Theo’s Corner: How to Keep a Client Happy

keeping clients happy

The other day, a writer from Luxury asked me: “What’s the most challenging thing for you in designing a dedicated theater?” It only took me a second to come up with the answer: “Windows,” I said.


I wasn’t joking. Half of the time I spend creating a new design goes toward figuring out what to do with the windows most rooms have. I would rather not cover them with curtains as I did for a client in Beverly hills a few years ago. (See the photo above.) Curtains in front of windows is a design copout. The only curtain in the room should be the one in front of the screen. When I must deal with windows, I usually try to hide them behind some type of treatment, usually operable panels that conceal acoustic treatments. (See the photo below.)

keeping clients happy

With Rayva, things have gotten easier for me. The large acoustic panels in these designs can be placed in front of blacked-out windows without fussy customization. (See below.) The trick is trying to persuade a client to agree to cover their windows permanently.

keeping clients happy

I had such a conversation earlier this week with a Rayva client on the west coast. He would have liked to have kept the windows accessible. But when he realized how cumbersome it would be to make floor-to-ceiling panels operable, he gave me the reason why we should leave the windows concealed. “How many times will I watch a movie,” he said, “while I’m staring out the window?” I couldn’t have said it better myself.


Nobody likes to be told they’re stuck with an unsolvable problem. In a situation where a decision needs to be made, all it takes is laying out the options and letting the client decide. A happy client is a client who’s given options. And a good designer is one who makes sure the client is happy.

—Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,ooo discs. Theo is the
Executive Director of Rayva.

Theo’s Corner: Media Room or Home Theater?

media room designs

The answer to the question “Which is bettera media room or a dedicated home theater?” is simple: Both, if you have the space. A media room is fine for watching something casually on TV. Visual distractionswindows, doors, fireplaces, etc.become part of the experience. But for being immersed in a movie, there is no substitute for a dedicated home theater.


All of my Rayva designs so far have been for dedicated theaters. To showcase these design themes in the best possible way, the rooms must have four walls with no window “perforations.” But such a room is a luxury in most homes, particularly ones without basements.


So, what can we do to make having a media room as good as having a home theater? Not much, really, except understand the limitations of a media room and do what we can to minimize them. You can’t do much with windows except cover them with shades to block the light. You can’t do much with the walls except install acoustic treatments in the spaces between openings. And avoiding bright, light colors will minimize reflections from the screen.


There are two other areas where we can help compensate for the inherent limitations of a media room: The seating arrangement and the wall where the projection screen (or TV) is displayed. One approach is to treat the room as if it were a stage set where the spotlights hit just the sofa and the screen wall. You can do this with soft recessed lighting from the ceiling and with table lamps placed in key locations around the room. Diverting attention from other objects in the space helps viewers focus on where the action ison the screen wall.


My colleagues at Rayva have asked me to come up with a media-room concept. That’s a tremendous challenge for me. I wish I could have the same design control in a media room that I have in a dedicated theater room, but I can’t.


I’ve been pondering this problem a lot lately. I keep closing my eyes and trying to visualize the screen wall. The surface around the screen has to help keep your attention focused on the screen. And let’s not have a credenza under the screen, please. Credenzas are the predictable companion of a TV set, and they become a visual cliché no matter how useful they are for hiding the electronics. But what if you could place something there that is slicker, slimmer, less obtrusive? I’m working on it.


Rayva deserves itand those without the room for a dedicated theater deserve it too. I’ll solve the problem one of these days, and will write about it when I do. But for now, it’s just a concept in my mind.

—Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,ooo discs. Theo is the
Executive Director of Rayva.

Gaming Is Way Better With Atmos

It’s 1989 and I’m helping my dad buy a new TV, because even at a young age I was that kid. The kid who knew things about technology. (Granted, that reputation was pretty hard-won after an incident at age seven when I dismantled the backside our then-new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV, fresh off the truck, and exclaimed that the delivery guy was ripping us off because the set was missing all of its vacuum tubesbut that’s a story for another day.)


Anyway, back to 1989. Pop and I are standing in our city’s brand-spanking-new Circuit City, right in front all of the Sonys and JVCs and Sylvanias, barking at each other like a couple of rabid mutts. The source of the conflict? I needed—needed, I tell you—a stereo TV. The old man just didn’t see the point.


“My Sega Genesis, though! I can route audio out of the headphone jack and into a splitter, and actually play video games with stereo sound!”


Long story short, I lost that fight. But it was the beginning of a complicated lifelong relationship between me, video games, and nascent AV sound formats. (Because, yes, in 1989, video + stereo audio at home was pretty cutting edge.)


When I acquired my first surround sound receiver (ProLogic, baby!), it was my PlayStation that drove the decision, not my Laserdisc player. On the other hand, after upgrading my sound system to support Dolby Digital and DTS DVDs, it felt like a long and torturous wait for video games to finally catch up with the times. ProLogic II’s stereo-to-surround-sound conversion capabilities had to suffice for a while.


Fast-forward to present day, and I find myself in a squabble just as fierce as the one I had with my dad back in 1989, and for very similar reasons. But the struggle is entirely internal. The audio innovation in question this time around? The new object-based sound formats, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which add overhead surround sound effects to the audio coming from in front of and behind your head.


I’ve reviewed any number of Atmos-equipped receivers and speaker systems for other publications. And I’ve always found the effect neat enough for movies and music. Enough so to get me to actually upgrade my reference home theater system permanently, though? Ehhhh, not so much.

Atmos video games

Video games, though? Now we’re talking! There’s nothing in the realm of cinematic audio that can quite compete with playing Overwatch, for example, and hearing Parah’s battle cry from above—actually being able to pinpoint her location as she drops rockets in the direction of your noggin. Just as effective is the Atmos mix for Star Wars Battlefront, in which the truly three-dimensional soundscape gives you an edge in locating the drop pods that rocket toward the planet from outer space with fresh supplies.


Sadly, for now, these experiences are all too rare. Until recently, video games with Atmos sound were pretty much limited to the aforementioned titles, along with Battlefield 1, and only on the PC. Seriously, though, how many of us have home theater sound systems attached to our PCs?


Thankfully, Xbox One recently joined in on the Atmos action with the release of Crackdown 3 and Gears of War 4. Sony, meanwhile, seems to be taking a wait-and-see (or I should say wait-and-hear?) approach to this most expansive of audio innovations with its PlayStation 4 console. As such, for now, so am I. But you can rest assured that as soon as the gaming industry as a whole finally embraces the first and only sound format to fully flaunt its immersive superiority over movie sound mixes, I’ll but cutting holes in my ceiling and snaking wires through the walls faster than you can scream, “Justice RAINS from above!”

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Big Short

Netflix The Big Short

The Big Short is episodic, top heavy with stars, blatantly political, shamelessly didactic, feels a lot like an economics lesson, doesn’t have any romance or sex, doesn’t have any violence, doesn’t have any role-model female leads, and is sometimes just plain ineptin other words, it’s everything a big Hollywood film’s not supposed to be. But it worksand it works so well that you wish Adam McKay would swear off Will Ferrell comedies for a while and make more serious, flawed, I’ll-try-anything-as-long-as-it-works films like this one instead.


I guess it’s a good thing mainstream audiences will now accept heavily fragmented movies about process. (There’s a steep downside to that that I won’t go into right now.) But there’s nothing radical about The Big Shortit’s basically an old-fashioned men-at-work tale filled with lovable losers that reaffirms some traditional values that probably haven’t had a meaningful presence in American society in over 30 years. But it does get you to consider the country’s financial and moral bankruptcy, how pervasive they are, and how deeply they’re intertwinedsomething well beyond the means of almost any American filmmaker.


Ryan Gosling does his Ryan Gosling thing, Christian Bale does his “No, I’m an actorreally” thing, Brad Pitt turns in another solid performance that makes you wish he’d take more chances, and Steve Carell, as usual, steals the show. McKay seems to be good at handling actors, but it’s hard to tell because the action’s so disjointed and, for the most part, superficial, and Carell is the only one who goes anywhere new.


It’s almost impossible to put your finger on why this film works. It’s like somebody put on a shaggy dog costume to tell a deeply serious tale, and you can’t ignore it because it won’t stop slobbering all over you. (That’s not a criticism, by the way, but said instead with a kind of awe.)


The cinematography is nothing spectacular, varying between undistinguished and standard-issue contemporary pretentious, so streaming doesn’t do it a lot of harm. That doesn’t mean The Big Short isn’t cinematic, but it’s one of those films you could watch on your cellphone and maybe lose only 5% of the impact. Maybe.


And that, in this case, is a good thing.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.


Theo’s Corner: Working With Vincenzo, Pt. 2

Call it the Movie Palace influence. In my career as a theater designer, I have focused predominantly on traditional-style theaters. But, for some reason, I couldn’t come up with anything for the Rayva design library that would read “traditional.” Maybe it was a mental block, or maybe an inability to stylize traditional design elements and make them work inside the minimalist environment of a Rayva theater. At some point, I stopped trying and started talking to other designers who weren’t as close to the subject matter as I was.


The evening I met Vincenzo Avanzato for dinner to discuss traditional designs for Rayva, I knew we were on to something. As soon as Vin was engaged in the conversation, he started sketching ideas on the paper napkin at the restaurant, and I was hooked. You know the feelinga gut reaction that you’re on the right track.


That was a month ago. Hurricane Irma made it difficult to talk to Vin again until last week. He emailed to tell me he had some concepts to share with me, and we discussed them via Skype yesterday.


As I’d expected, they were bold and original. They were all based on pen and ink sketches of architectural details he had done in the ‘90s. Twenty years later, they were still fresh and exciting. The fact that the concept was different from the collage of images typical of the Rayva design themes didn’t bother me. I loved the boldness of the sketches, which fill a whole wall in the room with one monolithic concept.


One of the concepts has the primary image at the back of the room, as opposed to the front of the room, which is what I expected. The design elements at the front of the room usually act as a proscenium frame around the screenbut not in Vin’s design. The area around the screen in some of his concepts is totally empty. This ends up emphasizing the screen area, the focal point of the theater, just as much as the most ornate proscenium. Silence is sometimes more eloquent than words.


I will continue to keep you updated as I work with Vincenzo to thoroughly flesh out these ideas.

—Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,ooo discs. Theo is the
Executive Director of Rayva.


Incredibles 2 review
Ant-Man review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review


Why I Love My Media Room

media room ideas

photos by Jim Raycroft

I had one main criterion while shopping for my home: It had to have a space for a theater room. This was in the early 2000’s. I was installing a lot of dedicated rooms for clients at my custom-install job, and I really wanted a dedicated movie-watching room for myself. I had plans for sound treatments, and ideal room ratios, and solid-core doors with sound-isolating thresholds, and more.


But as we started looking at homes, we couldn’t find one that had space for a dedicated room that fit other needsnamely budget and location. The most common “dedicated space” option was a room up over the garage, and we couldn’t find a home we liked.


So I changed my thinking a bit.


Barring a dedicated space, the potential home definitely had to allow for retrofitting wiring throughout so I could add my own gear as needed. The home we finally settled on had a very open floorplan with a central great room that opens to the kitchen, breakfast nook, and dining room, with a massive attic that would make it easy for me to run wire throughout the house.


The first thing I did was set up a surround system. I pulled wiring through the attic to side and rear surround speaker locations and wall-mounted my speakers. An old cabinet held my gear with ample room on top to hold a 61-inch Samsung DLP TV. This setup worked fine and was certainly adequate in every way for media needs, but it wasn’t really
. . . special.


I wanted the big-screen experiencesomething beyond what the big DLP TV could provide. But I had to do it without totally compromising the look and functionality of our living room. Getting the room dark enough for “day viewing” a projector would mean heavy shading on lots of windows, something that would make the house so dark no one else would be able to do anything.


At that time, flat-panel TVs were starting to offer terrific performance at realistic pricing. (A fortune by today’s standards, but $6,000 for a 60-inch Pioneer Elite was an affordable videophile option!) Also, receivers were starting to include dual video outputs that could either carry a separate, Zone 2 feed or mirror the same feed. That gave me the opportunity to have my cake and eat it too.

media room ideas

What I decided on was a large flat-panel TV mounted tightly to the wall to provide the perfect, ultra-bright image for day viewing, with a motorized projection screen that rolled down in front of the TV when we wanted to watch a movie or a big event like the Super Bowl. When not in use, the screen is concealed behind a valance, out of sight. And if we want to watch the screen before the sun goes down, motorized Lutron shades tied into our automation system can darken the room.


Since both displays are driven by the same stack of electronics, I only had to buy one system. That freed up my budget to purchase higher-performing gear than if I was trying to outfit two rooms. That meant better speakers, a better processor, and better amplifiers, so now we enjoy the best sound regardless of what we’re doinglistening to music, watching TV, playing a video game, or enjoying a movie.


Because we only use the projector for movies or special events, it remains a special thing, letting us go from the 65-inch 16 x 9 aspect-ratio TV to the 115-inch 2.35:1 screen at the touch of a button. That makes movies far more cinematic and engaging.


The other thing I’ve come to appreciate is that because the media room is located in our comfortable, centrally located great room, we use it all the time. With the push of a button on my Control4 remoteor a voice command to Alexa saying, “Start Movie Time”the TV turns off and the screen drops down, the projector turns on, and our room is transformed into a theater. Since nobody has to get up and move to another room, we find ourselves using the system a lot more often. 


I’ve made several upgrades since the original install to keep the system on the cutting edge of performance. I replaced the Pioneer Elite with a new Sony 4K TV, the processor has been updated a couple of times to take advantage of HDMI 2.0a and Dolby Atmos, I added four in-ceiling speakers for Atmos, added a second sub, upgraded the anamorphic lens on the projector, and added the Kaleidescape Strato 4K player. The next upgrade will likely be moving to a 4K projector.


In my next post, I’ll discuss some other technology advances that make the media room an even more viable concept and worthy of your consideration!

—John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at

My Video Game Sound Beats Your Movie Sound

video game sound

Most of my video gaming friends have media-room entertainment systems (many of them cobbled together from hand-me-down gear they’ve mooched off me over the years). But, as I alluded to in my previous post, most of them view gaming and home theater as two distinctly different forms of entertainment. In fact, more often than not their gaming consoles (if they have them) are relegated to some out-of-the-way room in the house, far from the big TVs and surround sound speaker systems. And most of them experience their gaming audio by way of truly awful-sounding stereo headsets.


Which makes the complete and utter opposite of sense, especially when you consider that most video games these days boast Hollywood-caliber surround soundtracks that easily keep pace with the best UHD Blu-rays. In fact, although movies still (and probably always will) outpace video games in the realm of visuals, I’d go so far as to say that in terms of the sonic experience, few movies can come close to matching the sheer visceral immersion of modern video game audio landscapes.

After all, movie soundtracks, dynamic as they may be, lock you into a passive listening experience and limit your point of view. They make you a spectator at best. But video game sound mixes follow you around as you explore strange new worlds and live through harrowing new experiences, while still delivering the richness, impact, and artistry of professional Hollywood sound mixes. That waterfall you hear trickling down to the side of your living room wall? Chances are good you can turn and run toward it. The click of a reloading gun behind your head? You can probably dodge it if you’re quick enough. Simply put, video games don’t merely pump the action in the general direction of your ears—they drop you right in the middle of the mix and drag it along with you.


So, if you want to get the most from your sophisticated surround sound system, put down the remote control for the evening and pick up a game controller.  And, hey—if it’s a PS4 controller in your hands, look me up. I go by Waryyhn on the PlayStation Network, and I could seriously use some new racing compadres.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian. 

The State of the Sunset, Pt. 1

Middleport, NY is one mile by one mile square. It has, generously, 1,800 residents. It’s a Rust Belt town with a pension-based economy. There haven’t been decent jobs on any meaningful level here since the early Reagan years.


And yet it has one of the few remaining fully functional drive-in theaters in the U.S. The Sunset has been in continuous operation for almost 67 years. Far more affluent parts of the country haven’t been able to make drive-ins work, partly because they need large swaths of land that tend to get gobbled up by big-box stores, McMansions, and condos. The land around Middleport isn’t worth much, so the drive-in survives.


But its survival has a lot more to do with the focus and tenacity of its owners, Denise and Mario Stornelli, than it does with piddling real-estate values. This year threw them a couple of big curves, though. It rained almost every day during the prime of summer—and not just passing showers but steady downpours and violent storms, which used to be unusual in this part of the country but are becoming more and more common.


And the box office sucked—not just at the Sunset but everywhere in the U.S., where it was down 16% overall. 


I talked to Mario and Denise about how they fared.



How has your box office been?

Mario  It’s down a little bit. About a quarter.

Denise  At least 25, 30 percent.


Was that due to the weather or the quality of the movies?

Mario & Denise  Both. (Mario laughs)

Mario  Weather less than movies.

Denise  Because if the weather’s bad but you’ve got a good crowd, it doesn’t matter. The weather’s never been that much against a good product.


Has anybody said anything about the quality of the movies?

Denise  The clientele, they’ll talk to us about weather and the movies, because they’re avid goers. And they themselves knew there was really no big blockbuster out this year—nothing—no one picture you could put your finger on.


Were there any standouts?

Denise  Wonder Woman did better than they anticipated.


Anything else?

Denise  There was War for the Planet of the Apes, but I don’t remember that doing that well. But we just had it a lot. This has probably been one of the worst Labor Day weekends we’ve ever seen. The weather was good, so it wasn’t the weather, but the movie choices were really not good—not at all.


What kinds of movies do you think do best? Who do you have to appeal to?

Mario  Kids.

Denise  Kids movies—kids rule.

Mario  Then we get both the parents and the kids.

Denise  Yeah, the kids want to come, the parents have to bring them. They make it, sometimes, a family affair. A woman approached Mario and I. It was her little girl’s 3rd birthday. And they made a whole Sunday out of it.

Mario  They put up a tent.

Denise  They paid for the people who they had invited to come for the movie, because it was her daughter’s favorite movie.

Mario  Annabelle?

Denise  No, not Annabelle—that’s not a kids movie.

Mario  Leap.

Denise  Was it Leap? But I don’t know what that was about. They invited the family, they set up a tent, they had it all decorated with balloons and bought a cake. It was a really nice thing to see.


I see you’ve got the new Lego movie. That should do well.

Denise  I saw that today, and it’s really cute. 

Mario  It’s unusual for them to give us first-run this time of year. I was surprised they gave me two new ones this week. And we’ve done OK with them—it’s helped us out, you know.


The distributors are probably loosening up because they have to make up for the lousy summer.

Denise  Normally when school starts, they start recycling over and over the ones we’ve already had. And when you’ve got people that patronize you regularly—I mean, they can only come and see the same movies—

Mario  This is a small town. And all the towns around this are small, so we want to change the movies frequently. When we only had the one screen, it was hard to play movies and hold them too long, because then you lose your steady customers. But with three screens, at least it gives you a change.

Denise  You know, Mike, you got to remember two things. The business has been here 67 years, the same family. Second generation. But it’s a business that depends on variables we have no control over. You’re against weather, and you’re against product. The thing you have to remember is, it’s not new. You have good years, you have bad years. And you just take what comes. You don’t want to make a big gripe about a bad year. It’s a bad year. But we’ve had good years. And that’s the other point. You know what? You look at the news, and you look at other areas of the country—it could always be worse.

drive-in movie theaters

There’s probably no one secret to it, but how have you managed to stay in business when thousands of other drive-ins have failed?

Denise  I can tell you the reason. (she gestures toward Mario) It’s ’cause of him. It’s a lot of sacrifice, and you’ve gotta have self-discipline.

Mario  She’s just being nice.

Denise  No, no—really, Mike—if it wasn’t for Mario. When you’re working 7 days a week, in the best season in this area, and you’ve been here every single year—you’re giving up a lot of family time, and there’s a lot of sacrifice that you make—honestly. Because if this business is open, we’re here. We need no one else to run it. You can lose too much. It takes a lot of self-discipline. And if it wasn’t for him—I’ve gotta tell ya—the best of any of the rest of us would have buckled. Because even my son, who might be the next one—it’s not so much the sacrifice for Chris, but he doesn’t know if he can be what his father is.

Because, honestly, it’s really hard. A lot of vacations and celebrations are this time of year—you don’t go. I mean, my kids graduated, I went—I came right back to work. It was on a Saturday. It’s just the way it is. The flip of that is, nowadays, it makes a good living, OK? It really does. And to have a job that does that, and seems appreciated, nowadays—then you just are grateful for what you’ve got, and you do what you’ve gotta do, right?

Michael Gaughn


In Pt. 2, we speculate on whether the drive-in experience can survive the
steep decline in theater attendance & the rise of streaming

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Mario Makes a Sub

Sunset Drive-in owner Mario Stornelli has prepared
every piece of food that’s come off the snack-bar
grill for over 40 years. In this short video, he talks
about some of his experiences while whipping up his
signature cheese burg sub.


Incredibles 2 review
Ant-Man review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review


A Tale of Two Gamers

It’s funny how shared hobbies can both bring us together and tear us apart. I experienced this frustrating rollercoaster of emotions recently when a friend’s husband casually namedropped a rather obscure auto-racing simulator in a chat about videogames (the subject of roughly half the conversations shared in my circle of friends). It was a moment of pure serendipity. Finally, we had both found someone we could reliably race with and against online, without having to wade through lists of anonymous potty-mouthed 12 year olds and demolition-derby wannabes.


But that shared joy quickly turned into an argument when we discovered he plays his racing simulations on a PC, whereas I prefer to spin my wheels on PlayStation 4. Playing on different platforms means we may as well live in different universes. We can’t be online racing buddies.


“But why?!” he asked, with the same tone of bewildered disgust Chicagoans reserve for people who put ketchup on hot dogs. “The graphics are so much better on PC!”


True. But as I explained to him, my PC resides in my home office and is generally reserved for roleplaying and strategy games. For action and racing games—especially racing simulators—my media room is where it’s at. And that’s where my PS4 resides.

After all, a few lines of resolution and some blocky textures are a small price to pay in exchange for 12,800 watts of room-filling surround sound—the Doppler-shifted roar of opponents sneaking up beside me in Project CARS 2; the rumble of a virtual LT4 engine rattling the frame of my Sparco racing cockpit and pounding me right in the chest; the subtle-but-butt-puckering chirp of my pretend rear tires breaking traction as I grip my Logitech G29 steering wheel and sling a pretend Corvette Z06 around the twisting pretend turns of a pretend Mazda Raceway.


“Try that without dragging your big, ugly black box of a PC into the living room!”


“Pfft. Who cares about the sound?” he scoffed. And just like that, our budding bromance died on the vine. Because, really, how can I be gaming buddies with someone who doesn’t understand that audio is at least half of the experience?


Sadly, for now, I’m afraid far too many people share his opinion—his quick dismissal of the undeniably superior experience of gaming in the home theater. In my next post, I’ll explain why they’re dead wrong.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian. 

Husbands and Wives

Amazon Husbands and Wives

I know, I know—I just wrote about Cafe Society. And there’s a contemporary cinema worth acknowledging too. (Right?) But I’m working on something that’s got me scrambling to refamiliarize myself with the Allen canon, and streaming isn’t making it easy. There’s not a lot of his work available online at the moment, and most of it’s not what I want to plumb. Husbands and Wives is.


It’s almost impossible to believe the best Allen films ever got made—let alone gained a following—they go so strongly, and sometimes aggressively, against the grain of mainstream movies. But his core instincts as an entertainer, and his need to ingratiate (remember Zelig—and Zelig?), help ensure his best films are pleasurable and engaging no matter where they decide to go.


Husbands and Wives is a known quantity, so there’s no point in rehashing the plot or talking about its groundbreaking technique. So let’s talk instead about this persistent bullshit about Allen not knowing how to direct actors. (It’s like the old—and completely wrong—saw about Billy Wilder being a writer who happened to direct.) And yet there are more exquisite performances in his films than in the films of any other American director. Explain that.


The scene where Sydney Pollack tries to get his flakey girlfriend to get into his car before she embarrasses him is one of the rawest and truest things ever shot. And it didn’t happen by having an incompetent director set two actors loose and tell them to figure it out for themselves.


Pollack was at best a mediocre director—a mainstream hack. He looked humiliated in Tootsie and completely lost in Eyes Wide Shut. So why is he so good here, and so well integrated into the fabric of the film? It’s long past time to give Allen his due.


Di Palma’s cinematography is so subtle that the demons of streaming come close to shredding it. That doesn’t mean it can only be enjoyed on the largest possible screen in the grandest possible setting—there’s something intimate about it that makes that kind of setting almost antithetical. But it deserves respect, and streaming almost feels like a dis.


As brilliant, and almost perfect, as Husbands and Wives is, it can’t be Allen’s best film—it’s about 15 minutes too long and lacks the startling sprightliness of his best work. But it’s substantial, and true, which puts it so far outside the mainstream that it feels, deliciously, like sacrilege. It’s more mature, nuanced, and, in general, accomplished than Annie Hall or Manhattan, but it’s not better. Sometimes, vitality aces all.


Movies are almost impossible to make, and are harder to make the more mainstream they are. So it’s not a matter of taste but simple statistics: When you look at the number of innovative, provocative, engaging films Allen has made, and how consistent but also responsive his aesthetic has been across the decades, he’s probably had the most successful career of any American director ever.


I know that’s hard to believe, but think about it. Then try to dispute it.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.