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How not to project "2001" in 70mm
2001: A Space Odyssey - Loews Astor Plaza, NYC

Read more at
in70mm.com
The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Frank Angel, Dir, Brooklyn Center Cinema, NY, USA (Nov. or Dec. of 2003) Date: July 15, 2004 
Well, I got all excited last night after reading the previous post about the "2001: A Space Odyssey" 70mm presentation at the Astor Plaza in Manhattan; it was the last day it was playing. So at 9:15pm, I hopped in the car and drove at 75mph to get to the city to catch the very last show at 10:20pm. I have to agree with Bernie's post, the Astor Plaza is a far cry from its glory days. It seems like even what used to be the first run, "flagship" theatres like the Astor Plaza (where every show was a Roadshow presentation) have become nothing but corner-cutting, grind houses.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" 70mm quality? Or lack-thereof: So I get there just in time to catch the entr'acte Legetti music. Hmmm, the curtain is already opened and the audiences, about 150 -- a good crowd for a Tuesday night at 10:20pm, is sitting, staring at a blank, naked screen (years ago that used to be a mortal sin in showmanship). The dowser is opened which allows us to watch the scratches that have already accumulated on this fairly new print. Overture music fades, first frame hits the screen with the gorgeous, deep blue background and the stylized MGM logo....and it is out-of-frame. I mean frame-line in the middle of the screen out of frame. We wait. And wait. It takes the person who we know is not a projectionist (thanks to Bernie's previous post) almost to the end of the Zarathustra sequence to correct the misframe. Only he doesn't quite rack it down far enough, and so for the rest of the film we are treated to seeing the white negative splice flashes with EVERY shot change. Pretty damn distracting to say the least. OK I think, I can live with this...just ignore the flashes. But now it becomes all too apparent that something is wrong with the sound as well.

There is a very obvious flutter, much like you would hear if the tension rollers are not engaged properly on the mag heads or the sound drum is not spinning freely or the wrap around the drum is too tight or too loose. [Frank's note: to the best of my knowledge, this was a standard magnetic print, not DTS.] Or is it possible that it is simply a poorly recorded print? I conclude it was more than likely one of the local problems, not the fault of the print. This painful flutter continues for the entire film. Every time the horns in each of the Zarathustra sequences sound those predominant high notes, the people around me can hear my teeth grinding.

I go back to see if I could find someone, anyone who could address this problem. I am told by the kid sitting outside the projection booth door that THERE IS NO PROJECTIONIST. The kid is dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt -- seems this engagement doesn't even rate a full fledged manager to handle the booth -- it gets only an usher. "The projectionist," he explains to me, "comes in only on Fridays." How wonderful for us.

I said, "This can't be a digital soundtrack, can it?" He says, almost with a sense of pride, "Oh, I haven't the faintest idea. I just have to make the change if it messes up." I dig further and find out that by "the change" he meant from the 70mm projector to the 35mm projector which was running a 35mm backup print [running] simultaneously with the 70mm. He went on to say that at a few of the shows "the big film jumped out," so Warner Brothers made them run a 35mm backup. He couldn't give me any more details about what exactly did that mean, that the 70mm "jumped out," only that it was "messy." I'll bet!

Seems it would be to more to Warner's best interest to insist on having a FREAKING PROJECTIONIST in the booth at all times while they are running one of the three newly struck $20,000 70mm prints. After all, the theatre is taking its house-nut off the top, the contract should say the house-nut allowance MUST include a licensed Projectionist's salary and he has to stay IN THE BOOTH while the print is running. It couldn't be more simple. I asked if there was any problem with the projectors regarding the sound. He looked clueless. I said, "You DO hear how bad it sounds." He answerers, "Naw, it's an old film. It's the print." I knew I was doomed. I walked away mumbling, something like, yah, he doesn't know what sound format they are running but he knows whatever's wrong is the fault of the print.

Anyway, back to the presentation. OK, so the sound is bad and the picture isn't quite framed properly. Next is the DIRT. Gobs and gobs of it for the first half reel. And you know those opening scenes are basically stills. The dirt looks all the more obvious on a perfectly motionless shot. But there they were, not what I would consider ordinary dirt specs, but BIG black gobs of crap doing a dance all over the screen. Given that this is 70mm, you can imagine how much dirt had to be on film. What do these people do, stretch the first 175 ft of film across the floor and let the ushers walk on it? Absolutely unforgivable. Even if the print arrived with the dirt already on it, there's no reason why it couldn't have been cleaned prior to the show. What an application of Film-Guard (or any other film cleaner) would have done to improve this presentation!

Next come a bunch of scratches in a fade-to-black - the screen is totally dark and here are 4 or 5 parallel, white emulsion scratches on the black background over four or five frames. A good projectionist would at least have tried to blacken them with india ink so they wouldn't be so glaringly obvious and distracting.

Once we passed the dirt mines and the scratches, the picture cleanliness did improved, but the focus looked a tad soft for 70mm. I am thinking, I can get my 35mm print to focus as sharp as this. I just expected a bit more clarity. But in all fairness, it was quite watchable. Was the soft-ish focus the fault of the print? I am guessing probably not, given the fact that there was no one in the booth to touch up the focus throughout the entire 3 hours.

Now comes the intermission....or does it? Gee, I thought this is where it goes. Funny, it goes here in every show I have ever seen or run. Or maybe Mr. Kubrick left special instructions: "When you show "2001: A Space Odyssey" at the Loew's Astor Plaza, cut out the intermission and the Atmospheres music leading into the second half, and by the way, be sure to throw out the intermission music and the "Intermission" title footage before you ship the print out." Yeah, that's it...it was a note that Kubrick himself put right in the can....that's why they must have deleted it. The pigs.

So, the Astor Plaza managed to turn a spectacular, classic, Roadshow picture....one of the most powerful films of the last 100 years, into what we used to expect to see in the neighborhood, sub-run, underbelly, $1.00 grind houses running battered 35mm prints. The kind of thing where a Roadshow picture would play at the Rivoli on Broadway and right around the corner on Forty-Second Street, while the same title would be playing day-and-date at the Lyric or the Amsterdam at half price, but with a decided degradation in showmanship and presentation values. This was a Lyric level show.

Still, this is one awesome, powerful film of great impact -- the greatest work Kubrick ever created, IMHO. And it still holds up today, despite the lack of all that frenetic nonsense that most people expect to see. Every shot in "2001: A Space Odyssey" looks TOTALLY believable -- maybe because it was shot on 65mm neg and just maybe because NOT A SINGLE FRAME WAS GENERATED IN A COMPUTER!

There were three youngsters sitting in front of me at this show. I wondered what they thought of it and if they found some of the sequences slow, which is a common criticism of "2001: A Space Odyssey" from the MTV generation. After the show (much to my surprise and delight, these kids sat through the entire credits) I approached them and asked if they had seen it before -- they had....on TV. "Now you can understand why you really never SAW it before," says I. They all agreed whole heartedly. They asked me if I had seen it. I chuckled. I said, "yes, 30 years ago when I was a kid and it first came out, I saw it maybe 6 times, twice in Cinerama, then about 50 more times over the years in various theatres where I worked. They wanted to know what Cinerama was. That was all I needed. We talked until they threw us out of the lobby and then for another half-hour out in the street. They wanted to know all about Cinerama. One kid said "2001: A Space Odyssey" was one of the most beautiful films he had ever seen!

Guys, there may be hope yet.

PS -- there was no curtain after the show either. None at all. I mean, the theatre has one, but it just hung there....it never closed.
 
Further in 70mm reading:

"2001" release dates

Full credits for "2001:A Space Odyssey"

Internet link:

Brooklyn Center Cinema

Note:

Tom,

Great website. And I am flattered that you would publish my post. However I would like to make just a few edits for clarity. This post was, I believe, to the www.35mmForum.com and references previous posts, so I will just clear some of that up. Also, to the best of my knowledge, this print was a mag print, not DTS. That assumption is based on the sound problem that definitely was the sound of a misthreading of the mag penthouse.

Anyway, here is the revised text and you are certainly welcome to post it. Again, thanks for considering it.

July 20, 2004
 
 
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