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."

Undead Pixels Mar Digital Projection

I’m a fan of digital projection. But I’m not blind about its faults. And one of the biggest problems with digital projection is the dreaded stuck pixel. Suddenly, you’ve got a distracting dot on the screen. When it happens, it’s worse than a scratch on a print, and it doesn’t go away until it’s fixed.

It’s also very expensive to fix. And that often means that it might not go away for a very long time.

As I write this, there’s a stuck pixel on the Castro’s screen. I noticed it when I saw Boyhood and Alex in Venice–a small but persistent red dot in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the films, although it might have if it had been near the center. But I would have enjoyed them more without it.

The red dot was most noticeable when the screen–or at least that corner of the screen–was dark. When the image was bright, you could barely see it. It disappeared entirely when the screen was bright red or white.

That told me that the red element for that pixel was stuck on. It was projecting red, even when there should be no red on the screen. Jason Weiner of Jason Watches Movies coined the term “undead pixel” for that particular problem.

Actually, he coined it two years ago, when a blue but otherwise similar stuck pixel appeared on one of the Kabuki screens. That was during the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival. It had apparently been there for a while, and was fixed before the Festival was over.

The Castro is in a difficult situation. According to some sources I have in the business, fixing the problem could cost $12,000 to $20,000. But leaving the problem unfixed indefinitely will lower the Castro’s reputation. One source, who works in the supply side of the industry, told me that the Castro “is pondering a repair vs. new 4K projector.”

If that’s true, I hope they pick the later choice.

Disclosure: I emailed my Castro press contact about this issue, but he could only give me information off the record.

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).

goldrush

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+.

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.

Best Ways to See a Classic Movie

The best way to see any theatrical feature–classic or otherwise–is in the theater, preferably with a competent projectionist and an enthusiastic audience. But that’s a given.

I’m here to cover a more controversial topic: From what type of media should an old movie–and let’s define that as any one made before 2000–be properly projected for that audience?

Hereare the current major options for professionally projecting a movie today. I’ve listed them in order from best to not really acceptable–in my own personal opinion, of course. Disagreements are welcome.

One caveat: I’m only considering the vast majority of films shot on standard 35mm film, and intended to be screened that way. Movies shot or meant to be shown in special formats have their own best formats.

The Very Best: Archival Print in Good Condition

If the print is special, so is the presentation. Archival prints allow you to see a film as close as possible to the original experience. The print is, in itself, a treasured object, and screening it becomes a rare treat.

This is especially the case if the print was made using a now-defunct technology such as dye-transfer, nitrate, or chemically-tinted black and white. I realize that someday soon, film itself will fall into this category. But that’s still in the future.

Unfortunately, if the print is rare, screenings will be rarer. If you have the only nitrate dye-transfer 35mm print of a particular title, you’re not going to let just anybody project it. And if you insist on only seeing classics this way, you’re going to see very few classics.

The Best Common Experience: Digital Cinema Package

Now comes the point where I piss off the purists.

Assuming that it was decently transferred (and they usually are), a DCP will look better than almost any 35mm print. Scratches, faded colors, and that slight vibration are not part of the artist’s intent–or proof of the film’s authenticity. They’re flaws in the presentation medium. Digital removes them.

I know that a great many cinephiles disagree with me, and to a large extent this sort of esthetic disagreement can never be objectively resolved. But I’ve now seen several classics on DCP, and with most of them, absolutely nothing was lost that the filmmakers would have wanted. And most of these I saw through inferior 2k projectors.

Yes, I know–these films were meant to be projected from 35mm film. But unless you’re watching something relatively new, the chemical nature of film stock has changed drastically since the time of the filmmakers’ intent. So has the light in the projector. I’m not convinced that modern-day film stock can reproduce the look of a nitrate dye-transfer print any better than can digital. In fact, I suspect that digital can do it better.

Which isn’t to say that every DCP of an old movie looks great. There are bad transfers. A good transfer can only be done by someone who cares, knows what they’re doing, and has a decent budget to do it.

Still Wonderful: Conventional 35mm Print in Good Condition

Until very recently, 35mm was the norm. And it still looks great. If I had my choice, I’d probably pick the DCP, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see a great movie the old-fashioned way.

Acceptable in a Pinch: Blu-ray

On two occasions, I saw what I assumed was a DCP, only to discover after the fact that it was a Blu–ray disc. But that was before I saw any classics off DCP. I don’t think I’d be fooled again.

Blu-ray’s resolution is almost as good as 2K DCP, but resolution isn’t everything. Smaller color space and heavier compression compromise the picture in ways that aren’t noticeable at home but are visible on a theatrical screen. I’ve seen slight color banding on projected Blu-ray discs–especially on blue skies.

The result is inferior to 35mm–assuming the 35mm print is in good condition. But if the print is heavily scratched, horribly faded, or chopped up with an abundance of splices, a Blu-ray becomes the lesser evil.

Not so Good: Conventional 35mm Print in Really Bad Condition

When you buy a ticket, you don’t know the quality of the print. And if the print is bad, it can really put a damper on your enjoyment.

Kind of Acceptable Under Certain Conditions: 16mm

Back in the 1970s, I saw a lot of movies in 16mm–mostly in classrooms and lecture halls, but occasionally in theaters, as well. Sometimes it wasn’t bad.

With a frame about a quarter the size of 35’s, a 16mm print has less detail and projects dimmer. Scratches and splices are more noticeable. The sound is significantly worse. Yet it fills the screen better than any pre-HD video format.

But 16mm becomes truly unfortunate for a widescreen movie–which is pretty much any Hollywood feature made after 1954, and foreign features after 1959. That little frame just can’t handle letterboxing well. Worse, a great many prints are panned and scanned..

Of course, some films are made for 16mm, including much by the great, recently departed Les Blank. Last summer I saw a pristine, brand-new archival 16mm print of Always for Pleasure. That print will always be a pleasure to watch. But that really falls into the top category of archival prints.

Why Would You Want To: DVD

Is it ever acceptable to charge people admission to see a DVD? Only, I would say, if there’s something very special about the screening, such as live accompaniment,  and no other source available.

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