Film Still in Focus at the NCMA

This month I began my 14th year as the NCMA’s film curator. Unlike at other Triangle venues, my programming choices continue to be on film, not digital. Because the studios are strictly limiting access to titles on celluloid, every nearby non-multiplex screen–the Rialto, the Colony, the Carolina Theatre, the Chelsea–has had to convert (at a cost of $50,000 per screen or more) or die.
On the Town, (1949) directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett.

The Museum has been able to continue as the region’s only all-analog venue, thanks to two 1940s-era projectors that allow us access to studio and archive vintage prints that can only be screened with an honest-to-goodness projectionist (in our case, the peerless Doug Vuncannon, or one of his associates, Kevin Porter and Tina Efird) noting the change-over marks at the corner of the screen and switching seamlessly from one projector to the other. Film archives do not permit their prints to be cut and spliced together into large reels, as theaters without the luxury of a projectionist in the booth must do. So while some theaters continue to show 35 mm, for example the Colony and the Carolina, they have access only to repertory prints, which can be cut and spliced. Only the NCMA has the dual projector system that allows us to show archive prints.

Why does this matter? As with any art form, it is a matter of aesthetics. Audiophiles prefer the sound of vinyl to CDs. Lovers of the painted canvas do not think that even the most expensive printed reproduction compares to the original. For me, a film image on the screen is deeper, richer, with the slight flicker as cinema’s heartbeat. I still feel a brief moment of disappointment when the flat, bright digital image flashes on the screen of a commercial theater.

Digital restorations are becoming the norm for even classic films, and some viewers relish a crisp new print without the dust and scratches of celluloid. The sensitivity of the technicians performing this digital magic is crucial, though. The Carolina Theatre recently showed a series of digitally restored James Bond films, the tattered repertory prints having been permanently retired. Some may have marveled at the crisp new image. I, however, could have done without the glorious restoration of the glued edge of Sean Connery’s toupee.

This season we add a new archive to those institutions willing to lend us their valuable prints. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be sending us a print of On the Town. To qualify for this honor, we had to fill out an extensive venue report on the condition of our projection facilities. The endorsement of the other archives from which we borrow–the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film Archive, the Museum of Modern Art Film Archive, the archive at the UNC School of the Arts, and various studio archives–was crucial. Being blacklisted by one venue for mishandling a print results in all the archives withdrawing their borrowing consent.

The time is swiftly approaching when the NCMA will need to convert to digital to be able to show current films and new restorations of classic films. But, as long as it is still an option, the Museum will screen films on film, as they were photographed and as they were meant to be experienced.

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