by JEFF LUNDENBERGER ~ Posted March 16th , 2016
On Christmas Day my husband and I decided to see “Star Wars.” I’d never used Fandango to buy movie tickets before but I had a gift card, so I went to the website to try it out. “Star Wars” was showing at the local mall – it was probably showing at every local mall in the country at that point – on several screens. To 3D or not to 3D: that was our question; “Star Wars” 3D, “Star Wars” IMAX 3D, and regular old “Star Wars” were our options. I guess it had been a while since I’d been to that particular theatre because, new to me, all seats were now reserved and the only available seats at all the screens were in the front row. We opted for regular old “Star Wars” at another, smaller theatre and had no problem getting tickets and seats. I’m not a huge “Star Wars” fan but it was entertaining, a remake, more or less, of the original with bigger and badder special effects.
The unused Fandango gift card came in handy the following week when I somehow talked Ed into going to New York City with me for a 70mm Roadshow screening of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” I was anxious to see it, not only because I’ve recently become a Tarantino convert, but also to support his dedication to classic movies and that now rarely used medium, actual film. The theatre on Second Avenue ( the Village East ) could have been at a mall, a multiplex full of plain boxes, but the film looked magnificent, with brilliant colors and crisp images; not in that high-definition way that makes everything look like a reality you can’t rely on…but in a warm, embracing way that only comes from the projection of film. I really liked the movie and I was glad we had gone out of our way for what was a real movie-going event.
But these experiences raise the question: with all the movie-viewing options that now exist – film, digital, 3D, theatre, television, tablet, phone – is there a right way and a wrong way to see a movie?
In spring 2015 I attended the first Nitrate Picture Show, a festival of nitrate film screenings at the elegant and intimate Dryden Theatre, part of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. I watched, with a group of academics, film professionals and specialists…and plain old classic film-fans like myself, an extraordinary series of nitrate prints – “Casablanca,” “Black Narcissus,” “Portrait of Jennie” among others – films we saw as
they had been screened until the industry conversion to safety film in 1951, with rich colors, opaque, inky blacks, and shimmering clarity. And don’t forget scratches, jumps, and garbled bits on the soundtrack. What with most films – new and old – scoured clean these days, I sometimes forget the beautiful imperfections that remind me of this marvelous medium in its original form. I jumped at the chance to tour the projection booth and saw firsthand the safeguards necessary for the projection of the highly flammable nitrate film. “Beautiful and Dangerous” indeed.
Some thought me crazy when I flew to San Francisco in the spring of 2012 for a silent movie. Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s “Napoéon.” I have to admit I questioned my own sanity on the plane on the way out. Could this movie possibly live up to my expectations? I think I’d been hypnotized by the trailer.
Tell me it doesn’t hypnotize you. It seemed like a once in a lifetime experience. [ Cine-Maven’s Note: Folks, I would have traveled 3,000 miles JUST for the shot of Napoléan turning towards the camera at :47. My God! Dramatic. It gives me chills. ] It was screened at the beautiful, sedately ornate, Art Deco Paramount Theatre and accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Symphony performing Carl Davis’ original score. Rest assured I wasn’t crazy. The film is magnificent, 5 1/2 hours of silent movie bliss (with three intermissions). The 3-screen finale was stunning, anticipating film techniques that wouldn’t be fully explored until years later. (For those interested in testing their own sanity levels, the BFI has announced plans to screen a new digital restoration of “Napoléon” at theaters in the UK this fall.) Silent movie, movie palace, live musical accompaniment, how can you top that?
Well, how about the TCM Classic Film Festival, which I’ve attended each spring of the past five years.
( “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of…”classic movies? ) The festival is probably the gold standard of classic film viewing. I’ve seen Sophia Loren introduce “Marriage Italian Style” at the renovated but mostly unharmed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (I really can’t bring myself to call it anything else), perhaps the granddaddy of movie palaces. Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman” with live musical accompaniment at
the earthquake-damaged but intact and still impressive Egyptian Theatre. There was “Mary Poppins” at the restored El Capitan Theatre, with its organ that rises from the stage, and I saw “Cinerama Holiday” at the Cinerama Dome, a rare chance to experience that novelty as intended. Hand-cranked silent shorts with live music, the projectionist’s shadow, visible on the wall, urged me to imagine the wonder and magic experienced by early movie-goers.
I also saw “Dial M For Murder,” a revelation in its original 3-D format… all with audiences dedicated, appreciative, and respectful of these unique opportunities. Believe me, we bought our passes for the upcoming 2016 festival the day they went on sale.
In my younger days I was sometimes able to access classic movies shown in lovely old venues despite the slow but steady takeover of the multiplex. The Palace Theatre, a gorgeous movie palace in Canton, Ohio, is currently screening more contemporary films, but in the 1970’s I saw “Casablanca” there for the first time from the balcony, clouds drifting above beneath the starry sky. How in the hell do they do that? The Akron Civic Theatre, another palace, with a lobby as big and grand as the auditorium itself, is now hosting musical programs, but I once saw “Some Like It Hot” there, Marilyn Monroe all aglow in giant close-up, definitely not a squeezed out tube of toothpaste. The McKinley Theatre, also in Canton, is now closed. Opened in 1965, it wasn’t a real movie palace but it was big and grand with over 1,100 seats and a thick red curtain in front of the screen. I watched “That’s Entertainment!” there. From the front row. Twice! I saw “Gone With The Wind” at the Bexley in Dover, Ohio now a heating and cooling business, a small but charming theatre from the days when every town of a certain size had its own theatre.
What about the drive-in? When I was a kid, my parents loaded the six of us into the station wagon with a big brown grocery store bag filled with home-popped popcorn and drove the five miles to the Lynn Drive-In in Strasburg, Ohio. “How the West Was Won,” “The Jungle Book,” “Marnie” – that last one a little inappropriate for children, but I like to think the experience made me the Hitchcock fan I am today. One night we put a blanket on the bank of earth that lifted the front of the car toward the screen and watched the movie from there, the sounds of crickets and the tinny speakers drifting across the field. Some movies are made for the drive-in. One hot, sweaty summer night, two friends and I squeezed into the front seat of the car, terrified by “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Dare I admit to going to the drive-in with a group of friends for a late-night XXX double feature? It came on after the regular show. I’ve never seen a longer line of cars waiting to get into that outdoor cinema of sin. And television. I watch TCM whenever I have the TV on and I have at least 50 movies on the DVR: it may be my only chance to see them! Believe it or not, there was a time before TCM, VCRs, and DVRs when I despaired of ever seeing some of the movies I longed to see: “Double Indemnity” or “Dinner at Eight.” Would they always be only stills in the books I compulsively collected? Not anymore! Television, too, can be the perfect place for some movies, especially horror movies. Late Friday night and Saturday afternoon I’d be on the floor in front of the TV, head propped up on my hands, watching “Island of Terror” or “Chamber of Horrors” with Ghoulardi or Big Chuck and Lil’ John, the local Cleveland horror hosts as well as Hoolihan and Big Chuck. I think I saw the entire Hammer horror catalogue in our living room. My aunt stayed up with me one night for “Horror of Dracula,” still a favorite. My parents would have nothing to do with it, as it should be.
I have the WatchTCM app and every now and again I start a film just to see that it works I guess, and to marvel at the idea of a movie in the palm of my hand. But if the time is right I might watch the whole thing one day this way. Not such a big jump from the 19” television screen in the kitchen where I watch most movies to the screen of an iPhone 6. Is one way of watching a movie better or more authentic than another? Sure, watching a classic film in an old movie palace is ideal, turning movie-viewing into an event. We see the films with fresh eyes, even ones we’ve seen many times before. I didn’t really get “Leave Her to Heaven” until I saw it projected with its glorious color at the Nitrate Picture Show. Add to that an eager audience – laughing together, crying together, silent in fear – and you have a kind of celebration…all that going to the movies should be. At the same time, if the only way for me to see that restored silent or seldom-seen Film Noir is on television, I’ll jump at the chance and be thankful for it.
Who knows what the future of movie-viewing holds. Some current directors have returned to the use of actual film in movie making and hopefully there will be more actual film screenings. Kodak plans to release a modernized version of the Super 8mm film camera – perhaps THAT will inspire budding young film fans to want to pursue filmmaking as a career. Video games? I don’t really get them but I guess they’re movies of a sort. I am fascinated by the cardboard virtual reality viewer that arrived one day with the New York Times, and the videos available with their iPhone app. Whatever the technology, new or revisited, the 100-plus year old concept of flickering, moving pictures was built to last and seems to be flexible enough to accommodate many ways to watch.
[ H O M E ]