Monday, May 6, 2013

In the case of celluloid, it's better to fade away than to burn out

Posted By on 05.06.13 at 04:28 PM

Timothy Carey in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
  • Timothy Carey in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
"The print's about 20 percent faded," estimated Chicago Cinema Society's Neil Calderone when I saw him in the Patio Theater lobby before last night's screening of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I can't verify or challenge that figure, but the archival print (struck during the film's initial 1976 run, Calderone proudly informed me) was indeed flawed. The warmer colors seemed to have melted together slightly, creating a subtle orange-brown wash over the images. I felt like I was watching the movie through a glass of whiskey.

This felt appropriate, given the major role hard alcohol plays in the film. Characters drink throughout Chinese Bookie, and never wine or beer; the only notable deviation from hard liquor is when Cosmo Vitelli treats three of his dancers to champagne in the back of a limousine. At the same time, no one in the film ever seems exceedingly drunk. The people who imbibe are just coherent enough, never quite losing control of their thoughts but seldom pursuing a single one to completion. As it often goes in John Cassavetes's films, the characters flail in the vicinity of deep thought and come poignantly close to making contact. (Timothy Carey's climactic monologue about the futility of chasing after money is a prime example of this.) Now that I think about it, if the cinematography of Chinese Bookie were any more pristine it'd probably look perverse.

Thankfully the print hadn't faded so much that it appeared pink. That tends to have the effect of making an older film seem nostalgic for itself—a mood that Cassavetes's cinema, with its acute sensitivity to the present moment, will always resist. Some movies are served well by the discoloration, however. Lavish period musicals from the 40s and 50s—particularly lesser ones, like Centennial Summer or Show Boat—gain in complexity when their own nostalgia is mutated by time. Similarly, I remember a friend of a friend who was especially fond of Robert Altman's Nashville because he often projected it from a well-traveled 16-millimeter reduction print at his college film society. Many viewers (even its admirers) characterize the movie as cynical, but he came to associate it with the "rosy glow" of that print. For him, Nashville's celebratory tone wasn't ironic—or if it was, the color succeeded in subverting it.

When the Music Box presented Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as part of its 70-millimeter festival a few months back, the colors had run so terribly that the print didn't look pink but fruit-punch red. This was about the only thing that made the movie tolerable for me—watching the decomposition in action, I happily imagined that the film and all the people in it were being eaten alive by a deadly fungus.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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