Monday, December 1, 2014

Film Projectors

Two years after Paul Thomas Anderson forced the issue by releasing The Master in a limited (very limited) number of theatres in 70mm, Christopher Nolan has pushed the envelope by gently demanding not only 55 70mm runs but another 190 35mm runs for Interstellar.

When Nolan talks, they listen. His films have made over $2 billion dollars worldwide and any scheme he has breathes golddust.

With delicious irony, the film is being released by Paramount who announced last year they would be the first major studio to stop distributing their films on 35mm - convert to digital or get out but if you ask nice we do still have 35mm stock (foreign markets are still mostly analog).

The apparent attraction to exhibitors was the film versions would open 2 days early (November 5th) and enjoy the high first-nighter grosses, be in Mr. Nolan's "preferred format," wouldn't be scratched yet and hey, you know, he shot it in film not that digital phone camera crap.

It's been a mere 2 years since all the 35mm projectors were not only wheeled out of the way but ejected from the major chains' booths. Certainly we can move them back in?

But based on numerous reports from friends, professionals and various websites the sad truth is the skill to install, run and maintain 35mm has already gone the way of hot-type. Sound mixes way off, audio tracks going silent, dirt and scratches running through the middle of Kansas and the void of space, etc. 70mm is a more rarified format with its own challenges you'd assign only to a journeyman projectionist.

Anderson, more an instinctual businessman than filmmaker, ended up with ten 70mm installations (most re-installations) for The Master in 2012, a manageable number and good enough for the publicity of the gesture. Nolan's (it's on him) aggressively retro, certainly well-meaning stubbornness may have inadvertently hastened the audience's disdain for old film formats.

Presumably Tarantino's The Hateful Eight is being released in 70mm as well as a couple others. (But not Star Wars VII - Abrams is using 65/70mm stock, the standard IMAX strategy and hasn't announced an actual 70mm release.)

This is not a trend so much as a fetish. These filmmakers value the texture as much as the text and precious few (Tarantino, Nolan, Spielberg, barely Anderson) have the power in Hollywood to be petted and indulged. Others (Fincher, Abrams, Scorsese) have the mojo to keep movies on film and out of our handhelds but choose to weave different myths.

Most every member of the sold-out crowds who witness a bad presentation due to lost skill and scratched prints will avoid the next film release if they have a choice. To them 70mm is already like the gimmick of 3-D. An acquired taste and of questionable financial and aesthetic value.


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Picture from DoobyBrain.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What You Wish For

In other news, Quentin Tarantino, film nerd and savior of the New Beverly 7 years ago because he started paying the rent to keep it open, then actually bought the building when it was going to be redeveloped, has taken over the management from the previous manager/ programmer Michael Torgan.

This story has been reported, poorly of course, in various publications the last couple weeks. The New Bev is closed until October, when Mr. Tarantino's schedule and plan (and maybe a new paintjob) are revealed.

The sentiment among the film preservationist community is conflicted. In the absence of actual evidence of whether or not Tarantino was really actually pissed Torgan bought a digital projector and therefore kicked his ass out, or if his announcements at Cannes were just a coincidence of timing, without any apparent ill will actually expressed by either Tarantino ("I want him to be involved as much as possible") or by Torgan ("Quentin couldn't be a better landlord"), various commentators (such as this one) suggest it was "uneasy" or "not pretty," that QT the rich Hollywood plebe is destroying a man's livelihood and the insular and cineaste community that surrounded the New Bev.

As of this writing we still don't know why or other details. Comments spilling under the articles are overwelmingly sentimental for the films watched, the wonderful double bills, the star appearances - as they should be. As I am about the Pacific Center 3 and the Fashion Valley 4 in San Diego, all gone now and where I saw seminal films in the '70s and '80s myself.

There's a palpable sense of betrayal and distrust in Tarantino's motives.

He "wants to make it his own." He's doing this for a hobby, that he's going to show films from his own extensive collection. He's got 1000s of prints and apparently knows there are 1000s more out there so he is only going to show 35mm only, no more digital, a true film fan's dream.

I guess he got what he wished for.

I know a little about the financial realities of trying to keep an aging theatre alive. The New Bev is shabby, in spite of new seats (the old take-seats-from-a-closing- theatre-only-slightly-newer-than-the-ones-you're-replacing trick), in a dodgy area and with audiences often no more than double digits, sometimes less than a dozen by some reports. The additional fakt that most of the films they show are available elsewhere (albeit digitally) or stone unknown, makes the math hard to stack.

QT isn't the bad guy. He allowed the theatre, unlike hundreds of others just like it, to remain open with what amounts to a donation approaching (possibly exceeding) $1 million or so. A labor of love. Preservationists and archives, film fetishists to a man, appreciate his response and want a theatre devoted to 35mm, want one that shows old, odd, inspired double bills. They want the theatre in the shaggy Fairfax district as its show business anchor, to see Clu Gulagar in the front row, to get free popcorn.

They also want Michael Torgan. The guy who works 60 hours a week, drove his own car, projected, this unmarried guy (he can't be married - she'd be behind the snackbar every night). He even changed the marquee himself. A love of labor? I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

I think there's so much hand wringing because they also know - it's a lost cause. The digital projector was a way to mitigate the future but it won't matter. Tarantino doesn't have enough 35mm prints or ultimately, the right prints. Even if he suggested arrogantly in an interview (in the LA Reader) that filmmakers demand the studios make more film prints:

Indie Filmmaker to Studio Head: "You have to strike a 35mm print so we can show it at the New Beverly!" (Laughs heartily).

Maybe if you're Tarantino this gets traction. His last 2 films grossed at least $120 million domestic each so he can call up a studio and ask a print be struck (or a new one of some old forgotten favorite and Paramount's happy to spend the $10k for a print of Hickey & Boggs to make QT happy. Then he gets to keep it for his collection).

Maybe that's why the Bev had the pristine prints they did the last few years. There's more to this story. There's been precious little information about exactly what Tarantino offered, said or threatened or when, and what Torgan wanted, lost or demanded. Everyone's quite civil but I know for at least someone, this came as no surprise. Only to us on the outside.

The prosaic reasons for QT to "make it my own" are probably more complicated and less interesting than the most vocal want it to be. It's not just little guy vs. big guy.

The guy with the money gets to try now. We're not sure this is a great idea or a terrible idea. But we feel sorry for Michael, 'cause he made that lost cause our own private secret.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Triggers

Film history is revisionist and reactionary.  Most people writing about the classics or about "the golden age" weren't even there - they have only the reviews and the evidence of the careers before and subsequent to place any film or trend in context.

I've heard more than one person amazed why no one liked Carpenter's The Thing when it came out. They don't understand what it was like to see that shit back in 1982. (I know that disparaging words against The Thing get some people apoplectic. Consider that a trigger.)

So let this post be a kind of primary source for Kathyrn Bigolow's Strange Days (1995) which was highly anticipated, had a great pedigree at the time and should have blow our minds, we know we wanted it. And it was a film that opened in the large theatre where I worked in the '90s and I was there for the opening nights.

The reaction and the word-of-mouth was quite different than that which has come down to us through the years. A puzzle piece that's lost but may explain the career trajectories of some of those involved.

Strange Days was co-written and produced by James Cameron, who was hot off of True Lies (1994) and Terminator 2 (1991) and the ex-husband to Bigelow, whose last film was the equally testosterone-y (but more fun) Point Break (1991), only beginning to grow the street-Keanu-cred on it that it would enjoy in subsequent decades. Yet Strange Days is practically a lost film. Seemingly prescient, taking place on the cusp of the millennium and posing a hip blue-lit future out of Philip K. Dick or the Wachowski brothers (they were brothers then), it also has that Doors resonance (I taste The Lost Boys in there; people are strange even in your peripheral vision).

The action centers around a device that records your actions, sharing them virtually (this was barely a buzz word then) with headgear and a demonstration near the start of a recording of someone doing something, from inside their head - cool! it turns out to be a recording of the guy trapping then raping a woman.

Our heroes (relatively speaking) get ahold of the tape but can only watch that crime from the recorded POV - you "experience it" but still can't quite grab the evidence you need.

A lost film I have the feeling the filmmakers would rather stay lost. A novel, rather edgy techno- nerdy idea (well, not so new after all, a similar device was used in Brainstorm (1983) and was the fodder of much speculation then - if you could "read someone's thoughts" the first thing that came to mind was.... Rule 34 and all that. A provocative but ultimately flat homogenized Hollywood film (it was directed, after all, by Douglas Trumbull) the buzz on it was taken over by the untimely death of Natalie Wood and how the final cut became compromised)).

Starring Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List!), Angela Bassett (Tina Turner!), Vincent D'Onofrio (The Player!, Orson Welles in Ed Wood!, the donut guy in Full Metal Jacket). And of course, the huge balls of Cameron and Bigelow each seemingly trying to out cock each other with their arrogance, sci-fi savvy, hubris and ourheartsnotbroken.

Thing was they throw in a rape. Not just a rape, as like - a past event to motivate a character, but instead it's a rape from a 1st-person perspective. One that's subjective, that doesn't signify the bad guy as "bad guy" but as something the viewer experiences as it's happening. As a bit. A thrilling visual.

(Ebert complained about this kind of thing in the Friday the 13th films. If you don't position the killer as "other," cinematically you end up putting the audience in sympathy with the killer. With being the killer. With being the rapist. To what end? You know you want it. Indeed.)

Here's where I learned an important film-making lesson. Rape takes a film hostage. Irreparably and inexorably. When the first rape scene came on, in first person (when they're demonstrating the device), easily a dozen people hit the lobby - angry and in no mood to negotiate. Some of the women were in tears; everyone demanded their money back. They were violated - tricked. The sense of outrage palatable and scary. The men were red around the ears, protective or accusing us of crimes and irresponsible citizenship.

You see, you don't treat a rape scene as entertainment.

That arrogant cocky Cameron/Bigelow attitude got to them. This adolescent rape sequence, a provocative dare had added insult to invisible injuries, salt in unknown wounds.

The film's word of mouth was vitriolic and moved quickly. Who cares how daring or well done the special effects. The film doesn't really work anyway, as science fiction or as detective story. (Maybe as cautionary tale.) Trying too hard to be cool but with an elitist view of the poor and desperate, and by having (and this was not the first or last time Cameron fell in this trap) too much resources at his disposal they didn't attempt to be empathetic or smart, just brazen, colorful and daring.

It blew up in their face.

Rape is a trigger. Some people simply won't take it fictionalized or treated without the highest level of respect. (And don't make me tell you the Schindler's List story.) Certain topics are off limits. You don't hurt animals, you don't casually throw child abuse into your story, and you sure as hell don't use rape as a "plot point."

It kills your narrative dead and demanded you stop everything and lower your voice in those politically correct, victims-first times.

This was not a niche indie. This was a major 20th Century Fox production. The film was gone within 3 weeks as I remember and everyone's career experienced a speedbump. Whether because of this film, the decision to be in this film, or the fact they'd all graduated to big-Hollywood cocaine-sized budgets and trailers, Fiennes, Bassett and D'Onofrio's careers seemed to stall or got murked by less high-profile projects. Maybe no one trusted them anymore, maybe audiences had a bad taste in their mouth.

Maybe the paydays were big enough so they all went arty.

Cameron has always earned a begrudging respect, people enjoyed his films in spite of themselves (the racism in True Lies, so weirdly accidental and not even intentional makes it more distasteful. Avatar is already past its sell-by date.). Bigelow would continue to have trouble getting projects off the ground until she eventually had two good years 15 years later with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Two war films heavier on the art side and a little more careful with the clueless moralizing.

I think that big budget films are way too careful and well, I guess they have to be. Strange Days is an abject lesson lost to time but that many Hollywood types probably still remember.

Bad movies don't kill careers. Triggers do.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Blue

It's rumored, half the time Ridley Scott spent updating and mastering the most recent "last" Final Cut of Blade Runner was spent figuring out if Deckard was a replicant or not ("Do I have any coverage of that?") and half the time he spent taking out the wires and cables that were suddenly visible in the new hi-definition formats.

Film is a different medium than digital, and has grain, 24 images per second, moves through the projector and each image is distinct, different, contrary - the inherent blur tends to soften sharp distinctions between shots. Just ask ILM.

Blu-ray imagery is sharper and doesn't move - it's an algorithm that reveals anything the original film could pick up and holds it still for our eye. In hi-def 4 times as sharp for our edification. And in its crystal clarity lies the rub.

The mechanics of film is forgiving and tricks the eye. When lit properly rear-and front-projection screens look real in their soft-focus background. Matted shots blend more smoothly with the hard surface of the foregrounds. Cables that held the helicars up disappeared in the smoke, but Scott had to have them digitally removed for the blu-ray.

Tom Savini's make-up effects, intended to go by in single-digit frame-flashes in the old Friday The 13th movies convince even less than they did then.

Movie theatres used to be large dark rooms and the light, this big at its source, would be expanded and diffused through the hundreds of feet it travelled to the movie screen, by 1000% or more. Effects were engineered and designed to work as well as they needed to. They didn't need to stand up to intense scrutiny.

You could get away with the flying horse in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. There's a reason why it hasn't been upgraded to blu-ray. It would look too shabby. That film's been denigrated enough.

Blu-rays reveal the flaws of the source. And at a certain point you get diminishing returns. The beginning 15 minutes of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Oddysey appearing to be shot on the veldt of prehistoric Africa was actually shot on a soundstage with large front-projection screens behind the rocks and the men-in-suits.  On a large screen it's entirely convincing, as is the small cut-ins of people moving in the windows of the model spaceships on the moon.

Yet, finally, on the beautiful blu-ray I recently acquired (what could go wrong?) there are clear panels marring the prehistoric sky. The resolution of the blu-ray reveals the folds in the fabric that is hanging behind the sets; the clear "sheetiness" of it, hell, I swear, even the remnants of old western landscapes that seem to have been painted over or obscured that would have been, at most, a blurry trace when filmed and projected.

Deep and nuanced and not quite visible, like the past it depicts.

The tolerances built into the old systems have been decalibrated and the nuances are now hammer blows. The film, so much of its time (1968) is built as best it could be then, with paper cut-outs and fake backgrounds.

A blu-ray upgrade has made me strangely sad.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Free Money

Long-time readers, or those who are curious enough to do their research, will know I produced and directed a film, "Usher," around 2004.

I curried favor and collected everyone I could to pitch in. Actors, cable pullers, drivers and bagel buyers. A true indie production, currently available here.

I went into debt making the film, because who listens to the advice of not using your own money, or believes their idea isn't better than the others that don't get sold, or realizes how expensive post production (especially on film) really is. I did get it in the can, and while the film never made it to DVD (the indie DVD market was falling apart already by then) I got my soundtrack on iTunes and CDBaby and have actually sold a handful of tunes for about a dollar each.

That and some pocket change would buy you a pocket. The yearly checks I got were good for buying a case of beer for the Christmas holiday. All those streams on Spotify and Rdio added up to about $20 over the course of a year, a penny at a time. CDBaby struck a deal with Rumblefish in 2012 in which they would monetize any use of the songs they held on YouTube, identifying it and collecting a bit of money for every view.

About .000635 cents for each view.

This works 2 ways. People who upload something and need a song can use their huge database and pick my song (assuming they find it, or hear it and think it appropriate for their needs). A "Buy it now" button is added to the clip description. More pennies for me (the answer to the question who buys the song they hear on a YouTube video we'll save for another day).

Or, anyone who had already grabbed one of the songs is warned to replace it or share in the wealth.

The bad news was Rumblefish kept trying to block the music on our own upload, then allowed it thereby gaining 50% of the funds for any plays. (Not that there were any funds before it was licensed).

The surprising news was, I just found out my soundtrack guy (Jeff Lunzaga aka Desciple) had used one of my cuts (or one similar enough for software) in another film he scored the same year, "Gangsta's Paradise" and it was recently identified by Rumblefish as belonging to me (I have the contract right here, Jeff).

This film's been watched many more times than "Usher," and in the last 10 days alone has been watched over 103000 times.

That's 3 cases of beer.

I don't know the deal Jeff made with the producers of "Gangsta's" but by virtue of being first to CDBaby and Rumblefish with the music, I inadvertently find myself in the position to start to pay off that debt with this inadvertent revenue trickle.

Just in time for July 4th!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Two Detectives

When I think of Sleuth, I think of blue.

They hired Kenneth Branagh and Harold Pinter to remake Anthony Shaffer's 1972 original in 2007. Based on a limited-character chamber piece written for the stage, it starred scene-chewing Lawrence Olivier as the older man and a smoldering Michael Caine hot off "Alfie" and "Get Carter." Both actors got Oscar nominations.

35 years later, Caine played the older man, still smoldering while the young and upcoming Jude Law played the role Caine had been in, also (to further the cultural echo) hot off his own "Alfie."

Branagh's take was colder and more self aware to the point of being arch. The joie de vivre and loose playfulness of what is basically an adolescent game of the original had been rendered sterile. Hell, the set design was hypermodern, all glass and concrete and uncomfortable-looking chairs. And everything was blue. Having Pinter adapt the play this time didn't exactly warm things up either.

And the film stock they used for the prints had an additional problem. I worked in a theatre when this came out and the polyester print would slowly shed particles of plastic as it ran through the projector. Perhaps all prints do to a certain degree (Schindler's List had this problem as well, we seemed to think it had to do with the way the color stock had been processed to make it black & white). But Branagh's Sleuth gave off blue. A fine layer of dust got into every crevice of the projector, behind the lens and along the film path. Thank god for us it only lasted a week.

The next film had a slight twilight glow to it we jokingly ascribed to Branagh's directorial vision (even though his film had left the premises a week before).

DVDs are falling on hard times and they are no longer demanding full price. I was able to pick up (at two different places) both versions of Sleuth this week, each for under $3.00. A shame really as the first is possibly the best mid-'70s puzzle-box play based on character, a post-Christie whodunit/thriller that proves a trick ending need not disappoint or be entirely unexpected.

And the second, as cold-hearted and mannered as it is, in part I suspect to protect against claims of being old-fashioned or obsolete, may serve as the best example of how a different sensibility and cultural circumstances can recast (oops, wrong word) and transform for all practical purposes an identical piece.

The stunt casting (which would work anyway even if it weren't such a delicious stunt) only adds to the resonance between the two films. Viewed one after the other you're seeing a new work, yet also have the benefit of seeing the same work again (which is what film schools always tell you to do - see a film to discover what it's doing, see it a second time to discover what it isn't doing, see it a third time to see how it does what it is (and isn't) doing).

It's a match made in heaven. Have your cake then eat it. See two films for the price of one; one film for the price of two.

I can hardly wait for the next remake, due in about 25 years. Doing the math, it's likely the young actor, who will play against Jude Law who will take on the role of the older man, hasn't even been born yet.