A Dark Tale of Contemporary Cinema
Originally, this column was going to be a fun, snarky piece about big-budget Hollywood boondoggles, like Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Waterworld and, now, John Carter.
I’ve always been fascinated by boondoggles, especially when they actually turn out to be not that bad. I’ve seen the nearly four-hour director’s cut of Michael Cimino’s notorious studio sinker Heaven’s Gate – it was such a big budget failure it put United Artists out of business – twice. It’s actually close to a work of evil genius. I own the director’s cut DVD of Waterworld – which has been racing through the place I work on hot WOM – and it is a lot of fun and perhaps most interesting not as the most expensive movie ever made at the time, but as a historical artifact of a big-budget action movie where all the spectacle, action and sets are actually real, the final frenzied gasp before CGI completely took over.
Not much good I can say about Ishtar.
So I was excited to go see Disney’s disastrous debacle John Carter last weekend, and shelled out the extra four bucks to see it in Real-D 3D to get the complete experience, because that was how Disney wanted audiences to see it as they opened up Scrooge McDuck’s savings to bankroll it. According to The New York Times, John Carter cost a total of $350 million (production plus marketing), and needs to make around $600 million just to break even. It will likely end up losing Disney somewhere between $100-165 million. It’s worth linking to the Times story just to see their incredibly goofy (Goofy?) picture of Rich Ross, the Disney studio chairman who green-lit the film.
But in the end, I couldn’t make it through John Carter, and not because it was so horrible (though the part I made it through sure seemed like a mess). I walked out because the projection of the film itself was so damn muddy and dark. In daytime scenes, everything looked dull and washed out. At night or in shadows, faces could barely be discerned.
This has happened to me a lot since I moved to San Diego from New York. When I took my kids to see The Phantom Menace in 3D (I know, I know … but they’d never seen a Star Wars film on the big screen and were excited to), I felt the same way. The picture looked washed out, dull.
And that made a bad movie pretty much torturous.
So, as I sat there in the Gaslamp Theater in downtown San Diego, watching a $350 million picture projected with what looked like a two-buck Wal-Mart bulb, I got up and left. I found the manager, told him the movie looked like garbage and I wanted my money back. When he asked why, I told him that they were either using a bulb that was too low wattage or they had turned the bulb down to save some money. He started arguing with me, saying that the bulb “was turned up higher than it can go,” which, on its face, is idiocy. I pointed this out to him, then threw in the zinger that I used to work in movie theaters and I knew all the tricks of projectionists. He gave me my money back without another word (actually, I’ve never worked in a movie theater, but for years I was a professional film critic and knew about such tricks; the “worked in a theater” line felt a lot less pretentious and like it might work better with this guy, too).
So how often have you gone to the movies recently, and the film just looked like sh!t? Apparently, it’s happening more and more, so bad that last year Michael Bay started a campaign to make sure Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon was shown properly. This story must have eluded me because the only way I would have seen the latest Michael BayTransformers movie is if you had plucked my eyes out with spoon and taken them with you to the cinema.
But what’s interesting is the way the news was covered. In the Entertainment Weekly article linked above, it treats the fact that many movie theaters turn down the wattage of their projection bulbs or use lower wattage ones to begin with as an accepted fact. Weirder still, as I did more research, there were a ton of people who hate Michael Bay so much they were defending theaters for turning down the wattage on the bulbs!
But it’s not limited to 3D movies not being projected brightly enough. 2D movies are also not being projected brightly enough, because of 3D movies. Apparently Sony has created a projector that can be used for 3D or 2D movies and requires a special lens that needs to be added for a 3D movie and taken off for a 2D movie. It’s not easy to do, requires special training, and takes time. So theater owners just leave the 3D lens on for 2D films. And, again, the movies look like sh!t.
Roger Ebert apparently wrote about this extensively last year, following an article by The Boston Globe’s film critic Ty Burr. Burr found that 8 of 19 screens he checked out for his article were underlit.
So how widespread is this problem? Do you even notice? If you’re at 3D movie and the colors don’t snap, if the depth that you’re paying extra to see looks muddy and flat, the bulbs aren’t cranked up as high as they should be. But if you’re seeing a 2D movie through a 3D len, Geek.com has a great article about an easy way to tell and get your money back.
Honestly, it’s just about enough to make me despair for the cinema going experience, and seems to be some kind of deeper, more profound statement on the dulling of the American mind and what passes for entertainment and the regular Joe(sephine) no longer being able to discern what’s even expected in a normal world, because what’s “normal” is increasingly ratcheted down into somehow vaguely dissatisfying. And that’s beyond boondoggle. It’s just flat out bad.