Methods of Projection

Projecting 35mm motion picture film is a violent, potentially dangerous act. (Dangerous for the film. Not, thankfully–for the humans involved, although it was before acetate film replaced nitrate more than 50 years ago.) Every minute, 90 feet of expensive artwork passes through a complicated, gear-and-sprocket machine. For the purposes of sound, it must move at an even, steady clip; for the image, it must stop and start 24 times every second. During this journey, it’s exposed to dirt, metal, and very bright light. It’s a wonder any prints survive.

There are two standard ways to project films: platters and changeover. Platters are much cheaper to operate and therefore far more common. But they also do more damage.

Before the 1970’s, changeover was pretty much the only way movies were professionally projected–at least in the United States. Each screen required two projectors and one full-time projectionist. While reel 1 ran on projector A, the projectionist would thread reel 2 onto projector B (then as now, feature films were generally shipped on 2,000-foot, approximately 20-minute reels). Cue marks in the upper-right corner of the screen would tell him (or on rare occasions, her) when to change over to the other projector. Once reel 2 was running, he could prepare reel 3 on projector A.

The birth of the multiplex brought platter projection. An entire feature, plus trailers and commercials, are spliced together on one enormous platter, from which it can be projected from an unattended booth. One overworked projectionist can handle a 16-screen multiplex, making multiple small theaters as cheap to run as one big one.

There’s some controversy as to whether platter projection is innately more damaging to film, or whether the damage is entirely the result of less human interaction. Whatever the cause, studios don’t mind their new movies running on platters, or even extremely popular classics like Casablanca. But if you want to show a rare, archival print, you better have two projectors in that booth and someone who knows how to use them.

Of the theaters regularly listed in Bayflicks, at least the Balboa, the Castro, the Pacific Film Archive, the Rafael, and the Stanford have changeover projection. Some others probably do, to. We’re lucky to have theaters in the area that can show rare prints, and projectionists who know how to show them.

Speaking of changeovers, I’ve given this site one. Click a Recommend () or Noteworthy () icon in the listings, and my comments will pop up in a small window. (The ,, and icons remain as they were before; hover your mouse pointer over them for a second and you’ll get pop-up details.) And I’m going to be more selective about what comments I include here in The Lincoln Log; if the same movie keeps turning up in different theaters week after week (let’s call these movies Marching Penguins), I won’t keep adding my comments to the blog.

But here are a few movies that are worth describing here:

Recommended: Harry Potter the Goblet of Fire, 4 Star, ongoing engagement. Like the book it was based on, the fourth Harry Potter film takes the series to a new level, both scarier and emotionally deeper than its predecessors. In his fourth year at Hogwarts, Harry must contend with Lord Voldemort’s growing power, a very dangerous tournament, and the most horrible fear to ever strike a 14-year-old boy: girls. Kudos go to long-time Potter screenwriter Steven Kloves for his willingness to leave out subplots, first-time Potter director Mike Newell for putting the people ahead of the special effects, Warner Brothers for okaying a PG-13 Harry Potter movie, and J. K. Rowling for the wonderful books.

Noteworthy: Gone With the Wind, Spangenberg Theatre, Friday and Saturday, 7:00. I have a weakness for big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. And no, it’s not because it’s “politically incorrect.”  The first part is okay, but boredom sets in after the intermission. In fact, the post-war part of the movie is not unlike a slasher flick; you soon realize that x number of characters will have to die before the movie ends and you can go home. This is the last presentation at the Spangenberg Theatre before it closes its doors as a movie theater and becomes just a high school auditorium.

Recommended: Sahara, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 6:00. Humphrey Bogart leads a ragtag group of American and British soldiers, plus two POWs, across the desert in a tank. They have very little water, and the German platoon on their tails is getting thirsty, as well. One of the best American war movies made during World War II, and perhaps the only one with a black, African, Muslim British soldier amongst the heroes. Part of the Jewish Film Festival‘s Jews and the Hollywood Blacklist series.

The Ratings Game

The MPAA’s movie rating system–the one that brands a film R, or G, or NC-17–is very much like democracy. It’s only redeeming feature is that it’s better than the alternative. The alternatives to democracy and the rating system are totalitarianism and the Production Code that kept movies in line from 1934 through 1968. Not much of a difference.

And like democracy (at least the American variety), the rating system often acts like enforced morality by committee. Committees, filled with people who never quite agree on anything and are under pressure from all sides, do some strange things.

For instance, have you noticed how the MPAA has stretched the PG-13 rating beyond all reasonable meaning? What does it tell parents when a film as violent as Return of the King or as sexy as Something’s Gotta Give gets the same rating as Whale Rider?

It didn’t used to be that way. Twenty-five years ago, when there was no PG-13, the MPAA had no choice but to stretch the PG rating beyond all reasoning. I sometimes wonder if parents with short memories, having learned that PG-rated films are fine for their youngsters, ever come home from the video store with MPAA-approved, PG-rated old movies like Jaws, Tommy , Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom , and Annie Hall. That kid’s gonna need a lot of explanations. And possibly therapy.

Speaking of therapy, nothing helps the brain like a good movie. Here’s what’s worth seeing–and worth talking about–this week.

Recommended: Sunrise, Randall Museum, Friday, 7:00. Haunting, romantic, and impressionistic, F. W. Murnau’s first American feature represents the silent drama at its absolute best. The plot is simple: A marriage, almost destroyed by another woman, is healed by a day in the city. But the execution, with its stylized sets, beautiful photography, and talented performers, makes it both touchingly personal and abstractly mythological. Esthetically a silent, Sunrise is technically an early sound film; the original 1927 release contained a recorded Fox Movietone musical score. Part of the Art & Film Cineclub series for teenagers, it’s a DVD, not film, presentation.

Noteworthy: The Wild Bunch, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:30. Sometimes I think I’m the only male, heterosexual cinephile who doesn’t love The Wild Bunch. I don’t object to violence in movies. I even love The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which also presents violent, amoral protagonists and asks us to root for them. But it’s tongue-in-cheek about it, while The Wild Bunch takes itself seriously and gets all sentimental. It’s one thing to vicariously enjoy fictional characters with few if any scruples; it’s another to get all weepy about them.

Recommended: North By Northwest, Spangenberg Theatre, Friday and Saturday, 7:30. Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman mistaken by evil foreign spies for a crack American agent, and by the police for a murderer. A great movie for introducing pre-teens to Hitchcock.

Noteworthy: Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, Lumiere, Act 1 & 2, and Rafael, opening Friday. Sarah Silverman’s scene in The Aristocrats is the best moment in that wonderful movie, but her combination concert/concept movie only occasionally hits a bullseye. At her best, her raunchy, intentionally shocking humor leaves you laughing so hard you can’t breathe. But she falls flat as often as she delights, and when shock humor isn’t funny, it’s just offensive.

Recommended: The Aristocrats, Roxie, returning Friday. “A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says ‘Have I got an act for you.’ Thus begins an old joke that professional comics never tell audiences but love to tell each other. But what goes between that opening and the punch line differs with every telling, and often includes incest, bestiality, scatological acrobatics, and stuff that’s really disgusting. But as famous comics retell the joke, you laugh more than you cringe. And as they discuss the art of telling it, you learn something about how humor is fashioned.

Recommended: Trouble In Paradise, Balboa, Sunday. What’s so fascinating and entertaining about witty, sophisticated crooks that makes us want to root for them? Yet another wonderful Lubitsch comedy about sex, love, money, and larceny. As part of it’s Sin in Soft Focus series, the Balboa is showing presenting Trouble in Paradise on a double-bill with Smiling Lieutenant.

Noteworthy: Night After Night, Balboa, Tuesday. Not a great film, but significant as the movie that introduced Mae West. Already a star on Broadway, she got a supporting role in this so-so drama, rewrote her own dialog, and proved that “Goodness had nothing to do with it.” On a double bill with Madame Racketeer as part of the Balboa’s Sin in Soft Focus series.

Recommended: The Graduate, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15. Maybe it’s no longer the breakthrough movie it was in 1967, but The Graduate is still a well-made romantic comedy with serious overtones. And, of course, it gets Bay Area geography all wrong. A free Audience Appreciation Night presentation.

Recommended: Monkey Business and International House, Balboa, Thursday. The Balboa closes its Sin in Soft Focus series with two of the strangest comedies ever made. The Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (their first movie that wasn’t based on one of their hit stage plays) isn’t concerned with story. It just throws its plot to the wind as the world’s greatest Marxists bring anarchy to an ocean liner. The result is one of their funniest. International House isn’t as funny as Monkey Business, but it’s even stranger. Virtually plotless, the story of a Chinese inventor is just an excuse to bring multiple stars together for comedy routines and musical numbers.

Recommended: The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Rafael, Thursday, 7:00, and the following Sunday at 1:00. One of the greatest fantasy adventures ever made, and made decades before Star Wars clones glutted the market. The special effects lack today’s realism, but they still pack an emotional punch (my daughter finds this giant spider scarier than the ones in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings). The sets are magnificent, the dialog enchanting, and the story’s randomness gives it a true Arabian Nights flavor. And all in glorious Technicolor. Part of the Rafael’s Michael Powell series, even though Powell was only one of three directors.

Rufus T. and George W.

If you’re a subscriber, I hope you’ve been getting the newsletter. My Web and mail host, IX WebHosting, had some trouble with one of its mail servers that was finally resolved Wednesday night. I don’t know when the problems started (sometime in October) or if if it actually effected the mailings. If you didn’t receive the newsletters, my apologies.

By the time you read this, the Balboa will be showing its “Sin in Soft Focus” series of Pre-Code Paramount movies. Pre-Code series are popular these days (the Castro recently ran a Columbia series), and with good reason. It’s fun to watch people talking dirty and acting immorally in black and white–more fun, in fact, than watching them smoke that way.

But I’ve been thinking lately about one particular Paramount Pre-Coder in the series, Duck Soup. These days, the character of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) seems startlingly familiar. Take away the glasses, mustache, and cigar, and you have…well, you have someone who looks a lot like his brother Zeppo. But the ruler of Freedonia acts very much like a certain contemporary leader with a (finally) dropping approval rating.

Consider his Bush-like gift for diplomacy and deficit spending. His very first act with a foreign diplomat is to insult Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), then ask him for a loan. “Don’t be scared. You’ll get it back. I’ll give you my personal note for 90 days. If it isn’t paid by then, you can keep the note.”

It’s worth remembering how Firefly becomes the leader of Freedonia. He isn’t elected. He inspires no revolution. He doesn’t even lead a military coup. No, he’s simply given the job by the country’s moneyed elite (Margaret Dumont).

When discussing his beliefs and policies, Bush speaks in simple platitudes and split infinitives. Firefly does one better, singing about his plans to legislate morality:

If any former pleasure is exhibited,
Report to me and it will be prohibited.
I’ll put my foot down, so shall it be;
This is the land of the free

He grabs a beautiful woman as he sings that last line. He understands the difference between those who make and enforce the laws and those who have to follow them.

Elsewhere in the song, he expresses truly Bushian views on honest government and the death penalty:

If anyone’s caught taking graft,
And I don’t get my share,
We stand them up against the wall
And pop goes the weasel.

Firefly’s concern for the working class is as 21st century as his honesty. When told that “the workers of Freedonia are demanding shorter hours,” he responds quickly: “Very well, we’ll give them shorter hours. We’ll start by cutting their lunch out to 20 minutes.”

Like all great leaders, Firefly believes in staying the course–especially if that course leads to war. He again insults Trentino, slaps him, makes up, slaps him again, agrees to apologize, then slaps him again.

Duck Soup never explains Firefly’s warlike motivations (of course, Duck Soup never explains why Firefly’s uniform keeps changing). Perhaps his father didn’t try hard enough in a previous war, impelling him to uphold his family honor. “A Firefly never forgets. Why, my ancestors would rise from their graves and I’d only have to bury them again.” But he’s not so callous as to send thousands to their graves merely for his family name; he cares very much about financial matters, responding to one plea for peace with “I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.”

If you’re worried about America’s future, you’ll be glad to know that Duck Soup has a happy ending. The war is won when Firefly and his companions trap Trentino in a ruined door and throw fruit at him. And the movie ends on a high note: Firefly and his associates throw fruit at Margaret Dumont.

Duck Soup screens Sunday at the Balboa. Most of these other films are also worth catching.

Noteworthy: Ride the High Country, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. It’s been too long since I’ve seen Sam Peckinpah’s first western for me give it a confident recommendation, but I remember it as a moving tribute to the deaths of idealism and the frontier. And I’m not even a Peckinpah fan.

Recommended: The Wizard of Oz, Aquarius, Friday and Saturday, midnight, and Sunday at noon. You don’t really need me to tell you about this one, do you?

Recommended: A History of Violence, Parkway and Presidio, opening Friday. David Cronenberg has turned what could have been a conventional Hitchcockian thriller into a meditation on the nature, the lure, and the destructiveness of violence. Viggo Mortensen goes way beyond Aragorn as a small-town family man who kills two thugs in self-defense, then finds gangsters at his door who think that he’s one of them. The violence is both visually gruesome (this is Cronenberg, after all) and emotionally harrowing. Life doesn’t return to normal just because you’ve killed all the bad guys. But on one level, it’s still Hollywood: The good guys are impossibly talented fighters. But that’s okay; the movie would be unbearable without that one bit of fantasy.

Noteworthy: I am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth, Castro, Saturday, noon. If you caught I am Cuba, the recently restored and rereleased 1964 Soviet propaganda feature, this documentary on its making may prove interesting. Unlike I am Cuba, this one was banned in the USSR and in Cuba. Part of the 9th International Latino Film Festival, it will also be screened again next Saturday in Mill Valley.

Recommended: Duck Soup, Balboa, Sunday. The Marx Brothers at their very best. See above for more details. Shown on a double-bill with Million Dollar Legs, yet another absurd comedy set in a mythical kingdom, this one ruled by W.C. Fields. Part of the Balboa’s Sin in Soft Focus series.

Noteworthy: Days of Heaven, Castro, Monday. I was blown away by this movie when it first opened–Nestor Almendros’ atmospheric cinematography turned the simple story of lovers posing as siblings into something approaching a masterpiece. But that was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t know if the film has stood the test of time. If you’re going to see it, the big screen at the Castro is the right place. On a double-bill with Badlands, which, I shudder to admit, I’ve never seen.

Recommended: Homeland: 4 Portraits of Native Action, UA Galaxy Theatre, Monday, 7:00. One documentary, four stories of Native Americans fighting to protect their environmentally-threatened reservations. One of the stories deals with the same caribou/Alaskan oil drilling issue that’s at the heart of Being Caribou, but this time, they got it right. Emotional and compelling, this is what an activist, political/environmental documentary ought to be. Part of the American Indian Film Festival.

Noteworthy: Hank Williams First Nation, Palace of Fine Arts, Thursday, 7:30. A road comedy about an aging Cree who can’t believe that Hank Williams is dead. I haven’t seen it, but it sounds fun. Part of the American Indian Film Festival.

Great Digital Projection

Call me George Lucas if you must, but I’m ready to embrace digital projection. Chicken Little, in digital 3D at the Sony Metreon, blew me away.

Let me explain. Chicken Little, a paint-by-the-numbers studio assembly-line piece of junk that tried vainly to recreate the Pixar magic, did not blow me away. The characters were family movie clichés, the plot was entirely predictable, and the jokes were always lame and only occasionally amusing (I remember laughing a few times, but I don’t remember why).

It wasn’t even the digital projection of Chicken Little that blew me away (although the 3D was excellent). Computer animation always looks great digitally projected, since even the best of it lacks the fine detail and subtle shading of real people filmed on location. It was the trailers–all live action–that really won me over.

My infatuation started with a crystal clear aerial shot of Antarctica–the first shot of the first trailer. “What a great print,” I thought before realizing that there was no print involved. I had mistaken digital projection, not only for 35mm, but for 35mm at its best.

The following trailers didn’t look that good, but they could still pass for real film.

I found out later that this was 2K DLP projection; all my previous digital experiences had been only 1.2K. If 2K projection becomes the norm, we’re in for something wonderful, especially when the prices get low enough for the art and revival houses–small, independent films can’t afford large print runs. And Landmark Theaters is planning to add Sony’s even-better 4K projectors to some of their theaters.

In the meantime, 35mm is still a great way to see a motion picture. That’s the way most of the films below are presented.

Recommended: Design for Living, Balboa Friday. If I had to pick one movie to represent pre-code comedy at its naughtiest, this would be it. How could this not work wonderfully? Ernst Lubitsch directing a Ben Hecht screenplay adapted from a Noel Coward stage play? With Fredric March and Gary Cooper playing struggling artists who both fall in love with Miriam Hopkins (who wouldn’t). Part of the Balboa’s Sin in Soft Focus series, Design for Living is double-billed with Love Me Tonight.

Recommended: , Dolby Labs, Friday, 7:00. Funny, exhilarating, perplexing, and tragic, 8½ is not only the greatest film ever made about writer’s block and the ultimate cinematic statement on the male midlife crisis, it’s also a movie about making a movie, where the movie being made appears to be 8½. Filled with one memorable and unique scene after another, Fellini’s autobiographical surreal comedy lacks nothing except a coherent plot–something it has no use for. This is a DVD, not film, presentation.

Noteworthy: Major Dundee, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. I’m not a huge Peckinpah fan, and I’ve never seen any version of this 1965 western, but its reputation as a semi-lost film, now semi-restored, makes it worth noting. Columbia Pictures drastically cut Major Dundee for its original release, but has now restored it to something approaching Peckinpah’s original desires.

Recommended: The Constant Gardener, Parkway, opening Friday. Fernando Meirelles does John le Carré, taking on the greed of international corporations (and the governments that serve them) while also serving up an effective thriller and a heart-wrenching love story. Ralph Fiennes is terrific as a mild-mannered British diplomat looking into the murder of his wife (Rachel Weisz, seen only in flashbacks, in the performance that will put The Mummy behind her forever). A very good movie, but it would have been a great one if only someone had given cinematographer César Charlone a tripod.

Noteworthy: Black Narcissus, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. Not much more than a well-done but silly melodrama, Black Narcissus is nevertheless a must if you’re interested in cinematography or three-strip Technicolor. No one could work emotional magic with that clumsy but beautiful system like cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and this is his best work. On a double-bill with The Innocents.

Recommended: Horse Feathers, Balboa, Sunday. The Marx Brothers go to college, where they major in puns, pranks, and chasing Thelma Todd. One of their best films, and the only one where all four get to perform their own variation of the same song–each sillier than the last. A quarter century ago, this one was commonly double-billed with Animal House, but as part of its Sin in Soft Focus series, the Balboa is showing it with Kiss and Make Up.

Recommended: Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Rafael, Sunday. Loosely based on a now-forgotten comic strip, Blimp takes a leisurely two hours and 43 minutes to explore the life of a career soldier–and a gentleman–from his youth in the Boer war through World War II. Wartime propaganda to be sure, but wartime propaganda that Winston Churchill wanted banned. Part of the Rafael’s Michael Powell retrospective.

Noteworthy: Beyond The Rocks, Castro, Sunday; Rafael, Tuesday and Wednesday. The only movie ever to co-star Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, and it’s based on a novel by Elinor (It) Glyn (that’s three points for sex appeal). Thought lost for nearly 80 years, a print was found recently in the Netherlands and we can all now rediscover it. The Castro will present it with live accompaniment by Dennis James on the Wurlitzer pipe organ. The Rafael, alas, will show it with a recorded score

Recommended: Taxi Driver, Parkway, Tuesday. Do young people watch The Aviator and wonder why the big deal about Martin Scorsese? They should see his first real masterpiece, and one of the great American films. Staring Robert De Niro as the creepiest protagonist ever to light up the screen.

Recommended: Peeping Tom, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00. 1960 saw the release of two shocking films about serial killers (shocking for 1960, anyway). Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho became a huge hit, while controversy sank Peeping Tom and ruined Michael Powell’s career. Centering on a psychotic who films his victim’s terrified faces while he murders them, this picture finds the sympathetic human inside the monster, without allowing us to either feel superior or vicariously enjoy his crimes. It can also be read as an indictment of cinema, itself. Part of the Rafael’s Michael Powell retrospective.

Recommended: Gold Diggers of 1933, Stanford, Thursday and the next Friday. Before A Hard Day’s Night, before Singin’ in the Rain, before Astaire and Rogers (well, before Astaire), Warner Brothers was putting out a whole different type of musical; smart, sassy, funny, definitely pre-code, and with Busby Berkeley production numbers that defy description (and the laws of physics). Gold Diggers of 1933 is the best early-thirties’ Warners musical; upbeat, sexy, and entertaining, but never really letting you forget that there’s a depression going on out there.

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