Perhaps you need to be of a certain generation to get nostalgic over the low-fidelity, awkward, more-fragile-than-it-looks technology of movies on VHS tape. Those little plastic movie bricks storing reels of magnetic tape aren’t just outmoded twentieth-century technology, they’re downright archaic, not to mention fatally impermanent. That’s not to say that DVD is forever, but apart from the fragility of those half-inch ribbons, which get brittle over time and can get creased or crinkled or snapped as they are wound across the spinning drums of the VCR with pincers that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Cronenberg film, the magnetic seal holding the information recorded on the oxide strip of the tape decays over time. The images will eventually break up, dissolve, evaporate into the ether. In the case of many tapes from the beginning of the video era, they already have.
But as former video store mogul Sam Sherman remarks in the documentary Adjust Your Tracking, “People will collection anything,” and there is tremendous nostalgia associated with VHS tape and video culture it defined from the first “Select-a-Vision” commercial tape releases in 1977 to A History of Violence, the last movie released on VHS by the studios. It’s no exaggeration to say that the videocassette changed our relationship with movies.
Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, arguably the greatest video story in the known universe, has been holding out against the changing habits of film viewing due to the onslaught of streaming video and digital distribution.
Today, Scarecrow announced The Scarecrow Project, which will transition the business to a non-profit organization. It’s the next step in preserving the amazing collection of movies on Blu-ray, DVD, laserdisc, and VHS: the largest single collection of physical home video in the United States, including thousands of movies and other programs no longer available in any format.
The project was initiated by the employees themselves, led by Joel Fisher and Kate Barr, who are going forward with the help of local and national advisers, including Tim League, the founder and CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse.
I myself worked at Scarecrow back in its glory days of the 1990s, where I was a manager on the inventory team during the launch of DVD and the bankruptcy of the store under its original owner, George Latsiois. Scarecrow has weathered a lot of changes and come through them all thanks to the commitment of its employees and its owners, who have always seen the film as more than simply a business. The current owners, Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough, have kept the store running despite falling rentals and sales. They now hand the reigns over to the next generation.
If physical media is dying, as the business pundits have been telling us for years, then someone forget to send the memo to Shout! Factory.
Born ten years ago out of the DNA of the original Rhino Records crew, Shout! Factory is the pop culture geek squad of home video and it has carved out a niche in the home video industry—actually, a few niches, from horror and science fiction to cult movies to classic TV.
Last year, the company released over 300 titles on Blu-ray and DVD, including a handful of remastered John Carpenter special editions and an impressive box set of Bruce Lee films (everything but Enter the Dragon) on Blu-ray and DVD. Coming up in 2014 is a deluxe set of 16 Werner Herzog films on Blu-ray (slated for the end of July) and a complete Halloween box set, from Carpenter’s original to Rob Zombie’s revivals, produced in partnership with Anchor Bay (scheduled for release in the fall – just before Halloween, of course).
Shout! is just as committed to releasing television shows on disc, from the complete run of Hill Street Blues to collections showcasing Steve Martin TV specials, Mel Brooks on the small screen, and the incomparable and innovative TV work of Ernie Kovacs.
While the major studios have slowed the pace of disc releases to a trickle, at least where classics and catalog titles are concerned, to focus on digital distribution, independent labels are filling the void. Olive Films released a slate of classics from the Paramount catalog on Blu-ray, from John Wayne’s pre-Stagecoach B-westerns to Betty Boop cartoons to cult noirs like Cry Danger and Sleep My Love. Twilight Time has been delivering limited-run Blu-ray releases of films from the Sony and Fox collections for a few years now. Kino, known for foreign imports and silent movie classics, has just created a Kino Lorber Studio Classics line for films licensed from the MGM Home Video catalog, with films like Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution and Blake Edwards’ The Party making their Blu-ray debuts this summer.
And of course there is Criterion Collection, the gold standard for classics on Blu-ray and DVD. Founded in 1984, Criterion sets the bar for home video presentation with its commitment to high-quality digital masters (often created with the participation of the filmmakers and directors of photography) and supplements, starting back in the days of laserdiscs, when it introduced the audio commentary track on the 1985 release of King Kong.
Clearly there is still a market for Blu-ray and DVD in the age of streaming and digital downloads. “There definitely is an audience for it,” said Cliff MacMillan, a disc producer who pursues acquisitions for the Shout! Factory classics and Scream Factory lines. “Just like there is an audience for the Criterion Collection. Just the first week’s pre-orders on the Halloween set are amazing.”
It’s been called the greatest video store in the country. Bernardo Bertolucci not only frequented the store while shooting Little Buddha in Seattle, he praised the store and its cinema treasures to a sold-out audience at the film’s Seattle premiere. Bertrand Tavernier explored the entire laserdisc section and gushed over the selection of Cy Enfield and William Whitney tapes with store employees in his 1997 visit. Quentin Tarantino, a video store veteran in his own right, paid tribute by walking from downtown Seattle to the store’s University District location: his personal pilgrimage to the video Mecca.
And in addition to stocking a magnificently curated rental library of movies on home video, Scarecrow in its heyday brought such guests as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, John Woo, Monte Hellman, Nicolas Roeg and Seijun Suzuki to Seattle for glorious retrospectives.
Dennis Doros and Amy Heller created Milestone Films in 1990, a company dedicated to the restoration and rediscovery of forgotten and neglected films, be they classic or contemporary. They first brought Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Mabarosi (1995) and Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks (1997) stateside and they distribute such silent landmarks as South (1920), Beyond the Rocks (1922), and the films of Mary Pickford. But their greatest legacy lies the area of cinema archeology. They rescued the 1964 Russia/Cuba collaboration I Am Cuba from near oblivion, restoring the film and releasing it to great acclaim in the U.S. in 1995, and stepped up to distribute Charles Burnett’s 1979 landmark Killer of Sheep for the first time in theaters and on DVD.
They have since resurrected a number of American independent landmarks, including On the Bowery (1956), The Exiles (1961), and Winter Soldier (1972). Their current mission (dubbed “Project Shirley” by Dennis Doros) is to restore and re-release the films of American director Shirley Clarke, an overlooked pioneer whose films have been almost impossible to see for decades. The Connection was released in 2012 and the restoration of Portrait of Jason is underway.
Partners in business and in marriage, Dennis and Amy continue to run Milestone Films from their home, though they have upgraded their facilities from a New York apartment to a house in Brooklyn. I caught up with Dennis at the 2012 Association of Moving Image Archivists conference, which took place in Seattle. The following interview began in person in Seattle but the bulk of it was conducted the week after AMIA via phone so I could talk to both Amy and Dennis in the relative calm of their New York home. I was lucky to catch them between trips.
Sean Axmaker: Can you talk about the process of restoring a film like The Exiles or Killer of Sheep or the current Shirley Clarke films? Not just the technical process of physically creating a print, but from discovery and tracking down materials to clearing rights. What does it take to restore and re-present a film is effectively unavailable to us?
Amy Heller: Each restoration project that we’ve done has been a completely different story. It can range form the easiest, which is a film that has just been restored, you can get the rights, you can bring it out. That’s really simple and it occasionally happens that way. But it also happens every other possible way. For instance, in the case of Killer of Sheep, it had been restored by UCLA. However, the music rights hadn’t been cleared, so that was an epic and very expensive journey finding out where all the rights owners were, clearing all the rights, paying for all the rights clearances. So that was a different kind of scenario. In any number of scenarios, we brought the films to the archives, most recently with Portrait of Jason.
Dennis Doros: Also Ornette and The Exiles.
Heller: In the case of Ornette and The Exiles, we knew where the materials were.
Doros: Actually, The Exiles was missing and I told the family that if they could find the negative, we would do it, and they sent the cinematographer to USC and he went through the vaults and found them. They were actually missing until we said, We’d love to distribute it if you can find it.
Heller: And in the case of Portrait of Jason, it was a film that had supposedly been restored and when we went to look at the restoration, it just didn’t look good. And the terms MOMA wanted in order to move ahead with it were not just financially but aesthetically difficult for us so Dennis began this long, long, long, convoluted quest to find if he could figure out where the camera elements were. That took all kinds of research with all kinds of people all over the world. So sometimes you have to be a sleuth and sometimes you just have to write the check. It just depends. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard.
When Brian Alter opens The Grand Illusion Cinema, the little U District theater on the corner of 50th and University Way, for its Saturday screenings, the first thing to do is flip on the popcorn machine. As the kettle warms, he turns on the house lights, unlocks the projection booth, and pulls out the change drawer. Then it’s time to drop in the canola oil and start popping the popcorn, which fills the lobby with the unmistakable perfume that defines movie theaters large and small.
As I watch, he sells tickets and chats with the larger-than-expected audience—many of them regulars—on a sunny late-summer afternoon. Then he introduces the matinee screening of Side by Side, makes a pitch for an upcoming fundraiser, runs the trailers, starts the film, and heads back into the lobby to man the concessions counter. For this Labor Day weekend matinee, Alter was a staff of one. (His day job is in advertising.)
That’s not so unusual for a nonprofit organization. What is unusual is that there is no paid staff—not even Alter, currently the general director, manager, and lead programmer. Like everyone who pitches in to keep the theater running, from bookkeeper to projectionists to the programming team, he does so for free. While that makes it a challenge to sustain a seven-day-a-week theater, it’s also one of the reasons it still survives in a turbulent time for cinemas and nonprofit arts organizations alike.
On Saturday, February 11, Douglas Trumbull will receive the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to the technology of the industry. Trumbull has over a dozen patents in his name, and developed or improved upon many of the filmmaking techniques that are standard in today’s industry, among them miniature compositing, high frame rate photography and motion control photography. This is his second special Oscar—though nominated for his special effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, his only previous Oscar a Scientific and Engineering Award from 1993, for his work developing the 65mm Showscan Camera System.
To mark the occasion, I have revived and expanded an interview I conducted with Douglas Trumbull in 2005, originally published in shorter form on Greencine in January, 2006.
Douglas Trumbull is unique among American filmmakers. At age 23, he was part of the team that pioneered the next generation of cinema special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was education you couldn’t get in film school and he continued to expand his skills and techniques in such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made his debut as a director on the ecologically minded Silent Running, where his special effects crew included John Dyksra (who went on to become the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor of Star Wars and many other films) and Richard Yuricich (who partnered with Trumbull on many subsequent projects).
Trumbull’s second feature as a director, Brainstorm, was all but orphaned by MGM and his directorial efforts since have been outside the Hollywood system, including short films in his own high-definition Showscan process (a large-frame film format that runs at 60 frames a second) and Back to the Future… The Ride,” a multi-media mix of film, sound, and simulator ride. More recently, Trumbull worked with Terrence Malick (another maverick director who commands complete control over this films) to create the birth of life sequences for The Tree of Life. Yet to this day, Trumbull’s name is still most closely linked with 2001 and his special effects work on the cult science fiction classic Blade Runner.
Trumbull continues to explore the boundaries of what he calls “immersive media”–3-D, interactive media, virtual reality–and has been partnering with Professor Tom Furness of University of Washington’s HITLab (the Human Interface Technology Lab) with some of his projects.
In November 2005, while in Seattle to meet with Furness, he made an appearance at the Science Fiction Museum for a special showing of Silent Running. In the midst of his multi-media presentation – using still and video footage launched from his lap-top to accompany his talk – he brought some of the working props form the film and donated a drone arm: his gift to the Science Fiction Museum.
At the end of the very long day (after his exhaustive presentation, Trumbull gamely spent over an hour answering questions from the audience), he agreed to sit down for an interview over a late dinner, where we talked about his work with Stanley Kubrick, his own films as a director, and why he hasn’t directed a Hollywood film in over 20 years.
Sean Axmaker:You had trained as an illustrator. How did you wind up in filmmaking and special effects?
Douglas Trumbull: The story goes something like this. I was going to school at this community college in L.A., kind of learning illustration. I started out studying architecture and this was the pre-architecture curriculum, which was drawing, painting, water colors, graphic design. In that very first year I realized that I’m not specifically interested in architecture, I’m interested in this other thing. I started painting and illustrating and I had an air brush and I was trying to learn the skills of illustration, but I was a science fiction guy so I had my little portfolio that was full of sci-fi, Analog magazine cover kind of stuff, and I went into Hollywood looking for a job because I had no money, I couldn’t afford to stay in school. I took my portfolio around to animation studios, because that was my first inclination, animation and somehow making illustrations move,. I would talk to these really nice guys and they would look at my portfolio and say “You’re not in the right place. It’s great to have you here but you should try out this place across town called Graphic Films because they’re doing space films.” So I went over there and met Con Patterson, who worked on 2001, and Ben Jackson, and they were both mentors to me. They said “Yeah, we might could use somebody like you. We’ll give you a task. Paint this satellite and come back tomorrow morning,” which I did, and I got a job immediately and worked at Graphic Films for a couple years. I did some obscure films for the Air Force about the space program and then there was this one film about the Apollo program that was kind of interesting. I was painting lunar modules and lunar surfaces and the vertical assembly building on Saturn 5 rockets and animated this space stuff. And then Graphic Films got a couple of contracts to do films for the New York World’s Fair in ’64, it was a two year fair in 1964 and 65, and one of them was this dome thing called To The Moon And Beyond, which was kind of a Powers of Ten movie. It went from the big bang to inside an atom in ten minutes.
SIFF has announced the acquisition of Lower Queen Anne’s beloved Uptown Theater, which has been closed since last winter. The moviehouse will re-open Oct. 20 in conjunction with the Grand Opening of the new SIFF Film Center a couple of blocks east. SIFF will begin programming at the new SIFF Cinema—the former Uptown—which effectively replaces the screening facility in McCaw Hall’s Nesholm Lecture Hall. The Uptown location has three screens, which should afford increased programming opportunities along with more seating.
A SIFF press release quotes Greater Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce vice president Ann Pearce expressing the Chamber’s especial pleasure in “endors[ing] the acquisition of the Uptown Theater by the Seattle International Film Festival. We applaud their actions in preserving a valuable part of Seattle’s Uptown neighborhood and creating more opportunities for Queen Anne community businesses. Another wonderful forum for unique entertainment will now be available for residents and tourists alike to enjoy for years to come.”
Adds Carl Spence, Artistic Director at SIFF, “We couldn’t have scripted a better opportunity for our organization than to have SIFF Cinema at the Uptown and the new SIFF Film Center in such close proximity and located in such a vibrant part of the city. Seattle Center and Queen Anne are the perfect locations for us to expand in and we’re excited to be opening our doors in time for Seattle Center’s ‘Next 50’ celebration next year.”
Has Sauron struck again? From the furious debates playing across DVD/Blu-ray forums, where some the most passionate fans and exacting collectors can be found registering their praise and displeasures with upcoming and new releases (often in hyperbolic dimensions and a hostile tone), you might assume that there’s a new war brewing over the fate of the One Ring on Blu-ray.
Warner released the theatrical editions of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray last year but held the Extended Editions for 2011. Not just some longer version with deleted scenes cut back in, the Extended Editions were painstakingly reedited for home video by Peter Jackson with new special effects, a reworked score by Howard Shore to match the new rhythms of the narrative and some lovely scenes that were cut for time in the theatrical version of the film but add depth to the characters and the scope of the epic. They were released on DVD years ago. For Blu-ray release, Warner returned to the film’s original 2K digital intermediate files (the final digital edition before striking film prints for theaters) for the source of the Blu-ray master.
Here’s where it gets complicated. While the masters of The Two Towers and Return of the King were completed digitally, The Fellowship of the Ring was partly digital master but mostly completed on film, where it was color-timed photochemically rather than digitally. For the theatrical release on Blu-ray, Warner used a digital master taken from a release print, but for the extended edition, Jackson wanted to rescan the original elements to get the most visual detail and clarity, and them retime the color for home viewing, adjusting the brightness, intensity and hues to best effect on TV monitors. So while The Two Towers and Return of the King were mastered from the same source as previous release, The Fellowship of the Ring was not.
That’s the simplified version of a very complex, but the upshot is that the Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition Blu-ray looks different from all previous incarnations (film, DVD and Blu-ray) of the film.
Claude Chabrol, the most doggedly prolific of the New Wave directors all the the through the to the final months of his life, died less than a year ago. To this day it’s as if we take him for granted.
Where we have deluxe, lovingly-restored and mastered editions of the films Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and Louis Malle from Criterion, few of Chabrol’s classics have received even nominally respectable treatment on DVD (mostly from Kino and the defunct Home Vision label), many of his greatest films have been relegated to inferior DVD editions (See my survey of Chabrol on DVD, circa 2009, in this feature on Parallax View) and not a single title has been given the Criterion treatment. That is finally going to change, I’m happy to report, but that comes later. First comes a brief report on the stateside DVD debuts of two seventies Chabrol films from Pathfinder.
Pathfinder’s release of Juste Avant la Nuit (aka Just Before Nightfall, 1971), misspelled on the cover as “Avante,” and The Twist (aka Folies Bourgeoises, 1976) are among the worst-looking DVDs I’ve seen in the past few years. It looks like someone burned their old VHS tapes onto a DVD-R and tossed it out onto the marketplace. Juste Avant la Nuit, a thriller of infidelity and sexual games starring Stephane Audran and Michel Bouquet, looks like a TV print in the old Academy ratio (1.37:1), blurry and hazy and as low-fidelity as I’ve seen on DVD in recent years. The Twist, an English-language satire with Bruce Dern and Ann-Margret joining French actors Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel, is even worse, a non-anamorphic widescreen presentation of one of Chabrol’s weakest movies. Zooming the film to fill a widescreen TV only magnifies the limitations in the already weak image quality and the optional French-language soundtrack offers no English subtitles.
Even Chabrol completists will want to think twice about adding these disc to their collection, but apart from importing foreign DVDs with only marginally better presentations, these are the only versions available at this time.