Oscar Bombs

728_8-women.jpgAfter seeing The Piano Teacher on Sunday night and the terrific 8 Women on Monday, I’ve decided to call 2002 a wrap and start formulating a top 10 list. I didn’t mean to send off the year with an Isabelle Huppert double-header — didn’t even realize she was in 8 Women when I sat down to watch it — but seeing these two back-to-back really made me appreciate her skills as well as the very different types of performance that Haneke and Ozon elicited from her.

364_pianiste.jpgAnyway. It’s not that I feel like I’ve now seen everything I need to see. On the contrary, my DVD shelf alone is still bulging with wannasee 2002 releases (R’Xmas, The Isle, Ice Age, even an Academy screener of Die Another Day to which I was toying with the idea of eventually getting around), and there are a handful of movies still in theaters that could very well figure among my year-end favorites (chief among them About Schmidt and Catch Me If You Can; I never know exactly what might tickle my capricious fancy but, gawd, what an abrogation of duty for me not to get off my duff for the new Spielberg, huh?).

How can I face myself? Easy. I blame the studios for bottom-loading the calendar year. For even the casual “prestige” moviegoer, December 2002 was denser than ever, with Hollywood dropping Oscar bait into theaters like bombs over Baghdad in George W. Bush’s wettest dreams. Really, does anyone with a full-time job, a home or social life, and a lack of pathological dedication to the films of the cinema manage to see everything they’d like during the Oscar run-up? Sure, if you camp out in Toronto or at Lincoln Center for those respective film fests you’ll get a head start on awards season. But I can’t imagine that it makes fiscal sense to appeal to the over-24 demo only during one month out of the year. (With the Oscar telecast being moved up a few crucial weeks next year, perhaps the tail end of the year will loosen up a bit as studios scramble to build earlier momentum.)

Anyway, I’m a member of this organization called the Online Film Critics Society, which has positioned itself as a sort of accrediting body for Internet-based film writers. In some ways, the idea that there needs to be a clearinghouse to help publicists tell the difference between “legitimate” online critics and mere hobbyists is testament to the fact that online writers (me included) are little more than operators of their own vanity presses. It just so happens that the Web is the most efficient press ever invented. The most tangible benefit of OFCS membership is probably the wave of videotapes and DVDs that flood in from the studios at the end of the year. I’m grateful for each and every one (even though I can’t quite bring myself to queue up Antwone Fisher or The Banger Sisters), since they often help me fill shameful holes in my cinephilia at the end of each year. Among the terrific 2002 films that I saw only after receiving screeners are 8 Women and Late Marriage.

But, at the same time, I’m kinda horrified by the notion that Academy voters and critics’ groups make any kind of aesthetic judgments on a film’s merit based on looking at these things on their teevees. I mean, you could argue that seeing a film like Gangs of New York on DVD, rather than on a proper theater screen, is bad enough. But how about the fuzzy VHS tape of One Hour Photo, as clean and chilly a film as I’ve seen since Kubrick kicked it, that I received from Fox Searchlight? If that’s the only version of One Hour Photo you’ve seen, can you say that you’ve really seen the film at all? More to the point, I can imagine that if I saw the cagey Read My Lips in an actual movie theater, where its impressive audio work was allowed to create truly cavernous spaces inside the hearing-impaired protagonist’s head, I may well have graded it a notch or two above the B I actually gave it.

And even when you get a good-looking DVD, it generally includes big ugly scrolling banners declaring ownership of copyright (aimed at discouraging pirates) and you’re lucky if it includes the multichannel theatrical soundtrack (discs from Miramax and Universal Focus do; discs from MGM don’t). The screeners are great as a fallback, and nobody knows better than I do what a pain it is to schlep from the suburbs into the big city (more than an hour, each way) just to catch a limited-release film in some Procrustean back-alley art house. But I do hope that everyone who takes films seriously will continue to take the effort to see them in their native environment — projected in 35mm up on a nice big theater screen, where they really belong.

Then again, I was bowled over when I fired up my screener of Gangs of New York — even through my cheapjack home theater system, the quality of the soundfield was notably superior to that of the shopping-mall multiplex where I originally saw the film. Moreover, my multiplex experience was broken up by a couple of Neanderthal parental units who brought a toddler to the screening and then, when my wife leaned over to whisper a gentle shush after said child made loud noises through the first 45 minutes of the movie, went utterly apeshit on us. (End result: the troglodytes were escorted out of the theater, but my wife was hit in the face by a flying soda cup full of ice.) After this sort of encounter, the home-viewing experience seems awfully attractive. I guess my point is that DVD, while sometimes necessary, is never quite as good as the real thing.

Also on the subject of DVD, are distributors like Kino International really so fucking Top-Ramen poor that they can’t afford to release a decent disc of a prestige art-house title like The Piano Teacher? The image is mediocre — I’m guessing it may have been transcoded from a PAL master, which is shameful enough. (Certainly the film is sorely lacking a high-resolution 16×9 transfer for DVD. That’s a no-brainer these days.) Worse, the credits clearly specify that the film, which features the type of masterful sound design that’s typical of Michael Haneke’s work, was mixed in Dolby Digital, a six-channel theatrical sound format. The DVD, sadly, is only recorded in two channels, which means many of the subtleties of the sound mix are unavailable to the home viewer. At $30, this is the type of release that demonstrates just how badly the home-video world still needs the sensibilities of third parties like The Criterion Collection and, hell, Synapse Films, third-party movie lovers who are pretty much hell-bent on doing justice to other people’s art.

Stan Brakhage once opined that, in his mind, there was no possibility of video being art, mainly because the filmmaker loses control of the essential image — on film, a color is more or less absolute, while on video, he said, “color is wherever you turn the knob.” Well, that’s true. To this day, I don’t know if the cinematography on Roger Dodger is obstinately murky, or if the VHS Academy screener I watched just hazed out all the details that theatergoers could make out in the darkness. The question becomes not “What film did you see?” but rather “What version of that film did you see?” The clarity of DVD — and especially the amount of image filtering that takes place as a film is compressed to fit on a disc — is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. If you watch Citizen Kane on laserdisc, there is rain beating against the window of Bernstein’s office as he tells the story of the girl about whom he’s thought every day of his life. If you watch it on DVD, the rain is not there — at least not all of it. Much of the pounding rain has been removed, processed out of existence, apparently in a bid to remove fine detail from the video master to make the movie compress better.

Of course, many films are being transferred to DVD exceptionally well, and some savvy distributors are trying to use it as a primary distribution medium for cinema. (If it’s on DVD, is it still cinema?) As DVD becomes more and more prominent — Monsters Inc. actually made more money on DVD in the U.S. than it did at the North American box office — I suppose it will become more and more the responsibility of the critic to come to terms with it, and of filmmakers and studios to make certain that the integrity of the image and sound are maintained throughout all aspects of the distribution process.

One Reply to “Oscar Bombs”

  1. I think you make a good point about the different versions of a film that can exist, but thinking celluloid is immune from this kind of manipulation is a big call indeed. Over here, multiplexes regularly project below ten ohms (reccommended intensity). You can tell, because it’s so frickin dark – when you go to real theatre, it’s like a supernova. This, of course, is assuming they can even get the picture completely in focus, and that the ancient/puny sound systems are up to a complicated sound design, and a decent volume. Getting into issues of interpertation is dangerous; the very audience you see a film with can substantially alter your perception (how else can I explain why I found The Mummy such hilarious and excellent fun?). Should we all be watching Star Wars on digital projectors? What responsibility does a film have to anticipate and overcome these problems? It’s an intersting issue when the technology varies so much.

    Posted by: Patrick at February 3, 2003 08:47 AM

    The Brakhage quote is interesting – a very old-school conception of video that avoids entirely the fact that film prints look rather different from each other too, and that this difference is still further affected by their projection.

    In a sense, video can be more precise than film, because the color-correction decisions are made on a monitor that is calibrated to a specific standard, making it possible to see those colors accurately on a monitor calibrated closely to that specific standard. People may have misadjusted sets, but there is an ultimate reference standard that they are departing from.

    There is no precision in the amount of fading of colour dyes in a film print, and unless one is familiar with the film, no certainty that the projectionist is properly framing the image on the print. There is also no way of knowing whether or not the films look is influenced by several layers of grime occluding the projection lens, or by a projection lamp run at half the recommended wattage.

    Posted by: Bjorn Thoresen at February 3, 2003 11:22 AM

    Bryant, I’ve been reading a lot by you and I’m just wondering if now is really the best time to wrap up 2002. Have you seen any other films, like THE HOURS and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE? I’d love to know your grades for the rest of the movies you saw in 2002. If you have time, e-mail me with the grades.

    Sorry to hear about your wife’s soda cup incident.

    Look forward to speaking with you on Cinemarati.


    Posted by: Ryan Lapierre at February 3, 2003 12:09 PM

    Ryan, I have indeed seen Punch-Drunk Love. I liked it well enough, but it left me a little cold. (Obviously, I didn’t have much to say about it.) I’d give it a B or B-, probably, and leave it at that. Mainly the relationship at the center of the film didn’t convince me, and, as usual, Anderson’s devices (like The Amazing Symbolic Harmonium) just wore on my nerves. I’m not a real P.T. Anderson kinda guy, I guess — Hard Eight is still my favorite of his films.

    I swore I wouldn’t bother seeing The Hours, though I’m convinced it probably contains some pretty terrific performances. A dear friend recommended it, so maybe I’ll finally drag ass to the multiplex and watch it. Of course I still haven’t finalized a top 10 list for this year or last year, so maybe it doesn’t matter much whether or not I’ve called it quits. The older I get and the more I learn about how much of the overall global film culture I really have no clue about, the less enthusiastic I am about making my own lists calculating the alleged best of the year in any given field.

    Patrick and Bjorn, you both make excellent points about the variations in presentation of the filmed, not just the video, image. I think a lot of people � laypeople who are dazzled by DVD, yes, but also craftspeople and artists who should have known better all along but didn’t � have been lately awakened to the true possibilities of the video image, within and especially without the confines of the NTSC signal. If you’ve spent any time among the home-theater wonks online, you’ve encountered one of the innumerable arguments about what Stanley Kubrick really meant when he left orders that his entire catalog of films be transferred to video without letterboxing, and how he might have felt otherwise if he had lived just a few years longer to see high-quality home video really come into its own.

    And of course it’s been documented that Martin Scorsese refused to shoot in scope up until Cape Fear because he knew that the movies would be butchered when they were eventually shown on television, and because it was only at that point in his career where he felt certain that a letterboxed version would always be made available (on laserdisc).

    Posted by: Bryant at February 18, 2003 11:12 AM

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