Video in Theaters, Part 2

Last week, I discussed art house theaters showing movies–especially old ones–on video rather than film, and whether I should warn readers when this happens. I forwarded the newsletter to theater managers in hope of getting some interesting replies. Their reaction was underwhelming. Only two responded. Tellingly, neither response came from a theater about which I’ve heard this complaint.

Both responders reassured me of their own pro-film policies. Brian Collette, Office Manager and Film Shipper for the Castro, told me that that theater “does not screen any repertory films digitally as part of its own programming.” When a film festival rents the Castro, of course, this decision is out of their hands. Aside from that, “The only films we’ve ran digitally have been…first-run independent films…when the distributor did not strike a 35mm print.” Joel Shepard, Film and Video Curator of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, told me that it’s their policy to “NEVER [emphasis his] show something off of video that is intended to be shown on film.” But Shepard admitted that “We’ve had to do it a couple of times because of shipping mistakes, etc.”

“Some theaters are getting really bad about this,” Shepard commented. But he brought up the very real problems with showing repertoire titles in 35mm. “First, the studios are making fewer and fewer 35mm prints of older titles available for theatrical exhibition, because there’s little financial incentive for them to do so.” The prints are often in poor condition. Then there’s the rental fee, which can be as high as $500, plus shipping.

The money issue is an important one, and perhaps I should have brought it up last week. I doubt there’s an art house in the country–business or non-profit–that’s operating on a comfortable margin. We almost lost the Roxie last year, and Landmark closed the Act I & II a few weeks ago. It’s perfectly reasonable to give them some slack and not complain too much when they cut corners.

On the other hand, if they cut too many corners, people will stop buying tickets and popcorn, and the theaters’ financial problems will only get worse. As Shepard put it, “the situation out there sucks for everyone.”

But the situation will suck a bit less if you turn off that computer (no, wait! Finish reading this, first!) and go out to a movie. You’ve got a Jazz/Noir Film Festival at the Balboa, Anne Francis in person at the Castro, Harold Lloyd in Niles with live accompaniment by Molly Axtmann, and plenty of other good movies showing this week.

Noteworthy: Sweet Smell of Success, Balboa, Friday. ItIt’s been too long since I’ve seen Burt Lancaster’s Broadway noire for me to trust my memory with a wholehearted recommendation. But not by much. Lancaster risked his career by producing this exploration of the seamy side of fame and by playing a truly despicable character. The result, if I recall correctly, is fantastic. With Tony Curtis. Written by Ernest (North by Northwest) Lehman. On a double-bill with Anatomy of a Murder as part of the Jazz/Noir Film Festival.

Recommended: Bad Day at Black Rock, Castro, Friday, 7:00. While everyone else was working hard to fill the giant Cinemascope screen, director John Sturges and cinematographer William C. Mellor saw how effective it was to keep it empty. Spencer Tracy stars as a one-armed stranger who comes to a small desert town after World War II and discovers how far people will go to keep a secret. One of the few post-war films to deal with anti-Japanese bigotry. Part of a very big Evening with Anne Francis, which includes Q&A with the star herself, and two other movies, but not, sad to say, Forbidden Planet.

Recommended: Kung Fu Hustle, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Stephen Chow’s big-budget action comedy is totally bizarre, thoroughly ridiculous, but absolutely entertaining. The occasional attempts at serious storytelling are as jarring as an orphan’s death in a Road Runner cartoon, but the laughs overwhelm the poor attempts at making you cry. The knife-throwing scene is among the funniest new sequences I’ve seen this decade.

Recommended, with Reservations: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Balboa and Rafael, opening Friday. When a British film starring an aging and respected thespian has neither laughs nor explosions, it is, by definition, a serious work of art. At least that’s the theory. The reality is that this tale of bonding between an old lady and a young man is neither serious nor artful, and only mildly entertaining. On the plus side, the performances are excellent and the pretending-to-be-someone-you’re-not story doesn’t move to the obvious resolution. On the negative, the main characters are too good to be true and everyone else is a caricature.

Recommended: Beethoven’s Hair, The Woman’s Building, Saturday, 3:00. Part forensic mystery and part history lesson, Beethoven’s Hair gets a lot of fascinating stories into its 84-minute running time. There’s an Arizona urologist with the unlikely name of Che Guevara, the Holocaust in Denmark, a particle accelerator, an Australian suffering from lead poisoning, the 19th century composer Ferdinand Hiller, and, of course, Ludwig himself, dying a horribly slow and painful death. A grand and epic story, all true, told clearly and concisely, and supported with some of the greatest music ever written. Warning: It contains a fair amount of grisly medical talk. Part of Docfest.

Noteworthy: A Sailor-Made Man, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this early Harold Lloyd feature; I don’t remember the details. But any opportunity to see Lloyd with live accompaniment and an audience is not to be missed. This time, the accompaniment will be by Molly Axtmann.

CANCELLED: Best In Show, Dolores Park, San Francisco, 8:30. Christopher Guest’s dog-show mockumentary has more than its share of hilarious moments. The rest of it is pretty funny, too. The season-opener for Film Night in the Park, it will, unfortunately, be presented on DVD.

Recommended: Deeper Than Y, The Woman’s Building, Sunday, 1:00. 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. Starts the last day of Docfest.

Recommended: Touch of Evil, Balboa, Sunday. Orson Welles’ film noir classic, and one of his few Hollywood studio features. He lacked the freedom he found in Europe, but the bigger budget–and perhaps even the studio oversight–resulted in one of his best. As a corrupt border-town sheriff, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely and effective damsel in distress (although Psycho apparently didn’t teach her to stay away from seedy motels). As the hero, a brilliant Mexican detective, Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but not as badly as some people say. On a Jazz/Noir Film Festival double-bill with Odds Against Tomorrow.

Recommended: Lawrence of Arabia, California Theatre, San Jose, Tuesday through next Saturday. To call Lawrence the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era would be damning it with faint praise, so let me be more precise: It’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and entertaining as pure spectacle, it’s also intelligent, exploring the career of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence–at least according to this film–both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British Empire. This masterpiece isn’t worth seeing on DVD and barely worthwhile in 35mm. Shot in Super Panavision 70, Lawrence should be experienced in 70mm. And the California is showing it in 70mm.

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