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Digital Descends On Music Box's Noir City 5 Festival

By Scott Lucas in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 26, 2013 3:00PM

2013_08_niagara_movie_poster.jpg Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, strode on to the stage at the Music Box Theater Saturday afternoon to introduce the first film of the day: the Technicolor spectacle of Niagara starring (nay, dominated by) Marilyn Monroe. For five years now, the FNF and the Music Box have teamed up to present Noir City Chicago, a festival of film noir rarities and recognized classics, "all presented on the big screen in glorious 35mm prints". Mr. Muller spoke a few words about his foundation's defiant commitment to preserving these films in their original form, we voiced our eager approval, and the curtain went up on Niagara ... in a stunning, brand new DIGITAL transfer.

Yeah, we were stunned alright. It would seem that digital had finally descended on Noir City Chicago—and no one seemed more surprised than Muller.

"I didn't know," Muller said. "I thought they were all 35mm. The last time I screened Niagara, I showed a 35. Then all of a sudden it's like, 'Nope'. [20th Century Fox] made a DCP [Digital Cinema Package] and their attitude is, 'Well, damn it—we made it. You're gonna show it.'"

Muller maintains that all 17 films at the festival had been booked to play in 35mm, but unbeknownst to him, Fox and Paramount had decided to send DCPs of Niagara, Violent Saturday, and Sunset Boulevard instead of the film prints that were promised. "This an example of how fast everything is changing," said Muller. "I mean, they invest in doing these transfers to digital and they're like, 'Well, that's what we're gonna show.' And they shipped it".

With his noir-appropriate suit and easygoing enthusiasm, Mr. Muller doesn't come across as your typical film geek—his demeanor is more the film scholar who has sex and doesn't live with his parents. Nor does he present himself as a celluloid fetishist, but rather as a practical showman dedicated to presenting these films in the best form available. "When we started out, the idea was to rescue films," he said. "Things you couldn't see on DVD. And people were bitching about the quality of digital in the early days, and we said, 'Well, we show it on 35.' And as I got to know the men and women who run the archives, it was like I could actually get good prints out of them. So I prided myself on saying, 'I'm gonna show you the best existing print of this film'. And for a while there that read, publicly, as 'I'm a champion of film over digital,' right? In the meantime ... they figured their shit out and all of a sudden the digital was, like, really good."

Almost immediately after Niagara had started, Muller was approached by an outraged patron who had driven down from Milwaukee to specifically see the film in 35mm and didn't appreciate the perceived bait and switch (see?). "And I get that, because a lot of these people realize this is the last time they're gonna get to see it in 35. And then, lo and behold—it's a DCP."

And what of that DCP? I was only being half sarcastic when describing it as "stunning" earlier. It really was stunning. From the yellow rain slickers to Marilyn's red dress, Niagara is probably the most breathtaking transfer I've seen yet on the big screen—and this is coming from a guy who only two years ago would rather have walked out than sit though a digital showing of ANYthing. "My thing is just watch it," said Muller. "I've shown Violent Saturday and Niagara both on film and digitally—and I will state, unequivocally, that the digital version of Violent Saturday is better."

Which may be true; I thought Violent Saturday had some framing issues—which appear to be impossible to fix with some digital transfers. I guess it's not enough that theaters had to shell out for new projectors, the studios want them to get new screens, too. But this is still a festival that has always prided itself on showing fine 35mm prints. If nothing else, the switch up is an embarrassment. And it's becoming an occurrence that happens all too frequently lately. The Gene Siskel Film Center has reported that they've experienced several unforeseen switches due to unreliable information from distributors—to the point where they've considered eliminating format listings altogether. And what of the staunch defenders of film stock known as the Northwest Chicago Film Society? How long until they start feeling the pinch?

And why all this digital aggression anyway? Muller says that some studios, like Sony, will give him the choice between digital and film prints, but that's disappearing. For most, there simply is no choice—you have to show what they want you to show. (and for those of you who don't get the big deal, let me put it to you in Star Wars terms: What's really so offensive about those special editions of the early Star Wars films? The altered special effects or the fact that George Lucas won't let you see the originals anymore? Wouldn't it be nice to have a choice?)

But purists need not fret for the rest of this week's Noir City festival—Muller has assured me that everything else in the fest is straight up black and white 35mm film stock (with special mention going to brand new prints struck by Universal for Night Has A Thousand Eyes, Alias Nick Beal, and Street Of Chance). Which is great news. Technicolor is one thing, but to my eyes, digital still has nothing on a good black and white 35mm print. Now that's God's format, dude.

"I've learned to live with it," Muller said finally. "But it's all about what the public will settle for. And the people doing the work, they want it to be the best it can possibly be. Their bosses? They don't care. So, if the word gets back that the public will settle for shitty, substandard, 2K crap—that's what they're gonna get."

Noir City Chicago 5 plays tonight through Thursday at The Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, individual tickets for $10 / double Features for $15