I was recently visiting a friend in New York and by happy chance the Film Forum multi-screen in ‘the Village’ was running a retrospective of this ‘cool auteur’, as one plug commented. Melville was born on 20.10.1917 and the programme celebrated his centenary. His films nearly always centre on crime or gangster stories, known as ‘polar’.
The Film Forum started up in the 1970 and moved to its present location in Houston Street in 1989. It has three screens and its programme offers
“two distinct, complementary film programs – NYC theatrical premieres of American independents and foreign art films, programmed by Cooper and Mike Maggiore; and, since 1987, repertory selections including foreign and American classics, genre works, festivals and directors’ retrospectives, programmed by Bruce Goldstein. Our third screen is dedicated to extended runs of popular selections from both programs, as well as new films for longer engagements.”
It is a compact but well designed cinema. I only saw one auditorium, seating about a hundred, with a reasonably large screen and proper masking. The rake was shallow so one had to judge one’s seat when films involved sub-titles. The cinema has a policy of offering 35mm prints whenever possible and I enjoyed three films there on reasonably good prints. The adverts are only promos for the cinema followed by trailers, impressed.
The earliest was a rare film, [which I had not encountered before] Quand tu liras cette letter (When You Read This Letter, 1953). The print had been loaned for the retrospective by
‘the people of France’
via Rialto, the distribution company related to Criterion. This was in black and white and Academy ratio. This was an atypical Melville offering, being essentially a melodrama. The film centred on a Parisian Lothario, Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire) working for the summer in Cannes. His targets included a rich divorcee Irène Faugeret (Yvonne Sanson); several dancers at the local hotel cum night-spot; a young naive teenager, Denise Voise (Irène Galter); and her older sister Thérèse Voise (Juliette Gréco). Thérèse was the key character in the film. She had left the convent where she was a novice when her parents were killed in an accident. She acted as guardian to Denise and managed the Voise shop, a stationers. As the film progressed the narrative became darker and the sunlight of Cannes changed to the chiaroscuro of night. As one would expect the film’s resolution involved a violent death. In fact the film involved another trope we saw in all the Melville films, the violent death of a woman in a motorcar – by design. The film closed at the Convent followed by slow pan across Marseilles harbour: so that water and the seaside were central motifs in the film.
The print had no subtitles so Film Forum had commissioned a set of English sub-titles which were projected digitally onto the frame [rather than below] in white with a blue tint: this was very effective.
The second film was Le Doulos (1962) in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio and with English sub-titles. This film enjoyed a UK release in 2008. It was a proper ‘polar’ and fairly typical of Melville’s crime thrillers. The main credit was for Jean-Paul Belmondo who played Silien but what impressed me most was Serge Reggiani as Maurice Faugel. He opened the film in a run-down and ‘noir’ location which set the tone for the whole film. The cinematography was by Nicolas Hayer and the chiaroscuro of many settings reflected the troubled and ambiguous lives of the protagonists.
The French title refers to a ‘hat’ but is also slang for a police informant. Whilst the atmosphere was great I felt the plotting was over-complicated and that the motivations were opaque. This was partly because the film wished to offer a violent, unexpected and almost tragic resolution. Like much of Melville the women characters were subordinate and pawns in the masculine chess-like manoeuvres. So Monique Hennessy as Thérèse came off badly. She did though, fit the comment made by Melville on the film:
“all characters are two-faced, all characters are false”
The third film was Le deuxiéme souffle (1966), also in black and white, a ratio of 1.66:1 and with English subtitles. it was also the longest film running for 144 minutes, It did not seem that long because this was the best and most absorbing of the three titles. This was partly because of a splendid cast led by Lino Ventura (Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda) and Paul Meurisse ( Commissaire Blot); both in Melville’s masterwork Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres, 1969). Ventura brought his air of fatalism to the film whilst Meurisse imbued his cop with an impassive but relentless pursuit of his quarry.
The film opened as ‘Gu’ escaped from prison, a familiar trope. The film quickly established his violent character but also his circle of supportive friends in the underworld and the competing gangs. There were some great scenes in a Parisian night-club, journeys and crime on the road, and a slow and final violent denouement in Marseilles. The film offered a relatively strong woman character, Christine Faberega played Simone – also called ‘Manouche’, ‘Gu’s sister. The gangsters in the film constantly plotted and double-crossed. ‘Gu’ was a relatively straightforward criminal and there existed a professional respect between him and Blot. The film ended with violence and failure.
Melville, adapting the film from ‘Le deuxiéme souffle’ by Jose Giovanni, not only examined the ruthless nature of criminality but that of the Marseilles police as well. The settings and locations reflected the urban milieu favoured by the gangsters and their actions outside this territory in empty roads and deserted places suggested their alienation from society.
The retrospective also included The Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres) and Le cercle rouge (1970, released in the UK in 2003 and then alongside Le Doulos in 2008). Léon Morin, prêtre (1970) was scheduled for a week long run. A dozen film in all plus À bout de souffle (1960) in which Melville has a role as a writer, Parvulesco. The three 35mm prints that I saw definitely added to my stay in New York. I expect that there will be a UK retrospective for Melville later this year: let us hope they get a national distribution as well as screenings in the metropolis: and 35mm prints.
Roy commented in his review of ‘Jackie’ about the aspect ratios:
“The opening frames of the film set me trying to calculate the aspect ratio. In our local cinema that is usually proud of its presentation procedures, the image was not properly masked. Eventually I realised that it was set as 1.66:1, that odd ratio favoured by some European and British producers for many years after the development of widescreen processes in the 1950s. It was only later that the lack of masking reminded me of a similar problem with Pablo Larrain’s earlier film No (Chile-US-France-Mexico 2011). The way cinema projection boxes are set up for DCPs now means that the projected image is set to 1.85:1 with the smaller 1.66:1 framing inside it. When the image is bright and the film frame is not masked, the letterboxing at the sides is always visible as dark grey and I found it distracting.”
Added to this the film recreates the famous CBS ‘tour’ of the White House with the First Lady and in a television ratio of 4:3: consequently even larger black bars.
I am not sure where Roy saw the feature, I watched it in Pictureville at the National Media Museum. This had masking but set to 1.85:1, which rather surprised me as I have seen the ratio properly masked at other screenings. The reason apparently is the much reduced projection team now that the film programming is provided by Picturehouse. Some screenings rely on the automated process where the DCP sends ‘signals’ that operate functions such as masking. It seems the cinema has not yet been able to include .1.66:1 masking in this process.
Like Roy I find this aspect of digital annoying., The black bars that surround the frame are not of the same density as masking and are clearly visible. In fact, they do not absorb light as effectively and can be more noticeable when the image is in high-key: whilst with low-key images it is often difficult to discern the edges of the frame.
Currently around West Yorkshire Picture House at the National Media Museum, The Cottage Road Cinema and the Hyde Park Picture House all provide masking for screenings. I think some of the other cinemas in the Morris chain do so and Hebden Bridge Picture House also has masking. The multiplexes almost uniformly do not. Frustratingly the Vue in The Light has [or certainly had] masking from 2.35:1 frame on its screens, [which apparently are 16:9 rather than 1.85:1] but does not use this anymore. The Bradford Odeon is better for some titles as it has masking by drapes for 1.85:1 and the screens are 2.35:1 so full widescreen is also masked.
Even with masking digital offers problems. Roy referred to Larrain’s earlier film No. Because the film was recreating events and television filming it was in a ratio of 1.40:1. But this was placed in a digital frame of 1.85:1. Bizarrely the British release, [I am uncertain about other territories] had yellow subtitles which ran the full width of the frame, so the screening had to be masked [if at all] to 1.85:1, with the problematic black bars on either side.
There are also problems in the descriptions provided by distributors, exhibitors and reviewers. One is the anamorphic ratio of 2.39:1: though everybody continues to use the 2.35:1 term. This ratio appeared in the 1970s, a slight change from the existing 2.35:1. The specification was standardised in the early 1990s. The rationale was to deal with splices in the film. It continues to be used in the contemporary DCP format, though these does not have splices? It is unclear just how consistent the usage is? Most of the time the difference is not discernible but some films are apparently in 2.39:1 and some in 2.35:1. It complicates matters. I believe that both Pictureville and the Hyde Park have masking for 2.35:1. And of course, a whole host of films were shot in 2.35:1, but sometimes they are ‘stretched’ into 2.39:1. It is not really apparent though I sometimes notice a tiny edge under the drapes.
The lack of attention to specifics becomes more of a problem with greater differences in ratios. Take a film like 20th Century Women (USA 2016) which the Sight & Sound lists as 2.35:1 but which IMDB correctly describes as 2:1. It has to be projected in 1.85:1 with narrow [almost] black bars at the top and bottom of the frame. I assume this is intended by the filmmakers, but why?
There does seem to be a sloppy approach to ratio amongst some filmmakers. Digital cameras such as the Arri Alexa offer the filmmaker a variety of aspect ratios in-camera. I am not sure how carefully these are always checked or set. I have seen a number of foreign language films in 1.85:1 where there is a problem fitting the English subtitles on the screen; in at least some cases this seems to be because the frame ratio is not exactly 1.85:1. There are definitely filmmakers who use 1.78:1 for their films, despite this not being a cinematic ratio but a television ratio [16:9]. Presumably it is the influence of the latter that accounts for this.
And in parallel silent films were mostly 1.33:1: early sound was usually 1.20:1; and then the frame ratio was standardised in the Academy ratio of 1.37:1; but most masking appears to be set at 1.37:1 with a consequent overlap at the edge of the frame for 1.33:1.
A recent parallel was La La land (USA 2016), which, in paying homage to the classic Hollywood musical, used the early scope ratio of 2.55:1. However as the film was distributed on DCPs there were more black bars unless the cinema had appropriate masking. At least one projectionist was caught out, not having noticed the unusual ratio.
Distributors contribute to this sort of error. I have at least twice seen 35mm films in the wrong ratio, one was a 1.66:1 print screened in 1.85:1 and one was a 1.37:1 print screened in 1.85:1. In both cases the projectionist advised me that the print had come in cans marked 1.85:1, hence the mistake. In a different context the Hebden Bridge Picture House do not/did not have the appropriate lens on their old projector for 1.66:1. so I have seen a film there screened in 1.85:1 rather than its proper 1.66:1. The latter seems less of a problem than the black bars of digital.
Then we have filmmakers who take advantage of digital to play with ratios. The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA, Germany, UK 2014) used 1.37:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. There was a rationale for this in the treatment of the periods in the film so I did not find this a serious problem. Xavier Dolan used 1:1 in his Mommy (Canada 2014). Here also I felt the treatment justified the technique and the film offered a magnificent moment when the ratios changed. Most recently The Assassin (Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, France 2015) was screened in 1.37:1 but had two short sequences in 1.85:1. Some screenings involved the said black bars: and at one cinema with masking the projectionists decided to mask it to 1.37:1 all the way through: I doubt that the director Hsiao-Hsien Hou would have approved.
The current release Hidden Figures (USA 2016) uses footage from the 1960s, apparently from NASA, newsreels and television. There is black and white footage in 2.35:1; colour film of J. F. K. in 1.37:1, with black bars and colour film of John Glenn in 2.35:1. The rationale, like some of the mathematics, escaped me. 20th Century Women has a clip from Casablanca, apparently slightly stretched and slightly cropped, full in the 2:1 frame. But a little later the film is watched on a television set in 4:3 [almost the correct ratio].
This type of playing with ratios is extremely suspect. The way the format handles ratios would seem to be a factor in the increased tendency to crop or stretched archival footage used in contemporary films. Serious filmmakers like Ken Loach, Andrej Wajda, Magarethe von Trotta and John Akomfrah have all made films for cinematic exhibition where the older footage is so treated: a lack of respect for fellow artists and craft people that I abhor.
There is some hope for the future, at least regarding the black bars. A friend has viewed a laser projection at an Imax venue. He said that the colour spectrum was definitely superior to current digital projection. In particular the black borders on a digital package were as dense as the masking for 35mm and were not noticeable. It seems that there are current discussion in the industry to agree specifications and standards for laser projection. The hardware is a lot more expensive than existing projection for digital and larger, but the running costs are lower, partly because the lamps do not need replacing. Torkell Saetervadet [FIAF] notes that:
“projectors based on lasers rather than xenon light bulbs a light source have the potential toapproximate the human colour range better.” (FIAF Digital projection Guide, 210).
Commentators also suggest that the contrast is equivalent to that of 35mm.
This improvement will still be dependent on the digital source material which [in the UK] is extremely variable. The ‘boxes’ in which DCPs arrive range in digital size [and therefore quality] from 150 to 300 gigabytes: quite a large variation. But it seems that some UK DCPs are as low as 90 gigabytes. Lasers will improve matters including offering a proper masking for the cinematic frame; but they will not solve all the problems.
Wikipedia has a detailed page on aspect ratios for film and used on television and video.
France has the largest cinema market in Europe with annual audiences consistently above 200 million. Given that France and the UK have roughly the same population, the extra 30 million plus admissions in the former are worth exploring in terms of differences in exhibition structure and practice. On a simple level, France has more screens per head of population suggesting that French audiences have more choice and a shorter distance to travel, wherever they live, than their UK equivalents. It isn’t so much the number of screens, however, but the number of cinema sites.
My impression from these figures (and trips to different parts of France) is that more small cinemas have been retained in small towns in France. In larger towns/cities, existing buildings have been more carefully preserved and turned into small multi-screen venues. Multiplexes seem to have been built in France on out-of-town sites or in new shopping developments, but certainly not on the scale that this has happened in the UK.
The French system puts much greater emphasis on the ‘cinémas art et essai‘, the official designation of the French version of specialised cinema, with emphasis on the concept of art cinema. Each year there is a published list of ‘approved’ films and cinemas that screen these films are able to apply for the ‘art et essai‘ designation which enables them to receive public support. In 2015, 1159 cinemas received the designation (see http://www.art-et-essai.org/7/le-classement-des-salles). The total support came to €14.5 million euros. With 20% of cinema screens subsidised in this way, it’s no surprise that French audiences have easier access to cinema. I do note that the art et essai cinemas are not evenly spread. The figures suggest that the ‘Lille Region’ had only 48 such screens in 2015 while other regions such as Lyon and Bordeaux had over 200. Lille, France’s fourth city/urban region has only three cinemas in the city centre, all of which show a diverse range of films.
Subtitling and dubbing
The real distinction between types of cinemas in France comes with the approach to dubbing. Given that American films had 52% of the market with French films at 35.5%, over 60% of films originated in a language other than French (CNC 2016) – the exact figure depends on how many ‘non-French’ films actually came from francophone countries and how the CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée) defines a French film. France is one of the four largest European language groups that supports a professional dubbing industry. As in Italy, Germany and Spain (i.e. the FIGS group), all foreign language films can be dubbed into French. Cinema listings show these dubbed films as ‘VF’ (version française). Native French films are also described as VF. ‘VO’ is ‘version originale’ and usually means that the film is subtitled in French, so ‘VOST’ (version originale sous-titrée) or ‘VOSTF’. As the illustration here demonstrates, an out of town multiplex may dub everything not in French, but cinemas in the centre hoping to attract a cinephile audience will play non-French films as ‘VOST’. Children’s films that are not in French, especially animations, will however be dubbed everywhere (as they are in nearly every cinema market).
Two of the Lille cinemas shown in the listings mag above (i.e. Majestic and Le Métropole) focus primarily on specialised titles but the UGC (see photo above) covers both specialised and mainstream, showing US blockbusters in both dubbed and VOSTF versions. The other two cinemas listed on this page are specialised cinemas for young audiences (L’univers) and for independent film/shorts/documentary (L’Hybride). I find the cinema offer in the centre of Lille to be more diverse than in UK cities of a similar size. I was struck by how comfortable and welcoming the foyer of the UGC seemed to be compared to the soul-destroying emptiness of my local Cineworld in Bradford.
Ciné Sémaphore, Nîmes
Ciné Sémaphore is the art et essai cinema in the centre of the old city of Nîmes in Southern France which is currently seeking UNESCO World Heritage status. Nîmes has a population of around 146,000 yet it supports this six screen artplex plus a four-screen traditional cinema, Kinepolis ‘Forum’, also in the city centre, and a modern suburban Kinepolis multiplex with 12 screens. The Sémaphore is a cinephile’s dream. The six ‘salons’ come in different sizes and seat 654 in total. I visited one of the smallest (40 seats) and a slightly larger 90 seat screen. There is a pleasant café bar with a good selection of food and the ticket prices are a reasonable €7 (with a full array of the usual discounts). It produces an excellent monthly brochure which includes events for children, students and community groups. Later I discovered that the cinema is one of five owned by the arthouse distributor Haut et Court, having been bought last year – though it still has the feel of a locally-controlled cinema. I also learned that the Sémaphore (which has been open for 38 years) holds an annual ‘British Screen Festival’ in March each year, organised by volunteers – see this English language website.
My experience watching two films in the Sémaphore mirrored my experience in similar cinemas in other parts of France. In the UK we are used to programmes, even in art cinemas, with up to 20 minutes or more of advertisements, trailers and cinema announcements. Increasingly these ‘preambles’ are shown with the houselights partly up (a horrible state of affairs that damages viewing conditions in otherwise good cinemas). As a result, many of us attempt to enter the auditorium at the last minute to avoid the ads. When we arrived a minute or two after the stated start time in the Sémaphore screen, we stumbled into pitch darkness. With difficulty we found the empty few rows at the front. The feature started almost immediately after just one trailer and proceeded in almost complete dark. What a relief after the compulsory bright ‘exit’ lights and seat guidance lights in UK cinemas. I’m not sure how French Health & Safety regulations work but French cinema operators would struggle in the UK. I think the French approach is to make the audience responsible – i.e. to take their seats before the lights go down.
Good news for discriminating film buffs – Picturehouse at the National Media Museum are now providing information when films are screening in the higher quality 4K DCPS. Thanks to the actual staff on the ground who have followed up this suggestion. The information is online in the weekly listings. The listings already shows films with Audio Description and in the IMAX format: the staff plan to add information on films in 35mm and when a digital version has 7.1 sound.
So Hail, Caesar! the Coen Brothers film which revisits Capital Pictures (see Barton Fink 1991) and classic Hollywood is in 4K. The film originated on 35mm so 4K will do this more justice, note though, only the Pictureville auditorium has a 4K projector, and that is necessary to project the full quality. Also, this is another film with changing aspect ratios.
Unfortunately, there are still relatively few releases on 4K digital in the UK. Hopefully if exhibitors pay more attention to the issue distributors may up their game.
For 35mm one will have to wait to March 23rd for a screening of Carol in that format. It is definitely worth seeing, the image is lustrous.
Yes, it is welcome opportunities to see films in their proper format, 35mm. The Hebden Bridge Picture House is starting a regular slot on the first Saturday of the month. And the next feature is the 1961 film, Whistle Down the Wind. This is a fine drama, with location filming in Lancashire by Arthur Ibbetson. Most famously it is one of the films that established Hayley Mills as a star. It was also the first film feature for Alan Bates, the start of an illustrious career on celluloid. There is [as usual in British films] a strong supporting cast and fine music by Malcolm Arnold.
This was one of the production efforts of Richard Attenborough when he was [with colleagues like Bryan Forbes] producing interesting and distinctive British films. It is a children’s story and a parable, very much offering their point-of-view on the adult world. As is often the case, including in a series of British films, this point-of-view asks questions about how adults regard their world. It is a definitely a film to be seen on the big screen.
Then the Hyde Park Picture House have the highly praised Carol on 35mm. This is on the same Saturday as Whistle Down the Wind, but fortunately it is also on the Sunday as well. Carol has been praised for the acting of the two leads, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. But it also has a fine supporting cast and excellent production design by Judy Becker. What should be particularly well served by 35mm is the cinematography of Edward Lachman, who shot the film on Super 16 Kodak film. The adaptation follows closely the very fine novel by Patricia Highsmith, (for me, a fan, possibly her finest) but also adds a couple of significant variations. These serve the cinematic rendering of the story extremely well.
If perchance you miss the latter it is also screening at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum on March 23rd. The bad news so far is that there is no sign of The Hateful Eight on either 70mm or 35mm around West Yorkshire.
Charles Gant provides a regular and interesting column in Sight & Sound on the UK / Eire box-office: the inclusion of Eire is one of those anomalies favoured by British capitalists. His latest piece in S&S February 2016 [another anomaly, published at the beginning of January 2016] provides information about the Box Office for 2015, up until December 13. It does however omit films labelled ‘Bollywood’: the best performing of the latter films were Diwale and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. Both of which took over £1.5 million in the UK. The ‘good news’ is
“that admissions [which] dipped significantly [in 2014] bounced back, powered by major hits including SPECTRE (£41 million so far) . . . and Fifty Shades of Grey (over £13 million).”
To these could be added that
“home-grown titles aimed at the older demographic cleaned up at the box office. Maggie Smith featured in two of the year’s biggest – The Second Exotic Marigold Hotel (£16.01 million) and The Lady in the Van (£11.26 million).”
The bad news is that
“It’s in foreign-language film, however, that 2015 recorded the real crushing disappointment. Continuing and deepening the recent downward trend.”
Whereas The Great Beauty in 2013 took over a million pounds, with the exception of the two Hindi films, none did this in 2015. Gant provides a list of the Top-grossing Foreign-Language Films in 2015. Starting at just over £700,000 we have, Wild Tales, followed by Force Majeure, Timbuktu, The Salt of the Earth, The New Girlfriend, The Connection, Girlhood, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch, Marshland and at the end with just under £145,000 Mommy. He adds alongside a list of English-Language Indie/Crossover Titles. In front with over £21 million is The Theory of Everything followed by Legend, Suffragette, Far from the Madding Crowd, Birdman, Sicario, Amy, Brooklyn, Selma and at the end with nearly £3 million Ex Machina. There are so many depressing features here. That Suffragette, which has little notion of the actual movement, took nearly three times the box office of the highly intelligent Selma. That, in particular, the bland Brooklyn, the poorly scripted The Theory of Everything and the incoherent Birdman all took more than either Timbuktu or Girlhood (both in my top ten). The only salve is that the excellent documentary Amy did well. The Editor of S&S, Nick James, comments on this. However, his main thrust is directed towards critics, which I think is misdirected. Just look at IMDB’s numeration of reviews: much criticism is lost in the Tsunami of online reviews. More to the point Gant quotes Louisa Dent of Curzon Artificial Eye: Curzon is involved in both distribution and exhibition. She comments:
“For audiences, it has to be something special for them to go to the cinema.’
This parallels a comment made by a manager at Picturehouses. That appears to be the rationale for their programming. Our local Picturehouse [in Bradford at the National Media Museum] tends to show the sort of films in the foreign-language list once only: and along with what we call classics, these tend to be programmed on a Tuesday evening or on a Sunday afternoon. Though the cinema offers a wider range of programming with a greater number of special screenings and rare films like those of Vera Chtylova, there still seems to be a similar tendency at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. The latter cinema obtains its films through Picturehouses and another problem is that the Hyde Park tends to the same days and sessions, Tuesdays and Sundays for these films. Single screenings of a particular film [unless it is had extras, like musicians or Q&As] seem to me to be an anachronism. And in parallel fashion the two proper independent exhibitors sited only twelve miles apart competing at the same time is unhelpful. Once upon a time there was an exhibitor’s forum for Yorkshire, though there were more independent outlets then. This apparent lack of cooperation leads to the films we miss: as Roy has noted Hard to be a God has yet to enjoy a screening in West Yorkshire. And that applies equally in a cinematic format to the BFI re-issue of the 1967 Far From the Madding Crowd. The latter could rely on at least one distinguished audience member, because it is much more faithful to Thomas Hardy’s own version. Roy, in his pick of the year, thought West Yorkshire did quite well. I disagree: Manchester’s Home and Sheffield’ Showroom both screened the two films we missed, and both tend to multiple screenings. Gant also notes that
“With all of Curzon’s titles now available on its Curzon Home Cinema platform the same day as theatrical release.”
The latter policy not only undermines the firm’s own exhibition chain but it ignores the future: as potential viewers switch to online downloading. There appears to be a lemming-like drive amongst the UK companies involved in film distribution and exhibition towards the ‘popular’. So we get extended runs of films like Carol and Joy. The former is excellent, the latter sounds so, But both are in multiplexes, who I bet will win out in the competition. Meanwhile Angela Jolie’s interesting By the Sea only turned up in Leeds at the Showcase multiplex: yet it looked exactly like an independent exhibitor film. Gant and James are right to be depressed. And Roy writes on another aspect of this downward spiral. Still, time will tell. I listened this afternoon to the excellent Ian Christie in a Radio 3 discussion that I taped. He remarked that: “The death of cinema has been forecast many times, but it is still alive’. Let us hope he can repeat that line in the future.
This has not been a great week. I feel rather like Walter on the receiving end from Steve Jobs (2015).
First I looked in the Picture House PH magazine. On December 8th their screening was to be All About Them / À trois on y va (2015) in their Discover Tuesdays slot. Then I checked the individual brochure for Picture House at the National Media Museum and found ‘Discover Tuesdays takes a break’. This film got a warm reception at the Leeds International Film Festival and is an enjoyable French comedy: French films do well in the art film market in the UK?
Worst was to follow.
I am waiting to see Hard to be a God / Trudno byt bogom (2013) which was voted joint number 14 in the annual Sight & Sound Poll. It was screened at the Sheffield Showroom in late August. I thought I could catch it in Leeds later. As a famous Julia Robert’s characterisation opined, ‘Big Mistake!’ To date there is not one exhibitor in West Yorkshire with the film listed for a screening. It is in PH for December 22nd, but again the local brochure has ‘Discover Tuesdays takes a break’. Are the cinemas all hired out by Kit-Kat?
The film is screening at the PH City Screen in York. However, it only starts after 8 p.m., and this is a three hour film. Problematic for train or bus, and even for car as the city Park and Ride closes down at 10 p.m.
Finally we have the re-issue of Doctor Zhivago (1965), admittedly on DCP. However when I checked with BFI Information [who responded promptly), they advised ‘It’s 4K as long as it’s in a cinema that has a 4K projector, otherwise it will be 2K’. So PH at the National Media Museum have 4K projection in Pictureville and 2K Projection in Cubby Broccoli. The single screening of this release is in Cubby! Added to this the screen in Cubby is about half the size of the one in Pictureville and Zhivago is definitely a large screen film.
Apparently all this is due to ‘live transmissions’ being accommodated in the programme. Roy has written at length about the problems this is causing. I tend to think that this sort of programming is here to stay, it is an important economic stream for exhibitors. But does it need to have such a disastrous impact on film programming?
PH has this Discover Tuesday and tend to place ‘art films’ in this slot. And they have Vintage Cinema on Sundays. Whilst some of their cinemas do have additional screening, for example City Screen in York, the tendency is for single screenings. Something similar happens at the Hyde Park Picture House, whose booking is done by PH: but the HPPH is more flexible. I have seen vintage films on Thursday and Saturdays there. This assumption that the whole audience can be accommodated at one screening is clearly ludicrous.
Meanwhile inexorable films like Steve Jobs, bland films like Brooklyn (2015), or accomplished films like Carol (2015), occupy screens for a whole week or longer. Roy refers to the 700 or so films that manage a UK release: there are many other which do not pass this hurdle. When these cinemas programmed on a repertory basis there were opportunities to see such films over several screenings and the variety of films was superior.
Part of the problem is that many film fans are content to see films at home on DVD or Blu-Ray. When I looked up Hard to be a God on the Internet I found a bevy of adverts/reviews for Blu-Ray. I rather hope that readers of this blog are convinced that cinematic viewings are superior. However, if you go along to the Everyman chain that will be debatable. And whilst the Vue chain is more like a cinema their irritating custom of leaving houselights partly on does not help. I know there will be disagreements, but DCP is in effect a high quality video projection: hence cinemas often get away with running DVDs and Blu-Rays rather than theatrical DCPs. Moreover I have yet to find a source that consistently provides the information as to whether a release is in 2K or 4K DCP. If enough film buffs actually made their views known to the distributors and exhibitors we might stem the tide to a degree.
I have just returned from an International Film Festival full of archivists, academics and knowledgeable film fans. It was a great week but I was rather concerned that even there we had problems with Mobile Phones, Tablets and similar. Before each session an onscreen message in English and Italian warned audience members to ‘switch off their mobiles’! Clearly some people are impervious to persuasion.
These electronic devices have become a minor plague in cinemas and the like. Apparently it is even worse in some London theatres. The screening theatre at the Festival has an ‘opera style’ auditorium with three balconies – I suggested that the top one could be turned into a ‘sin bin’.
Unfortunately that is not an option in the venues I attend here in West Yorkshire. It has rather worried me that fewer and fewer venues actually screen a warning about their use. Recently only the Cottage Road in Leeds has had an admonition . So I was heartened by the new pre-screen trailer produced by the Picture House chain. Well executed but short, it not only admonishes regarding answering mobile phones but also lighting up the screens during a performance. Of course, such warnings are only partially effective. So I would be glad to hear from readers with suggestions about how to deal with recalcitrant ‘techies’.
Note – Cinemas subscribing to Pearl and Dean now have a new advert which appears after the trailers and just before the feature. It is an advert for Sony products, including those electronic devices that disrupt film screenings. There is no admonition about running them off or keeping them off through the entire film!