Category Archives: Blog

Saying Something New: In Defense of the Topical Film


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

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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

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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

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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

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“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

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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

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Pause of the Clock – 20 Years Later


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. Continue reading

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ORWO at the End of the World

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.” Continue reading

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Our 2014 National Film Registry nomination

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:

* * *

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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