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Interview: The Siskel Film Center's Marty Rubin, Part II

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 7, 2011 4:00PM

photo by Thomas Hawk
In the first part of our interview with Marty Rubin, Associate Director of Programming at the Siskel Film Center, we talked about the challenges of film programming in lieu of the increasing scarcity of film itself. And as you can imagine, he's no big fan of 3-D. In a future where our home entertainment systems become ever more "theater"-like, might lecture series and other screenings which offer the chance for audience interaction ensure survival for venues like the Siskel?

Chicagoist: What about 3-D? Will the Siskel ever show 3-D?

Marty Rubin: We’ve been discussing that. Up until very recently it wasn’t an issue. Because the 3-D movies were all big commercial movies, it seemed like there would be very few instances where we’d want to use it. It is expensive; apparently it costs something like $20,000 to get the “kit” to upgrade. It didn’t seem worth it. Now, with the Herzog film and the Wenders film, all of a sudden 3-D is entering into the orbit of the type of films we show. We probably will eventually upgrade to 3-D, precisely to show art films and specialty films like that, which I assume are going to become more common in 3-D.

Personally, I don’t like 3-D. In fact, I hate it. I teach a film history class at UIC. Somehow this came up during the class. I was talking about depth of focus or Orson Welles or something like that. I asked, “How many people like seeing a movie in 3-D?” This was a class of 50 people. Nobody raised a hand. “How many people don’t like it?” Everybody raised their hands! These are young people. They aren’t old, grizzled, baby-boomer cinephiles like myself. How did this happen? How did 3-D get so entrenched? Although there are some cases where 3-D adds something and can be used intelligently, it doesn’t add that much, and what it subtracts is far greater than what it adds. You know, 3-D was used intelligently back at the very beginning, in the early 1950's. Directors like Hitchcock and Raoul Walsh and Douglas Sirk and Jack Arnold in The Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space, they were using 3-D intelligently and expressively. They weren't just using it for sock-in-the-eye, gotcha effects. But still, what it added seems so little. You still get an illusion of depth even when you don’t have 3-D. And oh man--the fuzziness, and the dimness, and the clunkiness of 3-D. I’ve just stopped seeing movies in 3-D. Sometimes they show them in 2-D on another screen, or I just avoid them. I remember Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton film, was just excruciating to watch in 3-D.

C: Do you think it’s going to burn out just as quickly as it did in the '50s?

MR: I wish it would. But it seems like 3-D was the Judas goat for leading film away from 35mm, because it gave theater owners an incentive to install digital projectors. Now, digital projectors are going to become the norm, and then it’s not that much more difficult to show 3-D. Although not everything does well in 3-D, it does seem to have some sort of commercial advantage. So I don’t see what’s going to stop it. It just seems as if there’s so much money and investment behind it, that it’s going to be very, very hard to dislodge at this point. You know, everybody knew that VHS wasn’t as good as Beta, but what happened? VHS took over anyway. And I think a similar thing is going to happen with 3-D. Everybody knows it’s not great, but it’s going to be hard to get out now that it’s in. In my opinion, it has very limited aesthetic use. I’m not saying it has none, but it also has huge disadvantages.

I think in the 1890's there was an almost magical confluence of factors—involving separate inventors such as Eastman and Edison and W.K.L. Dickson and Henry Reichenbach and the Lumiere Brothers—which came together to produce a virtually perfect medium. It was like a gift from the gods—this 35mm motion-picture image which remained essentially the same for over 100 years. I think there was a reason for that longevity, because it was an ideal format that couldn’t be topped. And now we’re going to lose it for the sake of a few cheap thrills and a few specialized applications, like, “Oh yes, those cave paintings in France are painted around a rock, so they’re a little more distinct if you use 3-D.” But to me it’s not worth it. It’s just not worth what’s going to be lost.

C: Just to play devil’s advocate here, do you think that digital projection will allow more movies to be shown, just because it’s easier to ship around a drive or a tape instead of a giant print?

MR: It’ll make things easier, and it’ll make them cheaper, primarily for the studios and the distributors—it’ll save money for them, but do you think film rentals are going to go down? No way. It’s not going to be cheaper for us. It’ll definitely be more cost-effective but I think there’s still going to be a loss. And I have to wonder if, in the long run...this might be too mystical, but, even though people don’t realize it, there might be some mystique attached to the 35mm image that draws us to the movie theater. That’ll die away and people will start saying, “I’ll stay at home and watch it on my big HDTV screen,” because there’s going to be less and less difference. That’s happening right now. There’s less and less difference. Even though I often enjoy seeing films on video, to me there’s a crucial, almost visceral difference between seeing a film on your home TV screen, no matter how spiffy it is, and seeing it in a movie theater on a big screen with the texture and luminosity that a 35mm image has. Maybe at some point digital projection is going to be able to mimic that in some way, but I don’t see it now and I don’t see it happening in the next several years—if ever.

Here’s another problem: a domino effect of this decline of 35mm is that the studios and distributors aren’t making prints, so programmers are turning more and more to film archives. And the archives are becoming overloaded. They’re saying, “We’re overwhelmed! This isn’t our main function, we’re not film distributors.” And they’re cutting down tremendously, they’re imposing restrictions like, “We’ll only lend so many films a month to everyone. We have a quota and that’s it.” t’s getting harder and harder to get 35mm prints from anywhere. There’s a tremendous squeeze being placed on the decreasing number that remain.

C: What do you think is in the Siskel’s future? What would you like to do more of?

MR: I’d like to be able to show more classic films in 35mm, and to continue to be able to do the kind of director or national retrospectives that are so important to our program. Such as the Skolimowski series and the Shindo series that we’re doing. There used to be a lot more of these touring series available, especially in 35mm. They usually require a government agency or a foundation to take on the expense of making a whole series of 35mm prints, which then tour. We're on the circuit and that's fantastic. But that’s another thing that’s been getting rarer. Here's an example. There’s a Taiwanese series that we’re going to do in August. It includes important films like A Time to Live, A Time to Die by Huo Hsiao-hsien and Rebels of the Neon God by Tsai Ming-liang, but it’s all digital. It was either too difficult or too expensive to supply them in their original 35mm format. But at least they’ll be in HDCAM, which is a high-end digital format. (Ed. note: this series will run August 6-31.) A lot of government agencies now will just send you a packet of DVD’s.

C: Like, “Here, show these.”

MR: Right, “You want a retrospective? Here it is, in this envelope.” That’s one of the lines we’re trying to maintain—no films in DVD or even Blu-Ray—but often distributors just don’t offer you another option. So either you get cut out of showing films or you stay as pure as you’d like to be. And I don’t know. I’d like to think we can be as pure as we’d like to be, but it’s becoming harder. And I think we will become less pure as time goes on. Just by necessity. It’s what I talked about at the beginning: we have to fill that screen, two screens, seven days a week. What do you fill them with? It’s becoming harder all the time. We do get a lot of documentaries submitted to us. Many of them are good. But the problem is, the audience for them is limited. Barbara and I have an expression we use: “Another worthy documentary.” I’m serious. We get all these documentaries and we say, “This is a worthy film on a worthy subject.” But how many films on, say, spoliation of the environment, or corporate depredation--how many of those can the audience take?

C: But every now and then, you program a movie like Helvetica

MR: Helvetica was another big surprise to us. Before Floored, that was our biggest hit of all time. And it’s not like we predicted it. We thought, it’s a good film, but its audience seems so specialized. But, again, there’s an example of a film being successful because the niche audience was made aware of it. Also, because of computers and home publishing and so on, that “niche” audience turned out to be a lot broader than we realized—there were actually a lot more people out there who were conversant with graphic design and fonts and all that. Also, the film was well-made and entertaining, and that helped too. We have our successes. I’m not sure what the percentage is. Our batting average is probably like that of a good baseball player, hopefully—over .300. [laughs] About 30%. I’ll settle for that.

C: It’s great you find the space in your schedule to have encore presentations of movies that have done well.

MR: That was largely from necessity. But we found that some of them did remarkably well, and people seemed to appreciate that we were showing them. Films like Valentino: The Last Emperor and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Certified Copy. Frankly, it helps us to fill our schedule. Also, those films are usually available in 35mm. As I said, that’s becoming more and more of a factor. For example, Jane Eyre, which we just played. I wouldn’t dream of showing that film in anything but 35mm. But I’m glad to hear that you like that trend. Over the last year or so we’ve been doing more and more of it.

C: Have you gotten a good response to the lecture series that you let people sit in on? Have you considered expanding that?

MR: The Tuesday night lecture/screenings? Oh yeah. That’s one of the best things we do here. What I particularly like is how it brings together different spheres— which can be both challenging and stimulating for the lecturer. On the one hand, you have the academic side. But then you also have people who are not students or academics but who may be very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about movies. And the lecturer has to communicate to them too. I think that’s a healthy thing. I really enjoy those and I go as many as I can because I find them very rewarding. They’re something special and unique that can’t be duplicated, even in the form of a DVD commentary track. It’s not the same as having someone there who’s talking to you and to whom you can ask questions.

C: It seems that if the theatrical moviegoing experience is going to survive and thrive, that social component, lectures and audience interaction, is going to be key. Both the lectures, and you’re always having screenings with the director present—things like that.

MR: Yes, that’s extremely important, and we’re very dependent on the kindness of strangers there. An enormous number of the guest filmmakers come on their own dime. Because we can’t afford it. We don’t have a big travel budget. A lot of those people come on their own initiative. It does add a tremendous dimension. When Phil Grabsky was here recently, for the Mozart and Beethoven films, he was extremely eloquent and passionate. The audience knew that was something you could never get off a DVD. We’ve had so many remarkable guest filmmakers. Like when Debra Granik came here for Winter’s Bone. She was wonderful— so articulate and intelligent in an unpretentious way. And Duane Baughman, the director of Bhutto; he was so open-minded and the audience was so responsive to his whole attitude toward the subject. You’re right, those things are something you can’t buy in a package. [laughs]