Tuesday, April 22, 2008

FILM ON FILM FOUNDATION—The Evening Class Interview With Carl Martin

My thanks to Brian Darr's recent alert on Hell On Frisco Bay that the Film on Film Foundation ("FOFF") now offers a discriminating calendar alerting Bay Area audiences to which venues are projecting their programs on film. It reminded me that I've been meaning to speak with FOFF's founder Carl Martin for some time.

As FOFF's mission statement asserts: "FOFF promotes film as a living art form by screening works from its history and stimulating its continued use in production and exhibition.

"We envision a vital film culture in which repertory screenings figure prominently on the cinematic landscape, and film—actual film—is not just an object of nostalgia but a living medium of expression. For over a century, the innate physical properties of film have not only served as the key elements in the work of many of our most significant artists, but have constituted a prism through which we have experienced the world.

"In the Bay Area, as in general, the number of venues offering regular repertory programming has been reduced to a paltry few. This is largely due to the popular misperception that the aesthetic qualities of video are essentially equivalent to those of film. Trends in production, distribution, and exhibition have been towards synthesizing these two media, rather than emphasizing their respective strengths. As a result, interest in attending films, especially classics, has waned drastically. Most commercial venues today have adopted a survival strategy based on cutting costs and seeking ancillary profits, and are uninterested in and incapable of offering an excellent film presentation, despite the development of procedures, products, and technologies that make this an attainable goal.

"As a nonprofit foundation we reject corporate short-term expediency and allow respect and reverence for film to be our guide. We screen films on film, with uncompromising presentation standards, showcasing the unique visual, material, and phenomenological properties of the medium."

Martin and I spoke by phone yesterday.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Carl, I'm interested in how you became motivated to follow through on film advocacy?

Carl Martin: I think the "tipping" point were experiences of going to see films that turned out to be just DVDs. I thought this was a terrible thing. I wanted to do something to advocate against that and so I found like-minded people [and developed FOFF].

Guillén: How do you go about advocating your mission statement?

Martin: We're still trying to think of ways to do that. We've done several film programs where we've spoken about the issue beforehand and our film calendar promotes the idea. There are other things that we're hoping to do in the future, maybe give grants, but we don't have the budget for that right now.

Guillén: Well, let me state right out front that I'm behind your efforts 100%. You're providing a necessary public service. As someone who talks to many individuals in the film exhibition industry, I'm aware that more and more features are made on various digital formats and that more and more theatrical venues are becoming equipped to project in that manner; but, what I take objection to is—just as you say—when films are projected digitally, especially without notification to the audience.

I recently confirmed with Joel Shepard at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that their policy has long been and remains that—despite their having state-of-the-art digitial projection equipment—they firmly believe, as Joel phrased it, that "Digital projection is for digitally-produced pieces that are intended to be distributed that way. Everything's leaning more that way; but, a lot of people don't understand that we have to keep both of the formats alive. Just because we have this newer digital technology doesn't mean we should do away with film. I love these new technologies but you can't forget about film. You can't just throw it out."

I likewise confirmed with Kathy Geritz at the Pacific Film Archives that they likewise practice the same policy. I've long appreciated that PFA lists the formats in which a film will be screened in their programs calendar. Several venues, however, do not. Do you have any read on why that is?

Martin: I think there's the perception that nobody really cares. That can be a self-fulfilling thing. Critics never really talk about it and one reason for that might be because a lot of critics watch films on screener DVDs and don't perceive the difference because it's not there in the medium in which they're watching it.

Speaking of the PFA, yeah, they are really good about normally putting formats in their calendar, except—oddly enough—when the San Francisco International Film Festival [shares their venue]. You would think they'd be publicizing this, and they're not; however, when I asked them, they were upfront about it so I'm glad for that.

Guillén: That's an interesting observation about the PFA's separate calendar for films screening at their venue for the San Francisco International Film Festival. It makes me wonder if that separate calendar isn't being printed by the San Francisco Film Society and not by the Pacific Film Archives? Further, I've done some research and determined that—for at least the last 17 years—the programs for the San Francisco International have never listed formats in their capsule descriptions. I'm now researching to see if this carries through with other festivals and their programs. I checked my programs for the last two Toronto International Film Festivals and they, likewise, do not list formats in their capsule descriptions. And I've been advised this same practice is followed by the Cannes Film Festival. I'm wondering if this is standard course for film festivals? And, if so, why? Perhaps they're hedging bets and accounting for all the things that might go wrong with film trafficking? At any rate, I wonder what the public could do to make festival programmers aware that at least a certain constituency would like to have formats listed in the festival program?

Martin: I don't think there's an easy solution to that. You have to approach all sectors. You have to hopefully get critics to talk about it and get critics to watch film on film more so that it becomes part of the discussion. The more grass roots support you can get—people who write emails or who ask when they go to screenings about these sort of things—that helps. But I don't think there's a magic bullet or anything.

Guillén: Film audiences just have to remain vigilant?

Martin: Yeah. FOFF's film calendar was a way of getting the information out there without relying on others to publicize it; to just do it ourselves.

Guillén: It's an admirable task you've assigned yourselves. How do you go about setting that up? Do you contact each venue to determine how they're projecting?

Martin: I've done a lot of emails, yeah. With the PFA it's easy. The Castro usually [discloses formats] on their calendar; but, there have been a couple of problems with that. I've been taken by surprise by some things so I may have to be more vigilant about that. The other day I emailed them and—by and large—they've been helpful.

Guillén: I'm glad to hear that. Just to make sure there's a nuanced resistance to the practice of projecting films in improper format, is that essentially what FOFF is advocating? Because the fact is that—as a cost-saving measure—more and more movies are being shot in digital formats with the intention of their being projected that way. Does FOFF have a problem with that?

Martin: Not the same kind of problem. If something is shot digitally then the authentic way to show it is digitally. In fact, with many recent films they go through a digital intermediate stage and so, arguably, the authentic way to show them is digitally rather than on film. It may be a little closer to the source then. That said, I don't like that trend at all. I'd much prefer films did not use a digital intermediate. But I'm not going to argue with somebody who wants to use video because that's their medium; that's perfectly valid. It's just not the form that excites me and that I'm looking for.

Guillén: It's also my understanding that most documentaries these days are shot digitally and never transferred to 35mm. Though we might all prefer to watch a film on 35mm, it's not always a practical or available option.

Martin: I'd settle for 16mm, which is much closer to 35mm than video. I mean, it's film. It doesn't go through that transformation of the medium.

Guillén: What is it that you have trained your eye to see in film that you don't find in digital?

Martin: There's a color response. Highlights look quite different in digital. Flesh tones and that sort of thing. It's hard to describe but I feel there's a veil over the image in digital and I feel that way as well when there's a digital intermediate. It introduces that veil.

Guillén: Can you describe what actually goes on in the digital intermediate process?

Martin: That's when something that is shot on film is scanned and digitized and post-production is conducted in the digital domain. And then it's output back onto film with a laser recorder, presumably.

Guillén: Returning to the San Francisco International Film Festival, which begins this Thursday, I took FOFF's calendar and cross-referenced it to the SFIFF calendar and was quite surprised by the outcome. There's actually quite a lot on the program being projected digitally. I wish I would have had this information before purchasing tickets. Did you secure this information from them?

Martin: Yeah, from their press contact.

Guillén: They were cooperative with you on that?

Martin: Yeah, much more than I thought they would be. I had thought they would blow me off; but, they didn't.

Guillén: I have found Hilary Hart and her team to be quite helpful and I'm especially pleased to hear they have cooperated with the FOFF calendar. So what does FOFF have lined up for the future?

Martin: We're planning a show for June during that fallow period at the Castro when they're just showing Indiana Jones. We want to do a show at the PFA. You want to know what films we're hoping to do?

Guillén: Sure, if you know!

Martin: They're not booked yet; but, we want to do Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, paired with Anthony Newley's Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

Guillén: [Laughter.] Oh you're going to have fun introducing that one!

Martin: Yeah. I'll just say the title maybe and that will be the whole introduction. [Chuckles.] Aside from what we perceive when we're watching something that's digital vs. film, at the production level it's a very different process and that itself affects the outcome. The meaning of the work is affected by the process that created it and so there's a certain quality from working with film that comes through in the finished work and is part of its meaning. That's a big concern of mine as well.

Guillén: Do you have any thoughts on filmmakers like, let's say, David Lynch who has said that he's now sworn off of film because he finds working in digital so much easier?

Martin: Well, often filmmakers will say this and then go back to using film. Or not. I don't feel I can argue with his artistic decision. I will say that some of the films he has made look absolutely fabulous and it's sort of a strange decision coming from him; but, he has his method and that's his business. I saw Inland Empire and I liked it for what it was. It would be a real tragedy, however, if every filmmaker made that decision. That would be a huge loss.

Guillén: Recently, I've had several conversations it seems about precisely this subject. When I was talking to Pedro Costa, he explained that—for what he's trying to accomplish where he's filming—he had to switch to digital.

Martin: Interestingly, what I said about Lynch applies to him too. I saw his first film O Sangue at the PFA and it was just absolutely gorgeous. I can't say the same about what he's shot on video. Though it looks good, it's not the same.

Guillén: Costa himself has admitted the medium's limitations and the creative challenges it presents. I recently also spoke with Heinz Emigholz. He swears by film as well; however, he has admitted excitement over the new digital camera, the Red One, whose resolution is so high and crisp that it competes with film. Via Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily, Roberto Quezada-Dardon has likewise written up an enthusiastic piece on the Red One for Filmmaker Magazine. He claims: "Films will be shot on a Red on the basis of how they look or how small the Red cameras are, not because it's cheaper to shoot on video. In the near future, the playing fields between high- and low-budget films will be leveled." I guess we'll just have to wait and see, eh?

Martin: Resolution is not what distinguishes film from digital. Film has different gauges. 70mm has a lot more resolution that 16mm, obviously, and even if you look aside from resolution, there are these differences of how colors look and how film responds to light.

Guillén: I guess what ultimately concerns me in this ongoing debate is the presumption, primarily by venues, that audiences aren't sophisticated enough to discern the difference between film and digital and, even more importantly, that there's a certain effort to dumb down audiences so that they lose that discernment. I think there's a need for a course or class that promotes visual acuity, perhaps setting the formats up side by side so that viewers can learn to see the differences, pro and con. By unfortunate example, recently at the 3rd I Film Festival, during the projection of the Indian classic Pyaasa, there were problems with the film and they had to switch for a portion of it to DVD. Projected on the Castro's huge screen, the differences were more than apparent.

Martin: Projecting a DVD, the differences will be obvious. But the Castro has also on a couple of occasions shown the more theatrically-intended digital presentations, like they did with Cruising. They did notify in that case but that's not what I want to go and see.

Guillén: I enjoyed reading your rebuttal "The Future of Repertory Is Not Digital" to Mick LaSalle's Chronicle piece on the death of repertory movie theaters. In his piece LaSalle commented, "[I]n 1993, director James Toback came to the Roxie Cinema and talked to a sold-out crowd following a screening of his 1978 classic, Fingers. The energy was electric and continued out onto the sidewalk. But in 2006, when Toback came to the Roxie for an ambitious retrospective of his films, the spectacle was downright embarrassing. He stood in front of the house talking to no more than 20 to 25 people." I appreciated your astute counter: "LaSalle fails to mention that one difference between the Roxie's screenings of Fingers in 2006 and 1993 is that in 2006 it was a DVD. An experience like that will keep people from coming back."

Martin: Yeah, I actually took time off work and took BART into the City and went and sat down and when it started up, it was a DVD. I just left at that point. I didn't want to sit through that.

Guillén: Well, Carl, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak briefly today. I truly admire your efforts and—if there's ever anything I can do to help promote FOFF and its events—please let me know.

04/22/08 UPDATE: I've been informed by the San Francisco Film Society that they are not responsible for printing up the PFA calendars. I appreciate their getting back to me.


Brian Darr said...

Great interview! One thing I like about the Sundance Film Festival is the fact that projection formats are listed in the program guide. Of course, they're not always 100% accurate, but honestly the only time I can think of a discrepancy between the printed format and the actual one was this past festival, when Derek Jarman's Edward II was screened in 35mm instead of the 16mm the program suggested. In other words, a trade up!

I notice that Mick LaSalle put up a response to Carl's letter today, and it has generated some interesting comments, some of which confirm my suspicions that the main sticking point people have against going to repertory these days is the price. The value of a movie, particularly an older movie, has deflated in people's perceptions.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Brian, especially for the timely link to LaSalle's response to Carl, and for noting that the Sundance Festival lists formats in its program.

Some of the responses to LaSalle's column are interesting, if not familiar, arguments. One part of me wants to suspect it's a generational thing; but, then I look at us, we're friends, twenty years apart, and we respect and admire the same things in film culture. So clearly it's more a difference of appreciation, a cultural difference, that inspires me to haul my ass over to PFA on BART to see a movie on film whereas others can't be bothered leaving the comfort of their home and their entertainment systems.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the audiences. And though I think it's a small core group of cinephiles that make up the San Franciscan scene, and perhaps not enough of us to maintain the costs of repertory programming, I believe we will keep each other informed of when that repertory "experience" is happening, in one form or another, in one venue or another, even if less frequent as in seasons past.

I do agree with LaSalle that print critics don't have that much sway any longer over audience attendance; and I'm not even confident that online critics do; but, I do feel that online film discussions are furthering a heightened appreciation of film through a democratic model that print cannot. I've learned so much from film friends on line and they've encouraged me to catch repertory programming that I might have caught otherwise.

But I disagree with LaSalle about his comments regarding the Roxie. It is precisely because I have seen one too many digital projections at the Roxie that I rarely attend screenings there, which confirms what Carl is saying. I don't trust that I'm going to get what I want at that venue.

As Eddie Muller said recently introducing one of the films at Noir City 6, it's perhaps a given that digital business models are going to take over exhibition patterns; but, until then, we fight the good fight, and we vote with our bums in the seats.

Michael Guillen said...

Of course I meant to say above that my online film friends have encouraged me to catch repertory programming that I might not have caught otherwise.

And one final thought. I think--though I understand LaSalle's reasoning--he offers nothing towards remedy by being so dour and pessimistic. Perhaps moviehouses that show repertory programming all year 'round are caving in to commercial necessity; but that doesn't mean repertory programming is "dying". Perhaps the age of the repertory house will be replaced by an age of repertory festivals? And perhaps that's not such a bad thing? It seems to me that Noir City and the Silent Film Festival, despite high ticket prices, are doing quite well and growing each year. Specialized genre programs such as the recent Japanese action films at YBCA likewise did well. And PFA remains the Bay Area's shining jewel in its diverse curatorialship while still keeping prices down below the megaplex. I also don't agree with all these naysayers who find SF too "provincial" by comparison to NY or LA. Nonsense. SF boasts a richly textured cinematic landscape which demands conscious adaptation from its moviegoing audiences. I see a movie nearly every night. I'm not suffering for lack.