Tagged: Film History

Cinerama 60th Anniversary with Original Three-Strip Projection at Hollywood Cinerama Dome

The Arclight Cinema in Hollywood is going to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Cinerama widescreen process by screening a bunch of films in the three-strip process. While this process could envelop the audience, it was also very expensive to produce and project. The process would be surpassed by anamorphic processes, such as Cinemascope or Vista Vision, that used only one camera and the same 35mm film stock and projection systems as before.

Cinerama ... how it works ...

My cousin is getting married that weekend in Los Angeles so if I can go, I might head to Hollywood for a screening or two. In fact, I am tempted to sneak out of the reception to go to the 11:00 PM screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Friday the 28th.

The Palace Theater in Downtown Los Angeles

A brief tour of Flickr today revealed that the Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation took a tour of the recently renovated Palace Theater in Downtown Los Angeles.

The Palace opened up just over 101 years ago as a part of the Orpheum vaudeville chain. In fact, that was its name until they opened a newer and larger theater at 842 S. Broadway, in 1926, where a newly remodeled Orpheum stands today. At the current Palace Theater, you can still find signs of the Orpheum affiliation. For example, in the painted sign indicating its part of the Opheum family in this photo from Flickr user “jericl”.

downtown Los Angeles

You can also see it in my photo from June 2011.

Palace Theater Centennial Show

Sarah and I visited the Palace last June, for the theater’s centennial. To commemorate the occasion, there was a screening of Sunset Boulevard that was part of the Los Angeles Conservancy’s “Last Remaining Seats” series.

Palace Theater Centennial Show

I’m thrilled to see that organizations dedicated to historic preservation, such as the Historic Theater Foundation and the Conservancy, have been breathing new life into this particular theater. There are not many theaters—that I know of—in the downtown Los Angeles area of this age. Most have been torn down by now or converted beyond recognition.

The Egyptian Theater and Why So Few Seats “Remain” in Downtown Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Conservancy kicked off its twenty-sixth annual Last Remaining Seats film festival this past week. Sarah and I went last year to watch Sunset Boulevard at the Palace Theater as that Broadway movie house turned 100. and my parents are going to three screenings this month. The festival celebrates the legacy of the picture palaces in downtown Los Angeles. LA’s Broadway was an important hub of movie exhibition, hosting many premieres, as the movie business was developing into a vertically integrated industry, where studios would control the production and the first-run exhibition of their films.


The Broadway theater district would fall on hard times over the years, as just about everything moved out of downtown. One of the first movie theaters to draw audiences outside of downtown was the Egyptian theater. It was the first movie palace in Hollywood.

Larry Harnisch, who publishes the always fascinating The Daily Mirror blog, chronicles the opening of the Egyptian. One of the curious aspects of the new theater was the reserved-seating policy and how they ticketed theater patrons nearly a hundred years ago.

Grauman inaugurated new policies before opening the theatre. He announced on October 7 that the Egyptian would be the first theatre on the West Coast to reserve seats for every performance. Patrons could buy tickets downtown at Barker Brothers’ music department two weeks in advance, or by calling the theatre at Hollywood 2131, 2132 or 2133. Two complete shows ran daily, a matinée at 2:15 pm and an evening screening at 8:15 pm. Afternoon prices ranged from 50 cents to $1, and evening shows cost 75 cents to $1.50.

While the theater’s design and construction are certainly remarkable, I find these mundane details to reveal a great deal about the role of the Egyptian in the history of movie exhibition.

If you wanted to see a show at the Egyptian, you could visit a furniture store, ten miles away from the theater, and buy tickets up to two weeks in advance. Or you could call the theater to order tickets. (I’ve seen ads where patrons could order tickets over the mail as late as the 1950s.) Undoubtedly, the Egyptian was marketed as part of special occasion. It was not a casual movie-going experience, as the case during the Nickelodeon era, 1905–1912, that the picture palaces had essentially killed in the mid 1910s. To draw movie audiences out of downtown, the Egyptian needed to act as a new flagship theater of the American film industry.

As the LA Conservancy celebrates the downtown movie theaters, it’s also important to remember the theater that helped end the golden age of the Broadway movie palace.

It’s All Digital Now

This semester’s History of Cinema course concluded with the contemporary Hollywood entertainment economy. One of the themes we continually encountered was Hollywood pursuing spectacle and scale in order to remain relevant. This contrast with what we have seen throughout the semester with emerging cinemas relying more on New Wave priorities of stylistic experimentation and character development.

One of the main topics we covered was the new exhibition technologies of 3D and Digital Projection. While these have been around for decades, and for over a century in the case of 3D photography, the new push for faster frame rates seem as a new way for Hollywood to separate itself from other cinemas from around the world.

David Bordwell has recently covered the campaign for 48 frames per second—double that of the traditional sound film frame rate of 24 frames—led by Peter Jackson and James Cameron as a way to eliminate the artifacts visible in their digital-effects-heavy films. I won’t repeat everything he has to say in that illuminating article but I found a few points relevant for our discussion.

  • In order for theater owners to adopt new hardware, there needs to be a viable path to recovering those costs with profitable software. It’s hard to imagine filmmakers with a better profit potential than Jackson and Cameron.
  • By pioneering new projection technology, it will be hard for other filmmakers—both within and outside of Hollywood—to match them in terms of spectacle.
  • Bordwell is right when he points out the 48 fps debate overlooks the entire issue of story. It’s not that the two are mutually exclusive. It’s just that they are almost working with an entirely different medium than other filmmakers.

We have seen in various other nations numerous attempts to foster a strong national cinema. International co-productions and complex financing arrangements were such methods, but while they might have matched (or approached) the scale of a Hollywood film, they rarely accomplished any sustained success. What had worked was making films with a strong personal vision, complex characters, and drawing on rich sources such as history, politics, or philosophy. These films might not have yielded immediate financial successes, but films like these kinds fostered a strong sense of national identity and also became the hallmarks of international cinema. I tried to screen films of these type throughout the semester.

As filmmakers chase the apex of digital realism, we should not let the digital revolution foreclose what made the cinema, not just entertaining and spectacular, but an international art form.

Unsettled Spirits in Raise the Red Lantern

Raise the Red Lantern - Third Mistress

There’s so much to cover with Raise the Red Lantern (1991), a film I screened in this week’s History of Cinema class. There is the film’s historical portrayal of Chinese feudal society in the early twentieth century. The particular depiction of misogyny is also instructive because it reveals a great deal about the treatment of women in this polygamist family. However, for this review, I want to discuss the way the film’s style portends the fatal ending and that endlessness of the women’s subjugation.

Warning: Spoilers are afoot

Think of the film as depicting a cycle.

First, we see the new mistress coming to the home and being introduced to the older mistresses. As we see each one, we understand that each mistress almost perfectly represents a generation of women. We know little of the Second Mistress other than her desire to bear a son for the Master. The Third Mistress, on the other hand, was at one time a working opera singer. The Fourth Mistress, as a university student, stands as the most ambitious of them all. Each one is more professionally and socially accomplished than the previous one. However, each of these “generations” are compressed into a matter of years, although the actual length is indiscernible.

Second, the Master’s physical absence throughout the film amplifies his power, especially compared to the mistresses, servants, and even Doctor Gao. The Master is conspicuously absent for most of the film. The film employs a variety of tricks to obscure him, such as cutting away at a key moment, having objects block or screen him, or simply framing him from a great distance to render him indistinct. Such techniques give him a spiritual quality that makes him almost immortal.

Third, the film foreshadows the ultimate doom for two of the mistresses. When we see the Third Mistress on the roof of the building, which will be of great narrative significance in the film’s penultimate scene, she resembles an apparition. Her red dress contrasts with the blue sky and monochrome stone structure of the house. As the wind blows and she sings, she has a ghostlike quality. This not only a sign of her fate but also a manifestation of women whose spirits are unsettled. Fourth Mistress punctuates the spiritual tone of that scene when she later confides with First Mistress, “This place is haunted.”

Raise the Red Lantern - Haunted

Finally, after the Third and Fourth mistresses’ fates are sealed, we see a Fifth Mistress join the house. She is presumably the youngest of them all.1 As the cycle begins anew, there are some unsettled ghosts in the house. Fourth Mistress attempts to “unleash” Third Mistress’s ghost by lighting her lanterns and playing a gramophone recording of her singing. Moreover, Fourth Mistress has apparently gone mad. Her life is spared but the trauma of witnessing, and to some degree causing, Third Mistress’s death. But the house and its generations of tradition continue undisturbed. The film suggests that there will be no end to this cycle.

  1. It seems significant to note that Fourth Mistress’s downfall begins on the day she turns twenty years of age. 

A Star Wars Musical? Never Say Never

In Tuesday’s History of Cinema class, I discussed some ways that Hollywood franchises spawn entertainment vehicles beyond movies. One such vehicle is the Broadway musical, such as the 2008 Shrek: The Musical Broadway production. In an off-the-cuff remark, I said, “At least, there hasn’t been a Star Wars musical.” One student proved me wrong.

Although Star Wars: The Musical is not a Broadway show, produced in conjunction with George Lucas, LucasFilm, or 20th Century-Fox. It is a work produced by fans of the franchise, available for free download.

File under: Never say “never.”

(Via Ryan Hecht.)

Memory and Imagination in The Mirror

The Mirror 1975

Earlier today in my History of Cinema III, I screened one of my favorite films from last spring’s version of the same class: Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. I remember sensing that last year’s students enjoyed the spatial and temporal puzzle of the film. This year, I don’t think they enjoyed it as much.

The film is indeed challenging. It lacks any substantial screen time for the protagonist. Instead, we only hear a disembodied voice. However, we see Margarita Terekhova for the majority of the film. And, if I may spoil the film a bit, she plays the roles of the protagonist’s wife Natalya and mother Maroussia. This is a common strategy in the film, and it certainly was not done due to budgetary concerns.

The Mirror 1975

There are many big themes in the film, including mortality, family, history, and even Russian society. The protagonist’s relationships with his mother and wife are perhaps the most important as they are both embodied by the same person in most of his memories. However, the two themes that struck me when I first saw the film and continue to inform my interpretation are memory and imagination. As the protagonist dies, he reflects on his life and the important people and events. As spectators, we see all of the events from his perspective. This is why we see actors playing multiple roles, as his association between them is so close that his subjective consciousness can’t distinguish them.

We also see how certain motifs recur throughout the film, such as the 1935 fire, the departure of his father, the red-headed girl he adored when he was a boy, and the Leonardo da Vinci monograph. All of these recur throughout the film in strategic places as he tries to make sense of his life. In each of them, he is able to explain them against his own memory of them and his grasping with what it means now that he’s approaching the end of his life. We can see his concern with legacy when he considers his son in nearly all of his memories, as he remembers himself through his son’s body.

The students either seem confused, bored, or underwhelmed by this representation. It’s also possible that I oversold the film, when I compared it to Persona. I screened the Bergman film earlier this semester, and it was a hit.

The Revolution Will Change Everyone’s Lives: One Way or Another

This evening Brooklyn’s Light Industry screened a rare Cuban film, Sara Gomez’s De Cierta Manera [One Way or Another] (1974). I had seen this film back as an undergraduate at UCSB, in Donna Cunnigham’s Film History: 1960 – Present class, well over a decade ago. Earlier this semester, I had wanted to screen this film for my own film history class, but a couple of factors made that difficult. First, I could only find a worn out VHS copy, which it lacked the image sharpness that I so vividly associate with seeing first this film. Second, I had booked two films for the day: this and the celebrated Memories of Underdevelopment. There simply wouldn’t have been time to screen both. I gave students the opportunity to see the film tonight for extra credit. One student took me up on the offer.

One Way or Another blends documentary footage with a narrative sequences. This was one of the most common stylistic qualities of post-Revolutionary Cuban cinema. Filmmakers utilized this strategy to locate the personal impact of the Revolution on ordinary Cubans. As the title suggests, the Revolution was going to change everyone’s lives…one way or another.

De Cierta Manera

In this particular film, we see the social challenges of the Revolution through two institutions: organized labor and the schools. In the opening sequence of the film, we see a tribunal for Humberto. We learn later in the film that he is being judged for loafing, as this scene is repeated. Loafing in Revolutionary Cuba has consequences since it threatens productivity and also solidarity.

We also see the social impact of the Revolution in the schools. A few delinquent students, who are unaccustomed to formal education, complicate the educational mission of the Revolution. Moreover, their parents are also uneducated and ill-equipped to supervise their children’s education. Without education, the Revolution cannot adequately lift children out of poverty.

Like most Cuban films of the time, there was a mix of personal narratives in the film, which were fictional. As the film documents the tribunal and the challenges of the labor union, we see it through the character of Mario. Mario accuses Humberto of loafing at the hearing. When the tribunal scene is repeated towards the end of the film, we don’t understand why Mario testifies against Humberto, as we see that they are friends throughout the film. However, we learn in the moments following the second instance of the tribunal that Mario struggled with the decision to “rat out” his friend but ultimately decided to do so for the sake of the Revolution. Mario’s internal conflict makes for a more nuanced view of the Revolution. While Humberto’s decision to loaf, by staying with a young woman, hurt worker productivity and solidarity, it required Mario to betray his friend.

Throughout the film, Mario courts Yolanda, a young, educated and independent school teacher. It is through her character that we see the challenges in the schools. Her education gave her the opportunity to teach children, but she is constantly frustrated by the inability of her students to learn and behave appropriately in the classroom. (Believe me, I can appreciate her frustration.) In perhaps one of the most touching moments, she admits her frustration when she describes the cycle of a young girl going through school until the sixth grade, who then marries and has her own daughter who will go to the same school for her own sixth-grade education. Her soliloquy is punctuated by a scene of young black girls in short white dresses dancing provocatively in the village. This image contrasts with Yolanda’s own dress and gestures that, by comparison, characterize her as a schoolmarm.

The most direct consequence of the Revolution in this film is the urban redevelopment projects, which were common not only in post-Revolutionary Cuba but throughout Latin America and even some cities in the United States. A recurring image is the razing of the slums, which were being replaced by shiny, modern housing units. The wrecking ball that demolishes the old blighted housing reminds us of the immediate change that the Revolution brings. However, it is the rapid pace of change that the film takes most issue. It is clear that some Cubans were unprepared for the Revolution. This is despite the seemingly good intentions of the Revolution’s architects, who were curiously never represented in the film.

Big Majority Excel on “History of Cinema” Midterm Exam

The students in my History of Cinema III class at Queens College took their midterm exam last week, and as I did last spring, I am publishing the aggregate results here.

I was very impressed with the way students performed on this test. Fifty-seven percent of students scored a B or better, and nearly a third of the entire class of seventy-one students scored an A.

Midterm Exam Aggregates

The mean score for the test looked a bit low for my liking but it was consistent with a large lecture class. Students averaged a 74.25, a “solid” C. The median score was a little better at 81. I’d tell you who got that score, but that’s not allowed.

There was a significant difference this year. Three students scored 100% on the exam, which did not happen last year. Also, there were a lot of students who scored either 98% or 99% on their exams, too. That made me very happy!

Students were given two hours to complete their exam, and it appears that many of them finished in less than an hour. The average of the best three scores, 0:58:40, was very close to the average time of 0:57:38 that the 71 persons who took this exam.

Midterm Exam Letter

The letter grade distributions skewed heavily towards the top and bottom grades. Almost a third of the class scored an A, but a troubling high portion of the class, 14%, failed the exam. On the bright side, 57% of the class scored an A or a B. Clearly, there were some students who did very well.

Midterm Exam TimeVPerformance

And finally, I have an obsession with recording how students perform against their time.


p>The only metric I didn’t use was attendance since I haven’t been coding the sign-in sheets yet.

Framing in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

As we discussed in class, the framing in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul almost entirely contains the characters in a confined space. One of my favorite instances of this is when Emmi and Ali are waiting for their order to come at the restaurant where “Hitler used to eat.”

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Restaurant

After one of the most uncomfortable waiter-and-diner scenes imaginable, the camera framing moves from medium close-up to a long-shot. Emmi and Ali are very small, and they are dwarfed by the dining room’s structure. I see this as a way of expressing the insurmountable social circumstances that Emmi and Ali are going to face after their wedding. This is not going to be a socially sanctioned relationship. The subsequent scene reinforces this. Emmi calls her children to announce her matrimony, to which they react with utter disgust and contempt.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Family

Do you recall any other scenes where the framing or staging expresses the difficulty of Emmi and Ali’s situation?