Monday, May 26, 2008

These Sawdust Caesars

The multiplexes have taken over the theatrical experience. They so profoundly serve the vast majority of the Hollywood/ mainstream movie-going public, and are able to squeeze superior grosses out of each film, through multiple prints and flexible booking options. Ever go to a multiplex and find out your Judi Densch film has unexpectedly been cancelled? That's because the Vince Vaughn film next door was doing more business and they decided to interlock it into another auditorium - yours. The Densch gross was for shit anyway.

In the (very) old days they used to call this bicycling. The owner would book a film and have a kid bike each reel as it came off the projector to another theatre he owned across town, staring 19 minutes later...just enough time to get the next reel on, and only have to report the gross for the one theatre. Lot of people got rich in the movie theatre business before the age of computers.

Now the films are so carefully managed for the opening weekend crowds. 6 prints playing 20 minutes apart, from 11:00 am to midnight, so any possible interested customers can just walk up, and have their film starting in 15 minutes, or if it's sold out, 20 minutes after that. There's no need to plan - or to work it out - or to think. (There's something much larger wrong with this than first appears.) And the crowds flow in and flow out, one after another, like the sheep they are.

If you need to eat, why not come in and buy some nachos. Want to kill some time playing in the arcade? Theatres aren't very relaxing environments anymore. The old days of ornate lobbies with fountains and decoration are over - that prime real estate is now filled with digital projectors, standees, self-serve Starbucks and ATMs.

They're probably confusing on purpose. And older customers, not comfortable with this environment or the films showing, stay away. Besides, the places are full of young teenagers, who don't know how to act.

So the only films that get made nowadays cater to teenagers. The films that older people would appreciate go straight to video, or if they're released at all, don't do very well.

Teenagers have disposable income (they don't have to buy groceries to feed any... teenagers), and disposable time. They want to get out of the house. They want to see Iron Man fly.

They don't care what's showing this weekend. They come out in droves to the latest and best marketed film, because movie-going isn't an artistic pursuit in which they partake of a higher artform. It's a social sphere in which they share in the most recent and “hot” (as in McLuhan) popular event, that just happens to be centered at the multiplex in their local mall.

In other words, they're not there for the right reasons. They don't appreciate what they're seeing. And consequently they don't know how to act. So they act out. And further drive the others out of the theatre experience all together.

This is not new. Teenagers have been acting up since quill was first put to papyrus. Ovid himself in the year Zero is on record as saying “These kids today!” Teenagers are hooligans, because they've discovered the power they have to change their surroundings, but don't yet know the reason why they should - just that they can. And they can upset greatly the adults who have spent most of their adult lives trying to preserve the status quo, who also don't know quite why they should, and before when they were teens themselves, likewise had the same impulse. But never followed through. Or really could. Like the teenagers they're in eternal battle with.

Teenagers come into the theatre in groups of 3 or 13, and are loud, clumsy and laugh at each other's jokes. Their courage grows in proportion to their numbers, and they pretend to misconstrue what they actually keenly understand and have dismissed by some instinct. They challenge the workers at the theatre, whether it's the 35-year-old manager or the 17-year-old pimply-faced doorman. They especially challenge the pretty candy girl behind the counter with the tits.

They take fire extinguishers off the wall and shoot them into the crowd in the dark. They throw soda cans at the screen and splash it, rendering a shiny Rorschach blot that won't be cleaned for years, a wetspot particularly visible during snow or bright sky scenes in every movie that shows on it thereafter. The scatter like rats when you call security on them, or heaven forbid, a dis-motivated pack of ushers, who go to school with many of then during the week. "Hey, Phil, come on and clear out. You're gonna get me in trouble!" Sometimes it takes all shift to scare the last one out of the corners of the building.

They kick the row of seats in front of them until the bolts come out of the floor. They break the panic hardware on the exit door and sneak in that way for weeks until the maintenance guy finally notices and fixes the hinge.

They do all this because it makes them feel bigger than they are. They know - more than we realize - that their ability to have an effect on the world is short in duration and limited in effect. To create some kind of scene in their world - this popular hangout surrounded by their peers, such as they are - is to have a big effect in a little pond.

In 1964 2 groups of teens, the “Mods” and “Rockers" by popular parlance, got into a melee on the seaside resort of Clacton over the Easter weekend. There were numerous arrests and one death (apparently an accidental drowning, not due to any beating). This picnic row was condemned by the magistrate and was considered a signpost of the end of hope for UK youth, and Western civilization as they knew it.

It's easy to agree when some punk kid's pulled the fire alarm in “Finding Nemo.” (The only thing worse than dealing with surly teenagers is dealing with moms with upset kids. Remind me to tell you my "Elmo in Grouchland" story.)

In spite of all the danger, the one thing they don't viddy is that we're them. They're us. That's right - we're teenagers here too, as disenfranchised, and trying to make sense of this confusing realm of commerce and responsibility in which our options are slowly receding as the cold albacore of reality slaps us across the face, day in and paycheck by paycheck.

We work in a movie theatre, for crissakes, not the bank that won't let you take out the money, won't hire you unless you get a haircut. We didn't flunk you in algebra. We're not selling you $90 jeans because Susan Canby said so (when she's at home). We're the movies - something you should be interested in. They make then for us, after all. We scared away the old people a long time ago.

We're in bands, we write poetry (what we really want to do is direct). We certainly don't want to work, or we wouldn't be ushers. Yet these packs of riff-raff come in, and terrorize the high-school students making minimum wage late into the night. We may wear polyester, but what do you wear: overalls when you're banging trashcans onto the truck? Or jeans as you sweep the soccer field?

Shitty grease-flipping work. Instead of goosing the candy girls or sticking straws into the acoustic ceiling, if your chaos, your cum, your muscular shadow-boxing were directed towards a ripe target, something or someone responsible for how it all was becoming, maybe you'd make someone really nervous. Someone who deserved your anger, and your energy.

That would be a day.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rode Hard

As a worker in a modern-day movie theatre, part of my job is to make up 35mm prints to show. Yet, while much ink is being spilt around this year's and next's new and now digital extravaganzas, the digital revolution hasn't quite reached the movie theatres.

Movies are still shown on those old loud clattery projectors. They come on 2000-foot reels, each lasting about 20 minutes a piece, and while in the old days those reels would have been changed back and forth (and if it was done right, you couldn't tell), nowadays you splice them all together onto a platter so once you hit start, the entire film - about a mile long all together - runs through without (if you're lucky) a hitch.

The reason they do this is that multiplexes couldn't survive financially if they needed a union projectionist manning each and every film. The automated platter system allowed less-professional workers (like me) to run the booth with a minimum of damage to the film, and now that most films barely last more than 2 or 3 weeks in theatres, the level of catastrophe possible is mitigated by the fact that you don't have much time to do it, or if you do it doesn't stick around long enough to be a problem (or in a worse-case scenario, if one of the prints of “Superman” is damaged in the first weekend, you just ship that one out first as soon as you reduce your prints next weekend).

What progress the magical future of digital projection has gained has partly to do with the amount of hay the PR guy have made touting downloadable (and presumably security-locked - we'll see how that goes) film files that never fade, scratch or age. This is in theory true - platters, or more specifically, the kids who run film on them, are rough on prints. The digital prints are however susceptible to crashing unexpectedly or become fatally obsolete within months. But presumably after it no longer matters. (You could find a 90-year-old reel of Chaplin and put it on and view it - I doubt you could view or even identify a digital film file from more than 5 years ago.)

(The digital prints have the benefit of becoming obsolete/unreadable right about the time it goes to DVD (or whatever the new format will be). And that's okay - who will want to look at "Don't Mess With The Zohan" 10 seconds after they saw it the first time?)

Digital files also are prone to fail if you get too strong a magnet too close to them. Or it doesn't boot. Or a phone rings too close to them. Celluloid, mortal and deteriorating format it may be, remains the most stable and reliable medium of choice, scratches and all.

Film is plastic, and not just theoretically (the academic discussion of the aesthetic nature of projected film as visual sculpture will come in the future). Indeed it's a long ribbon of plastic, a mile-long series of small photos that run through machines.

Heir as all physical artifacts in this atom-based world are to misfortune, it displays its wear and blemishes like battle scars, projected larger than life onto the screen. Like inadvertent tattoos acquired without its knowledge, the well-used reels of film each display characteristic traces of reckless behavior, each unique, from careless fingers that abused or ignored the curving leading leaders as they inadvertently slapped against the rough edges of the make-up bench, or rolled onto the uncarpeted floor unattended, left to collect dust and scars while other more seductive distractions kept the keepers - the projectionists - from paying proper, more affectionate, attention.

I made up a print of DePalma's 1983 “Scarface” for a midnight show last year, which had been built up and broken back down innumerable times in the last 25 years. Jesus, DePalma's “Scarface,” a midnight cult perennial. Who would have thought it? Ben Hecht is turning over in his grave. (Still. He made a career out of it.) Each reel end showed all sorts of splices at all spots, often cut at any random place, sometimes several feet and seconds into the film, with a panoply of different colors of tape.

This print had its history visible like a palimpsest.

But I was able to put it together, and run it for another couple of dozen of po-mo fans of gangsta retro Pacino chic.

The most crippled film I've had in my hands was a print of the 3-d porn film “Hard Candy,” a typically lame sex film (I use the term literally, as there was sex depicted in it...lamely) with - if you can believe it - the red-and-green 3-d effect most used on old science fiction black-and-white prints. This on a color film from 1973. Not that it was a good idea to begin with, but now the print was faded Kodacolor and turning the distinct red they're want to do (and of course, throwing the supposed color-coded eye separation effect completely out of whack).

This print had been travelling for 30 years, and it seemed that with every edit, with every attachment of the leaders to each head and tail of each reel, more and more frames had been lost, discarded by sloppy edits that cut frames or feet off, probably shortening the film by minutes (not to mention the horndogs that had pulled frames or shots out of the good parts in the middle) by the time we got a hold of it. And the scratches at the reel starts and ends began long before and ended way after the actual reel changes happened. All irrefutable evidence of the mishaps in previous booths, dumping onto the floor or being dragged from table to platter, with no concern for hygiene or the print's future.

It's an interesting experience to actually be cued - visually and even aurally - with scratches and pops to when each and every reel is coming up, like an infernal instinctual clock marking every 20 minutes. This print should have been retired about 100 make-ups ago, but human nature kept this film in circulation and in profit.

Digital mastering seems to be changing everyone's standards for perfection in presentation. Nowadays reviews of DVDs discuss bit rates, aliasing (jaggies on straight lines), pixelation and other digital artifacts. Most of film's blemishes are adjusted out, saving us from witnessing - or even being aware of - imperfections.

Yet physical film damage has developed its own fetishistic appeal. David Fincher takes time out from his fussy narrative in"Fight Club," directly from a scene in Chuck Palahniuk's book that should have been cut, to discuss the cue marks in the upper right-hand corner of each reel (which still appear on films (downward capability rules), but are much more noticeable on many old films shown on t.v. from prints, and in many older VHS and laserdisc transfers(some with hand-made cues). Palahniuk calls them "cigarette burns," like the industry insiders he professes to have walked with. What "industry insiders" really call those cue marks are "cue marks." Really. I think Palahniuk made the whole thing up. Get over yourself.

And reel damage was lovingly recreated in Tarantino's/Rodriguez's “Grindhouse” in 2007, really too late for anyone to really appreciate it, but is instructive as how the “plastic” aspect of film is sometimes more interesting than the film itself. (Eisenstein may have been trying to get to this as well, but didn't have the benefit of having had 42nd street to be inspired by. ) Rodriguez's “Planet Terror” damage was all done digitally, and he even duplicates a reel gone missing (in a bit that transcends the film in ways he doesn't quite have a handle on, but is wildly convenient for his narrative purposes). Tarantino reportedly took his footage out to the parking lot and damaged it the old-school analog way, dragging it across the asphalt. I really appreciate the thought behind this, although I believe it about as far as I can throw Chuck Palahniuk. QT's too precious about his trash being just so to leave it to random chance.

The “damaged goods” wave has migrated downward on the cultural scale - Digital Playground's trailer for their porn film “Naked Aces #3” brilliantly duplicates for 2 minutes a faded, scratched print of a 30-year-old trailer (culled from the film itself?) better than the film itself can possibly deliver on.

But the best in-home entertainment duplication of bad in-theatre presentation I've seen - best precisely because it was unintentional - was a VHS copy of an Italian pre-record I acquired from the fine folks at European Trash Cinema (see link) of a early '80s Italian Serena Grandi sex comedy - at each reel change, on this prerecord, the image would go out of frame and move up or down within seconds, back in frame. Like the projectionist was asleep up in the booth. Now, they transfer these films on an expensive telecine machine, and presumably they line the reels up before pressing “record,” right? Yet they managed to get each reel, one every 20 minutes, out of alignment, on an official release.

Not that I'm missing bad projection. There's still plenty of that in the real world.

_ _ _ _ _

I won't give you the link to the Naked Aces #3 trailer. Do not google it. Do not type in Naked Aces 3 trailer.

(Adults only!)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Whither Mondo Cine?

Hey, man, why so grumpy? Yeah, I'm going on and on about how I don't like digital - or how the studios suck.

This isn't a “bash digital” blog. (Digital will likely end up taking care of that itself, thank you very much.) More properly, I question the slavish brainwash that surrounds it, about what's being said about great digital will be, for exhibitors, for preservationists, and for film aficionados. They tell it like it's gonna save our lives.

Digital exhibition is expensive and unreliable. It puts the means of presentation back into the hands of the oppressors, and out of the hands of the people. (Digital production, firmly in the hands of the people, is a different kettle of rotten fish. The kitchen is too crowded and there's no out door. I think I mixed one metaphor too many there. It's problematic precisely because the exhibition side of it is too labor/capital intensive (I feel another post coming on...).)

Digital preservation also has a brand new set of issues, only recently coming to light. It's lossy, still unstandardized, it's expensive as well, ... and it looks like it's here to stay.

Listen - I was raised on film, and I've been working in movie theatres for over 20 years. I love the smell of celluloid in the morning. I sat in hundreds of theatres (many of which are gone now) watching big flickering images up on the white screen. I've followed careers from DePalma to DeNiro, from Fellini to Franco. From Meyer to Eisenstein (that's not the stretch you may first think). I've driven miles to catch the second half of a double bill before the film disappeared forever (those days are gone. Ruefully. Netflixing it is not only too easy, it defies the experience to be meaningful. Nothing against Netflix mind you. It prevented me from having to buy a copy of “3000 Miles To Graceland.”).

People ask me, how do you know so much about film, how it's produced, how it's released? I fuckin' pay attention, man. I'm curious, I read every book and watch every film I'm interested in – twice. Sober. It's all out there if you have eyes open to see, man.

I'm not a luddite or a purist - you can't be in 2008. A box of silent Renoir at affordable prices is financially feasible. Criterion notwithstanding, the days of the laserdisc, with its $99.00 videophile edition of “L'Avventura” are over. And the transfer was blurry anyway.

This blog actually has its roots in a 'zine I wrote and self-published about 9 years ago called Mondo Cine – remember 'zines? The good ones were sorta like blogs - on paper. It was 16 or 24 hand-made and hand-stapled pages concerned with the exhibition industry, which I was in the middle of then, as now, and discussed most of the things you see here. Like how customers don't get the film industry (but love to complain about how stupid those Hollywood types are), the industry doesn't get why customers come to see their films (just constantly amazed and thankful that they do), and are we sure we want to pay to see “Father Of The Bride” ($90 million in US alone) - they'll just make another one (and so they did).

I was heavily under the influence of “European Trash Cinema” at the time, the wild-and-wholly 'zine that covered a new frontier of world film (before the DVD revolution would bring Argento, giallos, Fernando Di Leo and others to every US Best Buy stores). My title had an international ”world of cinema” meaning, as well as referencing “Mondo Cane,” that trashy and seminal Italian import that declared, even to those who only saw the ads in the papers and never snuck into the film at the local theatre way back in the early '60s, that there was a whole other world out there of cinematic experience.

This was all very clever then.

I typed, stapled, and mailed stacks to Tower Records to distribute. Tower Records is gone now. So is Mondo Cine.

So 10 years later, the old name, now layered with even another set of obscure references becomes the obvious choice. It's not quite branding, but I'm capturing the same disciplines – a cross between an academic discussion of exhibition and production theory tinged with an existential panic for the pleasures that formed me disappearing forever.

Why so grumpy? What the studios think are going on in the theatres is not actually what's going on. Film, at 24 frames a second in a theatre, is social, mythic, and primal. It harkens back to the pre-historic days, in which the shaman of the village would tell the old folktales of the tribe in front of the flickering fire. The hypnotic strobes of light would affect our imagination, and make us susceptible to all symbolic and abstract concepts beyond the actual text and narrative.

It's magic. That won't go away will it? The internet allows people to download any scene or clip they might be interested in. I've talked to people who pulled the last 20 minutes of “There Will Be Blood” up on YouTube, so they would “know what happened.” They're familiar with it, but they don't actually “know” it.

It's one thing to seek out out-of-print or rare clips or personal films, to become familiar with new work. But to do that instead of the better alternative – and make it a habit, and to not mind the difference, is to do yourself a disservice. “There Will Be Blood” will survive a frivolous comment by yourself saying “It's stupid.”

You won't. You've just closed your eyes.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Trouble With "2001"

("2001: A Space Odyssey" turned 40 years old last month.)

Talking with the various co-workers I work with (most of whom are under 21 years old and can't be trusted - I can't take them drinking) I like to quiz them on the old movies they have or haven't seen. When we get to Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey,” pretty much everyone to a man who's seen it...or tried to... says it's boring.

Boring. Kubrick's “2001.” What has the world come to? At one time this film, and Kubrick, were considered to be the greatest creation/creator the art had known. An iconoclast who was also a classicist, a formalist who embraced yet ultimately exploded every Hollywood genre he worked in (seemingly going through them one by one, film by film), remaking them and making them irrelevant at the same time.

Now Kubrick is irrelevant to the audiences of today. “2001” asks too much of the audience, who has been raised on the ever-moving pie-fights of “Armageddon” and “The Matrix,” and has regressed into the stuffy past of retrograde artifice, as has his importance to a generation of filmgoers.

Be clear. “2001” was a continuation of a creative arc that began with “Paths of Glory” and travelled through “Lolita” and “Dr. Strangelove,” each more assured, darkly ironic and surprising than the last. Imagine waiting for the next Kubrick film to be released - and actually being confused, pissed, and amazed. Nothing could have prepared anyone for “2001.” There was no movie like it before.

Or since. Still. (And he'd follow that with “A Clockwork Orange” for crissake - then “Barry Lyndon.”) Its audaciousness announced a whole new realm of cinematic and artistic possibilities that heralded in the '70s. The sky was the aesthetic limit in 1968. The studios were just about to fall, and the asylums were about to be taken over by the likes of Coppola, Friedkin and Bogdanovich.

When's the last time you had that feeling at the movies? Did “Pirates of the Caribbean” reawaken you to the potential of cinematic narrative and language? Of the role of mankind in the universe, of the way a film could change the way you looked at the world? Or did it make you feel like your pocket had just been picked?

I wasn't on the “2001” bandwagon the first time I saw the film either - the first time I was about 10, one Saturday afternoon on a double bill with - believe it or not - “King Kong Vs. Godzilla.” I'd like to shake that booker's hand. And even then I knew it was something completely outside my possible understanding - that it didn't make sense - that it was portentous while somehow avoiding to be pretentious. It was wrong. But not in the same way “King Kong Vs. Godzilla” was wrong. “2001”'s straight-faced and documentary-realistic depiction of seemingly amazing events with a lack of any over-baked pizazz haunted me. So much so that the next time I had a chance to see it (at a science convention years later - by that time its reputation had overtaken most critical discussion and moved it to fetishistic adoration) I didn't pass it up.

And so I saw it again, with older eyes. And then again, probably at a repertory house (double-billed this time with “El Topo”?). Over the years, I've probably seen “2001” 20 times projected in a theatre, an amazing number of times nowadays. Most films don't last 20 days in a theatre. (Yes, Chris, I did know the intermission comes right after the lip-reading scene.) I've seen it 20 more times at home. The only other film I think I've seen more is maybe “Sid and Nancy.” You should not read anything into that.

Clearly, what “2001” does - and doesn't do - has to do with its aesthetic pull on me. Amazing and epic events that change the course of man are laid out, calmly and with perfect taste, which such balance and reserve that it belies its stature as a baroque artifact.

Audiences today are familiar with the film - they know about “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and the monolith - they know about the apes who throw a bone at the moon and the monotone voice of Hal, who gets some astronauts into trouble. But they haven't really "watched" it. In a movie theatre, where they can't easily escape or turn the channel. They don't live in that world, so perfectly created. Nothing happens in it.

Maybe they have a point. People make small talk in an airport lobby. Astronauts jog and doodle and play chess. Oh, and mankind passes through an intergalactic gate and is transformed to a race of new super-beings. Nothing.

The film is passive-aggressively mundane on the surface, yet so abstract and symbolist in its story-telling it's practically avant-garde, a surrealist masterpiece. Kubrick's notorious and famous smashcut from the bone in the air to the spaceship in space about 30 minutes in is so obvious, so expected, and in a way so anticlimactic now, that modern audiences waiting to be jolted seem to miss it. When the impact of a shock cut is this underplayed (the music is fading, and cuts to the quietest strains of Strauss) you can't be faulted for calling it...”boring.”

Kubrick's films were never emotionally charged. Their ironic distance aren't tinged with condescension. “Full Metal Jacket” with its 2 out-of-balance halves, and the intentionally flat “Eyes Wide Shut” have hurt “2001”'s reputation by association. I suggest that Kubrick's narrative style has recently been best personified in the Coen Brothers' “No Country For Old Men,” with its poker-faced narrative drive, with all editorializing kept carefully out of view (and not, against our first impulse, P.T. Anderson's languid “There Will Be Blood” which wears its silent Kubrick-esque long-held shots on its sleeve (but he got the soundtrack right) yet fails to layer intangible nuance into each corner, edit, and composition as Kubrick would).

2001” keeps its metaphysical and spiritual secrets hidden behind a veneer of casually astounding set pieces as simple as a stewardess walking in a weightless circle, or 3 astronauts eating sandwiches in a spaceship. Each viewing teases out subtle nuances of human behavior, and suggests a prison of the human condition trapped in their own fate that resonate with larger concerns the film whispers around but never openly confronts. That's for us to discover and ponder. How important is man in the universe? How insignificant does man make himself in his own world?

40+ times, and I don't think I've seen it enough. I'm not able to explain the immeasurable and intangible mystery of this film - and ultimate simple beauty - to these 19-year-olds I work with. It's just another film, shot in Panavision, with sets, and a script, not unlike “Love Actually” or “V For Vendetta,” eh? They also prefer “Boogie Nights” to “Barton Fink.”

The trouble is - the trouble isn't with “2001” - it's with the audiences.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

(2/28/2009 Addendum: I've since seen "There Will Be Blood" again (8 months later) and find it much more nuanced than I did originally. I, along with many people, was too harsh at first. (Change of mind here.)

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Side Effects Of The Cocaine

(Note that this entire post is based on hearsay and has not been verified by any of the subjects.)

As I catch up on all the films I've missed over the years, ones I've read about but never saw or the ones I accidentally stumble upon, I'm finding my enjoyment is greater for the ones lost to the history books. You know, the often broken anti-classics, that exude some otherworldly badness that goes beyond mere ineptitude or inadequate budgets. When I do a little research into what went on during the productions, I see why.

Some of these behind-the-scene stories are more interesting than the actual document of the film itself, involving inappropriate use of drugs, inappropriate sexual couplings, or inappropriate financial dealings. This goes a long way towards explaining how some films end up the way they are. Films that apparently had all the resources at their disposal but seem to have been made by people who have never seen a film before.

I'm talking here about the movies of the '70s in which drugs played an important part in the creation. (I'll leave the other vices that are often committed in the name of art to another posting.) And by drug movies I don't mean the likes of “Easy Rider,” although that probably fits in with this discussion. The Cheech and Chong films, for example, clearly have a cast and crew that were at least partially fueled by mind-altering substances, but their ultimate very countenance isn't entirely due to the crew and production being seeped in a cannabis haze - the lackadasical plotting and production values ultimately are attributable to penny-pinching in a genre in which high standards (to coin a phrase) simply aren't required.

I call them “coke movies, ” and they're the ones where it's clear everyone on set - or at least the ones in charge - seem to be making decision in a cocaine-induced frenzy. Intensely committed but slightly skewed editing, writing, and camera placement and movement, a coke movie feels obsessively personal, yet constantly distracted. You can imagine everyone sitting around in their trailers being serviced by starlets, telling each other how fucking brilliant that new idea is, and busy enjoying a fast Hollywood lifestyle, the champagne and cocaine is flowing freely, and every sycophant is telling them their limo's ready. They couldn't be bothered by loftier concerns, like the filmed legacy that they would leave behind to the ages.

The best, and first “coke movie” I identified, was Martin Scorsese's “New York, New York,” his amped-up, trying-too-hard, out-of-balance ode to '40s musicals. Scorsese has admitted (as well as outing Liza Minnelli and reportedly Robert DeNiro as well) being coked to the gills on the film, and it shows in every decision made, from vanity casting (he was dating Minnelli at the time), to each overly baroque movement of the camera, to the half-assed kitchen-sink dialogue. Each little element just seems ever so slightly wrong, and in total has a cumulative effect of a bad amphetamine trip. (It's helpful to read the novelization of the film, by the original screenwriter Earl MacRauch, who based it on his screenplay when he saw what had happened to his screenplay.)

Usually, when the talent's flying behind the scenes, there's calmer and saner heads that prevail somewhere else before or after on the food chain, ensuring something more measured and releasable hits the screens - the problem is amplified when someone like Scorsese is in charge, and is at the point of his career (after “Taxi Driver” and “Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore”) in which he can (apparently) do no wrong, can demand a unique vision and not be second-guessed, may not be completely happy about his career or personal life, has money, and is young enough to submit his body to such abuse - at work no less!

Sam Peckinpah's another director who sabotaged his career with substance-fueled films that made little sense when cut together (especially when Peckinpah was barred from the editing room to do it properly), although all that's specifically part of his films' charms. Around the time of “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid,” his films - in spite of all the danger and acclaim - didn't translate to butts in seats to make his path easier in Hollywood (his people skills didn't improve things either). Reports of Peckinpah's epic binges on the set of PGABTK were known by the press and public before the film was even done shooting, yet probably contributes to its intensely nuanced yet boozy mise' en scene. (I direct you to the restored director's cut on DVD.) The film is unconventional, and I'm sure the executives cut it up to spite Peckinpah as much as repair it to some shape more familiar with anything they might have ever seen before.

This strategy of working continued, and certainly didn't help Peckinpah's later “Convoy.” That's not really a “coke movie;” it would better be described as a “Scotch movie.”

Robert Altman is notorious for liking a little smoke between him and the world, but it was around the time of “Popeye” that cocaine became prevalent, both on the set and permeating the evidence left on the screen. Hurting from a string of box office failures after the early promise of “M.A.S.H.” and “Nashville,” and attempting to prove these weren't flukes (turns out “Popeye” would be the fluke) he took on this high-budget orphan and managed to bungle every possible decision he could, including bitching up the frankly brilliant-in-retrospect casting of Robin Williams (as a level-headed unflappable sailor) by keeping him on cocaine the entire shoot, and then off-mike so his lines had to be re-dubbed later. Never has so much clearly obsessive research and writing (by Jules Ffeiffer, no less!), spot-on casting (Ray Walston and Shelly Long as Pappy and Olive, respectively) and fully-realized set design been put to such little effect. At least not until Michael Bay.

(And while Simpson and Bruckheimer might also be mentioned in this post, their off-screen antics don't really translate to the screen in the same drug-fueled way - they at least had the common sense to hire craftsmen that don't let their bad habits run away with them through the productions. Just their bad taste.)

The “coke movie” lives on, gloriously and spectacularly in the 2 recent “Matrix” sequels. The geniuses behind the first “The Matrix,” the Wachowski brothers, clearly are on drugs. Probably still are. And don't get me wrong - I love them for it (and I'm looking forward to “Speed Racer” this week (I have a feeling I'll eat those words)) - but the over-the-top, half-baked and over-cooked aspect of “Reloaded” and “Revolutions” screams nothing more than “Rehab.”

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Addendum - 06/05/08:

I just saw Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie" from 1971 this week and must add it to the list. Directed by Mr. Hopper after the success of "Easy Rider," it was shot in Peru to save money, to keep away from studio interference (hey, he did it once, why not let them try again), and no doubt for the easy access to the Peruvian flake that clearly informs every performance in the film (particularly Don Gordon's), and no doubt the befuddled directing and editing.

Mr. Hopper would not be allowed to direct another film for 10 years.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Your Fog, Your Amphetamine, and Your Pearls

Late last month, Jeffrey Katzenberg during a Dreamworks earnings call bemoaned the slow roll out of digital screens in US.

(Article here:

The digital revolution, as it relates to delivering true bit-based entertainment in movie theatres instead of boring old chemical-and-plastic-based 35mm films, has threatened to take over film as early as 1999, when Lucas produced (and tried to release) “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” completely digitally. Anyone remember seeing that projected from a digital print? How 'bout those grays, huh?

I understand why Katzenberg, in charge of Dreamworks and specifically Dreamworks Animation, would be intensely interested in the digital roll out. Film prints cost upwards of $4000- $6000 apiece to create, and being able to deliver digitally (presumably on a hard drive or through download onto servers at the theatres) would save untold millions of dollars per release. (Over 80% of all animated films in the next 5 years are slated to have digital “prints” available). This is assuming the infrastructure is installed and working on the theatre level.

I think the real impetus for this announcement is Dreamworks' upcoming 3-d CGI cartoon, “Monsters vs. Aliens” can't be rolled out successfully with only 1000 digital venues nationwide. Dreamworks requests... - or demands - closer to 5000 (see above article). The film has been pushed back 2 years, waiting for digital to be officially named the winner in this war. Of course, they've also bought more time to work on it. It's also possible it's not very good, and only the digital 3-d bells-and-whistles will convince people to go see it. The new 3-d technology and marketing is still in its infancy (yes, you heard that right). The surprisingly healthy grosses for the 3-d prints of 2006's otherwise lackluster “Meet The Robinsons” encouraged many studios to explore this possibly lucrative niche revenue stream while the grosses on 2007's 3-d “Beowulf” dampened that enthusiasm somewhat.

Jim Cameron's “Avatar” has met a similar fate. This long-in-the making “ground-breaking” digital 3-d amusement park ride has had a drifting release date that has currently landed on December 2009. Cameron needed the technology of exhibition to “do the release justice,” and I presume he intends to get it. Cameron conducted an interview with Variety

(read here:

in which he cheerleads about the digital future, in which any number of standards and frame rates are possible in the digital magic lantern theatre of the future - and Cameron and other forward-thinking filmmakers can make whatever the hell technological breakthrough he wants. Like all we'll have to do is push a button on the console at the theatres (assuming theatres still exist by then) and it unspools (or would that be "streams"?).

This is not realistic. Besides the fact that it disregards something called “standards,” in which technology is developed paralytically to be the most economical, efficient, and reliable in equal (or at least acceptable) measures, to benefit from the economies of scale engendered by a confident and measurable marketplace, it doesn't take into account the realities present on the exhibition level. In other words, in the booths of the movie theatres themselves.

I've worked in movie theatres for almost 20 years now, and there are 3 reasons why digital isn't going to gain traction under the current paradigm:

1) it's too expensive. It's too expensive to install. Each of these projectors are going for over $100,000 per screen. And that's just the hardware - support not included. How long would it take to pay off that investment, when all the gross from "Beowulf" is already not enough to pay off its production costs? As the Katzenberg article says, the cinema companies are looking for a $1.1 billion loan to pay for a wide roll-out. Hell, you can fund a war in Iraq for one day with that kind of money.

It's also too expensive to manage. These things aren't sewing machines. A recent test in Dallas had a small battalion of IT managers, encryption and 3-d experts, and other engineers trouble-shooting this sophisticated technology, all getting $100 an hour. Movie theatres nowadays don't have crusty old union projectionists who have been working since the Doris Day days - projectors are run by 19-year-old "assistant managers" getting an extra quarter an hour to thread film on automated platters that are for the most part foolproof. This technology works, and it has for almost 100 years. 99% of all theatres use it - it's what you call an installed user base. It's not going anywhere.

2) it's unreliable. Ever had your computer crash for no reason, and all you could do was reboot it? That's what happens when your digital projector decides it's not going to show "Star Wars Part 7" tonight at 8 pm. Ever seen a digital film skip - or freeze? That doesn't happen with regular 35mm film. Film's a strip of celluloid, and if it breaks, you slap a piece of tape on it and it runs in front of the big bright light and shines onto the white wall in front of the theatre. If a computer decides it's not going to show the movie tonight, it's not going to show the movie tonight. Period. No amount of splicing tape will change that.

There's something to be said for analog.

3) It doesn't look as good. That's right, in spite of the hype, digital still can't get the dark, dreamy, and "flickery" look of film that we've grown to love and respond to in an instinctual, almost fugue-like manner. The blacks aren't black, they're a little gray. And the whites aren't white - they're gray as well. "Truth at 24 frames a second" Godard said. It turns out it's more evocative, an abstract and powerful visual hypnotizing seducer of narrative force, than 30 frames, or as Mr. Cameron would have it - 48 or more per second, could capture, even though clearer a reality. Cameron says it's really "lies at 24 frames a second." Right. You make your movie, I'll make mine.

Alright, there's 4 reasons. Note that none of the discussions about digital cinema mentions the content - how any of this will in any way improve the quality of the films being produced. Are we missing the whole point here or what?