The Music Box‘s 70-millimeter film festival (this year subtitled “The Ultimate Edition”) begins tonight, right on the heels of the theater’s installment of a new 41-foot screen and 7.1 channel sound system. These technological augmentations, which debuted right before the Music Box screened the “Special Roadshow Engagement” of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, don’t register as significant improvements (speaking as someone who regularly sees movies at the venue). For one, the sound still bounced around the main theater in a tinny, movie-palace way. And the screen seemed a bit, well, small. When 46-inch displays are considered “small”, and with manufacturers already talking past 4K TV models, it’s hard to make a case for someone to leave the house to go to the movies when they can literally grab a six-pack from the fridge, pull up nearly any film in history on their phone, and play it through their affordable, gargantuan television.
As a frequent moviegoer and film critic, I wonder how much the oft-discussed “death of film” has to do with delivery systems rather than content or consumer attitudes about media. Cinema purists champion Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Christopher Nolan when they decry the takeover of digital, but are they like carriage makers at the dawn of the automobile, or do they actually have a point?
The 2016 roster of the 70-millimeter fest may provide some clues: mainstays like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Vertigo, and West Side Story; rare and restored prints of Ghostbusters and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; and old-Hollywood epics like Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, and The Wild Bunch. Krull is also on the bill, though, which raises lots of questions: Are there fine details to discover in Peter Yates’s C-movie, fantasy-film hodgepodge that aren’t identifiable on the Blu-Ray? Can the presentation mitigate or overshadow the ridiculous story and cheesy performances? Or is this a goofy relief from all the reverence, albeit an instance of the audience laughing at the movie rather than with it? Furthermore, did Nolan’s Interstellar and Anderson’s The Master and Inherent Vice sneak in based on their creators’ advocacy for 70-millimeter or simply by virtue of being shot in that format? Running Interstellar one evening and 2001 the next feels more like a film-school exercise in the art of homage than a confident pairing of two undeniably great movies.
In its promotional material, the Music Box boasts that “thousands of pounds of film will be shipped across the country” for the festival. Even as a movie lover, this strikes me as archaic and fiscally excessive. I’m by no means suggesting the Music Box would ever do this, but if the projectionist swapped out the 70-millimeter Lawrence of Arabia for a digital projection of its recent 4K remaster, would the audience honestly know the difference? Romantic notions of physical media will put some butts in seats, but probably not enough to make theaters financially viable in the long term.
What’s required is the perfect blend of setting, setup, and content. Two of my most rewarding moviegoing experiences last year involved Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out, which were shot and screened digitally. I saw them on slightly-larger-than-normal multiplex screens, and was absorbed in the filmmakers’ bold compositions and outrageous story ideas. The shot-on-65-millimeter Hateful Eight, however, looked fantastic but dragged after the intermission, as the narrative switched from a gritty, post-Civil War human chess game to a trademark Tarantino bloodbath. I don’t know if the lack of interruption would have made the transition more fluid, but the point remains: all the film grain and overtures and collectible programs in the world won’t make a flawed movie unflawed. (Conversely, a great film may convince someone who first streamed it on an iPad to seek it out in as large and as comfortable a venue as possible.)
I don’t want to bag on the 70-millimeter film festival—I’m glad it exists, and I hope to attend at least a few of the screenings. For me the attraction is the Music Box itself, and the prospect of seeing remarkable movies in an elegant setting—it’s not a film format whose adherents will soon fade from cultural relevance. The Music Box has a storied history and film-loving advocates on its side. But celluloid’s devotees must balance reverence for the past with the demands of the future if they hope to be a part of it.