Thanks for the Use of the Hall - Archive

This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at:

Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Jupiter Effect

Ever since widescreen TVs became fixtures in bars and cafes, we've been exposed to countless images that were intended to be displayed in 4:3 ratio but are stretched horizontally to fill a 16:9 screen. My informal survey reveals that nearly everyone would rather see an elongated image than deal with black space to the left and right of a properly projected 4:3 image. Something about wasted space bothers a lot of people.

I've been afraid for years now that the public would become acclimated to stretched images, and there's some evidence to support that fear. This weekend I watched a digital projection of Ryuichi Hiroki's Love on Sunday 2: Last Words at the IFC Center, as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. As near as I can figure, the tape was letterboxed, but the projectionist screened it 16:9 anyway. Anyway, the effect was much like all those widescreen TVs in bars that make everyone look like an endomorph. I ran out to the lobby twice to object, but the management didn't take me seriously, and I had to watch the film that way. I didn't see any other patrons complaining, so I guess they figured I was a lone nut.

So why don't these elongated images drive everyone crazy?


Monday, January 21, 2008

Video Projection at the Walter Reade

Axel Corti's interesting "Where To and Back" trilogy is being projected at the Walter Reade on video - and rather bad-looking video at that, with a nasty sideways distortion at the top of the screen. I'm happy that the films are being shown in any format, but as far as I know the theater has made no announcement at all about the video projection, not even posting the information at the box office. The Walter Reade has generally been forthcoming about print quality; it's a shame if they're joining the many theaters who sell tickets in silence and hope that no one will notice.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

John Farrow

I went to MOMA tonight to revisit Cukor's A Bill of Divorcement, and found myself watching John Farrow's 1940 remake instead. (The switch was noted in small print at the bottom of the daily schedule at the front desk, but the ticket seller at MOMA didn't feel the need to warn me. That's pretty much par for the course at MOMA....) As I took in Farrow's somberly lit, solemnly dramatic staging, I thought of how Cukor likes to goose heavy material, getting the actors to yell or jump across the room or do anything to liven the joint up - and then throws in a bit of sleight-of-hand naturalism to trick us into accepting the extravagance as part of the character development.

None of that here...but Farrow is an interesting guy too. It's a mistake to overrate him, and certainly this film isn't one of his career peaks: probably no one could do anything much with this wacko play, and Farrow characteristically accepts the drama at face value, sticking with the arc of dramatic tension instead of exploring subtext.

There was one striking visual motif, though. As the story starts climbing its arc, Farrow produces his first good effect, panning the camera so that a servant enters the room behind Maureen O'Hara, through a door in the middle background of the shot. It's a small moment in itself, but the rejection of the stage-left/stage-right convention couples with the rising tension - I thought of Dreyer, in the way the composition was changed by blocking only. A moment later, O'Hara is jittery at finding the front door open, and the servant has to calm her down, after which she strides into her living room: and Farrow scores big with his third door effect in a row, as the open door through which O'Hara has entered mysteriously closes, and we see for the first time the Adolphe Menjou character, hiding behind the door in long shot as the camera reverse-tracks with O'Hara and loses Menjou.

This proclivity for making people materialize from the center of the frame can be found in other Farrow films: I instantly thought of Ray Milland's uncanny appearances in Alias Nick Beal.

Farrow's camera, which gets very mobile in the late 40s, is only modestly fluid in this film. But I noted one Farrowesque moment where the camera is following Menjou and C. Aubrey Smith out of a room, and Menjou has an angry outburst that momentarily swings him into the distorted foreground of the still-moving camera.

That's all. If you want to check out Farrow, don't use this film: try Five Came Back, You Came Along, Two Years Before the Mast, The Big Clock, or Alias Nick Beal. Thanks to David Thomson, whose entry in A Biographical Dictionary of Film tipped me off to Farrow.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Media Format that Dare Not Speak Its Name

I went to the Quad Cinema on Monday to revisit Bunuel's Robinson Crusoe in the H&M High Line Film Festival, a selection of Latin American and Spanish-language films "hand-picked" by David Bowie. The Quad upped their prices to $12 for the festival, then proceeded to project the Bunuel on DVD, with no warning to the audience that it was doing so. It's certainly not the first time that I've seen a DVD projection in a theater, and I'm not especially finicky about print quality, but I resent being sold a pig in a poke. Sadly, only a few venues are honest enough to keep audiences informed about print quality. I guess most specialty theaters are in such a state of financial terror these days that they feel they can't afford to play fair.

The film itself raises the question of how valuable subversion is for its own sake. There's no doubt that Bunuel found many ways of expressing his true feelings about Defoe's attitudes toward virtue and civilization, and there's wit in his effort, but not a lot of emotional resonance, to my mind. The best scene in the film, the long sequence of Crusoe reaping his crop of wheat and baking bread with it, does not subvert Defoe at all: Bunuel adds to it an earthy physicality and gives a giddy, stubborn quality to Crusoe's perseverance, but respects Defoe's celebration of the act. A particular story can't be made to serve just any old artistic end.

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