Physical Film Coming Back with Interstellar

I love digital projection. After a long period of skepticism, I embraced the new technology enthusiastically years ago. To my eyes, a well-transferred DCP looks better than any projected film format except Imax.

And yet, I’m excited about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar coming out on real, to-goodness film. This is despite the fact that I have no idea if the movie itself is any good. Of the five of Nolan’s films I’ve seen, I loved two (Memento and The Dark Knight), liked two (Insomnia and Inception), and hated one (The Dark Knight Rises). That certainly puts the odds in his favor, except that the The Dark Knight Collapses (my preferred name) was the most recent one.

Nolan is one of today’s most committed fans of physical film. If it wasn’t for his box office clout, he would never have forced Paramount to release Interstellar on film. In fact, it will open first in film formats in the middle of this week. If you want to see it digitally, you’ll have to wait until Friday.

Like his Dark Knight films, he shot most of Interstellar in 35mm anamorphic scope. But the more spectacular moments were shot in Imax. Here are the ways its being shown:

Imax: I’m not talking about the fake, digital Imax which isn’t really Imax, but the original, 70mm, 15-perf version which is still the biggest and best image yet projected. Here in the Bay Area, it will play at the AMC Metreon. This is probably the best way to see Interstellar, because it can show the sequences shot in Imax to their greatest effect. And show the full height of those scenes. The rest of the picture will be letterboxed to a scope-like ratio.

70mm: Only Oakland’s wonderful Grand Lake Theater will screen Interstellar in traditional, 5-perf 70mm. Not as immersive as Imax, but the posh movie palace provides a more pleasing, relaxing, and enjoyable experience than any AMC theater. It’s also a lot cheaper than Imax.

35mm: I don’t know how many Bay Area theaters will screen Interstellar on cinema’s oldest and most standard format: 35mm. But I can tell you that two theaters within easy bicycling distance to my home–the Cerrito and the California–are among them.

DCP: Yes, you can see it digitally, as well.

I like digital, but it’s had the effect of turning physical film presentation into something special. That’s fine with me. I like special.

Four surprising facts from early film history

Historical reality has a way of conflicting with the what we all assume. Here are four totally surprising, unintuitive facts about the early days of cinema.

Animation preceded live action

The first moving images weren’t photographed. They were drawn. Parlor toys such as Zoetropethe Zoetrope used multiple illustrations to create the illusion of movement–as cartoons would decades later–to create the illusion of movement.

The Zoetrope wasn’t the first toy to use Persistence of Vision. The far cruder Thaumatrope had been invented (we’re not really sure by who) by 1824. The Zoetrope came a decade later.

It would take nearly another 40 years before Eadweard James Muybridge used multiple cameras to photograph a running horse, and thus creating the first live action moving image.

Silent movies grew out of sound movies

If any one individual can be called the inventor of motion pictures, it’s Thomas Edison employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Realistically, no one man created the technology, but Dickson was the first (as far as I can determine) to punch sprocket holes in George Eastman’s new photographic film so that it could move in a reliable stop-and-go motion through a camera or projector. He created the 35mm, four-perf pull-down standard that is only dying now with the digital revolution.

And according to his own account, as quoted in Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights, he was given the task "to combine Mr. Edison’s phonograph with a practical zoetropic moving figure device." Dickson also claimed that he showed Edison a talking picture in 1989.

Did this happen? Ramsaye, along with later historians, doubted it. A few years later, Edison released the Kinetoscope without sound.

But we do know that Dickson, still working for Edison, successfully created a way to record and show sound movies in the mid-1990’s. that was just around the time that Lumiere, in France, began to project motion pictures onto a screen in front of paying customers for the first time.image

Narrative cinema grew out of special effects

Today, you can prove your maturity by complaining about blockbusters where the story appears to be nothing but an excuse for the special effects. I’ve even done it myself. And yet, historically speaking, that’s pretty much how it happened.

It’s difficult to say who first started telling fictional stories on film. If you film a scene from a stage play, is that a narrative or merely a recording (especially if there’s no dialog)? Does it count if you film a man watering a lawn, and a mischievous teenager disrupts the chore.

But a real story, taking ten or more minutes? Arguably, the true inventor of narrative cinema was also the inventor of special effects, Georges Méliès. A professional magician, he started making movies because he could do effects in them that were impossible on the live stage. Eventually, he expanded his "trick films," providing stories such as A Trip to the Moon to provide a bigger canvas for his effects.

image

Colorization preceded real color

You don’t need digital technology to colorize a black and white movie. It was done from almost the beginning of cinema.

The early ways to add color were many. Tinting gave one color to the whole frame, with the color standing out most in the light parts of the image. Toning also colored the entire frame, except that the color stood out in the dark areas. Combined together, tinting and toning could create a vivid two-color effect.

They also hand-painted prints in those days, which must have cost a fortune.

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All of these were available in the 1890s. The first commercially successful system using what was then called "natural color" (in other words, the colors were recorded in the camera), was Kinemacolor. In came out in 1908,

MVFF: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Lark

Wednesday night I finally got to a 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival event–a screening at the Lark of one of my favorite westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

imageBelieve it or not, this was my first visit to the Lark. Yes, I’ve been covering it at Bayflicks for years, but this was the first time I actually stepped inside.

The Lark is a modest-sized neighborhood theater of the sort that dotted the small towns and suburbs before the invention of the multiplex. The art deco décor has been lovingly restored. The lobby is small, with two small areas off to the side where people can sit and talk.

The screen isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to create a real movie feel. The seats are comfortable, with good drink holders.

Before the movie, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin came onstage and introduced James Hetfield of Metallica, who hosted the screening. Metallica is this year’s Artists in Residence, and each member of the band got to select a favorite film to be screened.

Hetfield talked briefly about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and how it had influenced him. He discussed the three main characters, the use of close-ups, and–not surprisingly–Ennio Morricone’s iconic score. The film started at about 7:15.

The Great, the Crazy, and the Iconic

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an epic quest motivated purely by greed. Three violent and deadly criminals, all very skilled at their job, set out to recover $200,000 in stolen gold. None of them knows exactly where the loot is hidden, but individually each has a piece of the puzzle. They constantly change allegiances, sometimes collaborating with and then double-crossing each other.

Meanwhile, war rages around them. Director/co-writer Sergio Leone set this western in the American Civil War. Issues like succession and slavery never comes up, but the destruction is vast and senseless. As the rebel army retreats from a town, an innkeeper loudly hails the Confederacy, while privately telling his wife that the Yanks will be better because they pay in gold. Another town has been battered to ruins–perhaps an echo of Leone’s adolescence in World War II Italy. Twice a day, armies clash over a bridge that both sides want and no one can hold. Soldiers on both sides speak with sarcastic hate of their commanders.

And through it all, our three lead characters (I can’t quite call them all protagonists) cheat, threaten, bribe, and murder their way to their ultimate goal.

The Good: Clint Eastwood plays his iconic Man With No Name, although in this film his friends call him Blondie. He’s a thief and a con artist, a quick and deadly draw who feels no remorse after killing someone. When he tires of his partner, he leaves him in the middle of the desert without horse, food, or drink. In any other movie, he’d be the villain. But he doesn’t kill without reason, and he occasionally displays acts of generosity to minor characters. By this film’s standards, that makes him the good guy.

The Bad: Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes stands amongst the vilest villains in film history. His nickname is clearly ironic–his eyes look as evil as Satan. He tortures people for information, robs prisoners, and murders with the slightest of motives. His only code of honor: If he takes the money, he sees the job through. Early on, he kills two men because each of them paid him to kill the other one–and he shoots one of them in cold blood.

The Ugly: The Jewish-American actor Eli Wallach played Mexican banditos in at least three movies, but only here did he make the character funny, touching, lovable, and utterly horrible. His Tuco–devious, dumb, proud, and as wily as a rat–carries The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. When he’s out for vengeance, his cruelty surpasses Angel Eyes. But when he needs the victim of that cruelty, he becomes the dependable partner–just so long as you don’t turn your back. More than anything else, Wallach’s performance raises this movie from very good to great.

Leone and his collaborators tell the story of these men in a flashy and daring style. In addition to the close-ups and musical score I’ve already discussed, there’s the striking use of the widescreen frame, splashy editing–especially in the climatic three-way gun duel–and the dark humor that pervades the picture.

Versions and restorations

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an Italian film with American stars, shot in Spain, and set in the American west. Like most Italian films of its day, it was shot without recording a dialog track. All of the dialog was dubbed in separate Italian and English versions (and other languages too, I assume).

Leone’s original cut ran 175 minutes–too long for the American distributor, United Artists. So Leone cut it back to 161.  The cuts were made before the English dubbing; the removed scenes could not easily to restored to the film.

That was fixed in 2003, when MGM/UA created the Extended English Language version. They restored and redubbed the cut scenes. Eastman and Wallach dubbed their parts, but another voice actor talked for the late Van Cleef. They also added a scene that Leone had cut from the Italian version, bringing the running time to 179 minutes. They also remixed the soundtrack, taking it from mono to Dolby Digital 5.1.

So the film has now grown by 18 minutes from the version I first fell in love with. I have mixed feelings about the changes, and I still cling to my 161-minute DVD. Some of the recovered scenes add atmosphere and character development. Others fill in plot gaps that never really needed to be filled. I love both versions, but I love the shorter one more.

This year, MGM/UA gave this picture a 4K digital restoration. They stuck to the 179 extended version, and–I’m glad to say–they restored the mono soundtrack. The festival screened the film from a 4K DCP, with the mono sound.

Aside from a rather ridiculous MGM 90th Anniversary trailer (see MGM 90th Anniversary…without MGM), it was a great presentation, showing the deep colors and heavy grain expected in a Techniscope production of the 1960s. Unless there’s an archival dye-transfer print from the original release somewhere, this is as good as the picture can get.

Overall, a very good evening.

Kubrick in digital and on film

Digital or film? For cinephiles, that’s the great controversy of our age. And the arguments get particularly agitated when talking about classic pictures made at a time when digital projection wasn’t an option.

But in the coming weeks, you get your chance to watch two Stanley Kubrick classics on 35mm film, and then again on DCP–the digital format used for professional theater projection. The films are Dr. Strangelove and The Shining.

This Sunday, September 28, the Roxie will screen both films as a double bill. Then, as part of their ongoing series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick, the Pacific Film Archive will screen Dr. Strangelove on Sunday, October 4. On Friday, October 24, they’ll screen The Shining. Both pictures will be screened off DCPs.

What motivated their decisions?

PFA programmer Steve Seid told me that that when he requested the films from Warner Brothers, and "they said only Eyes Wide Shut was on film." In other words, he had no choice about The Shining.  I neglected to ask him about Strangelove, which is not owned by Warner.

And what about the Roxie? Seid, who’s on the Roxie board, told me that they don’t have the DCI-compliant projector needed for DCPs. The best they can do, digitally, is Blu-ray. That can look very good on a theater screen, but not as good as a 35mm print.

The Roxie double bill is in conjunction with the Spoke Art gallery, which is running a Kubrick tribute art show which, unfortunately, closes today. Art Spoke’s owner, Ken Harman, provided the prints for the Roxie. Harman told me that "The choice to go 35mm was mostly an aesthetic one, I’m by no means a ‘purist’ and appreciate DCP, however being able to view films in 35mm is getting more and more rare…"

Harmen did not tell me where he got the prints. Seid assumes "that the Roxie found either archival or private prints." In that case, those prints should really be a treat.

The Castro now has 4K projection

Top technology has been an important part of the Castro‘s appeal for a long time. The theater was, I believe, the first rep house to get Dolby stereo, digital sound, and DCP-compatible digital projection. I believe it’s the only local rep house that can project 70mm film, and one of only two that can handle 50’s-style,dual-strip 3D.

And now they’ve added the digital equivalent of 70mm film–4K projection. 4K projects four times the resolution of standard 2K. I’ve never seen a side-by-side comparison of the two, and I’ve heard conflicting opinions from experts on this. But I suspect that the difference is significant, especially if the film was shot in a large format and if you’re sitting close to the screen (as I usually do).

Last year, I was delighted to learn that the Pacific Film Archive had a new, 4K projector. But the PFA has a small screen–too small for an immersive experience. Not so with the Castro’s large screen.

Back in May, I wrote about a stuck pixel that marred the Castro’s digital screenings. At the end of that article, I disclosed that I had "emailed my Castro press contact about this issue, but he could only give me information off the record." Now I can tell you what he told me: that they might simply fix the problem, or they might instead upgrade to 4K projection. Today, he revealed that "We have completed installation of the 4K projector."

I am, of course, delighted.

When can you see the new projector in action? The Castro will screen Double Indemnity off a DCP tomorrow night, but that one is probably 2K (although I honestly don’t know). However, they’ll be screening The Leopard in 4K on August 24, and Lawrence of Arabia that way August 30 and September 1. Both films were shot in large film formats (Technirama and Super Panavision 70 respectively). I suspect that both films will look great in 4K projection.

Rediscovering The Big Lebowski

I saw The Big Lebowski at the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night–my first time seeing the cult favorite with an audience. Now I get it. I may be the last person to realize this, but on the big screen, with a room full of people, Lebowski is an exceptional comedy. The laughs are nearly constant.

And yet there’s more to it than laughs. The characters, although broadly drawn and larger-than-life, have a ring of truth to them. And the plot is as complex as a Raymond Chandler novel.

In fact, the story feels very much like something from Raymond Chandler, except that the protagonist is no Philip Marlowe. He’s a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned slacker and competitive bowler who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). In other words, he’s the least competent person you could possibly imagine to be placed in the middle of a Raymond Chandler story.

A bit of personal history:

Lukewarm reviews kept me from seeing The Big Lebowski when it was released in 1998–despite my already being a Coen brothers fan. But I rented it soon after it came out on DVD, and watched it when my then-teenaged son. (My son was also with me Wednesday night at the PFA; this time with his wife.)

Soon after I started this blog, I started recommending The Big Lebowski
when it played in local theaters. It wasn’t long before I realized that it played more one-night stands than any other movie. This perplexed me. I remembered it as a pleasant comedy but not a great one. When I started the letter grades, I gave it a B.

But it kept turning up. People obviously loved it. I even made jokes about it in my weekly newsletter, calling one Lebowski of Arabia and another A Lebowski-Free Week. Slowly, I began to suspect that I needed to see it again, and this time in a theater.

On Wednesday night, I finally did it.

As usual, Steve Seid introduced the movie, which the PFA was screening as part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010. This is the last of three American comedy series that the Archive has been running since the beginning of the year.

To help program this final series, the PFA "worked in cahoots with the East Bay Express," with readers recommending films. Seid called Lebowski part of a "great bowling trilogy" that also included King Pin and Spare Me, which is "about a kind of outlaw bowler who gets kicked out of the league because he has anger issues," and was advertised with the tag line "When you hear thunder, God is bowling."

Seid also brought out his father’s bowling ball. His father bowled until he was in his 90s.

The Big Lebowski is more than a bowling movie, and more than a Raymond Chandler story with a comically inept protagonist. There’s a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen to it–as if you could throw yourself out to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t.

Consider Sam Elliott’s prairie philosopher narration, which sort of sets the scene but is stylistically at odds with everything else in the picture. Or John Turturro’s utterly bizarre turn as a bejeweled bowler named Jesus. Or the dancing dream sequence that looks like something out of Busby Berkeley, only weirder.

Amongst a great supporting cast that includes Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman at his funniest, John Goodman stands out as the Dude’s friend Walter–a Vietnam vet with a very bad case of PTSD. This is a guy who pulls a gun to settle an argument over bowling scores. On one level, Walter is the sort of dependable friend who will always have your back. On the other, he’s crazy, dangerous, and doesn’t think things through. The Dude gets into a lot of trouble because of Walter’s shenanigans.

The Big Lebowski is a blissfully vulgar movie. It just may have more f-words than any other picture shot. And it uses the word, and its constant repetitions, effectively to get laughs. The Coen brothers understand just how funny a word it is.

The PFA screened The Big Lebowski off of a DCP. As a rule, this doesn’t bother me; I like digital projection. But not this time. Universal’s transfer was over-processed. It looked like video, with film grain removed and everything smoothed over. I suspect this was an early transfer, done before people realized that a film projected digitally should still look like a film, and not like CGI. Considering the quality of this transfer, I would rather have seen a 35mm print.

But I suppose I have to accept the bad with the good. After all, "the Dude abides."

Technology, Classic Films, and Mick LaSalle

In this week’s Ask Mick LaSalle column, the SF Chronicle reviewer answered a reader who asked if he could "you name any American movie from the last 20 years that might be for the ages?"

His answer was, for the most part, intelligent, but not entirely. And the problems started at the top, when Mick proclaimed that "Movies that depend on technology date poorly…"

If you take that statement literally, of course, all movies date poorly. Cinema, by its nature, depends on technology. There were no movies before the invention of movie cameras, which themselves depended on several other technologies.

And the technology changes all the time. John Ford had to adjust to talkies, three-strip Technicolor, color film, standard widescreen, VistaVision, Cinerama, Super Panavision 70, and plain old Panavision.

The technology used to shoot a movie dates it as much as the costumes. Ever hear someone complain about old movies because they’re in black and wite?

Okay, I do realize that when LaSalle wrote "technology," he really meant special visual effects. And there’s an element of truth to that. If a big-budget movie’s main attraction is the cutting-edge FX, it will date quickly.

But a movie that uses its cutting-edge FX creatively need not go out of date. Look at all the people who hate George Lucas because he replaced the original analogue effects in Star Wars with "improved" digital versions. The effects in 2001 and King Kong still work their magic. People still love George Melies’ work, and special effects don’t get older than that.

Setting aside the issue of technology, it’s impossible to say with any certainly which films will be regarded as classics. That’s why I don’t use the words classic or masterpiece to describe a film (or song, or book) until it is at least 20 years old. I also don’t rate a film A+ until it reaches that age.

Why 20 years? Because by then, you can have college-educated people who can look at the film and love it, even though they have no memory of the society that made it. (20 is also, of course, a nice round number.)

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