Monday, June 25, 2012

Let There Be Light

I've been ranting about this for years, though you would have thought I was describing an alien abduction: the frequent--very frequent--poor projection in movie theatres, specifically the lack of light behind the image. 

There have been a few articles about this from time to time--I recall one at least from the 1970s if not before.  But generally, people didn't seem to credit it.  The technology of movie projection changed, but the problem didn't.  The power of Xenon bulbs was dialed back to save moviehouse managers money, resulting in a dimmer image.  (Now I learn that it didn't even save them money!)  But even with today's digital tech, the problem persists--and has caught the ire of somebody who matters, legendary film critic Roger Ebert:  

 The most common flaw is that the picture is not bright enough. I've been seeing that for a long time.

And Ebert quotes another and perhaps greater expert: "Yet when Martin Scorsese used people around the country to actually check theater brightness, he found most of the theaters involved were showing an underlit image."

This is still happening, as the Boston Globe and Ebert articles attest, and for the same reason: to save money.  What these cynical managers are counting on is ignorance-- that people have never seen a properly projected movie.  And probably most people have not.

It was a fairly long time before I did, although I don't think the problem was as serious when I started going to the movies as a child in the 1950s.  But a few experiences--movies at the Orson Welles in Cambridge in the mid-70s, or even earlier, an eye-popping sparkling new black and white print of Doctor Strangelove at a cinema in San Francisco in 1966--showed me what an illuminated experience it could be.

Those images should be bright, because they are supposed to be. But they hardly ever are.  It only takes the first few seconds to know what misery I'm in for--if I can see through the white letters in the title sequence, I inwardly and even sometimes audibly groan.  Those white letters should be solid and they should shine.

   Now the dim images have literally driven me from the movies--I simply don't go anymore.  And Ebert finally informs me that I'm not alone:

" When people don't have a good time at the movies, they're slower to come back. I can't tell you how many comments on my blog have informed me that the writers enjoy a "better picture" at home on their big-screen TVs with Blu-ray discs. This should not be true."

Hey, I enjoy a better picture on my regular old TV with ordinary DVDs.  It's that bad.

That first article I read years ago suggested that moviemakers were unaware of how badly projected their movies are because they only see them in cinemas near Hollywood which cater to movie industry clientele, especially around Academy Award time.  But even Oscar viewing is not enough to guarantee that movies these days are properly projected, as Ebert found.

I've got used to seeing movies a year or more after they've been in theaters.  But every once in awhile I'd like to see one right away, on the big screen, in an environment where I once almost literally lived: a cinema.  But I almost never do now. 

I don't expect that to change.  So the biggest outcome of these articles for me is vindication.  Not a lot of solace, but then, that's how it is these days.

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