Classical Notes
title - Movies and Reality - The Challenges of Art Films and New Technology

A year ago I lamented the passing of the Bethesda Theatre Café a/k/a Cinema Drafthouse. Since then, my movie-starved neighbors had to either settle for the humdrum programming, depressing sterility and shoddy presentation of their local UA multiplex or travel to more enlightened locales.

But just as our mourning period ended and we came to accept the inexorable cost of progress, we awoke to a fabulous surprise, barely suspecting that a treasure had grown beneath the constant construction that's been altering our once-quiet little 'burb into a tentacle of the city. But there it was, amid the trendy new eateries and boutiques, beckoning with a garish black and yellow deco sign. Overnight, we'd been transformed from a cinematic backwater into the crown jewel of Washington-area movie-going.

On May 2, 2002 LA-based Landmark Theatres launched its first foray into the DC area with a brand-new eight-screen cinema. “Big deal,” you say. “Just what we need - yet another place to see the same boring blockbusters playing everywhere else.” But Bethesda Row boasts a crucial difference. Landmark pledges to show nothing but “art” films - you know, those foreign and independent movies that trade an occasional shaky camera, untamed soundtrack or rough edit for a couple of genuine ideas.

The prospect is truly a thrill - after a lifetime of being cruelly teased by all those Friday New York Times reviews of obscure but exciting films, now there's a chance we can walk down the street and actually see one. And when an ad notes that a tantalizing new flick is to be “playing in select cities,” we could be one of them!

Opening night was a generous gift to the community of free screenings and refreshments (at least for those lucky to have chanced by earlier for a complimentary pass). The lobby is spacious, the staff is genuinely friendly and before the shows they play suitable music instead of ad-laden faux-radio. Unlike most urban or underground venues where height is scarce, the theatres boast stadium seating, thus purging the fear that just as the movie begins some guy on stilts will plop down right in front of you.

But although it certainly wasn't intended, my most cherished surprise of all that night was the complete absence of trailers. Just picture it - we sat down, settled in, and the feature began! Imagine that nowadays - to actually be in the mood for the sensitive movie you paid to see without first having to fend off 15 minutes of screaming, explosions and other hysteria. (If you actually enjoy this stuff, don't worry - regular shows are preceded by the standard amount of clutter but, reflecting the upscale programming, without quite as much strident mayhem.)

Despite its splendid programming, Bethesda Row isn't perfect. The opening night jitters (sound too loud, popcorn too salty, an inglorious entrance down the emergency stairs to sidestep the inoperative escalator) quickly subsided, but there are some inherent design problems. The first two rows of seats are too close to the screens to be useable. In the smaller auditoria, the screens are off-center on the same side as broad entrance aisles, so most seats require skewed angle viewing. And the so-called arm-rests are a sad misnomer - those hard plastic things are fine for disposable cups but not human flesh; somehow it seems unfair that a $3.50 soda resides in greater comfort than a paying customer.

Speaking of paying and the mysteries of the English language, here's a consumer alert. As explained to me after the crime by the manager, the ads' “lure of first show bargain matinee” takes on a rather novel interpretation in Landmark-speak. If you were to assume that it meant that the first show in each auditorium is to be bargain-priced, you'd be quite wrong. Thus, when a movie opens in theatre A at noon and plays in theatre B a half-hour later, the latter commands full price. Admittedly, the $2.50 difference doesn't rank among the most pressing economic issues of our time - it won't buy half a beer at Camden Yards (and let's not mention my hourly rate) - but you've been warned.

Art films are supposed to make you think, and their new home raises a basic question: Once the novelty wears off, will Bethesda Row really wean us away from the videos to which, by default, we've become accustomed for adventurous movie fare? Sure, the impact of celluloid on the big screen is far more potent than video on the home telly, but cost and convenience exert a powerful inertia. With $8.50 tickets (ouch!), a single family outing to our new theatre rents a lot of $4 tapes, especially for those whose nests aren't as empty as ours. The ability to set your own viewing agenda is a strong inducement for professionals and others with erratic schedules, conflicting demands and limited time. And, like all interesting art, Landmark's are the types of movies that invite a second look to reveal their full lode of riches, an opportunity afforded by a typical video rental period but discouraged by the need to buy another ticket; of the current crop of movies, we would have enjoyed savoring again the plot convolutions of Nine Queens (and perhaps even have untangled them), but for $17 we'll manage to live with our perplexity.

So welcome, Landmark! And thanks for letting Bethesda join Dupont Circle as the (art) movie capital of the (DC) world!

- - - - - - - -

Speaking of the rift between video and film, Virginians are in the vanguard of a possible resolution. According to industry pundits, the expense and burden of generating, transporting, maintaining and projecting 35 mm motion picture prints may soon be superceded by theatrical video exhibition. Director George Lucas is among the most fervent advocates, for reasons both artistic and mercenary (he owns the foremost purveyor of the required soft- and hardware). To win converts, his new Star Wars feature was shot entirely on video and has been released not only on standard film but in its original all-digital format for the few theatres outfitted to show it.

Curiously, the only venue so equipped in the DC area is an auditorium at the back of the Arlington Boulevard/Lee Highway Multiplex Cinema, a nondescript and now forlorn pioneer whose only current distinction is the noisiest seats I've ever heard. (Think of a forest of mutant crickets.) But to give credit where it's due, those seats boast real armrests, resplendent in padded pleather.

With the prevalence of DTS, SDDS and Dolby systems, digital sound has become commonplace, so the real draw here is the digital picture. Previous prototypes were of mediocre quality or on puny screens, but Star Wars Episode II is stunning, with a full-sized display, rock-steady image, razor-sharp detail and superb color. It's the first time I've seen video that matches 35 mm standards, but without all the annoying artifacts of wobbly registration, scratches, splices, flicker, projector clatter, soft focus and uneven illumination that increasingly plague film exhibition nowadays. The only flaw was an occasional lack of detail in dark scenes (most likely due to the more limited contrast ratio of the video format), but slack modern lab work afflicts most 35 mm prints with similar murk nowadays.

The most remarkable advantage is the extraordinary detail, abetted by a higher frame rate to smooth the action. The picture degenerates into its constituent lines only when you're so close to the screen that film would already have broken down into its grain. Even from the front row, the clarity is astonishing. And Lucas knows it. Throughout the movie, he takes full advantage by keeping the backdrop in sharp focus even when we would expect the depth of field of a standard camera lens to blur it, and by filling the frame with a constant profusion of dynamic detail where we would settle for static scenery. Even far distances glimpsed through windows of interior sets teem with activity. Processing so much information within this unaccustomed density is exhausting, although it does manage to sustain interest during the protracted lulls between action sequences. Clearly, Lucas seized upon his new movie to herald a new medium and to challenge others to grasp its enhanced aesthetic possibilities.

Digital projection is not just a way to save the expense and bother of celluloid distribution. Rather, it's the latest step toward bridging the ever-narrowing gap between movies and reality. A century ago, when the flickers were a mere vaudeville turn amid crooners and contortionists, early reviews marveled at their supposed authenticity. But while the spectacle of a photograph that moved was indeed remarkable, the silent, gray images were hardly realistic. From the very outset, producers and exhibitors sought to minimize the intrinsic limitations - premium productions were tinted and sometimes hand colored frame by frame and even the cheapest nickelodeon provided customized musical accompaniment. Later decades brought true color, synchronous sound, wide screens, stereo, 3-D, jumbo formats and computer-generated effects but the fundamental gap, although constricted, still remained.

But that's OK - movies generate their power by requiring us to infer a deeply personal reality through the power of suggestion. The deepest rewards come from the hardest work. Early movie audiences ran for the exits in terror when a jittery, silent, black and white train bore down on them, yet nowadays we just yawn as a profusely detailed spaceship rumbles by. The greater the effort demanded to stimulate our minds, the more intensely we react. Something is clearly lost with greater authenticity. And anyway, movies are fantasy. Do we really want reality? Isn't there enough of that in the streets and on TV news?

So by all means let's salute Lucas and his all-digital movie, but let's not forget that every step toward a more realistic experience may also be a step away from an emotionally compelling one. Shortly after seeing the digital Star Wars I barely remembered it, but the movies I saw at Bethesda Row still haunt me.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2002 by Peter Gutmann

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