Friday, October 17, 2008

Forget it, Jake

I spent a certain amount of my time about 15 years ago defending Robert Towne's and Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." It had become the new "Citizen Kane," newly familiar to an increasingly savvy and curious film-geek community who had read all the get-rich-quick-screenwriting books and would rent it on VHS or DVD, wondering what all the fuss was about.

It's hard to put your finger on. It's slow, and too confusing. Nicholson is in that post-Five Easy Pieces/pre-Witches of Eastwick period where he's still poised between being the new Marlon Brando and the pre-Jim Carrey he became in the '80s. It's a period piece, overly slavish to authentic detail, and who cares about LA's water? And who's idea was it to cast John Huston, who can't read a line properly?

What the last 3 generations don't understand, can never again understand, is that it's a movie theatre movie. It's the last breath of the old system, embracing all the beautiful and hard things that films used to do. It exploits, and even depends upon your confusion as it unravels. You listen and it doesn't talk much, in spite of its reputation as the most "writerly" of mid '70s screenplays. The dialogue, sets, cars, and clothes are high fashion, as if from the MGM studio era. Nothing is dirty or looks lived in. Even Faye Dunaway comes across as a starlet, groomed and modeled to be the site of our visual desire (indeed she was, having come off such films as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Thomas Crown Affair" in that mode). Even Huston is an echo back to Bogart (by way of "The Big Sleep" and "Treasure of Sierra Madre", which we in 1974 would have still known).

The film doesn't explode. It seethes. Audiences nowadays laugh at the "She's my daughter and my sister" bit, and don't laugh at Burt Young, a tension-reliever and breather as I remember the first time I saw it (in a rep theatre). The dialogue is full of exposition that doesn't sound or feel like it - you're getting information by osmosis. The central metaphor of the film, that dark heart of Gittes' past that will eventually and painfully have to be revisited, is as powerful as "Apocalypse Now"'s, but not nearly as flamboyant.

How do you convince someone that something so underwhelming is overwhelming in the sum of its parts? The film seems to me to be pitch perfect, and full of nuance that is too subtle, strangely and refreshingly European in tone, which makes sense considering Polanski was at the height of his power and game at this point. The film has a million details, but barely a set-piece or action sequence. Water comes out of a stormdrain. He walks around with a bandage on his nose for the 2nd half.

What today's generation also won't understand is that this is a Watergate movie. No doubt developed before those events came to light, it still captures a mood building in the country and culture. It's about corruption, and feeling like you're in over your head, and that nothing you can do matters. It's the opposite of "Casablanca," which is about the same things, but at the end of that Rick does to the right thing, and even preserves his own broken heart (a personal possession he values and probably can't live without). In "Chinatown," which both celebrates and eulogizes what LA has become and what it gave up to be that way, Polanski, Towne, and Robert Evans illuminate the last traces of possible decency, while demonstrating the highest level of craft that Hollywood was capable of.

It's a last gasp, in a dustbowl of despair, and came out the same year as "The Godfather II" and "Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia." Something was going on then. And audiences today can't see it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I Love LA

In Thom Anderson's fascinating (and illegal) documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself," he compiles hundreds of film clips that show Los Angeles, and builds a philosophy of how the city in which the vast majority of entertainment imagery and stories comes out of portrays itself.

Most of the subtext these films generate - from corrupt cops to smoggy flatlands to evil and unaffordable modernist houses up on the hills - isn't intentionally misleading or malicious. The films are motivated first by the need to be picturesque, then in reflecting the modes and means of production, easy to access or manage (financially or physically). The cheaper films will be set near Venice or the forgotten hills of deep LA downtown (Bunker Hill in the '20s and '30s).

Films with bigger budgets will position their villians on the hills overlooking the hills of Hollywood. And their heroes in a fashionable beachhouse - both no doubt for rent far beyond the pay their characters would afford, even in real life.

In Anderson's glorious cacaphony of appropriated clips - which is a self-created gordian's legal knot, no doubt not likely ever to be untangled or released - we are overwhelmed by what we recognize, what we don't, how much landscape, landmarks, fixtures and real life are in the periphery of every film ever made.

That LA (stubbornly "Los Angeles" to Anderson) is so memorable and recognizable is a testament to the unity in its apparent promiscuous appropriations of styles and fashions. There's a nostalgia infused in all of Los Angeles, with public works, bridge embankments, and neon signs high above 100-year-old hotels to remind us of previous times, glories, and periods that are, for one, not that far off. (Los Angeles and Hollywood are actually less than 100 years old - you may see old Chaplin films from the late teens and see that Sunset Blvd, the monster strip of today, was still a muddy street without curbs then.)

For two, its previous glories are documented. Well. We know the Roosevelt Hotel, and Bunker Hill, and the Santa Monica pier, and the Bradbury Building. The remnants remain, and are sometimes boarded up but not necessarily levelled. But then that leaves its own traces.

"Los Angeles Plays Itself" ends up documenting LA's combination of old nostalgic charm and misguided progress, gently and not maliciously butted up against each other, in conflict as the dramas of the day (whether it's paranoid class struggle in the '60s or corporate anxiety in the '90s). Much of it, although photographed well, isn't particularly photogenic - it's not gussied up to look as good as possible, because maybe it already has the power to provoke without it.

My main complaint with Anderson's collection, running at over 2 hours 45 minutes, is that it - wait for it - isn't long enough. He seems to begin in the late '30s and the vast majority of his clips are from the '80s and '90s. No death of material, but I would have liked to see how LA looked in the silent era, to really get a sense of how it built itself, and became the character before it eventually became, as Anderson demonstrates, the actual subject of much of these films.

The continuum continues. "Lakeview Terrace," "Collateral;" I can only imagine when someone tries to do this for New York. Or Chicago. Our relationship to a place has a lot to do with what others say about it. Los Angeles, with its history of outsiders coming in to comment on it, seems to be a good place to start.

I love LA - or, at least, what they show me of it in the movies.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Back Up

The long-reported and slow-in-coming massive digital roll-out in actual movie theatres has moved one important step closer this month. Five Hollywood studios have agreed to help defray the costs of installing digital projectors in as many as 20,000 movie theatres across the nation in the next couple of years.

(Story as reported by LA Times is at,0,1993700.story, and also here.)

That's about half the screens out there. The costs will reach $1 billion. That's only one of the reasons that theatres weren't willing to jump from 35mm film to digital technology.

The studios love this. If 20,000 screens receive solely digital content, it can save the industry as much as $3 billion. A year. It costs money to make and ship all those prints of films. Especially when they only last in theatres a week or two.

A long time ago, before video, DVD, and the Internet, popular films would play a year or more in theatres. "Star Wars" in 1977 played an average of 10 months in theatres. "Revenge of the Sith," 30 years later, earned 75% of its $380m gross in 2 weeks, and was off 90% of its screens in 8 weeks.

The large theatre chains seem fine with all this - they'll receive a per-print fee of about $800 each to defray costs - presumably about as much as it costs the studios to develop, dupe, and ship a physical print the old-fashioned way.

This is a lie. It costs at least $3000 per print, by current insider estimates - the studios are short-changing the exhibitors.

(No word on how much it costs to create, duplicate, beam/upload, and manage a digital print, but presumably it's a lot cheaper. We "presume" only because there are no physical elements to create. The management of these prints will create new challenges however, as they are complicated digital assets that aren't created or behave like physical stable objects, including being more prone to electricity and magnetic fields, and allowing themselves to be duplicated for "free" if not properly protected.)

So the more digital you book the closer you are to paying for your d-projectors. And you won't have to pay that last 19-year-old kid to run the booth anymore, or make up and break down films. There won't be any more scratches on prints (assuming they last long enough to get scratched (and they do, they only takes one showing)). Suddenly the math makes sense; it's likely to create a large installed user base of digital projection within just a few years.

AMC, Regal, and Cinemark will leave the smaller chains in the dust, who won't have access to the digital content Hollywood wants to offer. And will exclusively, probably before long. The bigger productions will favor the large chains that can squeeze the largest grosses out of the prints. (Studios won't need to be as promiscuous with print runs and clearances to get high grosses as they have been in the last 20 years, although with digital duplicates being "infinitely" duplicatable they still can be... as long as they keep installing more d-projs.)

Studios will also have more control over each copy before, during and after playdates (Digital projectors can be individually addressed, and "prints" can be locked. They'll know if someone at the theatre scheduled an extra midnight show and collected money without reporting it to the studio).

(People don't copy 35mm prints (they'd need an optical printer, illustrated above), they just show them without telling the bosses (see a previous post, "Fin de Cine" here). This began happening approximately 1 week after projecting film was invented, in 1898. Lot of people got rich this way (including some of the future heads of what would be the Hollywood studios in the '10s and '20s - they all began in exhibition and opened movie studios later). Digital "control" means studios don't have to remain concerned about what happens to the old 35mm prints because they no longer have to track physical assets they can't exploit, and frankly don't want to be bothered with storing.)

Hacking and copying, which has already moved away from the theatre level and now lives within the studios, will move closer to rocket science. Studios in one single swoop are both attempting to bottle and tempting the illegal duplicates devil with one technological carrot.

One minor problem not addressed is the maintenance. What do you do when your $80k+ projector - which has no moving parts, has no user-accessible panels, has highly-proprietary soft- and hard-ware, and hasn't been street-tested over 100 years like 35mm projectors have - goes kaput? You call the $200-an-hour technician, that's what. This is problematic. These machines aren't fool-proof.

A major problem will be with history. In the past there were upwards of 1000 (if not 4000) stable 35mm prints that would ensure some level of redundancy when looking to revisit a recent film. Digital films are ephemeral - you can't put your hands on it and store it safely away. Like all sophisticated computer files, it must be continuously upgraded, tested, re-formatted and in general baby-sat over the course of its life. How will you watch Zemeckis's 3-D version of "Beowulf" (assuming you will want to) in 10 years? The equipment it was created for (and on) is already obsolete, and unless someone spends money to upconvert it, it will become as lost as that Wordstar document you wrote back in 2001.

This is not a robust technology, nor likely to be a legacy one. "Beowulf", as well as the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus 3-D concert film, "Best Of Both Worlds," are both important technological and historical chapters in the development of the new wave of digital exhibition. Yet they're already unavailable in the original format they were intended to be seen. (The blu-ray 3-d approximations are just that: approximations, technologically hobbled, and only emphasize the unexamined rush to overly baroque and expensive digital exhibition.)

Finally, the reliance on digital delivery will sacrifice timelessness for timeliness. Film, physical and stable, is transportable, over space and over time. Its standardization (as well as its high quality of image capture) is not something to be dismissed out of hand. Digital files are less flexible. The current "conversion" is gu-estimated to be paid for over 10 years. Do they really think the current digital standards and technology will stand still for that long?

Where will the next $10 billion come from when the current specs become obsolete? Oh, say, in about a year? I worked at an AMC with an obsolete digital projector that was only 16 months old sitting in the corner of the booth - the techs were taking pieces off it to jury-rig other newer projectors. A $100k+ boat anchor.

Which venues won't be updated and therefore obsolete, either "frozen" (doomed to show films produced before 2008) or unable to show anything (because they junked the 35mm projectors)? How many screens will close for lack of product?

What will audiences in the future support? What will be produced to take advantage of a new digital IMAX 3-D technological aesthetic? Which most agree is a technological fad itself?

Will it be able to watch it years later? In what form? A museum endowed with old 21st century "digital projection" machines, perhaps?

The exhibition film industry is going to be sorry for their short-sightedness. It won't last. There won't be any affordable back-ups.

What will be saved then?