The Future of Repertory, Part 2

On April 22, 2008, www.sfgate.com published the following blog entry by film critic Mick LaSalle: Repertory Theaters and Digital.

Here is our response:

Mick,

Thanks for acknowledging and replying to our response to your earlier article. A very abridged version was submitted to your editor but, as far as we know, never published. Nevertheless, we are happy to participate in an open discussion of the issues.

Itís good to hear that youíre a lover of film--the physical medium--too. Sometimes your writings suggest the opposite, such as your recent assertion that watching a film via "large" screen DVD projection at home is an identical experience to watching it on film, only more enjoyable. Can we dismiss this as hyperbolic venting about rude audiences?

What a shame many (certainly not all) Bay Area rep programmers hold no hope for the future of film in exhibition. One problem is that some studios, notably Warners, have indicated that they intend to stop making new prints of classics. But, being commercial entities, they will change their tune if the demand is there.

Many interested parties, some calling the Bay Area home, do question the superiority of the 35mm experience. Digital projection is a hot new product that manufacturers and distributors want to sell, and the countless press releases disingenuously trumpeting its virtues go largely unchallenged. The most heralded claim is that digital is "perfect", show after show. Itís true that, in comparison to film projection, some components of these systems are less apt to drift out of alignment, and the "content" itself is presumably robust. But digital projection uses the same screens, the same speakers, and very similar (but pricier) bulbs and lenses. These are all prone to damage and degradation over time. On the other hand, the inevitability of film damage is exaggerated. It is the result of mishandling or maladjusted equipment. These can be avoided, at the cost of proper maintenance and wages for competent projectionists. Compared to the cost of quality digital systems, which also require servicing, thatís not a bad deal.

Some commenters on your blog express indifference whether they see a movie projected on film or digitally. Most people take a reductive approach to a work of art, regarding certain aspects and ignoring others. This is fine on a personal level. A painting can be appreciated without looking at the brushstrokes. But to claim that the very real differences between digital and film just arenít there or simply donít matter is to remove the possibility of their ever being appreciated. The work and the medium are diminished. Film critics could do a better job educating the public about these niceties.

When it comes to DVD-quality projection, as with Fingers, the difference is immediately obvious to anyone.

Of course, digital projection is not the first nor the only cause of diminished attendance at repertory screenings. Home video bears much of that responsibility. But what is the best way to address this? Back in the 1950ís when the introduction of television cut into (first-run) film audiences, they were won back by a strategy of differentiating the film-going experience from that of TV-viewing. Films were wider, in color, in 3-D, in addition to being larger and clearer. Todayís strategy seems to be to make film-going as close to home-viewing as possible. Even digital 3-D, which some hail as the savior of cinema, is already available in the home, if not yet widely so. All this digital homogeny is great for studios and distributors who reap their reward regardless of how the "product" is delivered, but it will do little to lure those who are typically loath to leave their houses.

We said the Castro Theatre was struggling, not that it was financially successful. However, their repertory offerings have been consistently interesting lately and theyíve been rebuilding a decent audience since the PR disaster of a few years back. Perhaps the absence of a San Francisco-based superstar programmer is still perceived as alienating. Thatís unfortunate, but somewhat misguided: their fantastic recent series of exceptional and rarely-seen 1970ís action films was curated locally, and Freeky Fridays impresario Jesse Ficks is a hero of our film scene.

The Castroís upcoming 70mm series would be a great opportunity to introduce the uninitiated to the wonders of this large format. A film shot and shown in 70mm provides a visceral and aesthetic experience of a quality unlike anything video can offer. Give it a try yourself. It might change your opinion of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But the question is not how to make money with art, but how to sustain art in the face of money problems. One thing we did try to suggest is that, if profitability is unattainable, that goal be abandoned. The Stanford may be in its own financial category, but the PFA, Rafael, SFMOMA, YBCA, as well as several far smaller institutions, also manage to institute repertory programming within a non-profit model. Passion can be a far greater motivator than profit.

The Chronicle may not be responsible for the decline of repertory, but it isnít helping much either. Smaller newspapers, despite modest resources, generally take more seriously the idea of service to the community. We donít expect the Chronicle, with its broader focus on the world, to be a mere community cheerleader. But news coverage canít consist only of wire feeds and yellow journalism, and coverage of the local film scene shouldnít limit itself to reviews of new movies and celebrity gossip, but rather include positive and insightful discussion of the breadth of our cultural offerings.

Of course new work should be subjected to substantive criticism, but most movie reviews hardly qualify. Featured reviews are almost always of the biggest Hollywood movies, while smaller releases, regardless of merit, are buried in an article in the back pages. What is the point, other than pandering to reader expectations and giving free advertising to those who least need it? Healthy arts coverage should highlight not what the money wants us to see, nor necessarily what we think we want to see, but that which is worth seeing. The Chronicle, with its circulation, could have a major impact on the rep scene if its coverage were more in this spirit.

You underestimate your power as a critic. Youíre the best-known, most widely read writer on film in the Bay Area. Not everything you touch turns to gold, but the PFA Theater staff, as well as the people turned away at the door, were all surprised at the turnout when they showed The Mother and the Whore, which you had championed. (No doubt it helped that the PFA is known for quality projection.) Think what consistently positive and encouraging words from you about the film-going experience could do.