Back when I had a weekly space of print in my college paper, Florida International University’s “The Beacon,” I had the chance to preview Kate Bush‘s 1993 album, the Red Shoes (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon). I had hoped to dig up that old review to see what my thoughts on the album were nearly 20 years ago now. It might have been interesting to compare my thoughts now on Bush’s re-imagining of several of the album’s tracks on her latest album, Director’s Cut (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon), which sees its official North American release today. It seems I no longer even have a computer file of it, much less an actual clipping.
I do recall that I had a lukewarm response to the Red Shoes, as I, like most casual fans of Bush, would always hold all her albums up against 1985’s Hounds of Love (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the nice vinyl reissue on Amazon). But now comes a Bush album that begs a comparison not only with the Red Shoes but also its predecessor, 1989’s the Sensual World (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon), as Director’s Cut is composed of a selection of songs from both albums.
The concept of this new album might seem audacious to some. But, coming from Bush, it should not come as a complete surprise. This is the same artist who re-recorded her vocals for her first hit single, 1978’s “Wuthering Heights,” for its inclusion in her 1987 hits compilation the Whole Story (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon).
Director’s Cut, takes that concept a step beyond, offering a look at a famously reclusive artist with her more popular years behind her. She was once up there in notoriety with Madonna in the early and mid-eighties (think today’s Lady Gaga and Katy Perry as far as recognition goes). But as a very well-read and quirky artist (she toured only once at the start of her 30+ career in support of an album), her appeal tended to the arty, more challenging side of rock, alongside artists like Peter Gabriel, David Bowie and Pink Floyd, whose guitarist, David Gilmour has been credited with discovering her.
Director’s Cut may even seem a bit excessive, characteristic of an OCD-type of artist, but it also reveals an artist still deeply invested in her work. Sometimes this sort of careful attention can produce respectable results. Look at the amount of time Gabriel spends on his music between albums and consistently delivers (except on maybe one occasion). But then it may seem a bit self-indulgent. This re-visioning of older songs in her catalog more closely recalls George Lucas’s efforts to remake the past by adding digital effects to his early Star Wars movies.
But Bush is not as ham-fisted an egomaniac as Lucas. What comes through Director’s Cut is an artist with tender respect for her original songs. Many Bush fans, or fans of the original albums, will be pleased to find the differences she has made are minimal. The soul of all the songs remains intact and sometimes more enhanced, as most of the new versions come across more luscious in general.
I do not normally feel inclined to take a track-by-track approach to my album reviews, but here comes an album that deserves such a close listen. Appropriately enough, you can also choose a deluxe version of the album that includes remastered versions of the original albums (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the deluxe edition on Amazon).
I had not listened to the Red Shoes nor the Sensual World in more than a decade, so I spent some time getting re-acquainted with them ahead of this review. According to Bruce Eder on the All Music Guide website Bush “re-cut all of her vocals and drums, and left virtually everything else unchanged.” That might be too pat a summary for this album, much less Bush’s approach to her intelligent pop music, as the majority of the re-workings cannot be so easily summed up.
Bush has done much more than simply re-record drums and vocals. She has given much more attention to the sound of the songs. The production has a delicate and affectionate touch behind it. On several occasions, the songs have aged well. The passage of time has added a depth to some themes, and Bush indulges in this, sometimes extending the songs with more patience than the original recordings. “Woman’s Work,” has nearly doubled in length and resonates more powerfully in the years that have passed since its original recording back in 1989. “Song of Solomon” also benefits from a more patient development.
The opening lines of “Deeper Understanding” works more powerfully in today’s age of social networking on the Internet than it did over 20 years ago: “As the people here grow colder/I turn to my computer/And spend my evenings with it like a friend.” To top it off, Bush has robotocized the chorus with a warped, more modern auto-tune effect. It’s a witty up-date to a song whose coda she also extends an extra couple of minutes with odd computer effects and a slow jam with drums, bass, harmonica and her own quirky voice. She also directed the video for it:
Sometimes, however, an indulgence in extending the songs works to their detriment. “Moments of Pleasure” spends too much time creeping into existence, leaving behind the romantic, wistful yet grand quality of the original. “The Sensual World,” now renamed “Flower of the Mountain,” featured Bush’s voice working at its peak, fluttering and whispering, doing sexy credit to the original title. The song was originally inspired by the ending of James Joyce’s Ulysses (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the book on Amazon). When Bush was denied permission by Joyce’s estate to use words from the book, back in 1989, she wrote her own lyrics (read more on that here). For Director’s Cut, however, the Joyce family gave her their blessing to use the text. She re-titled the song to reflect the changed lyrics that are now a sort of collaboration with Joyce, as originally envisioned by Bush, and you cannot argue the words of Joyce do take the song to another level. Too bad her voice is not what it used to be in the eighties.
Another song that suffers due to it’s re-interpretation is “Rubberband Girl,” which closes Director’s Cut. The new version sounds a bit uneventful, bouncing along on a reserved acoustic guitar rhythm. The original featured a shameless, over-the-top energy and, again, the voice of Bush that I miss most on this new record.
Though you cannot deny the passage of 20 years time on a singer’s voice, there are moments that her matured voice (she is 52, btw) enhances the music. “Lily” is no longer the dull trudge it used to be. It has a new-found power thanks to Bush screaming and growling up front.
The differences in the other tracks are more subtle. “The Red Shoes” has a more open, expansive sound. Otherwise, it is very similar to the original. “Never be Mine” feels almost as subdued as the original. It might feature a different bass effect. If so, the change is subtle. But even on the Sensual World “Never be Mine” had a weak presence, and on Director’s Cut it again suffers a similar fate.
“Top of the City” sounds very similar to the 1993 version, though it sounds a bit grander in its original form on the Red Shoes. The new version grows a bit too hushed during its quiet moments, getting lost in its softness. Finally, “And So Is Love” is another mellow tune that features a very minimal change. Bush chucks the original’s electronic beat, and her voice once again comes across more energetic on the original version.
The Director’s Cut becomes a sort of mixed bag when you compare it to the originals. Some of the songs have benefited with age and certainly show maturity. However, there are several that seem quite uneventful. But I am sure serious Kate Bush fans will have a more heightened sense of the changes. Plus, the quality of the song craft from Bush certainly stands above much of today’s pop music. How many of today’s popular artists can make a career in music by referencing classic literature like Ulysses and— at the start of her career— Wuthering Heights?
May 25, 2011
Few foreign films or even American-made indie films take as harsh, deep and subtle a look at the complexities of the lives of gay men than To Die Like a Man. Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues allows his austere film to calmly unfold over the course of more than two hours, employing some distinct artistic flourishes in his story-telling that sometimes takes surreal left turns. Rodrigues produces films sporadically while exploring underground subject matter such as this story about an over-the-hill drag performer struggling with his decision to undergo a sex change. Rodrigues is not a well-known director, and probably will not gain a much larger following than he already has with this daring film, but adventurous film lovers will not come away disappointed after experiencing To Die Like a Man.
To Die Like a Man tells its story with little exposition but with much action and some vivid, at times, disturbing images, sometimes veering a bit too deeply into melodrama for its own good. However, the power of the film works best when it is subtle and patient. Some might complain that it goes on for too long at two hours and 15 minutes, but the film needs long moments of contemplation that ask for the viewer’s attention. It invites understanding and sympathy for the complex variety of perspectives within the various characters that populate the film. A transvestite is not the same as a trans-gender man who is not the same as a gay man and so on. But the film is not this superficial either. It looks at the shades of struggle among the men in the film not only in their sexuality but their toil with existence in general.
The film follows aging drag performer Tonia (Fernando Santos) who is growing ever frustrated with her place as a headliner at a club and is in the process of a sex change, which her body seems to be rejecting. The film makes it apparent that Tonia is undergoing the procedure to please her younger, drug-addled boyfriend Rosário (Alexander David) and not necessarily by her own choice. Meanwhile, Tonia suffers under another dose of pressure when a younger newcomer (Jenni La Rue) threatens to overthrow her as the star at the club. Meanwhile, her son, Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch), who is about the age of Rosário, has suddenly returned home from a military life. Zé Maria mysteriously appears inside Tonia’s home and confesses to going AWOL, the reason for which is best left unspoiled in this review, but also figures into the layers of stories associated with the sexuality explored in the movie. Zé Maria holds a begrudging bitterness toward his father and their encounters in the movie never seem to go well, leading to some of the strained melodrama in the movie.
To Die Like a Man is at its most stirring and reflexive, however, during its quieter moments. The most definitive of these happens during an eclipse that turns the image on the screen a brilliant red. During this scene, five of the film’s characters sit nearly motionless in a forest, which happens to be the very same woods Zé Maria had his sexual encounter. During the scene, the full song “Calvary” by underground transgender singer Baby Dee (Support the Independent Ethos, buy her music on Amazon.com)— at runtime of 4:33— plays over the scene, which is essentially one steady shot without edits, focused on the nearly motionless characters. The scene is nearly hypnotic in its stillness. The song has a creepy, sad quality not much different from the better known, if still obscure, music of modern indie act Antony and the Johnsons, which happens to be fronted by an openly gay singer. It’s also interesting to note that Dee is in her late fifties, and, by all accounts a successful transgender performer.
During this unassuming yet pivotal scene, Tonia and Rosário take a seat in the woods to seemingly appreciate the eclipse. They are in the company of a pair of transvestites who live nearby, among the dense tress: the confident Maria Bakkar (Gonçalo Ferreira De Almeida) and her companion, the homely Paula (Miguel Loureiro). The film’s only announced straight man, Dr. Felgueiras (André Murraças), a friend of Bakkar, joins them. During this one expressive and stylized moment, Rodrigues allows for much to happen by saying so little with his camera.
I think it important to note that Rodrigues shot the film in the boxed-in film ratio of 1.33: 1. So do not expect a full widescreen aspect at the film’s screenings. To Die Like a Man offers an intimate story that comes across fine in this format, as it at times seems to subvert the rules of classical cinematic story-telling. With this movie, Rodrigues is probably destined to stay under the cinephile radar, even in the world and independent film markets, but with To Die Like a Man, Rodrigues shows a supreme talent that unlocks the power of cinema beyond the mundane boundaries many filmmakers prefer to stay within.
To Die Like a Man opens 9:30 p.m. Saturday night (May 28) and plays through Tuesday (May 31) at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, who loaned me a preview screener for the purposes of this review.
I’m not sure if the irony of this post’s headline will be apparent to those unfamiliar with Joy Division and New Order’s place in the history of the UK punk and post punk scene, but there was once a time when the members of New Order went out of their way to disassociate themselves with their former band, Joy Division. Now comes the first official compilation placing both bands’ songs on one CD. Last week, Rhino Records UK announced the release of Total: From Joy Division to New Order (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon.com).
New Order represent a sad reality many successful independent bands are destined to fulfill. Dissolved since its last desperate attempt for relevance that was 2005’s Waiting for the Siren’s Call (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon.com… as cheap as .25 cents on CD as of this post!) for Warner Bros. Records, the band now has a new retrospective compilation that also includes its past as Joy Division. A US release will surely soon follow, but as of this post, Amazon.com is only offering the UK version to US customers.
There have been countless repackages and reissues of New Order and Joy Division albums, outtakes, obscure live shows and hits since the late eighties, enough that I stopped caring after the release of 1995’s Best of New Order (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the CD on Amazon.com). The cynicism just sapped my interest in the group. I now hardly ever even revisit their albums.
Once New Order achieved a new status of popularity in the early eighties with the appearance of “Blue Monday” in the dance clubs, the Manchester band transcended its ghost of Joy Division, essentially New Order without keyboardist Gillian Gilbert and vocalist/guitarist Bernard Sumner as Bernard Albrecht on only guitars while singer Ian Curtis took the mic (Curtis would hang himself before Joy Division embarked on their first US tour in 1980, leaving the remaining members to continue as New Order).
I remember the days in the late eighties when it seemed almost like heresy to include “In a Lonely Place,” a song written in the Joy Division days, on New Order’s first retrospective, Substance (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon.com). The year after its release, New Order’s label released a separate Substance album for Joy Division’s music (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon.com). This happened well into its career as a major label act on then Warner Bros. subsidiary label Qwest Records, owned by Quincy Jones. Before that, after Curtis had killed himself, the surviving band members genuinely struggled with how to carry on. They decided to move on under a new band name and even traded vocals on their debut, 1981’s Movement (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon.com), which still captured most of the gloom Joy Division had been known for.
With the passage of time, it has grown apparent the band itself has grown more cynical with the music business. Long gone are the days when they would release records without any credit to the individual musicians, much less included the lyrics to their songs. Now come the days when integrity to art no longer matters over a quick buck. Do not get me started on the decision by the band’s bassist, Peter Hook, to tour and even re-record Joy Division’s music, a move well documented by the UK’s NME. The dude could never even sing.
Maybe it’s a way for these aging post-punkers to come to terms with their growing irrelevance and mortality, but I feel it taints the legacy and mystery that had preceded their early work. It trivializes it all. For its audience, Curtis’ decision to off himself allowed for the ultimate artistic statement regarding a music movement Joy Division is often attributed of pioneering: Gothic rock. Though, I am sure, for those personally involved it is a much more private and painful matter. But dragging it out more than five years after New Order’s final, failed album is the pathetic equivalent to beating a dead horse. There is something so much nobler about letting this horse rest.
May 22, 2011
I have seen many live shows in my years appreciating alternative music, including some loud ones. Ever since EMF left me in so much pain at the Cameo Theater in Miami Beach back in the early nineties that I had to leave the show before the first encore ended, leaving my ears ringing for a week, the ensuing years of damage to my ears has continued with barely noticeable side effects. In other words, more often the not, I leave live shows with little, if any, ear ringing, as all those little hairs inside the ear were mostly wiped out by a damn one-hit-wonder.
Friday night at Miami’s Vagabond, however, Crocodiles worked voodoo on my eardrums with their appropriately spooky, dense pop rock, leaving my ears ringing into the next morning. Not that it gives me something to celebrate, it just offers some insight into how loud this band was. Adding to the surreal quality of the music, the five piece of three dudes and two gals from San Diego, dressed in mostly black and made little effort to connect with the audience just a foot from the stage beyond offering a whoosh of music played at maximum volume. It was an assault on an audience that ate it up with abandon, particularly the gyrating young women who flanked either side of the stage decked out in their finest ironic hipster outfits, at times rubbing up on each other. Despite a fine sampling of what only Miami can offer in a female audience, lead singer Brandon Welchez, hid behind classic Ray Bans and posed on stage with swaggering but distant cool. He said nothing to the crowd except “Apocalypse!” and “Doomsday!” ahead of the following day’s prediction by some Christian fundamentalist minister who has built a religious empire on the idea that May 21, 2011 would mark the arrival of the rapture.
On to the music and a little on how it translated live: The loudness was not all to the band’s benefit, as a lot of the band’s catchy quality disappeared in the white noise of the volume. However, it allowed for an aural hallucinatory experience as only the loudest music can, and I can appreciate that. However, the price you pay for droning noise is a loss in dynamics that chased more than one audience to the patio to listen to Alex Caso spin the “weird stuff.”
The experience of Crocodiles live is quite different from listening to their newest album Sleep Forever (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com). The opening track, which you can hear in the video uplaoded to YouTube below, translated particularly nice live.
Whereas “Mirrors” opens the album with a looping almost Krautrock-like drone with a drum machine and quietly swelling feedback, as keyboards noodle out an entrancing melody, live it becomes a whole other beast. Alianna Kalaba beats the skins in an entranced state doing a decent Klaus Dinger (of Neu!), while keyboardist Robin Eisenberg breaks out a droning high-speed organ melody. The mouth-open expression of guitarist Charles Rowell as he choked his instrument for the decorative feedback and the closed-eyed stillness of bassist Marco Gonzalez, showed they were into the din, too. Welchez added to the bombast by picking up a guitar for the song. It was a nice five-minute exploration of entrancing rhythm and noise, but for the band to truly live up to Spacemen 3 comparisons would have demanded a little more self-indulgence.
It was moments like that which best suited the loudness of the show, and it was best experienced with full attention, hence my lack of usual videos that accompany my live reviews. Though I never made a video of “Mirrors” that night, there is a great full live show by the Crocodiles at a music festival in Germany here. “Mirrors” starts 15 minutes in, so you can have an idea of its live translation.
I also might fault the sound to the venue. The opening act, West Palm Beach’s the Band in Heaven voiced their concerns, as they struggled with the sound throughout their set. On stage, the lead singer protested about an hour’s worth of sound-checking for a shoddy end result (not his words verbatim), and he also assured the audience the trio sounded better on CD, offering audience members a free CD for the taking.
Despite the sound issues, I stand by my personal experience of enjoying the short set of psychedelic-influenced dream pop produced by Crocodiles during a set that ended way too soon. I was able to video one song, one of their poppier moments called “Hearts of Love,” thanks to my friend Kristen who leant me her camera and uploaded the video on YouTube (it actually sounds better on YouTube than it did live, as the camera must have one heck of a smart microphone). Watch it here:
Crocodiles’ only up-coming live date is in their home state of California, according to their blog page:
June 5, Oceanside, CA @ 94.9 Independence Jam
After several mentions on “the Independent Ethos” about the work of Reading, England’s Pete and the Pirates and progress on the band’s sophomore album (Pete and the Pirates release new single; Pete and the Pirates offer free mp3s), the album is complete and already streaming live in its entirety. You can hear all of One Thousand Pictures on NME.com.
The album will have its official release on May 24, and so far seems to lack US distribution, as Amazon.com lists it as an import (Support the Independent Ethos: buy the album on Amazon via this link). Too bad for Americans who will have to pay import prices on this album, as the band has long deserved more exposure. The band’s first album, Little Death (Support the Independent Ethos: buy the vinyl on Amazon via this link), came out in 2008. Since hearing, P&P’s first album, I always thought the group had the rough edge of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah blended with the brashness of Franz Ferdinand and the catchiness of both. Now, the band seems to be growing into its own sound.
Nearly three years after Little Death, the passage of time between the two album shows, as One Thousand Pictures reveals a more developed sound. They enlisted producer Brendan Lynch, who, according to the NME link above, has worked with Paul Weller, Primal Scream and Ocean Colour Scene. The result is a more bombastic, polished sound that also has the band diving into some heavy effects, adding a dynamism lacking from Little Death.
What does remain, however, is the band’s knack for crafting catchy, clever hooks. The band’s first official single from the album, “Come to the Bar” features a luscious, loud synth line, and “Winter 1,” which follows “Come to the Bar” on the album, bounces along on a rubbery bass hook filled with reverb. A savvy sense of the post-punk influence also shows in the final product, from a reference to Blondie in the lyrics of “Come to the Bar” (“1979 and ‘Heart of Glass’ is playing.”) to the amorphous shifts in tone of “Things That Go Bump” that recalls Magazine, which I wished lasted longer.
One Thousand Pictures is one of those rare albums by an English band deeply rooted in both the rebellion that spawned a characteristic sound out of the UK in the late seventies that also looks forward to the alternative rock sounds of today.
There is a limited edition vinyl version of the album, which you can purchase direct from the band’s UK-based record company, Stolen Recordings (Buy it here– they take Paypal, which makes it easy to US-based customers). But, as it sometimes plagues vinyl versions, the manufacturing of the record has been delayed, and no definitive ship date has been provided, as of the publication of this post.
Pete and the Pirates have already released three videos for songs on the new album. Most recently, they issued a call out for cat videos from fans to come up with the video for “United,” the most recent official video from the album (you can find the prior two videos for “Winter 1″ and “Come to the Bar” in the P&P links above on the Independent Ethos). Here’s the result of the cat video compilation, which seems to beg for the attention of those cat video lovers that prowl YouTube:
Finally, animals seem to be a recurring theme in P&Ps videos, as can be seen by the appearance of a chicken in this early video for “Mr. Understanding,” the catchy single off Little Death:
May 13, 2011
The subtitle to this blog celebrates the organic, hands-on work it takes to bring both music and movies to audiences. I owe my wife credit for coming up with “Handmade with vinyl and celluloid,” as she knows me well enough to understand my passion for the material side of the subject matter covered here. Over the couple of years the Independent Ethos has existed, I have more than noticed the quiet death throes of celluloid. Though vinyl will exist at least until the end of my generation, celluloid is already nearly mythic in its existence. This grew ever more apparent from a couple of articles I recently read in “Film Comment.”
I love celluloid for similar reasons I appreciate vinyl. There indeed exists a handmade, organic craft between it and the medium it captures and keeps us humanly connected with the work. Digital transmission of the man-made art of music and film has always left me worried, like the cautionary heart that has dwelt in the background of sci-fi movies such as the Fly, which deals with the teleportation of people from one location to another via transmission devices that break down every molecule in a person’s body to reconstruct them at another location. Is the result even human? Thus, there is something unsettling about the quality of movies and music as digital computer files, and, I will always argue, it shows. Look no further than the vinyl reviews scattered throughout this blog (Aurally de-flowered by Faust: A review of Faust IV LP reissue, David Bowie’s Space Oddity gets 40th Anniversary vinyl reissue, MGMT grow with Congratulations, Vinyl review: Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space reissue).
However, when it comes to film, there is little audience demand can do to keep it alive in the theaters. As institutions of higher learning like Yale tries to preserve film, giant movie chains have quietly dumped their 35mm projectors for digital machines.
In the latest issues of “Film Comment,” several of their forward-thinking critics and writers continue to document the changes in the cinematic experience. In their year-end issue (Jan/Feb 2011, Vol. 47, No. 1), within the collaborative article “State of the Art: Taking the Pulse of Cinema in 2010″ and under the sub-headline “Death Watch,” film critic Scott Foundas noted the losses he saw in 35mm. He wrote, “In the course of organizing an Eric Rohmer retrospective last summer, I learn that the U.S. rights holder to his iconic ‘Moral Tales’ … is in the process of dismantling its print rental service and purging its vaults of all 35mm elements … by destroying them.” He also noted that a source at Universal told him the major Hollywood studio has turned to raiding their 35mm warehouse to begin “chopping [movies] up into material to make sleeping bags.”
Check out instructables.com, a website I found that shows you how to make a handbag out of 35mm film:
Then there was an article “Rollover Blues, Digital Cinema and Its Discontents” in the Mach/April 2011 issue of “Film Comment” (Vol. 47, No. 2). In the article, Edward E. Crouse writes about he quiet decline of the craftsmen behind 35mm film projectors in movie theaters. Crouse mostly gripes about the loss of the artistry that union projectionists brought to the operation of old-style double projector 35mm presentations, which went out of fashion as long ago as the early seventies, according to the author, with the advent of the platter system of projecting film (click on the image to below for an explainer on how it works). But one point relevant beyond the politics and into the artistry of the film projection came from the observation he made of “a packed house” watching the Black Swan projected in 35mm at a Los Angeles multiplex. He said as much as “a quarter of the frame” was out of focus, and what he described after his observation came as little surprise to me:
More jarring than the hazy focus, though, was the fact no one in the crowd spoke up. I was about to collar a manager, but decided not to. Instead I opted to risk serious nausea and observe the audience reaction. As the end credits rolled, the blur was still there . No one said a word. And when no one says anything, it means that everything’s fine, right?
These articles and my recent years experiencing movies in my favorite place to see them: from the seat of a cushy chair in a movie theater, has made me pause to wonder about the relevance of the “celluloid” part of the subtitle of this blog. First off, I am fine taking my appreciation of celluloid to my grave, even if no one else can appreciate the format, hence do not expect the subtitle to go away. As Crouse points out, does it really matter much anymore? Things have changed, and no one seems to notice or care.
I’ve witnessed some horrible things done with 35mm in my many years at the cinema. I remember seeing Takeshi Kitano’s version of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi with stuttering sound. This was a projection issue, as the soundtrack on 35mm runs along the frame of the film (see the soundtrack imbedded between a movie still from Inception and the perforations of the film strip below). Despite numerous complaints during the movie, those running this multiplex of a particular theater chain— I believe the Sunrise Cinemas in Plantation— could not get it right. The theater manager gave me a pass to see another movie afterward.
Then there was the time I was two-thirds of the way through Luc Besson’s The Messenger— a two-and-half-hour mediocre epic— at the now long gone Town and Country AMC in Kendall, and I watched the film print sputter before burning away before my eyes. Here’s a demonstration of what that looks like:
There’s no rewind and replay for that. I would have to go back to the theater to see how it ended (I think I used my resulting free pass to see something else and later sneaked into an in-progress screening of the Messenger just to see how it ended).
In “Rollover Blues,” Crouse notes the lack of experience of the new breed of “manjectionists” that both run the theater and make sure the movies start on time with the push of a button. It’s a sorry state I noticed repeatedly during my early years as a college student when I followed the new wave of American independents by the likes of Tarantino, Anderson and Soderberg, to name a few, not to mention great foreign works by directors like Yimou, Jacquot and Almodovar. During many experiences watching 35mm, I had grown tired of the scratched up prints I had to suffer when I caught movies toward the end of their runs, a time I have always preferred over premiere weekends, as the movie houses would never be so crowded.
In recent years, I’ve noticed more than ever a deterioration in today’s 35mm projection standards. I first noticed it at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema. Digital screenings there had grown more frequent as 35mm screenings became more scarce, and when I did see them, something inevitably went wrong. As the digital screenings improved in picture quality over the years, the rare 35mm screenings became, more than ever, botched experiences.
During a short series of screenings dedicated to Ingmar Bergman at the Cosford, I watched Wild Strawberries from reels that obviously had varied histories. From the apparent scratches in the film at the start of the reels to a tonal shift in the shading of the monochromatic black and white the film was shot in, I felt, why should they even bother showing this debacle? Then there was the second-run screening of I’m Not There. I hazard to guess that a student volunteer must have put the reels together because no professional projectionist would have spliced the reels together before the cue dots that, back in the old days instructed the projectionist to switch between reels. Instead of seeing the black dot flash in the upper right corner of the screen, the film jumped a few beats to the next scene, making for a jarring movie experience. So even a cinema catering to the art house crowd can slip up.
Just last week, I especially noticed changes in the multiplex with digital versus 35mm projection. Out of four movies I caught at three different theaters in the Miami-Dade area three were digital and one 35mm. Two were bad experiences, including the single 35mm experience: Insidious at the Regal Kendall 9. Let me say that the flashes of brilliant red in the demon’s face probably would never have looked as good or felt as startling on today’s digital format. But then, as expected, there were the deep black vertical lines that lingered on the screen for too long during several scenes (see an exaggerated example of a scratched film image to the right). These lines are the result of dust particles landing between the print and the lens. The grain of dust will gouge the print and leave a vertical scratch going across many frames as the film passed through. It’s a predictable sign of a lack of care to the print while at the movie house. It will probably end up trashed at the end of its run. There was also at least one repaired break in the celluloid.
Prior to the Insidious screening I caught Sucker Punch at a local multiplex that has already gone all digital: the Cobb Dolphin 19 Cinemas. After Insidious, I caught Hanna at the AMC Sunset Place 24, a theater, like the Regal Kendall 9, that projects partly in digital and partly in 35mm. Hanna was shown in digital, and like Sucker Punch, looked so clean, I barely missed the character of 35mm. Granted, Hanna wasn’t the hybrid of green screen digital “cartoon” mixed with live action that defined Sucker Punch. The only moments that may have lost some of the impact of 35mm were the title cards, punctuated by a harsh sonic sting, of the title: “HANNA” scrawled in skinny white letters against a bright red background would fill the screen from one corner to another, framing the action from the start of the movie to its end. It had an over-the-top, campy effect key to setting the film’s frivolous though intense tone, and it would have looked and felt awesome on 35mm. Still, Sucker Punch and Hanna, for the most part, felt like fine experiences in digital.
However, the last movie I saw that week, also at Sunset Place, Source Code, was digital, and even as a digital presentation, it still had some serious issues. Just like Crouse’s experience watching Black Swan, part of the frame was out of focus, and no one seemed to notice, and this was not even a film print. Bringing this to the attention of two employees at the start of the screening resulted in no action, so I suffered through the movie. It jarred me out of the experience upon many occasions. To top it off, when I complained at customer service, the girl at the desk was leaning over texting on the phone with some other employee sitting on the other side. They questioned why I had not complained earlier. After told I them I did but nothing was done, and I didn’t want to miss the movie any more than I already had, they forked over a pass to another screening. The staff at these places: another of the many reasons multiplexes offer horrible experiences. I could go on a whole other blog post on that alone.
So, even though the digital transition cannot always ensure a clean image, the majority of the screw-ups at screenings come from the incompetent use of 35mm, which happens more often than not. I must acknowledge one exception as far as quality 35mm presentation in my region of Miami-Dade County: The Coral Gables Art Cinema. It is probably too soon to put all my hopes of celluloid into one movie house, as I have only seen one 35mm film at that theater. Still, when I saw the White Material there last year, the 35mm projection was flawless.
In his article, Crouse notes the scarcity of some of those nineties-era films I saw as scratched up and abused prints in the multiplex. Well, the reality of those damaged prints, and the studios’ lack of interest in archival servicing, has since come to reality. Crouse cites Mark Toscano, a film preservationist (check out his blog “Preservation Insanity” for a real feel of the state of 35mm) who told him, “Phone calls are now coming in requesting prints, not for older films but of things like Magnolia.” Crouse also said independent art houses with 35 mm capability, like the Coral Gables Art Cinema, are few and far between. “DVD and Blu-ray seem to be the destiny of independent exhibition,” Crouse stated in his article.
Here is where a reserve myself to not deny my enjoyment of cinema just because a movie is not shown in 35mm. As my experiences have laid out, digital does not always mean an exhibition without flaws. Even the Cosford messed it up when I tried to see Antichrist there (Open letter to IFC: send 35 mm to UM’s Cosford Cinema). However, the days when directors like Stanley Kubrick would actually visit movie theaters or plant spies in order to see whether his movies are done justice are long gone. More than ever, it is the passionate indie theater owner doing justice to cinema, even if it’s all in digital.
In a recent “SunPost” cover story celebrating the new home of the Miami Beach Cinematheque on the ground floor of Miami Beach City Hall, the theater’s founder Dana Keith, seems to have long come to terms with the movie-going experience sans celluloid. His venue, going back to its existence in a storefront tucked away along Espanola Way on South Beach, has only ever projected in digital. In the article “Burden of Dreams” by local film reporter and critic Ruben Rosario, Keith stated, “The art of cinema, to me, should be shown on a screen where it controls you rather than you controlling it. [Watching films] on television, you’re in control. In the cinema you’re allowing the artist to take control, and that’s very important, because to me these are creations by an artist.”
Part of my coming to terms with digital screenings was at a preview screening for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (read my review here) all alone in Keith’s theater. I might have noticed some haloing in the images— if I looked for it. But when I allowed myself to be swept away by the movie and its stirring pace and imagery, who cares? The theater has comfortable tiered seats and projects digital very well on a large screen and offers enveloping acoustics. So coming to terms with the death of celluloid comes with accepting digital without prejudice. When the passion is there in the presentation, the quality will follow, be it in digital or 35mm.