Film, Digital, and the Current Castro Calendar

Early every month, I visit the Castro‘s Playlist page to see which classics they’re showing digitally rather than on film. 

And no, I don’t do this to get angry. I love film, but I also love DCP (the digital standard that’s replaced film in theaters). It’s more a matter of curiosity.

As I understand it, the Castro’s management usually screens classics on film if it’s available. But I’m sure there are exceptions. For one thing, DCP cuts shipping costs significantly. If a classic has undergone a major digital restoration, DCP will always look superior. It often looks superior even without the restoration, but not always.

Purists who disagree with me will be glad to know that 35mm has the upper-hand on the current calendar–at least if we ignore new films. But not by much. Over the course of April and early May, the Castro will screen 19 35mm prints, and only 14 DCPs of older movies.

A few noteworthy selections:

The Red Shoes (April 10, DCP): This ballet melodrama uses the 3-strip Technicolor format better than any other film I’ve seen, so you want to see it with the best image quality. It was recently restored digitally, so I feel safe to say that DCP is the right choice.

Groundhog Day (April 11, 35mm): I know for a fact that there’s a DCP for this title. I’m guessing that the Castro had both options and picked 35mm.

Ben-Hur (April 13, DCP): This 1959 epic was originally shown in a special, anamorphic 70mm format. Since it’s unlikely to be shown that way again, DCP is the best choice. However, this is the sort of movie that makes me wish that the Castro had a 4K digital projector–which does better for large-format films.

Sorcerer (April 17, DCP): This remake of The Wages of Fear has just been restored. Of course it’s now digital.

Johnny Guitar (April 23, DCP): I’m really glad they’ve bothered to digitize this gem, which deserves to be better known. I hope they did a good job.

Emperor of the North (April 27, 35mm): I haven’t seen this film, but the Castro is promising an archival print. I’ll generally  take that over a DCP.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (May 3, DCP): This was shot in the same very wide, large-film format as Ben-Hur, and should ideally be projected the same way. Some years back, United Artists struck an anamorphic 70mm print, and the Castro screened it, using special projection lenses supplied for the engagement. However, that wasn’t the complete movie. The original cut has now been digitally restored, and is thus on DCP. For what it’s worth, I loved this movie when I was ten; I can’t stand it now.

Chaplin at the Castro: My Report on a Wonderful Day

On January 11, 1914, a Keystone movie crew drove to Venice–a beach town near Los Angeles–to improvise a comedy around an actual event of modest interest. Only one performer came with the crew–a young British Music Hall comedian recently signed with Keystone. The comic, Charlie Chaplin, quickly put together a costume and makeup, and created the most beloved, endearing, and popular character in the history of cinema. Perhaps in the history of the world.

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Exactly 100 years late, my wife and I spent all day (this past Saturday) in the Castro Theater for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s celebration of The Little Tramp at 100. And a wonderful day it was!

The movies were all projected digitally, but the music was live. So were the enthusiastic audiences.

Before I discuss the three programs screened, I want to talk about that famous imagecharacter, almost universally called The Tramp or The Little Tramp. Although Chaplin stumbled onto the costume and makeup soon after he first stepped in front of a movie camera, it took years of cranking out short subjects to flesh out the image into a human being. The mature Tramp, while desperately poor and surviving on subterfuge and petty theft, has the manners of a gentleman. He’s chivalrous to women, polite to men (when he’s not kicking them), and haughty when appropriate. He may carry a selection of cigarette butts in an old sardine can, but he handles that can like a gold cigarette case.

But he isn’t always horribly poor, and he isn’t always a tramp. He often has a job. Watch his films, and you’ll see him on a farm, working in a pawnshop, waiting tables, tightening bolts on an assembly line, and working in construction. He also occasionally returned to the character that first brought him success on the stage–a rich drunk.

But there’s one thing he never has: a name. A silent movie can easily have a nameless protagonist. In his film’s cast lists, he’s identified as "a factory worker," "an escaped convict," "a lone prospector," "a derelict," and–most frequently–"a tramp."

Here’s what I saw Saturday.

Our Mutual Friend: Three Chaplin Shorts

Over a period of 18 months in 1916 and ’17, Chaplin made twelve two-reel shorts for the Mutual Film Corporation. These represent his best work in short subjects–more mature than the Keystone and Essanay shorts that proceeded them, but without the artistic pretentions that sometimes mar the later First Nationals.

The Festival made an excellent choice in the three Mutual shorts it screened–and not only because they were all very funny. The first, "The Vagabond," is an early experiment into the sentimentality that would become a Chaplin specialty. The second, "Easy Street," may be Chaplin’s first experiment in social criticism, getting laughs in a story that deals with grinding poverty, violent street fights, battered wives, and drug addiction. "The Cure" is arguably the funniest Mutual. It’s also an excellent example of his rich drunk character.

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Serge Bromberg has recently restored the Mutuals, and his Lobster Films provided the DCP for this screening. "The Vagabond" looked so good it was a revelation; the image was so clear I felt like I was in those locations. "Easy Street’s" image quality wasn’t anywhere near as good, but it was certainly acceptable. "The Cure" was quite good–better than "Easy Street," but not the revelation of "The Vagabond."

Jon Mirsalis provided musical accompaniment on the Castro’s grand piano. He did an excellent job. The Tramp plays the violin (as did Chaplin himself off-screen) in "The Vagabond," and Mirsalis made you hear it through his piano.

The Kid

The middle show didn’t start with the main feature.

First, the Festival offered something common in the 1920s–a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest. Most of the contestants were children, and yes, they were adorable. The judging was done by audience applause.

Chaplin lookalikes

Next, they screened the very first movie with the character later called The Tramp: "Kid Auto Races in Venice, Cal." Running only about five minutes, it might today be called a found footage movie. A camera crew tries to record a children’s car race, but this little man with a toothbrush moustache keeps stepping in front of the camera and ruining the shot. And yes, it’s very funny.

It’s also a filmed record of the Tramp’s first audience. Once he became famous, Chaplin couldn’t shoot a movie with a real crowd; he had to hire extras. But here, people in the background look quizzically at this odd man getting in the way of the camera crew. They soon figure out that he’s intentionally funny, and they enjoy the show..

A century later, we’re still laughing at Charlie Chaplin.

Jon Mirsalis accompanied this screening on piano. The movie was projected off of a very good  35mm print–the only analog projection of the day.

Author and Chaplin expert Jeffrey Vance introduced the contest, the short, and the feature.

That feature is Chaplin’s first, The Kid. Although it was many wonderful sequences, it’s actually my least favorite if Chaplin’s five silent (and almost silent) feature comedies. This story of the Tramp raising a child, and fighting to keep him, occasionally falls to deeply into sentimentality. And the dream sequence near the end never worked well for me–despite a few laughs. It’s always felt like padding.

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On the other hand, when The Kid is good, and that’s most of the time, it’s terrific. The Tramp’s early attempts to not take responsibility for an abandoned baby are side-splittingly funny, as are the domestic scenes of unorthodox child-rearing. And the chase across the rooftops manages to be heart-breaking, suspenseful, and hilarious at the same time.

Chaplin recut The Kid in 1921, and that’s the version shown. The changes, as I understand it, were minor. I’ve never seen the original.

Visually, The Kid was the big disappointment of the day. It looked awful, showing the harsh lack of detail that comes when you project standard-definition video onto a large screen. I suspect we saw a DVD, or a DCP made from a DVD master. I can accept that no one has yet spent the time and money required to convert the The Kid to theater-quality digital. But couldn’t the Chaplin estate have loaned the Festival a 35mm print?

Before I discuss the musical accompaniment by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, I need to disclose a conflict of interest. My wife played First Viola with this orchestra for many years. We know a lot of musicians.

For Saturday’s screenings, the Orchestra played Chaplin’s own score, written for the 1971 re-release. (In addition to being an actor, writer, producer, and director, he was also a composer.) Timothy Brock, who has been working with the Chaplin estate to adapt the filmmaker’s scores for live performance, conducted.

The small orchestra sounded great. I have only one complaint–and the fault lies with Chaplin, not Brock or the Orchestra. For the above-mentioned rooftop chase, Chaplin wrote a soft, sentimental, romantic piece. It hurts both the suspense and the humor.

The Gold Rush

The day closed with Chaplin’s epic comic adventure, The Gold Rush, and if you’re presenting Chaplin with live music, nothing could beat that. Here you’ll find some of Chaplin’s funniest set pieces, including the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe, the dance of the rolls, and my favorite–the fight over the rifle that always points at Chaplin. All within the context of a powerful and touching story of love and survival.  You can read about the film itself in my Blu-ray Review, and my report on seeing it with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (as opposed to the Chamber one).

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So I’ll go right to Saturday night’s presentation. The image quality was uneven, which is hardly surprising for a restoration that’s being called a work in progress. But most of it looked very good, and none of it looked dreadful. Considering the film’s history (see that Blu-ray Review for details), it’s amazing that The Gold Rush looked as good as it did.

Once again, Timothy Brock conducted the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in his own adaptation of Chaplin’s score. It’s one of Chaplin’s best scores, and Brock did a great job adapting it for the longer silent version and for a smaller orchestra. In other words, I loved this accompaniment.

And it improved upon earlier performances of the score. Brock’s recording of this score on the Blu-ray lacks the musically-created sound effects that are a big part of silent film accompaniment. I’m glad to say he fixed that problem Saturday night. The orchestra provided gunshots, hand clapping, and a strange, whale-like sound for a cabin teetering on the edge.

I do have one complaint about how the festival was managed. A huge number of seats in the center section were reserved before the audience was allowed into the theater. And it wasn’t always clear which seats were reserved. My wife and I picked seats that were not marked as such, but staff members asked us to move because the seats were, in fact, reserved. Then they told us that we could move back. The reserved seats next to us were empty for the first two shows.

But despite the seating shenanigans, I couldn’t imagine a better place to have spent an overcast and drizzly day. Or even a nice one.

Taxi Driver, Alamo Bay, and 4K Digital Projection at the PFA

Saturday night, my wife and I attended two screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. Both were parts of the series The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures. And this time, unlike Thursday night’s screening, the movies were actually projected in 4K.

And they both looked fantastic.

This was not a double feature. You had to pay for each screening. On the other hand, there’s a discount for the second feature, and the total came to only $10.50.

Let’s take the movies one at a time:

Alamo Bay

The evening started with a short talk by Sony Senior Vice President for Asset Management (translation: VP for old movies), Grover Crisp. On Thursday night, his talk was the main attraction. This time, it was just a quick introduction.

Crisp knows that many cinephiles are offended by the digital conversion that he and Sony are a major part of. He may have felt defensive. "I have nothing against film," he explained. "I love it. But that doesn’t keep me from loving digital, which I like better."

By Sony’s definitions, there’s "very little difference" between a 2K and 4K restoration. "The films are always scanned at 4K resolution." In a 2K restoration, the digitized images is downgraded to 2K for mastering–the creative and difficult work done after scanning. That saves money, and still results in an image as good or better than a 35mm print.

Of course a 4K presentation is going to look better than a 2K one, but Crisp didn’t think it was that big a difference. He estimated that in the PFA theater, "You can see the difference from the first 5 rows…if you know what to look for."

In answer to an audience question, Crisp acknowledged that if a film is scanned in 4K and mastered in 2K, they can always go back and master it again in 4K without a new scan.

He also said said that a 4K master looks significantly better than a 2K master when transferred to Blu-ray–a 2K medium.

Before the movie, the PFA played a videotaped introduction by Alamo Bay’s cinematographer, Curtis Clark. He discussed the film stock he used, director Louis Malle’s desire to have a wide contrast ratio, and the problems of getting good release prints. The digital restoration, and DCP projection, now fixes that later problem.

Made in 1985, Alamo Bay dramatizes and fictionalizes some ugly, racist incidents that happened on the Texas coast only a few years earlier. As refugee Vietnamese fishermen arrive, looking for the American dream, they run up against the local bigots, who are for the most part dirt poor and worried about their own economic conditions. It stars  Amy Madigan as a young woman of very conflicting views, Ed Harris as a violent bigot made more dangerous by both drink and fear that he will lose his boat, and Ho Nguyen as a cocky young Vietnamese fisherman. Still relevant today, it tells a powerful story, even if it gets a little preachy and a bit Hollywood at times. I’d give it a B+.

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The transfer looked very good. There were a couple of shots where the colors looked a bit flat–especially with Madigan’s lipstick–but for all I know, they may have looked like that on film.

Taxi Driver

Once again, the program started with a talk by Grover Crisp. Since the audience was different, he repeated a few items (as well as a few from Thursday). He "explained ‘K thing: "4K is the amount we really need to capture the visual image in a 35mm film frame."

He followed that with a demonstration that he also did Thursday night, as well as last year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. He projected the same frame, a close-up of Peter O’Toole, from Lawrence of  Arabia, from 4K and 2K scans. The difference was huge. O-Toole’s headgear, which looked blurry in 2K, was detailed enough to see the threads in 4K.

I might point out that Lawrence of  Arabia is a large-format film, and I would expect 2K to be very inadequate for scanning. After all, when Sony scanned the film, they did it in 8K, and mastered it in 4K.

Actually, I’d like to see similar demo showing the same same, mastered at 4K, but projected in 4K and 2K.

Crisp insisted that he’s "not anti-film," but is merely "being pragmatic. I think that in this changeover period, now is the time to make sure that we’re actually [restoring these films] correctly so that you have a cinematic experience." A DCP should be "the best print you’ve ever seen."

Then he talked about Taxi Driver, which was restored about two years ago. It was "Typically abused when it was new…scratches and things like that. All the things that we can fix digitally now."

He compared stills from a pre-restoration DVD and the restored version. It was shocking how much had been lost but is now restored. The earlier versions had dull colors and what looked like flat lighting. Worse, even though it was in the wrong aspect ratio, much of the image was cropped off. All that is fixed now.

I’ve written about Taxi Driver before, and I don’t feel a need to discuss it in detail again. I’ll just say that I give it an A+. You can check out my Blu-ray Review (taken from the same restoration) for more.

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But I will say that I’ve never seen Taxi Driver look so good. And I don’t mean looking beautiful, because Taxi Driver was never meant to be a beautiful movie. It’s dark, ugly, and has an intentional film grain texture. But the details of the grain and within the grain, the perfect color, and the lack of film vibration took me into Travis Bickel’s head like nothing ever had before.

Those who object to digital projection insist that without physical film, the theatrical experience becomes nothing but television. That simply is not true. With a good-sized screen, a well-transferred DCP, and an enthralled audience, there is nothing that a 35mm print can add (unless there’s something very special about the print).

This was the ultimate Taxi Driver experience.

DCP, Grover Crisp, & Bonjour Tristesse at the PFA

Thursday night I attended the second event in the Pacific Film Archive series, The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures. This was more than just a movie screening. It was a talk by Sony’s head archivist–and one of the current heroes of film restoration–Grover Crisp. Then came the movie: Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse.

Ironically, the movie was only in 2K.

But the evening started with true 4K projection: the newly-restored trailer of Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t think I’d ever seen a trailer at the PFA before, and certainly not one for a film that they’d screened earlier that week. Anyway, it looked gorgeous.

Then the PFA’s Steve Seid came to the podium to introduce Crisp. He admitted that the change to digital isn’t "the most comfortable conversion for some people. Both sides have their pros and cons. we’re hoping that this series will address this." He praised Sony in general and Crisp in particular for the way they handle the large Columbia Pictures library, preserving and restoring obscure films as well as famous ones. This was the case before digital, and remains so, both for 35mm and DCP.

Crisp’s talk was similar to the one he gave at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last year, but longer and more detailed. He used a Windows 7 computer (presumably a Sony laptop), plugged into the projection system, to illustrate his points.

Some of the more interesting points from his talk:

  • Sony has "pretty much" stopped restoring films on film. It’s all digital. But they still output the final results, and still make 35mm black and white separations  to better preserve color films.
  • In the pre-digital days, the "original negative was the holy grail." If it was damaged, they had to find something else. "The goal was to replace damaged sections." But there was a trade-off in image quality. With "every step away from original negative, you lose image quality."
  • "Now we scan the original negative." They still look for other elements if a section is missing, but a damaged negative can be fixed digitally.
  • Most new movies you see in theaters are 2K DCPs.
  • "We scan all of our film at 4K now." Sony also has a strong motive for restoring old films in 4K. They’re now selling 4K HDTVs, and need content.
  • Early in the Lawrence restoration, they did test scans at different resolutions. In the end, they "scanned in 8K, and did all the work in 4K." They needed 8K because Lawrence is a large-format film.
  • Crisp talked about how digital technology can restore a film to a closure approximation of how it originally looked. As one example, he used Picnic, which will screen Sunday. An early Cinemascope picture, it was shot in the now-dead 2.55×1 aspect ratio. Modern prints crop it to the later ‘scope ratio of 2.35×1. "All the prints were compromised." With digital, they were able to letterbox the image and retain the original aspect ratio.
  • When restoring a film digitally, Crisp strongly believes in retaining the grain, which he called "the building block of the image; try to take it away and you’re messing with the image."
  • Someone asked about long-time archiving of digital films. He said that Sony has an archival system set up, and they haven’t lost anything in 12 years.

Crisp ended the presentation with the same side-by-side digital vs. 35mm Dr. Strangelove comparison he showed last year. And yes, the digital looked better (although they both looked excellent). Strangelove was Sony’s first 4K restoration.

And what about the night’s movie?

I’m not a big fan of Preminger, although I like some of his work. I hadn’t even heard of Bonjour Tristesse before I saw the current schedule.

At first, I wasn’t impressed, but as the movie played out, it pulled me in. Jean Seberg plays a teenager with a close relationship to her wealthy, widowed, fun-loving playboy father. They’re spending a carefree summer on the Mediterranean–just father, daughter, and father’s sweet but lower-class lover. Then Dad (David Niven) falls for a much more prim and proper woman (Deborah Kerr), and trouble begins.

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This sounds like a comedy, and the film has its laughs, but the film goes into some very serious directions. And it tips you off early that it will go there. The story is told in flashback from a dreary, black-and-white Paris; the summer scenes are shot in very bright colors.

I came away impressed. I’d give it a B+.

How Many Films are Still Shot on Film: The 2013 Edition

For the second year in a row, I’ve done a survey of current films to determine how many are digitally shot and how many are still captured on film. In 2012, I was surprised to discover that just over half of the films that might have been shot on film (I explain that distinction below) were shot digitally. This time, three fifths of the titles were captured as pixels rather than grain.

I generally prefer a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) to 35mm film in the projection booth (there are exceptions). But I’m nowhere near as enamored with the look of digital in the camera. No matter what the projection technology, an image captured in the photochemical realm has a depth and warmth that digital cameras still can’t get quite right.

But they’re close and getting closer. For my mind, the additional cost of shooting on film only makes sense if you want beautiful photography. Not every film needs beautiful photography. So it’s not surprising that most films made today are shot digitally.

And please, don’t tell me it’s not a film unless it’s shot on film. Or, if you do tell me that, swear that you will never claim to dial a phone number.

On with the survey:

To find out how many theatrical features are now shot digitally, I visited IMBD’s Showtimes and Tickets page. Since my goal was to find out about new movies, I disqualified any film released in a year other than 2013. For obvious reasons, I also skipped titles with an incomplete Technical Specs page.

I separated everything else into two categories:

Docs, Moc Docs, Animation, & 3D: It’s pretty much unthinkable these days to shoot a documentary, a fake documentary (AKA, a mockumentary), or an animated picture on film. And although a lot of 3D movies were shot on film 60 years ago, it’s considered impossible today.

I found six films in this category–or perhaps I should say in these four categories. As I expected, all were shot digitally.

Everything Else: If you’re shooting live actors in 2D, and aren’t trying to make your movie look like a documentary, shooting on film is still a practical option. These I expected to find movies in this category shot both ways.

And I found them–ten live-action 2D non-docs were shot on real film. On the other hand, I also found 15 such movies shot digitally. That’s half again as much as were shot on film.

Shooting on film is on the way of becoming something special, like three-strip Technicolor in the 1940s, or Super Panavision 70 in the 1960s. Those formats eventually went away, replaced by more practical, less expensive technologies.

On the other hand, digital cameras will eventually outpace film in image quality, so we won’t be losing anything in the long run.

Rethinking Dial M for Murder

The last time I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder on the big screen, or in 3D, was the first time any paying audience had seen it in decades. That was in 1980, at San Francisco’s York Theater. I finally experienced the film properly again Thursday night at the Rafael, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered.

That 1980 screening was on a double bill with the even-better Strangers on a Train. Oddly, Dial M feels in some ways like a sequel to Strangers. In the first film, Farley Granger plays a young tennis pro estranged from his philandering wife. The happy ending has him ready to marry the daughter of a rich and powerful man. In Dial M, Ray Milland plays a middle-aged former tennis pro with a wealthy, but philandering wife. Both stories involve a plot to murder the adulteress, with the dirty deed performed by a seemingly disinterested third party.

In Dial M for Murder, Grace Kelly plays that wife in her first of three performances for Hitchcock. Knowing of her infidelity, and wanting to inherit her fortune, Milland plans an imageelaborate "perfect" murder, blackmailing and bribing an old acquaintance to commit the crime when the phone rings. Things don’t go as planned, but Milland is a bright fellow who can still turn things to his favor…maybe.

Set in England (but shot in Warner Brothers’ sound stages in Burbank), it’s all very droll. Everyone speaks calmly and wittily.

In fact, the film’s major weakness is the abundance of talking. Frederick Knott adopted his own stage play for the screen, and apparently didn’t change it much. Large chunks of the movie feel like theatre, with actors giving long, expository speeches. Hitchcock does what he can to liven these scenes with his patented, paranoia-producing camera angles, but the staginess still comes through.

But I don’t want to emphasize the film’s weaknesses. There were good reasons why the play was a Broadway hit, and why Warners picked Alfred Hitchcock to helm the film version. The story if filled with wit, suspense, and thrills. There’s great pleasure in watching Milland inwardly squirm as his plot unravels, then find a way to turn events in his favor, only to squirm inwardly again.

Hitchcock made Dial M for Murder in 1953, at the height of Hollywood’s first and very short 3D boom. Warner Brothers insisted he shoot the film stereoscopically. Hitchcock used the new format well by hardly using it at all. Most of the film is shot like a conventional, flat movie. But the one time Hitchcock throws something at the screen, you don’t laugh at the silly 3D hokum; you jump out of your seat and scream. That moment stands amongst Hitchcock’s greatest scenes, and it’s entirely dependent on 3D for its effect.

Warner Brothers recently restored the film digitally. Much of it looks very grainy–especially the exteriors (of which there are few). Presumably the source was several generations away from the negative. Or perhaps early Warnercolor really was that grainy.

The Rafael is showing the film digitally, which some people object to but not me. Realistically speaking, digital projection makes the 3D experience far more practical, and therefore more available to audiences.

You can catch it again at the Rafael on Sunday, at 4:15 and 7:00. I highly recommend it.

The Big Trail: A Big Western Shot on Big Film

Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail is not by any stretch of the imagination a great film. But it’s fascinating, historically unique, and beautiful to look at. I caught it Sunday night at the Pacific Film Archive. I’d seen it before–on Turner Classic Movies–but this was my first Big Trail big screen experience. It deserves the big screen.

Three factors make The Big Trail historically significant. First, it was an unsuccessful attempt to revive the big-budget epic western–a blockbuster sub-genre that enjoyed large but brief popularity in the mid-1920s. Second, it was shot and originally shown in a widescreen, 70mm format 25 years before such things really caught on. And finally, it was John Wayne’s first starring role.

The Epic Western

There was no difference between a western and a B western until The Covered Wagon added production value and sweep to the genre in 1923. It was a smash. So were several follow-up films, including John Ford’s first A picture, The Iron Horse. But audiences soon tired of big westerns, and the genre returned to its low-budget roots.

In 1929-1930, Fox decided that with talkies firmly in place, it was time to revive the epic western–this time with audible dialog. Box office results easily proved the company wrong.

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Fox Grandeur

But that wasn’t the only bad idea Fox had in 1929. The company also decided that if one technical gimmick (sound) can sell tickets, two could sell more. So they developed Fox Grandeur, a 70mm format with a frame more than twice the size of standard 35mm, with an aspect ratio of more than 2×1.

This sort of thing would not become common until the mid-1950s.

The result is beautiful and spectacular. Covered wagons, herds of cattle, and breath-taking scenery fill the screen almost constantly. In the movie’s most stunning sequence, wagons, cows, luggage, and people are lowered via pulleys down a cliff–all done without special effects.

imageWalsh and cinematographer Lucien Andriot show an instinctive understanding of the large, wide screen–all the more surprising considering that no one had done this before or would do it again for almost 25 years. And since The Big Trail was in black and white, very few ever did it like this again.

Few theaters converted to Grandeur (the movie was simultaneously shot in 35mm, adding to the high budget), making the widescreen version difficult to show. In the 1980s, Fox and MOMA preserved the picture, printing it in anamorphic, Cinemascope-compatible 35mm, pillarboxed to the right aspect ratio.

Sunday night, the PFA screened an archival print of this preservation. It clearly came from a heavily-scratched source, and some image quality was lost with the optical printing process required to reduce and squeeze the image. The result was flawed, but still spectacular. Unless someone puts up the money for an 8K digital restoration, this as good as The Big Trail will ever again look.

John Wayne

Fox must have felt they didn’t have a star for this story, so they took a chance on Marion "Duke" Morrison, a young college football imagestar who was working at the studio in menial jobs and occasional extra work. Someone, and there’s controversy about who it was, changed the new actor’s name to John Wayne.

At this point in his career, Wayne wasn’t much of an actor. His inconsistent line readings sometimes ring laughably false. But even with these faults, he’s an easy-going and likable presence on screen.

To be fair, the rest of the cast sounds stilted and false, as well. There was probably little they could do with the corny script. The dialog mostly reeks, and the three villains are so broadly drawn and played that they might as well have worn signs that read "Bad Guy."

The climax was about as exciting as a dishwasher’s last cycle.

I’m glad I’ve finally seen The Big Trail theatrically. If you care about the evolution of the Western, or about the history of movie technology, it’s a must. But if you’re just looking for a good movie, there are better choices.

The PFA screened The Big Trail as part of their series, A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh. Walsh made better movies, and several of them are coming up in the series.

One Downside of Digital Projection

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of digital projection–not only for today’s movies but classics, as well. But I’m not a fundamentalist. Digital has its downsides. And one of those downsides is the number of great motion pictures now unavailable in any decent theatrical format–digital or otherwise.

More and more classics are becoming available on DCP–the digital format used professionally in multiplexes. Over the next eight days, the Castro is screening Journey to Italy, Stromboli, and several recently restored silent films by Alfred Hitchcock off of DCPs. The  Pacific Film Archive has several classics on DCP on its current schedule, including The Tin Drum, Tristana, Port of Shadows, and those same Hitchcock classics. The CineMark multiplex chain screens classics every week off DCPs, although they understandably stick to popular, English-language titles. They’re doing Spielberg this month, and they may do Hitchcock and Lean soon, but don’t hold your breadth for Bunuel.

It costs time and money to digitize an old movie properly, so that the DCP–or even the Blu-ray–can stand up proudly against a good 35mm print. And as the price of making 35mm prints goes up as demand goes down, the studios will become much more selective about who they’ll rent a print to.

Consider On the Town, one of the best MGM Technicolor musicals from the glory days of the Arthur Freed era. Made in 1949, it never achieved the lasting fame of Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris, but it should have. It would make my list of top ten musicals–I don’t think Paris would make my top twenty.

The plot is a bit like Before Sunrise, but funnier and with dancing. Three sailors arrive imagein New York for a 24-hour leave–precious little time to see the sights, drink in the atmosphere, and get laid (of course, they couldn’t say that in 1949).

What makes On the Town so special–beyond the great songs, terrific choreography, and witty script–is the prevailing sense of friendship and camaraderie. These three sailors and the women who fall for them all seem to genuinely like and support each other. The movie also treats sexuality in a surprisingly upbeat and positive way for its time. The women in the story (Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, and the infinitely funny Betty Garrett) are as motivated by lust as the men (Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, and Frank Sinatra). It’s just too bad that screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden updated their own wartime stage musical to the post-war period, losing the urgency that came from not knowing if the sailors would come back alive.

The Cerrito will screen On the Town Thursday night. But they’re screening it off a DVD. No better option is available.

Warner Brothers, which now owns On the Town, has not given it the digital restoration it deserves. And that means no DCP and no Blu-ray. I don’t know if the problem is financial (the movie might not be a big enough money-maker) or technical (there may be no good source materials). I’d love to hear what someone at Warner Brothers has to say on this subject.

So why can’t the Cerrito show it in 35mm–the picture’s original format? When the Cerrito went digital, they kept their film projectors. They even have two projectors in their downstairs auditorium, allowing them to screen old prints. (See Methods of Projection for an explanation.) According to my Rialto Cinemas contact, “WB did not offer a 35mm so I don’t know if one is available or not.”

The Castro screened On the Town in December, 2011–I assume in 35mm. 18 months later, Warner doesn’t even offer the print to the Cerrito. Sad.

A New Schedule and a New Projector at the Pacific Film Archive

I’ve got the new summer schedule for the Pacific Film Archive. And the biggest news is hidden between the lines.

As I looked over the printed schedule, I noticed that the PFA will screen several films off DCPs. As far as I knew, the PFA didn’t have that capability. Last year, Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby told me that “we might not have that full capability until we move to our new building in downtown Berkeley. If someone would like to donate funds to the PFA for this purpose this would be greatly appreciated!!” (See The Challenges of Digital Projection, Part 1: The Theaters.)

The donations came through. According to my PFA press contact, the new DCI-compatible, 4K digital projector was funded by “a generous block grant from our control unit on campus.” It can even manage high frame rates–in case Peter Jackson comes to town.

How important is this upgrade? Last November, the PFA screened Children of Paradise, not long after the film’s recent restoration. But since the new restoration has not been released in 35mm (at least not in the USA), they had to screen a six-year-old pre-restoration print. Considering what a great job Pathe did on the restoration, that’s a significant loss.

The PFA isn’t making a big deal about the change, and they haven’t yet announced anything like the New York Film Forum’s This is DCP series. But they’ll be using the new projector when appropriate.

For instance, most of the films in their Sunday matinee From Up on Poppy Hillseries, Castles in the Sky: Masterful Anime from Studio Ghibli, will be screened in 35mm. But Ghibli’s latest, From Up on Poppy Hill (see my comments) will be off a DCP. Of course, the biggest issue with these enchanting tales is whether they’ll be dubbed or subtitled. Four of the films, most of them geared to younger children, will be dubbed; the other eight subtitled.

Ursula Meier’s Sister, the newest film in the series on cinematographer Agnès Godard, will also screen in pixels rather than film grain. This is appropriate, not only because Sister came out only last year, but also because it’s Godard’s first digital work. Godard will be at the PFA for several screenings, and I’m sure she’ll discuss the transition.

The ongoing series A Theater Near You is really an excuse to screen films that don’t fit into any of the other series (or at least that’s what I’ve assumed). On this schedule, the series contains three classics digitally restored and presented on DCP: The Tin Drum, Tristana, and Port of Shadows. The other films playing at A Theater Near You, all in 35mm, are The Man Who Fell to Earth, Kuroneko, and The Mill and the Cross. Curiously, The Mill and the Cross (read my review) was shot digitally.

The Mill and the CrossFans of 35mm shouldn’t feel betrayed. The most entertaining series this summer will almost certainly be A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh, and all 15 features–including such gems as High Sierra and White Heat–will be screened off 35mm prints. Seven of those prints are vault or archival.

What else will be at the PFA this summer?

That’s what they’ve got through August. I hope they screen Samsara soon (read my review). The filmmakers explicitly stated that it should be screened in 4K, and to my knowledge, no one has done that in the Bay Area.

Harrison Ford at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I caught the Harrison Ford event Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, I got a lousy seat. Near the back and over to the side. That's what I get for wasting time.

After an introduction by Ted Hope, and clip reels honoring the recently-deceased donor George Gund III and, of course, Harrison Ford, David Darcy came onstage to lead the discussion. He introduced Ford, who received a standing ovation.

Ford was relaxed and funny. He was clearly enjoying the experience. Some highlights of their discussion and the Q&A with the audience:

  • “I'm not really a leading man anymore. That's my former job. I'm happy to now play supporting parts, character parts.”
  • On how the business has changed: “I think films are more sophisticated today than 20 years ago. I find complex to characters that I didn't see twenty years ago, and in the kind of movies that need a leading man.”
  • “I'm sorry that people don't watch movies in theaters as much as they used to. Movies are best seem with strangers, in the dark. [Then the lights come up and] you're with people you've gone on an emotional journey with.”
  • One audience member asked if Ford would name his soon-to-be-born son. He declined.
  • When asked about whether he's involved with Disney's upcoming Star Wars sequel: “I'm not at liberty to discuss it. Either Star Wars or the incident with Lady Gaga.”
  • About Indiana Jones: “I felt we needed to learn something new about Jones every time. I'd still like to do one. I'd like to see what happens when he can't run that fast. And when he doesn't like hitting people or getting hit. I think we should do that in the next five years or so.”

After the talk, enough people left to allow me to get a good seat for The Fugitive.

It was digitally projected, and looked like the kind of presentation that gives digital cinema a bad name. There was little detail. Everything was a bit soft. I don't know what it was projected off of, but if it was a DCP, it was a really bad transfer. If it was a Blu-ray, it was still a bad transfer. I just checked Blu-ray.com's review, and they described the transfer as “mostly abysmal.” I agree.

But the movie itself holds up (I hadn't seen it since it was new). In a very Hitchcockian plot (adapted from a 60's TV show), Ford plays a doctor arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of his wife. He escapes, and spends the rest of the film running from a US Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones in a career-defining role) while trying to solve the mystery. The movie sports some great action set pieces (including a train wreck), but is built mostly around the twin mysteries and the characters driving them. The final sequence goes on a little too long, but overall very good.

Let me put it this way: If you love North by Northwest, you'll like The Fugitive.

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