Tag Archives: 16mm

Elvis

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Les Blank, Chris Marker, Terry Gilliam and more!

Les Blank: Always for Pleasure
The Criterion Collection

Les Blank: Always for PleasureI’m not sure I can think of a more apt descriptor of Les Blank’s films than “humanist.” The 14 short- to medium-length documentaries included in Criterion’s new box set are vivacious, warm and fascinating looks at some of life’s most sensual pleasures. Not to be trite, but these are works that make you feel grateful to be alive and able to experience the world around you.

Over and over, Blank shows himself to be a master of distilling down the essence of a subculture into a brief but substantial package. Blank resists explanation — his films are defiantly free form, roaming from moment to moment — in favor of immersion, and one can’t help but feel edified after living in one of his cinematic worlds.

Food and music are Blank’s two constants in this collection of work. Even films that have a broader focus tend to incorporate these elements as part of the basic building blocks of culture, whether he’s documenting Cajuns (Spend it All, 1971), a black Creole community (Dry Wood, 1973) or Los Angeles hippies (God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance, 1968).

The music films explore blues guitarists (Lightnin’ Hopkins in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1968, and Mance Lipscomb in A Well Spent Life, 1971), Creole Zydeco (Clifton Chenier in Hot Pepper, 1973), polka culture (In Heaven There Is No Beer?, 1984) and African-Cuban rhythms (Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella, 1995), among others. The sheer joy of the performances captured on film would be enough to justify these films, but each one feels like meaningful time spent with the artist in his environment.

As for food, well, it’s rarely looked this good on screen before. Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980) and Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) aren’t merely food porn (still, prepare to salivate); they’re contextualizing tributes to the surrounding cultures.

All 14 films in the three-disc Blu-ray set have been granted 2K digital restorations, and the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are beautifully film-like, superb reproductions of the 16mm photography. All of the films feature uncompressed mono soundtracks, save for Sworn to the Drum, which has a lossless stereo track. Clean-up work has left these soundtracks crisp and clean.

As if collecting all these films in one place wasn’t enough, Criterion has supplied at least one extra to accompany each film, including five additional short films, outtakes, an excerpt from forthcoming documentary Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation and extensive interviews with family and collaborators, including sons Harrod and Beau, editor Maureen Gosling and friend Werner Herzog. An extensive booklet contains film notes and an essay by Andrew Horton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Les Blank: Always for Pleasure Blu-ray rates:

The Films (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection/ 1968-1995 / Color / 1.33:1 / 563 min total / $124.95

Level Five (1996)
Icarus Films

Level FiveChris Marker returns to many of his favorite themes in Level Five, a characteristically dense and beautiful essay film that touches on the pain of loss and the role of memory in dealing with that loss. Can the past be changed if memories — both the intangible human memories and the tangible technological ones — are changed? In some ways, Level Five plays like a sequel to Sans Soleil (1983), with Marker again focusing on his beloved Japanese culture, this time looking closely at the tragedy of World War II’s Battle of Okinawa, a precursor to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Marker adds a technological wrinkle, as a woman called Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) seeks to carry on her late lover’s work by completing a video game about the conflict. She addresses him directly, peering into the camera in a series of monologues that dovetail with Marker’s own observations about technology and history. Images of primitive computer graphics mingle with newsreel footage, and Marker’s deft editing constantly creates fascinating juxtapositions between the future and the past that these images represent.

Though the film’s philosophical underpinnings aren’t easy to pin down, the dizzying imagery and the film’s elegiac tone ensure Level Five is anything but dry, academic pondering. Marker again returns to referencing Vertigo (1958) at one point, and it’s no stretch to say that his investigations into the ability to recreate, restructure and re-contextualize memories are every bit as moving and cinematically wondrous as Hitchcock’s film.

Fresh off a theatrical run in 2014 that saw Level Five finally receiving a release in the U.S., Icarus Films brings Marker’s masterpiece to home video in an essential DVD release. The variety of sources all look good in this nice transfer, and the DVD comes with a booklet with an extensive essay from Christophe Chazalon.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Icarus Films’ Level Five DVD rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: *
Extra Features Overall: *
Icarus Films/ 1996 / Color and black & white / 1.33:1 / 106 min / $29.98

Kinetta (2005)
Second Run DVD

KinettaGreek director Yorgos Lanthimos has established himself as a filmmaker with an eerily alienating style with his most recent works Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011). His debut feature as a solo director, Kinetta, now getting its worldwide home video debut from intrepid UK label Second Run, is clearly those films’ progenitor, examining similar themes in a less formally assured manner.

Like its successors, Kinetta deals with a close-knit community of people that’s developed a series of odd rituals in order to relate to one another. Here, a hotel maid (Evangelia Randou), a plainclothes detective (Costas Xikominos) and a photo clerk (Aris Servetalis) pass the time by filming awkward recreations of murder scenes. This uncomfortable role-playing fills the void in what seems to be mostly colorless existences for these people, playing out in a vacation town during the off-season that might as well be an actual ghost town.

Unlike Lanthimos’ later films, especially Dogtooth, which displays a Michael Haneke-like formal precision, Kinetta features mostly queasy handheld camerawork, fraying the nerves even more than the off-putting but inscrutable actions of the people on-screen, who are more types than actual characters. On its own, Kinetta might feel like a filmmaker valuing obliqueness for its own sake, but take in conjunction with his subsequent films, it fits into a discomfiting oeuvre of estrangement from reality.

Second Run’s 1.85:1 transfer is quite strong considering its standard-def limitations, with a crisp image and a detailed reproduction of Lanthimos’ almost colorless palette. Extras include a newly filmed conversation with the director and a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Ewins.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Kinetta DVD rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Second Run DVD / 2005 / Color / 1.85:1 / 94 min / £12.99 / Region 2 (PAL)

Slaughter Hotel (1971)
Raro Video

Slaughter HotelFernando Di Leo is better known for his gritty, violent crime dramas, but with Slaughter Hotel (La bestia uccide a sangue freddo), he serves up a thick slice of giallo-sleaze. Veering between jarringly disjointed and laughably languid, hardly anything here makes a lick of goddamn sense, even by standards of the genre. Still, there’s something admirable about Di Leo’s willingness to abandon sense and style from scene to scene. Frenetic barrages of canted angles will give way to elegant, gliding takes, while scenes juggle varying combinations of sex and death.

Klaus Kinski nominally stars as Dr. Francis Clay, the head of a mental institution that caters to rich women, most of whom are being treated for having a sex drive. But Kinski’s presence is mostly a red herring, as he’s not even in the top 10 of weirdest things in the film. Like most of the performances, Kinski’s borders on medicated, as a series of brutal murders can barely arouse much of a reaction in anyone besides those being murdered (and sometimes, not even them).

The nudity, which approaches gynecological levels, is far more graphic than the violence — beheadings, impalements and slashes are more stolid than your average giallo. It’s hardly an exemplary entry in either the genre’s canon or Di Leo’s filmography, but worth a look for enthusiasts of either.

Raro Video presents the film in a 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer that will do little to dissuade critics of the company’s highly variable technical output. There are some things to like about this transfer, including the consistent color reproduction and strong levels of image clarity. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of digital manipulation visible, from over-sharpening to heavy-handed edge enhancement. One scene features significant telecine wobble. Elements seem to be in good shape, but the transfer is merely watchable rather than anything commendable.

Two audio options are included, both in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. This disc defaults to an English dub, while an Italian dub is also offered. The original Italian track is far preferable, featuring sound that is much less tinny and harsh than the English track.

Extras include an interview with actress Rosalba Neri, a fairly in-depth archival making-of and a couple minutes of deleted scenes. The set also includes a booklet with film notes and essays.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Raro Video’s Slaughter Hotel Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: **
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ***
Raro Video/ 1971 / Color / 2.35:1 / 94 min / $29.95

Flaming Star (1960)
Twilight Time

Flaming StarMovies starring Elvis Presley don’t typically cause much excitement among cinephiles, but he proves himself to be a capably understated performer in Don Siegel’s lean western Flaming Star, which opens with a couple of songs before turning into something considerably more sober.

Tensions are rising between white settlers and a Kiowa tribe in post-Civil War Texas, and Presley’s Pacer Burton, a half-white, half-Indian man, finds himself torn as he’s forced to consider loyalties to heritage, family and community. While his white father, Sam (John McIntire), and his Kiowa mother, Neddy (Dolores del Rio), just want to live peacefully, spates of violence on both sides threaten to ignite all-out war.

Siegel’s film has a hair-trigger capability of turning suddenly violent, and he sustains that tension throughout. The film also manages a reasonably fair-minded portrayal of Native Americans, emphasizing the similar community aspects of both cultures while recognizing the vast gulf between them.

Presley communicates a sense of being rent in two with his sensitive, introverted performance. Any of his persona’s braggadocio has been replaced with the wandering, unsure eyes of a young man forced to make a decision he’s not sure he’s equipped to make.

Siegel shoots the action sequences with a tough-minded precision, while he allows more room for the complex interpersonal relationships to play out on screen. That means less of a perfunctory sort-of love interest in Barbara Eden and more of the alternating clashing and bonding between Pacer and white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest).

Twilight Time presents Fox’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer of the film, which is an exceptionally clean and sometimes stunningly vivid high-def presentation. The image possesses excellent clarity and sharpness and the somewhat muted color scheme is still capable of displaying vibrant beauty. Audio options include a mostly useless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which shunts some of the score to the surrounds and an uncompressed 2.0 track, which gets the job done fine in original mono.

Extras include Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, a commentary by Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman and the theatrical trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Flaming Star Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Twilight Time / 1960 / Color / 2.35:1 / 92 min / $29.95

The Zero Theorem (2014)
Well Go USA

The Zero TheoremTerry Gilliam is a filmmaker of boundless imagination, which can sometimes result in overstuffed cinematic worlds in his lesser works. There’s a fair amount of frenetically detailed production design in his latest film, The Zero Theorem, but it somehow feels cheap and insubstantial — a thinly realized knock-off of a Gilliam film instead of the real thing. The same goes for the ideas in Pat Rushin’s script, which shamelessly borrows from Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil (1985), reshaping story and character elements into a discount version that sort of gets the broad strokes right but haplessly botches the details.

Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, an office drone in a futuristic society tasked with unlocking the meaning of life. Qohen toils under the watchful eye of superiors both nosy (David Thewlis) and aloof (Matt Damon), but his work is merely a distraction in his obsessive patience for a phone call that he believes will unlock the key to his own destiny.

Miserable and neurotic, Qohen gets glimpses of a happy life courtesy of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a prostitute whose idyllic virtual reality experiences become a source of comfort. The artificial beach in these sequences brings to mind the fractured mental state of Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry in the bitterly ironic conclusion of Brazil, but with a half-hearted effort at incisive commentary. Similar broadsides on pervasive advertising and Big Brother surveillance just don’t muster up much energy. Even the normally vibrant Waltz delivers a somnambulant performance that rarely brings any specificity to the character.

On the other hand, Tilda Swinton does appear as a rapping virtual psychiatrist, so it’s not like the film has nothing going for it.

Well Go’s Blu-ray presentation of the film features a roughly 1.75:1 transfer in 1080p. The image features rounded corners in an ostensible attempt to replicate vintage photography. Color reproduction of both garish and muted palettes is nice, and there are solid levels of fine detail to be seen throughout. The image is rarely super-sharp, but this seems to replicate the theatrical look. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t tested too often, but it offers a reasonably immersive experience when the material calls for it.

Extras include one big EPK chopped up into smaller chunks on the costuming, sets, visual effects and a general behind-the-scenes piece. The theatrical trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Well Go’s The Zero Theorem Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): *1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Well Go USA / 2014 / Color / 1.75:1 / 111 min / $29.98

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

Crimes Featured

Blu-ray Review: “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Capping off the strongest decade of Woody Allen’s career, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is a nearly ideal synthesis of Allen’s strengths as a writer, director and actor. That might sound strange if one considers Allen’s talents to be primarily comedic — Crimes and Misdemeanors can certainly be funny, but the humor hardly undercuts the fundamental darkness of the material.

Nevertheless, this is where it all seems to come together. Allen’s attempts at brooding, intense dramas can fall flat, particularly when he’s aping Bergman (comedic emulations of Bergman, like Deconstructing Harry, are another, more successful story). But in its riff on Dostoevsky, Crimes and Misdemeanors strikes a meaningful, weighty tone. The film also incorporates Allen’s strongest comedic tenor — wry and rueful. Allen’s documentary filmmaker character isn’t radically different from any of the other men he’s played in his films, but the way he’s stymied at every turn adds an extra dimension of melancholy to his wisecracks.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is also one of the most convincing examples of Allen’s skill as a director, generally the most maligned, or at least ignored, aspect of his career. The construction of this thing is remarkably elegant, cutting back and forth between parallel stories and only gradually emphasizing the thematic similarities. One doesn’t tend to associate Allen with intricately designed visual rhymes, but here we are.

The first moral crisis we’re introduced to is that of ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a man who should be entering into contented golden years, having achieved professional success and surrounded by a loving family. Instead, he’s forced to confront his own transgressions, brought forcefully to the forefront of his life by Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), a flight attendant and his mistress. The luster has worn off the affair for Judah, and Dolores, motivated by a combination of vengefulness and guilt, threatens to tell all to his wife (Claire Bloom).

Crimes 1

Panic-stricken, Judah contacts his brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), who arranges for a hit man to take care of Dolores. The ensuing scene is disturbingly matter-of-fact; there’s a methodical, almost banal quality to it that makes a woman’s murder seem like the most ordinary thing in the world. Later, Judah visits her apartment to recover some incriminating evidence, and the scene strikes a similar tone, flatly showing Dolores’s lifeless body and Judah’s understated reaction. His subsequent mood is far more distraught, but that owes more to his newfound conception of himself rather than her murder. The moral inquiry that proceeds from here is hilariously self-focused, an existential crisis that’s completely crass in its dismissal of the value of someone else’s life.

Allen crosscuts this story with Cliff Stern’s (Allen himself), a filmmaker who longs to make important, serious documentaries, but has to settle for a puff piece on his TV producer brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda) to pay the bills. Lester is comically pompous, but Cliff isn’t much better in the self-awareness department, cutting together a pathetic attempt to embarrass Lester and clumsily pursuing Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), the producer on the project.

Like many an Allen protagonist, Cliff can be charmingly self-effacing, with his Indian takeout and Singin’ in the Rain on 16mm, but he also overestimates himself. The scene in which he learns the subject of his passion project has died and decides to make a pass at Halley is painful. Never mind the fact that Cliff is married, however unhappily to Wendy (Joanna Gleeson). Here’s another character whose thoughts turn only to himself in moments of crisis.

Crimes 2

Allen’s playful interrogation of his characters’ moral fiber and the audience’s perception of that morality makes for a rich work. Where on the spectrum of right and wrong do these characters’ actions fall, and does it even really matter? Happiness doesn’t seem to have much correlation with morality, as Allen underlines in the film’s final scene when Judah and Cliff’s storylines finally intersect, and the two men share a moment of reflection. In Allen’s conception of the world, there’s hardly a clear-cut answer, but at least we have laughter, even if it’s of the bitter type.

After a run of decent-to-strong Woody Allen Blu-ray releases, it appears Fox/MGM is unfortunately getting out of the game of distributing his catalog titles on Blu-ray, handing Crimes and Misdemeanors and the forthcoming Broadway Danny Rose (and let’s be honest — probably a number of others) off to Twilight Time. Aside from Twilight Time’s signature extra, this is virtually identical to what Fox/MGM would have given us — only at twice the price. Oh well.

The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is similar to what we’ve seen on the previous Allen Blu-rays. Detail levels are solid, the image is reasonably clean and clarity represents a nice improvement over the DVD, even if it’s not mind-blowing. Grain is cleanly rendered, offering a fairly film-like appearance. Sven Nykvist’s slightly burnished cinematography is appealingly presented; autumnal browns are warm without looking oversaturated. A few speckles pop up here and there, but aren’t too concerning. Digital tampering doesn’t appear to be an issue. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack presents the classical and jazz tunes clearly, while dialogue is adequately clean.

Allen’s home video releases are almost always essentially barebones, and this one is no different. Twilight Time includes the usual music and effects track, but this seems even less useful than usual, as the film doesn’t possess a traditional score. The original theatrical trailer is also included, along with a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

 

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, the Twilight Time’s Titus Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: ***

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: *

Extra Features Overall: *

 

Twilight Time

1989 / Color / 1.85:1 / 104 min / $29.95

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

Micro 1

The Micro Movie House: An Improbable History

Some movie theaters have become as legendary as the films which have illuminated their screens. These venues are famous for their influence or historical significance, or their longevity, or for the legends that have grown up around them.

This is not a story about one of those theaters.

The Micro Movie House in Moscow, Idaho, that’s right, Moscow, Idaho, was a Seventh-Day Adventist Church, of all things, until 1975, when it was converted into an unlikely cinema, seemingly over the course of a single inspired, and from all surviving evidence, intoxicated weekend.

The theater was designed, if such a word is applicable, like a Rubik’s cube half-solved and then dropped drunkenly in superglue. Patrons entering under the tiny marquee and through the front door would immediately be confronted by a precarious wooden staircase leading down into who-knows-where. Those brave enough to risk descending these stairs into the dark would find themselves in a “lobby.”  A ticket for the night’s performance was purchased not at a box office, but at a portable podium-pulpit, apparently a repurposed remnant of the building’s earlier career. The narrow room beyond was adorned with vintage movie posters, an actual fireplace, and a suggestion box. None of which are likely to be found at a modern multiplex, I suspect.

The basement concession stand was as idiosyncratic as the rest of the Micro. In addition to popcorn and soft drinks (served in waxy cups, inexplicably adorned with the logo of a nearby taco chain), the place offered candy, fresh-baked cookies, self-serve coffee, and famously, apple cider. The cider was particularly memorable. It came in 3 sizes, and could be served with or without ice, filtered or unfiltered, and hot or cold. Conceivably, ordering the cider, what with all the inherent decisions involved in doing so, could have made an indecisive patron late for the start of the film.

That film was projected in an auditorium off the lobby and atop another twisted set of stairs. I’ve read that the Micro could accommodate 150 people. But I know for a fact that selling 125 tickets would fill up all of the seats (and yes, they were real theater seats. I wonder whatever happened to all those pews.), and the single bench at the back of the room as well.

That bench was under the projection booth, which had been constructed on a raised and walled-off platform where the church’s pulpit had once stood. The holy light which originated from the booth was the product not of God, but of 2 vintage, Simplex 35mm projectors. The first time I watched a movie under the light of those projectors it was the 1980s. I was a freshman in college and I was instantly smitten.

My parents had neither encouraged nor discouraged my budding and inexplicable interest in film. I’d went to Moscow, located in Idaho’s rural and usually frozen panhandle on a theater arts scholarship of all things, and this phd scholarships program which involves many years in deep research,  was one of the best things that happen to me it has made the person who I am today. As soon as I started frequenting the Micro I’m afraid that the world of the stage lost me forever to the world of the soundstage. The Micro, you see, ran a mix of conventional Hollywood pictures, in their second and third runs, and classics and contemporary cinema from around the world. I’d never seen or even heard of many of the exotic cinematic pleasures I encountered at the Micro. I may have gone to college at the University of Idaho, but I got my education, at least the one I still reference, at the Micro.

After a few weeks of seeing virtually everything the theater had to offer I decided that I had to become a part of this place. I gathered my courage and asked the manager for a job. Well, it wasn’t so courageous come to think about it. I actually dropped my phone number into the suggestion box with the offer to work for free to “learn the business.”  I was astonished when the manager, Bob Suto, actually called me and invited me in for an interview. He even, eventually, liked me enough to pay me. I’d always thought that the film industry was more difficult to get into than that.

Micro 1

For the next 4 years the Micro became a part of my life which I still haven’t quite shaken off.  And the story of the Micro, the idiosyncratic, independent, eccentric little Micro, personifies, to a certain degree an entire era made up of spunky repertoire theaters which ran whatever the hell they wanted. And actually found success, for a time, in doing so.

Conceivably these theaters grew out of the independent or “revival” houses which had no corporate affiliation during the studio era. In the late 1950’s the legendary Brattle theater, near Harvard, Mass, began inexplicably running old Humphrey Bogart pictures. And the largely college-age patrons who frequented this theater found themselves unexpectedly relating to films starring an actor who had been a hero to their parents’ generation. These same movies were then being widely syndicated to television, but the thrill of seeing them with an audience of equally appreciative, and often chemically enhanced, peers, created the first film “cults.”  Audiences went again and again to these films, often reciting the dialogue along with the actors on the screen. And other theater owners, especially those lucky enough to be close to a college campus, were quick to follow the Brattle’s example. Other Hollywood personalities, those which these audiences perceived as being somehow, counter-culture, like the Marx Brothers, or W.C. Fields, were quickly joined on-screen by films of foreign auteurs and by experimental and independent films from all over the world as well.

It didn’t last, of course. The original generation of revival theater audiences grew up, went to Woodstock or Viet Nam, and eventually decided they liked to watch their movies while sitting at home on the couch.  By the time I made my debut at the Micro home video was already a fact of life. Some of the patrons I sold tickets to could conceivably have been children of the audiences who cheered Jean-Paul Belmondo reverently whispering Bogie’s name in Breathless (À bout de soufflé,1960). I didn’t know it at the time, but I was there for the very end of a rather romantic era in film exhibition.

But Bob Suto must have known that he was piloting a ship which ultimately had to flounder. He didn’t give a damn. The Micro’s schedules were ballsy and eclectic and weird. It was like Bob was determined to bring the best and oddest of world cinema into the wilds of Idaho – whether or not Idaho was ready for them or not.

The theater was actually bankrolled and subsidized by Bob’s sister and her husband, who owned the local Taco John’s – thus solving forever the mystery of the Micros’ enigmatic drink cups. But the crazy thing was that, for a long time, the good people of Moscow, a medium-sized university town, largely populated by ex-hippies and agriculture majors, responded to being condescended to in large numbers and with open wallets. I used to get the schedules of what Bob had booked and have no idea how it was that a mainstream Hollywood offering like Trading Places (1983) could share the same screen, in the same week, with Bye Bye Brazil (1980) and Sophomore Sensations (the latter was a 1975 German-soft-core oddity so obscure that it took me five minutes to even find it on IMDB). One week Bob proudly told me that we were the smallest theater, in the smallest market in the United States, to project Abel Gance’s recently restored Napoleon (1927).  We sold out that weekend. But we still lost money on it.

Midnight movies were a big part of any revival theater’s existence. The Micro’s signature midnight movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was the king (queen?) of that particular income stream. Ordinarily, two employees could handle an entire shift at the Micro. One person would sell tickets and another would work concessions. At show time the ticket teller would carry the box-office podium back to the concession era and the person there would vend both tickets and popcorn while his partner ran upstairs to fire up the projectors. If a line formed downstairs, and anyone bought a movie ticket and the cider, the whole system could be jeopardized by the complexities of the situation.

On Rocky Horror nights however, a third employee was brought in. Part of this unlucky individual’s job was to climb onto the stage at 11:59 PM and warn the audience that throwing rice and toilet paper, and even other patrons into the air was fine and well, but that anyone caught squirting water at the screen would be roughed up by “management” and thrown outside.  This warning became de rigueur on Rocky Horror nights after our screen was repeatedly doused in water by enthusiastic audience members. We eventually replaced this screen because the damaged areas started to shine and glisten under the projector light.

Actually, we probably would have ignored the complaints this caused, had the screen not been further mauled by an impromptu belly-dancing demonstration by Bob’s girlfriend Leanne, who had accidently sliced a horizontal line in the thing while swinging a prop sword during her memorable (at least to me) gyrations. Even this indignity we tried to cover up with some glue. But the seam the sword wound left behind really was impossible to ignore. During a screening of Notorious (1946), for example, Cary Grant’s lips would occasionally line-up so perfectly with the repaired seam that the actor would end up looking like a debonair and highly reflective version of Mr. Sardonicus.

The projection booth at the Micro had a lock on the door, with good reason. The machines inside had been workhorses in the 1930’s. But by the 80’s, these black behemoths, which looked like a set of Mickey Mouse ears, cast in iron and turned on their sides, were,  like the projectionists who operated them, somewhat idiosyncratic. They illumined our new screen using carbon rods mounted inside a reflective drum. The carbons would hiss and pop and sputter, and it was a near constant job keeping them feeding into each other at the proper speed and reflective density. I sometimes wonder how many people alive today were trained, like I was, in the maintenance of such archaic exhibitor’s alchemy. I must have been one of the last.

There were also reel changeovers between projectors to be performed every 17 minutes or so. As far as I know, film labs still print tiny circles, lasting 4 frames each and spaced about 20 seconds apart at the end of each reel of film, even though almost every theater in the country has now converted to digital projection, and any venues which still project actual celluloid probably splice all the reels together onto platters. But old habits die hard. At the Micro we used these visual cues to time the transitions from one projector to another. When it worked right the transition was seamless. Occasionally, the marks would be missing, along with the last few feet of film on the reel, and we would scratch new circles into the print with a razor blade. I remember when I was hired Bob asked me if I had any experience as a projectionist. I told him I knew how the cue mark system worked; having picked up this information up from an episode of Colombo. Never let anyone tell you that obsessive television watching isn’t a valuable skill in securing employment. At least it was for me.

As I’ve explained, the Micro was a legitimate, 35mm equipped theatre. But some of the films Bob booked were only available for projection in 16mm. We had a Bell & Howell projector for this purpose, which had been modified with a Xenon bulb and extra-large distribution and take-up arms. The projection booth was built off of the floor, so the ceiling was inordinately low from inside. One night I was projecting Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) in 16mm. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, because it hadn’t happened before, and never happened again, but as the weight of the film shifted from the front spindle to the rear, the front reel shifted upward ever so slightly and started rubbing against the ceiling. Unable to move, the film locked in place and caught fire in the gate, colorfully incinerating Clark Gable mid-mutiny. I repaired the damage, but couldn’t keep distribution reel from continuing to bang into the ceiling. It probably happened a dozen times on that endless, unforgettable evening. As I’ve said. The booth had a lock on the door for a reason.

Any skills as a projectionist I managed to acquire, at least those which didn’t originate on the NBC Mystery Movie, came not from Bob, but rather from his chief projectionist – although we never used that phrase (we didn’t bother with titles at the socialist utopia which was the Micro). Darwin Vest was a mechanical genus who managed to keep the projectors running, more or less, in spite of any mistakes I inflicted upon them. He could listen to the machines grinding away and tell that the intermittent gear was just a little out of alignment. At least I think he could. I took his word for it.

Darwin was a maestro in the projection booth. But his heart was elsewhere. He was a scientist of some renown, but was hampered academically because he had no formal accreditation. His specialty was the venoms of poisonous spiders and reptiles. Darwin was famous in certain circles of academia for identifying the hobo spider as being a venomous species. During the first years we were working together he was busy assembling a show, “The Venomous Reptile Review,” with his sister Becky, who also worked at the Micro. The presentation was intended to educate audience members about biting, clawing, spitting or otherwise aggressive snakes and lizards through up-close and personal demonstrations. But, sadly, when the show opened at a lecture hall in nearby Pullman, Washington, only 12 people showed up, ultimately forcing Darwin and Becky to shutter the act and to escape anxious creditors by hiding out in the projection booth.

Darwin was a fascinating guy in a doomed, F. Scott Fitzgerald sort of way. A quiet, soft spoken intellectual with a neatly trimmed beard and an air of always being three-steps ahead of everyone else, but of being too polite to let on. He once invited me out for drinks after, or maybe it was before, a shared shift at the Micro. All I wanted to speak about was movies. Usually he was fine with this, but on this night he seemed to want to talk to me about some mysterious, impenetrable research he was engaged in on campus. I was still obsessing about the Herzog film our projectors had been mauling that week, but to be polite I finally asked him what exactly it was he had been doing behind locked doors in the chemistry building every day. He took a drink, and then looked around, as if spies might be lurking begin the potted ferns. “Cancer,” He finally whispered.

“You’ve…got it?”

“I’ve cured it.”

He then told me exactly what it was he had been working on, something venom-related, surely, which had somehow led to his mysterious, kitchen-sink cancer cure. But I could follow what he told me no more than I could repeat any of it today. All I can recall is that he said that in every test he had performed the cancer cells had retreated. “It needs a lot more work; years of work, maybe” he whispered, “but someday…”

The next day, post hangover, it occurred to me that I had recently wallowed in the delicious tragedy of Sophie’s Choice (1982) at the Micro. And that there was a scene where Kevin Kline’s romantic, schizophrenic scientist character had engaged in a similar conversation with a protégée. The realist in my nature, even today, assumes that Darwin was repeating this scene with me, either ironically, or drunkenly, just to screw with me and to see if I would notice its origin. Yet Darwin wasn’t that sort of person. He was too kind, and too self-absorbed for this sort of referential trickery. Unfortunately “someday” never came for him either. In 1999, Darwin was taking a walk at night, as was his habit, and he vanished into the dark without a trace. The case is still open. It’s still officially listed by the F.B.I as unsolved.

My years at the Micro came to an end with my graduation, although I had spent more time either changing reels or watching them play out there than I ever had in school. Home video had been eroding the Micro’s audiences since before I arrived, but the opening of a nearby multiplex, and changing audience tastes caused attendance to continue to drop off after I was gone. Apparently, although none of us knew it, the Micro had actually had been existing inside a Camelot-like bubble – where it was still 1969 – for a decade. That bubble finally burst in 1998. It had been a long run. A quarter century lifetime for a theater so haphazardly constructed, indifferently managed, and scheduled so contrary to popular taste is a long time. Perhaps passion and a gambler’s spirit is a better business tool than one would suspect. Bob Suto and the Micro had a lot of both.

The last movie to run at the Micro Movie House was a free screening of the much-beloved-by- Moscowite’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’ve not been back to see it for myself, but friends tell me that the building which housed the Seventh-Day Adventists and then the Micro is now a tattoo parlor.

There are still a few revival theaters left in the large cities. Many theater chains now dedicate a token number of screens to independent film as well. But this once-upon-a-time willingness by audiences, even audiences in allegedly conservative places like rural Idaho, to support eclectic, eccentric film programing, is apparently a thing of the past. No one can be certain, of course, but it now seems likely that the lights have forever dimmed on theaters like the Micro. Just as it now seems likely that, like my friend Darwin, who walked off into the night with a secret and never returned, we’ll not see their like again.


Steven Bingen is a historian, screenwriter and former archivist at Warner Bros. Originally a native of Seattle, Washington, Bingen has written or contributed  to dozens of books, articles and documentaries on Hollywood history, Including MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which he coauthored, and which was the first significant book ever published about a movie studio lot. A follow-up is due in September; 2014. He lives in the world’s largest backlot, also known as Los Angeles, California.

http://mgmbacklot.info/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/MGM-Hollywoods-Greatest-Backlot/150257071698660

 

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“Citizen Kane” (1941)

A new feature here at World Cinema Paradise, “Life-Changing Movies” pays tribute to those films, festivals, and other special screenings that changed the way we look at the movies. Check back here as our contributors write about their life-changing viewing experiences.

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To begin with the obvious, inevitable, but wholly justified inaugural title.

Back in the summer of 1979, I was shipped off by my parents, needing a break from their troubled teenager, for the second time to a filmmaking seminar sponsored by the appropriately named DAFT: Detroit Area Film Teachers. Held at the exclusive, historic Cranbrook boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, teachers and students were provided all the necessary tools – camera, film, overnight processing, lighting equipment, etc. – to produce a short Super-8 film over the course of one week which would then be screened as part of a mini-festival on the final day.

The year before I had made a very modest Claymation short but somebody there, probably John Prusak, aware of my rapidly ballooning interest in movies of all kinds greeted me this year with an enormous gift: my own private Nirvana, a private classroom equipped with a Bell & Howell 16mm projector, screen, and in one corner of the room, something like 200 reels of film stacked in a pile in the corner rising five feet off the floor.

Instead of concentrating my energies on the challenge of writing, shooting, and editing a short film in just seven days, I spent all my mornings, afternoons, and nights plowing through those film cans, this effectively being the era just preceding the home video revolution. (Interestingly, however, the year before someone had gotten their hands on a VHS or three-quarter-inch copy of the still relatively new The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which we all watched one evening.)

I spent hours upon hours in that little classroom, seeing for the first time or rewatching such films as Duck Soup (1933), Lord of the Flies (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968), untold treasures from the National Film Board of Canada and short films distributed by the late, lamented distributor Pyramid Films.

And then one evening I came across a film I’d always heard, in my teenaged naiveté, was one of the very best of its kind: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). But by this time it was already one o’clock in the morning, far too late to watch the whole thing. But, I figured, I’ll watch the first reel, then pick up where I left off the following morning.

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Needless to say that didn’t happen. I was transfixed from the opening scenes, of Charles Foster Kane (Welles) on his deathbed in the castle-like Xanadu, by the abrupt cut to a dizzying virtuosity of filmmaking as a fake newsreel summarized his fabled life, of the next abrupt cut to the newsreel company’s screening room, where reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is assigned to find  meaning in Kane’s last words. With short breaks to change reels I finished watching this momentous triumph of movie-making around 3:30 am. And then proceeded to watch it a second time, then and there. And I watched it twice more before the week was over.

(Built in 1922 by the famed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, Cranbrook, cavernous and bereft of students due to the summer holiday, was especially at night an eerie place to stay, and in its own way quite reminiscent of Kane’s Xanadu.)

Alfred Hitckcock’s Vertigo (1958) last year famously bumped it from Sight & Sound’s 50-year-old poll of the Greatest Films of All-Time but, for my money, there’s still no movie finer than Citizen Kane. I won’t attempt to explain its greatness – people have been doing that for decades – but on a personal level it’s perhaps the most startlingly entertaining of Great Movies. It’s crammed to the gills with so much creativity and ingenuity that, even when one has seen it close to 50 times as I have, there are still always new things to discover. And it still dazzles. It’s as fresh in 2013 as it was 70-plus years ago.

Seeing it that first time was an overwhelming experience, one that demonstrated how far filmmaking conventions could be stretched and even shattered to good effect, and – an especially important lesson in this day and age – how it’s possible to infuse a film with a deeply personal, original vision yet also so involve the audience that they lose themselves completely in the picture they’re watching, and not consciously aware of all they are seeing.

I can’t say watching Citizen Kane that week had any positive impact at all on my own filmmaking ambitions, try as I might, but it reshaped forever the way I look at movies, and made me recognize the limitless possibilities of the medium.

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