Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Despite its boasting 219 films from 31 countries, Frameline's 34th edition will be offering only 11 features and 3 shorts in 35mm projection. That's a shocking imbalance in exhibition formats; but, mine is more an expression of disappointment than a direct criticism of the festival's programmers. I'm not naïve. Print availability, rental fees, and trafficking expenses coupled with green efforts to reduce carbon footprints have long factored into the films chosen for any festival lineup and—perhaps even more pertinent to Frameline—we're fortunate that the marginalized narratives of LGBT programming exist at all, albeit in digital format, set apart from the cost-prohibitive privileges of mainstream film production. Asked at the Frameline press conference if any of the films were "political" in nature, Festival Director Jennifer Morris responded (quite appropriately) that just to share these LGBT narratives is a political act in itself, and with that I have no argument.

Notwithstanding, Frameline's heavy reliance on digital projection breeds specific concerns. For starters, the term "film" as in "film festival" appears to have capsized in order to accommodate alternative exhibition formats, and I'm not so sure this practice should be blithely accepted. Perhaps I'm being old-fashioned, but for me a "film" is on film. Anything else is digital media and should be understood and specified as such. I'll grant that both can be called movies. Has the time come to qualify that Frameline is the world's leading LGBT film and digital media festival? At what point is transparency required? I would say from hereon in.

Earlier this year at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), I was impressed that exhibition formats were detailed in CAAM's festival catalog. CAAM won high points for this gesture towards transparency. There's no denying that filmgoers are consumers and deserve to know what they're getting when they slap down $7-$10 (if not more) for a ticket. I'm disappointed that the San Francisco Film Society and now Frameline have not followed SFIAAFF's commendable lead in this regard. Perhaps they are operating off the mistaken assumption that filmgoers don't care how they see a film projected? Or that they can't tell the difference between a 35mm projection and a digital projection? Or that filmgoers are more concerned with narrative integrity than visual quality? And should that—woefully—be the case, who is responsible for training audiences in visual acuity and format discernment? Nonprofit advocacy groups such as the Film on Film Foundation or the Film Noir Foundation can only do so much. Organizations such as the San Francisco Film Society and Frameline are more in a position to advance such discernments to their respective constituencies by—at the very least—spelling them out in their program capsules. I encourage them to do so in the future.

Perhaps this would not be so much an issue if the equipment necessary to project digital media were state-of-the-art; but, by contrast to the pristine digital projections I've experienced at, let's say, the Toronto International Film Festival or even the Palm Springs International—digital projection at The Castro Theater, the Roxie Film Center and the Victoria Theater (Frameline's San Francisco venues) leave a lot to be desired, if not in the in-house equipment itself, then in the physical product offered by filmmakers for screening.

Case in point would be the two films screened at last week's Frameline press conference.
The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (dir. James Kent 2010 UK) and Undertow (Contracorriente, dir. Javier Fuentes-León 2009 Peru) were both sufficiently intriguing narratives to warrant recommendation—the first being Frameline's Opening Night feature and the second its Centerpiece presentation—however, both viewing experiences were marred by poor digital projection that washed out skin tones and leached color from the imagery. Granted, Frameline will offset this deficiency with the value added from the on-stage appearances of talent and the anticipatory and conciliatory vibe of its audiences; but, the dilemma remains: these films are not being seen at their best. Despite its interesting story, I find it highly problematic to recommend that anyone pay $30-$35 ($75-$90, if you're inclined towards the gala) to view Frameline's opening night film The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. At least with its opening night selection, I would have hoped for a 35mm print to launch the festivities appropriately. And should a 35mm print not be available for this title, I would have preferred an alternate selection which would be available in 35mm. Undertow requires a lesser investment of $10-$15, but even so—as its Centerpiece—Frameline should have exerted a bit more effort and considerable more care in the quality of projection.

Truth is that I will probably take advantage of my privilege as press to watch the bulk of Frameline's digital fare on screener. I might as well. As much as I have complained in the past about being forced to watch festival fare on screeners, the more digital the festivals become, the more attractive the alternative of home viewing becomes.

Now lest I be thought of as biting the hand that feeds me, let me be quick to quote from the introductory editorial to the Summer 2010 issue of
Cineaste (via Dave Hudson at MUBI) whose thematic focus lands squarely on the at-home DVD viewing experience and the so-called "new cinephilia", but which lends commensurate insight to my concern with digital theatrical exhibition: "[W]hat's important is not necessarily to privilege one mode of movie-watching over another," the editors argue. "Rather, the point is to maintain a sensitivity to how a particular film is affected by the circumstances in which it's viewed—something that's increasingly important as individual films come to be available from a dizzying variety of sources." And, it might be added, a dizzying variety of formats. Here, I must defer—as referenced earlier—that the anticipatory enthusiasm of Frameline's audiences and the collective experience of enjoying a "film" with such a like-minded audience is a strength that helps to offset any weakness in exhibition formats. I would still prefer, however, that—as an audience—we celebrate not only our unique stories but their visual quality as well. For those who care, here are the Frameline films being shown in 35mm:

Short films

Close (Pod Bluzka, 2008)—This nine-minute Polish short by Lucia Von Horn Pagana will have its US premiere as part of the Tough Girls shorts program.

Masala Mama (2010)—This nine-minute Singaporean short by Michael Kam will have its world premiere in The Golden Pin shorts program.

The New Tenants (2009)—Joachim Back's 21-minute short is part of Frameline's popular Fun In Boys' Shorts program.


Going South (Plein Sud, 2009)

Grown Up Movie Star (2009)

Hideaway (Le Refuge, 2009)

I Killed My Mother (J'ai Tué Ma Mère, 2009)

Last Summer of La Boyita, The (El ultimo verano de la Boyita, 2009)

Mädchen In Uniform (1958)

Man Who Loved Yngve, The (2008)

Sasha (2010)

Purple Sea, The (2009)

Spring Fever (2009)

Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, The (2009)

Cross-published on


Jim Gerow said...

Michael, thank you for continuing to champion 35mm projection and argue for full disclosure by programmers such as Frameline. There is a difference. Fortunately the Silent Film Festival remains primarily in glorious 35 (the exception being the restored Metropolis) and their website is upfront about format. Hope to see you there in July.

Michael Hawley said...

Michael, this is really excellent and almost the same essay I was going to write, so thanks for beating me to it. Incidentally, the Warhol films and the experimental short ALL THAT SHELTERING EMPTINESS will be screened in 16mm at Frameline.

I find it especially troubling that certain Frameline films which are available in English-subtitled 35mm prints (like BROTHERHOOD, PLAN B and EYES WIDE OPEN, all of which I saw at Palm Springs in 35mm), they've chosen to exhibit digitally. I'd love to know why.

Remember when Frameline screened the Argentine film, LA LEON, in 2008. In introducing it, Michael Lumpkin said he wanted to show it the previous year, but there was no available 35mm print, so he waited a year. I can't tell you how much that impressed me. Another interesting thing is that THE FISH CHILD, which Frameline is showing this year in digital, they screened last year in a TBA slot in 35mm. Sure glad I saw it then!

You're right about the two films screened at the press conference -- I wished I'd simply gotten the DVD screeners and watched them on my 24" computer monitor. They would have looked ten times better than they did at the Castro. It's also a shame that closing night film HOWL will be digital (although I found out that the film's world premiere at Sundance was also digital -- which makes me think, why hire a cinematographer as accomplished as Ed Lachman to shoot in 35mm?). But then, perhaps Sundance's digital projection systems are better than what we currently have here. I'd love to know if the film's Berlin screenings were also digital.

As you know, Manohla Dargis lamented in a recent piece about watching a mediocre digital projection at Cannes of Olivier Assayas' CARLOS, which was shot in 35mm. I mean, if Cannes is doing this, those of us who care about the quality of the image we watch are done for. And the sad thing is, I suspect that the vast majority of filmgoers don't care, not in this day and age where people are watching movies on their phones.

Jed Bell said...

Hi Michael, great piece as always. I don't know it for a fact, but I tend to assume festivals are just going with the best format available for any given movie. Transferring one's work to film, even a very short film, can be terrifyingly expensive; shooting on film in the first place maybe even more so. For example, my new short is 4 minutes 30 seconds--it would cost me more than the entire pre-, post-, and shooting budgets of the film put together to blow it up to 35mm. I *did* do this with my previous films--one because we had funding, the other because I didn't have to pay for much labor as it was an animation I made myself. But with the latter, I had festival programmers--lovely, celluloid-loving intellectuals even--ask me why I had bothered, was I crazy? They were not being philistines--they had a point. Alas, this new one, our first music video, despite having been shot by a genius DP on the beautiful RED camera, will screen at Frameline--and all other venues--on digital betacam. I guess what I wish for is some widely-adopted-by-festivals form of projection macked out in beauty and dreaminess, like film, but not so blood-curdling hard to afford. And I also assume it is coming: within the next year, even. One more Pollyanna note--I was please and impressed that Frameline no longer allows us filmmakers to exhbit on DVD. The minimal level of acceptable quality is already distinctly higher than it was just a split-second ago. The trajectory seems right to me.

In any case, I hope I see you amidst all the cinematic bits, bytes, electrons in the coming weeks!


Michael Guillen said...

Thanks Jim, Michael & Jed for each of your thoughtful responses.

Am especially glad for your filmmaker's perspective, Jed and I hope I'm clear in saying that I have no objection to digital formats, and understand how much more affordable they make filmmaking. Nor do I have an issue with digital projection in and of itself; especially for digital projects where it is obvious.

My concerns are with the choice to project digitally when 35mm prints are available and/or affordable. But my main concern is with projection formats not being made transparent to a ticket-buying constituency.

The other night at a cocktail party I discussed this issue with another filmmaker whose work has appeared at Frameline and he indicated to me that Frameline used to designation exhibition formats but that they have discontinued doing so. I'm also quite interested to know why that choice was made.

IA said...

Thanks for this valuable public service--the list you provided will help determine which festival films I'll watch in the theater and which I'll hold off on viewing until their DVD release.

Brian Darr said...

Michael, I missed the Frameline press conference, but this post is an extremely welcome one. I'm glad that all the Frameline selections I'd prioritized either fall into the "glorious eleven" or are Andy Warhol films screening in 16mm, the format in which they were created. I'm disappointed that the promise of digital presentations will make me much less likely to take a chance on an unknown quantity than I would have otherwise. Although if I didn't feel like the festival was trying to hide something from me (by leaving information out of their program guide) I suspect I wouldn't have as strong a reaction. Sundance indeed has quite a few digital screenings, but having sampled all their major Park City and Salt Lake City, I can say that the projection equipment their venues use is of a much more consistently high quality than the digital equipment I've seen in use in most Bay Area festival venues. Or perhaps it's the training of their digital projectionists that is superior- I know it's not as easy as just flipping a switch to get the best image quality out of the latest digital projectors.

With photochemical labs like San Francisco's Monaco now shuttering, it's probably fair to say that this horse has left the barn, but I'm (counter-intuitively) skeptical of the arguments that digital distribution is greener than the systems we had in place before. How many perfectly fine film projectors and associated equipment have been scrapped to make room for newly-built digital machines, and what kind of natural resources were required to build the latter? How much power does it take to run these electronic machines, as compared to mechanical projectors? I don't know the answers, but it seems to me that if they were conclusive, they'd be constantly trumpeted. If they have been, I've been out of the trumpets' earshot.

I'm not a purist. I have recently been impressed with the Castro Theatre digital presentations of certain high-gloss new movies (Up & Coraline in 3-D, and even Iron Man 2, though the film was terrible). And of course if a movie is made on video, I'm fine with watching it on video. What I don't like is situations like when Frameline screened Edge of Heaven in 2008 from a mediocre video image, even though prints were available.

Michael Guillen said...

IA, I'm glad this entry can be of service in helping you decide which tickets to buy for Frameline. That was its basic intent.

Brian, yours is a rich comment and I thank you for taking the time to express your opinion. I'm just about to post a follow-up entry now that I've had a chance to talk with Executive Director K.C. Price. I don't think Frameline is trying to "hide" anything by not publishing exhibition formats in their program catalog. My understanding is that--because there were so few films in 35mm--that they didn't feel a necessity to detail this information. My olive branch to them was that--if their decision was not to offer this information to the public by way of the program--then it should be made available to the press at the press conference so that those concerned such as myself can then tailor their write-ups to privilege the rare 35mm projections for those to whom it is of utmost importance. Frameline is responsive to its audiences and, therefore, it rests on us to keep reminding them of how important it is to discern exhibition formats. I know they're listening so I appreciate this public discussion.