In Praise of Digital Projection

I’m a cinema purist. I want my films shown in the correct aspect ratio. I don’t approve of colorization, adding new and “improved” special effects, or 2D-to-3D conversions. I’m offended when the DVD or Blu-ray disc of a classic doesn’t include the original mono soundtrack.

Yet, in terms of the esthetic cinematic experience, I wouldn’t shed a tear if film completely disappeared as a presentation medium, and was replaced entirely by digital projection. (I have other, non-esthetic problems with digital projection, which I discuss below.)

I have now seen several movies played off a hard drive using in the DCP standard. When done properly, they look as good as a mint-condition 35mm print run through a first-class projector. They have as much color, as much detail, and yes, as much warmth. They look better, actually, because they lack film’s slight vibration.

Poor projection can hurt the experience, of course, but that’s the case with film, as well. With digital, a bad projectionist can ruin the screening. With film, he or she can ruin every subsequent screening of that particular print. Digital not only removes the vibration, but also eliminates the scratches and dirt.

And what do you lose? Nothing except the knowledge that a clear piece of acetate is moving through a projector at a rate of 90 feet a minute.

The first time I saw 2K digital projection, more than five years ago, my immediate response was  “What a great print!” I have yet to experience a 4K presentation that made full use of that resolution’s capabilities, but I’ve read reports that call it as good or better than 70mm.

But how can I say that 2K is equivalent to 35mm when restoration experts insists on scanning 35mm sources at 4K or higher? And scanning 65 or 70mm at 8K? Film loses a tremendous amount of detail between the camera negative and the projected image. You need 4K (or more) to capture all of the information available on a 35mm negative, but 2K can reproduce as much as you actually see on a projected 35mm print. And with digital as with analog, oversampling improves the quality of the resulting image.

Digital projection is greener, as well. Distributers don’t have to ship thousands of feet of chemical-drenched acetate to every theater that’s showing the movie.

So what are the problems with digital projection?

One is archival. Film rots over the decades, but we know to handle and store film to minimize the . It will be a long time before we know how best to preserve a digital motion picture. But archives and studios can work out solutions now, including preserving many copies, writing the bits to multiple digital formats, and keeping film elements, as well.

The other problem is money. Digital projection, a big money saver for distributers, is a big investment for theaters. Major chains can afford to go all digital—and more and more of them are. But many smaller, independent cinemas, including many that I cover here at Bayflicks, can’t afford the big, expensive digital projectors.

If there’s a solution, I don’t know what it is. Many of these theaters have prosumer-level HD projectors that can produce a very good image on their moderate-sized screens. Perhaps there’s a way to make these work with DCP.

I know that many purists disapprove of digital projection, insisting that something shot for film presentation should be presented on film. To my mind, that’s taking purity too far. Hamlet was written for a particular actor—Richard Burbage. No one has seen him perform for nearly 400 years. It’s still a great play.

Jewish Film Festival

Now we come to the festival that merges what some friends have called my two religions: Judaism and Cinema.

The 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens at the Castro on Thursday, July 21 with Mabul (The Flood), and closes at the Rafael on Monday, August 8 with The Matchmaker. In between those dates it will screen 39 features and 19 shorts in five venues around the Bay Area.

As I write this, I’ve only seen one feature and one short. But the feature is a long one, and a near-great one: Spartacus. The film’s producer and star, Kirk Douglas, will be awarded this year’s Freedom of Expression Award, in large part for his courageous decision to give blacklisted author Dalton Trumbo a screen credit for this expensive epic. The short is a Simpsons episode (“Like Father, Like Clown”) that’s part of the Jews In Toons Program.

Among the promising films I haven’t yet seen is a new comedy by Berlin-based filmmaker Dani Levy, whose previous festival offerings were the very funny Go for Zucker and the pretty funny My Hitler.

Poland has played a major role in Jewish history, and this year the festival focuses a spotlight  on the country that so many American Jews came from. The four films include an espionage thriller set under Communism called Little Rose, a Holocaust drama (Joanna), and two documentaries: 100 Voices: A Journey Home and Torn.

Frankly, I’ve often wished that, for just one year, they would put together a Holocaust-free Jewish Film Festival. But this isn’t the year. In addition to Joanna, there’s Eichmann’s End: Love, Betrayal, Death, The Hangman, In Another Lifetime, Otto Frank, Father of Anne, and others.

Other titles that sound promising (remember, I haven’t seen them) include Bobby Fischer Against the World, Next Year in Bombay, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, and Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology.

Blu-ray Review: The Manchurian Candidate (original, 1962 version)

“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” All the men who served under him in Korea say so. Which is odd because the guy is a cold, self-righteous jerk. Maybe it has something to do with the way they seem to be on autopilot when they say it.

Easily the best political thriller to come out of the cold war, The Manchurian Candidate deals in brainwashing. Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and his men have had their minds altered by Russian and Chinese scientists for some strange and evil purpose. But the Commies aren’t the only villains here. Fanatical right-wing anti-Communists stand eager to destroy our freedoms in order to save them.

Indeed, Angela Lansbury gives the performance of her life as one of these Americanmanchuriancandidate fascist schemers. She plays Shaw’s mother as a woman of outsized beliefs and a burning hatred of anyone who disagrees with her. She utterly dominates her son and her idiotic husband—a US Senator modeled after Joe McCarthy and played by James Gregory.

Frank Sinatra also gives his best acting performance here, even if it’s not as showy as Lansbury’s. The movie’s nominal hero, he’s burdened with nightmares (the result of the brainwashing) and tries desperately to figure out what’s going on. This is no James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, but an army intelligence officer who feels like he’s in way over his head. “Intelligence officer? Stupidity officer is more like it,” he rants.

Writer George Axelrod (adopting Richard Condon’s novel) and director John Frankenheimer, put everything together in a taut, suspenseful, and dazzling fashion. The film, released a little more than a year before JFK’s assassination, proved prophetic.

First Impression

When you put in the disc, the movie starts up immediately. No trailers or ads to skipmanchuriancandidateboxshot through, and not even a menu. That’s nice.

Of course, you can bring up the pop-up menu if you want to change a setting or watch the extras.

How It Looks

My first impression was one of disappointment. The pre-credit sequence, set at night in Korea, looked grainy and only mildly HD—better than the DVD but not better enough to justify the upgrade.

But once the credits ended and the story switched to America, the image got sharper and the 1080p resolution began to show it’s stuff. Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel Lindon use a lot of deep-focus shots and razor-sharp visuals to dramatic effect. Occasionally a character would be slightly out of focus, adding a sense of frayed senses. These subtle effects work much better here than on DVD.

For what it’s worth, the film was shot, and is presented here, in black and white.

How It Sounds

Once again, we’ve got a film originally released only in mono, available on Blu-ray only in 5.1 surround. This is the fourth Blu-ray I’ve reviewed in a row that failed to include the original mono soundtrack.

Yes, I understand that some people prefer surround sound even for a film that wasn’t intended to have it. But why can’t the studios understand that other people want the original mix? It’s easy enough to put both on a disc. In fact, my DVD of The Manchurian Candidate contains both the new 5.1 mix and the original mono.

For what it’s worth, the 5.1 mix (presented here in lossless DTS HD Master Audio) makes little use of all those speakers. Just an occasional sound effect or off-screen voice. The mix begins to do something interesting during the famous 360-degree pan shot, but doesn’t follow through.

And the Extras

The Blu-ray comes with almost exactly the same extras as the DVD. It lacks the follow gallery, but adds two new, very short shorts total about a minute and a half between them.

In other words, there’s a commentary by Frankenheimer, and five stanard-definition videos totaling less than 40 minutes. They tell some interesting stories, and make it clear that writer Axelrod had as much to do with the final product as director Frankenheimer.

All things considered, this is a good but not exceptional presentation of a great motion picture.

What’s Screening: June 24 – 30

The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival starts Friday night and runs through the weekend. And Frameline also finishes up Sunday. And the San Francisco United Film Festival, which I just found out about while preparing this newsletter, opens today and runs through Thursday at the Roxie.

A- Live Theater on the Big Screen: The Importance of Being Earnest, Elmwood, Tuesday, 7:00. Actually, it’s pre-recorded live theater, but the experience is pretty much the same. Oscar Wilde’s thoroughly silly and hilarious stage play gets the expert comic treatment in the hands of director Brian Bedford. Bedford is the best thing in this production (after Wilde’s brilliant script, of course); in addition to directing, he plays the extremely proper and commanding Lady Bracknell to perfection. This isn’t a drag shtick, but simply an actor nailing a great comic character; the fact that the actor and character are of different genders is irrelevant. But I occasionally had problems with Santino Fontana’s Algernon, who seemed too aware of how funny he was.

B+ The Music Man, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 7:00. One of my childhood  favorites doesn’t quite look like a masterpiece anymore. But it’s still big, dazzling, funny, and filled with catchy tunes. Robert Preston carries the picture as Professor Harold Hill, the conman who pretends to be a music teacher, and deep down wants to be one. The cast is rounded out with Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, and the Buffalo Bills (this may be the only major Hollywood movie with a featured barbershop quartet). Shot in Technirama–a process that used twice as much film for each frame than standard 35mm–The Music Man really should be experienced on a large, wide screen.

Little Big Man, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 5:30. I haven’t seen this comic western epic in many, many years, but I recall liking it very much. One of the “anti-westerns” of the late 60s and early 70s, it follows a somewhat hapless young man (Dustin Hoffman) as he moves back and forth between the worlds of white settlers and the Cheyenne whom the settlers threaten. Along the way, he manages to be in the right place at the right time for such historical events as Wild Bill Hicock’s death and the Battle of Little Big Horn. I remember it being very funny most of the time, and occasionally shocking in its violence. I also remember liking it a lot.

Centre Forward, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. I’ve never seen a North Korean film, and I have a hard time wondering what one would be like.  If you’re in the same situation, you can check out this "story of a young soccer player and his brutal training regime” from 1978. I have no idea what this will be like.

C+ The Blue Angel, Castro, Wednesday. Josef von Sternberg’s one German-language film was meant as a vehicle for Emil Jannings, who had just returned to Germany after the talkies put a lid on his American stardom. But everyone remembered his co-star, Marlene Dietrich, as the singer who seduces him to his doom. Historically fascinating, neither its clumsy use of sound (it was one of Germany’s first talkies) nor its Victorian morality have aged well. The Castro promises a newly-restored print which includes Dietrich’s screen test added on to the end. The first of several Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations, the Castro will screen it on a double bill with the last, The Devil is a Woman.

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

By early 1968, Hollywood was finally beginning to realize that nothing would ever be the same again. “Warren Beatty, who looked like a movie star, had become a producer. Dustin Hoffman, who looked like a producer, had become a movie star. And Sidney Poitier, who looked like no other movie star had ever looked, had become the biggest box office attraction in an industry that still had no idea what to do with, or about, his popularity.”

You can think of Mark Harris’ fascinating book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies thegraduateand the Birth of the New Hollywood, as a prequel to Peter Biskind’s far-better known Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. But Harris has a tighter focus. He reveals Hollywood in the mid-1960s by concentrating on the five movies nominated for Best Picture of 1967.

And what a five they were. Two of them, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, were revolutionary in their technique, in their use of censorable material, and in the youth audience that made them surprise hits (The Graduate, which was turned down by every major studio before it found bonnieclydeindependent financing, was for a time the third highest-grossing film in history). Another two, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, were more conventionally made, but dealt with race issues generally avoided in commercial genre pictures. Then there was Dr. Dolittle, a big, expensive, old-fashioned musical that cost more than twice the other four films combined, yet bombed with both critics and audiences.

I never heard of this book, published in 2008, until I stumbled upon it at the overstock table in Pegasus Books. I’m so glad I did.

Harris tells the five stories chronologically, cutting back and forth between them (funny how I casually used a film term, cutting, to describe a literary technique). He starts in inheatofnight1963 (most of these films took a long time to gestate) with two Esquire employees, David Newman and Robert Benton, starting to work on a screenplay about a couple of bank robbers from the 1930s. Then he starts following the career choices of a new pretty-boy movie star, Warren Beatty, and how he considered taking on the starring role in The Graduate. Then on to executives at 20th Century Fox, considering a big musical based on the Dr. Dolittle books.

Harris paints a picture of a Hollywood torn between two conflicting generations, but guesswhoscomingnevertheless surprisingly insular and interconnected. Not only was Beatty, the star and producer of Bonnie and Clyde, considered for the The Graduate, but Poitier, the star of two of the films, almost had a supporting role in Dolittle. Years before he directed The Graduate, Mike Nichols enjoyed his first success as a performer in a stage show directed by future Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn. And so on, and so forth.

All of these pictures’ backstage stories make good reading, but the Dr. Dolittle sections have the fascination of a slow-motion train wreck. Movies thatdrdolittle depend on animals almost always go over budget. This one had hundreds of animals, a temperamental star (Rex Harrison—the closest thing to in a villain in the book), and producers who neglected to consult a meteorologist before picking a date to shoot location work in England. What’s more, like a lot of other big-budget musicals made in the wake of The Sound of Music, it mistook production value for quality, and came out just as audiences were tiring of big movies.

On one level, the 1967 Best Picture nominees were not that different from what get nominated today. You had two independently-minded films that really pushed the envelope, two low-budget, conventional films with their heart in the right place (including the winner, In the Heat of the Night), and a big production intended to be a blockbuster. The difference is that the big “blockbuster” flopped, while the four inexpensive and daring (or sort of daring; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was really very timid) pictures were all huge box office successes.

We need another 1967.

What’s Screening: June 17 – 23

The only festival going on this week is Frameline, which opened last night and continues at various theaters.

B+ The Cove, Rafael, Tuesday, 7:00. We’re all pretty much used to documentaries as left-wing agit-prop, but The Cove adds a new element. It’s a left-wing agit-prop documentary heist movie. Much of the film follows the filmmakers as they assemble a team and set out to film an annual slaughter of dolphins off the coast of Japan. It even has a star, Ric O’Barry, who captured and trained dolphins for the old TV show Flipper, and has since devoted his life to letting all dolphins swim free. Both suspenseful and horrifying The filmmakers will be there in person, as will the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. A benefit for Save Japan Dolphins.

A Bonnie and Clyde, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:40. This low-budget gangster movie, produced by and starring Warren Beatty , hit a nerve with young audiences in 1967 and became one of the big surprise hits of the year. Shocking in its time for its violence and sexual frankness (matching a horny Bonnie with an impotent Clyde), it still hits below the belt today. Here the historical bank robbers of yesterday become alienated youth, glamorous celebrities, good kids who made a bad decision, selfish jerks, and tragic heroes with a sealed fate. And we root for them, fear for them, and suffer with them every step of the way—even while we’re horrified by their actions. Part of the series Arthur Penn, A Liberal Helping.

B+ Wings of Desire, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Wim Wenders’ fantasy about angels in Berlin offers a view of the city as a land of interior monologues. Two angels (Bruno Ganz, and Otto Sander) watch over wingsofdesirethe people, listen to their thoughts, and comfort them in their pain. Then one of them (Ganz) falls in love with a trapeze artist, and finds himself longing for mortality. Wenders couldn’t have known it when he made the film in 1988, but he was capturing the last months of a divided city; the wall seen in the film would soon come down. With Peter Falk as an unnamed American actor who is, I suspect, supposed to be Peter Falk.

A Purple Rose of Cairo, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. The Hollywood fantasies of the 1930’s mesh and collide with Great Depression reality in Woody Allen’s funny and sad comedy about the limits of the imagination. Mia Farrow plays an unhappily married waitress whose only solace is the movies. Her great devotion to one particular picture results in a fictitious character (Jeff Daniels) walking off the screen and making her world as wonderful as his. This isn’t just her fantasy; the incident makes headlines and throws Hollywood into chaos. But even in a fantasy, Woody Allen can’t allow imagination to lead to a happy ending. On a double bill with Broadway Danny Rose, which I haven’t seen in a very long time but liked when I saw it. This is a MiDNITES FOR MANiACS presentation, which is weird because the whole thing will be over by 11:00.

hostB The Host, 4-Star, Thursday. A barely-functional family fights an uncaring government and a giant mutant carnivore, and it’s hard to say which is the scarier threat.  I didn’t find this quite the masterpiece others saw–the political points are obvious, the third act gets confusing, and the big finale fails to satisfy. But director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong succeeds where it counts: He makes you care about the characters and scares you out of your seat. Much of the credit goes to the talented computer animators at San Francisco’s own The Orphanage, who brought the monster to life. On a double bill with Yang Zean, which I’ve never seen.

Tokyo Story, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. I’m not giving this film a grade because, frankly, it’s been way too long since I’ve seen it. But I suspect I would give it an A. Shot in that simple, direct, Ozu style, it examines an elderly couple and their children as life is coming to an end. If I recall it properly, the direct approach makes the story all the more heart-rending.

Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. “Easy Street” is one of the better shorts from Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual period, and “Cops” is one of Buster Keaton’s best shorts, period. I can’t vouch for the other two that make up the evening.

We Have to Stop Now, Season 2, Elmwood, Wednesday, 7:00; Victoria, Thursday, 2064d[1]7:00. I haven’t seen season 2, but here’s what I thought of season 1, which I previewed before it screened last year: Talented performers and a funny concept don’t always make a good comedy. That requires a strong script. We Have to Stop Now–made up of bits and pieces of a web series—lacks just that. The concept: Just as an extremely unhappily married couple, both therapists, agree to divorce, their book on maintaining a happy marriage hits the bestseller lists. Now they have to stay together for the book’s sake. (The fact that it’s a same-sex marriage is almost incidental to the story, although much could have been made of it.) Unfortunately, Ann Noble’s script manages to miss almost every opportunity to milk that rich vein for either humor or insight. The movie has a a few scattered laughs, some of them pretty big, and most of them involving their hilariously incompetent marriage counselor (Suzanne Westenhoefer).  A Frameline screening.

Sixty Six

Note: I wrote this review after screening this film for the 2008 San Francisco Film Festival, and saved it as a draft, waiting for a theatrical release that never happened. I’ve discovered today that it’s available for instant streaming on Netflix, so I’m posting it now.

B Coming-of-age comedy

  • Written by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, from a story by Paul Weiland
  • Directed by Paul Weiland

Twelve-year-old Bernie (Gregg Sulkin) feels invisible and insignificant, so he naturally looks forward to his Bar Mitzvah. Not only will this English lad become a man, but he’ll be the center of attention at a party at least as big and lavish as the one his parents threw for his older brother. Everyone will praise and worship him.

Except that everything that can go wrong with the family’s finances does, making first a lavish party impossible, and even a modest one. To make things worse, Bernie’s Bar Mitzvah must compete for people’s attention with soccer’s Super Bowl, the World Cup. If England makes it through the qualifying rounds, few will bother attending the Bar Mitzvah. The movie is set in London in 1966, and presumably a large part of its original audience went in knowing that England made it to the World Cup that year.

Despite the title, the 1960’s play only a minimal role in Paul Weiland’s autobiographical comedy. Beatlemania makes no appearance, and mods don’t battle rockers in the streets. Weiland and his writers concern themselves almost exclusively with the struggles of a family hitting the skits, as seen through the eyes of a boy sure that he’s as much of a loser as he believes his father to be.

It doesn’t help that Bernie’s father sees himself that way. Socially awkward, he strips to his underwear before eating and seems afraid of everything. He also deeply resents his older brother’s wit and social grace. Insecure to begin with, he’s incapable of coping with the slow death of his business. Eddie Marsan, a short, squat actor who looks vaguely familiar but isn’t well-known on this side of the Atlantic, pulls off the part as if he was born to it.

Weiland cast better-known actors in less showy roles. The always-wonderful Helena Bonham Carter plays Bernie’s sympathetic and long-suffering mother–a large role but not one that required her considerable talents. And Stephen Rea plays a doctor–an asthma specialist–who becomes a refuge from Bernie’s miseries.

The other adult to provide solace is Bernie’s blind rabbi (Richard Katz). He clearly cares for the boy, and helps him not only with his study but with his emotional turmoil. Unfortunately, the rabbi’s guide dog provides a couple of pointless and unfunny doggy-doo jokes.

Most of the humor works quite well within the context of the story. This isn’t Death at a Funeral; the laughs are neither non-stop nor the primary reason to see the movie. But they add levity to what could have been a very sad story.

The filmmakers wisely avoid a Hollywood ending. Not that Sixty Six ends tragically–far from it–but the impossibly wonderful turn of events we’ve learned to expect from the movies never quite materializes. The ending leaves Bernie wiser, more mature, and perhaps even a bit happier. Isn’t that what a movie, and a Bar Mitzvah, are for?