Monday, April 22, 2013

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

WHO: Ennio Morricone wrote the score for this film.

WHAT: Other than the fact that Morricone's musical themes for this are among the more striking and memorable, at least from among those he composed for films I have yet to see, I don't know much about this Elio Petri-directed picture beyond basics. It won the Grand Prix (essentially second-prize to Robert Altman's M.A.S.H.) award at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival and later beat out Buñuel's Tristana and other films for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1971 Oscar ceremony. Thus proving that M.A.S.H. is better than Tristana, in case you were wondering.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7:00 tonight only at the Lark Theater in Larkspur, CA.

WHY: The Lark is an art deco single-screen movie house in Marin County that I've never been inside. I've kept an eye on its programming for several years now, however, and though it does have a tradition of hosting special screenings, most of them tend to be of content frequently as available at other Frisco Bay venues as well, and I've never felt compelled to justify a visit. 

Seeing an uncommonly-shown Oscar-winning classic on the theatre's schedule this week, however, made my eyes perk up. That it's part of a four-film presentation of screenings of "library titles" (non-new-releases) in 4K digital presentation is a sign of the times; I'm not sure the Lark has 35mm capability any longer. If this were a film screening I'd be very interested in attending, but I just skipped a chance to see this film projected digitally at the Castro a couple months ago.

Then again, the Castro's projector is only a 2K model and the Lark's is now 4K, twice as powerful. Might this be a more special occasion because of that? I've yet to be really wowed by the digital image of a classic film shown digitally, but perhaps that's because the only time I've watched one in 4K it was something I'd seen multiple times in 70mm, not 35mm (Lawrence of Arabia).

These are the thoughts cinephiles are beginning to ponder as we enter the industry's final push to completely transform the exhibition landscape from a film-based to a digital one. More and more theatres are converting to digital, although there are still holdouts depending on the studios' continued production of 35mm prints, and there seems to be confusion about what's going to happen to them. For an interesting take on the current state of this transition, I recommend a recent Variety article that looks at the situation from multiple angles, with perspectives from film purists and digital proponents alike.

I was particularly interested in the fact that everyone quoted in the article seemed to agree about the need for "library titles" to be able to be screened in cinemas. And it isn't Martin Scorsese or famous film-on-film advocate Christopher Nolan, but James Cameron's producing partner Jon Landau who argues for the need to "preserve the infrastructure needed to continue to show library titles as they were created by the filmmakers of the past"- meaning on film. This is not the way the industry is trending, with the Virtual Print Fee system providing incentives for the decommissioning of film projectors as digital ones take their place (even in booths with room for both), and fewer and fewer new prints of older films being struck by most if not all of the studios.

One aspect of the transition not mentioned in the article is particularly worth thinking about on Earth Day. Conventional wisdom holds that the old system of chemically producing thousands of 35mm prints and sending them in heavy cans around the country via petroleum-dependent vehicles, and finally destroying most of them to prevent their getting into the hands of pirates, collectors, etc., was incredibly wasteful, and that distribution via more lightweight DCP drives is far more environmentally friendly. It sounds logical but I'd like to see some data, or even just some projections, before I take this at face value. I've written before about the ecological effects of widespread home video vis-a-vis cinema screenings, which to me seems like a no-brainer to me: more individual screens means more waste. But digital projection in cinemas does appear to have some worthwhile environmental efficiency compared to 35mm. Those film cans are heavy, and wide releases in the multiplex age surely involved a lot of wasted resources.

On the other hand, 35mm projectors lasted a long time before having to be replaced. Digital projectors (and DCPs use resources as well, and even if the latter are lighter than multiple reels, that doesn't mean they were produced in a more ecologically-friendly way. What's more, we don't know how long it will take for 4K projectors to seem antiquated and in need of another environmentally-costly mass replacement with 8k projectors, and how quickly pressure will mount for that cycle to be repeated again and again. It feels to me that in the short term, the widespread switch from film to digital may well be taking a greater toll on the Earth's resources than status quo would have. In the long term, the ecological cost might eventually become lower, but if an arms race in resolution and screen size continues to be waged between cinema exhibition and home video, it could just as easily become much much greater.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, and would especially love to collect links to studies or articles or even just quotes by credible people about the ecological costs and benefits of the massive, worldwide shift from film to video exhibition.

HOW: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion screens digitally, in a 4K restoration that had its US premiere in New York last fall, and its local premiere, albeit through a 2K rather than 4K projector,

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