Wednesday, 23 December 2009

My Cinema Pet-Hates #1

This will be the first in a no-doubt endless list of things that piss me off about cinema-goers, the cinema and films in general.

#1: People who chair-jive to the Pearl & Dean music.

You know who you are.

The lights go down, the Pearl & Dean logo appears and you start shimmying about in your seat in time to the music, amusing your friends/dates with a variety of jazz-hands and facial gurns. It's not impressive or funny that you can mime along to a song that simply contains the word "BAH" repeated over and over again and if I had my way, a trap-door would open beneath your seat and dump you into a lake of excrement and barbed-wire.

My disdain for this practice has nothing at all to do with the fact that I am shut in a room with no natural light for long periods of time, am unable to watch the film and am forced to observe your wacky-fun-times through a tiny window whilst I suffer my boring-shit-times.

Far from it. Although sometimes projectionism does feel like organising a party and then locking yourself in a cupboard for its duration, occasionally peeking through the key-hole to see who's enjoying themselves.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

It's Christmas Time...

At this festive season, many people will be buying films as gifts, going to the pictures after gruelling shopping trips or sitting down to watch a DVD with the extended family. The difficult question remains: what to watch in order to generate the ideal sensation of seasonal wellbeing, keep out the biting winter winds and warmly bring the family that much closer together?

Here are some suggestions:

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Stick the turkey in the oven, pour some Bucks Fizz and sit th'self down to an hour and a half of festive fun in the company of Robert Downey Jnr, Michelle Monaghan and a never-been-better Val Kilmer as they attempt to unravel a labyrinthine murder mystery on the christmassy streets of wintery Los Angeles.

Okay, so the fact that it's christmas is largely irrelevant, but the commentary on the superficial fakery of LA is summed up perfectly by the theatrical, "pretend" christmas that appears to be happening in the background of pretty much every scene, plus you get Monaghan dressed in (and out of) THAT Santa outfit, ranting about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer being the victim of racism.

Murder, torture, russian roulette, gay private detectives, giant robots (sort of) and pithy, profane dialogue that you'll be quoting long after the last of the turkey sandwiches have been polished off make this the ideal choice of christmas movie for all the family.

Christmas Quote:

Harry: Hey, hey, hey! It's Christmas, where's my present, Slick?
Perry: Your fucking present is you're not in jail, fag-hag.

Die Hard

Everyone knows it's not christmas until you've seen Bruce Willis get his vest out and say "Yippe-kye-ay, motherfucker". This is the original and best of the "Bruce's Bloody Vest" series - featuring one of cinema's finest villains in the shape of Alan Rickman's oily, formidable Hans Gruber - and features a perfect balance of action, thrills, comedy and character.

The movie starts off with Willis heading to his wife's christmas party, so there is plenty of dialogue about "mulled wine" and "roaring fireplaces", "Santa, Rudolph and Frosty" and other such seasonal gubbins to get you feeling festive before the actual shit-kicking commences.

Bruce puts a Santa hat on a dead bloke, Hans attributes the inevitable success of his plan to christmas being "the time of miracles" and Willis' final triumph is achieved with the help of two strips of parcel-tape emblazoned with the legend "Merry Christmas"! Uber-festive!

Christmas Quote:

Theo: 'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except... the four assholes coming in the rear in standard two-by-two cover formation.

Lethal Weapon

The christmas spirit of togetherness and mutual understanding has rarely been conveyed onscreen with the poignant power of the first Lethal Weapon film. Packed with positive christmas messages, this is possibly the most upbeat entry on this list: Riggs and Murtaugh (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) are from different worlds, but unite in trusting friendship against evil, Riggs is convinced not to shoot himself by a Bugs Bunny christmas special, and Murtaugh even invites Riggs to christmas dinner after they've dispensed with all the baddies.

Gunfights in christmas-tree yards, cars driving through heavily chrimbo-decked living-rooms, "Jingle-Bell Rock" playing over the opening credits (interrupted by a semi-naked woman leaping to her death out of a high-rise window) and, of course, Jesus' PR man himself: Mel, stripped to the waist and bashing Crazy Gary Busey's brains in on a slutchy lawn. Lethal Weapon is as christmas as Eggnog, post-dinner bloat and present-related disappointment!

Christmas Quote:

McAllister: The bulk of the heroin will be here Friday night, we'll make delivery at that time. Have the money ready, and no tricks. If you try anything... you'll have to talk to Mr. Joshua. Merry Christmas.

Batman Returns

Arguably superior sequel to the Jack Nicholson show that was 1989's Batman, and also incredibly seasonal. Danny Elfman's soundtrack is all jingly bells and ethereal choirs and the set-design is knee-deep in theatrical snow-drifts, while motifs of gifts and parties recur throughout. Bruce Wayne and Selina kyle share a singularly unusual brand of "Holiday Blues" as they struggle with a burgeoning relationship and their respective secret identities, and a major plot point takes place beneath the mistletoe, just before a giant duck explodes through the floor!

From the snowbound opening to the ruefuel final line, Batman Returns is a christmas fantasy to rival "Santa Claus the Movie". Plus, there's Michelle Pfeiffer in a catsuit for the Dads, and... erm... Christopher Walken... with big hair... for the mums. Michael Keaton? Erm... Danny DeVito..?

Christmas Quote:

Alfred: Come what may; Merry Christmas, Mister Wayne.
Bruce Wayne: Merry Christmas, Alfred. And good will toward men. And women.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Scary Movies.

In the past week or two, I have seen two contemporary horror films of very differing styles and, in my opinion, quality: "Paranormal Activity" and "The Descent part 2".

"Paranormal Activity" is, of course, the "Blair Witch"-style, found-footage flick about a young couple who suspect supernatural wackiness to ensue in their house, so they set up a video camera to record what goes down while they've got their heads down. What ensues is a catalogue of tried and tested Haunted House gags which slowly escalates into something genuinely surprising and creepy.

"The Descent pt. 2" is a sequel/rehash of a movie called "The Descent", surprisingly, in which a bunch of thrill-seeking ladies went caving and got mostly eaten by what appeared to be Gollum's extended family. Pretty much the same thing happens in the sequel, except it's the rescue team that goes after the women that's getting munched on.

Both films set out to unsettle, shock and scare the viewer, both use the fear of the dark, the unseen, the unknown to create atmosphere, but it's how they pay off the apprehensive tension that separates them.

"The Descent" falls into the typical sloppy horror film trap of thinking LOUD NOISES are scary. It's the kind of film that makes you jump without even realising why you're jumping. You are startled by the soundtrack going "BBAAAAHHH!" before you've even realised a monster has popped out or summat: "SHIT, that was loud! Oh, and there's a monster."

Of course, "Paranormal Activity" also relies heavily on sound design to scare, the difference being that the scary noises are actually diegetic to the action on screen. The audience and the characters are hearing the same thing and are therefore unified in their "SOMEBODY'S COMING UP THE STAIRS!" terror.

"Paranormal Activity" is a resolutely old-fashioned horror film, slowly building to a fever pitch and unleashing its secret weapons only when the time is right. This is not going to win over many contemporary horror fans looking for the next slapstick death-scene or "BOO!" jump-scare, but it creeps quietly into the open mind and sits there, festering in the imagination for a long time after the lights go up.

"The Descent" is less old fashioned, coming across as one of those "more-but-less-of-the-same" horror film sequels from the 80s. Nonsensical twists and contrived characters and plotting derail any empathy for the victims as they careen from one bloody set-piece to the next like chunks of meat for the grinder.

Both films go for the old jump-cut-to-black final shock punchline ending, but one leaves you going "Erm... hang on, that didn't make any sense..." and the other leaves you going going "I don't think I should sleep alone tonight. Or ever again." Guess which is which?

So, what is it that makes a film scary? Perhaps more than any other genre, Horror is entirely subjective to the eyes and minds of its audience. What fills the pants of one viewer, might simply tickle another. Freud reckoned that what scared people the deepest was the uncanny: the familiar made unfamiliar. Ordinary made extra. By that rationale, only cavers should find "Descent 2" scary. But then Freud also said we all fancy our parents, so I'm not gonna take his word for much.

In conclusion, if you like creeping dread, suggestive scares and unsettling atmosphere, have a look at "Paranormal Activity", and if you like "YAH BOO!" jumps, creepy creatures and bathing in blood, then peep "The Descent". The first one. Part 2 is just a ropey retread with none of the skill of the original.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Bad Moon Rising.

Twilight is upon us again. New Moon is taking the box-office by storm. Hordes of marauding, hormonal females swarm into cinemas across the country, nay, the world, and work themselves into a gibbering frenzy at the prospect of another couple of hours in the company of pasty, glittering vampires and buffed up, semi-naked werewolves.

New Moon is going to be a huge hit, no doubt about it, but it is unlikely to reach very far outside its core audience, remaining a mystery to those of us who were not won over by the original film's ponderous teen-angst. This inevitable popularity is a source of much morbid fascination to me; what is it about this series of books and films which can cause so many people to overlook its myriad shortcomings and deem it the best thing since the invention of the bread knife?

The backbone of the tale of Twilight is a love story between a vampire and a human, but their love is a gratingly simple, love-for-love's-sake romance, with little actually connecting the two characters beyond him properly wanting to eat her, and her thinking he's, like, totally hot and mysterious and stuff. They mooch around a lot and then some bad vampires show up to introduce a bit of third-act jeopardy, and then the first film ends.

New Moon sees the introduction of a bunch of werewolves or something who are literally so hot they have to have their tops off all the time, and they don't like vampires. The main girl cock-teases one of these wolfmen to prove she's still got it when the vampire ditches her for her own safety.

There's a lot of teenage self-importance, as everyone acts like any given event is the most important moment in their entire life, and the main girl mopes in a chair for three months when she gets dumped, before jumping off a cliff. This is the protagonist. The person we are supposed to root for.

It is this inability to relate to the characters that puts me at an immediate disadvantage. Bella is a selfish, self-important child, who actually wants to become a vampire. Everyone knows that anyone who wants to become immortal, especially a vampire, is cruising for a bruising, but she just sees it as a surefire happily-ever-after clause for her and the human glitter-ball.

Edward is an overbearing weirdo. He's a hundred years old and still goes to high school? He and his "siblings" go to school, sit at their own table, don't interact with anyone and sit through lessons they've experienced a hundred times before. Why? Is there nothing better to do with immortality than hang around the playground? Is this a character with believable motivations, or is Edward at high school simply because the author needed him to be there for the story to start and to make it relatable for her teenage target-market? "I could start a new school and meet a beautiful stranger who turned out to be a vampire and could turn me into one and we could live happily ever after! Sqweeeee!"

This "aspirational fantasy" tone is the source of a lot of the problems with these stories. Author Stephenie Meyer has taken established vampire lore and put her own spin on it, for certain, but her version of vampire mythology is singularly uninteresting and dramatically muted.

What was compelling about vampires was always the concept that immortality came at a price. Hey, you wanna live forever? Well, you can! But you'll be eternally damned, unable to walk in sunlight without burning up, cursed with an insurmountable bloodlust and generally lead a miserable, brutal, lonely existence.

Meyer's vampires are presented as some kind of romantic ideal, as something to aspire to. Vampires via the Ikea catalogue. The Cullens are a middle-class family who live in a smashing, modern house, they're all beautiful and friendly and don't burn up in the sunlight. They twinkle in the sunlight. Twinkle. Like they're covered in glitter. Teenage girls love glitter, right? And they love hot guys, right? BINGO! Hot guys that GLITTER! It's like printing money...

The vampires of Twilight are vampires with the sharp edges taken off. De-fanged. Neutered. Their curse is one of eternal mediocrity.

And now, from what I've seen, she is giving werewolves the same treatment. Lycanthropy is, again, traditionally a curse. What made it interesting was the idea that a person could entirely lose control of the metaphorical beast within and unleash a literal beast, often without ever knowing it. The transformation will be agonising and debasing, as the human is essentially consumed by the primal animal.

New Moon seems to depict its werewolves as another teen-friendly tone-down of this concept. The ability to change instantaneously and at will removing any of the dark burden of the beast and making it more like a neat superpower. Compare the transformation in "American Werewolf" with Jacob Black's mid-air "POOF! I'm a wolf now!" routine in New Moon, and you'll see what I'm getting at.

Meyer creates a limp narrative which is simple, blank and inoffensive enough for the reader to paint their own image onto. Readers can yearn for their own Edward, think how awesome it would be to become a vampire, to be friends with a werewolf, without ever being presented with the essential conflicts, questions and resonances that the best literary and cinematic examples of these supernatural creatures express.

A common defence of Twilight is that it is "not-to-be-taken-seriously" and is a "bit-of-fun", and while I have found much to laugh at in both Twilight and New Moon, I doubt much of it was intentional. The films and books have a relentlessly po-faced, moody air of angst to them which renders the superficial conflicts and overwrought drama unintentionally camp and hilarious. Plus, any film series that refers to itself, without a hint of irony, as a "Saga" is taking itself very seriously indeed.

So, does a love of Twilight stem from an inability to recognise the flaws in both the novels and the films, a conscious disregard for these problems, or an all-out embracing of them? I leave you with the single greatest defence of Twilight-love I have ever heard:

"i do understand that its shit but its like kfc, you know its made out of disabled chickens but its still delicious."

You can't argue with that.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

FAQs about cinema projection.

It's all on DVDs and that now, isn't it?

Nope. We still mainly use 35mm prints, which come broken into about 5-8 reels and must be spliced (sellotaped) together into one glorious whole. Each print is about 10,000 feet long, and we have to run it onto a big platter (like a turn-table)before it goes through the projector.

If it goes well, it looks like this:

If it goes badly, it looks like this:

Do you get to just watch films all the time?

Not all the time. We are supposed to watch films before they go in front of the baying mob, ostensibly to make sure that they aren't buggered up in some way, but we are also supposed to check each and every projector regularly when they are running public shows. This leads to a situation where projectionists usually find themselves watching films in small segments here and there, spoiling pretty much every film for themselves, and losing faith in the engrossing capability of narrative cinema. It's kind of like channel hopping, if you had to walk thirty yards to hop to the next channel.

You have to run all the projectors?

Usually you have one projectionist on a shift at a time, depending on the size of the cinema. At a smaller site, it's rare to have multiple projectionists on at once, and when you do, it leads to a "too-many-cooks" type of problem. Putting two or more projectionists in a room together is like starting a knitting circle. For nerds.

Do you get to watch films for free?

I do. Most cinemas offer free tickets to staff as a perk, but projectionists have the extra advantage of actually getting paid to watch films in the aforementioned "print-checks". It is part of our job to make sure a film is suitable for public viewing. Sadly, this is mostly a technical assessment, so my protests at the unsuitability of "Twilight" for any sentient audience largely fell on deaf ears.

Can you get me in to watch films for free?

No. Piss off and get your own menial job with strangely in-demand benefits.

What film did you project today?

All of them. ALL OF THEM.

Can you splice single frames of pornography into family films?

Theoretically, yes. If you happen to have a 35mm print of a hairy-hand flick, I could quite easily chop a frame out of it and sellotape it into the latest Disney blockbuster. I don't believe, however, that this would go unnoticed, as 1/24 of a second is just enough time for your brain to process an image, so only really slow, thicky-types would not acknowledge a subliminally presented twelve-foot-high cock.

Is there much training required?

No. A drunken amputee monkey could do my job with enough practice. It does help to have an aversion to natural light, an isolationist attitude and a powerful singing voice, though.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Digital Age.

This is my first wade into the blog-swamp.

I am a projectionist for a well-known cinema chain, and am also a massive nerd.

Cinema is on the cusp of a new age; an age of sharper images, clearer sound, stupid glasses, higher prices.

The Digital Age.

Unfortunately for me, come the digital revolution, projectionists will be first against the wall; either assimilated into management or swept out onto the street, no longer needed for the finicky task of looping endless reels of film around tiny wheels in a room with no windows. Projectionism in The Digital Age will be only as complicated as making a playlist on your ipod and pushing play.

So, in my time of looming redundancy, it seems reasonable to want to document this dying art in a shadowy corner of the internet. Well, I say "art", but projectionism is actually more like being a bloke who hangs paintings for a living: Somebody else created the actual art, but it's up to you to dangle it in front of people's eye-holes. And let's not underestimate the importance of a skilled picture-hanger: What if he hung it upside down? Or back to front? Or hung it in the wrong place? The picture-lookers would be furious and rightly demand a refund on their extortionately priced art-gallery tickets and snack foods. Have you seen what they charge for a hot-dog in these art-galleries? Daylight robbery. I like to sneak a capri-sun and a bagel in under my jacket and then spit chewed-up bits at statues of naked people. Anyway...

Continuing to run the picture-hanging metaphor into the ground;my cinema recently had its first digital projector installed, which is like the picture-hanger coming to work to find that C3-P0 from out of Star Wars has already hung all his pictures in a much more aesthetically pleasing manner than a human being ever could. The camp, robot-butler bastard. I'm telling you, it's like Skynet is taking over or summat. I keep expecting the machine to start talking to me in an Austrian accent. The Rise of the Machines is upon us.

It's not all portents of doom, however, as the fact remains that digital projection has a great many things going for it, not least the simplicity of running the machine. The picture is sharper and clearer, print scratches, hairs, dust and all the other flickering imperfections you have to suffer throughout a 35mm print will be a thing of the past, there is the novelty 3D option (which will probably get a blog all to itself from me at some point), the lighter transport (digital films come on hard-drives instead of in big, heavy boxes of film cartons) and all manner of pluses which render analogue movie projection obselete.

Many film-aficionados will claim that digital removes the "organic" and "earthy" qualities of 35 mm and we should smash the machine with a mallet of retro-artistic techno-fear. To these people, I say : Go and ride your penny-farthing home and listen to your vinyl 45s whilst I skitch my hoverboard to the digital cinema of the future! I won't be able to get in however, because I'll be out of a job and won't be able to afford the ridiculously marked-up ticket prices of the future, so I'll just hang around the flying-car park, cadging money for bagels and capri-sun.

So yeah, projectionism. Shining a light through a window for a living. How boring can one blog be? Let's find out.