70mm film projection

Transcendent “Baraka” on the Big Screen

The gorgeous visual doc screens this weekend, along with "Lifeforce," on 70mm at The Hollywood Theatre

After a lengthy and extremely successful 70mm run for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” earlier this year (during which the director even stopped by to talk about the film before and after a screening), it’s safe to say the gorgeous analog projection system is here to stay in Portland, at least at The Hollywood Theatre. No further proof is needed than a glance at their schedule for this coming weekend, which sees two films on the grand format screening for audiences.

“Baraka,” a visual poem/doc from 1992, shows at 7:00 p.m. this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are still available for all shows, and highly recommended. 1985’s “Lifeforce,” from Cannon Films and director Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), shows once at 9:45 p.m. Saturday, but it is sold out already. (I’ve yet to actually see that film, which is why I’ve already got my ticket to see it, natch.) It’s apparently about a bunch of space vampires who attack London, so we’ll see. Should be fun.

Gary Busey stars in "Baraka." Sorry, my mistake, that's actually a Japanese snow monkey.

Gary Busey stars in “Baraka.” Sorry, my mistake, that’s actually a Japanese snow monkey.

Continues…

FILM: Hollywood Theatre will get ‘Hateful’ this Christmas

The landmark Portland theater is already prepping its 70mm presentation for Quentin Tarantino's new film

As soon as the brand new lenses arrived in the mail there was a rush of excitement. Then came the anxiety. Hollywood Theatre head programmer Dan Halsted, already a near-mythological Portland celluloid purveyor, has been through this before. The theater’s brave, forward-thinking decision years ago to install 70mm film protection capabilities in its large downstairs screen, despite the format being near-death after the seismic industry shift to digital, has already borne three separate successful exhibitions with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Vertigo” and, just recently, “The Wild Bunch.” Even still, Halsted is nervous for the Hollywood’s upcoming two-week exclusive early run of Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus, “The Hateful Eight.” For starters, he needs to test out those new lenses.

To accommodate the unique release and specific technical specifications to show the film properly, Boston Light & Sound made new lenses for every theater showing it on 70mm. Known as Ultra Panavision 70, and constructed for a unique look—the widest standard aspect ratio used today is known as scope, or 2.39:1; ‘Hateful Eight’ will be shown in 2.76:1, making the image significantly wider than it is tall—they were used occasionally in the ’50s and ’60s, on films like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “Ben Hur,” but had to be made new because parts are more difficult to come by now. The lenses arrived at the Hollywood just last week. The film itself, one of some 100 prints struck anew on 70mm (the widest release on that format in more than 20 years), is not yet there. While Halsted and co. eagerly await its arrival, some other prep can begin.

these new lenses are much larger than normal

above: one of the new lenses from the Hollywood. They’re much larger than normal

To make use of the glorious large format (a subject that I’ve written about for OAW here and here), the Hollywood expanded its screen more than a year ago. All the better to make use of the high resolution, immersive depth, and gorgeously grainy imagery the format yields onscreen. But it will be re-formatted specifically to fit ‘Hateful Eight’s extreme wide picture, which, based on footage from trailers, Tarantino and regular DP Robert Richardson look to have taken advantage of its capabilities. Maybe even more impressive than the imagery, though, is the dynamic and layered sound found on 70mm presentations. The Hollywood will be the screening the film exactly as Tarantino intended, which can’t be said for most theaters in town in an era where multiplexes rarely even staff projectionists.

The ever chatty and controversial director (who’s been in the news of late attracting some cop hate for attending a rally where he spoke out against police brutality) essentially used his clout and ever-increasing box office success (his last two films, “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” were box office behemoths) to convince the Weinstein Company to release his latest on 70mm. Tarantino’s long been a proponent for shooting and projecting on celluloid, and the inspiration to release “The Hateful Eight” in this manner came from Paul Thomas Anderson’s and Christopher Nolan’s resuscitating of the format for “The Master” and “Interstellar,” respectively. These directors are film fetishists to be sure, but the way they’ve used their individual and collective power in the industry to keep it alive is to be commended. We should be so lucky as moviegoers to see more specialized presentations like this that remind why cinema is at its best in a big, dark room shown on a giant screen with the sound cranked up. Much as I’ve really come around on DCP projection, 70mm film projection is still the gold standard, no-doubt-about-it best way to watch a movie.

hateful 8 70mm

“The Hateful Eight” is another Western from Tarantino. He’s assembled a dynamic cast, most of them a who’s who of Tarantino regulars (Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Zoe Bell, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins) and a few newbies (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum). Not much is known yet about the finished film beyond some enticing details: the run time will be about three hours, with an overture and intermission (the 70mm version of the film will also have 6 additional minutes of footage); genius Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who scored “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” (Tarantino’s favorite film of all time), made a new original score for the film; it’s set in one location, a haberdashery, where most the action takes place. It appears to be a nice bridge between the indie sensibilities of his early work like “Reservoir Dogs” and the big budget size and epic scope of his more modern work.

Any time Quentin Tarantino releases a new film it’s cause for celebration. But this special 70mm engagement, which will run two full weeks before opening wide in theaters across the county (mostly projected on digital by then), really gets to what he’s about as a filmmaker. Deeply nostalgic for bygone, lost eras of cinema—a time when people used to go out to the movies for their evenings, not just use it to kill two hours before moving on to the next thing—it’s exciting to see him double down on a near-dormant technology with the hope of giving it a life. It’s a risky proposition for him and theaters like the Hollywood to invest in a technology that’s been passed by and almost left for dead. Especially in this era of simplified, faster and cheaper digital presentations.

hateful_eight_poster

But that’s why going to the Hollywood is really the only place you should see “The Hateful Eight” come Christmas time. Why see it any other way? We’re lucky enough here in Portland to have that option, and to see it there well before most the country gets a chance. Take advantage of it, and see what all the fuss is about. If “The Hateful Eight” is a success (Halsted hopes to keep the print at the theater after its run, to revive through the years and continue showing the way it was meant to be seen and heard), maybe this long thought dead way of showing films can come back, even in a niche way.

Or maybe it’s already happening? King Vidor’s “Solomon And Sheba” was the first 70mm presentation screened at The Hollywood Theatre back in 1959. Thankfully, “The Hateful Eight” will not be the last. 2016 will be the Hollywood’s 90th anniversary, so the plan is to show many more classics on 70mm. “Baraka,” a visual nonfiction work from 1992 that’s a stone-cold masterpiece, will screen there in April. And look out for much more next year: Halsted is hoping for new restorations to happen, but also plans to show “The Sound of Music,” “Lawrence Of Arabia,” “West Side Story”—he’s even looking for “Die Hard,” which would just be amazing.

This is why it matters where you decide to see a movie. If you see “The Hateful Eight” this Christmas, choose wisely.

FILM: 70mm and beyond the infinite

A brief trip to Seattle's Cinerama leaves our film critic contemplating what really matters in cinema

2001“I noticed a mistake,” said the man sitting behind me in the cinema. He was talking to a friend during the intermission of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which screened this past weekend at Seattle’s gorgeous Cinerama. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. In the scene where HAL is playing chess with an astronaut, he elaborated, the supercomputer describes a move incorrectly. But it made him wonder: Was this intentional, perhaps an early, subtle clue that something is wrong with computer?

Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the most fastidious of perfectionist filmmakers, incites this kind of debate in cinephiles. Amusingly enough, this particular gaffe is the first one to come up in the goofs section of the film’s IMDB page. But what I found most interesting about this dive into the deep end of movie minutia was how, in the 45 years since “2001” was first released in theaters, we’ve evolved as moviegoers.

The youth culture at the time embraced the film after a marketing relaunch a year after it was released that focused on the psychedelic experience to be had. The posters showed off the star child, or a massive close up of an eye, adorned with the words, “The Ultimate Trip.” Those rambunctious youngsters dropped acid, went on the ride and embraced the picture. I could be wrong, since this was more than a decade before I was even born, but I doubt those folks got into such minor details as the appropriate description of chess moves in the film. They were probably too busy having their minds blown and trying to remember where they parked their car to care one way or the other.

Look, I’m all for deep introspection and theorizing. After all, a giant chunk of what I love about movies is thinking, reading about and discussing them. But hearing this fellow talk behind me in the theater had me thinking, dude, sometimes you just gotta sit back, let the images and sound grab hold of you, like an ape using a bone as a weapon, and enjoy the experience. Nothing, after all, compares to the actual act of watching a film in a theater.

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The Cinerama in Seattle is in the midst of another 70mm Film Festival. The theater is a treasure, one of only three left in the world capable of showing true cinerama movies. Walking in to it for the first time last Friday, before “Baraka” began, I was taken aback by the sheer size of the screen, concave and stretching 70 feet across. Was it worth taking a two-day trip to another city simply to watch some old films I’ve already seen several times? You’re damn right it was.

cinerama 1

Seattle’s Cinerama in all its big and beautiful glory

There’s nothing better than 70mm film projection on a giant screen. It’s the filmic equivalent of high definition. The sound in the Cinerama shakes the theater at times. Several moments in “Baraka” and “2001” forced most people in the audience to cover their ears, it was so loud. The experiences for both those films was so strong I fear that watching them on DVD is now a fool’s errand, for I’ve seen them in the absolute perfect conditions, and I can’t go back to a dinky TV screen, no matter all the fancy digital bells and whistles it may have. Nothing is more immersive or capable of inducing awe.

Perhaps you’re wondering why all the talk of a Seattle movie theater on an Oregon media site? Well, the folks at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland have in their possession a couple 70mm film projectors. They’re tracking down some parts to get them in working order, but the plan is to bring this large format to the Rose City. And since there’s only so many films available in 70mm prints, there’s little doubt that all three movies I saw at the Cinerama will screen here when the projectors are operational.

An image from "Baraka"

An image from “Baraka”

Here’s the breakdown of my experience: “Baraka,” from 1992, is an awe-inspiring, completely visual (read: no dialogue) documentary showing man’s relationship to technology, modern living and nature. It’s gorgeous. Watching it (and “2001”) on this giant screen ranks as one of the best experiences of my life at the cinema. But the other film I watched last weekend, “Lawrence of Arabia,” I could’ve skipped altogether. Though it’s considered one of the best films of all time, I just don’t see it. There are certain films that carry a reputation so strong in the public’s memory that they are unimpeachable. The visuals of “Lawrence” are breathtaking to be sure. The desert has never looked so good on the big screen (and seeing ‘Lawrence’ in a theater is the only good way to watch it), but that’s just not enough. I refuse to drink the Kool-Aid with this one.

If there’s any concern for Portland audiences eager to experience films on 70mm at the Hollywood, it’s that the theater’s screen has to be huge to really get the full experience. The Hollywood sports a very respectable 50-foot screen, which is nothing to sneeze at, but I fear the common moviegoer who buys into the hype of the large format may be left confused. As big as that screen is, the 70mm movies may not seem any different than a 35mm presentation for most people. At the Cinerama, you’re engulfed by the screen’s massiveness. At the Hollywood, I recommend sitting as close as possible. The picture quality will be pristine, but again, I worry most folks will not really notice and be confused.

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Director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “Brick”) made a bold proclamation when he appeared on The Q & A podcast in October 2012. “I think the film/digital debate is the most boring thing happening out there right now.” Even though I just regaled you with my glorious experience seeing some classic titles shown on film, I agree with him. Mostly because, much as I still prefer film as the superior format, it takes away from the far more interesting subjects to discuss about movies.

As a projectionist and manager at The Northwest Film Center, our devoted audience (specifically, the people who come to just about everything we screen) is concerned with format. I often get emails, questions in person and general concerns from these patrons as to how each movie will be shown. Most of them are film purists. One such gentleman told me recently how he’d seen Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Academy Theatre six nights in a row, not just because he really liked it, but mostly because it was being shown on 35mm.

film comparison

This guy, who I must admit makes me smile every time he walks into the box office at the Whitsell Auditorium (where the NWFC screens films), fears that there’ll come a time when he’ll never be able to see films shown on actual film, and  I’ve heard him say he doesn’t want to watch movies if they’re not shown on film. That I can not understand. Let’s try to turn the discussion back to what’s most important: the stories, the characters, the writing, the cinematography. Or all the rich history about the makers behind these works of art that have captured our imagination and will continue to do so. Isn’t that what matters most?

Movie theaters converting from film to digital has been the subject of many articles in Portland alone. Across the world, it’s an ongoing debate. I think it’s time to move on. For one, digital projection is only going to get better. I’ve already written about one fantastic experience seeing a classic film screened on DCP (the new digital projection format). And another, more vital point: film is NOT going away. It’s already niche, but it’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future as far as I can tell.

If you live in big city with proper independent/arthouse theaters (of course, we are spoiled in Portland) that still demand to show what’s available on film, then there’s no reason to think it’ll completely go away. Like the resurgence of vinyl, film projection will be the reason for many people to come out the cinema. It’ll be THE major selling point. Case in point: The Hollywood is showing eight obscure, completely unavailable film noir titles this weekend as part of the first Noir City festival in Portland. The man behind the festival, Eddie Muller, has made it his life’s mission to restore, preserve and present undervalued, barely known crime films on film. He’s not the only guy doing this. There are lots of  private collectors out there (like Dan Halsted, of the Hollywood Theater, whose sizable collection continues to grow). I also believe that small companies will emerge to strike prints so they can be shown exclusively at theaters with the means to do so.

The game has evolved, and will continue to evolve, not unlike how moviegoers’ have changed throughout the many decades of the medium’s existence. You’re probably reading this article because you’re a fan of cinema (that or you’re my mom; in that case hi mom!), and you like reading about it. Isn’t getting boring to hear another apocalyptic story about how digital is killing the movies? So let’s realign the focus back on what matters. Change is inevitable, especially in an artform so heavily reliant on technology. Instead of balking at the new, let’s back up and remind ourselves that this medium has gone through all kinds of change. After all, cinerama and 70mm films were made because everyone thought television was going to kill movies. Didn’t exactly happen did it?

Go for the experience. Sit back, relax and escape into another time, another world, and revel for a few brief hours in the pleasure of seeing the world through others’ eyes. Go for the discussion after, the countless debates to be had with friends. You don’t necessarily need to drop acid to have your mind blown at the cinema. It is its own kind of intoxicant. But let’s not forget what’s most important: going to see the movies themselves.

NOTES
-Article about how a new marketing campaign, and a fateful meeting with Kubrick, led to the eventual appreciation of “2001”: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/nov/02/marketingandpr

-A list of all known films available on 70mm: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_70_mm_films

-A brief history of Cinerama: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinerama

-A dense, easily digestible guide to 70mm in three parts: http://cigsandredvines.blogspot.com/2012/08/cigarettes-red-vines-presents-guide-to_8174.html

-A list of all the noir films showing this weekend at the Hollywood: http://hollywoodtheatre.org/noir-city/

Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday.