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.

image

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+.

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.

image

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.

Lawrence of Arabia Again–This Time in a CineMark XD Theater

Seems kind of crazy. I haven’t been able to go to the movies anywhere near as often as I’d like, lately. Yet I’ve managed to see the same film three times in the last four months. And that film is almost four hours long.

But it was worth it. Although I now own it on Blu-ray, Lawrence of Arabia really does deserve a darkened theater, a huge screen, and an audience of more than your friends and family. And this time, I had a chance to see it in a theater that’s really optimized for a big picture, digitally projected.

The theater in question was the Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, and they screened Lawrence as part of their regular Wednesday Classic series.

But this was a special presentation. They screened Lawrence in their XD theater. XD promises a very high-quality digital presentation on a very large screen. They use Barco 4K projectors, a very bright image, and top sound. And sure enough, this was the best-looking Lawrence of Arabia I ever experienced.

For my other recent Lawrence experiences, see Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia and The Digital Lawrence of Arabia Experience. Here’s what I say about the movie in my newsletter when it plays locally:

A+ One of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle,Lawrence is also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, wanted desperately to become something he could never be, and told himself that he was liberating Arabia while knowing deep down that he was turning it over to the British. This masterpiece requires a very large screen and either 70mm film or 4K DCP digital projection for its full effect.

The XD theater looked like a typical 21st century multiplex auditorium, but larger. The huge, moderately-curved screen recalled the big roadshow palaces of the 1960s–in other words, the type of theater in which Lawrence of Arabia was meant to be shown. The front row is set back a bit, making it just about perfect for me for this kind of movie.

I should mention that CineMark charges a premium price, $14.50, for XD presentations. But so did those big roadshow palaces.

An XD Theater

When the preshow started, I turned around and looked at the light coming from the projector. And my heart sank. Two light sources, one on top of the other, told me that the 3D housing was still on. The picture was bright, so I’m confident that the polarizing filters had been properly removed. I know that with a Sony 4K projector, running a 4K, 2D image through the 3D attachment results in a 2K image (click here for details). With Barco, I honestly don’t know. I called Barco and the theater, and got conflicting information. So I’m not sure if I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia in 4K.

Update: It appears that the 3D attachment was left on, but it used the RealD-XL 3D system, which doesn’t reduce resolution the way the Sony does. Some image quality was probably lost, but it wasn’t significant. I definitely saw the film in 4K.

And it looked great–crisp, bright, and detailed. The occasional digital artifacts that marred a few minutes of the Castro’s December screening only showed up in only one shot. The large, curved screen made this very immersive film even more immersive. The sound was just about perfect.

A fair number of people showed up, although it wasn’t near a full house. The audience laughed and gasped in all the right places. Some, quite obviously, were seeing Lawrence of Arabia for the first time. Always a good thing.

Of course, you can’t expect a modern multiplex to offer the sort of showmanship you would get at the Castro. There was no curtain. The masking wasn’t versatile enough for Lawrence’s 2:20×1 aspect ratio (a screen shape that died with 70mm projection), resulting in blank screen above and below the image. The houselights went dark at the beginning of the overture rather than slowly fading while the music played.

In my recent piece on the UA Emery Bay multiplex, I stated "One clear difference between an art house and a multiplex: Good coffee and tea vs. none at all." I have to take that back. The Century’s concession stand sold Starbuck’s coffee and Tazo Tea.

I realize that over the past two years, I’ve written three posts about Lawrence of Arabia that concentrated on presentation and said little about the movie. I’m going to have to fix that.

My Top Ten Movie-Going Experiences of 2012

As the curtain parts on 2013′s opening titles, it’s time to look at my favorite movie-going experiences of the past year.

To make this list, both the film and the presentation had to be exceptional. I consider the quality of the print or digital transfer, the theater, the showmanship involved with the presentation, the audience, and, of course, the movie itself. 

Some of the best new movies I’ve seen this year, including A Separation and Samsara, didn’t make the grade because I didn’t see them under the best of circumstances.  On the other hand, The Dark Knight Rises didn’t make the grade despite a wonderful Imax presentation, because I didn’t like the movie.

Both the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Castro Theatre dominate this list, but that’s not surprising. Silent films inherently require showmanship, and the Festival doesn’t stint on that. And the Castro offers a great movie-watching environment.

2012 was the year that the art houses went digital, and I saw less and less physical film as the year went by. Six of the ten programs here were digitally projected.

10) Anti-Commie Double Bill, Pacific Film Archive
35mm film
Last fall, the PFA screened two very different flicks from 1953, Invaders from Mars was silly, cheap, and a lot of unintentional laughs. Pickup on South Street was a revelation. Written and directed by the great Samuel Fuller (2012 was my Sam Fuller year) this Cold War noir stars Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who lifts a wallet containing top-secret information. Soon, the FBI and Communist agents are after him. By the time it was over, I had a new all-time favorite Sam Fuller picture, and a new all-time favorite noir.

The PFA screened both films in 35mm with changeover projection (the way film should be projected). The print of Pickup, from Criterion Pictures, was exceptional. My one complaint: The movies would have played better if they had reversed the order.

9) Lawrence of Arabia, Castro 
DCP
This Lawrence of Arabiasame film, in this same theater, won ninth place last year, as well. That time, it was the 1988 restoration, projected in 70mm. And it looked great. This time, it was the new, 2012 restoration, projected digitally, and despite some flaws, it looked even better. A long, wide, visually expansive epic that cries out for a giant screen, Lawrence also succeeds as an intimate study. Peter O’Toole plays the title character as an emotionally troubled military genius, a megalomaniac and an exhibitionist, riddled with guilt and wanting to become something he knows he can never be.

Whoever was working the booth at the Castro that day knew how this type of roadshow epic should be presented. The houselights slowly faded during the overture, reaching full darkness just before the Columbia logo flashed onto the opening curtain.

Wonderful as Lawrence looked, I wish the Castro had used a 70mm print of the new restoration, or better yet, had a 4K digital projector. But economics make those options impractical.

8) Amazing Tales From the Vault, Castro
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Live, with some digital and film demonstrations
Paramount’s Andrea Kalas and Sony/Columbia’s Grover Crisp (both executives in charge of aging film libraries) were on hand to discuss their companies’ digital restoration work. Kalas showed us before-and-after images from the newly-restored Wings (which was screened the night before; see number 2 below). Crisp, repeating a demonstration he had shown at New York’s Film Forum, allowed us to compare the first reel of Dr. Strangelove off of a DCP and a 35mm print. DCP won.

7) Bernie, Palace Theater in Hilco, Hawaii
35mm film
While vacationing in Hawaii this summer, my family stumbled upon a beautiful old movie palace, still in operation, screening independent and indiewood fare. They showed Bernie that night, and although I had already seen and liked it, I decided it was a good time to see it again with the family. The lobby is deep and ornate, the auditorium large, and they’ve got two 35mm projectors for changeover presentation.

Jack Black plays the movie’s title character as a sweet, kind, and patient guy. He seems to truly care about the bereaved people he comforts as part of his job. His voice and mannerisms suggest that he’s gay, yet you suspect he’s never acted on those urges. He ardently loves Jesus, as well as the people living around him. And he shot an old woman four times in the back and hid her body in a trunk for nine months.

6) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Rafael
DCP
Clive Wynne-Candy is an officer and a gentleman. A career soldier in His Majesty’s army, he believes in following the rules of combat–even against an enemy willing to commit atrocities. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp follows Wynne-Candy through four decades, from his dashing youth to a somewhat foolish old age. Along the way, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger–the same team that created The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus–provide warmth, heartbreak, laughs, and several viewpoints on what it means to be a soldier, a patriot, a young man, an old man, and a decent human being.

This beautiful, three-strip Technicolor fable received a major restoration in 2012. Screened through the Rafael’s new digital projector, it looked great. A talk before the screening helped set the scene.

5) Children of Paradise, Castro
DCP
Have you ever loved a film for decades, then seen it restored, and realized that it’s even better than you thought?

That was my experience watching the new restoration of Children of Paradise. Suddenly there were shades of gray and fine details I’d never seen before (was that really one of Arletty’s nipples?). Flaws and scratches and duty stamps have been removed, and what’s left is a beautifully realized past recreated in sumptuous black and white.

The most ecstatically French of all French films, Children follows the life of a beautiful woman and four men caught in her orbit–all set in the theater scene of 1840s Paris. That this big, expensive epic was shot in the last months of the Occupation makes it all the more impressive.

4) The Master, Grand Lake
70mm
Physical film may be dying, but it hit back in some interesting ways last year. For instance, two films released this fall were shot in the 70mm format (see When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm), the first films shot that way since 1996.

And of the two, only The Master was released in 70mm. Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, which is grand indeed, was the only Bay Area venue to screen the film that way for more than a one-night stand. I saw it in their opulent main theater, which was almost sold out that night.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson loosely based The Master on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard–although it should in no way be considered an expose. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the Hubbard-like title character, but the story really centers on an alcoholic drifter played by Joaquin Phoenix. The weak final act hurts but doesn’t ruin The Master, and the 70mm image gives it a striking clarity.

3) Headhunters, Kabuki
San Francisco International Film Festival
DCP
This Norwegian thriller entertained me more than any other new film I saw in 2012. The protagonist of this Hitchcockian tale leads the good life of wealth, power, and a beautiful wife. But even his high-paying, high-status job can’t pay for his lavish lifestyle, so he moonlights as a burglar, breaking into homes and stealing expensive paintings. But something goes seriously wrong. Then it gets worse. And then…Well, before long, avoiding the police is the least of his worries. See my full review.

What was so special about the presentation? The audience. They cheered, laughed, and gasped in horror in just the way that they’re supposed to in this type of movie. Headhunter is a crowd-pleaser, and it sure pleased that crowd.

2) Wings, Castro
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
DCP
Live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Ben Burtt, & others

I never cared for realistic sound effects in silent films, but this summer I found the exception to the rule. Sound effects wizard Ben Burtt (Star Wars, WALL-E, and others) used bicycles, drums, a typewriter, several assistants, and devices that I couldn’t possibly name to bring the air and land battles of World War 1 to audio life. Music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra–one of the best ensembles accompanying silent films today–added emotional heft to the story.

But let’s not forget the movie. William Wellman’s Wings, the first film to win the Bestimage Picture Oscar, is a grand epic of regular soldiers at war, taking its time to develop the atmosphere and characters, and foreshadowing an important death. When the action starts, we’re entirely invested. The two leads, Charles (Buddy) Rogers and Richard Arlen, give complete and subtle performances. There’s a moment when Arlen’s character is receiving a medal, and the weary sadness and confusion on his face speaks more eloquently than any dialog ever could.

Newly restored, Wings looks more thrilling than it has in at least 80 years.

1) Napoleon, Oakland Paramount
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
35mm, with the final sequence in three-strip Polyvision
Accompanied by 46-piece orchestra conducted by Carl Davis

I have a confession to make. I went into 2012 all but certain that this event would hit the number 1 spot on this list. I was right. This may have been the greatest movie-going experience of my lifetime.

I doubt I have ever seen such a perfect melding of cinema and showmanship. Napoleon requires the special presentation that the Festival provided, and the presentation would overwhelm any other movie. Running 5 1/2 hours (broken up by three intermissions, including a long dinner break), and filled with thousands of extras, this picture is huge in every way. Yet it can be intimate and witty when appropriate. Although the film was made in 1927, it uses the camera and scissors in ways that seem revolutionary today.

And 20 minutes before the end, the masking opens up and the screen triples in width, showing us a vast vista recorded by three cameras and shown by three projectors. The audience went wild.

I’ve been watching silent films for more than 40 years. Many of them had color tints. But this was my first literally tinted print. Rather than recreating tints on color film, restorer Kevin Brownlow ran black and white film through dye baths, giving the colors a radiance that no photochemical or digital process can replicate.

Carl Davis, one of the heroes of modern-day silent film accompaniment, conducted a full orchestra at the screening. His score, which leaned heavily (and appropriately) on Beethoven, added zeal, depth, and beauty to the film.

Talk about a hard act to follow.

Runners up

The Digital Lawrence of Arabia Experience

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Castro, watching one of my all-time favorite films, Lawrence of Arabia. I’ve seen it many times, and over the last few years, always at the Castro. But this time was different. Sony digitally restored the epic this year, and this new version was played off a DCP instead of a film print.

A bit of history: Lawrence of Arabia was recut and shortened multiple times after its 1962 release. In 1988, Robert A. Harris restored the film to something like it’s original cut–with the help of director David Lean and editor Anne V. Coats. That restoration received a major 70mm release, and became the definitive Lawrence. For the film’s 50th anniversary, Sony restored the film again, using digital technology not available in 1988 to better clean up the image. This new restoration follows the 1988 cut.

So how did the digital Lawrence look? As always with this sort of film at the Castro, I sat in the center of the first row. And from there, for the most part, it looked very, very good. The details were clean and sharp, the vistas expansive, and with a visible film look. The dramatic impact of the images were all there.

But it wasn’t perfect. The image occasionally looked over-processed–as if someone was trying too hard to remove a film-based flaw. But these moments, which may not have been noticeable to someone sitting a few rows back, marred maybe five minutes of this nearly four-hour movie.

On the whole, this new restoration improves upon Harris’, which I last saw, at the Castro and in70mm, about 18 months ago. Faded images and cracks in the film emulsion that marred earlier versions are now gone, and the image is much closer to what, I imagine, Lean wanted.

But was this the best way to project this restoration? The Castro’s 2K digital projector can screen an image slightly superior to a pristine 35mm print. But 35mm was never the optimal way to see Lawrence of Arabia. It was always intended for 70mm presentation, and a 70mm frame is nearly three times the size of a 35mm one.

I suspect the film would have looked better in 70mm. The 2012 restoration credits mention 70mm print timing, so I assume that at least one print was struck. I don’t know if Sony is making that print commercially available, and if they have, why the Castro didn’t rent that.

I also strongly suspect that the picture would look even better with 4K digital projection (which has four times the resolution of 2k). Alas, for economic reasons that are understandable even if they’re regrettable, the Castro doesn’t have a 4K projector.

But the folks running the Castro did a crackerjack job presenting the film. Like most big roadshow pictures of its time, Lawrence starts with an overture–music with no image. The houselights slowly faded throughout the overture, plunging the audience into darkness just in time for the curtain to open on the Columbia logo. The projectionist was awarded with applause.

The audience expressed its appreciation throughout. No one thinks of Lawrence of Arabia as a comedy, but it has its moments of dry British wit. The audience laughed in all the right places.

A few weeks previously, I watched Lawrence without a skilled projectionist or an audience. I was at home with the new Blu-ray. It still works on that medium, and still looks great, but the experience didn’t really do it justice.

The Castro will screen Lawrence of Arabia three more times today and tomorrow–at 2:00 both days and 7:00 tonight. Click here for details.

The Master, by a Master, in Masterly 70mm

My wife and I caught The Master last night, in 70mm, in the Grand Lake‘s main, full movie-palace auditorium. If you care at all about quality films, you must see The Master. and if you care at all about how you see them, you should see it in 70mm.

And in the Bay Area, that means seeing it at the Grand Lake in Oakland. It’s the only theater showing the film in 70mm between Los Angeles and Seattle. (I’ll write another post about the theater shortly.)

As I mentioned in When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm, The Master was shot in the 70mm format, which technically speaking means it was shot on 65mm film, to be screened in 70mm (the extra five millimeters are for the soundtrack). The larger film, with a frame nearly three times the size of standard 35mm, provides a less grainy, more detailed image–photochemical high definition. 70mm projection shows more of that detail, and provides a brighter, steadier image than conventional 35mm.

(Many find 4k digital projection superior to 70mm for showing films shot in 65mm. For more on this, see More on Samsara, 70mm, and 4K Digital Projection.)

One more techy, geeky comment before going on to the film’s contents: Writer/director imagePaul Thomas Anderson, having chosen to shoot The Master in 65mm, then decided not to use the entire frame. He had the sides of the frame masked off to what looked to me like the 1.85×1, standard widescreen aspect ratio. This seems odd to me, for two reasons. First, he’s not using all of that great image. Second, every other feature Anderson has made was shot in anamorphic scope. He’s clearly at home with a wide aspect ratio.

Okay, on to the film, itself:

As you probably know, Anderson loosely based The Master on Scientology and it’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. But this is no more a critique of Hubbard’s cult than Citizen Kane is an attack on Hearst newspapers. It’s the story of two very different men and the strange, dependent relationship between them. One of them is clearly based on Hubbard.

But the other man carries the story. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in the best performance of his I’ve seen) seems about as worthless as a person can get. When we first meet him, he’s a sailor in the last days of World War II. He’s an alcoholic with a knack for creating his own drinks out of stuff no sane person would swallow. If there is such a thing as a sex addict, he is one (in one scene, he imagines all of the women at a party to be naked). After the war, he becomes a drifter whose violent temper keeps him from holding a steady job.

Then he stows away on a very large yacht, and soon finds himself on friendly terms with the yacht’s owner–writer, philosopher, and cult-leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in another of many great performances). Lancaster is everything that Freddie is not. He’s friendly, loved, charismatic, intelligent, and the head of a large family and a larger community. It’s easy to see what attracts Freddy to Lancaster, but harder to see what Lancaster sees in Freddie. Perhaps he sees a bit of himself in the young drifter, or perhaps a soul he can save.

Neither man is trustworthy. Freddy steals from his hosts, and Lancaster runs what he may or may not consciously realize is a scam. Both have short fuses. When a skeptic challenges Lancaster, he bursts out in an angry and intimidating verbal attack. Freddy, on the other hand, attacks with his fists. As he becomes a true believer, he uses violence against those who criticize Lancaster. The cult leader reprimands him for the violence, but not too much.

Amy Adams gives The Master’s third great performance, as Lancaster’s much-younger wife (he also has grown children and jokingly refers to former wives). Sweet on the outside but hard as nails, Adam’s Peggy Dodd is a true believer in her husband’s invented religion, and sees what it needs clearer than he does. (She’s also very pregnant through most of the film.) She warns him about Freddy. She dictates her husband’s book as he types what she says. In one bathroom scene, she almost angrily jacks off Lancaster when explaining what he may or may not do with other women. (I am so glad I first saw Adams in Enchanted; I never could have accepted her in that role if I’d seen her in this film, or The Fighter, first.)

If you’ve seen any of his other films, you know that Anderson is a master at creating characters, writing dialog, and coaching performances out of actors. He’s also a master at photographing them. He has a John Ford-like ability to find the exact right place to set the camera, and in doing so make his characters symbolic archetypes while still being flesh-and-blood individuals. When Freddy recalls the one true love of his life, the flashback includes one amazing close-up of the girl, with focus so tight that her face is sharp but her hair out of focus. Memory fades as it moves away from us.

The Master has received mostly lukewarm reviews, with critics complaining that it doesn’t fully explain Lancaster’s wild, pseudo-scientific theories and suspect therapeutic techniques. I disagree. We see enough of the therapy to see how it works, and hear enough of the theories to realize that Lancaster is a complete crackpot. Besides, the story is about the two men, not Scientology (or, as it’s referred to in the film, The Cause).

The Master‘s other flaw, also noted by many critics, is real. As the story moves along, it becomes obvious that it has nowhere to go. It just putters out, without a real third act. It never becomes bad or boring, but the second half lacks the urgency and discovery of the first.

To my mind, that flaw knocks The Master down to an A-. This is still a powerful and exceptional film.

More on Samsara, 70mm, and 4K Digital Projection

I got a chance this morning to talk briefly with Samsara director Ron Fricke and his primary collaborator, producer/co-author Mark Magidson. With little time set aside for me, we agreed to stick to the technical, format aspects Samsara’s production and presentation.

Some background: Samsara is the first film since 1996 to be shot in the 70mm format, which, strictly speaking, actually uses 65mm in the camera. Traditionally, these films would be shown in 70mm prints, as well as conventional 35mm. However, Fricke and Magidson have decided against making 70mm prints, and are recommending 4K DCP (Digital Cinema Package) as the best way to see the film. For more on the technology, see When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm. For more on Samsara, see my review.

I started by asking them how the decision to shoot in 65mm effected the complex production. They told me that it made shooting the film in so many countries "a lot more difficult…Getting film in and out [of various countries] has never been so difficult."

You can well imagine. Airport security is much more intense now than it was when they completed their last film, Baraka, and cans of undeveloped film cannot be opened under regular light nor passed through an X-ray machine.

Could they have shot it digitally. "We started shooting in 2007. [Digital camera technology], which was 2K, really wasn’t ready then."

I asked if it would be possible now. "In another year or so, there could be [cameras with] 8K or 10k sensors. It’s not there yet, but it’s getting close."

They made the controversial decision to skip the expected 70mm prints "after seeing it projected in 4K. All the fidelity of the 65mm negative was there. It’s rock steady, and never gets scratched. There’s a dimension to it that’s unique."

And if 4K isn’t available? "The 35mm prints are pristine. It’s a toss-up between them and the 2K [DCP]." Having seen the film in 35mm, I can agree. I can’t recall seeing a better-looking 35mm print. Currently, in the Bay Area, Samsara plays only in 35mm, at the Embarcadero and Shattuck. They didn’t know about future bookings

Personally, I wish they had made one or two 70mm prints. The film will eventually play at the Castro, which can show 70mm, but not 4K DCP. Of course, I would like it even better if the Castro–or another local large-screen theater run by people who really care about cinema–had 4K digital equipment. But I understand why that isn’t happening. Converting a theater to digital projection is expensive enough without going to a premium technology. (And, of course, releasing an art film is expensive enough without making 70mm prints.)

By the way, another film shot in the 70mm format, The Master, opens later this month. This time, 70mm prints have been struck, and the Grand Lake will get one. I assume that this film will also be available in 4K DCP. I would love it if a Bay Area theater capable of showing both of these grand formats could do an open-to-the-public side-by-side comparison.

When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm

A funny thing happened on the way to a fully-digital cinema. At least two major filmmakers are returning to a beautiful, large film format of yesteryear. But you may not be able to see either of these films as they were meant to be seen.

Pretty much everyone agrees that film is dying as a physical medium (but not, thankfully, as an art form). By the end of next year, if everything goes according to plan, no major studios will release movies on film. Movies will continue to be shot on film, but for how long is anybody's guess.

And yet two films will open next month that were more than merely shot on film. They were shot in the 70mm format, with a frame nearly three times the size of 35mm. The sad part is you may never get a chance to see either of them in their proper presentation.

(Let's get some terminology out of the way. The “70mm format” involves shooting the picture on 65mm film. Only the release prints are 70mm–the extra 5mm adding room for high-quality magnetic sound tracks. But advertisers preferred saying “70mm,” so that became the familiar name.)

How rare is 70mm production? The last film shot in 65mm was Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, released in 1996. To my knowledge, that was only the fourth feature shot that way since 1970.

But from the late 50's through the late 60s, 70mm was the format for big, prestigious, yet popular films. The still-loved hits include Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Patton. There were embarrassments too, of course, including The Greatest Story Ever Told and Dr. Doolittle.

The post-Easy Rider shift to low-budget, youth-oriented films ended the first 70mm period. The large format enjoyed a second wave of popularity from 1977 through 1993, but almost all of those films were shot in standard 35mm and blown up to fill the large frame. Only three features in this period were primarily shot in 65mm.

Ron Fricke's Baraka was one of those exceptions. So it's no surprise that his new film, Samsara, was also shot in the large format. Like Baraka, this wordless documentary promises to explore “the wonders of our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of man’s spirituality and the human experience.” It will open in San Francisco on September 7.

Fricke's producer and chief collaborator, Mark Magidson, had plenty to say about the 65mm photography. “There is a beauty, immediacy, and level of detail within imagery captured in this venerable wide-screen format that is unique, and there is still no form of image capture that compares to 65mm negative.”

Paul Thomas Anderson, the creator of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, wrote and directed the other new 70mm product, The Master. A fiction film inspired by the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, it's likely to be controversial in its content. The Master will open locally on September 21.

Last Tuesday, the Castro screened a 70mm print of The Master on short notice. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend.

And here's the really sad part: That may have been the only 70mm screening of either film in the Bay Area. As near as I can tell, most planned local bookings will be in plain-old 35mm. And if they are digital, they'll be conventional, 2K presentations.

Actually, there are no plans to even strike a 70mm print of Samsara, and the reason is provocative. According to Magidson, it's not the best format. “We have chosen to output SAMSARA to DCP for digital projection rather than creating 70mm film prints this time. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is we believe a digital output from the high res scan of our film negative yields the best possible viewing experience.” And the best digital presentation is 4K DCP.

Unfortunately, there are no plans to screen Samsara anywhere in the Bay Area in 4K, either. So whether you consider 70mm film or 4K DCP the best way to screen a picture shot in the 70mm format, you're out of luck. You'll have to accept a compromise.

Update: I'm delighted to inform my readers that the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland will be screening The Master in 70mm. My thanks to Brian Darr of Hell On Frisco Bay for making me aware of this.

 

Great Napoleon Photo

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival included this photo in a recent email. I thought I should share it:

Click it to see the full-sized image.

I’ve also added this image to my report on Saturday’s screening.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 59 other followers