Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bad projection and good ol' Roger Ebert

I went to the movies the other night with my friend Tim O'Donnell. We attended one of Atlanta's premier movie venues, The Tara (now run by Regal Cinemas). Great theater, the Tara--always has been. But even they have their woeful moments.

There are four houses at the Tara. The two over to the right of the ticket taker are the bomb. The first one to that side is a gigantic, many-rowed but somewhat thinly-sliced house that always shows the best of the best. The throw range for the projection is incredibly long, but always bright (though the projectionists sometimes get the horizontal framing incorrect; I can still remember seeing Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear there with Saul and Elaine Bass' opening credits falling off into the black masking around the screen; the management told me "it was made that way" which is bullshit, considering it's Saul freakin' Bass).

The second right-hand house (pictured at the bottom of this post) is the finest of the bunch; it's wide-berthed, and its dimensions are just right to insure, almost always, a crisp and accurate projection that's comfy to watch. This said, when I was working at the Tara back in the early 90s, that very house was projecting the 50th anniversary re-release of Casablanca all wrong; they had no idea what a 1:33 projection lens was, and were instead showing the film in the present-day standard 1:85. This was anathema for a film that was composed with a 1:33--or essentially square--format to be converted to 1:85's slight rectangle. This meant that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman's faces were being cut off at their exquisite chins and foreheads. With Bogart's lower lip falling off frame when he spoke in close-up, this situation made Casablanca look badly directed to a new viewer, and we all know that director Michael Curtiz was on his game in an radical fashion there! It ain't Curtiz's fault, it's the projectionist's, and the theater's. But damned if I could convey that to them, even as an employee.

The third and fourth houses at the Tara, over to the left of the ticket taker (the third house is pictured above), are somewhat of a hastily-built, wholesale disaster. Their dimensions are bizarre. The seats, even in the middle of the houses, are too close to a screen that's too high up on the wall for neck comfort; it's a very claustrophobic film venue. Even when I was working at the Tara, I regarded those houses as a place where lower-performing films were dumped (they were built as add-ons to the theater in 1983; the building itself, which is spectacular and now has a slightly overstuffed lobby, was built in the early 60s as a single, and twinned in 1975). So I groaned in disappointment when Tim and I discovered that the movie we just paid 12 bucks to see, Tom McCarthy's amiable comedy Win Win, was playing there.

I still ended up liking McCarthy's movie (it's difficult not to like, but slightly difficult to absolutely love). But, while watching it, not only did the rush of memories about why I abhorred the house's layout smack me in the forehead, Tim and I also had to deal with the piss-poor light coming from the projector. Win Win is a movie that'll probably work better on the small screen, but that doesn't mean paying customers at the theaters should be subjected to a screening that looks like abject mud. It was obvious that the Xenon bulb used to throw the projection onto the screen was either (a) giving out completely or (b) being dialed down to extend the life of the bulb. This made the colors in this modest film look that much MORE modest. In fact, they looked downright drab. I thought to myself "I'm sure when I watch this on DVD, it'll be a revelation." And we're not talking about a movie that trades on its look very much.

The same night, Tim and I decided to pay another 12 bucks to see a 2D version of Werner Herzog's new 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. We debated, at the ticket booth, whether to see this movie in 2D or wait until it was exhibited in 3D at another theater later on. Even though I had heard from Roger Ebert that it was a film that used 3D uncommonly well, I decided that seeing it in 2D was the wiser choice. When we see, these days, movies in 3D, the brightness of the screen is reduced by at least a quarter. And I didn't want to see a movie filmed in an ancient French cave with 1/4th less projection light.

It turns out that it was the correct choice. Cave of Forgotten Dreams looked great and, while I wanted to see Herzog's first foray into 3D, I'm happy I made the choice that I did. The movie is more important than that beside-the-point effect. Yet I couldn't help but wonder: what IF the 3D looked great? What IF Herzog was the first director to use the format to perfection? What had my distrust of 3D projection cheated me out of here?

Often, when I'm in the movie theater and something is wrong with the projection, I'm the only one who complains. It could be something as seemingly miniscule as the framing (a common thing so-called professional projectionists get wrong), something as wholly crucial as focus (I've had flat-out arguments with managers over whether or not a movie is in focus), something as esoteric as projection lens choices (as with the Casablanca case), or something as obvious as whether a film has broken. I've often found that, in these cases, I'm the only one willing to get up and tell the management that there's a problem; this blows my mind. At the Lincoln Center 13 in NYC, I was the first and only person to get up out of their seats to notify the management when the newly-released print of The King's Speech broke two reels--that is, 40 minutes--in.

I think when people pay to go see movies, they rightfully expect (given the high price) that they are to get what they pay for. But this is not necessarily the case all the time. Maybe in big cities like New York and L.A. they can expect this (and maybe not even then---depends on the theater, and how much its staff cares). But in the rest of the country, it takes people who give a shit to stand up for those who don't know enough to give a shit. These people may exit the movie--which may be great--not liking it so much, but not being able to put their finger on WHY they disliked it. Imagine watching Casablanca for the first time, expecting a masterpiece, and then being subtly irritated by the faults I've underlined. It's not that the movie is bad; it's the PROJECTION that sucks. This is a hairsplitting matter for most filmgoers, but not for film geeks like myself.

Roger Ebert's May 24th post on his indispensable Journal blog out of the Chicago Sun-Times, might stand as one of this treasured writer's most valuable posts. Aptly titled "The Dying of the Light," it illuminates many of the major problems that movie theaters face these days in competing with increasingly more satisfying home theater set-ups. Perhaps the most important piece of film journalism written in the past decade, it concerns itself with highly technical matters, but ones that are as important to movie theaters as getting the right sear on a piece of beef is to your average restaurant's customers (even if they don't KNOW the sear is important). Ebert's post (which reveals some troubling facts about digital projection, a format I've always distrusted) is an informative, honest, and scary piece about where the business of film exhibition is heading if it doesn't get its act together. Where is that? Down in the dumps. Massive layoffs. Abandoned theaters. Total sadness.

I personally cannot do without the movie exhibition business. I want to see movies projected, preferably via the richer 24 fps film, and projected correctly. Otherwise the revered millions of bucks and thousands of man hours being spent on their production means diddly squat. Godammnit, if the owners, managers and projectionists can't bothered to get passionate about what they do, then what the hell are we paying our money for?

Thanks to the great Jack Coursey for his photos of the 2nd and 3rd houses of the Tara theater, featured on his encyclopedic Cinemas Georgia website.

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