SF Weekly's Ultimate Guide to Bay Area Filmgoing

"The Final 10 Percent": The Art of Moviegoing

I go to movies hoping for the kind of excitement that can tune up a person's entire mental and emotional system. One of the few times I got it in recent years came after a screening at the Galaxy of a limp 1994 comedy called Little Big League. In the middle of the movie, I confronted a trio of teen-agers who were so loud that I couldn't hear the (admittedly banal) dialogue, and finally asked an usher to eject them. They waited outside the theater and followed me to the 38 Geary bus stop; there, with a reflex no doubt bred from seeing too many action flicks, I unzipped my jacket and held each side out and up, as if to prove I wasn't packing. Disappointed, they let me go with a rap on the head from a rolled-up newspaper.

The moral that friends have drawn from this incident is "Always leave home strapped." Of course, from my perspective, it's an argument for arms control: If I had been carrying a rolled-up newspaper, who knows what dogs of war might have been unleashed? What made me worry about myself afterward was that I'd risked my skull not for The Wild Bunch or The Godfather but for Little Big League -- a wan, attenuated baseball fantasy about a 12-year-old who inherits and manages the Minnesota Twins. I wondered whether I'd decided to play Mr. Concerned Moviegoing Citizen partly to juice up what had become another irritating night at the movies.

When I was growing up in a brand-new housing development in the no-theater town of Delaware Township, N.J. (which was swiftly renamed Cherry Hill, after a shopping mall), movies were a transcendent escape, even if being a fan mostly meant watching old films on TV and anticipating new ones via the ads in the Sunday paper. Driving into Philadelphia with my older brother to see grand '60s spectacles like Lawrence of Arabia and Far From the Madding Crowd in now-defunct movie palaces, or visiting the racier houses to see Point Blank and Bonnie and Clyde in one day, were special occasions; my weekends lit up when I could find Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Magnificent Ambersons or The Big Heat on late-night TV. But it was only when I was able to wheel over to art cinemas like the Band Box in Germantown or the Theater of the Living Arts in South Philly, or to roam different neighborhood theaters for films that the studios dumped, like Pretty Poison or The Ballad of Cable Hogue, that movies hit home to me as the expression of a living culture. And part of that had to do with feeling that I was being drawn into something larger than myself. It wasn't just experiencing the movies themselves, but experiencing being part of audiences who had come to drink in (or spit back at!) the images on-screen, audiences who weren't buying into a film for what ad agencies used to call "snob appeal" or "slob appeal" and weren't treating the theater as a rumpus room, like the group at Little Big League.

Crucial to the moviegoing gestalt of any theater is the nature of the audience. One of my Richmond District haunts, the Balboa, may not have big screens and super sound, but I'm always happy to catch up to something there, especially accomplished, neglected commercial fare like Dolores Claiborne: The viewers are responsive and attentive and less likely to give into the hip sniggerings and solemn "amens" you hear at first-run highbrow dreck like Fargo and Lone Star. You won't find crowds more responsive to edgier independents and documentaries than the ones at the Roxie. The Castro seems to get moviegoers who balance camp and sincerity -- having a consistent group attitude like that is a superb asset for a revival house and makes it the ideal theater for attractions like the restored Vertigo.

The two king-size auditoriums at the Galaxy are among the best-equipped in town, but the sterility of the architectural design makes them resemble mall theaters in which the multiplex environment breaks through what drama critics call "the fourth wall." In this atmosphere, movies can seem like nothing more than an extension of life as it is lived in enclosed retailing complexes. Either viewers are lulled into complacency or vent their anomie. If that doesn't happen at the Embarcadero cinemas, which are actually located in an office and shopping complex, it's because of the intelligent art-house programming, the care of the personnel, and maybe also its position at the top of the complex, which can make the child in you feel, "Movies rule."

In his recent book, In the Blink of an Eye (Silman-James Press, 1995), editing and sound whiz Walter Murch (The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) recalls that "toward the end of the editing process on Julia, Fred Zinnemann observed that he felt the director and the editor, alone with the film for months and months, could only go ninety percent of the way toward the finished film -- that what was needed for the last ten percent was 'the participation of the audience,' whom he saw as his final collaborators." Precisely because he valued audience response "to keep certain obsessions from becoming corrosive and to point out blind spots," Zinnemann would only preview his film when it was technically whole -- he (like Murch) doesn't believe that "audiences can completely discount visible splices, color mismatches, and incomplete soundtracks." As you'll read in the ensuing entries on exhibition in the Bay Area, glitches, oversights, and sloppy service can too easily obscure the artistic finish that moviemakers strive for months to achieve. Yet what makes these failings critical isn't some museumlike ideal of perfection. It's that audiences continue to be the moviemakers' "final collaborators" even after the film is in the theaters. The viewers' electricity and lack of it, their sometimes-audible, sometimes-intuited reactions, provide the final emulsive chemistry that turns a piece of film from an art thing or a product into a dramatic occasion.

Of course, good audiences sometimes thrive in unlikely circumstances, and bad audiences invade the cushiest venues. But the fitness of ambience and presentation often determines whether ticket-buyers will become an involved group of moviegoers or an unruly gang. Theater owners and managers function as the gatekeepers to a moviegoing nirvana or fool's paradise. Hence, this peek through their keyholes.

-- Michael Sragow

Light and Fog: The ABCs of Projection
A writer can spend years honing a screenplay, and a production company can spend millions of dollars making a movie. The cinematographer can craft a symphony of light and shadow. But the ultimate arbiter of your filmgoing experience, in many theaters at least, is very often the kid at the candy counter, who earns minimum wage for pulling sodas, greasing popcorn, and projecting your movie.

This is nothing new -- the gradual de-professionalization of motion-picture projection goes back at least 20 years, with the decline of the once all-powerful projectionists' union and the simultaneous raising up of multiplexes. Chain theaters (famously, the United Artist circuit in the 1970s, after it locked out its union) began training their adolescent personnel not only to project, but to multiproject.

The technological development that allows this is the platter system. Traditional theater booths have two projectors: Every 20 minutes a professional projectionist -- keeping an eye out for the second of two easily overlooked flashes, or cue marks, in the upper right-hand corner of the screen -- changes over to the other projector.

But almost all films these days are loaded whole onto great platters, which allow a continuous, two-hour-plus run. One union projectionist of my acquaintance flits from one theater (with several screens) to another, traveling a circuit keyed to starting times. All he need do is start the film rolling in each room. Platters are now an industry standard: Major theaters in the Bay Area that show movies the old-fashioned way include the Castro, the UC, the Stanford, the Pacific Film Archive, and the Roxie.

It's not hard to see the downsides of this. One is that a misalignment, or a single bit of dirt in the wrong place, can gouge the entire print of a film for many screenings to come. Also, theaters tend not to have a projectionist around when things (inevitably) go wrong. Another problem is that, once they do go wrong, the platters can't be rewound. If the picture or sound goes askew for a significant amount of time (which tends to be the case, when, again, there's not a projectionist on duty to catch the problem early), there's no way to go back and let the audience see or hear what it missed.

Theater owners for years have sought the elusive Endless Loop Platter (ELP), which would necessitate no care or attention beyond a daily loading. Despite the best efforts of many technicians, however, the thing has never worked. This no doubt depresses theater owners: The true techs, particularly union techs like my well-traveled friend, continue to be very well paid. Which is fair, considering that they're required to be able to maintain and fix the oft-balky equipment. (Though others complain that their hours are so curtailed that they literally have no time for maintenance.) The candy-counter crowd, meanwhile, barely know how to focus a camera; they project films at the wrong aspect ratio, or skew it up or down, or to one side or the other.

It's too bad, because good projection is as essential a part of the moviegoing experience as a good sound system, comfortable seats properly aligned, and so on. People are often unaware of little things that give them a less-optimum experience than they deserve. Few audience members, for example, know of the importance of a bright projection bulb. A few years ago, a friend of mine was working for Lucasfilm, prepping a theater for a preview screening of Willow. One of his jobs was to make sure the management ran the film with the xenon bulb in the projector properly turned up: To save money, theaters will often burn the bulbs dimmer than they should be (so that they will last longer), or keep using them after they begin to go. Projectionists say that bulbs rated to last 2,000 hours, or about half a year's worth of work, can be made to last 8,000 hours. (The cheaper bulbs cost $400 to $600; the money saved is on the order of about a penny a ticket.) But there are a lot of other ways not enough light can get to the screen: What's called the lamp house can be insufficiently powerful for the room. Or the bulb's wattage may be too low (another money-saving move). The mirror and bulb can be out of alignment. Or the lens can be out of focus. (To be fair, it sometimes happens that the film prints are dim.)

I've learned to stay away from certain theaters prone to dim projection. In my experience the most dim-bulbed theaters are run by United Artists; on the other hand, Landmark and the AMC's Kabuki tend to be very good in this regard, and operations run by movie lovers -- generally the ones with two projectors -- do consistently excellent work.

Strangely, over the years I've had a lot of problems with the Castro, a great rep house to be sure but one in which, for example, the recently revived Picnic's Kansan high noon looked like dusk. The programs there are so good, however, that I decided to call the head projectionist and see what's what. He was surprised by my perception: He says that the bulbs they use (for their old-fashioned projectors) cost $1,500, are rated for 900 hours, and are often pulled earlier, when he perceives a problem. They were freshly installed for the theater's current Vertigo run, and indeed the 70mm projection of that film looks more than fine, as did the 35mm projection of Marnie. From his description they're doing everything right, so who knows? Cinema beauty is in the eye of the beholder, anyway, although we should never settle for a thumb in same.

-- Gregg Rickman

Sound Advice
Before the advent of digital sound, when movies weren't so damn noisy, movie sound was mostly conveyed by means of an analog optical soundtrack. This means that a wavy line, analogous to sound waves, was photographically imprinted on the film stock, right there alongside the frames of the film. An optical sound reader in each film projector turned these optical waves into electrical waves that were amplified and sent to a speaker. This was fine, except that an audible hiss, rather like the ones that come off of cassette tapes, would sound throughout the theater, along with an occasional pop or crack.

In 1976, San Francisco's Dolby Laboratories came up with a way of reducing this hiss and bringing stereo surround sound to the movies. The company called the process Dolby Stereo, and its first big releases were Barbra Streisand's A Star Is Born and Star Wars. Two optical sound channels were placed side by side on the film; from these, four channels of sound were extracted: left, right, center, and "surround," or rear. It quickly became de rigueur on big Hollywood releases. (It's now called just "Dolby.") The company improved on the technology in 1986 with Dolby SR (for "Spectral Recording"; it debuted on RoboCop), which remains the analog-sound standard.

Dolby introduced digital surround sound in 1992 with Batman Returns. ("Digital" means that the sound is stored as binary computer code, consisting of ones and zeros.) Dolby Digital provides six separate (or "discrete") channels of sound: left, center, right, left surround, right surround, and a subwoofer or bass channel. (This is known as the "5.1" configuration.) Dolby Digital resides in an unusual place: still on the celluloid itself, but between the sprocket holes of the film. (The company can include other information between the sprockets as well: The theaters' Dolby computer processors automatically read software updates off the film as it is screened.) Putting the sound there allows it to exist alongside a conventional Dolby SR soundtrack, and means that a given print can be projected in any theater, whether it's equipped for Dolby Digital or not. (This is a smart move: Many a theatrical innovation has foundered because it did not allow for such back-compatibility.)

Dolby felt the heat in 1993 when DTS (Digital Theater Systems) presented DTS Digital Surround to accompany Jurassic Park. DTS also provides six discrete channels of sound in the 5.1 configuration, but it doesn't exist on the film stock. Rather, DTS puts it on a separate CD. DTS says that its process uses less data compression than Dolby Digital and thus provides greater fidelity and frequency range, and less distortion. The CD is kept in sync with the movie by means of a time code on the film stock next to the standard optical soundtrack. (That keeps the print compatible with non-DTS systems.)

In June of 1994, Sony jumped in with SDDS: Sony Dynamic Digital Sound. (The movie? City Slickers 2.) SDDS provides digital surround sound with a whopping eight discrete channels: right, right center, center, left center, left, right surround, left surround, and subwoofer/bass. Its digital sound code resides on the film itself, the same way Dolby Digital does, but SDDS uses two separate digital tracks on each edge of the film. SDDS can also provide six or four digital channels for theaters not configured for eight.

What, then, is THX? Something different. THX isn't a sound recording or playback technology; it's a sort of quality-assurance program for theater sound -- basically, a Good Housekeeping seal from George Lucas. Developed by Lucasfilm (and named after Lucas' first feature, THX 1138), THX was first used with the movie The Empire Strikes Back. THX simply means that a theater has been certified to adhere to exacting standards in seven areas: background noise (air conditioners, etc.), isolation (no external noise sources, such as the theater next door), reverberation, viewing angle, projection, equipment (amplifiers, speakers, and projectors), and equipment installation (speaker placement).

Besides these unquestioned improvements, the bottom line is that movie sound can now be much louder and clearer. This can be a mixed blessing, as those of us who were pounded into submission during The Rock and other summer blockbuster duds can attest. Digital-sound providers say that digital isn't just for big movies with ear-ringing, head-thumping sound: It can enhance the clarity of quieter movies, too. Most small movies, however, can't afford the added expense of a digital soundtrack; there isn't movie-patron demand for it either. Digital sound will remain the domain of big-budget "Hollywood" pictures for the near future.

--Joe Mader

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