Michael Gaughn Tag

Review: Rear Window

Rear Window

As I mentioned in my Psycho review, more has been written about Hitchcock than any other filmmaker—and more has probably been written about Rear Window (1954) than any other film. It and Vertigo (1958) are often considered his most accomplished efforts—a conclusion I would vigorously dispute, but not here. Rear Window has gotten the most attention because, between the two, it’s the squeakier wheel.

 

It’s undeniable that this hubristic exercise in artifice, or stagecraft as cinema, would have completely unravelled in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. And it remains impressive how much Hitchcock is able to make the pure contrivance of his elaborate 

set a big part of what makes the film so engaging. You almost don’t care that it’s the somewhat clunky epitome of mid-’50s Broadway stage design. There’s something about its sheer physicality that makes everything that’s presented on it feel convincing.

 

Because Hitchcock was relentlessly ambitious, his reach constantly exceeded his grasp, so Rear Window has more than its share of shots that don’t quite work, storyboard concepts that had to be triaged in post, characters that could have used a little more development. Thelma Ritter’s part is ridiculously overwritten, and you can feel her pausing for laughs that forever faded it into the void more than five decades ago. Grace Kelly is just a little too Grace Kelly, with a patrician accent that can’t help but grate on modern ears.

 

The film works mainly because of the ingenious way Hitchcock makes the set, with its vignettes, convincing as projections of Jimmy Stewart’s various states of mind, 

REAR WINDOW AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR presentation gives Hitchcock’s quintessential exercise in pure cinema an immediacy and sense of engagement it’s lacked in every previous home-video incarnation.

 

PICTURE     

HDR is applied subtly, for the most part, but gives the finale an impact the film has likely lacked since its first run in theaters.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix respects Hitchcock’s innovative original mix, with its uncanny evocation of space.

making the film from early on feel dreamlike. And it works because of Stewart’s performance. He, pre-World War II, was a good, even great, actor—his work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is jawdropping, even today. But he was also kind of lightweight, sometimes clownish. After the war, there’s an undeniable sense of experience behind his eyes that he was able to employ deftly in his best roles—like in the Anthony Mann westerns, in Vertigo, and here.

 

Not that his performance is flawless. As always with Hitchcock, there are weak moments in the script and in the direction that cause Stewart, adrift, to lapse into his patented Stewartisms. But in the hands of a more traditional Hollywood pretty boy type, L. B. Jefferies snooping out of the back of his apartment could have seemed just comic, or even warped. Stewart creates a perfect tension between making it all seem justified and also the dangerous preoccupations of a troubled soul.

Rear Window

The 4K HDR presentation is a must-have for anybody who even thinks they care about movies—not because it smooths over the flaws but because it presents everything honestly, the good and the bad. Seeing Rear Window in any other format inevitably puts you at a distance from the film, which inevitably places you at too great of a distance from what’s going on in the apartments across the way. You need to see it at this resolution to get pulled back into the film, so it stops feeling quaint and again becomes relevant and compelling.

 

The flaws are pretty egregious. Hitchcock, of course, endlessly obsessed over how to present Kelly, but there’s a shot at 29:51, during a sequence meant to scream “beguiling beauty,” where she looks like a walking corpse. Even more jarring is a closeup at 1:50:29 of the hapless Wendell Corey that looks like it was originally part of a wider shot that was ruthlessly enlarged on an optical printer.

 

For whatever reason, cinematographer Robert Burks didn’t do as good a job here as he would on Vertigo, but for everything that takes you out of the film, there’s plenty to keep you engaged. Probably no other movie has better conveyed the feel of New York at sunset, or especially at three in the morning. And, while the HDR makes its presence felt just here and there, it is 

an absolute revelation during the climax. Anyone who knows Rear Window will know exactly where I’m going with this, but Raymond Burr being blinded by Stewart’s flashbulbs fell solidly into the “suspension of disbelief” camp until now. Presented in HDR, those white flashes become searing, making you feel Burr’s disorientation and sense of absolute loss. Rear Window is worth seeing in this form just for that moment alone.

 

The audio is “only” DTS-HD Master Audio stereo. I used quotes because the thought of somebody mucking around with Hitchcock’s innovative and masterful sound mix to take

it into the land of Atmos is both terrifying and nauseating. In the right hands, it could definitely enhance the experience—but who’s got the right hands? And I think there’s a good chance an enhanced sense of spaciousness could actually end up emphasizing the one-dimensionality of a lot of the stagecraft.

 

The mix here does a great job of allowing you to savor what Hitchcock originally wrought, where he used mainly volume, timing, and reverb to convey the sense of voices and other sounds heard in various spaces and from various distances away. 

The soundtrack, as is, is so strong it could almost stand on its own as a radio play.

 

But allow me just a brief swipe at Franz Waxman’s score, which is the weakest link in the film. It’s not that I don’t like Waxman—his work on Sunset Boulevard represents the pinnacle of the film-scoring art—but he’s just not in sync with this film at all. The opening theme—if you can call it that—is a hackneyed pastiche of Gershwin clichés—42nd Street meets The Naked City. But what makes it really fall flat is the sense of complete disconnection from the evocative use of source cues that makes up the rest of the soundtrack. I know Hitchcock was aiming for a kind of overture as the curtains literally went up, but he missed the mark.

 

And then there’s that song. Another of Hitchcock’s offerings placed on the altar of Grace Kelly, it was a great idea in concept—show a composer struggling to write a song to parallel Jimmy Stewart’s conflicted feelings about Kelly and then have it all come together as an example of songwriting perfection. Problem is, the song sounds fully worked out—and not very good—from the start. Had it been great, it could have elevated the whole film—and not made the salvation of Miss Lonelyhearts look like the worst kind of Victorian contrivance. But “Lisa” is a real stinker.

Rear Window

I’m not a big fan of Top 10 or Top 100 or whatever lists—they’re almost all laughable when they’re not outright dangerous. So let’s just say that Rear Window, for too many reasons to ignore, is an essential. Not only does it stand on its own as entertainment for all but the most jaded contemporary viewers (and let’s not go there), but its reverberations can still be strongly felt in present-day film. In 4K HDR, it becomes not just another movie, but the very definition of cinema.

Michael Gaughn

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

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

This was supposed to be a review of Rear Window. But I had such a strong reaction to watching Psycho in 4K that Hitchcock’s lurid horror classic quickly pushed its way to the front of the reviewing queue.

 

More has probably been written about Hitchcock than any other filmmaker, most of it boxing him in so tightly that he’s ended up as badly embalmed as Norman Bates’s mother. So I’m going to try to avoid retreading any of that ground here. My comments will be mainly about why you should care about Psycho in 2020—and why you should care about it in 4K.

 

First off, there’s Anthony Perkins. Sure, people have praised his performance before, but I didn’t realize exactly how groundbreaking it was, and how much it still reverberates today, until this most recent viewing. Hitchcock was notorious for

putting blinders on his performers, so while there are some exceptional breakout performances in his films (I’m thinking of Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train in particular), they’re rare, and tend to happen not because the actor was given extraordinary latitude but because he figured out how to roll within Hitchcock’s often stifling restrictions.

 

Perkins turns that straitjacket into a virtue, offering the most direct, nuanced, and startling performance in any Hitchcock film. (His bursting in on Vera Miles at the end always seems so comical because he has kept Norman on a such a believably tight leash until then.) There are many things in Psycho that are unique for a Hitchcock film (I’ll get to that in a minute), but this is the most unusual. As soon as Perkins says his first lines to Janet Leigh, Psycho pivots from a traditional studio-era production into the cinematic unknown.

 

And then there’s the enduring influence of his performance, which has become the standard for any actor attempting to explore the extreme edges of dissociation. It’s hard to 

PSYCHO AT A GLANCE

This 4K version of Hitchcock’s lurid horror classic helps show how much the director used this film to reinvent himself and also helps showcase Anthony Perkins’ groundbreaking performance.

 

PICTURE     

Being able to watch Psycho at the equivalent of 35mm resolution is a huge leap over earlier home video incarnations, restoring some of the impact the film had for audiences at the time of its release.

 

SOUND     

While the stereo and 5.1 mixes are only adequate, they both do an excellent job of presenting Bernard Herrmann’s justly famous score.

watch his Norman Bates and not see De Niro’s Travis Bickle—or even Rupert Pupkin. To watch Perkins in this film is to watch him actively and radically reinvent film acting—all while under his director’s unblinking gaze.

 

But Hitchcock ventured into all kinds of new territory in Psycho, and it’s fascinating to see him trying to reinvent himself as he grapples with the collapse of the studio system and the realization of how tightly he was bound to it. The tragic thing about Psycho was that he found it impossible to build on the new ground he carved out here, instead retreating to what he already knew, which is why all of his later films feel half-baked and out of touch.

A lot has been made about Hitchcock using a TV crew to shoot this film, but that kind of misses the point. Psycho, on the moviemaking level, is mainly about Hitchcock grappling with his increasing bitterness, cynicism, disorientation, and misogyny in a world where he could feel his influence as a filmmaker and a personality waning, and figuring out what the hell to make of his unmistakable attraction to La Nouvelle Vague, a movement that worshipped his work but that couldn’t have been further removed from his Hollywood-machine style of filmmaking.

 

Any balanced consideration of Hitchcock’s misogyny in the 

age of the New Puritanism is guaranteed to fall on deaf ears—but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said. His take on women was far more deft and complex than he’s usually given credit for (consider, for instance, that the two most assertive and courageous characters in Rear Window are Thelma Ritter and Grace Kelly, and how Eva Marie Saint makes Cary Grant look like a dope in North by Northwest). Yes, the sense of personal aggression in his handling of the Marion Crane character is troubling, but the film hinges on being able to see her through Norman’s eyes from the second he first encounters her in the rain at the Bates Motel.

 

That’s one of the more New Wave elements in this very New Wave-y film, that not only is Marion not very likable—nobody in this film is, which is what forces you to gravitate toward Norman and feel some uncomfortably complex emotions about him as it all plays out.

 

As for the shock factor—it’s there, but not in the broad strokes that enticed and repelled audiences at the time. Probably the two most disturbing images now are Janet Leigh staring out at the audience with her face flattened against the bathroom floor and Perkins mounting Martin Balsam, butcher knife aloft, while Balsam lies on his back squealing like a stuck pig.

Psycho (1960)

What’s more disturbing are the droller, more perverse touches, like forcing the audience to suffer John Gavin through the whole second half of the film, and the justly infamous penultimate scene where the smug psychiatrist explains all. But it’s worth enduring that to get to the brilliant Godardian shot of Norman in confinement, leading to him giving the camera what would become the patented Kubrick crazy stare, with that almost subliminal superimposition of Mother’s rotting face.

 

What 4K brings to all this is distressing—as in, you can see all the little nicks and scuff marks and tears and stains that evoke the shabby decay of the Bates Motel. It’s hard to emphasize how much this heightens the experience of the film. Given Hitchcock’s horror of any kind of filth, the idea of a place—and a mind—that rundown was probably truly terrifying for him, and it takes all the clarity of UHD resolution to faithfully convey that.

 

Strangely, capturing the full impact of 35mm film makes the subtle verbal duel between Perkins and Balsam that begins in the motel office and continues out on the walkway far more intense than it felt in earlier home video incarnations. This is another scene where Hitchcock went well outside his comfort zone, not only in the way he allowed the actors to fence, but in the way he turned it into a duel of acting styles that had until then been foreign to his work. This scene had always felt kind of flat seen anywhere other than in a movie theater, until now.

 

But 4K both giveth and taketh away. This transfer does its best with some occasionally bad film elements, the worst instance probably being a POV shot through Marion’s windshield at the 24:11 mark where the resolution and image enhancement create a giant swarm of digital gnats that make it feel like you’re watching the opening to Men in Black.

 

Also, without getting pulled into any sweeping generalizations, it needs to be pointed out that while the HDR version bests the UHD version, the differences are so subtle they’ll probably only register with hyper-critical viewers. Spot-checking scenes with

a lot of gradation, like Marion and Norman in the lobby parlor (Chapter 8) or Norman burying evidence in the swamp (Chapter 12), showed only the slightest difference between versions.

 

But it’s hard to emphasize how much 4K does to revive Psycho and make it feel vital, instead of like some vaguely appreciated but permanently filed-away relic. And experiencing it in either UHD or HDR brings a new respect for its mostly restrained black & white cinematography. Color would have been too distracting, visually drowning out the impact of the film’s brutally pared-down main elements. And we can only shudder at the thought of 4K colorization.

 

As for the sound, you’re probably best off experiencing Psycho with the DTS HD Master Audio stereo track. The Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn’t make the film more engaging, just different. That’s not to say that someone someday couldn’t do a compelling Dolby Atmos remix, but they would have to be an absolute virtuoso to make their efforts dovetail with Hitchcock’s aesthetic.

 

And let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge Bernard Herrmann’s groundbreaking score, which is well served by both mixes. I had never really appreciated until I heard it here just how much Herrmann relied on the primal 

Psycho (1960)

physicality of the bows scraping across the strings and the rough resonance of the string instruments’ body cavities—the cellos and basses in particular. Sure, that impression had always been there, on the verge of recognition, but this time that naked musical aggression seemed far more crucial to the impact of the score than the notes themselves.

 

Anybody who cares about movies beyond junk-food event flicks needs to make the pilgrimage to Hitchcock at some point in their lives, and there are far worse places to start than Psycho (like, say, Family Plot). Whether it gets under your skin on your first viewing is a matter of blind luck, but it will stick with you. If you haven’t seen it in a while, your best chance beyond the local revival house (do they even have those anymore?) will be these UHD and HDR releases. And if you’re a rabid fan of the film, you should have already hit the download button by now.

Michael Gaughn

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

The Strange Journey of Tom Waits

The Strange Journey of Tom Waits

Last Sunday evening, I had a chance to do something I hardly ever get to do—devote all of my attention to listening to some music. I uncorked a Portuguese red I’ve never tried before, flicked on a single, small incandescent lamp, then unsheathed and cued up Side One of Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner.

 

The whole exercise felt a bit like a ritual, and I guess you could consider it the musical equivalent of comfort viewing—going to one of the very few things that have always made me feel grounded to reaffirm their ability to ring true no matter how much 

the world has changed around them.

 

A 1975 Bones Howe-produced two-LP set recorded live at LA’s Record Plant, Nighthawks is Waits in full hipster mode, from the period when he was using his faux Kerouac routine to disarm audiences while going up hard against the pop-music mainstream. You were far more likely to know him at the time for Rusty Warren-type retreads like “The Piano Has Been Drinking” and “Pasties and a G String” as the epic “Tom Traubert’s Blues.”

 

The first cut, “Emotional Weather Report,” is an extended monologue-quasi-song with Waits resorting to every corny Vegas-comic gag to ingratiate himself, winking so hard the whole time that you can’t help but grin. “I’ve been playing nightclubs and staying out all night long, coming home late—gone for three months, come back and everything in the refrigerator turns into a science project.” “I’m so goddamned horny the crack of dawn better be careful around me.”

 

But parts of the song that had just struck me as laugh lines before—“with tornado watches issued Sunday for the areas including the western region of my mental health, 

and the northern portion of my ability to deal rationally with my disconcerted emotional situation—it’s cold out there”—felt strangely bittersweet, even wrenching, this time around.

 

Then, as Nighthawks slipped into “On a Foggy Night,” I had a kind of epiphany. It’s common knowledge that Waits went through one of the most radical transformations in pop-music history, but it didn’t hit me until then that the change was far more a maturation than any kind of rebranding. Once you go beneath the jokey surfaces, there’s actually an amazingly consistent through-line to his work. Songs like Nighthawks’ “Better Off Without a Wife” and 2002’s “All the World is Green” might seem to exist in completely different worlds, but just shift the emphasis a little here and there and the actual distance between them is so slight it’s barely there at all.

A lot of the stuff on Waits’ initial albums might seem gaggy and trite, but view it through the lens of everything he’s done since Swordfishtrombones and you realize how fundamentally poignant those early efforts are. They don’t have the rigor, incisive, often bitter, irony, or unflinching moral probity of his later work, but they aren’t just the throwaway ditties of some one-trick booze-addled clown.

 

Then, around the time of “Warm Beer and Cold Women,” I was graced with another seeming insight—that not just his later efforts but the whole of Waits’ work stands at the pinnacle of the American songwriting tradition. Sensing how much Nighthawks honors and feeds from everything that preceded it, in a way then-popular stadium rock never could, I realized how early on he blew past his contemporaries.

 

Most pop performers write songs, but they’re not songwriters. Never having fully immersed themselves in the tradition, instead donning and shedding styles the way they’d try on designer Ts, they not only don’t have a good grasp of the basic mechanics but lack the reverence and awe that would inspire them to match or exceed the best efforts to date. But it’s clear

in retrospect that Waits is, and always was, a master, able to pluck the most vital, fertile, and redolent elements out of the musical stream until he was eventually creating songs where every turn of phrase was a perfect evocation of a different aspect of everything that came before, pivoting seamlessly from, say, Hoagy Carmichael to the Delta blues to Kurt Weill to Big Mama Thornton to Stephen Foster to early Satchmo to Tin Pan Alley to a Salvation Army band without ever using any of it as a crutch, and making it all feel whole.

 

I’m not saying Waits stands alone above his peers and their successors. Randy Newman occupies much the same ground. Both used novelty 

The Strange Journey of Tom Waits

songs early on to win over audiences, lacing them with just enough irony to let the intelligentsia know they were fashionably cynical, but both have gone far deeper than their contemporaries, showing a decidedly unfashionable vulnerability and sentimentality that actually lifts their work to a whole other level.

 

Newman, of course, is pared down, almost diffident compared to Waits’ flamboyance and radical experimentation. But each is a fully formed songsmith and not the usual mercenary faddist. And, far too honest in their work, neither would stand a chance if they were starting their careers in the far more intolerant and censorious present.

 

None of the above is meant to suggest that I drifted from listening to Nighthawks into some kind of brooding meditation. Whatever thoughts I had came unbidden, and flickered just long enough for me to jot them down here. Maybe they were just a product of my mood or a reaction to listening to early Waits against the backdrop of these strangely trivial and parlous times. Or maybe it was just the wine.

Michael Gaughn

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

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

Time for another little thought experiment. Two weeks ago, the Justice Department had the 70-year-old law struck down that said movie studios can’t own theater chains. With the chains currently way back on their heels and their future looking dimmer than one of their overused projector bulbs, the timing of the decision couldn’t be worse—if you own a theater franchise—or better—if you’re one of the unfortunates who has to patronize one of their theaters.

 

I think we can all agree that, while you can be eager to go to a theater to see a film, nobody ever really looks forward to going to the theater itself. We put up with them, but we don’t enjoy—let alone savor—them.

 

While chain owners, sensing their license to extort slipping away, have tried to improve the experience in recent years, all they’ve really done is attempt to adopt the virtues of a good home theater—ultimately just reinforcing the idea that you’re 

better off watching movies at home. In other words, by trying to make movie theaters more homelike, they’ve only made them seem more cold and corporate (and inconvenient and expensive) by comparison.

 

But what if, now free to pounce thanks to the recent decision, Disney decided to swoop in and snatch up one or more chains and turn the theaters into someplace you might actually want to go to, regardless of what’s playing? The company has demonstrated a kind of genius for processing great masses of people while making them feel like they’re being pampered. There’s no reason why that knowledge and experience and ruthless efficiency couldn’t be applied to bringing franchise theaters back from the dead.

 

I’m singling out Disney because, well, no other studio is really in much of a position at the moment to pull something like this off. To name just a few mitigating factors:

 

—Unable to get existing titles released or new ones into production, most major studios don’t have the cash on hand to execute something this big. Disney does.

 

—No other studio can deliver as many event movies, has enough diversity in its stable of franchises, or has a strong enough track record to single-handedly sustain box office for a large theater chain. Able to draw on its Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars titles—and whatever other franchises it gobbles up in the coming months—Disney does.

 

—Because the other studios don’t have as many event titles to offer, a theatrical run can’t deliver the same kind of promotional kick it would for Disney, which could use its theaters as a consistent springboard for building anticipation for, and actually selling, its films for home release.

 

—Sure, some of the other studios have theme parks and theme park-like attractions, but they’ve never taken them to the level Disney has. And, again, they

just don’t have the diversity of franchises and characters to drawn on. (All those decades of Imagineering have to be good for something, right?)

 

So I think we’ve firmly established that Disney is the studio best positioned to take advantage of this opportunity. But what exactly could they do to elevate theaters from depressing to desirable?

 

This is the easier part of our experiment, and an opportunity for everyone to play along at home. Imagine everything you like best about the theme parks replacing everything you hate most about going to a franchise theater.

 

—Instead of just having some bored employee standing around in a Buzz Lightyear costume because he doesn’t want to go scrub out the urinals, trained cast members could stage vignettes for the patrons waiting on line, themed to whatever’s currently playing.

 

—The food, beverages, and sweets could be unique offerings, similarly themed to the current film, instead of just some stale nachos tossed into a paper container with Darth Vader on it.

 

—A gift shop stocked with high-quality goods, again, tied into the film du jour with most of the inventory in constant rotation and staffed with people who actually know something about what they’re selling.

 

—A handful of high-end theaters are incorporating video walls into their lobbies, but what if every wall of the lobby was an 8K screen setting the mood for the evening by taking you deep into the jungle or to the bottom of the ocean or on a journey down Tom Hanks’ alimentary canal?

 

—And then there are the thousand other touches, from the signage—digital or otherwise—to the lighting to the colors to the seating to the fabrics to the attractiveness, professionalism, and basic decency of the staff—that the chains have traditionally bungled, opting for Vegas c. 1975 over anything that suggests taste, quality, or any kind of empathy for their patrons.

 

So, at a time when most people—including me—assumed the day was nigh when the theaters would be turning off the lights, padlocking the doors, and trying to sell off their digital projectors for scrap, there’s actually a possibility, however remote, that going to the movies could once again become an event as big as or bigger than whatever’s being shown and that we could be looking at a return of the local movie palace, executed with a boldness, ingenuity, and flair that would put their Golden Age forbears to shame.

 

Heresy, I know. But I can’t imagine a better time to dream.

Michael Gaughn

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

Kaleidescape’s Luke O’Brien on the Importance of Catalog

Kaleidescape's Luke O'Brien on the Importance of Catalog

Someone peering in from the outside might assume that the Director of Content Operations at a luxury movie-download service like Kaleidescape is a kind of high-end traffic cop, tasked primarily with taking the 4K HDR files sent along by the various studios and ensuring they’re posted on the company’s movie store without any serious technical glitches—in other words, a job defined more by technical diligence than anything else.

 

But Luke O’Brien (like Kaleidescape’s Principal Engineer of User Experience Michael Kobb, who we profiled in “Inside a Film Connoisseur’s No-Compromise Home Theater”) is a deep-dyed movie fan. And his passion for film permeates the entire Kaleidescape experience, from the selection of movies to the creation of the transfers to the crafting of the descriptions on the interface and store.

 

With most big movies on hold with no clear sense of when—or how—they’ll make their way to the home market, which is causing a lot of people to turn to older films for entertainment, this seemed like a good time to pick Luke’s brain about the virtues of exploring Kaleidescape’s [11,000]-title catalog of films, series, concerts, and other content.

—Michael Gaughn

It seems like it might have been wiser for the studios to have released more of their big summer movies straight to the home market than to sit on them for an indefinite amount of time. But I guess they’re willing to gamble that they’ll get a big enough bump out of them when and if they’re able to get them into theaters.

I think the studios are going to do everything they can not to give up on that window. But as time continues to move forward, they do have a lot of stuff that is already finished. It becomes hard to make those choices about when do they actually get those titles into the world to monetize them. Even if they do choose to release some of them now, if we’re still in a period where they’re not getting back to things being filmed and finished, we’re just delaying another very hard dry spell we might 

have to experience months down the road. Because if you show everything you currently have in your backlog now, there will be a point later on when the well is dry and you have to figure out how you can live through that experience.

 

Premium video on demand (PVOD) seemed to come out of nowhere to at least get some mid-tier titles into the home market.

We’ve seen things that, if not tent poles. would have at least been prominent theatrical releases transitioned straight into the premium EST [electronic sell-through] and premium VOD markets. It’s the first time that’s happened. So we are in an unprecedented time right now.

 

How has this played out for Kaleidescape in particular?

It’s been a really interesting period for us. We are continuing to see very good traffic coming through our store. There are two things people are really diving into, both of which are encompassed by what we generally talk about as “catalog” —that is, movies that have been out for over a year.

 

One, there are a lot of films that maybe people missed the first time around but now they’re getting a chance to 

dive into. And then there’s also—I heard the phrase the other day—“comfort viewing” that’s taking place. This is where you have movies you love or stars you connect with and you’re diving into their content and kind of snuggling up with it to really make the end of your evening a more pleasant experience.

 

When this first all started to play out, did you see people gravitating naturally or sort of organically towards catalog in the sense that there was an unusual uptick of people going in and checking out those titles?

When the pandemic first started, we saw what a lot of platforms did, that movies like Contagion jumped into people’s minds right away. So there are some famous films like that that come to the top of your mind when you’re at a time like this. But as 

time went on, it became, “What are the things I’ve missed? What can I go and revisit in the catalog that’s going to help me be happy?” We just did a promotion where we featured some films of Stanley Kubrick as an extraordinarily masterful director. That’s an opportunity where people will say, “Oh man, I’ve seen The Shining. What are the other ones?”

 

As time has gone on, what do you see people gravitating toward? Are they getting more adventurous with their choices?

That’s more a per-customer sort of thing, but we are seeing some of them who are going in and doing more deep dives. They’re electing to go through and pick up a bunch of titles in the furthest reaches of the catalog, like some of the extraordinary noir films from the 1940s that they hadn’t gotten around to before. But for a lot of people, it’s the stuff they missed maybe two years ago—stuff that feels not that far away.

 

I know older films like Jaws, Top Gun, and Easy Rider have recently been

Kaleidescape's Luke O'Brien on the Importance of Catalog

upgraded to 4K HDR. Do you see that trend accelerating, given the increased demand for catalog titles?

If that plan ends up coming into effect, we’ll likely begin seeing the results the very end of this year and into early next year. It takes a lot of resources for the licensers to go out there and do those 4K remasters. They really want to do them well and right. They don’t want to slap together a cheap “scan it up and ship it out”-type product to people. So when they make a 

Kaleidescape's Luke O'Brien on the Importance of Catalog

deliberate effort to go back and get those films redone, it takes a little more time.

 

While the market might not be able to make that happen as quickly as we’d like, I think we have to be pretty excited about what they’ve been able to get out of the new titles that have come through. To pick an example, The Shining, which I just mentioned—that 4K remaster is gorgeous. It’s an absolutely beautiful film, which only increases that wonderful Kaleidescape cinematic experience of being at home and getting to enjoy that movie in the best way it can be experienced.

 

For people who’ve never really gotten into older films, your AFI Top 100 collection would seem like a good place to start. I know you’ve been able to round that collection out since you obtained the rights to the MGM catalog, but is there anything else you’ve been able to do recently to spruce it up?

Acquiring the MGM catalog did allow us to add films like Silence of the Lambs. And we’ve been able to enhance the collection with some recent upgrades to things like Duck Soup and Swing Time. We’re trying to make sure that we’re supporting the Top 100, which we know is one people gravitate to, as best we can.

 

If you could point people toward some other areas, what would they be?

To echo the recent winner of the Best Director Oscar, we want to continue to introduce people to the movies that

take a little more investment in terms of having to read subtitles. There’s so much good international content on our store, and we’ve got a Best of Foreign-Language Cinema collection. A great recent foreign title is François Ozon’s Frantz, which we added a couple of years ago and which did very, very well. It’s so morally challenging and visually stunning and just a great film to kind of get people engaged with.

 

It’s not clear to me why, but I know musicals can be a hard sell for some people.

We’re fortunate to have had animation keep the musical alive when live-action let it go away. But even new movies that aren’t musicals can still have that same intonation. One of the biggest hits last year was the remake of A Star Is Born. That has as much song as story taking place in it, so it’s got some of the qualities of a musical running through it. We just had the Trolls World Tour drop, which is an animated film that was one of the premium early releases. I’ve got a friend who says his niece

won’t stop listening to it. So that tells you it’s got a quality that is certainly attractive to the market as a musical.

 

Interesting people in silent films can also be a challenge.

100%. We have some real masterpieces that live there on the store, and if you can just get somebody interested in something like Buster Keaton’s The General, you can often lead them to other silent classics. The great thing about the foreign silent films is that there is no language barrier to watching something like Battleship Potemkin or Metropolis or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. You can see really some of the most interesting and visually stunning movies you’re ever going to watch.

 

We’ve been focusing on films, but things like concerts and your recent acquisition of the PBS titles also give people room to roam.

For somebody who has invested in their home theater experience, being able to enjoy a concert film in lossless audio—there’s nothing like it. It blows the doors 

Kaleidescape's Luke O'Brien on the Importance of Catalog

off. One of my dealers reached out to tell me how excited he was to sit down and watch the INXS concert, which looks and sounds great because it was provided to us in HDR with Atmos audio. Bruce Springsteen’s recent significant movie was his Western Stars concert in a barn. It’s also sort of a personal journey film that I think is gorgeous and totally engaging.

 

You mentioned us recently adding PBS to the store. We have so much extraordinary television content, and the great thing about that is that it you can have a much longer-term engagement with it that’s not just a two-hour experience. If you watch one of those extraordinary Ken Burns documentaries, that’s several hours of your life having a deeply enveloping educational experience. I love a lot of the mysteries, like The Bletchley Circle. I watched The Manhunt for the first time, the Martin Clunes detective thriller from RLJ Entertainment, which is actually the length of a movie but it’s got that serial episodic hold to it that I find totally engaging.

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

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 2

Barry riffs on everything from A Series of Unfortunate Events to subwoofers to
The Tick (2001) to why most movie theaters are like a bad BLT

In Part 1, director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Men in Black, Get Shorty, Pushing Daisies) offered his thoughts on how film distribution, movie theaters, and Hollywood in general have fared during the current crisis. Here, he gets more personal, discussing the pandemic’s impact on his efforts to get a new streaming series into production and on his viewing habits at home.  

—Michael Gaughn

Will the backlog of tentpoles and other films awaiting release in turn hold up other films from going into production, so essentially all movie production shifts by about a year?

Mike, it’s less that there’s a backlog of movies to be released and more that there’s no production going on and no one has really figured out how to get production started. I’m in Vancouver and I’m supposed to start pre-production on a television 

series this week. Vancouver has done a very good job in containing the virus, but if I were a studio—whether it’s TV or streaming or features—I would be very hesitant to start a show knowing that the insurance companies will not cover shutting down for COVID.

 

If a hair & makeup person or an actress or a third grip gets COVID, you could be shut down for weeks at a minimum. Even though you can test every other day, I don’t see how it can work until there’s a 15-minute, accurate, no false-positives test where the crew can get paid to come in 15 minutes early, get tested, and then wait until someone says, “Okay, you’re clear, you’re clear, you’re clear. You can come in.”

 

This concept of zone shooting—where the grips and electrics come in and they light, and then they leave the set and the actors come in—it’s sort of an OK idea in theory, but in execution, it’s not the way movies are made. Because if you rehearse with the lead actors, how does a crew watch the rehearsal? Do they have to watch it from a witness camera? Who puts marks down for the stand-ins to know where to stand?

Then an actress comes in, now she’s in hair and makeup, which she wasn’t ahead of time. And the DP realizes he has to move a light three feet forward because her hair is blocking her face now. Do the actors leave, and then the grip and electric come back in and move that light three feet? And then the actors come back in and you hope you don’t get it wrong. I mean, it’s going to slow down the time it takes to shoot a show by 30% or 40%.

 

So it’s not about backlog, it’s about if I were a studio executive, I wouldn’t be making movies, I would be buying up libraries. Or buying movies that didn’t get released properly, that were really good but it was the wrong timing. Like I had a movie, Big 

Trouble, that was about Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville accidentally stealing a suitcase that’s a nuclear bomb. It’s an outright comedy, but it came out 11 days after 9/11 so it never got a successful release. But I would not be making new shows right now if I ran a studio.

 

Can you tell me a little more about what you’re working on?

The situation is up in the air and things can change or not. But I’m hoping to start a six-part musical for Apple written by Cinco Paul, who wrote all the Despicable Me movies. This is his first live-action feature. And it’s being produced by Lorne Michaels and his company Broadway Video. 

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 2

Sofia Vergara, Ben Foster, Patrick Warburton, Tim Allen,
and Rene Russo in Big Trouble

It’s a half-hour series, and I’m not going to say who’s in it, but we hopefully will be starting prep this Monday. So that gives you an example of how things are still up in the air.

 

Well, good luck with all that.

Oh, thanks.

 

What impact has all this had on what you’ve been watching lately? Have you been going back and looking at older films?

Because of COVID, one thing I did is, in addition to my Kaleidescape, I also joined the Criterion subscription channel and I’ve been watching some stuff on that. It’s funny, Criterion gave me about 50 Blu-rays because I re-did Blood Simple for them and

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 2

The Criterion Blu-ray of
the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple

I also bought up a lot of Criterion Blu-rays, and you can’t find a Blu-ray player.

 

Costco doesn’t carry Blu-ray anymore, I had to go on Amazon to buy a player. Blu-ray is a dying business because everything is going to video on demand. I think catalogs are going to be where it is for a while, for sure.

 

Are movie theaters on their last legs? I mean, are we just drawing out the inevitable and the pandemic is just speeding that up? Or is there a reason for them to hang in there?

I’d get out of that business if I owned that real estate, although who do you sell it to? Maybe you sell it as an Amazon distribution center or an Apple store because no one wants a physical space anyway. So malls are dying, movie theaters are dying. Try to sell it and buy Amazon stock—that’s what I would do if I owned AMC.

 

Yes, it’s a dying industry, and Netflix and the streamers are going to really flourish. And again, Mike, because sound and picture quality is getting better and better and better for 

home theaters, the sacrifice of not going to a movie theater is now not about quality or even screen size. It’s just, do I want to be in a movie theater watching a comedy? See, for me, I think comedies rely more on big audiences than big action movies do. I had a better setup in Telluride to watch a big action movie than I ever did going to my East Hampton cinema and or even the Telluride cinema. So for me, the reason to be in a movie theater is to be with other people sharing a comedy, not watching bad VFX effects in a Marvel feature.

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

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 1

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 1

Barry Sonnenfeld is the undisputed master of the puckish fairytale. Anyone who knows him mainly from Men in Black might think he specializes in effects-driven sci-fi films. But the one thread that runs through his entire body of work—from The Addams Family to Get Shorty to Wild Wild West to the first live-action Tick series to Big Trouble to Pushing Daisies to A Series of Unfortunate Events—is the sense of someone standing just off camera eager to tell you a very tall, very droll, and often surprisingly bittersweet tale. That quality lends his work a sense of both irony and intimacy that super-sized space operas usually lack.

 

It also helps to explain why you can almost always find not just the Men in Black franchise, but the Addams Family films and Get Shorty playing somewhere on cable. There’s a comfortable consistency to his work that’s allowed him to always draw an audience, whether he’s creating for movies or TV.

 

Barry in person displays the same droll and sometimes acerbic tendencies as his output. More candid in his observations about the movie industry than most mainstream directors, he’s not afraid to occasionally chomp on the hand that feeds him. And, unlike most directors, he doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to considering how people experience his work at home but has been deeply involved in the creation of his own home theaters.

 

Knowing he’d have a unique take on how Hollywood is faring during the pandemic, I was lucky enough to catch up with Barry for a few minutes as he was settling into his new hometown of Vancouver and about to begin pre-production on a new series—which we’ll discuss in more detail in Part 2.

—Michael Gaughn

Would you agree that there’s never been another time even remotely like this in the history of film or TV production?

Well, yes, there’s never been a situation like this before. What’s interesting to me is that the downfall of feature-film product actually started several years ago when the studios decided to make mainly movies based on IPs, whether they be sequels or huge books or comic books. What happened was that marketing became so expensive that if they had to spend between $50

and $100 million to market a movie, they’d rather spend $100 to $200 million to actually make a movie. Even if you make a good movie for $20 million, it’s still going to cost $50 million to market it.

 

So the movie business became a blockbuster-only business. And what that did is it sent any interesting scripts or concepts that weren’t big-budget IP, “I can only see this in a movie theater” kinds of movies to television.

 

In addition, Netflix has become so successful and has led to all these other streaming services—Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max—so fewer and fewer movies are being made for theatrical distribution. And even in those cases, it will only be very expensive, very VFX-laden movies. You see fewer and fewer small, interesting art movies going to movie theaters. Especially when you consider that the Motion Picture Academy is now accepting movies that are on streamers to be considered for nominations as feature films as long as they’ve been on in a short window in theaters.

 

COVID obviously has exacerbated this massive shift by a factor of 10. I think AMC and all of these other theater chains are basically going to have to go into the real-estate business and find ways to sell off their properties, because I don’t see that they’ll continue to need nearly as many theaters as they presently have.

 

Did you see the recent announcement from AMC and Universal?

Yes. AMC is cutting their exclusive-release window down to 

19 days, which favors only those movies that people want to see on the big screen instead of in their homes—the ones that require them to see them immediately so they can brag to all their friends that they saw the new Star Wars or Marvel movie or whatever.

 

Now, the theater chains hadn’t done a good job for the previous 20 years of maintaining their theaters, of creating an experience worthy of getting a babysitter, going to the theater, paying for parking or paying for a subway or a cab. So, until half a dozen years ago, the theaters could be blamed for their own decline because they didn’t realize they needed to not only make it an experience based on the size and scope of the movie but also on the experience of actually being in a movie theater. They overcharged for popcorn, they didn’t clean the theater between shows. They’ve started to come around; they’ve

just been very late. But now there are those draft-house and art-house theaters that have food delivery and waiter service.

 

But theaters have been in the candy store business as much as the theatrical release business. They probably make a higher percentage of their income from selling food, water, etc. than from ticket sales, because right off the bat, the theater gives half of 

Barry on home theaters vs. movie theaters

the money back to the studio. A $10 ticket only grosses them $5. So it’s not a great business, and I think COVID is going to really change that theatrical experience for, at a minimum, the next 18 months. I don’t know how theaters stay in business with their massive real-estate investments until then.

 

Do you have any thoughts on the whole situation with Christopher Nolan and Tenet?

I haven’t been following it that much. Is it Warner Brothers?

 

And IMAX. The claim is that they’ll be able to make the film available in theaters to 80% of the U.S. population by September 3rd, even if they can’t open in California or New York.

I’ll be frank with you, I don’t understand how they think they will be releasing Tenet in three weeks to all those IMAX theaters. Second of all, unless IMAX has changed, I don’t particularly like the format. The screen seemed to be 1:66 in ratio—they’re not 1:85, although you can crop them for 1:85. Also, I never thought the IMAX sound system was particularly good. For me,

RealD—they’re high-end, premier theaters—are a better movie-going experience than IMAX. They have better sound, their screens are the right aspect ratio.

 

I think a lot of the Tenet thing is hype and perception more than reality. I don’t see how Nolan’s movie could be released to 80% of the country. But what do I know?

 

Beyond Tenet, you’ve got Wonder Woman 1984, the Fast & Furious sequel

Top Gun.

 

Right. There are probably a dozen tentpole or nearly tentpole films they may not be able to release until next spring at the earliest. Is there a risk that these will just feel over-hyped and out of date by the time they actually put them out there? Are they missing an opportunity by not just going PVOD with some of these titles?

There are several costs, including the interest costs on all these movies. The longer they hold a movie, the more they’re paying in interest on it because they’ve already laid out $200 million and they’re not getting any of that money back in. Perhaps there will be either a COVID vaccine, or rapid testing where for 15 minutes while you’re waiting on line, you do your tests and then you’re allowed into the theater. I wish there was some other venue.

 

What’s really funny is it’s bringing back drive-in movie 

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 1

Barry recently published his autobiography, which describes his journey from shooting movies for
the Coen brothers, Penny Marshall, Rob Reiner,
and others to creating his own hit films

theaters. The problem with drive-ins used to be the sound more than the picture—although they never could get the image bright enough. In fact, I don’t think they could ever show The Godfather at drive-ins, or any movie shot by Gordon Willis, because they couldn’t get the print bright enough.

 

But the biggest problem used to be terrible sound, with those wired speakers that you hung on your car window. Now they’ve gone to broadcasting the sound on a narrow FM channel.

 

I don’t know how you get 400 people into a movie theater. And I do question whether or not in a year from now when Top Gun is released and everyone’s had a year to pirate it and find other ways to get copies of it, if it will have the same sort of cachet.

 

They’re going to release Tenet overseas this month before it opens here in September—if it opens in September. That means the entire planet’s going to be awash in bootlegs before it ever gets near the U.S.

Well, I don’t know what percentage of the U.S. market will want to see movies like Tenet, etc., etc. on a bootleg copy with Italians coughing in the foreground. Unless it’s good bootlegs done by projectionists or that kind of stuff. I think that’s a small problem, but, again, if the movie is already out there, it’s sort of damaged goods to a certain extent. That’s why the streamers are in a really great place right now because people don’t want to leave their homes yet, unless it’s for political reasons.

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

This Would Seem Like the Perfect Time for the Studios to Get Back into the Movie Business

This Would Seem Like the Perfect Time for the Studios to Get Back into the Movie Business

Dennis Burger told me a great wailing and gnashing of teeth could be heard emanating a couple of weeks ago from this year’s virtual Comic-Con because nobody knew when the new Wonder Woman film was going to be released, so all the vast profusion of product tie-ins, including a novelization and a new line of cosmetics, was being left suspended in the void, causing tremendous consternation among that franchise’s carefully cultivated and indoctrinated fan base.

 

Sorry, but I find it impossible to shed a tear over any of that, mainly because it was just another instance of the tail wagging a very shaggy dog. None of this is what the movies are supposed to be about.

 

Starting in the late ‘70s, Hollywood began moving away from making movies and into the “big event” business, creating not films but properties—things that depended as much on merchandising and other ties-in for their success as on anything that was projected up on the screen. It was a business model that eschewed cultivating discernment and appreciation, stoking

emotional addiction instead, ultimately going even more primal, coming to rely on constantly increased jolts of physiological stimulation—pumping adrenalin—to short-circuit any more considered response to what was being presented. And its success hinged on exploiting the emotional immaturity of teenagers—boys c. 12 to 14, in particular.

 

The result, 40 years on, is a culture defined, in almost every important respect, by arrested development. And the consequences, as we’re currently watching them play out, couldn’t be more devastating.

 

The movies became just another extension of the bubble & bust economy, an excuse for blind indulgence, consequences be damned. The audiences were huge, the profits were huge, the movies, almost without exception, were crap. And along the way, we came to confuse popularity with quality, which might be the biggest knot that needs to be undone.

 

But there’s no law that says it has to be this way—it’s just 

that we’ve been trained to believe this is the only viable model. Well, that model isn’t serving any of us very well at the moment. 

 

With traditional movie release patterns out the window, the almost complete cessation of film production, the fate of theaters in the balance, and vast economic uncertainty on the near and far horizons, it’s pretty obvious that all bets are now off. So it can’t hurt to daydream a little and imagine a better tomorrow.

 

So let me make a modest proposal.

 

What if we let adults make movies instead of the unending stream of entitled juvenile smart asses that have been at the helm throughout the postmodern era? What if all film budgets were capped at $50 million? What if special effects were only used when absolutely necessary and only to enhance the story instead of being slopped all over the movie like great gobs of Crisco and sugar on a flavorless wedding cake? What if there was a moratorium on franchise films and their latex and spandex, parallel universes, and weapons of mass destruction? Better, what if there was a moratorium on—yes, I’m actually going to type it—fantasy, and films returned to using something resembling reality as their point of departure? And what if most of this new breed of movies was meant not for Netflix or Amazon but actually for theaters, which were designed with taste and an aspirational flair that created a sense that what you were about to see actually matters instead of making you feel like you’re in imminent danger of being whisked away to a CIA black site.

 

I know, I know—I might as well be talking about cold fusion or perpetual motion. But nothing I’m suggesting here is impossible—it’s all easily doable. And once everyone has adjusted their expectations, it would soon become desirable—and way more sustainable than the current model.

 

Why is it that people who are so obsessive about planning their diets and tending to their gym memberships are OK with almost all the entertainment they consume being the equivalent of a super-sized sack of White Castle hamburgers brimming with fries? We’ve gorged ourselves on noxious piffle until our brains have gotten fat on the stuff and our neural pathways clogged. Irrational exuberance has proven to just be a cover for a coldly calculated effort to extract our last dime and a mass stifling of our imaginations.

 

I realize the public would need to overcome decades of propaganda (or marketing—same thing) and a serious case of the Stockholm syndrome for any of this to ever come to pass, but throwing off the escapist fetters would be like emerging from darkness into the dawn.

Michael Gaughn

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

Let Them Watch Bootlegs

Let Them Watch Bootlegs

So, Christopher Nolan—which also means Warner Bros., which also means IMAX (but I’ll get to all that in a second)—has decided to release Tenet overseas next month and then in the U.S. (at least theoretically—but I’ll get to that in a second) in September.

 

By writing about this two posts in a row, it’s going to sound like I’ve got it in for Nolan. Not really, but it wasn’t my decision to make this year’s entire film market—and potentially the fate of the entire current approach to film production and distribution—

hinge on the release of his film. That seems like a situation it might be kind of important to understand.

 

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on film distribution, and I’m assuming that all involved thought this decision through the best they could. What I do know is that we’re currently living in a world where all bets are off and where traditional expertise in any area can buy you a cup of coffee and not much else.

 

Because figuring out how to parcel out films to the masses really isn’t my métier, what follows doesn’t qualify as much more than a thought experiment. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a little bit of meat on its bones.

 

In “Is Christopher Nolan Too Much of a Purist for His (& Our Own) Good?” I tried to think through the implications of launching Tenet into foreign markets before the film makes it, one way or another, to American shores. At the time I wrote that piece, the “overseas first” idea was mainly just being floated as a “what if?” but it had a feeling of inevitability to it. The common response I heard was, “No 

way Tenet doesn’t get shown both here and there at the same time,” but Warner and IMAX had to have looked at the current state of the pandemic, considered the contractual obligations that said the film had to be released in theaters first, and decided to try to grab the 50% or more of the projected total gross they could reap in foreign lands.

 

There are many, many implications to all this, but there are two I want to highlight here: As I pointed out one post ago, this makes it not all but inevitable but inevitable that the U.S. will be awash in a tsunami of Tenet bootlegs the second the very first theatrical screening of the film ends. To repeat myself, this means that, with the nation savoring his opus at 360p from a proper-aspect-ratio-be-damned file surreptitiously captured off some movie screen in parts unknown, Nolan will have completely undermined his conviction that people first had to see his film in a movie theater or not at all. (Actually, they will be experiencing it in a theater first, but virtually and in the worst possible way.)

 

And—as if there wasn’t already more than enough irony here to go around—by bestowing his masterwork upon foreign theaters first, he could be primarily responsible for generating the greatest boon the piracy market has ever seen.

 

Here’s Point No. 2: I could be utterly wrong about this, but the whole “We’re going to release Tenet in the U.S. in September” part of the announcement smells like a massive exercise in butt covering. Unless the Tenet forces have access to scientific data the rest of us aren’t privy to, there is no way the virus is going to be sufficiently under control a month from now to justify opening movie theaters on any meaningful scale. Even the New York metro area, which pretty much has the situation under control and would be responsible for a large chunk of Tenet’s U.S. take, isn’t in a big hurry to reopen its theaters out of concerns they could help spawn a second wave.

 

So my potentially meaningless reading of the announcement is that they’re dead serious about releasing Tenet overseas but are being something less than truthful (now there’s a euphemism we should all learn to hate) about the prospect of the film being shown here anytime soon.

 

At the time of writing, Nolan/Warner/IMAX had, once again, decided to release Tenet to theaters. What I don’t think any living soul honestly knows for sure is when, or if, American theaters will ultimately end up being part of that equation.

Michael Gaughn

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

Is Christopher Nolan Too Much of a Purist for His (& Our) Own Good?

Is Christopher Nolan Too Much of a Purist for His (& Our) Own Good?

Since the fate of the summer box office is hanging on it—and possibly of the box office for the foreseeable future, and maybe of the movies as we know them—most of you are probably already well aware of the ongoing saga of the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. (If you’re not, go check out John Sciacca’s brief and to the point “Is Tenet to Die For?”)

 

Well—the date of its U.S. release has now been put on indefinite hold. Which of course creates a hell of a pickle for the other studios, who are itching to get titles like Wonder Woman 1984 into theaters, hopefully before Summer 2020 is nothing more than a troubling memory. Disney is likely to go its own way with its live-action Mulan, even though trying to lure people back into theaters any time soon will inevitably have a serious Hansel & Gretel feel to it.

All of the above could have been predicted. What’s more interesting—and telling—is that Warner Bros. is now considering releasing Tenet overseas while it continues to brood over what it wants to do about it in the U.S.

 

(Before I proceed, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’m not a Nolan fan. I find his films cold, manipulative, brutal, and condescending and think he’s the second most overrated director in Hollywood. [Actually, he and James Cameron are jockeying for the No. 2 slot.] None of that is really relevant to what I’m about to say—it just felt good to say it.)

 

Anyway—Nolan might have painted himself into a huge corner with his “My great piece of cinema called Tenet shall be released to movies theaters first or it shall not be released at all” position. If we’ve all learned one thing from the current series of rolling crises, it’s that no one can afford to cling to a single, intractable position, no matter how seemingly well founded, because unforgiving forces beyond our control will chop you off at the knees.

 

The stakes are too high, and the situation too perilous, to put your faith in any kind of orthodoxy. Only the nimble, innovative, and open-minded are likely to survive all of this relatively intact.

 

To return to the possibility that Tenet could be released in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere before it sees the light of day in the U.S.—I floated that idea a couple of months ago and was immediately shot down, being told the U.S. box office will always be No. 1 and it was inconceivable a movie that big would find a home everywhere but here. But the foreign box office can add up to at least half of a tentpole film’s haul, and better to take that and run than let what many expect to be the movie of the year sit getting moldy on the shelf.

 

And here’s where Nolan’s “A movie theater is the only 

proper place to see my film” position could become untenable. If, for the sake of honoring that position—or any contractual obligations that might be attached to it—Warner Bros. does decide to launch the film overseas first, we all know it will be bootlegged the second it hits the screen, and in the very next second will be sent streaming around the world.

 

And that means thousands and thousands of people—maybe millions—in the U.S. will first experience Tenet as a crappy illegal dub, with no possibility on the immediate horizon of seeing it under any better circumstances. Unless I’m missing something here, wouldn’t that completely undermine Nolan’s purist stance? Now, he could decide to compromise his self-anointed position as God and have the film released immediately to the U.S. home market in 4K with an Atmos soundtrack and have the vast majority of people who can appreciate the difference see it in better quality than they would experience it in a movie theater.

 

If he actually did care about the quality of the moviewatching experience and the future of the movies, Option 2 would be a no-brainer. But since he appears to be little more than an ego-driven Hollywood poseur (which I realize is a completely redundant description that could apply to practically any contemporary big-budget director), it’s more likely he’ll now just dig in the heels of his imported handmade brogues even deeper.

 

I’ve got to wonder how he feels about wearing a mask.

Michael Gaughn

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