Digital Projection

Movie technology is about to change–big time. And like its other big changes–sound, widescreen, home video–this one is going to be both a blessing and a curse.

Within the next few years, movie theaters will go digital, not just for sound, but for projection. That’s inevitable. What’s still in question is how much that change will be for the better, and how much for the worse.

Judging from what I’ve seen, I’d have to say the worse. But I’ve only seen first generation, 1.2k DLP projectors. Compared to 35mm film, their images look fuzzy and lack contrast.

But from what I’ve read, the latest 2K projectors are a huge improvement. And I’ve heard nothing but raves about Sony’s forthcoming 4K SXRD projector–and yes, I’ve heard these raves from people I trust. These advances could make a real improvement over 35mm release prints, especially when you consider that digital projection is steadier than film and less prone to wear and tear.

But will we ever see 4K projection in a commercial theater? Digital technology improves quickly–that’s the nature of the beast–but it can cost a lot of money to take advantage of those improvements. Today’s movies look sharper and clearer than films shot in the same formats 50 years ago, and they look that way even on a 50-year-old projector. That’s because the improvements are in the media; Kodak invents a better film stock and movies suddenly look better at no cost to the theater. But upgrading a 1.2K projector to 2K is a major investment.

Right now, high conversion costs are keeping digital projection out of most theaters. But as technology improves, older, less cutting-edge projectors will get cheaper. When “good enough” becomes cheap enough, digital installations will reach critical mass, the standard will lock, and that’s how movies in theaters will look. And if that’s 1.2K, it won’t be good enough for me.

We might get lucky. I know of no 2K setups in the Bay Area, but last March Landmark Theaters announced that it would install Sony’s 4K projectors in all of its theaters.

Even at 4K, the image will be noticeably different, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It will lack film’s barely perceivable shutter effect, a steady grid will replace random grain, and the picture will just not look like film. So what? Change is in the nature of the medium. Acetate film doesn’t look like nitrate, Eastmancolor doesn’t look like Technicolor, and you’ll never see Hamlet with the original cast.

If done right, digital projection could be wonderful, especially for the art and revival circuits (when it gets cheap enough for them to afford it). Film prints are expensive to make, maintain, and ship around the country, and this hurts the small art distributors more than the big studios. Some films get limited runs despite eager audiences because there aren’t enough prints to go around (Best of Youth is a recent example). Digital versions can be easily copied and distributed.

The same issues apply to revivals, which are caught in a vicious circle. Few theaters show old movies, so distributors don’t make new prints, which discourages theaters from showing old movies. Digital projection could break this cycle. Many classics these days are restored digitally, anyway.

If digital projection eventually means that the theaters I track on Bayflicks can show any film without print availability issues, and without loss of detail or contrast, I can live without the flicker.

What’s worth seeing? Believe it or not, I can’t offer a single new recommendation this week. The line-up is dominated by frameline29, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, and I can’t recommend any of the films in the lineup for the simple reason that I haven’t seen any. (In case you haven’t figured it out, LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. The people who organize this festival want to cover a lot of identities–they even have a film about Republicans.) But these three look promising.

Noteworthy: The Reception, Castro, Saturday evening. I haven’t seen it, and I haven’t read any reviews, but the story sounds intriguing. A mother and grown daughter, both white, confront each other and the black men in their lives–at least one of whom is gay. Part of frameline29.

Noteworthy: Just the Two of Us, Roxie, Saturday evening. If you want lighter gay film fare, this 1970 lesbian exploitation film (produced by Roger Corman) looks like a blast. Also part of frameline29.

Noteworthy: Happy Endings, Castro, Tuesday evening. A relationship comedy written and directed by Don (The Opposite of Sex) Roos. That alone is sufficiently promising. Another part of frameline29.

The Silent Summer Season

It’s summer, time for Shakespeare in the park, blockbusters at the multiplex, and best of all, silent movies with live musical accompaniment. In case you never noticed, your opportunities to enjoy this sublime hybrid of canned and live entertainment increase when the kids are out of school.

We have two weekend-long silent film festivals every summer, this year with only one weekend off between them. And there are always plenty of other silents, as well. And almost all of these are accompanied by live musicians, often improvising or playing their own compositions.

The silent season begins June 24-26 with the Broncho Billy Film Festival in Niles. Once a town of its own and now a neighborhood in Fremont, Niles played a role in silent film history–Charlie Chaplin spent a year making two-reel comedies there. The Niles Film Museum shows silents year round, but the Festival is their big annual event–two days and three nights of silent pictures, panel discussions, and overflowing enthusiasm.

This year’s program includes Greta Garbo’s last silent, a collection of early films by great clowns, a nickelodeon act combining movies and live entertainment, a talk by David Shepard on restoring early Chaplin shorts, and John Ford’s epic western, The Iron Horse. Local pianists will accompany all films.

Perhaps it’s Niles’ small-town nature, but this is a very friendly festival. There’s always someone worth talking to and happy to talk to you. In just one day at the festival two years ago, I found myself in discussions with two authors of published silent film books, a technician hoping to recreate long-gone film stocks, and the above-mentioned David Shepard–one of the leading figures in silent film restoration.

The ball moves to San Francisco two weeks later for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, July 8-10 at the Castro. While it lacks Niles’ small-town intimacy, this festival makes up for that in showmanship and international flavor. All of the movies will be in 35mm, several of them tinted. Some films will be accompanied on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ, some on piano, and two by ensembles.

Those two are from countries whose silent films you probably haven’t seen. The Latin American Chamber Music Society will accompany the Brazilian love story Sangue Mineiro, with a score by Mauro Correa. And Indian classical musicians Ben Kunin and Debopriyo Sarkar will play for Prem Sanyas, an Indian biopic on the life of Buddha. Other films on the schedule include King Vidor’s great war movie The Big Parade, Harold Lloyd’s For Heaven’s Sake, and the Clara Bow hit It. (It, by the way, will be preceded by the early experimental talkie, “Gus Visser and His Singing Duck,– which I can assure you is a truly bizarre experience.)

But the silent films don’t end on July 10. The Balboa has three silents, Grass, Chang, and South scheduled for its Human/Nature series–the last two with live music. The Castro will show new archival prints of Wings (accompanied by Warren Lubitsch on the Wurlitzer) and The Sheik (with Joel Adlen on piano) later in July. Then, in late August, the Castro has a week of Harold Lloyd double bills. The accompaniment won’t be live; the movies come with new recorded scores by Carl Davis, one of the current stars in silent film music. And, of course the Niles Museum will continue to show silents every Saturday night–except July 9, when the entire staff will probably be at the Castro.

The big question mark in the lineup is the Stanford. Like the Castro, the Palo Alto palace is a great venue for silents–with a tall screen and a Wurlitzer pipe organ. In past years, Wednesday night silents were an important part of the Stanford’s summer schedule. But the theater is currently closed for renovations, and no one is telling us exactly when it will open or what it will be showing.

But here are a few items that are showing this week, and worth checking out. All of them are talkies.

Recommendation: The Princess Bride, Film Night in the Park, Old Mill Park, Mill Valley, Friday night. William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. Warning: This will be a DVD presentation.

Recommendation: Raging Bull, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Martin Scorsese put a cap on 70’s cinema with this study of boxer Jake La Motta. It isn’t an easy film to watch; the experience is not unlike a good pummeling, but it’s absolutely worth it.

Noteworthy: Shake Hands With the Devil, Opera Plaza and Act 1 & 2, opening Friday for one-week engagement. The documentary version of Hotel Rwanda. This film follows Canadian Lt. General Roméo Dallaire on a return trip to Rwanda–a country whose genocide he tried to stop while stationed there in charge of a UN peacekeeping force. This film, which I haven’t seen, won the World Documentary Audience Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

Recommendation: East of Eden, Balboa, opens Friday for at least a week. This movie carries a lot of historical baggage. It was directed by Elia Kazan, probably the most talented artist to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee. It made James Dean an overnight star just a few weeks before his sudden death. But if you forget the baggage and look at the picture itself, you’ll find a great study of father/son relationships set at a pivotal time in California history. On a double-bill with Rebel Without a Cause, both films presented in what the Balboa is describing as “Beautifully Restored Color Cinemascope 35mm Prints.–

Recommendation: The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, Roxie, opens Friday for an ongoing engagement. This three-part television documentary explores the parallel rise of militant Islamism and American neo-conservatism. It received major television coverage on the BBC in its native England; in America, you have to catch it at the Roxie. Its well-researched and carefully explained revelations are astonishing; for instance, I learned here that Al-Qaeda is not the huge, highly-centralized organization we’ve been told about–a fabrication that’s useful to both sides. This is one of the most important, and one of the most entertaining, documentaries I’ve ever seen; Michael Moore can only dream of making something this good. Directed by Adam (Century of the Self) Curtis.

Noteworthy: Joe, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday night. I loved this film when it was new. Of course, I was a 16-year-old hippy wannabe, and any movie with drugs, nudity (including a yet-unknown Susan Sarandon), and a serious message seemed good to me. I have no idea how it has dated; quite possibly very badly.

Recommendation: Shrek II, Film Night in the Park, Albert Park, San Rafael, Saturday night. No, this sequel isn’t as good as the original, but close. And almost as good as Shrek is still very, very good. Another wonderfully tongue-in-cheek fairy tale. Warning: This will be a DVD presentation.

Recommendation: Duck Soup, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday afternoon. A blatantly corrupt politician is appointed leader at the request of the wealthy elite. Once in office, he cuts benefits for the working class, fills important positions with unqualified clowns, and starts a war on a whim. But how could a comedy made in 1933 be relevant today? The Marx Brothers at their very best. Part of YBCA’s Safety Last: The Anarchic Imagination series.

Noteworthy: Sweet Honey In The Rock: Raise Your Voice, Eureka Theater, Sunday afternoon. I’ve never heard of this movie, but how can a documentary on Sweet Honey In the Rock not be wonderful? Part of the San Francisco Black Film Festival.

Recommendation: Kiki’s Delivery Service, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday afternoon. You can’t find a gentler, friendlier children’s movie than this animated tale of a young witch with her own parcel post business. Originally released in the USA dubbed, this is a rare chance to see the original version on the big screen. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Recommendation: Spirited Away, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday evening. A beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale about a young girl cast into a strange and magical world populated by some of the strangest creatures ever put on celluloid. But they’re more than just strange–they’re intriguing. Another opportunity to see a Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece on the big screen with the original soundtrack.

Noteworthy: Enter the Dragon, Parkway, Sunday. I’m not a big fan of Bruce Lee’s last movie–his only one financed by a major American studio–but its strange mixture of Hong Kong epic and 70’s American exploitation is unique. Look for a very young and barely recognizable Jackie Chan among the endless villains that Lee easily dispatches. A Childreach/Plan USA benefit, each show will include a live demonstration by Studio Naga students.

Recommendation: The Lost Boys, Castro, Wednesday night. A clever and funny, and even occasionally scary teenage vampire movie shot in Santa Cruz. What do you do when peer pressure tells you to become an immortal bloodsucker? Hey, all the cool kids are doing it. On a double-bill with Flawless, with director Joel Schumacher in person, a benefit for Magnet, a gay male health center.

Remakes

Every so often, someone complains about remakes. Not only are they sacrilege–“How dare they fiddle with that masterpiece?”–but they’re proof of Hollywood’s decline: “No one is capable of an original idea.”

A lack of original ideas has nothing to do with it. It’s far cheaper to rip off an old plot than to buy it and make an honest remake. Hollywood dusts off those old properties because name recognition helps sell movies.

Thirty years ago, there was good reason to hate remakes: When the new version came out, the original classic was indefinitely shelved. Of course you’d hate the remake that robbed you of an old favorite. But today, the original classic is viewed as a marketing tool. Or better yet, an extra for the DVD.

Great stories are told over and over again–that’s the nature of culture. If a remake is a pale shadow of the original, it will fade and be forgotten. Have you seen the 1951 version of M? I didn’t think so. But you’ve probably seen the 1959 version of Ben-Hur.

We think of Ben-Hur as a classic, not a remake. The same is true with The Maltese Falcon, Some Like It Hot, The Wizard of Oz, and My Darling Clementine. But all of these were based on previous films or on books that had been filmed before.

Here are some recent remakes compared with their originals. I’ve only included examples where I’ve seen both films.

Psycho (1960 & 1998): Gus Van Sant’s remake is an interesting experiment–it used the same screenplay and, it appears, the same storyboards as the original–but not a particularly good film. Compare the two, and you can see how much acting (the only real difference between the films beside color) changes a movie. In this case, despite an excellent cast, it didn’t change it for the better. Winner: The original.

The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Prince of Egypt (1998): Is Prince of Egypt really a remake? There are enough similarities to justify that claim, certainly more than between DeMille’s 1923 and 1956 versions. The Ten Commandments (1956) is a four-hour mix of wonderful spectacle and unintentionally hilarious piety, washed down with the silliest of melodrama. I love it. But Prince of Egypt, by taking the story seriously and treating the characters as complex human beings, creates true drama and, for this Jew at least, a spiritual experience. Winner: The remake.

The Music Man (1962 & 2003): The original film was a big, widescreen roadshow presentation, the Disney remake a TV movie. That’s almost two different mediums. The TV version has some nice touches, including choreography more appropriate for the small screen and a script that sticks closer to the real original–the stage play. But The Music Man doesn’t work without a charismatic star. I’ve liked Matthew Broderick in almost everything I’ve seen him in, but here, he’s lifeless. Winner: The original.

Doctor Zhivago (1965 & 2002): Once again, a 60’s roadshow film remade for the small screen, but this time by the BBC, a classier act than Disney. They’re both good, but the remake, being a miniseries, has more time to build the complex story and simulate the sweep of history. Hans Matheson makes a more believable and sympathetic Zhivago than Omar Sharif. As a product of the modern BBC, it’s sexier. Not that it matters, but I also suspect it’s closer to the book. Winner: The remake.

Ocean’s Eleven (1960 & 2001): The original was probably quite entertaining when it was made, but the fun stopped when the picture got to theaters and audiences were left with a dull and lifeless picture. The remake is no masterpiece, but it’s a fun romp. Winner: The remake.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962 & 2004): The original is a masterpiece, while the remake is merely very good. But aren’t two movies, one great and the other very good, better than one great movie? Besides, there’s something very cool about the remake: Its plot twists play on the expectations of those who’ve seen the original, adding something new and exciting to a well-loved classic. Winner: The audience.

So much for my rant. On to this week’s line-up:

Recommendation: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Rafael, The biggest financial scandal ever becomes the Great American tragedy in this highly entertaining documentary. Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the rest of the scoundrels are so filled with optimism and faith in their own narrowly-created worldview that their fall becomes inevitable. But the filmmakers never lose sight of the real tragedy: the innocent victims that these hubris-filled businessmen took down with them.

Recommendation: Downfall, Balboa, through Thursday (at least). Yes, it humanizes Hitler, but as human beings go, he doesn’t come off as someone you’d want to hang with, let alone run your country. A frightening and fascinating study of the collapse of a society that never should have existed in the first place, and a meditation on the danger of unquestioning faith.

Recommendation: Millions, Balboa, through June 2. Okay, I confess: My kids weren’t too impressed with this kids’ film–but I loved it. When a bag of stolen cash seemingly drops from the sky into the life of a sweetly spiritual and religious young boy, everyone’s life turns upside down. This was directed by Danny Boyle; think Trainspotting for children. On a double-bill with Downfall–two great movies but a very strange combination.

Noteworthy: Grizzly Man, Castro, Friday night. Werner Herzog’s latest documentary examines Timothy Treadwell, a naturalist who took his love of grizzly bears too far. After years of studying them up close and living with them as a member of the species, he was eventually eaten by one. Part of the Green Screen Environmental Film Festival. Herzog might appear, but it’s not confirmed.

Recommendation: Taxi Driver, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Martin Scorsese’s first real masterpiece, and one of the great American films. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is probably the creepiest protagonist ever to light up the screen.

Noteworthy: (Yet) Another Hole In the Head Film Festival, Roxie, Friday through Thursday. The folks at IndieFest are following up their documentary festival with something a little less serious (whether it’s less scary depends on the documentary). This week-long orgy of mostly low-budget horror and fantasy includes, according to its producers, “Egyptian Gods, bloodsucking parasitic monsters, clones, maniacs, Satanists, zombies, aliens, beavers, Godzilla, assassins, angry ghosts, hungry cows, spider women, wrestling seafood, samurai werewolves and more macabre mayhem.”

Recommendation: Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Castro, Saturday afternoon. Les Blank’s documentary is simply a celebration of the “stinking rose” we all love so much. It will be presented, as it usually is, in “Aromaround.” Part of the Green Screen Environmental Film Festival.

Recommendation: The Gold Rush, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday night. Many consider this Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece. I prefer City Lights, but still place The Gold Rush among the greatest comedies ever made. If you’ve never seen it, or never seen it with live music and a real audience, or (worst of all) have only seen Chaplin’s dreadful 1942 sound reworking, you owe it to yourself to see it properly.

Recommendation: Princess Mononoke, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday. Hayao Miyazaki weaves eastern mythology and modern environmental concerns into an amazing fantasy about humans’ relationships with animals. This is the original Japanese version, not the dubbed one that played in first run theaters a few years ago. The DVD contained the original Japanese soundtrack, but with English subtitles based on the dubbing–resulting in some odd gender confusion among the non-human characters. Let’s hope that this time, they get the subtitles right.

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