Author Archives: Kyle Westphal

2016 in Review: Not Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

What makes a movie?

This is a richly theoretical question that’s often been answered by glibly practical guidance. The most common criterion is highly circular: if it’s exhibited in a movie theater, then it’s automatically a movie.

Never mind that there have long been grey areas—misfit media whose very names suggest their dual identities, like ‘made-for-TV movies’ or ‘direct-to-video’ feature films. By dint of their general disreputability, these works were rarely regarded as deep challenges to the established boundaries of cinema. In the 1980s, a number of long works produced for television by established art house directors—Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Edgar Reitz’s Heimat—successfully slant rhymed their way to festival success. Treating them as films, rather than TV miniseries, was an honorific gesture, an acknowledgement that their high artistic ambitions automatically marked them as works of cinema. There was no other vocabulary to describe them.

By the conclusion of 2016, these distinctions were lying in shambles, if they ever mattered at all. To talk about the year in moviegoing necessarily requires engaging with this shift. It wasn’t the first year that disruptive new entrants to the film business—Netflix, Amazon, and assorted VOD proponents—sought to change the way we conceive of movies, but it may well be the year they convinced a substantial portion of the public to go along with them.

The year saw countless think pieces proclaiming that movies had been firmly supplanted as the center of popular American culture. The real energy, the driver of the proverbial water cooler conversations in increasingly anachronistic office parks, was peak TV, or perhaps Pokémon Go. The Los Angeles Times even inaugurated a series devoted to the topic: The Blur. Veteran movie reviewers wrote from a defensive crouch; a great new work, like Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, was first and foremost a refutation of the “death of the movies” narrative. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Comments Off on 2016 in Review: Not Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

David Shepard: A Lion (1940 – 2017)

I heard last week that my friend David Shepard was in the hospital with pneumonia again, but not to let word get around. Yesterday I learned he was, in fact, in the hospital with stage four cancer and had been taken off life support. This morning I learned he had passed on. My last letter arrived too late.

No obituary can detail all of David’s achievements. Most film scholars and collectors know him from his days at the American Film Institute or Blackhawk Films, through which he saved and preserved countless films. A later generation knew David through the laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays he produced under his Film Preservation Associates banner and released through Image Entertainment, Lobster, Kino, and Flicker Alley. But how many know that David also worked briefly for the Director’s Guild of America, through which he arranged campus appearances for a vanishing generation of film pioneers like Henry King? How many knew he was also a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

I interviewed David five years ago for this blog, and that conversation should serve as a modest introduction for those who knew never him. In the very least, it should give you a sense of David’s droll, old-fashioned verbal gentility. I guarantee that no one else working in the home entertainment business would ever describe a successful release as “selling like hamburgers.” Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , | Comments Off on David Shepard: A Lion (1940 – 2017)

One Movie Worth a Fight: Restoring The Front Page

In 1967, the newly-formed American Film Institute released a preliminary list of 150 significant feature films that were considered endangered, already lost, or thought to survive only in substandard copies. Lewis Milestone’s 1931 adaptation of The Front Page was among the titles at risk.

Based on the reviews that greeted The Front Page in 1931, it’s sobering to recognize that the survival of such a highly-regarded film could be in doubt scarcely four decades later. To put that in perspective, it would be as if no one could readily ascertain whether a single copy of a film like Reds or Atlantic City still existed in 2017.

Admiration for The Front Page was professed in publications high-brow, low-brow, and every brow in between. The Chicago Tribune’s spectral critic Mae Tinee proclaimed that “Lewis Milestone’s direction is the last word in snap: lines click, photography and sound are all to the good.  What this production lacks in nobility it makes up for in ‘It.’” Writing in Vanity Fair, Harry Alan Potamkin rhapsodized that “Milestone’s contribution in The Front Page is the first American contribution to the ‘philosophy’ of the sound-sight cinema. It puts forth the principle of pace set by the verbal element. The film itself is a tour de force, a vehicle which by its speed makes a superficial cargo appear profound.”

The Front Page earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, too, but the passion aroused by the film was perhaps best captured by Pare Lorentz’s column in Judge:

Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Comments Off on One Movie Worth a Fight: Restoring The Front Page

Saying Something New: In Defense of the Topical Film

okay-america

Museum of Modern Art / Film Stills Archive

Is there any more dismissive response to a film than slagging it off as “dated?” Does a film lose its relevance merely because its clothing and hair styles are passé, its slang forgotten, its topicality turgid, its passions yoked to a particular time and place?

It’s a charge related to, but ultimately distinct from, the realization that a beloved film’s attitudes toward gender or race are indefensible. It shouldn’t be controversial to acknowledge that The Birth of a Nation (1915) advocates white supremacy, that Gone with the Wind (1939) puts a positive spin on marital rape, or that casting Mickey Rooney as a Chinese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is an act of thermonuclear indifference. It’s legitimate to view those films as products of the culture that produced them, as failures of empathy and imagination that reflect the limitations of their social horizons. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Saying Something New: In Defense of the Topical Film

Don’t Trust Your Local Film Programmer

devils-insertWhich version of The Devils are you going to show on Monday?

We’ve been asked this question over the phone, in person, and on social media since announcing we’d be screening The Devils at the Music Box. And it’s a perfectly reasonable question, as there are at least four versions The Devils commonly cited: the 111-minute X-rated British theatrical cut; the 108-minute X-rated American theatrical cut; the R-rated American version (either 106 or 109 minutes) released on VHS decades ago; and a spectral cut that re-integrates footage discovered by the critic Mark Kermode.

Adding to the confusion, Warner Bros. prepared a digibeta transfer of The Devils over a decade ago and commissioned several DVD extras but never released a disc—bowing, at least in the imaginations of fevered Ken Russell fans, to a Vatican conspiracy or the resurgent Evangelical stirrings of the Bush era. The studio eventually licensed the transfer and extras to the British Film Institute, which released a Region 2 DVD that runs 107 minutes—but that’s not a new iteration, just a slightly sped-up version of the 111-minute British cut because the video is encoded at the 25 fps PAL standard.

So, which one are we showing?

The fact is, film programmers frequently operate in the dark about these matters and have limited means of seeking clarification. The print arrives at the venue a week before the show (at most), and long after calendars have been printed and disseminated.

Programmers rely on distributors, archives, and private collectors to supply film prints for public exhibition. We interface with studio bookers, who almost always have no physical access to the prints they send out. At best, they have notes about the prints, but not always. The prints are usually in another building on the studio lot or located in a storage depot hundreds of miles away, operated by a third-party logistics firm in Sun Valley or Long Island City. To verify the condition of a print, let alone the specific version it represents, bookers can order an inspection from the depot (which costs money and often overstates a print’s deficiencies) or they can rely on scattered remarks from previous venues. Of course, some venues fail to report prints that have been torn in half, while others phone in a detailed assessment of every scratch and speck of dirt (and expect a price adjustment for their trouble). In an era when some studios are eager to junk prints, every condition report is a provocation and potential death sentence. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Don’t Trust Your Local Film Programmer

Feel the Burn: A Dispatch from the Nitrate Picture Show

NPS 2016Like most people who grew up in a town without a dedicated repertory cinema, I couldn’t afford to be picky about movies or the way I watched them. I sought out titles that I read about and didn’t much care how I encountered them for the first time. A first-run movie at the multiplex? Great. A dodgy VHS copy of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) borrowed from the library? Not a problem. Cat People (1942) airing in the 6 AM slot on Turner Classic Movies? Wonderful. GoodFellas (1990) on broadcast television, bleeped left and right and bloated to unimaginable length by commercial interruptions? A terrific movie, even so.

It wasn’t until I began college that I met people who approached films a bit differently—people who braved multiple buses to travel across town to see a particular 16mm print or lamented that our city’s sorry iteration of a traveling retrospective had omitted a 35mm print that had definitely been screened on another leg of the North American tour. (You know they’re playing Chicago for dupes, right?) These were people who placed immense value in seeing a film in its original format, and felt closer to the work’s essence on that basis. One friend even used format specificity as a cudgel; whenever he couldn’t settle an argument on a film’s merits, he would ask his interlocutor whether she had seen the title in question projected from 35mm, or only watched it on video.  If she’d only done the latter, he would declare himself the winner—he’d seen the print, so his opinion was automatically, axiomatically more valid.

If you think the people described above sound like insufferable hipsters, like the cinephilic equivalent of lanky kids eager to declare “Ahem, I have that on vinyl,” then I’d advise you to stay far, far away from Rochester and its now-annual Nitrate Picture Show, the George Eastman Museum’s three-day celebration of a defunct, flammable film stock that civilians haven’t encountered in seven decades. (Disclosure: I worked for the Eastman Museum from 2010 to 2012, before planning had begun for the inaugural edition of the Nitrate Picture Show in 2015.) Such a festival necessarily invites an escalation of the dynamic described above: “You’ve seen Bicycle Thieves in 35mm, eh? Well, I’ve seen it in nitrate.” Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Feel the Burn: A Dispatch from the Nitrate Picture Show

Sit Down: The Vanishing World of The Flick

The Flick at Steppenwolf. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

In 2012, when I was between gigs, I picked up a few shifts a week as a projectionist at a struggling movie theater, among the last in the city that had yet to convert to digital projection. It wasn’t an act of principled resistance or anything—the management was just too undercapitalized to acquiesce. I always got paid in cash at the end of the night—often in the manager’s office, in the dark, with the hours calculated in a hurried whisper. Never before had I held down a job that felt so unashamedly transactional.

The projection booth was grotty from years of neglect. Posters from the early ’90s covered up the stains on the wall. When I started there, the work room didn’t have a real rewind bench. The booth port holes didn’t even have any glass, but the auditorium was so large that no one would’ve heard anything up there anyway, unless a projector fell over.

And then one day, enough money had been miraculously borrowed from banks and scrounged up from couch cushions to buy a digital projector. The projectionists had a few weeks’ warning, but we were never explicitly told we’d be out of a job. I offered to help the manager set it all up, but he told me he’d be fine. Even though he was more a businessman than a cinephile, the manager wasn’t quite ready to let 35mm go. We’d still be running film for some shows and digital for others during the first week, so the projectionists kept their shifts.

I showed up for work on a Friday night, hours after the digital projector had been installed. I peeked inside the theater and saw a meager audience enjoying a Blu-ray screening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I found the manager at the concession stand and asked how the afternoon had gone.

“Great,” he beamed, “there’s a movie running right now and no projectionist upstairs!” Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Sit Down: The Vanishing World of The Flick

NWCFS 70mm Shorts Showcase Comes to the
Music Box on March 5! One Screening Only!

Music Box Theatre – 3733 N. Southport Ave. • General Admission: $13
Tickets Available Here

chicago70A
Saturday, March 5 @ Noon70mm SHORTS PROGRAM
70mm isn’t just for epics. Since the format’s inception, 70mm has been used in theme parks, museums, and other non-theatrical spaces, making use of the wide, clear frame to simulate reality, tell the stories of our forefathers, and sell stuff. While films like Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia have seen loving, multi-million dollar restorations, few of these 70mm short subjects have been seen since their original runs, much less been preserved or restored, and most will screen in original prints from collections all over the country (the exception is the painstakingly restored Story of a Patriot). Program includes: Here’s Chicago: City of Dreams (1983), exhibited as part of the “Here’s Chicago” exhibit at the Water Tower Pumping Station; A Year Along the Abandoned Road (1991) Morten Skallerud’s beautiful time-lapse film shot over the course of a year in Hasvik, Norway; Winners (1968), a promotional film produced by Lincoln Mercury; Williamsburg, The Story of a Patriot (George Seaton, 1957), the longest running film in motion picture history, which has been shown nearly every day at Colonial Williamsburg since 1957; trailer reels, simulator ride films, and more!
Co-presented with the Music Box Theatre. Special thanks to Mike Durling of Colonial Williamsburg, Dave Kenig and Sharon Walker of Panavision, Brad Morris, and Morten Skallerud

Posted in News | Comments Off on NWCFS 70mm Shorts Showcase Comes to the
Music Box on March 5! One Screening Only!

“Enhanced in Entertainment Value By About 25% (In Our Estimation)”:
An Enlarged History of Magnascope

Magnascope_600Old Ironsides—the 1926 super-production, helmed by one of Paramount’s most important directors, James Cruze—isn’t much shown these days. It’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, though it was briefly available on VHS in the late 1980s, when Paramount mined its silent library for a 75th anniversary promotion. If you’ve come across Old Ironsides at all, it’s likely been as a footnote in a film history textbook, duly credited as the film that introduced Magnascope—a widescreen projection process developed by Lorenzo Del Riccio that is itself a footnote in the development of Cinerama and CinemaScope.

But should we dismiss Magnascope so quickly? Yes, we can draw an evolutionary line between Magnascope and the more durable widescreen processes. We can also readily glimpse the Magnascope concept in today’s IMAX presentations. But Magnascope’s true legacy is something else, situated between chintzy striving and earnest grandeur, between what filmmakers thought they were making and what projectionists made instead. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Comments Off on “Enhanced in Entertainment Value By About 25% (In Our Estimation)”:
An Enlarged History of Magnascope

Are You Ready for the Great Atomic Power?: Decontaminating Doom Town

DT_13Before tonight’s screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, we’ll be presenting a rare short: Doom Town. Call it a prelude or a grim appetizer to Tarkovsky’s vision of the apocalypse, but Doom Town is so compelling in its own right that it deserves a few words. Originally released in polarized 3-D, Doom Town will be screened in 2-D, in a print made directly from one of Doom Town’s original camera negatives.

Whenever I try to explain the Film Society’s interest in physical media to a mixed audience, I shamelessly shoplift from other disciplines. Approach film prints like an anthropologist, I suggest. Who made them? Who used them? What do the print’s material characteristics suggest about its origins and purpose? Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Are You Ready for the Great Atomic Power?: Decontaminating Doom Town