What's Wrong With This Picture?

Why does the film festival make great movies look so bad?

Bitching about the projection of a new Werner Herzog documentary may sound to some like bellyaching over the typeface of War and Peace. It's the text that matters, right?

But what if the text is an aerial view of the lush canopy of the Guyanan rain forest, shot from a low-flying dirigible? What if the film--which, by the way, is titled The White Diamond--means to show us a hundred thousand swifts swirling in a vortex above a hypnotic waterfall? What if a brilliantly colored tree frog, rarely seen by human eyes, is cowering from a camera that's hovering just a few feet above its pearlescent head?

Hocus focus: If Jia Zhangke's 'The World' had looked this awful, maybe the projectionist would have done something. Maybe.
Zeitgeist Films
Hocus focus: If Jia Zhangke's 'The World' had looked this awful, maybe the projectionist would have done something. Maybe.

And what if, instead of seeing all that, you found yourself watching lines of white static that filled almost half the screen?

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival is good at a lot of things, but projecting movies isn't one of them. At this year's fest, I watched five films--more than some casual fans, fewer than some fanatics--and I can say, looking back, that the booth botched every one of them. The Great Communist Bank Robbery at the Bell was so dim that it looked as if it were being screened outdoors in daylight. Maybe 20 minutes into the doc, the projectionist made an announcement that she was stopping the video, and then tried boosting the contrast. It didn't help.

Kings and Queen, a French soul-smelter at the Oak Street Cinema, yielded to a handful of full-stop reel changes. The only thing more inscrutable than the characters was the focus, which seemed like it might be corrected by wearing the kind of poseur glasses that you think your friend keeps for cosmetic reasons, but which actually have a subtle corrective effect. I believe the projectionist was having trouble with the ratio of the wide-screen Cinemascope.

Minnesota Film Arts programmer Emily Condon called Jia Zhangke's The World the most beautiful film she'd seen in the M-SPIFF. You could understand why. The long-take scenes of a Beijing amusement park with its own Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and New York skyline were framed to brilliant and often ironic effect. Unfortunately, it seemed during the Oak Street showing that either the subtitles were in focus or the picture was--but never both at the same time.

The Oak Street is not a state-of-the-art movie house. The projection system was hustled out of a derelict theater a decade ago and lovingly restored by a talented techie (who recently vacated his position as MFA's technical director). Yet Crown Theatres' Block E 15 is a professionally equipped, modern movie house. Which is what made it so disappointing when the magical animated film McDull, Prince de la Bun had the kind of interruptions that you'd expect from a junior high A/V club. (A last-minute venue change bollixed the setup.) The reel breaks were many and they were long. When the lights rose for the fourth or fifth time, I took the opportunity to catch up on some magazine reading.

I owe the M-SPIFF a debt of gratitude for all the cinematic wonders I never would have seen any other way. It's the festival that introduced me to Dutch documentary maker Heddy Honigmann and her painfully matter-of-fact meditations on war and sex and music. What little I know about the economic spasms of the old Eastern bloc I learned from the documentary Power Trip. Most of the U.S. never caught a glimpse of Hou Hsiao-hsien's throbbing youth tale Millennium Mambo, but thanks to the M-SPIFF, we did.

Yet I'd be lying if I didn't also say that I've begun to resent how shoddily they treat the movies themselves. And I'm annoyed by how little they seem to think about the experience of watching the work they program so devotedly. Herzog's The White Diamond, to return to my original complaint, is available in 35mm. Perhaps that print was too expensive or couldn't be booked. Yet I gathered from the M-SPIFF volunteer making excuses after the movie that what I cringed through was a dub of a digital format beyond the Bell's screening capacity. I couldn't make out the exact rationalization, and I didn't much care to.

Minnesota Film Arts isn't an institutional heavyweight like the Walker Art Center and the M-SPIFF doesn't have bottomless funding to spiff up its projection booth. But color correcting, contrast adjusting, and otherwise troubleshooting the tapes and discs before they begin surely wouldn't cost any money. Another free fix would be to list the format for each screening in the printed program. Other film festivals do it as a matter of course. (In the language of international cinema, "the Bell" and "digital video" would translate to "view at your own risk.")

You pay $9 to go to the pictures because you believe in the mission of the festival, and you want to discover new work, and you like the idea that there's actually an auditorium full of other people you didn't know gave a damn about Romanian refuseniks or experimental blimps. Primarily you pay the $9, though, because movies appear most beautiful on a big screen.

Maybe I'm just whining about the paper stock of Anna Karenina here. And perhaps the 145 features and 295 screenings that I missed all looked super. I suspect more strongly, however, that there were a lot of other movie lovers mumbling the same thing last week as they hit the sidewalk: I would rather have watched that on Netflix.

 
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