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Pause of the Clock – 20 Years Later

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Until relatively recently, 16mm and super 16 were the mediums of choice for anyone who wanted to make a feature film with limited resources. With the glut of independent features shot quickly and digitally over the past five years, it’s hard not to get excited about recent features like LISTEN UP PHILIP, HAPPY CHRISTMAS, and GOD HELP THE GIRL being shot on 16mm on relatively small budgets even though, to the best of our knowledge, these films were exhibited only on DCP.

The few film schools that still offer classes in 16mm production tend to warn their students that it takes a patient person to work with the medium. Unless you’re in California or New York, it takes several business days for your film to be processed and printed, and if you’re lucky enough to work with optical printers, that crossfade you can drop in in Final Cut Pro in a few seconds can take a few hours to set up and execute.

It takes a patient person to work with film, but it takes an even more patient medium to work with Rob Christopher, who shot his feature film PAUSE OF THE CLOCK on 16mm in 1995. Since then, the negative, workprint, and soundtrack have been traveling with him from one apartment to the next, eagerly awaiting their final cut. We talked with Rob about what it’s like trying to finish a film he started twenty years ago, now that you can watch and make motion pictures on your iPad.

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NWCFS: When you first started to revisit PAUSE OF THE CLOCK, what kind of shape were the film elements in? Did you have everything fairly well-organized or were you dealing with piles upon piles of uncataloged film?

Rob Christopher: I was very, very fortunate. I not only had all the reels of my rough cut in one place, but (more importantly) all the camera negatives too. The negatives were still in their plastic bags and boxes, the ones that came straight from the lab. So when it came time to scan the negatives, there wasn’t the need to do any heavy duty cleaning or restoration [other than some fairly standard dustbusting]. When all the scans were done I did my logging all over again, marking scenes and shots and takes and all that. But I would have done that anyway, since it had simply been so long since we shot everything. And I’m making a different film than I was back then.

However it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. I never could find a final, complete version of the script. And I discovered that, probably since the production spanned about 15 months, the way we had ended up numbering the scenes didn’t make any sense. But most alarming of all, some of the sound was missing! Just gone. An entire reel of Nagra tape of on location sound had vanished, probably left behind at one of the apartments I’ve lived in since 1997. I thank my lucky stars that I’d held on to my rough cut all those years, because I was able to rescue the most important parts of that missing sound from one of the mag reels. After my sound designer Matt Trifilo has his way with it, you won’t even be able to tell.

NWCFS: What labs did you use to process your original camera negative and what film stocks did you shoot on?

RC: I’d say that 95% of it was done by Du Art. My cinematographer Tchavdar had finagled a pretty good deal with them, so we were shipping everything to New York for processing and dailies. I think we used Astro here in town for a few of the MOS rolls. We pretty much shot on every type of film that was around. Good thing I still have the camera reports. It’s a melange of Kodak, Fuji and Agfa. Looks like a lot of Kodak 7287, 7293, 7298. Tchavdar and I were both kind of love in Fuji at the time. A Christopher Doyle/Wong Kar-wai thing. So we used some 8660, 8621. But for every filmstock we chose on purpose, there was one we used because it was a short end of something from a previous shoot that was either very cheap or free.

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NWCFS: Independent film distribution has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, can you talk a little bit about what your goals for the film were when you shot it vs. what your expectations are now?

RC: At the time it was like, okay, rough cut on 16mm, fine cut on 16mm, conform the negative, make an optical track, then answer print and release print. And do telecine and then make a whole lot of VHS copies to send out to festivals along with your press kit. It was always about trying to get it shown at festivals.

And the interesting thing is, the steps in the process may have changed, and the tools, but it’s still all about getting into festivals. Actually getting any so-called theatrical distribution nowadays, it’s like chasing a mirage. Maybe it happens, but it’s not wise to bank on it. So playing at festivals *is* your distribution. It clarifies things in some ways. I do believe that PAUSE OF THE CLOCK will work best when it’s up on a big screen in a darkened theater, with people sitting together and watching it. So that’s what I’m aiming for. This is not an iPad movie. I’m making the very best film I can, and then doing everything I can to put it out there, and then que sera sera.

NWCFS: The dialog about independent film now is that you can make great feature films for very little money thanks to affordable digital cameras, but there’s such a rich history of great independent films being shot on 16mm for peanuts (MALA NOCHE, PERMANENT VACATION, SLACKER … to name a few). How were you able to fund production of the film pre-video and pre-Kickstarter? Can you talk a little bit about the budget for your shoot?

RC: I got this great book, Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices, by Rick Schmidt. From my parents. So that really got me fired up, and when I decided I was going to do this thing, they were the first people I asked for money. And then grandparents, aunts and uncles. A lot of Christmas and birthday checks went into the movie. I was like, “Don’t get me presents, send me a check.” I asked everybody. I hit up some of my teachers from junior high and high school, and got some money that way. The youth pastors from my old church back in Colorado, and a guy I knew from the church I was going to here in Chicago. It involved a lot of long-distance phone calls and letter writing. My lead actor, Dylan, who was also my roommate, floated me a loan for like a year. And then, at a crucial moment towards the end of shooting, I was awarded an Albert P. Weisman Award from Columbia College. That allowed us to finish. In the end, the total production budget was less than $10,000.

NWCFS: I read that Rick Schmidt book, too. There’s a lot in it that’s still relevant. What really got me was the somewhat terrible but also gutsy advice about putting as much as you can on credit cards. I like the all or nothing approach. There was also the idea that you could offer “shares” of your movie’s profit in exchange for labor. Do you have any outstanding IOUs or was everything pretty much no-strings-attached?

RC: Most of the money was no strings attached, but a handful of people actually became investors. So if and when the film recoups its costs they’ll get repayments with interest. After more than 20 years that’ll be a nice surprise!

NWCFS: What got in the way of completing the film in the ’90s?

RC: When the last shot was in the can in May of 1996, I was completely exhausted. Creatively I ready to start editing, but I just could not face restarting the whole fundraising merry-go-round. I had no idea where more money would come from, no clue. And after the shooting was over, the whole team dispersed. I did get about 2/3 of the way through a rough cut. But the momentum was gone.

And then, before I knew it, it was Graduation Day. And time to, you know, make a living. On top of that, all that free and easy access to equipment that I’d had in college was taken away. Also, it was around this time I realized that writing was much, much cheaper and more gratifying. I started focusing more on that. So the movie just fell by the wayside and I moved on. It’s not like anyone was really breathing down my neck, pushing me to finish.

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NWCFS: Had you made any short films before ​PAUSE OF THE CLOCK, ​or was this your first project as a director?

RC: I had made movies on video (and I mean, VHS) all through junior high and high school. My school district had this offline VHS editing system that I learned to use inside and out. When I was 14 I made this sci-fi opus called DESPERATION, about 90 minutes long. Very TWILIGHT ZONE. Then there was It’s All Too Much, a compilation of comedy sketches and music videos. And later, into my freshman year at college, I made two 45-minute pieces, Ambient Storytelling 1 and 2. Collections of people telling stories to the camera, intercut with evocative landscape footage. Brian Eno on the soundtrack. They got screened in a few places. When I finally able to get my hands on 16mm equipment, “real movie” equipment, I was infected by delusions of grandeur. Why make a short when you can make a feature?

NWCFS: Were there any filmmakers working on 16mm in Chicago (or in general) that were particularly influential or inspiring? Was there anyone making films at the time that made you feel it was possible to do it yourself?

RC: Like I said, Rick Schmidt’s book was really inspiring. I had had this great teacher my freshman year at the Art Institute, Cezar Powlowski, who got a lot of us excited about making movies. Later, when I transferred to Columbia, my faculty advisor was really supportive. Dan Andries. And though his films couldn’t have been more different than what we were aiming for, I loved all of Tom Palazzolo’s stuff. So, so Chicago. In the larger world, most of my influences at the time were older movies. Godard and Cassavetes. But Soderbergh was certainly on my mind, especially KING OF THE HILL. I often thought about what David Lynch went through to make ERASERHEAD.

NWCFS: One of the stretch goals for your Kickstarter fundraiser is making a 16mm projection print. Why is that important to you? What’s the workflow like?

RC: Firstly, that’s how we conceived the film. Namely, as a film. A reel of celluloid projected onto a screen. I know that PAUSE OF THE CLOCK will look its best when seen that way; and doesn’t every filmmaker strive for the best possible viewing experience? Not that it’s always achievable. The cold, hard truth is that most people are going to see this movie digitally.

I thought long and hard about my workflow before (very, very reluctantly) deciding to go that route. Had I access to about $10,000 more, I definitely would have conformed the original negative, THEN done color correction, THEN done a scan for digital/DCP & answer print & release print. But alas, I must do things the cheaper way for now. Though it’s not my preference, it’s not all bad either. The camera negatives were scanned at about 2.5K, and once all the final color correction is done digitally I’ll be doing a film out from that to 16mm. Looking on the bright side, that wonderful 16mm look has been preserved in the scan and I certainly won’t be doing any smoothing tricks to try to erase the grain. It’s gonna look like dynamite.

But, to get back to your question, the second and possibly more important reason for creating a 16mm print is for preservation. I really don’t think that today’s “born digital” filmmakers are truly cognizant of what’s going to happen to their movies in the future. Those ones and zeros can be dangerously fickle; and then, where’s your movie? A DCP is not archival. An Adobe Premiere Pro project is certainly not archival. Regular file migration seems like a stop-gap solution at best. A good film print is really still the best way to ensure that the movie’s still viewable, long term. I am very fortunate that my original elements are on film too, so God forbid something happens I can go back to those. If we had made PAUSE OF THE CLOCK on some crappy, early digital system and 20 years later I’d decided to pick things up again and finish it? Wouldn’t have happened.

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ORWO at the End of the World

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Depending on who you talk to, motion picture film is either dead, floundering, or very much alive.

In the past year, Kodak has announced the discontinuation of several 16mm stocks. Deluxe and Technicolor have closed their main film production labs and auctioned off all their equipment. (We got a couple splicers, other forward-thinking institutions purchased what they could, and much was scrapped). Seeing a first-run movie in 35mm is now such a rarity that we drove all the way to Madison to see the Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop on film. (Chicago’s last remaining 35mm-only second-run house, The Brew & View, announced its own digital conversion two weeks ago.)

At the same time Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and others convinced major studios to place enough minimum orders with Kodak to keep film-on-film production a possibility for at least a few more years. Nolan’s Interstellar will open two days early on 35mm, 70mm, and 70mm IMAX, and the Weinstein Company announced that Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight would see the widest 70mm release in 20 years (presumably referencing Ron Howard’s Far and Away). On the other side of the world, Film Ferrania (a new company resurrecting equipment from the old Ferrania film factory) in Italy launched a  $250,000 Kickstarter campaign (so far wildly successful) to reopen their film production facilities and start producing color reversal film–both 35mm and medium format still camera film, as well as Super8 and 16mm motion picture film.

Earlier this fall we spoke to George Campbell of ORWO North America, the North American sales division of ORWO FilmoTec GmbH. For the past three years ORWO North America has been making black and white motion picture and sound recording film available in 16mm and 35mm to archives, amateurs, and filmmakers. At a time when the future of motion picture film is at best uncertain, ORWO presents a welcome light at the end of the tunnel, and is one of the many groups working to change in dialogue from the wimpy “film is not dead yet” to “film is alive.”

ARMS AND THE MAN, shooting on location in Rural Pennsylvania, will be the first feature shot entirely on ORWO filmstock in the US.

ARMS AND THE MAN, shooting on location in Rural Pennsylvania, will be the first feature shot entirely on ORWO filmstock in the US.

JULIAN ANTOS: So what can you tell me about how ORWO North America came about?

GEORGE CAMPBELL: ORWO’s been around in their modern facility [in Wolfen, Germany] since the late 1990s. The legendary ORWO Film company [originally] closed when the Wall came down in Berlin in ’91 because they couldn’t compete with all the other film companies. Eventually they reopened in the late ’90s as ORWO FilmoTec GmbH.

[A few years ago] I had connections with the Library of Congress and Kodak was failing, so I started working very closely with Ken Weissman at LOC. That’s what started us off in the US: Kodak couldn’t guarantee film for LOC, and ORWO was an immediate replacement of equal cost. I connected the dots to LOC and from there we set up the consumer side. The marketplace has been shifting and we’re still trying to understand it. It’s a growing process because the industry is such a mess …

ORWO North America has only been around for a few years, why start selling film at a time when so much of the industry is abandoning it? Is the business successful?

We launched ORWO North America on 11/11/11, and there have been at least ten large labs that have collapsed since then. We had to figure out who we could work with and who would be innovative enough to help grow our industry. ORWO has grown tremendously in the past few years. We’ve been working with a lot of labs and government agencies internationally because of the exposure we’ve had in the US. Integration into different partnerships in the US has grown the global and German sectors, so that‘s what’s going on now …

[Film] has become a passion of mine because of the understanding of what it has brought to society and what historical importance it has. I work in a couple different industries and film has changed my life. Working with Ken at the Library of Congress, I learned about the “end of the world theory.” It’s what I’ve based Owro on: digital storage devices have a short life span. You have to transfer data every five years and this all costs money, and hard drives need to be maintained and turned on and someone has to do all this stuff…. Whether it’s sound film, or motion picture film or photos or whatever else needs to be stored–[film can be] stashed away for 500-1000 years without ever being touched…

So what the Library of Congress will do is take the “end of the world theory,” and put everything on film and keep it in their vaults hundreds of feet below the earth. It will sit there in a temperature-controlled cage, and whatever happens to the earth, the aliens or whoever finds us will be able to take this film and hold it up to the light or put it in a machine or whatever and find out what our culture is all about. And you can’t really do that with any of the digital products out there.

I like the idea of preparing film for the next alien invasion. Is the consumer side of ORWO pretty substantial or do you mostly sell to archives? Are there a lot of artists and filmmakers working with your film?

The consumer side is what’s next. Right now we’re working with some smaller groups like Mono No Aware. Steve Cossman [of Mono No Aware] is here in Brooklyn, and he’s a huge proponent. He’s been very helpful, he uses a lot of ORWO film. He’s a great guy, he works extremely hard, he’s extremely diplomatic, and he’s very good for the industry. He’s probably very good for me because I’m not very diplomatic.

[Cossman] and his whole crew are extremely professional … What he has done is incredible because he brings people, introduces them to film, and treats the professionals and the beginners exactly the same. [He] brings them all into a community and gives the all the opportunity in the world and teaches everybody. He’s a true professor of the film industry.

There’s a lot more coming in this fall. My manufacturing partners are working with me on developing the consumer side so it’ll be a lot more robust. People are learning about us a little more and using us. I think this is becoming a really solid boutique industry that will be growing. There’s opportunity, and small cinemas and theaters around the country. I feel horrible that all of these 35mm projectors were tossed. Where are they all?

Oh, we got some of those…

[Laughs]

So, Kodak has recently announced that they’re discontinuing some 16mm black and white stocks, including duplicating stocks which are really important for preservation, and 16mm black leader which is important for cutting A/B rolls. Is ORWO going to be able to fill that gap?

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So, yeah, we have 16mm and 35mm duplicating film. I’m working with groups that have used it in the past. Figuring out the estimated amount of film that’s going to be purchased is really important, [then] I can start developing and investing in what we need to cut down and what we need to bring to the States.

Are you able to produce film in relatively small batches?

Yeah, it depends. We have the capabilities of slitting and perfing 35 down to super 8, and we can produce fairly small batches.

Sometimes people will see things are out of stock and sort of go, “Oh well,” and give up. Our small orders get sold out relatively quickly and tend to fluctuate wildly. It’s important for people to work with me to secure film.

One complaint I hear a lot in general is that film is expensive. “You can’t get it locally anymore, you have to send it out of state to get processed unless you live in LA,” etc.

You know what, it’s not that expensive. If you’re going to do a high quality piece, then do film. And if you’re not, then go do videotape or whatever. If that’s what you want, that’s great, but, hey, you’re going to find complainers in every industry. I’ve realized this working in digital advertising, plastic deposits, and green technologies, all kinds of different industries. I find complainers and whiners in every single one of them, but there are also brilliant people and brilliant artists. And I’ve met incredible artists that work with film all the time and they do great stuff. These are the guys I love to work with and I do work with. And they’re earnest and they work hard and they’re very supportive of what I’m doing. They work with me and they’re helpful.

I’m by no means a professional cinematographer or a technical film engineer. At the end of the day, I’m a salesperson that has a passion for film. It almost took someone like me to understand the value of the industry so that someone who’s been in it for 30 or 100 years or whatever won’t ruin it.

Ruin it?

A lot of these guys that are involved in the film industry, they’re kind of retiring. There’s not a lot of young blood there. They’re not going to let some young guy in unless there was some kind of apprenticeship, but they’re probably deathly afraid. You can’t run a business in fear! It’s a classic mistake, and one of the reasons why film has gone down so quickly: fear and poor management. Sure, it’s going to cut down because of all the new technologies, but you can’t cut it out. So many people just jumped ship, or gave up, or blamed it on the Man. Or blame it on people like me!

If someone wants to work in this industry, we have to work together, you know. People ask me for free film all the time, and I don’t have short ends, and the Germans don’t have short ends. My manufacturing partners are very efficient. There’s not a lot of leftovers, and that’s part of what enables us to continue on and grow. We work with very specific black and white film, we don’t plan on growing into color, we don’t plan on developing any more specific film grades, unless there’s a market for it. And by that I don’t mean one guy calling me or e-mailing me, telling me how much he needs a 400 foot can of film, you know.

Kodak makes a beautiful color film and it looks like Hollywood will float them at least for a little while and the archival color stuff, too. We’ll see what happens, but they’ll probably own the market on the color side. The black and white might be diminishing here and there, but it’s only because they have to. All these big labs are shutting down. Deluxe’s Burbank facility shut down a couple months ago…

There’s not a lot of money to be made here. Luckily I have alternative sources of income, so I can kind of bounce them back and forth from each other. I work six different jobs.

Sounds familiar! Are you the only employee of ORWO North America?

I’m the only employee, and I have six jobs! But hey, this fall we’ll be investing some more money so we can keep this thing up and running and we see the value in the market. It’s a crazy industry but it’s exciting! We’re growing and we may be the last ones standing. Who knows? My manufacturing partners are great guys. My partners in Wolfen, Germany are completely sweet.

I work with some of the most incredible creative artists. And film as a medium is beautiful. When it’s processed properly there’s a deeper level of grey contrast that you can work with … there’s so much different opportunity you can utilize film for and it’s not that expensive.

It takes a pro. It takes testing. It takes a creative person to go there and do the work. We’re developing the company to be a sustaining force and stand the test of time in the US and globally. You have to be creative in the development and sales of your film as much as you have to be creative with the processing and shooting of your film. If you don’t have the money, you have to conserve and be efficient. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

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Our 2014 National Film Registry nomination

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If you’ve ever come especially early to one of our screenings, you may have seen this image on the screen: the black and white pattern of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers‘s “RP 40″ test loop that we use to set the 35mm projector’s focus and framing.

We’ve wanted to nominated it for inclusion in the National Film Registry for years, and now we’ve done it! (Cross your fingers, and maybe it’ll make the cut!)

Here’s the text of our nomination, written by Film Society board member Andy Uhrich:

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We’d like to recommend a film for the Registry. The title is 35mm Projector Alignment and Image Quality Test Film (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, 1971/1995, silent, 00:02:13 or loop). It’s colloquially referred to as RP 40, which is the SMPTE standard that describes the construction and use of the film. Though it might be a well known film to you, we’ve included a still from the 1971 version of the film for your reference.

35mm Projector Alignment and Image Quality Test Film was created by SMPTE to, according to the standard’s documentation, “reproduce motion pictures to make faithful and pleasing reproductions of images and sound.” There’s only one image in the film. Its unchanging nature makes it a powerful tool to discover and fix issues that can be obscured during regular projection. RP 40’s seemingly abstract squares and lines become markers by which to set image focus, check the image resolution, adjust the projector’s shutter to remove travel ghost, and create plates for different aspect ratios.

Why recommend RP 40, which is clearly not an aesthetic work and doesn’t document an important social event?

The film was part of the everyday operations of a movie theater. In this way it can be seen as part of the sub-genre of functional films for cinema operation alongside snipes like 1953’s Let’s All Go to the Lobby.

It’s arguably one of the most common and most regularly projected American films of the last 40 years. Every projection booth worth its salt had one. Repertory and archival theaters still projecting film use it daily to ensure the highest standards of projection.

The RP 40 test film is a medium-specific use of film technology. It’s entirely about cinema as a projected art form. It exemplifies the practices and technologies that regulate the moviegoing experience.

35mm Projector Alignment and Image Quality Test Film is a calibration film recognized by projectionists and lab technicians everywhere. With the ending of film projecting in mainstream cinemas, adding RP 40 to the Registry is a way to honor the behind-the-scenes labor of projectionists as an occupation and skill that was central to twentieth century theatrical cinema.

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Andy Warhol’s Magic Trick: The Disappearing 16mm Projector

EikiIt’s not fair, the journalist reminds us, to pick apart and censure his headlines; the reporting is his work, but the boldface entrée is not. Case in point: Randy Kennedy’s informative dispatch on the state of the Andy Warhol film collection in last Thursday’s New York Times was saddled with a most unfortunate headline: “Digitizing Warhol’s Film Trove to Save It”—a premise that’s both wrong and not quite argued in the piece itself.

The gist of the article is simple enough: the archive of Andy Warhol’s prolific, prodigious film work—owned by the Warhol Museum, but stored and conserved at the Museum of Modern Art—has finally been slated for digitization. The scope of the collection is daunting; per the Times, only a tenth of Warhol’s surviving film work is available through MoMA in circulating 16mm prints. And even those can scarcely be said to be available because “[f]ewer and fewer people have the ability to show 16 millimeter,” according to Warhol Museum deputy director Patrick Moore. “I think the art world in particular, and hopefully the culture as a whole, will come to feel the way we do,” Moore adds, “which is that the films are every bit as significant and revolutionary as Warhol’s paintings.” Continue reading

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Who Will Save the Cinema?

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The celluloid community received its first positive news in recent months when the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that a consortium of studios was negotiating a long-term arrangement with Eastman Kodak Co. to maintain the company’s film manufacturing capacity. The Hollywood Reporter followed up Wednesday with word that the deal was “all but finalized.”

The situation is, of course, rich in irony. The negotiating studios—Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, Disney, and the Weinstein Company—have been trying for more than a decade to wean their industry away from these very film products, which built and sustained Hollywood over the last century. Kodak, meanwhile, had been striving to transform itself into a desktop printing company under the tenure of recently-departed CEO Antonio Perez, despite the fact that motion picture film remained the declining company’s only profit center. (Speaking of profits, it’s hard to decide which Journal take-away is more astonishing: that Kodak’s film orders had declined by 96% since 2006 or that the film unit was still in the black throughout much of this death spiral. Only in March 2014 did newly-installed Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke discover that demand was dropping sufficiently to threaten film’s profitability. If film manufacture truly remained profitable operating at 15% capacity, perhaps it was a better business proposition than anyone guessed.) Continue reading

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Remember The Alamo? Movies, Markets, and Misaligned Incentives

ALAMO 70mm

Film preservation is rarely a sexy endeavor, the fantasies of archivists themselves notwithstanding. Preserving or restoring a film often requires years of semi-scholastic drudgery—research, grant-writing, lab tests, hair-splitting assessments of continuity and color-timing. The reward at the end of the process is posterity—for the film, not the preservationist, who must be content with providing a sound bite on a DVD extra. (Bonus points allotted if the preservationist is shown at a messy desk, futzing with an ornery reel or holding it up to the light for inspection, like a fastidious jeweler.)

Point being, preservation work is a consummate behind-the-scenes job. On a certain level, that work should be invisible: if the goal is to return a film as close as possible to its original state, then eluding audience detection through seamless tradecraft is a mark of success. Hiding the gulf between disparate source elements and suppressing the ravages of time are laudable, essentially self-effacing, achievements. Film restoration hews closely to the physician’s Hippocratic Oath—first, do no harm. (By this standard, touting a new surround sound remix, digitally removing the intrinsic grain structure of the image, or valiantly intuiting a long-dead filmmaker’s unrealized intentions would automatically command suspicion, to say nothing of colorization, integration of new footage, and the like.) The highest compliment is not to be noticed at all.

The deliberations behind a restoration are even more obscure. They are almost always private and sometimes even proprietary: convincing a foundation that a particular film is culturally auspicious enough to merit underwriting its preservation, persuading a superior to allocate scarce discretionary funds to an emergency salvage project, negotiating a fair licensing agreement with a copyright holder. These are inherently delicate situations, so it’s no surprise that they don’t often unfold in the public square. Continue reading

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Sucking in the Seventies: Re-Examining the Wondrous, Incoherent Decade

ERRBI’m pretty sure the first movie book I read cover-to-cover was Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a high-calorie, sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ gross participation page-turner that maps the ascent and deflation of the “New Hollywood” filmmakers from 1967 to 1980. For a high schooler, it was a simple story with an irresistible through line and a cast of unsavory, irascible geniuses. Even without seeing all the films described in the book, this gossipy chronicle of long-haired movie brats sold a seductive premise: a vanished kingdom of personal, American auteurist cinema, wiped off the beach by Jaws and its blockbusting successors.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, published in 1998 shortly after the release of Boogie Nights, spawned a ’70s revival that has now calcified into a peculiar critical consensus. The best-seller inspired two talking-head documentaries (A Decade Under the Influence and another named for and adapted from the Biskind book) and endless appreciations of films that were hardly underappreciated in the first place: The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, Apocalypse Now.

Nor can we forget the recent films that consciously channeled the “New Hollywood Renaissance,” taking the procedural aloofness of All the President’s Men as a retro Rosetta Stone: Argo, The Informant!, Michael ClaytonZodiac, American Hustle, and host of less memorable pictures. Grain equals grit.

By now, the ’70s are accepted so reflexively as “Hollywood’s Last Golden Age” that there’s little point in quibbling. Still, it’s difficult to name another era in Hollywood filmmaking impervious to the critic’s naturally revisionist impulse. The Best Picture Oscar winners of the ’30s or the ’80s are roundly ridiculed, but the ’70s class (Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall) remains lionized. Continue reading

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Crimes of Opportunity: Ben Hecht, Anti-Auteur

Crime Without Passion_FuryWe’re all auteurists now. The notion that the director is primary author of a film, once a fringe idea debated in little magazines and grindhouse theater lobbies, is now the implicit premise of movie production, criticism, and advertising. When 3 Days to Kill is promoted as “A McG Film” and Pompeii is, contractually speaking, “A Film by Paul W. S. Anderson,” we must recognize that the debate is well settled.

In our era of automatic auteurs, the contentious critical arguments of generations past can seem downright quaint, if not fitfully obscure. The once-controversial figure of the writer-director is a case in point.

In the earliest years of cinema, production roles were rarely delineated: actors and directors could improvise a scenario on standing sets, or a cameraman might call the shots. A quintessentially industrial art thrived on a pre-industrial division of labor. The growth of the studio system in the late 1910s and 1920s gradually forced filmmakers into more rigidly defined roles. The transformation culminated with the coming of sound, which introduced the idea of the modern screenwriter—not a semi-literate scenario scribbler or a witty intertitle aphorist, but someone who resembled a professional Broadway playwright.

The moguls aspired to employ sharp, college-educated playwrights, but the working conditions they offered were frequently demeaning and atrocious: no matter how fine a script was, the studio machinery would insist upon re-writes. The script would be passed from one employee to another as a matter of habit.  One cannot overstate how thoughtlessly this imperative unfolded in practice. The process that birthed Midnight (1939) may be apocryphal, but it remains illustrative: unsatisfied with Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s draft, Paramount threw the script into the rewrite pool and programmatically assigned the task to another team—Wilder and Brackett, as it turned out, who submitted their uncorrected ‘revision,’ which was judged a tremendous improvement. Continue reading

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Punch Cards, Veronica Mars, and the Digital No-Wave

votomaticLet Us Compare Mythologies
You’ve probably heard by now that the ongoing digital cinema conversion has fundamentally transformed the way movies are produced, distributed, and exhibited. Taken on their own, petitions and protests that aim to save 35mm film can look nostalgic, naïve, or simply Luddite. With 92% of American screens already film-free, this looks like a settled issue, with no outstanding questions.

The scene looks different at a farther remove. Cinema is hardly the only industry in the midst of a digital transition, after all, and comparative analysis promises fresh insight.

Let’s talk about the parallel upheaval in voting technology for a moment. In the wake of the Florida’s extraordinarily close vote totals in the 2000 presidential election, America focused anew on problems at the polling place. Poor ballot design, antiquated punch cards, obsolete lever machines—all came under post-mortem scrutiny. The technology was an incongruous, even dangerous, anachronism for the dot com economy. “In the age of the microchip,” CBS News opined, “the leadership of the free world is being decided by boxes of paper ballots with hanging and half-punched “chads,” leaving it to harried election officials to decide who meant to vote for whom.” In California, the ACLU cited the scattered usage of the much-maligned Votomatic machine as an impediment to equal protection guarantees and sued to delay a state-wide election until all the machines could be replaced. Continue reading

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Beacons of Cinema: In Defense of Trailers

MPAA in 70mmNow that the film vs. digital debate is winding down, the National Association of Theater Owners has turned its attention towards more pressing matters. Last month the exhibitor’s trade group issued new guidelines for movie trailers and related promotional material, effective October 2014. It was a canny move, seizing upon public sentiment that “trailers are too damn long” and thus earning ink for NATO in publications like RedEye that would typically ignore its pronouncements. (When you share an acronym with the instantly recognized North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it’s hard to get mainstream press coverage. Then again, as an industry trade group, perhaps you don’t want the sunlight in the first place.)

The new NATO guidelines, which are completely voluntary, mandate that movie trailers run no longer than two minutes and be released no more than five months before than the movie that they’re promoting. (Trailers are presently around two and half minutes apiece.) Each distributor will qualify for two exemptions per year, though these exceptional trailers cannot be any longer than three minutes. NATO’s latest also clamps down on “direct response prompts (QR codes, text-to, sound recognition, etc.)” in trailers and endorses practices that most theaters abide by already, such as assuring that age-appropriate trailers accompany each feature so that Dallas Buyers Club isn’t pitched at the Frozen crowd. Continue reading

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