Video in Theaters

I received an interesting email from a reader who, for professional reasons, wishes to remain anonymous. “It’s becoming more common,” he began, “for theaters to hold video screenings of movies (that are meant to be shown on film) without noting this in any of their publicity. Twice recently, I’ve commuted into S.F. to watch a film only to find there was no [actual, physical] film (Fingers at the Roxie and The Poseidon Adventure at the Clay).” He then suggested that I include an icon for video presentations. (For the complete text of the letter, see my Reader Letters page.)

It’s good suggestion. When we travel distances and shell out money to see a movie theatrically, especially one that’s available on video, we expect to see more than we could get at home. Not just a bigger screen, but a bigger screen filled with more than 480 lines of resolution. Of course, there’s more to the theatrical experience than image quality. Movies are best experienced in the dark, surrounded by strangers. Nevertheless, it’s a big disappointment to pay for a movie and get a DVD.

But adding a “Warning: Video” icon has its problems.

The big one is accuracy. As my anonymous reader pointed out, the theaters rarely mention this in their publicity. And while I enjoy a bit of a journalist’s inside track with the theaters I cover, it’s not always easy to get them to reveal potentially embarrassing information.

Occasionally they do, and with that I must make a confession. I knew weeks ago that the Clay’s midnight movie presentation of the original Poseidon Adventure would be celluloid free. Their press release touted digital projection, but I doubted that Twentieth Century Fox had done a theatrical-quality digital transfer. So I asked my press contact, and was told that they were projecting it off of a DVD. Perhaps I should have said something; if I had written a capsule about the movie, I would have.

Theatrical-quality digital presentations bring up another problem: Where do I draw the line? I consider 2K digital projection an acceptable substitute for film. But what about 1.3K digital projection? Or HDTV?

And what if a movie was shot on video? Is it okay to show it that way? Gary Meyer openly stated that the Balboa was showing the shot-on-video I am a Sex Addict that way.

I’m sending an extra copy of this newsletter to several theater owners and managers. If I get any interesting responses, I’ll do a follow-up next week. And even if you don’t run a movie theater, I’d love to read your opinions on this subject.

And, I hope, you will love to read the following opinions. Two of the films listed here are from Docfest, which opens tonight (Friday night). I suspect that most of this festival’s “films” were shot in video, and will be presented that way.

Recommended: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Castro, Friday. When we think French New Wave, we imagine gritty, black-and-white stories filled with angst and alienation. Yet Jacques Demy, shooting a completely believable story in real locations, created a lush, colorful and sublimely romantic musical. A movie like few others. The opening film of the Castro’s Jacques Demy series.

Recommended: Brokeback Mountain, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Ang Lee’s gay love story may one day seem as dated as Kramer vs. Kramer and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but today it looks like a masterpiece. Heath Ledger turns the stereotype of the strong, silent cowboy on its head, playing a man so beaten down and closed off from the world that every word is a struggle. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams are also brilliant as his lover and wife. And, of course, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, working from a short story by E. Annie Proulx, also deserve considerable credit.

Recommended: Class Act, Roxie, Friday, 5:00 and Monday, 7:00. DISCLAIMER: I’m married to a public school music teacher, and am therefore inclined towards the message of this movie. Everyone had at least one teacher who changed their life, and as often as not, that teacher taught a performing art. Class Act introduces us to Jay W. Jensen, a now-retired (but still quite active) Miami Beach drama teacher. Likable and enthusiastic, Jensen apparently inspired countless students, including Andy Garcia and Brett Ratner. More than a portrait of an engaging personality, this documentary explores the sorry state of arts funding in American schools today, and how, without drama and music offerings, children get left behind. Executive produced by Morgan (Supersize Me) Spurlock. Friday night’s showing is Docfest‘s opening presentation.

Recommended, with Reservations: Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works, Balboa, opening Friday. China’s Cultural Revolution was a bleak time of horrible oppression, but at least it was colorful. Or so it seems in Yan-Ting Yuen’s documentary on the stage-and-screen musical extravaganzas that met Madame Mao’s cultural and political requirements. To modern American eyes, the clips from actual Yang Ban Xi movies walk a strange line between stunning choreography and unintentional hilarity; it’s like Agnes DeMille meets her Uncle Cecil. But the modern interview sequences are hit and miss, and a couple of modern dance sequences shot for the movie seem forced. Most of all, I found myself wanting more information. When did the government start making these shows? When did they stop? Why were only eight shows produced? I also wanted more of those old clips.

Recommended: Inside Man, Also continuing at the Presidio. Looks more like Spike Lee than Match Point looks like Woody Allen, but not by much. Going slick and commercial, Lee and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz fashioned an effective and entertaining puzzle thriller. The game here is guessing what a character will do next, and the story offers enough surprises to keep you guessing and usually guessing wrong. I suspect Lee took this relatively apolitical Hollywood assignment because he needed a hit; and he’s earned it. It’s nice to know he can do light entertainment. The Balboa is showing Inside Man on a double bill with The Sentinel.

Recommended: United 93, Parkway, opening Friday. Also continuing at the Presidio. We can enjoy the vicarious thrill of movie theater fear because the star faces, Hollywood sheen, witty dialog, and genre conventions all conspire to remind us that it’s only a movie, and that will all end in triumph and redemption. Paul Greengrass’ harrowing 911 retelling gives us no such reassurance. There is no glamour in this cast of unknowns. The grainy, up-close, handheld camerawork isn’t pretty. No one is especially witty. And we know going in that something very close to this really happened and that no one will get out of it alive. The result is the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater. It isn’t fun, but it leaves you with greater appreciation of what those people went through.

Noteworthy: Earthdance: short-attention-span environmental film festival, Roxie, Saturday. Every year I tell myself I’m going to make the EarthDance festival; one of these years I will. Aimed at environmentalists who like their agitprop short and light, EarthDance presents a collection of short films, many of them whimsical in nature, about our planet’s precarious condition.

Recommended: Cabaret, Castro, Tuesday. Liza dances while the Weimar Republic burns. Bob Fosse’s musical drama about the Nazi’s rise to power interweaves production numbers performed in a decadent nightclub with the personal life of the club’s equally decadent star. But a life of carefree sensuality can’t last forever when the brownshirts are gathering strength. The songs and dances, light-years away from the light escapism of traditional movie musicals, are among the best. What’s the good of sitting alone in your room when you can see Cabaret on the big screen with an audience? Shown with New York, New York on the first of two Liza Minnelli double bills.

Recommended: Deeper Than Y, Roxie, Wednesday, 7:00. A gay couple approaching their 36th anniversary. An actress who never became a star but always worked. A Republican author of erotic novels. Director Ilona Siller listens to seven elderly New Yorkers (aged like fine wine) as they talk about love, work, politics, the miseries of aging, and the YMCA swimming class that they all attend. Very different people, but they all feel they’ve lived their lives to the fullest and plan to continue doing so. Watching Deeper than Y leaves you wanting to live your life that way, too; it may even help you do so. Part of Docfest.

Recommended: The Big Lebowski, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to the Coen’s previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie.