The Neptune, which closed earlier this year as a theater in the Landmark chain, had its unofficial unveiling under Seattle Theater Group’s management on Friday, May 20, the first full day of public SIFF screenings. Though renovations are not complete—the official reopening of the theater as a venue for music and live performance is set for the fall—it was ready enough for film screenings in a decidedly new atmosphere. The bottom floor is now open and level (no seating rake) and staggered into two levels. Folding chairs are set up for SIFF, which are actually fairly well cushioned and comfortable (and, to be fair, even the biggest festivals in the world at times resort to folding chairs for select venues) and screen has been raised somewhat, which helps adjust for the loss of old seating rake. If you simply need a traditional theater seat, with its spring cushion and legs bolted to the floor, the balcony is there for you.
This temporary screen is not quite pristine (there’s a stain/splotch in the lower center that lights right up in bright scenes) and (as I heard more than one person in the audience say) it feels smaller than before, though in fact it’s set within the same proscenium arch. Maybe it’s just an illusion of the new space; freshly painted and lightened up, it’s brighter and more open, feeling less like a barn and more like a public space. And the stained glass on the walls leading to the screen adds a dazzle of color in the bright lights of the pre-show settings while disappearing into the dark when the lights drop and the film begins.
But the space and sound design is clearly designed for live music, not film screenings. There are no baffles or sound insulation tiles on the walls so the soundtrack bounces and echoes and gets muddy. Which was not a problem with a subtitled film but became obvious during English language sequences, which I found understandable but at times difficult.
I spent the Friday evening of SIFF’s opening weekend at the Neptune and hoped to have a review of 12 Paces Without a Head (Germany, Sven Taddicken), a 14th century pirate movie in Northern Europe with a rebel sensibility (it kicks off a condemned man being dragged to the gallows to The Clash doing “I Fought the Law”). Unfortunately, this turned out to be a screening without a head projectionist. A bad splice kicked the film out of frame and it played with the image split in half horizontally—the heads of characters on the bottom half of the screen, the feet on the top—and the projectionist (a trainee?) couldn’t find the frameline adjustment. After more than twenty minutes of stop and starts and trying everything but the frameline adjustment, I gave up (I understand they finally found the elusive control and finished the film). And while I appreciated the concept and the energy (at least in parts) of the film, it had tipped into a 14th century buddy comedy with dashes of economics, politics and proto-CSI science played for tongue-in-cheek humor by the time I ducked out, without much hope of getting more interesting. So chalk this up to an unfinished screening: not a walkout, simply a mishap.
For the record, the subsequent screening, Tom Tykwer’s 3 (Germany), played without a hitch. In fact, it was heartening to see that, when the frameline was visible in the opening seconds of the screening, the projectionist immediately spotted it and adjusted and properly centered the film within seconds. Just the way the professionals do it.
And the film was quite engaging, too. Tykwer’s romantic/erotic triangle is built on the emotional lives of its characters—a doctor/TV journalist (Sophie Rois), her longtime partner, an art engineer (Sebastian Schipper) and a free-spirited scientist (Devid Striesow) who lives a life of free love and no commitment—rather than plot tropes of manipulative seductions and erotic competition. He expresses the ennui of a relationship settling into lethargy and inertia, a couple living almost entirely separate lives even while living together for decades, and the fractured existence of modern life where lives and jobs and everything can be compartmentalized and disconnected, with a style that slips between split-screen montages and long sequences of anxious dislocation. Along with the hurt and healing, the anxiety of death and loss and the feeling of mutual betrayal confronted, is Tykwer’s usual flair of interesting cinematic architecture (I love that swimming pool in the sea) and unusual cultural byways (such as the strangely personal connection to the controversial “Bodies” exhibition, with cadavers transformed into art object).
3 is about the possibility for opening up to the possibility of experiences beyond the socially proscribed norms. Tykwer is a romantic at heart.