Excitement was at a fever pitch last night for the opening of the Music Box Theatre’s much-touted 70mm Film Festival, a two week fest spanning 9 films originally shot in the ultra-high definition format, but the night ended in disappointment for a packed house of eager film fans.
This festival seemed a no-brainer after the preview screening last August of P.T. Anderson’s THE MASTER, reportedly the first film shot in the 70mm format since Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET in 1996. The screening, attended by Anderson himself, drew a sellout crowd and quickly rekindled interest in the format, which the Music Box is the only theater in Chicago with the capability to project. But THE MASTER opened in Chicago at the Landmark Century and screened in digital only until a late one-week 35mm run at the Patio Theater.
After a reception of drinks and hors d’oeuvres, theater manager Dave Jennings and head projectionist Doug McClaren took the stage to give a few comments, mentioning that a two-hour power outage earlier in the day had set back their prep and left them scrambling.
THE MIRACLE OF TODD-AO, an 11-minute short which played in front of OKLAHOMA! in 1955, was designed to showcase the Todd-AO 70mm camera, which in the film is variously mounted on a roller coaster or on skis sloping down a mountain. This was a nice appetizer, with sweeping aerial views of mountains and bright blue skies, though anyone who’s seen a nature film in IMAX has seen it before. VERTIGO then began, about half an hour late.
Even having already had the privilege this year of seeing VERTIGO in another ultra-rare print (in IB Technicolor at the Gene Siskel Film Center in September,) the 70mm was, as promised, spectacular. Any doubts about the ability of the Music Box’s modest screen size to fully articulate the image were quickly assuaged, as even from a distance of twenty rows back in the middle of the auditorium, I could have easily counted the dots on Jimmy Stewart’s tie. The images were gorgeous.
After 9 p.m. a line snaked down Southport Avenue of those waiting to get in to the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY screening, the crown jewel of the festival which was to show in a brand-new print which Jennings announced had only been projected twice. But after all had been admitted and the late start stretched to the hour mark, at around 10 p.m. Jennings came to the stage clearly shaken and announced to the packed house that the DTS audio discs for the print were not playable and that one was cracked. There was an audible gasp from the crowd, and Jennings confided that he was going to go out and “get wasted” and left the stage. The theater played the planned midnight show, Brian De Palma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, as consolation for the remaining crowd, though about half of the audience departed.
Refunds were issued and stacks of admit-one passes were handed out. My refund for an online ticket purchase was processed about an hour after the cancellation.
With the theatre already posting warnings and reduced prices for festival screenings of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG due to the degraded condition of the only available print, problems are quickly mounting for this ambitious festival. But this of course only underscores how special and difficult an undertaking it truly is. And what better way to underscore the supremacy of analog than having a digital format, not the beloved film stock, be the evening’s undoing.
“This is NOT film’s fault,” Jennings announced.
This morning, replies on Facebook and twitter mainly expressed gratitude and well wishes to the theatre. For many Chicago cinephiles, they’ve waited their entire lives for a chance to see these films in their original format. A delay of a few more days or a week is hardly a delay at all.