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Entries in Film Preservation (2)

Thursday
Mar312016

STARDUST MEMORIES: THE PETER FLYNN INTERVIEW

The digital revolution represents the biggest shift in the exhibition sector since the ‘multiplex boom' of the 1980s. Old-school projection booths, once the beating heart of the cinema-going experience, have all but vanished, replaced by sterile environments housing touch-screen monitors filled ‘encrypted files’. Dying of the Light is a stirring, melancholy account of American film exhibition up to this moment in time; a point in film history that threatens to reduce to museum pieces 1000s of spools of classic film storytelling and the grand machines that lit them up. In his moving, insightful film, director Peter Flynn, Senior Scholar-in-Residence at Boston’s Emerson College, profiles the projectionists who have forged generations of film-going memories and who are now faced with a ‘change or perish’ life choice. He spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about his loving tribute to the art and romance of movies…

SCREEN-SPACE: Where did your passion for the moving image and how it is presented and preserved originate?

FLYNN: I’ve always loved film.  My earliest memories are of the large-screen cinemas of Dublin City, where I grew up in the 70s and 80s—the Ambassador, the Savoy, and the Adelphi.  Back then it was not uncommon to spend two hours waiting outside in the rain for the doors to open and for the show to start. But it was worth it.  To enter those old theaters, with their ornate surroundings and lush carpeting, their balconies and curtained screens, was to enter another world.  Going to the cinema was something special back then, and it remained so throughout my childhood. The Dying of the Light digs deep into those memories, I suppose.  Try as I might to be balanced in the film, its by no means objective.

SCREEN-SPACE: As a lover of film culture and academic dedicated to film history, how did the research period and the trips to hollow, dilapidated halls in small towns impact you?

FLYNN (pictured, right): The image of the ruined abandoned movie theatre/projection booth became a sort of visual metaphor in the film, I suppose; a way to underscore the loss and ruination of the practice of film-handing and projection.  It was also the right place to start—with this palpable sense of loss, of better days gone by. The idea of the projection booth as an archeological site fascinated me from the start.  So many had the feeling of being tomb-like—relics of an older order, filled with the possessions of the dearly departed.  It was not uncommon as late as three or four years ago to enter a projection booth and find traces of the very early stages of film’s history. Fire shutters dating back to the nitrate days which lasted up until the 1950s; old 1,000 foot reels, which would have held silent films of the 1920s; notes written on the walls from one projectionist to another; old magazines tucked away in corners. Projectionists spent so much of their lives in those little rooms.  How could they retire without leaving something of themselves behind? So the film was inherently sad, or inherently reverential in a way.  But I’m also Irish and I entered into this with the idea that the film would be a wake—mixing the sad and the solemn with a spirit of tribute and celebration, with humor and energy.  I hope balance comes across.

SCREEN-SPACE: The film walks a fine line between eulogising a dying/dead aspect of the industry and celebrating its impact. Was it a struggle not to succumb to the sombre, sad loss of film projection?

FLYNN: Yes, it’s a very fine line.  And I did struggle at times to temper my own nostalgia for, or romanticization of “the good old days.”  But as a documentary maker you have to listen to your interviewees.  And not all waxed lyrical on the old days.  Nor were all critical of the new digital technologies—some “old-timers” embraced the future.  The final lines in the film, spoken by one of the older projectionists (ironically to one of the younger ones), ask that we look ahead to the future, not the past. And I thought that was a very important note to end on—a corrective to the romantic view that so many of us can easily fall into. (Pictured, above; David Kornfeld, projectionist at the Somerville Theatre, Somerville, Massachusetts).

SCREEN-SPACE: How much did your film's tone waver in post-production?

FLYNN: Post-production is where you (hopefully) find the right balance. You go out with your camera, you follow your gut, you engage emotionally and instinctually—in other words “on the fly”—with the world you are capturing and then you come back and you have to edit intellectually.  You have to moderate all the voices you find, give each its proper weight in the film, and hopefully find the right balance in the end. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Did you notice defining personality traits that were common across the projectionists you interviewed? What drove these men and women to commit to a life inside a small, dark room?

FLYNN: There is certainly a love and devotion to cinema uniting these people, but there’s a lot more besides.  There’s a commitment they all share to a quality of performance that is lacking today—to the idea of doing a job to the best of your ability, whether you’re acknowledged for that or not; and also to a notion of showmanship, which is likewise missing today.  The projection booth is a place of arrested development in many ways.  Its easy to hold onto older practices, older standards, when you’re isolated from the rest of the world as you are in the booth. As such, many projectionists may be seen to be out of step with contemporary culture, or normal social conventions—a hazard of spending too much time alone in a darkened room, I suppose—but, without exception, the people I interviewed for this film were wonderful; very warm and welcoming, open and generous.  Many have become good friends. (Pictured, above; projectionist Dave Leamon at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts).

SCREEN-SPACE: You address the recent release of The Hateful Eight, noting that it was ultimately a box office disappointment. But the initial 70mm 'roadshow' screenings were sell-outs. Does this indicate that large-scale film projection may still have a place as a 'prestige ticket' event?

FLYNN: The success or failure of The Hateful Eight in relation to the future of 70mm has yet to be determined. It’s a case of “wait and see.” My guess is that 70mm will pop up periodically in specialty theaters (but) not on the grander multiplex scale that the Weinstein Company and Tarantino had hoped for.  For me, the great visual surprise of the holiday season was not The Hateful Eight in 70mm, but Star Wars in 4K Digital 3D.  It was the best digital presentation I have ever seen.  That seems to be the future of large-format, large-screen presentations.  That does not imply that there is no room for 70mm presentations.  In fact, the arrival of digital does not, or rather should not, imply the complete eradication of film presentations.  There’s room for both—maybe less room for film than we’d like, but room for both nonetheless.  Theaters like the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, prove conclusively that there’s still a place for analog film in commercial exhibition.  And that more than anything makes me feel there’s a future, albeit a limited one, for 70mm.

Dying of The Light is a First Run Features release currently in US specialty venues; other territories to follow.

 

Tuesday
Aug042015

THE OUTBACK AMERICAN SAVING SOVIET SCREEN HISTORY

Over 1000 kilometres west of Sydney, the township of Menindee garners scant attention. The population of around 1000 claim some fame - explorers Burke and Wills camped there during their fateful 1860 expedition; it holds the record for the hottest day in the state’s history, the mercury topping 49.7 °C on January 10, 1939; and, postmaster John Cleary introduced the state’s first motorised mail service there in 1910. But how did this dusty township on the Darling River become home to the Kinopanorama Widescreen Preservation Association (K.W.P.A.), a crucial film preservation initiative overseen by a Texan-born former record industry executive committed to restoring the long dormant Russian format to its past glory…?

Honouring cinematic history has driven John Steven Lasher for most of his professional life. In 1974, his music label Entr’acte produced the legendary composer Bernard Hermann’s soundtrack for Brian De Palma’s Sisters; he has overseen newly recorded re-issues of such classic scores as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and King Kong. But in 1992, Lasher refocussed his love affair with film and took on the daunting task of resurrecting Kinopanorama, a three-lens, three-film widescreen format that emerged from the U.S.S.R. Cinema and Photo Research Institute (N.I.K.F.I.) in the mid 1950s in answer to Hollywood’s own ultra-wide projection brand, Cinerama.

“Kinopanorama's legacy is unique because it was the only three-film system developed by a country other than the United States, which could compete with Cinerama on the world market,” says Lasher. The first Kinopanorama film, Roman Karmen’s rural vista Vast is My Native Land (US title - Great is My Country; pictured, right), premiered in Moscow in February 1958; over the next decade, eight travelogue epics were produced in the format. As Cinerama boomed with the release of Hollywood films such as How The West Was Won (and single-camera conversions such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), the Soviet industry remained committed to its own technology; an advanced camera design called the PSO-1960 (pictured, top) allowed for the use of interchangeable lens kits with different focal lengths. Often viewed as cultural by-products of Cold War one-upmanship, both formats proved expensive and fell out of favour by the mid 1960s.

It would not be until 1992 that Lasher, now head of Fifth Continent Movie Classics, would begin the long process of resurrecting Kinopanorama. His first point-of-contact was the Russian Consulate in Sydney, who steered him to veteran cinematographer Yuri Sokol A.C.S., a Russian émigré who had forged a revered Australian resume in collaboration with director Paul Cox (Lonely Hearts, 1982; Man of Flowers, 1983; My First Wife, 1984; Cactus, 1986). “Yuri Sokol was instrumental in negotiating with N.I.K.F.I. for the purchase of the PSO-1960 camera and ancillary equipment,” recalls Lasher, who would subsidise the restoration and transportation of the camera to Australia, accompanied by respected scientific technician, Sergei Rozhkov. “It was possible over time to form a bond with the Russian organisations thanks to Yuri, (who) had retained contacts with other Russian filmmakers and organisations. In this respect, Sergei Rozhkov was most helpful in liaising with the various Russian organisations and colleagues.” (Pictured, below: The Kinopanorama team, 1993)

With further guidance offered by local D.O.P. John R McLean A.C.S. (The Cars That Ate Paris, 1974; Turkey Shoot, 1982), who had crewed on the 1956 Cinerama travelogue South Seas Adventure, Lasher and Rozhkov guided the first Kinopanorama productions in nearly three decades - Chastity Truth and Kinopanorama (1993), a compile of test footage captured on the restored PSO-1960, shot in Moscow by Soviet director Igor Shetsov; and, Bounty (1993), a picturesque examination of Sydney Harbour from the deck of the famous tall-ship. Over this period, Lasher, Rozhkov and Sokol also undertook location shoots in some of regional New South Wales most photogenic locations, including The Blue Mountains and the central western plains surrounding Dubbo, as well as the hallowed sporting venue, The Sydney Cricket Ground (pictured, below).

It was Lasher’s affinity for the landscape of rural Australia that drew him to Broken Hill, the most remote township in New South Wales, where he lived until 2009. “It was not possible to operate a heritage cinema in Broken Hill, where I lived at the time,” recalls Lasher. “The political landscape, particularly after the proposed film studio complex failed to materialise, was not favourable to launch such a venue.” Determined to further his preservation efforts, he shifted base to Menindee and established the K.W.P.A., which secured all rights to the Kinopanorama brand in 2012. “Menindee offered alternate facilities, including an abandoned building next door to the tourist information centre. We have approached the local council about acquiring it. Until this is sorted out we have no set facilities at present.”

Of course, setbacks have never deterred John Steven Lasher from pushing forward with his passion project. In 1999, Lasher helped fund a partial restoration of the first Kinopanorama feature film, Kaljo Kiisk’s Estonian-shot 1962 drama, Opasniye Povoroty (pictured, right: original lobby-card). Despite the project being abandoned due to spiralling costs, the two complete reels have been screened at widescreen celebrations in the U.S. and U.K.  “We are negotiating with Gosfilmofond of Russia for the purchase of a 4K digital master of the restored Opasniye Povoroty for exhibition at film festivals in Australia and New Zealand. From that point onward, I will contact the various festival organisers as to the possibilities of scheduling the film,” says Lasher, who believes the screening of a Kinopanorama feature in all its majesty would be a unique cinematic experience for local audiences. “After all,” he says, “it would be the first time that a three-film panoramic film format had been exhibited in Australia and New Zealand.”

For more information on the Kinopanorama Widescreen Preservation Association, including membership details and the full range of screen services offered, visit the official website or Facebook page.

The KINOPANORAMA ™ name and logos are the exclusive ™ and © of K.W.P.A.; all images are © of K.W.P.A.