By Susan Stahl
Chicago already has nearly three dozen movie theaters, and if all goes as planned in the next year the number of screens will increase by a third. The art-house crowd has had several excellent choices–the Film Center at the Art Institute, Facets Multimedia Center, Doc Films at the University of Chicago, and the Music Box, to name a few. Now mainstream exhibitors are moving in on the growing audience for “specialty” cinema: Century Theatres will devote 6 of 18 screens to foreign and art films at its new multiplex scheduled to open in Evanston; Hollywood Video has begun pushing “First Rites,” a special section devoted to first-time directors who’ve never had a theatrical release; and now Landmark Theatres Corporation, the nation’s largest chain devoted to exhibiting “first-run independent and foreign films and nontraditional studio fare,” has opened Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema in Lakeview.
Founded in 1974, Landmark made its mark, so to speak, by acquiring and restoring old movie palaces and playing repertory films (i.e., classics). The advent of home video in the 80s eroded Landmark’s niche market, so the company expanded its programming to encompass first-run American and foreign films as well. As its press kit states, “the strategy worked, and more effort was channeled into expansion.”
Today that expansion has absorbed the old Century Theater, which was converted into Century Shopping Centre in the 1970s. Landmark has taken pains to restore the marquee and facade of the original building and added another floor to the mall to house its seven-screen facility, snuggling it in over United Audio Centers and Victoria’s Secret and outfitting it with an espresso bar, gourmet sweets, and the like. For convenience there’s a box office on the main floor as well as at the theater entrance on the fifth floor, and since the elevators are inefficient and the coil of ramps overly circuitous, two escalators serve as an alternate route to the theater lobby.
Landmark’s opening night featured the U.S. premiere of High Fidelity, which shared the space with Election, Onegin, Restaurant, The Terrorist, and Winter Sleepers. Elevators, escalators, ramps, steps, and concession areas were packed and chaotic, with crisscrossing lines and people standing as many as five abreast to chat or check out the movie posters. The staff experimented with different methods of directing traffic in the unusual space, many of them using walkie-talkies like production assistants on a film set. When a customer reported losing his girlfriend’s ticket, general manager Brian Ross paused to have a calm chat with the guy about the importance of hanging on to such things. “What if someone else found it?” he asked, a reasonable question given the hordes hoping to see High Fidelity. He then issued a replacement ticket, and they were both happy–despite the stress and frustration his job clearly entails, Ross seems to enjoy helping people enjoy their evening.
Ross used to manage the Tivoli Theatre in Saint Louis, a 1925 movie palace now owned by Landmark. “I came here because I wanted the challenge. I know this sounds corny, but I love film, and I’m committed to making this theater work for other people who love it.” Before as well as during his tenure, the Tivoli had a close-knit staff, an atmosphere Ross is hoping to bring to Landmark. He encourages his 50-plus employees to familiarize themselves with the films so they can help patrons learn more about them; the job application includes the instruction, “List the last five films you have seen and what you thought of them,” evaluating not only the applicant’s interest in film but also the likelihood that he or she will be supportive of the product. While some of the staff said they would rather see blockbusters, several are writers or film students who relish the opportunity to see Landmark films for free.
Ross is a newcomer compared to house manager Eileen Chiappetti, who started with Landmark as an usher at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee when she was 19. “I went to see Tears for Fears there in 1985, and I was hooked,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘I want to work here.'” One day she whistled at a guy who was painting the Oriental’s marquee; he called her over and told her they were hiring. “I really developed an attachment for it because I worked there so long. I did everything–fixed the seats, cleaned up before and after the shows, made sure all the equipment was working, helped the guys who installed the pipes in the pipe organ.”
Landmark soon took over Milwaukee’s Downer Theatre, a single-screen house built in 1915, and after transferring there Chiappetti was promoted to manager. She’s been on an upward climb with the company ever since, moving from place to place at the behest of her employers, taking jobs in Cleveland, Minneapolis, and now Chicago. “I’m really interested in the concessions side of the business and in operations,” she says. “I’ve never been really into marketing. My interest is in trying to work out problems, handling the big crowds–to me that’s fun.” At other theaters Chiappetti felt that she was “the fixer”; now, working at a theater that’s starting from scratch, she’s learning how problems happen in the first place. Landmark is developing yet another multiplex in Highland Park, and when that opens she’ll be hiring, setting up concessions, and checking out the neighborhood, “seeing what the other theaters don’t have that we can offer.”
While Chiappetti admits that the work is exhausting, she enjoys the atmosphere generated by Landmark’s programming. “One time we had SLC Punk! playing with An Ideal Husband, which usually draws a senior citizen crowd, and we had all these senior citizens in the theater with all these punk rockers. We felt like we could tell who was coming to see what, you know? And all of a sudden this grandma orders a ticket for SLC Punk!” She laughs. “Who’d’ve thought? These two totally opposite groups of people had to mingle at the concession stand. It’s fun seeing that. And seeing what they buy.”
Landmark acquires its films from many sources: it has strong relationships with all the major independent distributors, who are more than happy to funnel product with narrower appeal through Landmark’s successful chain; Landmark representatives attend festivals (the company’s theaters also host them in many cities); and the LA office has a screening room for work that gets sent to them on spec. Douglas Freed, who programs all the Landmark theaters except for those in the western U.S., describes its fare as “character driven, with a unique vision.” Some filmmakers do approach Landmark directly, though it’s rare that a film with no distributor gets picked up by the chain. Freed offers the example of comedian Margaret Cho, who’s making a concert movie she’d like to distribute through her own company. “Landmark is working closely with her manager to roll out a national release,” he says. But few unknown filmmakers or films without known personalities find a niche in the company’s programming.
During the run of Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard at Landmark’s Harvard Exit Theatre in Seattle, anyone who could prove his name was Richard got in free, provided the theater could take his photograph. “We hung the photos in the lobby and put a big sign under them that said ‘Richards We Have Found,'” chuckles Cary Jones, vice president of marketing for Landmark. “We do a lot of weird things. They’re all film related. Stuff like that is part of the grassroots marketing that we do.”
The use of “grassroots” to describe a corporate marketing strategy shows just how much that word has been corrupted since it emerged from the rhetoric of political community organizing. “Community” is another concept that figures heavily in Landmark’s corporate identity; the closing statement of the press kit reads: “No matter how large it grows, the circuit continues to operate hand-in-hand with local communities to support the art of film.” It’s not surprising that a company contributing to and benefiting from the commodification of independent films can talk about “aggressively staging grassroots promotions” even as it touts its “aggressive expansion” throughout the U.S.
Landmark is a subsidiary of Dallas-based Silver Cinemas, Inc., whose CEO, Larry Hohl, has held senior executive positions at Nike, Pepsico, and Pizza Hut. But Jones denies that Hohl’s corporate background has any bearing on their programming. “Obviously he wants the theaters to be performing as successfully as they can,” he says. “But as far as his role in the business of programming the theaters, it’s kind of like the separation of church and state. Some of these films may not be to his liking, he may not even be familiar with some of them. But we have total autonomy.” Having cut his teeth at IRS Releasing, Cineplex Odeon, and 20th Century-Fox (where he cofounded Fox Classics), Jones is no stranger to corporate structure–but his experience has afforded him the opportunity to ride the wave that brought independent filmmaking out of obscurity.
Landmark’s success ultimately depends on having it both ways: on the one hand, management would rather be on friendly or at least neutral terms with other local exhibitors than be seen as a hungry competitor; on the other, the company is constantly developing plans for new theaters to broaden its portfolio. One of the next locations on its agenda is New York City’s Lower East Side, where it has acquired the Sunshine Theater. As with the Century Shopping Centre, Landmark plans to restore the facade and marquee of the 100-year-old Yiddish vaudeville theater and to install stadium seating and digital sound.
John Sloss, a New York-based entertainment lawyer who’s found success making distribution deals for films inside Landmark’s programming parameters (Boys Don’t Cry, American Movie, and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., among others) has reservations about art-house chains in general. “This kind of consolidation limits the ability of really marginal films–and I don’t mean that in a negative sense–to find an audience. Because like any other chain, Landmark is about making money, so they will end up showing more commercially oriented art-house films. And I hope I’m wrong about this, but looking at the current trend among moviegoers in this country, eventually there may not be enough demand for more marginal films to keep the mom-and-pop places in business. The blitz marketing that studios and other major distributors use to plug their product has taken its toll over time; people are overwhelmed by the saturation of mainstream film and have become progressively more passive–they don’t want to see challenging films. I mean, as a college student, I was a person who went to see a lot of foreign films, and I was part of the whole independent film movement. And now I find myself looking at and being drawn to blockbusters. It’s gotten to a point that something like the Landmark comes along, maybe mimicking that on a highbrow level. Their opening roster for this weekend is promising in terms of taking chances…but whether they’ll be able to maintain that level of risk remains to be seen.”
Patrons’ attitudes at Landmark’s Century Centre have so far borne out Sloss’s characterization of modern filmgoers; on opening night I saw dozens of people leave when they learned that High Fidelity was sold out. Those who paused to squint at the five other titles on the backlit show-times board invariably asked, “Who’s in The Terrorist?” One older couple bought tickets for that film, only to sell them back after reading the description. Another couple came intending to see either High Fidelity or Restaurant. “We didn’t want anything that was too deep or too intense; we wanted something that was really just silly and frivolous,” said the woman. Neither of them had ever been to the Music Box.
Despite or maybe because of these attitudes, another aspect of Landmark’s success may stem from its willingness to court publicity by showing more controversial films like Dogma or Romance. In any case, by targeting a more mainstream audience Landmark may open some minds to the idea that seeing a more challenging film can be an interesting, even enjoyable, experience. Jones is still amazed at the revelation many people experience when they see an art film for the first time. “It’s like they just discovered the atom,” he says. But he concedes that broadening the audience for foreign films has been challenging even for Landmark. “Every now and then a film like Run Lola Run comes along, or The Dreamlife of Angels, and those films work,” he says. “But there are other fascinating foreign-language films, and people are intimidated by having to read subtitles instead of just being passive viewers.” He attributes this less to xenophobia than to changing aesthetics. “The younger generation has been brought up with MTV, and they aren’t as patient with the film language that’s typical in Europe and Asia, with its more languid pace, without special effects and quick editing.”
Charles Coleman, who programs Facets Multimedia Center, is less forgiving. “We’re talking about thousands of years of evolution of learning to do two things simultaneously,” he says. “Your heart’s beating all the time; you’re on the Internet moving a mouse; you’re driving and talking on a cell phone, or putting makeup on–and you can’t read a subtitle? It’s like people are undermining their evolutionary code. And sometimes people need to be pushed up against their will. It’s my hope that the Landmark will be able to accomplish that.”
Whatever risk Landmark might have taken by programming an Indian film like The Terrorist (which tells the story of a 19-year-old female revolutionary) has so far been eclipsed by the success of High Fidelity, which grossed higher at Landmark’s Century Centre its opening weekend than anywhere else in the country. Putting High Fidelity on two screens to open a theater here is pretty much a no-brainer: it stars local hero John Cusack (who also cowrote the screenplay) as Rob Gordon, a cynical hipster who wanders around Chicago trying to figure out why his girlfriend has dumped him. Director Stephen Frears filled the screen with highly recognizable locales, and Cusack helped recruit rafts of young Chicagoans as extras; at Landmark’s Century Centre, wave after wave of moviegoers young and old flood the uppermost floors as others pour out of the screening rooms with huge smiles on their faces, declaring “That was so right-on about the scene here” and “Wow, they really nailed our culture.”
While High Fidelity wasn’t produced independently by any stretch of the imagination–Touchstone Pictures is a subsidiary of Disney–its story is a tangle of meditations on independence, both in business and in the lives of individuals. Besides being a music aficionado, Rob Gordon owns a struggling independent record store whose sales are undermined by his and his employees’ superior attitudes. “You guys think you’re these unappreciated scholars,” says a friend hanging out in their store, “and then you shit on people you think are less than you.”
Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote that our society devotes an inordinate amount of energy to proving that stars are ordinary people. In a slight twist on that notion High Fidelity seems bent on proving that John Cusack was once an ordinary person who could frequent idiosyncratic bars like Lounge Ax, record stores like Wax Trax, and movie theaters like the Music Box. But Wax Trax is long gone, and Lounge Ax closed recently to make way for a sports bar. Is the Music Box next?
Like any good commercial product, High Fidelity endorses the notion of the Top Five: addressing the viewer, Gordon obsessively lists his top five breakups, top five jobs, top five reasons to get married (number one: tired of worrying about getting dumped; number two: desire to accept girlfriend’s worn-out cotton underwear). The conceit packages challenging emotions by breaking them down into steps that are presented in a clever and humanistic (if not entirely humane) way. Toward the end of the film, Cusack’s character makes a list of his top five jobs. Number four is film director, “anything except German or silent.” This is no surprise given what this unappreciated scholar has said about music: “I just want something I can ignore.”
In line for High Fidelity I met a young couple who live in Lakeview and have followed the construction of the theater with mixed feelings. “We were worried that parking would become a problem,” said the woman. “But I’ve also been looking forward to it, because the things they’re going to show are what the Fine Arts or Pipers Alley would show.” She gave her companion a sidelong glance. “I know he wants it to be like one of those, um…” the man cut in: “I wish this were more of a big-budget-type movie theater. I mean, I’m all for independent film, but some of these movies I don’t think I would really go see. I wish there were more movies like Mission to Mars or Matrix here.”
Andy and Larry Wachowski’s science fiction epic The Matrix exemplifies the “edgy” Hollywood blockbuster: driven by state-of-the-art special effects, the film follows the adventures of a band of renegades as they battle an artificial-intelligence system that uses human beings as an energy source. The Matrix keeps its slaves servile with a virtual-reality system that convinces them they’re all living normal lives–a shared illusion not unlike a movie that plays nationwide on thousands of screens. A year ago this month The Matrix “opened wide” in the U.S.; in Chicago it was being shown 436 times a week.
As Alvin Lu wrote in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Matrix uses many ideas also explored in the work of renegade filmmaker Craig Baldwin. Yet when Baldwin’s latest effort, Spectres of the Spectrum, premiered in Chicago, it was shown exactly twice–and one screening took place in a private home.
There’s no marquee on Milwaukee to mark James Bond’s loft–just a metal door that has to be yanked open. Only a handrail mitigates the climb to the fourth floor, and there’s not much to look at on the way up besides a tidy stack of fireplace wood tucked underneath the third flight of steps. But inside is a serene, spacious, comfortable room; on one side vintage couches and folding chairs are neatly arranged facing a deep burgundy velvet curtain. The room is softly lit by recessed ceiling fixtures and subtly decorated with artifacts and framed stills from the earliest days of cinema.
Bond is the midwest’s most proficient designer of theater spaces and sound systems. He and his colleague D.B. Griffith have traveled the world to set up major screenings, mainly in venues that aren’t normally used for that purpose. A poster from one of their recent events, the first film festival in Kazakhstan, adorns one wall of the projection room. Bond was in charge of presenting a new print of Sergei Eisenstein’s Potemkin with a full orchestra performing a score by Shostakovich.
When he moved into the loft 18 years ago Bond intended to turn the former sweatshop into a recording studio. Later the space that now serves as a screening room became Bond’s workshop. “I got hired by a number of independent art houses in town to do installation and repair, and I had to maintain a supply of parts,” he says. “So it was pretty messy for a long time. We started running films here about 12 years ago, but we became refined with the space really only in the last five years.” Initially there was a portable screening system that Bond would have to dismantle periodically for repair parts. He and Griffith have since installed a permanent screen with black masking, a curtain over it that parts in the center, and a dedicated sound system. Bond also got a wood-burning stove for heat, to avoid the noise made by a gas forced-air system.
The permanent screening setup inspired Bond and Griffith to host a film series. Drawing on a collection Bond has been accumulating for years–it now encompasses about 90 titles–and swapping with other collectors in the area, they’ve run the series on Sunday evenings throughout the past few winters, showing about 40 titles in a season. They take a break during the summer because they don’t have air-conditioning. They also don’t have a business license, so they don’t publicize, but anyone with an interest in film is welcome. Groups like Chicago Filmmakers and the Chicago Underground Film Festival sometimes borrow the space for public events (both arranged to bring Baldwin to town for his film’s premiere), and if those organizations charge admission, that’s their business.
“It’s kind of a strange position to be in,” says Griffith. “We have this beautiful screening room, and if you look at it one way it could be considered extremely bourgie–people making and showing movies for their posh little friends. On the other hand there are elements that are totally Marxist; it’s really a collective. James and I have both tried to help a lot of people by offering our services and facilities–we also have a wood shop and a painting studio. And most of the experimental work that we show comes from people who have a network of places like this in cities all over the world so that tours can go on and people can have their work seen without distribution. Every year for the past three or four years, [experimental filmmaker] James Benning has used this place for the premiere of his latest films.”
Part of the allure of Bond and Griffith’s space is the feeling that, once inside, you’re protected from the glare of commerce. The only rules that apply here are those of common courtesy, and the lack of structure can be intimidating. It’s not their intention to run an exclusive film club–their door is open to the public whenever they have a screening–but those who accept the notion of freedom and all-inclusiveness are more likely to go there, and ironically this may help them maintain a manageable scale.
In the projection booth before the screening of Spectres of Spectrum, Baldwin talked to Griffith about the film’s optical sound track, admitting that in places it’s a little bit muddy and making tentative suggestions about tweaking it during the show. Griffith, a filmmaker who earns his living repairing film cameras and editing equipment, listened patiently, then smiled and shook his head. “I think you’ll be impressed with the sound here,” he said. “We’re using rebuilt tube amplifiers from the 30s.” Baldwin’s eyes lit up, and he clapped his hands: “That’s what I like to hear!” Griffith led us into the screening room and pulled aside the velvet curtain to reveal, next to the screen, a vertical rack of graceful glass tubes with filaments glowing orange. “That’s magic,” Baldwin said, affecting an old-geezer voice as we stared at the mesmerizing array. “That’s the magic of cinema.”
“The age of the equipment has little to do with what you get on the screen,” Bond says. “It’s how it’s operated and maintained that makes the difference. And that’s something that takes a lot of personal investment, that on a corporate level wouldn’t really make sense–it gets very expensive, you know, cuts into profit potential.” His wry smile quickly fades. “It’s that lack of professional investment that will keep independent filmmakers from discovering a rapport with exhibitors, because they’re not going to get anything back from them.”
Baldwin likes the fact that his work is hard to categorize. He rattles off a few words that have been used to describe Spectres of the Spectrum: underground, avant-garde, agitprop, documentary, experimental, narrative.
As a documentary the film covers the evolution of electronic communication from the 19th-century rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla to the year 2007, conveying a tremendous amount of information through aural and visual montage. Footage from a 50s TV program called Science in Action appears frequently: in one clip, military officers stiffly describe the latest weapons technology, insisting that enemy forces overseas are at this very moment rallying for attack; in another, the show’s host, in his ever-present white lab coat, blithely places electrodes on a stingray. As the animal writhes in pain, its mouth gaping open in what we can only imagine are screams, the camera cuts away to a monitor registering sine waves. The show has all the campy quality of science fiction from that era, but it’s clear that it wasn’t conceived as fiction; it’s stuff we don’t want to know that we used to do, that we don’t want to claim as part of our history.
As a character-driven narrative the film follows a young woman trying to decipher a message left in the airwaves by her now dead grandmother; as agitprop it unveils the coming of the New Electromagnetic Order, or NEO. “Like radio, television, and cable, the Internet has become primarily a marketing tool, consisting mainly of virtual malls and on-line theme parks,” a narrator explains. An image from a 70s ad for Disney World flashes on-screen and then freezes, big-headed characters grinning in front of the famous castle. “The problem with our now external, now collective imagination is that it’s absolutely manipulable by the corporate forces that undergird the reality of power and information….In the year 2007, all forms of media are controlled by one major transnational corporation.”
Baldwin told Lu that Spectres of the Spectrum reflects his interest in “a pattern of co-optation of creative genius by corporations.” But he dismisses the suggestion that his work is all about conspiracy. “It’s less about facts and more about possibilities. It’s about coincidences and relationships between things that recur over time. Coincidences are always happening all around us, but are they coincidences? I came to show my film here not knowing that they call this place the Cinema Borealis…and the borealis is in my film! Is that a coincidence?” He spreads his arms wide, a gesture that seems to encompass his entreaty to the human race: open up, reach out, provoke.
The name Cinema Borealis is leftover from an open-air series Bond presented in Lincoln Park in 1989. “Sometimes it’s called that,” says Griffith, “sometimes it’s called Full Aperture Cinema,” a variation on Bond’s business name, Full Aperture Systems, Inc. “It doesn’t really have a permanent name because, well, it’s our house.” A doorway adjacent to the screening area leads to a kitchen/living area that rivals the screening room in size. A couple guys are hanging out in there; one of them exchanges a few words with Griffith about Baldwin’s film, then vanishes. Found objects line the walls, and pillows and bedclothes are folded and piled, as though people come and go all the time. Griffith scoops a thick whitish stew out of a pot on the stove, reminding me of the food eaten by the renegades in The Matrix.
“Around the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s,” Griffith says, “Madison Avenue advertising executives started to learn very subtle ways of manipulating people into certain views that weren’t generally held up until that time in terms of uniformity–obviously there were rebellions to that and everything–but it became almost sinister in the way that they wanted to control people, and specifically through the way that they spend their money. And now in America, because capitalism has sort of superseded democracy, every dollar that we spend is our vote. The most subversive act in the consumer culture is to be aware of every dollar that you spend and be conscious of where that’s going. If you want to support small theaters as opposed to mega-theaters, then you go to small theaters. And if possible you can have some influence in their programming.”
Griffith’s take on Landmark’s Century Centre is less critical than one might imagine. “We’re in a better position now than we were two years ago,” he says. “For a time there were no first-run cinemas in Chicago that weren’t owned by Sony–the creator of all this super-high-end, high-definition digital stuff. Because they’re at the forefront of both production technology and presentation technology, when they owned all the theaters in the city they had complete control.”
But he doesn’t buy Landmark’s rhetoric about working hand in hand with the independent film community. “It’s great in theory, but unfortunately, like any corporation, they’re beholden to their stockholders. At some point the discrepancy between ticket sales and the type of work that they’re trying to show will reach a crisis situation, [and] those more challenging films will be the first to go. It’s a shame that more people don’t go to places like the Film Center and Doc Films, because the cinema there is so excellent–and it’s all volunteer based. But that’s the crisis of entertainment versus art. In every medium.”
“Landmark can claim to be grassroots and plugged into the community all they want,” says Bond, “but they haven’t really invested anything. I mean, certainly they’ve invested financially in these giant facilities, but that’s the very thing that would turn off a truly independent filmmaker, because that filmmaker knows there’s no free lunch–he’s going to be expected to sacrifice a good deal into this game so Landmark can cover the enormous outlay they’ve made.” But as Griffith points out, the concept of independent filmmaking has itself changed drastically. “Most people aren’t making independent films because they want to be independent anymore,” he says. “They’re making them because they want to get rich.”
Landmark is outfitted with brand-new platter-system projection and digital sound technology; it also claims to be the first theater in Chicago designed specifically for art-house films. “It’s the most up-to-date digital sound system, which very seldom happens in a specialty house,” says Larry Dieckhaus, the company’s local marketing representative. “And they’re very much a company that has an intelligence that you won’t find in a lot of art houses, because most of the other theater circuits have gotten to the point where the managers are concerned with concessions, and there’s an awful lot of fooling around with the staff, and it’s not a serious operation.” He also points to the theater’s stadium seating and intimate auditoriums, the largest of which seats 265. Landmark’s Century Centre can adapt to 16-millimeter film (though at the moment, it has no actual 16-millimeter projectors), and one dual-projector booth accommodates films that will play only once or twice–the print can remain on its small reels rather than being assembled onto the giant reel used in conventional platter systems.
But Bond and Griffith aren’t impressed. “Since the introduction of television, cinema has had this great crisis to keep people coming to the theaters,” Griffith says. “All this stadium seating and digital sound systems and the extreme stereo image in theaters are a continuation of the same mind-set that decided to design CinemaScope. It just never stops getting bigger and bigger.”
Bond points out that not many of the new “state of the art” theaters follow the exhibition standards defined and published by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. “Stadium seating is a horrible concept,” he says. “It’s just a big marketing ploy–the AMC multiplex is doing the same thing. There are rules about how far you have to be from the screen, the angle of the screen in your field of vision, the balance of image quality, and the amount of your vision occupied by things that are a distraction. This is to ensure that you’re not overwhelmed by the shortcomings of projection and are allowed to be completely involved in the subtleties of the photography, as well as all the other aspects of the storytelling. There are acoustic problems too, nasty standing waves and so forth. Also, if you’re sitting at a point from which the angle of your vision to the screen is beyond 35 degrees from the top of the screen, you will experience neck pain. Unfortunately that’s like the first third of the theater. And those seats are bad anyway because you’re seeing things in the image that you shouldn’t be, like the perforations in the screen, and problems in the focus that are exacerbated by having to use a lens with a very short focal length, that has a very shallow depth of field.”
He admits that his standards for film projection and sound are high. “My specialty is staging premieres for films,” he explains, “and there’s nothing but the highest expectations in situations like that. The director, producers, soundmen, cameramen, everyone associated with that film is there expecting to see perfection. I really love that challenge.” He predicts that in the next 10 to 20 years, human projectionists will be completely replaced with digital systems. “There’s no turning back,” he says. “It’s like the atom bomb–once it’s blown up everyone wants one. Exhibitors see it as eliminating one more variable in the process of showing film. I see projection as a large funnel with a little hole, and the projectionist is responsible for channeling the millions of dollars that go into producing a film through that little hole, the lens. And if they don’t know what focus means, which is not an interpretive definition, they will never realize the full potential of the millions of dollars.”
Craig Baldwin considers his work “a countermeasure to big-budget escapism, using the allure of cinema to draw people back to independent creative agency.” He’s not interested in coddling his audience. “I don’t have time for that. I don’t look to the center. I’m into small gatherings of artists, people making their own scene and saying exactly what they want to say.” One viewer at the screening commented that some of his rhetoric makes everything seem hopeless. “It is hopeless,” he says with a broad smile. “But we have fun. While you’re saying it’s hopeless, you might as well have fun.”
It’s possible that in the 21st century companies like Landmark will end up defining the art film for the majority of American moviegoers and that its model will eventually doom the mom-and-pop art house to extinction. “Because Landmark has a lot more pull with distributors it’s going to get titles that it thinks are going to draw more people,” says Griffith, “including the cult-following films that play at the Three Penny and midnight shows at the Village.” But choosing to see a film in someone’s loft, even if it means taking a step into unknown territory, could be a defining moment. Or, as John Cusack says in High Fidelity, it’s “what you like, not what you are like” that really matters.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.