Watching Movies

The Barco DP2K-19B replaces film, film cans, projectionists, and…

Yesterday I watched two movies, both of which I really enjoyed. They were both about artists making art (a novel, a film) from the trash of their lives. Something that’s on my To Do list. I guess the first step is admitting my life’s trash.

A film reviewer isn’t supposed to “enjoy” a film so much as judge it. The critical faculty is along for the ride, with extra points awarded to the film that touches a well-worn aesthetic groove in a delicious new way. That’s critical perversion: what makes a film “good” isn’t pleasure in watching, it’s pleasure in watching pleasure in watching. Mise-en-abime, the French call it. Staring into the abyss.

The opposite of a focus group. The opposite of placating a puerile consumer’s wish list. The compounding of cultural essences, slow distillation over time, finished in sherry casks for a nutty, fruity je ne sais quoi on the tongue. Taste. That unmentionable. Although maybe all the new millionaires will bring it back, since so many of them seem to have so little of it.

So, if I enjoyed these movies, am I not a film critic? Or was I having an off day? Or were these not films I was watching?

I saw On The Road in the third-floor screening room at Dolby Laboratories on Potrero, a gorgeous brick building that murmurs “stability” as soon as someone presses the button that lets you walk in the front glass door to gaze up in wonder at the raw wood fret-work ceiling complete with security cameras just in case you thought you’d stumbled into a different decade.

On The Road, an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s immortal novel, was digitally projected, so technically no, I wasn’t watching a film. Could I tell the difference? Oh yes. There’s a flat fuzziness to digital. You can see the dots, as in a Seurat painting, however much you’d rather not. There’s no gloss or lushness to digital, and no depth.

Mark Fishkin, executive director of the Mill Valley Film Festival, seemed annoyed there were no questions at the press conference announcing its 35th iteration. What did he take us for, investigative reporters? Then more annoyed to have to answer mine. But he’s an old hand, looking dapper in gray jacket on white shirt, having lost weight and gone gray over the years, so he launched into a mini-diatribe about art houses closing because they can’t afford the technology, then expressed gratitude the San Rafael Film Center could pony up the $75K-per-screen conversion, and had the good sense to toss in, “like you” — like me, like us — he used to be a celluloid snob.

My memories of the early days of digital projection include walking out of press screenings with a headache and getting a $10 refund for a digital Marie Antoinette at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, which, frankly, I realized 10 minutes in, I didn’t want to sit through in any format. So, I’ve asked this question before, because it interests me — it interests me that I have to ask it.

The best answer I got was from a projectionist at the Roxie Cinema on 16th Street, before he scurried away, feeling he might get into trouble for leaking trade secrets, revealing what went on upstairs in the booth. His job was threatened by the new technology, or at best, altered beyond recognition.

We gave up typewriters, didn’t we? A key player in On The Road. When the actor playing Sal Paradise finally puts the scroll of butcher’s paper into the shiny black enameled precision steel Remington and starts pounding away — well, that’s when we know he’s writing. We hear the percussive jazz of his internal road unfolding, in a halo of cigarette smoke and whisky fumes. Phew. He made it.

That’s when the hard drive glitched, with about two minutes of movie to go. Groan. So much for advanced technology.

It’s no secret we’re no longer watching film, literal film. Celluloid has gone the way of silver nitrite and the silver certificate. Which reminds me, the dollar bills in On The Road, set around 1949, seemed like today’s dollar bills, not silver certificates. I don’t know why they caught my eye but they momentarily destroyed the period illusion. As did the automobiles, but that’s a given. They all looked too new.

Two MVFF programmers, executive director Mark Fishkin, and chief programmer Zoe Elton.

So what if the Mill Valley Film Festival doesn’t show films, actually? Most people won’t notice, or only subliminally, and you know how that is, you notice and forget. Anyway, there’s no going back, is there? This is where we are now and we’ve never been a culture of preservation. We don’t know how to maintain technologies, only replace them.

I say that, but here in San Francisco we have cable cars, famously, and streetcars — we even have renovated streetcars from all over the world — how crazy is that? The F line, running from Embarcadero to the Castro, is a streetcar museum you can hop on and ride in otherwise obsolete style. We also have cars and activist bicyclers who stop traffic every final Friday of the month. People even walk here. And I’m sorry to say I saw some idiots on segways outside the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

I got rid of my typewriter, the one I bought for $30 in New York City and still had with me when I came to San Francisco via France 20 years later. I wrote my first reviews on that typewriter and handed paper originals to my editor, then bought a used Apple and put them on a floppy disk and rode them over on my bike, then there was email, and now I don’t even have an editor.

It’s pretty fucking crazy, this technology shit.

The other movie, Keep the Lights On, was handed to me on a dvd, which I popped into my laptop and watched without interruption except when my roommate came home. The image is smaller, of course, but the brain adapts, and the resolution on my MacBook, circa 2008, is superior to Dolby’s.

That’s a problem. Isn’t it?

Delectable fresh fruit salad and nutty gooey sticky buns at the Mill Valley Film Festival press conference.

what do you think?

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