough money to make his own copy, which he began to reconstruct in the proper order.
The historian was backed by the FIAF (The International Federation of Film Archives), which appealed to archives around the world to send materials to London. “These prints came pouring in,” Brownlow said, “every one of them with different elements. It was unbelievably exciting.”
A version of Napoleon sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola, and with a score by his father, composer Carmine Coppola, toured the United States in 1981. I was lucky enough to see the film at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. The Polyvision finale drew gasps and applause from the sold-out audience.
Several years later a researcher unearthed an original, 17-reel, tinted print of the film in Corsica. “Some of it was definitive,” Brownlow said. “In other words, you could see that this was the version that Gance had settled on before it was chopped about.”
Brownlow admitted that his restoration is still not complete. The original version apparently ran nine hours, “But if it was nine hours, what on earth did they fill it with?” he asked. “I cannot work it out. Anyway, there’s continuing work going on with this picture. One day we’ll get the exact length of the original.”
The Oakland dates will be the most complete and lavish screenings of Napoleon ever shown in this country, with an orchestra of 46 playing “the finest score I’ve ever heard for a picture,” Brownlow enthused. “Carl Davis made the decision to use composers who were alive at the time of Napoleon, and that gives the film an incredible sense of authenticity.”
In our digital age, it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary Napoleon was. And the many different versions of the film—as late as the 1970, Gance was reshooting material for a new cut he called Bonaparte and the Revolution—have made it difficult to pin down Napoleon‘s place in film history. In my lifetime, Brownlow and other historians have managed to tease out much of the majesty and scope of the movie.
I cannot emphasize how much I respect Kevin Brownlow and his work. He received a Governors Award from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010 for making, writing about and restoring movies. He is the author of landmark books like The Parade’s Gone By… and The War, the West, and the Wilderness, works that helped draw attention to the artistry of a generation of silent filmmakers. Alone or with partners, Brownlow also directed groundbreaking documentaries on Charlie Chaplin (The Unknown Chaplin), Harold Lloyd (The Third Genius), and Buster Keaton (A Hard Act to Follow). His Photoplay restorations of films like Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player are among the most complete and beautiful works of their kind. He is also a generous friend to anyone seeking to learn more about the history of movies.
Despite his accomplishments, Brownlow still has difficulty raising funding for his projects. He has been trying to produce a documentary on Douglas Fairbanks, one of the industry’s most important early stars, “but no broadcaster wants it.”
January 12, 2012
With the movie industry chasing dwindling audiences, studios are discovering that tried-and-true methods of the past no longer work the way they used to. That doesn’t stop executives from repeating themselves, or copying from rivals. The list of 2012 titles from major studios is dominated by sequels, spin-offs, and virtual clones of past successes.
Gaining increasing prominence in 2012: 3D, an added element for around 30 features. In fact, four major titles are getting rereleased in 3D: Beauty and the Beast, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Titanic and Finding Nemo. 3D means increased revenue for studios, since theaters can charge more per ticket. Two perhaps unintended corollaries: 3D forces theater owners to spend more to upgrade their screens. 3D is also a digital process, further reducing screens that show projected film.
Along with sequels and spin-offs, 2012 will see more comic book movies. Sometimes they are both: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, sequel to Nicolas Cage’s earlier Ghost Rider; The Avengers, which brings together Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor while adding at least two more superheroes with franchise potential. The latter is the first Disney film to feature Marvel characters since the studio purchased the venerable comics company. The Avengers is written and directed by Joss Whedon, which is reason enough to raise expectations.
Expectations are pretty low for The Three Stooges, an updating by the Farrelly brothers of a once-popular comedy franchise. Work began on the project back in 2000. At one point Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro were attached to star; the trio is now portrayed by Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso.
Among other head-scratching choices: a new Dredd, “unrelated” to the earlier Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd although based on the same comic book; yet another Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this one in 3D; John Carter, a Disney production taken from novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs—and a film whose budget is reputed to top $275 million; reboots of the TV series 21 Jump Street and Dark Shadows; and new versions of Total Recall, Red Dawn, and the Jason Bourne character (in The Bourne Legacy).
Several current and former big-name directors are releasing titles in 2012, including (in roughly chronological order) Steven Soderbergh (Haywire and later Magic Mike), Ridley Scott (with an Alien-linked Prometheus), Madonna (W.E.), Tyler Perry (Good Deeds and later The Marriage Counselor), Lasse Hallstrom (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Walter Hill (Bullet to the Head), Lawrence Kasdan (Darling Companion), Boaz Yakin (Safe), Tim Burton (Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie), Peter Berg (Battleship), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black III), Christopher Nolan (concluding his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises), Oliver Stone (Savages), Sam Mendes (a curious choice for the James Bond entry Skyfall), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), Judd Apatow (This Is Forty), Ang Lee (The Life of Pi), Kathryn Bigelow (whose Osama bin Laden film has had its release postponed to after the Presidential election) and Peter Jackson (The Hobbit).
And then there’s The Great Gatsby, already inspiring as much grousing as Tom Cruise’s casting as Jack Reacher in an adaptation of Lee Child’s One Shot. Earlier versions of Gatsby—including a 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and a 1949 version with Alan Ladd—were not critical successes, to put it kindly. (A silent version released in 1926 is one of the more lamented of lost features; only its trailer remains.) This version, in 3D and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, is directed by Baz Lurhmann, whose last film was the widely derided Australia.
All in all, a pretty exciting lineup, even with the clunkers I deliberately included.
2012 also marks the centennial of both Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios—or at least it’s the date the firms have chosen to celebrate. While it’s true that Paramount founder Adolph Zukor started the Famous Players Film Co. in 1912, Paramount did not exist as a legal entity until 1914. Some feel that Universal should date its beginnings from the opening of its Universal City studio in 1915; others cite founder Carl Laemmle’s 1906 film exchange and his IMP Studio in 1909 as potential starting dates.
Both studios plan major celebrations; I’ll be writing about the restoration of Paramount’s Wings next week. In the meantime, the studio offers Paramount 100 for iPad, which raises the question: Why would you write an iPhone/iPad app with Flash content? Universal promises restorations of titles like To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet on the Western Front, Jaws, The Sting, Out of Africa, Frankenstein and Schindler’s List. (There’s even an official Universal Centennial website.)
Complementing new releases is the alternate universe of festivals and conventions devoted to older films. I hope to write about some of them in more depth later on, but here is a quick list of the more notable gatherings:
Cinefest 32 in Liverpool, New York (outside Syracuse), from March 15 – 18. Highlights include Mr. Fix-It (1918) with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mamba, “not seen in the U.S. in 81 years.”
The TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood from April 12 – 15.
Cinevent 44 in Columbus, Ohio, from May 25 – 28.
The 17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival from July 12 – 15.
Capitolfest, held at the Rome Theatre in Rome, NY, from August 10 – 12. This year’s festival features a tribute to Warner Oland, the screen’s most famous Charlie Chan.
Cinecon 48 at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, August 30 – September 3. According to Bob Birchard, the president, “Cinecon is the oldest and the grandest of the movie-related fan festivals.”
Cinesation, at the Lincoln Theater in Massillon, Ohio, September 27 – 30.
And for those with deep pockets, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival runs October 6 – 13.
For film buffs, the most eagerly awaited restoration is Napoleon, playing for four nights this March and April at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California. The culmination of Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow’s fifty-year obsession with Abel Gance’s epic, this version of Napoleon runs over five hours, and will be screened with a full orchestra playing a score by Carl Davis. Do not wait for this to appear on DVD, as Mr. Brownlow has stated repeatedly that it is too expensive to commit to a home video transfer.
2012 actually looks like a pretty promising year for movies, both old and new.
December 2, 2011
Several recent articles have reached the same dismaying conclusion: film as a medium is doomed. First came a report that, starting in 2012, Twentieth Century Fox International will no longer ship 35mm prints to Hong Kong and Macau. Only DCI-compliant digital formats will be available. Then came Debra Kaufman’s sobering article for Creative Cow: Film Fading to Black, a detailed account of how companies like ARRI, Panavision, and Aaton no longer manufacture film cameras. (Devin Coldewey added his own take on Kaufman’s work for TechCrunch.) Several sources reported on financial difficulties facing Kodak, one of the most storied names in film (try WHEC.com’s “Is Kodak in trouble?” for some hometown perspective.)
Julia Marchese of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles went so far as to start a petition, Fight for 35mm, stating that, “The major film studios have decided that they eventually want to stop renting all archival 35mm film prints entirely because there are so few revival houses left, and because digital is cheap and the cost of storing and shipping prints is high,” adding that, “I feel very strongly about this issue and cannot stand idly by and let digital projection destroy the art that I live for.” (As of today, she has collected over 5,700 signatures.)
In a more metaphoric than practical sense, New York Times critic A.O. Scott weighed in with Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?, citing doomsayers like Roger Ebert (“Video commands the field”) and Anthony Lane (“Enjoy it while it lasts”) before suggesting that film is “fragile and perishable” in part because it is based on nostalgia.
If you need more concrete proof of how film’s dominance in culture has eroded, take the sales figures for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: $400 million in a day. That’s more than most big-budget films will gross in a year, if they ever reach that point. Or read Film Journal‘s How do we win back younger moviegoers?, which presents some eye-opening statistics: the 12 – 24 age group, once thought to be the backbone of the film audience, purchased only 32% of movie tickets in North America in 2010. That’s down from 60% in 1974.
The sudden confluence of “Death of Cinema” reports is surprising, as predictions of its demise have been around for decades. Radio was supposed to kill off movies back in the 1920s, for example, then television was suppossd to do it in the 1950s. In his book 2007 The Virtual Life of Film, D.N. Rodowick argues that, “As almost (or, truly, virtually) every aspect of making and viewing movies is replaced by digital technologies, even the notion of ‘watching a film’ is fast becoming an anachronism.” But “new media” are themselves based on cinema, “the mature audiovisual culture of the twentieth century.” So what we know as cinema will continue to exist even if film is replaced as a medium.
Ironically, it turns out the film is an excellent archival material, far more stable and reliable than any existing digital archival platform. (The photos accompanying this article show A Pictorial History of Hiawatha, filmed in 1902–03 and restored in 2009 by Julia Nicoll for Colorlab. Even in its deteriorated, pre-restoration shape, the film retained its images.) Stored properly, film can last for decades, something that cannot be said about floppy disks or Iomega Zip drives. Two-inch, reel-to-reel videotape used to be the broadcast standard for television. Only a handful of playback machines still exist. For that matter, when was the last time you viewed a 3/4-inch videotape?
Film has a tactile beauty that digital lacks. I guess it’s a similar contrast between print photographs and digital ones, between writing with a fountain pen or on a computer. Few would pass up the speed and convenience of new technologies. It’s much easier laying out an article with InDesign than physically cutting and pasting galleys onto dummy pages, just as it’s easier to edit with Final Cut Pro than with grease pencils and gang synch blocks. But I miss the physical contact that the old methods entailed, the tape splicers and take-up reels, the linen-lined bins filled with strips of film.
Earlier this week, Alexander Payne, director of The Descendants, spoke to me about the film vs. digital divide. “I attend a lot of festivals,” he said. “When I see movies projected digitally, and then I see them on film, they look better on film. Film has a warmer feeling. Flicker is better than glow.”
Payne acknowledged digital’s incursions. “In the US theaters project at about a 50-50 ratio of film-to-digital, Norway is about 90% digital, Iceland I think is 99% or getting there,” he said. The director also admitted that watching film can be a dismal experience “if the projectionist has turned the bulb down to save money, or doesn’t know how to frame the film.
“But I think we’re losing something. I remember an interview Jean Renoir gave about medieval tapestries, where he said something to the effect that the more codified and standardized a medium gets, the closer it comes to death.” Digital processes are “trying to approximate the medium’s representation of reality—’Look how real it is,’ they say.”
Payne had just attended a screening of the restored version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, calling it a “transformational” representation of life. “Why can’t we have that?” he asked. “I had to fight tooth and nail to make my next film in black and white. Interestingly, I have to shoot in digital in order to give it a filmic look. I’m going to screen black-and-white films like Ordet, not just for the cinematographer, but for the whole crew. I’ll say, ‘I want one shot, just give me one shot that looks like that.’”
On at least one level, Payne doesn’t believe that film is dying just yet. “Say you’re a teenager, and you want to be alone on a date,” he said. “Where else are you going to go on a Friday night?”
October 26, 2011
Critical consensus earlier this year was that the 3-D boom in motion pictures was dying. “Not every movie, in my opinion, should be in 3-D,” director Steven Spielberg said at July’s Comic-Con. “Audiences have now come to realize there are bad movies that can be in 3-D as well and, on top of that, you’re being charged an extra $5 to see a movie that was as bad as one you saw in 2-D,” said Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Spielberg’s producing partner on the upcoming The Adventures of Tintin.
The rerelease of a 3-D version of Disney’s The Lion King quickly eliminated the doom saying. After the 1994 film grossed over $100 million (see my earlier posting), the 3-D process took on an air of inevitability. Disney is converting Beauty and the Beast to 3-D, followed by Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. Directors as prominent as Spielberg, Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Ridley Scott (Prometheus), Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Francis Coppola (Twixt) have committed to the process. So have low-budget filmmakers and even documentarians like Werner Herzog (The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which examined the Chauvet Cave in France) and Wim Wenders (Pina, about the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch).
This isn’t the first go-round for 3-D movies. The principles behind stereo photography were known well before the invention of motion pictures, and in the nineteenth century stereoscopic viewers were popular household toys. According to Stefan Drössler, director of the Munich Filmmuseum, 3-D might have had a more immediate impact in the dawn of cinema if the first moving pictures hadn’t already provided more depth than still photography. “The illusion of the moving image stopped the development of 3D moving image for a while,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Drössler, one of the world’s leading experts on 3-D, will give a highly anticipated lecture this Saturday, October 29, at the Museum of Modern Art. In 3-D Is Coming to This Theater! An Illustrated History of Stereoscopic Cinema, he will demonstrate the myriad examples of 3-D movies stretching back to the early 1900s. Among his topics: the German inventor Max Skladanowsky, who tried to animate 3-D images in the late 19th century.
Even movies by the pioneering special effects director Georges Méliès can be projected in 3-D, thanks to the fact that he often filmed with two synchronized cameras side by side, the second camera providing a “protection” negative. (Filming with two cameras was a common practice in Hollywood as well; the second negative could be used for European markets or to replace footage once the first wore out.) Méliès didn’t plan to make 3-D films, but with modern technology we can re-synchronize his images to provide a realistic illusion of depth.
I’ve seen some early examples of 3-D movies at previous MoMA screenings, like William Van Doren Kelley’s “Plasticon” shorts from the 1920s, and can attest to their eerie, ghostly power. The sense of depth in the shorts is startling. As captured on lustrous nitrate stock, the images have a haunting beauty as well. They bring the past to life in ways that “flat” movies can’t.
After his lecture, Mr. Drössler will introduce a screening of Robinzon Kruzo (1947), most likely the first 3-D feature. Produced in the Soviet Union, it “was shown exclusively in one Russian cinema for about two years,” he wrote. “You even find reports about it in Sight and Sound magazine.” Robinzon Kruzo was re-released several times in the USSR, and drew a half-million moviegoers during a four-month run in London.
Mr. Drössler’s talk will cover other processes as well, their names evoking the hucksters that helped make movies a commercial success: Zeiss Ikon Raumfilm, Plasztikus Films, Stereokino 70, StereoVision, SpaceVision. He will also address 3-D’s inability, until now, to establish a permanent foothold in the industry.
In the 1950s, when directors like Alfred Hitchcock were experimenting with 3-D, the biggest drawback to the process may have been the fact that it required two prints running simultaneously through two projectors. Lose a frame on one print, and your movie was no longer synchronized. Today’s digital projectors can provide 3-D depth with only one print.
Still, 3-D faces an uphill battle with consumers. As Mr. Drössler notes, “It’s true that today more theaters than ever are equipped for 3-D projection, but the process is still not dominating mainstream cinema: The majority of films in the box-office top ten are not 3-D, hardly any 3-D films have been in competition at the big film festivals, and none has ever won a prize in these festivals.” The biggest problem with the process for Mr. Drössler: “As long as there is no satisfactory 3-D system without glasses for cinema and for TV, it will never become a dominant force in the mainstream film industry.”
October 14, 2011
The 49th New York Film Festival draws to a close this weekend with a screening of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Critical response to the festival has been somewhat muted, perhaps because, as A.O. Scott pointed out in his New York Times summary, so many of the scheduled films will receive theatrical releases in the future.
One of the high points of the Festival was the appearance of the West Memphis Three for a screening of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (see my earlier posting). Interviewed on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, co-director Joe Berlinger described how moved he was to see the Three’s reactions as they watched a sunset from a Manhattan rooftop, free after 18 years in prison. (Disclaimer: my wife is the executive producer of the Leonard Lopate Show.) Paradise Lost 3 is a remarkable film, one that deserves to be seen by everyone who is interested in justice.
A festival coup was a sneak preview of director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, adapted by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s children’s novel Hugo Cabret. Billed a “work in progress” at the screening, the completed Hugo will be released by Paramount on November 23. (Watch the trailer.) Disney employed a similar stunt during 1991′s Festival when it screened a rough draft of Beauty and the Beast. Scorsese also showed his documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World prior to its broadcast on HBO.
Scorsese is making an appearance at a different New York festival that opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. To Save and Project: The Ninth MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation highlights 35 films from 14 countries, as well as a retrospective tribute to filmmaker Jack Smith. On November 7, Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker will be introducing the uncut, 163-minute version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the team behind such classics as I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus. (Schoonmaker is Powell’s widow.)
Blimp is not too difficult to see, and in fact Criterion offers a well-regarded home video version. The same can’t be said for many of the other films in To Save and Project. Director Joe Dante opens the festival with The Movie Orgy (1968), a unique assemblage of trailers, commercials, training films, and newscasts that he and Jon Davidson screened at colleges 40 years ago. On Saturday, Dante will introduce his segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), “It’s a Good Life,” along with Roger Corman’s The Intruder (1962), an early anti-discrimination film starring William Shatner.
Due to rights complications, The Movie Orgy will most likely never be available to the home market. Many other restored films languish in a limbo of restricted access. It’s been over 20 years since I attended a screening of Under a Texas Moon (1930), the first sound Western shot in Technicolor and an early screen credit for Myrna Loy. Film buffs grumble about being unable to see the restored versions of The Big Parade (1925), King Vidor’s World War I epic, or Wings (1927), the only Best-Picture-winner not legally available on home video. Rights can be a huge stumbling block to museums and archives, making it difficult or impossible for fans to see their favorite movies.
And then some of the films in To Save and Project are just too obscure to warrant distributing to the home market. How about a series of five ethnographic shorts that noted documentarian Jean Rouch made in West Africa in the late 1940s? Or Robinzon Kruzo (1947), considered the first 3d feature-length film? To Save and Project devotes a segment to comedies from distributor Jean Desmet, to film and dance performances by Elaine Summers, and to five CinemaScope and widescreen films from Twentieth Century Fox.
Some of these titles will eventually trickle out to Turner Classic Movies and the home market, like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), showcased in last year’s festival. But I am eagerly anticipating the chance to see hard-to-find titles like Afraid to Talk, a 1933 Universal melodrama about political corruption; Hoop-La (1933), a romantic comedy that was Clara Bow’s last screen role; and Les Halles centrales (1927), a documentary of a market in Paris by Boris Kaufman, later a noted cinematographer and the younger brother of Russian director Dziga Vertov. I also plan to attend The Driver (1978), Walter Hill’s existential film noir about getaway expert Ryan O’Neal, to see how it compares to Nicolas Winging Refn’s wildly overhyped new release Drive.
October 12, 2011
How important were home movies in your family? Since motion pictures were first marketed in the late19th century, they were available to home consumers as well as professionals. Pathé offered the specifically home-oriented 28mm filmstock in 1912, and by the 1930s, both 16mm and 8mm cameras had entered the home consumer market.
For the next two decades home movies were an expensive and at times demanding hobby. Miriam Bennett, whose delightful comedy A Study in Reds (1932) was selected for the National Film Registry, was the daughter of famous still photographer H.H. Bennett and helped run the family studio in Wisconsin Dells after his death. Wallace Kelly, an illustrator and photographer whose Our Day (1938) is also on the Registry, skipped lunch for a year to pay for a motion picture camera. Their work might better be called “amateur” rather than “home” movies.
But as Baby Boomers matured in the 1950s, and the cost of equipment and film stock dropped, home movies became a mainstay of family get-togethers. A grammar of home movies emerged as filmmakers focused on the same familiar tableaus. Children grouped around the Christmas tree, for example, or seated at a picnic table on the Fourth of July. Birthday parties, new cars, playing at the beach or by a lake, a big storm: home movies became a combination of the unusual and the everyday, with clothes and haircuts marking the passing of years.
Founded in 2002, Home Movie Day celebrates them all: the bizarre and the brilliant, the obscure and the famous. Formed as a sort of outreach effort for archivists, the annual affair gives everyone who attends the chance to screen their films. For a lot of family members without access to working projectors, this is a great opportunity to see what’s in their collection. At the same time, it lets archivists counsel on the need for preservation.
According to Brian Graney, a co-founder of Home Movie Day and the Center for Home Movies, a nonprofit organization that helps administer the project, the first event took place in 24 locations, almost all within the United States. This year Home Movie Day will take place in 66 sites across 13 countries on Saturday, October 15. (See the full list here.)
Graney, currently the Media Cataloger at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, Maine, wrote to me in an e-mail about the need to protect what can be extremely vulnerable films. “All home movies are at risk to some degree,” he explained, “because there’s no negative behind a home movie—the reel on the projector is the same one exposed in the camera. In commercial films you have multiple copies of the same content. Here, there’s just the one, and even for home movies held in archives, keeping that one safe might be the best we can do.”
According to Graney, “The greatest risk is in the widely held and wrongheaded idea that home movies are without interest to anyone but their creators, or that they’re all alike and all equally banal.”
Home Movie Day has helped bring some extraordinary films to a wider public, like Our Day and the Registry title Disneyland Dream (1956), a wonderful travelogue by the accomplished amateur filmmaker Robbins Barstow. Each year holds the potential for new discoveries.
Perhaps the best proof of the variety and scope of home movies can be found in Amateur Night: Home Movies from American Archives, an extraordinary feature produced and directed by Dwight Swanson. A compilation of 16 films dating back to 1915, Amateur Night provides an introduction to everything that is important about home movies, from personalities and historical events to sheer aesthetic pleasure.
The celebrities in Amateur Night include director Alfred Hitchcock frolicking with his wife Alma Reville; the real-life Smokey Bear, shown recovering from burn wounds from a forest fire; and President Richard Nixon, mingling with crowds on an Idaho airport tarmac.
Other films in Amateur Night give us new approaches to incidents we think we may already know. For instance, Helen Hill’s Lower 9th Ward (2005, from the Harvard Film Archive) is a first-person account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, filmed by someone who lived in and loved New Orleans. For me, Hill’s impassioned advocacy is more affecting than the reports of journalists trained to be objective about what they are covering.
Or take Atom Bomb (1953, from the Walter J. Brown Media Archives at the University of Georgia Libraries), filmed by Louis C. Harris, a journalist and later editor at Georgia’s Augusta Chronicle. Harris, who served in the 12th Air Service Command during World War II, was invited to Nevada to view the detonation of the 16-kiloton “Shot Annie” on March 17, 1953. His footage captures the awesome, terrifying effects of a nuclear blast in ways that more official accounts don’t.
“In the past two decades archives, scholars, and hopefully the general public, too, have started to develop a deeper understanding of home movies and amateur films,” Swanson wrote to me in an e-mail. “The curatorial philosophy behind Amateur Night is to show the range of diversity that has been found in the universe of amateur film, and to persuade people to think of them in new ways and not dismiss them as purely family records.”
For the past year, Swanson has been screening Amateur Night across the country. Sunday, October 16, he’s showing it in Los Angeles as part of the Academy Film Archive’s Home Movie Weekend. On Friday, November 4, he’ll be at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Do not miss the chance to attend a screening, because you won’t find Amateur Night on DVD. “There are no plans for DVD distribution,” Swanson said, “since we wanted it to be a film preservation project and to showcase the [nondigital] photochemical preservation work being done by preservation film labs such as Cineric, Inc.”
So drop into a local Home Movie Day event, and see Amateur Night if you can. As Swanson put it, “The goal is to show that there are some wonderful and amazing films found both in archives and in homes.”
October 7, 2011
Nothing beats the experience of watching movies in a real movie theater. Not the concrete boxes in a multiplex, but an actual theater with aisles, a stage, and perhaps even a balcony. In what I hope will be a recurring feature, I’d like to introduce you to some of the classic movie theaters across the country. Send in your own suggestions as well to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll feature the best entries on the blog.
I’ll start with the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Located right on a downtown main street, the Colonial is both a connection to the past and an anchor for a thriving community.
The Colonial started when Harry Brownback lost his family’s Majolica pottery plant to fire and a bad economy. Using $30,000 in proceeds from his settlement, Brownback combined two storefronts on Bridge Street into the Colonial Opera House. The theater opened on September 5, 1903, and the first movies were shown there that December.
The theater alternated between stage shows and concerts at first, but movies became an increasingly important part of the schedule. A Wurlitzer organ introduced Fox Movietone newsreels, and the theater was wired for sound in 1928 when Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer screened. 1925 saw the theater’s last stage show, Very Good Eddie, although the venue continued to be used for benefit performances.
George Silverman purchased the theater in the late 1950s, and rented it out to Good News Productions in 1957 to film The Blob, a low-budget horror movie starring Steve McQueen. That might have been the Colonial’s high point, because by the 1970s it was, like most theaters of its kind, in danger of closing.
Mary Foote moved to Phoenixville in 1987 and attended one of the Star Trek films a few years later. “All I remember was that the sound was terrible, the picture was horrible, and the seats were uncomfortable.” she told me recently. “But it was a really cool building.”
Several owners of the Colonial tried but could not make a profit with the theater. The building closed in 1996, but that December, concerned residents, including Ms. Foote, worked with the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation to try to re-open the theater, using a new non-profit group, the Association for the Colonial Theater (ACT).
“There were organizational problems, business problems and then building problems,” Foote, who is now the executive director of the theater, remembered. “We put together a small group with strong ties to the community, people we knew could help us raise money. We were lucky to have a few businesses who took a risk. For example, a hospital foundation gave us $75,000 toward our first campaign. The feeling was the theater would improve the health of the community.”
ACT needed a half-million dollars to install new projection equipment and get the building up to code. “The audience for the theater had dwindled to nothing, so we also had to build the business,” Foote said. “We decided to go with art and independent films rather than compete with the twenty-some screens right in our back yard. We also wanted to bring a better level of programming to the area.”
The Colonial re-opened on October 1, 1999, as Run Lola Run screened with over 300 in attendance. Since then ACT has initiated several phases of renovations, investing over $2 million in the theater. It has also expanded its programming calendar to include concerts, lectures, and film series.
“We do classics on Sundays, we’re moving into documentaries, and we do a pretty broad children’s program,” Foote said. “We have a Blobfest every summer. We do a Rocky Horror Picture Show once a year. We just launched a new program with TED – Technology, Entertainment, and Design, a speaker forum in which smart, interesting people come and speak. The hook is they can only speak for 18 minutes because the organizers believe you can say what you need to say in that time”.
Savvy theater owners always knew the key to success: adapt or die. The 1920s saw the rise of the movie palaces, opulent, ornate theaters designed to awe and overwhelm their customers. During the Depression theaters staged “dish nights,” in which they gave away chinaware and cutlery, and acted as babysitters during Saturday matinees. Competing with television and multiplexes is obviously tough, but as Foote put it, “Our first competitor isn’t the movie theater down the street, our first competitor is the cost of cable, Netflix, all the other reasons people stay at home. But we feel that if you offer quality programming, people are just dying to get out and enjoy themselves with other people.”
ACT continues to renovate and refurbish the Colonial, and plans to expand into a bank next door to the theater that was built in 1925. “We opened in 1999 on a block on Bridge Street where all of the changes in society that caused downtowns to go downhill were evident. We had a very low occupancy rate, most of the stores were gone, there were very few restaurants,” Foote said. “Right now Phoenixville is a pretty vibrant place.”
The Colonial deserves some of the credit for the resurgence in downtown Phoenixville. When you attend a film or concert there, you join theatergoers who saw Mary Pickford live on stage, or the first run of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with Wind. It is a wonderful experience.
October 5, 2011
More than most art forms, cinema was founded on science. Inventors like Thomas Alva Edison drew on optics, chemistry, metallurgy and neuropsychology in devising and perfecting motion pictures. Edison’s early cinematic developments were covered by Scientific American, while Popular Science and similar magazines devoted articles to film technologies like color and 3D processes.
And yet for over a hundred years, feature films have played with science’s facts and distorted its principles and theories. Think of the astronomers who, after being shot from a cannon, discover beauty queens on the moon in Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. Or The Thieving Hand (1908), in which the eponymous hand attaches and detaches itself from unsuspecting hosts to go on crime sprees. Rockets that roar through the vacuum of outer space, doctors who turn into insects via electrical pulses, donated eyes that see ghosts: the list of cinematic crimes against science seems endless. Whether bringing dinosaurs to life through snippets of DNA in Jurassic Park or turning robots into assassins in The Terminator, filmmakers have leaned on science to add credibility to their work—whether or not their interpretations made any sense.
Starting in 2005, Elizabeth Taylor-Mead, then the associate director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, and entrepreneur Richard Anders began addressing the disconnect between film and science. The Coolidge (a movie theater in Brookline, Massachusetts) initiated a series that brought the “top minds in the world of science, medicine and technology,” as Taylor-Mead wrote later, to introduce films that matched their interests. Science on Screen quickly became a favorite part of the Coolidge’s schedule and since 2010 has received major funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The 2011 season began this week with a screening of Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), introduced by Aaron Ellison, a senior research fellow at Harvard University and co-author of “Ecophysiological traits of terrestrial and aquatic carnivorous plants: are the costs and benefits the same?” Who better to introduce a film about a giant, man-eating plant?
In November, the Coolidge is showing Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, preceded by Dr. Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School (HMS), and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at HMS. No one in cinema handled dreams better than Buñuel, which is why Dr. Stickgold will be talking about the dreaming brain. December’s entry, 12 Monkeys, is paired with journalist Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses. In January, MIT physics professor Edward Farhi discusses the physics of time travel for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Taylor-Mead admits that the series had some growing pains. “Just searching for the closest match in terms of subject matter,” she wrote, “can mean you’re often stuck with a less than stellar example of film art, and that you’re merely attempting to illustrate information already given.”
The key was to find pairings that made sense but were still surprising. For example, Guy Crosby, a professor of food science and nutrition at Framingham State College and Harvard University’s School of Public Health, as well as the science editor for Cook’s Illustrated and the science expert for America’s Test Kitchen, spoke about how our sense of taste works for Babette’s Feast (1987). In my favorite pairing, Dr. Steven C. Schlozman, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, introduced George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Questions he raised included: What explains zombies’ lack of executive function? Why do the walking dead have such lousy balance, and why are they always so hungry?
Starting in January, 2011, the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation began awarding grants to non-profit art house cinemas to create their own Science on Screen programs. Eight theaters were chosen: The Loft Cinema, Tucson, Arizona; California Film Institute, San Rafael, California; Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington, New York; Maiden Alley Cinema, Paducah, Kentucky; Oklahoma City Museum of Art Film Program, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in conjunction with Circle Cinema, Tulsa, Oklahoma; Real Art Ways, Hartford, Connecticut; SIFF Cinema, Seattle, Washington; and Tampa Theatre, Tampa, Florida.
In addition to Science on Screen, the Sloan Foundation has funded a Film Program “to expand public understanding of science and technology.” Since 1996, the Sloan Foundation has offered screenwriting and film production awards, as well as sponsoring science seminars and panels at major film festivals. Over 250 projects have received funding, including such filmmakers as Michael Apted, Werner Herzog, and Julian Schnabel. The Sloan Science and Film page on the Museum of the Moving Image website offers more information, and you can also stream some of the winning shorts.