Sunday, September 20, 2009

New Theater, Misc Commentary

In the last couple days, a couple items about the availability of films caught my eye. The first, a very happy piece of news, comes from the Boston Globe's movie blog - a new movie theater is coming to Boston! The Stuart Street Playhouse, currently, as the name states, a theater, will reopen on October 9 as a movie theater - a nice big room, featuring indie and foreign films. (Details.) It will be programmed by the people who run the West Newton cinema - I've never been there, but it seems comparable to the Kendall, or maybe the Somerville Theater - two excellent cinemas across the river. Ty Burr's comments on the Globe's blog are to the point - Boston, now, has no commercial art houses. There are two big multiplexes - pretty good ones, I admit, with some decent semi-indie stuff along with the mainstream fare... It was not always thus - there used to be lots and lots of cinemas in Boston. Even in my filmgoing memory (serious for 15 years, sporadic for 8-10 years before that) half a dozen cinemas have disappeared - the Cheri, Copley Square, Nickolodeon, I think I remember this Stuart street cinema, there were screens out in Allston, there were screens downtown, on Washington Street... They all closed - creating a strange condition, before the Fenway opened - there was an art house (the Nicklolodeon), a quasi art house (the Copley - one of the most appalling excuses for a multiplex I have ever come across - 9 screens, most of them small, ugly, badly designed - hideous!), and the Cheri - which generally stuck to action films, some big, some small (saw Tigerland there, not long before it gave up the ghost) - But nothing for straightforward mainstream films. That's long been the situation in Cambridge/Somerville (unless you go out to the hinterlands) - art houses, rep houses, semi-mainstream fare - it was more pronounced in the late 90s. There were times when it was harder for me, living in the city (or on the red line) to get to a mainstream Hollywood film than to the latest Rohmer. Easier to see Expect the Unexpected than Babe: Pig in the City...

That's not the case now. The two big multiplexes (Fenway and the Boston Common) take care of the mainstream stuff - everything else, is on the Cambridge side of the river. Though the fact is - given the geography of Boston/Cambridge, there's not a great deal of difference between them - from most of Boston and suburbs, Harvard Square is as accessible as either of the Boston multiplexes - straight up the red line, straight up Mass Ave. The Kendall is pretty close to the subway - getting there by car can be a bit of adventure. The Coolidge, Somerville Theater, even the MFA, are all right on both the subway and major streets. All these places - Harvard Square (with its three film outlets - an AMC Loews theater; the Brattle and the Harvard Film Archive), Kendall, the Common and the Fenway - are within 2-3 miles of one another. Even the Coolidge and MFA or Somerville Theater are only another mile or so off - none of them are more than an hours walk from each other. Boston ain't big - add Cambridge, Somerville and Brookline, and it's still not big. This new theater is just as conveniently located, a bit closer to the South End, not far from the T...

And it is good news. Boston may not be able to match NY for films, but it's still a good city for a film lover. Though a lot better 15 years ago. Another theater can't hurt - I imagine in practice it will just add another screen for one of the films showing at the Kendall or Harvard Square or the Coolidge - but even just that can't be bad. Indie films that draw decent crowds often end up taking up a couple screens in those places - if one of them moves to Boston, it can open a screen somewhere else. Maybe dilute the effect of bland crowd pleasers that run for 6 months in those places... Anything, to get more options in the theaters. I hope this works - I certainly intend to give it my trade. I may be somewhat resigned to the fact that film as Film might become a museum piece only, a curio, something for the connoisseur - but I don't want to see that happen any time soon. And hate the idea that more adventurous, or at least, less commercial material, might become almost exclusively the domain of festivals, museums, and DVDs. I'm glad, yes, that DVDs are available - it probably has made it possible to see a lot more than I could have seen 20 years ago, or at least, to be less at the mercy of programmers and luck... But - film is Film, and that experience is well worth holding on to. Including all the peripheral elements - getting to the theater on time, getting across town in time for another show... Speaking just for myself - that is part of my life, a part I find quite enjoyable - the walks, the spaces, the seats in the theaters, the experience of walking out of a film, from dark to light... If I am sitting around home watching movies, I might as well read a book.

Meanwhile: on the other side of things, the DVD side - saw another odd post at Dan Schneider's Cinemension blog a day or so back. He starts out fairly reasonably - lamenting the difficulty of finding foreign films, and complaining about their cost. I suppose he protests a bit too much - the fact is, an astonishing amount of old and foreign material is available, and more all the time... though I suppose most cinephiles are always wanting something that's not around. (Me? Where's Night and Day? For example...) As for the prices - it's certainly irritating, though I suppose the prices aren't that extravagant. And they are certainly explicable - economies of scale, and all - you can charge minimal prices for popular films because you are going to move them in large quantities - not so much with Satantango or that new Gaumont Treasures set. Though that's on Netflix, so, you know... there are ways to ease the pain...

All that fairly reasonable commentary is followed, though, by one of his stranger hobby horses - the need for dubbing instead of subtitles. He keeps repeating this - it's an opinion he mostly has to himself, at least among people who would, in theory, watch a foreign language film. (Most people who complain about subs aren't really candidates for anything beyond foreign pop films - Jacky Chan, anime and the occasional European melodrama are about as far as that goes.) The flaw in his argument is obvious enough - he says film is a visual medium - this is wrong: film is an audio-visual medium. Adding text to a film is certainly far less intrusive than changing the entire soundtrack. Anyway - I suppose he's being consistent - he seems generally to have little respect for the materiality of art - his view seems to be, Art=Representation - words in a film are what they mean, nothing else - he does not seem interesting in words as sound. Or take this bit - he says:
Furthermore, if one watches classic foreign films from the 1950s and 1960s, which were routinely dubbed for American audiences (often retained in DVD releases), one can see how superior dubbing is. As example, Ingmar Bergman's Spider Trilogy is dubbed, and the fact that different actors and voices are used for the characters played by Max Von Sydow actually enhances all the characterizations, for we really get that it is not Max Von Sydow in all three films, but characters who merely look like Von Sydow, but sound different, even down to the peculiarities of their emotional vocal choices.

That strikes me as a very odd way to think about acting. Though it is consistent - he sees acting as the portrayal of a character, as what is represented. Not as material, so to speak. It's a different approach to art to see the signifier, the material, as having artistic importance, as carrying as much function as the meaning of what is on screen. But - I think you are bound to run into trouble sooner or later if you dismiss the signifier... it might lead you to declare Ulysses overrated.... a result, again, of reducing a work of art to its story, ignoring the means by which it is told.

3 comments:

Joseph B. said...

I consider myself kinda lucky. Living in the suburbs of Dallas provides me with two theaters within 5-10 minutes... a 24 screen Cinemark multiplex and the more indie Angelika Center that usually has balls and shows the pop cultury fare (i.e. 500 Days of Summer) mixed with challenging more works- no repertory though. Between those two, my tastes are pretty much satisfied.

Moviezzz said...

I've pretty much given up on my art theatres out here. Each one is at least a 45 minute drive with horrible sound and projection. DVD is so much better.

I have a 16 screen mall multiplex 15 minutes from me with perfect sound and projection. It may only show the A list (sometimes it gets a B list or two) films, but at least it is better than my home TV.

As for the link to that story, is he serious? Dubbing better than subtitles? That doesn't make sense. You lose all the background sound by dubbing. It isn't a case of just hiring stage actors to read the dialogue, as he states.

That said, I've always liked the dubbed version of Z better than the subtitled. I wish Criterion was including it on their upcoming DVD.

weepingsam said...

I have to say something about time - a 45 minute drive seems pretty awful to me - but I don't think twice about a 45 minute walk. When I lived more in the burbs, a half hour 45 minutes on the subway was a nuisance, but nothing onerous. Probably has something to do with what you can do with your brain when you're walking or riding a train instead of driving...

I've mentioned this before - but the Boston area art houses are first rate - the Kendall was the first "modern" multiplex in town (nice seats, good screens, etc.) - Somerville, Harvard and the Coolidge still have the best single rooms in town, those big, old fashioned theater spaces... getting another one, that sounds just as impressive, is a treat.

As for the link - yeah, he's serious - he complains about lack of dubbing in every review of a foreign film he writes... I admit, sometimes it's reasonable enough - there are whole chunks of films shot silent and dubbed from the start - Italian, Hong Kong, quite a few French, German, etc. films - some of them without a lot of care in the dubs. Even high end Italian films tend to sound pretty drab... But the general principal - if may not matter whether you hear an English or German version of Fitzcarraldo, but an English dub of Kaspar Hauser would be an abomination.