The ratio of the film frame is often overlooked. However, it has changed as cinema itself has experienced major changes. In the silent era the dominant frame was 1.33:1, a third longer on the horizontal than on the vertical. With sound the norm, the Academy ratio was established by Hollywood: 1.37:1, accommodating the soundtrack on one side of the celluloid strip. Widescreen bought more changes: New Academy ratio settled on 1.85:1, though European films as frequently utilised 1.66:1. And anamorphic films offered between 2.55:1 and 2.35:1. Larger screen formats like 70mm, Cinerama and IMAX had their own variations.
When film first appeared on television screens they had to fit into an old-fashioned frame, 4:3. The digital age has bought widescreen television, the norm being 16:9, which equates to 1.78:1. At various times television has cropped, stretched or panned and scanned films. And whilst 16:9 is closer to the modern widescreen ratio such practices continue, though with a less drastic impact.
I tended to think that serious filmmakers and serious exhibitors of film will respect older films, preserving their original presentation: complete as intended, black and white or colour as fits, mono or stereo sound as fits, and the correct aspect ratio. The model here would be the filmmaker Hans-Jűrgen Syberberg, who’s Parsifal opens with the prescription that it only be exhibited in the Academy ratio.
From this point of view 2013 was not a good year. Not just one but four [in my viewing] major and serious filmmakers had films released in which older archive material was cropped or squeezed into a 1.85:1 or even 2.35:1 ratio. There was Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45: where the archive material, carefully researched and selected, was almost uniformly cropped to fit a 1.85:1 frame. Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek z nadziei) also included archive film, this time cropped to fit a frame of 2.35:1. Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt included material shot for television of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann. Early in the film there was a cut from such material, cropped to fit a 2.35:1 frame to a dramatised re-enactment in colour and widescreen. This might be justified? But later on there was a cut from Arendt watching a TV monitor to a POV shot, in 2.35:1. And then there was John Akomfrah’s Stuart Hall Project. In this case both earlier film and television footage was cropped to fit the 2.35:1 frame.
I assume that the rationale in all these cases was the time when these films were to be screened on television. In fact, Akomfrah had already used cropping of archive material for his television documentary Martin Luther King and the March on Washington (shown on BBC 2 in 16:9). Much of earlier material in all of these films was noticeably handled at some point – or as above ‘mishandled’. The cropping often cut off heads or the top of the frame, and rendered titles within the frame partial. In the case of 2.35:1 framing, this accentuated the film grain in black and white material. And with some of the colour extracts there was noticeable pixilation.
2014 looks likely to continue this unfortunate practice. Mark Kermode, who I mark as a serious film critic, fronted a profile of Steve McQueen and his new film 12 Years a Slave in which extracts from earlier films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939) were cropped to fit the 16:9 frame. Ironically the extracts from contemporary features were screened in their correct ratio.
NB – Stuart Hall Project is now released on DVD. According to the Sight & Sound review this is in a ratio of 16:9. Why it has been cropped I do not know: but presumably the contrast between the new film and ‘found footage’ will be less stark.
Let me sing the praises of the Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain in Texas. The Guardian (Tuesday 15th October 2013) carried the tale that the singer Madonna was reported by fellow audience members for texting continuously during a screening of 12 Years a Slave at the Walter Reade theatre during the New York Film Festival. The response of the chief executive, Tim League, of Alamo Drafthouse (“known for its strict policy towards unruly customers”) was to ban this celebrity from all its screens. However, the report failed to mention if the Walter Reade theatre or the New York Film Festival took any disciplinary steps. Still, the action by this USA cinema chain should be a shining example not only to exhibitors across North America but also to exhibitors in the UK.
It used to be just the annoying ringtones and illuminated screens as people played their mobile phones. Now they text on phones and tablets, often not just during the adverts and trailers but also during the film screening. Frequently people use the devices during the opening and closing credits of the film. In happier times they at least left early during the latter to avoid the royal anthem. And this happens not only in the multiplexes and multi-screens but also in more serious venues such as (here in West Yorkshire) the Hyde Park Picture House and the National Media Museum. I have even suffered this at Film Festivals. Maybe because I usually go to senior screenings I have not noted the problem at the Cottage Road Cinema.
What I find really disturbing is that at two recent screenings (one being the Leeds Vue venue) there appeared to be no warning prior to the feature about the use of mobile phones. Unfortunately dogs are not admitted otherwise I would spend some time training my faithful canine partner to go hunting round the auditorium. Do any of our readers have helpful suggestions for combating this contemporary plague?
I should add that 12 Years a Slave tells a story of a C19th free New York Afro-American who is captured and forced onto a Louisiana plantation. But then it was always clear that Madonna has no shame. I hope English filmgoers give the film more serious attention when it arrives here.
Postscript: I usually avoid watching/listening to the adverts. However, I have paid closer attetnion on my last couple of visits. The Orange advert that immediately preceded the feature used to end with a warning about turning off mobile phones. The replacement EE [even more naff than its predecessor] no longer contains this. This would seem to mean that cinemas operating Orange/EE Wednesday no longer have a mobile phone use warnings? However CineWorld have their own warning notice that precedes the trailers. And the Cottage Road Cinema do not have the EE advert but they do have a distinct short message about mobile phones.
I have not seen any reports or discussion about this change, which is equally worrying. Bill Lawrence told me that some distributors and/or exhibitors wwere encouraging young audience members at certain screenings to text or twitter their reponses actually during the feature film!
I thought about going to see a film in Leeds later this week. I generally prefer British independents or subtitled films but I like to have a choice. When I looked through the cinema listings for Leeds I discovered that every single film on offer was in English – and virtually every one was a mainstream American or British film. Leeds is a major city. It has suffered from the lack of a specialised cinema such as those that once formed part of the BFI’s Regional Film Theatre network. The council still own the 1914 Hyde Park Cinema which often has excellent programmes (as attested by many of Keith’s posts) but with only a single screen it is sometimes dominated, as in this week, by a film like Rush. The Vue in the city centre usually has something different on offer such as a British independent or a Hindi film, but not this week.
Leeds has been promised an art cinema/specialised cinema for some time and at one point it looked as though a City Screen might open but it didn’t. Then earlier this year Everyman opened a three screen cinema in the new Trinity shopping centre. As expected, it is an expensive cinema (i.e. for the region at £11) but we did expect it to show some decent specialised films. The offer today is Diana, Rush, Insidious 2 and About Time. What a joke! The original Everyman in Hampstead was where I first saw most of the 1960s canon of art cinema. I weep when I think of what the name means now – stuffing your face with pizza watching Hollywood.
So with a population of 800,000 and something like 43 or more cinema seats, Leeds can’t offer a film in any other language than English tonight. The nearest sanity is in Bradford (The Great Beauty, Wadjda at the National Media Museum and several Hindi titles at Cineworld or the Odeon) or Sheffield for the Showroom. I read a comment somewhere in the last few weeks suggesting that subtitles are ‘difficult’ with the implication that cinemas find it hard to programme foreign language films. With this kind of attitude I seriously fear for the diversity of cinema in the UK. No doubt we will return to this topic.
The Cottage Road Cinema opened on 29th July 1912. It is situated in the Leeds suburb of Headingley and when it opened there were about twenty-two film theatres in the city. By the height of the sound era the city had sixty-eight cinemas. Now the Cottage remains one of only two traditional cinemas in Leeds. Its 100th birthday was celebrated on the last Sunday in July with the erection of a ‘Blue Plaque’ and a special ‘classic’ screening. The event was assisted and supported by the Far Headingley Village Society who also produced an illustrated history of the cinema by Eveleigh Bradford. The event was opened by the current proprietor Charles Morris, who owns and runs a chain of six independent cinemas in Yorkshire and Cumbria, Northern Morris Associated Cinemas. It is a sort of antique cinema ‘Roadshow’: The Plaza, Skipton and The Rex, Elland both also opened in 1912, [though only the Cottage and the Plaza have been exhibiting continuously]. And then the Picture House in Keighley has its own anniversary during 1913. The celebration also included short speeches from the staff and the Society, ending with a celebratory poem for the Centenary.
The actual screening commenced with a selection of Cinema advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s – including familiar names like Omo and Persil, but with a variety of other firms, including local businesses and holiday resorts. There were also Ministry of Information shorts from the 1940s, featuring the Crazy Gang and Charlie Chester. And some more recent adverts parodying film s like High Noon and Zulu. The patina of time gave these shorts clips an attraction and humour that contemporary clips lack.
The main feature was the 1967 black and white comedy The Smallest Show on Earth. The film was produced by Michael Relph and Basil Dearden. Early in their careers both had worked at the famous Ealing Studio, and the touch of that Production Company was replicated, with the small independent Bijou Kinema taking on the large and posh Grand Cinema. The two stars Bill Travers [Matt] and Virginia McKenna [Jean] played a middle class couple who inherits the Bijou from eccentric Uncle Spencer.
The film really takes off in the second reel when they [and we] see The Bijou and meet the Kinema staff – projectionist Quill played by Peter Sellars, the cashier Mrs Thazackalee played by Margaret Rutherford, and doorman/janitor Old Tom played by Bernard Miles. These three character actors are in their element and wring much humour from the state of the building, the equipment and the archaic management. When Matt queries complimentary tickets in exchange for a donation of a chicken, Mrs Thazackalee responds ‘well you can hardly send a third of a chicken to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.” [A reference to the then contemporary Entertainment Tax].
The Kinema itself is a beautiful piece of design and construction: with a baroque interior, dust and cobwebs everywhere, delightfully old-fashioned projectors and the exterior topped by a constantly askew sign. For the filming a façade was erected in Kilburn alongside an actual Railway Bridge. The interiors mixed studio sets with an actual contemporary cinema. And the rival Grand used the exterior of a Gaumont Theatre, then one of the major film circuits. All this was the work of Art Director Alan Harris and his team and the film was photographed by Douglas Slocombe.
The eccentric ways of the staff are beautifully counterpoint by the cinema audiences who suffer the travails of the screenings. They are realistic enough to be believable as a mainly working class audience in the late 1950s: but just enough over-the-top to be delightfully funny. The best sequences are when Matt and Jean attempts to improve the finances by ‘encouraging’ refreshment sales’. The screenings within the film appear to be from some actual B movies, westerns, but there is also a desert adventure which looks like it was specially shot for this feature. I thought I remembered an arctic adventure scene, but that did not appear in this print. The finest sequence is a private screenings by the staff of Cecil Hepworth’s Coming thru’ the Rye (1923) with Mrs Thazackalee accompanying on the piano. A lovely touch of nostalgia. Another fine moment is the end of a screening when the audience rushes for the exits in order to escape the National Anthem: only a lonely Quill stands to attention.
Inevitably the Grand stoop to skullduggery, but we know that the small guys’ will surely win through.
Sunday’s screening had an intermission halfway through the film, a traditional device in cinemas to bump up sales of soft drinks and ice creams. However, given the plot line of the feature this seemed quite appropriate. The screening of a worn but fairly good 35mm print was fine.
A great evening. The whole event was enjoyed by an almost capacity house (it seats 468), who applauded the introduction, applauded the advertisements, and finally applauded the feature. Hopefully the Cottage Road Cinema will survive to add to its long career.
There is more on the Cottage Road Cinema WebPages including a download for the illustrated history: other events are promised to follow:see http://www.cottageroad.co.uk/centenary.php