The year in review: the good, the bad, and the ugly

It’s been another big year for the Astor. What we call “the movies” is both a business and an art, and the two don’t always see eye to eye. Nevertheless, we do our best to forge a path through the  jungle that is theatrical exhibition. This year, we’ve seen a continued loss of film prints and the arrival of more DCPs, although the replacement digital files do not necessarily correlate to the losses. We announced our closure and produced our last Astor calendar. It’s been difficult, wonderful, infuriating and heartening. Like most great movies that stand the test of time, it’s been moving and memorable.

2014 was the year that we welcomed the Pelvic Thrusts into the Astor’s fold, saw The Dark Crystal (1982) return to the big screen and finally got word that the digital restoration of Once Upon a Time in America (1984) is complete. It was also the year that we were told we could no longer screen The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) on 35mm film print format. The Lebowski Bash didn’t go ahead because of distributor restrictions and even though we offered to pay the freight on shipping the 70mm prints of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Interstellar (2014) and Spartacus (1960) from the US to Australia, so that we could run final tribute screenings on our last ever calendar, we were not granted permission.

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At the Astor and Chapel Distribution (Chapel co-founded and directed by George Florence with Mark Spratt), we refer to photochemical film prints and think of what we do as showing movies to an audience. The studios now call film prints “analogue backups” and even though the industry term has always been “exhibition”, they now refer to a screening of a film as the “exploitation of an asset”. This small detail gives an insight into the mindset that permeates from the top of the global capital corporations that now control most of the entertainment industry.

When we are forced to surrender film prints to the studios who own the intellectual and physical properties of the film after our rights expire, we always insist that they keep those prints, as an irreplaceable “asset”. Sometimes the studios listen. Props to Madman, Universal and Roadshow for not junking their entire film print libraries when Deluxe moved to a smaller location and changed the business model from film and digital distribution to digital only dispatch. Those prints are – currently – safely housed at Chapel Distribution and available to exhibitors for booking. Chapel is housing the prints for free with the sole intention of saving them from their alternate fate of being junked (destroyed). Fox, also to their credit, chose to house their remaining film prints at the NFSA, though this is not as accessible as the distribution-oriented Chapel Distribution, and Sony, who have stored their prints in a remote Queensland location.

It’s a Wonderful Life

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I’ve written before on this blog that every time a 35mm film print is screened, it’s like an angel gets its wings. Well, we reluctantly handed over the print of It’s a Wonderful Life – it was once in the Chapel Distribution catalogue and was later recalled by Park Circus after the rights changed hands – and we were assured that the print would remain available to us. It was, after all, one we showed annually on Christmas eve; an Astor tradition. The print (still in great condition) was made from the restoration elements commissioned by the US Library of Congress for their preservation archive and it was one of the best classic prints (image and sound) we have ever screened. Chapel Distribution paid around $4500 to have the print made when they bought the rights. The rights expired and reverted to Paramount but, Park Circus, who now represent the majority of repertory content outside of the US, insisted that the print be handed to Park Circus, after assurances from Paramount that the print would not be junked. In the meantime the print went missing. Paramount locally disclaimed any knowledge of what happened to it. We were told finally that it went back to the UK. Was it junked there or are audiences enjoying it? We don’t know. Consequently, we shifted the screening from the 24th to the 27th and ran a new DCP –  one that was supplied by Paramount.

 The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

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Early in the year, after Eli Wallach died, we decided we’d like to run a special tribute screening of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The film print has screened many times at the Astor and is a favourite among Melbourne cinema-goers. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the prints that was recalled a couple of years ago when the rights holder changed and it was sent to “central storage facilities” after Deluxe decided they could no longer store film prints. Apparently the “tech ops people” decided that many of those prints were in poor condition and supposedly those were junked (there was nothing wrong with the GBU film print, and the majority of the film prints in question were in as-new condition, having been commissioned by Chapel as new prints). Which prints they were we do not know. We’ll probably never know. We have asked, but our voice only seems to make its way into an echo chamber. Just prior to our request for the print, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly had undergone a brand new 4K digital restoration and, according to Park Circus (the new rights holder), “this is the version the studio wishes audiences to see”. That’s as close to an answer as we have managed to get, even after flat out asking if the print had been junked.

Lebowski Bash

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Followers of Dudeism may remember how we used to host Melbourne’s Lebowski Bash. The fantastic people who organise the event did in fact plan to return to Melbourne in 2014 with their tribute band, In ‘n’ Out burger bar, and white russians in tow. Unfortunately, the distributor decided to up the cost of film hire. For people who don’t know, the distributors take either a flat fee or a percentage of the box office when cinemas screen their films. There are standard industry rates but there’s also some room for negotiation when it comes to event screenings. Having had the event at the Astor before and having set a film hire fee in previous years, one might think that the very same fee could be applied the following year so that the people of Melbourne could enjoy an event that was created in good spirit, aiming to bring joy and entertainment to town. But that would be the thinking of a film-lover and not a studio executive. It seems that in 2014 Universal wanted a higher fee for film hire. It was too expensive for the people who organise Lebowski Bash because the event is born of love, passion and elbow grease and not huge profit margins. Without a lower fee the event would not go ahead. It did not go ahead.

There are plenty more stories such as these in the Astor’s not-quite-on-the-calendar programming files. But we’re on the cusp of a new year so let’s not get too down and out about it all. In terms of what you can look forward to, there’s a glorious, glossy final Astor calendar in circulation. It, like so many before, has been put together with love, sweat, late nights and an occasional tear by the talented George Florence. We’ve seen thirty-two years of cryingly good double bills so make sure you come down and celebrate what we have managed to secure in our bookings over the coming months, because it’s going to be one helluva farewell.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.

Time, birth, double bills

Sometimes the links between the films we’ve put together in a double feature are hard to see. Aside from both films being recent releases and coming from the same distributor, the similarities can be difficult to spot. Maybe it’s tonal, perhaps it’s just a question of matched quality? Tonight’s double feature, Locke (2013) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is one that seems, on first glance, to be haphazard. ‘What do weary vampires have to do with impending fatherhood?’, I hear you ask. Well, there might be something…

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As Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) drives along what is either the M4, M40 or M1 (his job is in Birmingham and he’s on his way to London, but he seems to be putting on a Welsh accent?) leaving his wife, sons and impending concrete pour behind, he contemplates fatherhood. From the imaginary conversations he has with his own father inside the car, to the distant conversations he has over the phone with his living sons, and finally, to the anticipated conversations he will have with his newborn child when he gets to London, Ivan Locke is trapped in a confluence of time of past, present and future.

Though Jim Jarmusch’s hipster vampire flick is not quite so concerned with fatherhood, I would argue that it is very much preoccupied with the live passage of time. For beings who have lived through centuries of so-called humanity, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have become apathetic. Adam is a recluse whose creativity persists despite his reluctance to support it in any embodied kind of way, and Eve, though the stronger of the two, is also weary of engaging with the human world; the pair don’t even dare take human victims for fear of ingesting contaminated blood. For them, time is not so much a trajectory as it is an endurance. Its infinite nature reflects their own. They represent, through their immortality, past, present and future at once.

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In addition to time, both films are concerned with birth: Locke explicitly and Only Lovers metaphorically. While Locke is on his way to a birth, all the while birthing himself; from his demons, his past life, his worldly constraints, and the not-yet-set-in-cement person he sees himself as, Adam and Eve have and will again give life (through a sort of death, but leading to immortality) to others; they are the proverbial beginning and end of humanity.

So while the two films screening tonight don’t share a filmmaker, writer, actor or actress in common, they do share something. Their reflection over time, humanity and what restrains us in our search for something better is certainly shared. The best thing about a double bill at the Astor is that the links are often different for all of us. The best way, then, to work out what the films mean to you, is to come along and see them side by side. Sometimes a pairing can offer a new lens through which to see something you already think you know.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre

Locke and Only Lovers Left Alive screen as a double bill on Wednesday November 5 at 7.30pm

One Flew Into the Ticket Box

It’s a few weeks since our screening but the limited edition screen prints have just arrived! Hot off the press and illustrated by US artist Chuck Sperry, they look like this:

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Much like some of our previous screen prints, this one features a ‘secret layer’. Make sure you rush in to the ticket box to check it out! They’re $38 each and we have a limited supply so don’t delay. In the interim, you can read what Chuck had to say below:

“My first reaction was to make a poster featuring Jack Nicholson, in his role as McMurphy. Then after a few rough drafts, I set about working on a poster featuring Nurse Mildred Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher, the role for which  she won the Oscar. Nurse Ratched is a perfect subject for an art piece as America is struggling to reform its health care system. She is the embodiment of a dehumanizing American medical establishment, a figure without pity, one who punishes the objects of her prejudice through bureaucratic sadism. I chose to depict Nurse Ratched from the perspective of her victims. The impact of this poster is that it is intended to be a portrait of her, as if it were done in art therapy by one of her patients. I chose a psychedelic presentation, using psychedelic colour theory and using what I’ve learned about the science of optical perception. I overlaid my psychedelic presentation with techniques drawn from outsider art, or art of the insane. I remembered the work of artist Louis Wain, the popular and widely published early 20th Century prosaic cat artist.

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Wain lost his mind late in his career, either from a progressive schizophrenia, or through exposure to toxoplasmosis (a disease that is often passed to humans by cats). He was institutionalized and started to create incredible cat paintings, which have been published in psychology textbooks as an illustration of the disintegration of the human mind.Louis Wain was a perfect starting point for a psychedelic portrait of Nurse Ratched, from the point-of-view of one of her patients. Wain often employed psychologically troubling, perfectly symmetrical compositions, and toiled with precise and obsessive geometric details which were meticulously mirrored on both sides of his symmetrical paintings. My design utilizes this symmetry and geometric detail to achieve this baffling effect. The blue forms are crenelated and manifold, so as to maximize the number of boundaries of contact between the two vibrating colors, red and blue. I used Eye-fry complimentary contrasting color, blue and red, taking care in my studio to custom mix them using fluorescent pigments in powder form, to an equal intensity. In brief, the resulting psychological effect on the optic nerve is that the color receptors are confused where the two colors meet.

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Subtly printed over the finished piece is a light translucent grey halftoned portrait of Nurse Ratched, which I also flipped from a xerox and created a perfectly symmetrical face. The symmetrical, light halftone photo a secret image and appears in two ways. One way is to view the poster in UV backlight. The other way is to convert a photo of the poster into black and white (easy to do with the “Willow” or “Inkwell” Instagram filters). The equal red and blues meet at the same value of grey and allow the Nurse Ratched halftone portrait to appear very clearly. The resulting poster for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a combination of many of the techniques I’ve learned about printing, design, art aesthetics, psychology and the science of optical perception, appropriately used for one of the greatest American films.”

Deck the Halls…

There are lots of Grinch like reasons to rag on this time of year – from those lengthy queues in the supermarket to the commercialism that rages just around every corner. Still, there’s lots of reasons to love it too. From mince pies to movies, Christmas is a time to celebrate wonderful lives and stop cute fluffy creatures from turning into gremlins. Here’s what we have coming up on the program to get you started with the Christmas cheer and well on the way to discovering what Christmas is really all about: sitting in a darkened auditorium with a bunch of strangers and communally enjoying quality cinema. That is what it’s all about, right?

Sunday December 22nd, 2pm – White Christmas

indexIt’s Christmas eve, 1944, and two army mates who both love to sing and dance; Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye); farewell their commanding officer. The duo decide to pair up in entertainment once the war is over. After two years on broadway the boys are asked to audition their war sergeant’s sisters; Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen); something that leads to love, an occasional argument and, of course, a great big production constantly filled with song and dance. Even if it’s hot outside, there will be snow this Christmas.

Sunday December 22nd, 7pmThe Shop Around the Corner + It’s A Wonderful Life

indexThis is an annual tradition at the Astor and usually we screen it on the evening of the 24th. This year the 24th is a Tuesday and we’re closed Tuesdays so we’ve brought it forward to the Sunday night – sometimes it’s good to mix things up. You already know the films (and if you don’t then all you need to know is that you need to see them), so we’ll just say this: if you can only spend one night with us over the Christmas period, make sure it’s this coming Sunday. Both films will screen on 35mm film prints.

Monday December 23rd, 7.30pm – Gremlins + Gremlins 2

imagesIt just wouldn’t be Christmas without those cute little furry guys and those gross slimy green guys causing havoc in the auditorium. There are three very simple rules to follow: turn up, have a great time and don’t eat after midnight (bad for the digestion). The first one is in 35mm and the brilliantly funny sequel is a 70mm blow-up that was found not so long ago by the crew at Chapel Distribution in a salt mine in Mount Isa. These are stupendously great films from the great Joe Dante and we are so pleased to let them take over – really, they do take over – for a night of pre-Christmas revelry!

GET READY FOR DALEKMANIA!

You might remember that back in August we held a special Dalek Invasion event at the Astor that involved a Tardis – a huge thank you to The Tardis Guy without whom this would not have been possible – some Daleks, K-9 – such enthusiastic thanks to the wonderful people at the Melbourne Robot Workshop and the Melbourne Hackerspace who are just incredible – and an awesome Peter Cushing as the Dr. double bill. It was quite the event. There were humans dressed as Daleks and even one who was wearing an outfit very much like a Tardis…

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As you can see, those are some pretty awesome outfits so you’ll need to get working on the details if you plan to be the best dressed on the night. Speaking of which, this time around we’ve also managed to wrangle the Doctor – also known as Rob Lloyd who you can follow/stalk into another dimension called the twitterverse here.

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So, a little about our local Doctor: since 2011 Rob has developed, created and been involved in a number of projects specifically focused on everyone’s favourite Time Lord, Doctor Who. Rob Lloyd has appeared as The Doctor numerous times for The Impro Box’s hugely successful improvised Dr Who show Time Lord. He is a regular special guest host on the Dr Who based podcast The Preachers Podcast. However Rob is probably best known for his one man comedy show about his obsession with The Doctor, Who, Me. Rob has performed Who, Me. at the Melbourne & Adelaide Fringe Festivals, the Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland & Perth International Comedy Festivals, the Darwin Entertainment Centre, the CSIRO in Canberra and most recently he has had a highly successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. While we won’t have time to fit Rob’s show into our evening program, we are pleased to announce that he will be in attendance – potentially trying to defeat Daleks – and playing host before the show begins!

DalekmaniaAnd, speaking of the show, we have a VERY special addition to this Saturday evening’s line-up. As you can see from the video above, it was quite the event back in August. But this time we’ll also be screening a documentary short – DALEKMANIA! – ahead of the main program. PHEW. That’s a pretty exciting and definitely jam-packed evening on offer. You’d be mad to be anywhere else.

This exceptional encore 50th anniversary Dr. Who celebration event takes place this Saturday, November 30th at 7.30pm. Advance tickets are available here.

Is it okay to laugh?

Last year on Halloween we screened John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Contrary to popular belief we didn’t just choose it because of its apt title – we chose it primarily for its seminal role in the slasher subgenre of horror flicks. We thought, ‘Why not use Halloween (the 31st of October) as an opportunity to screen a great staple of the genre that lots of people might not have seen on the big screen before?’  Lots of people turned out for the film which was encouraging. But what happened inside the auditorium wasn’t at all what we were expecting…

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Immediately following the screening came a host of complaints from representatives of approximately half our audience. Simultaneously our social medias lit up with contrary praise for such a great evening from representatives of the approximate other half of our audience. How is it that one film screening could divide opinions so gravely? Well, I suppose the answer to that relates to generational context.

John Carpenter’s Halloween attracted a number of Gen X attendees who could recall seeing the film many years ago – perhaps on release or perhaps in their youth/adolescence in a home entertainment environment – nevertheless, their recollection of the film was as a truly tense and terrifying horror movie. But John Carpenter’s Halloween also attracted a number of Gen Y attendees who saw the film for the first time, and who found it incredibly corny and overly cliched. When I asked a couple of these attendees about whether or not they realised it was one of the films from which the cliches were established their response was that it didn’t matter – if it isn’t being self-reflexive then it’s just funny.

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I’ve pondered over this time and again throughout the past year, especially since the experience has been repeated – a LOT –  with other classic films. It’s a difficult issue to broach because, on the one hand, we can’t do much about it – if you genuinely find something funny then your laughter is a genuine response, not intended to upset fellow patrons and we want everyone to experience the films honestly but, on the other hand, we have to think about doing something because half the audience are really unhappy about having their experience tainted by what they feel is inappropriate, disrespectful laughter. Both perspectives are valid, aren’t they?

So where does this leave us? Well, not really at any kind of resolution. But it did get me thinking about what on earth we could screen on Halloween. Lucky as I was earlier this year, to visit the Sydney Underground Film Festival, inspiration (or perhaps a low hanging CGI bird) hit me. If Halloween seems to be an evening where people want to get together with large groups of friends, have a (sensibly consumed) beverage or two, and enjoy riotous good laughter in our large, acoustically awesome auditorium, then why not embrace the essence of the experience and give everyone the opportunity to truly – and importantly – without fear of upsetting others, enjoy themselves? And so, the Birdemic double bill was born.

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Immediately stickered with the ‘so bad it’s good’ label, Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010) is an exercise in how not to make a movie; allowing the length of the music track to determine shot length, spending little more than two cents on computer generated imaging, using two very wooden people instead of actors to play your leads, and, defying the very laws of sound design. And just when you thought this was as bad as it could get, along came Birdemic 2: The Resurrection (2013) which is pretty much twice everything that the first film was.

Still, even in writing this there’s a little something that irks me – director James Nguyen was sincere when he made both of these films and yet here I am encouraging people to come see it – and go ahead and laugh at it. Perhaps we’ve reached a self-reflexive point of no return? Now that would be truly terrifying.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror and Birdemic 2: The Resurrection screen Thursday October 31st as a Halloween double bill.

The Wicker Man – The Final Cut

Swirling shots of the sky with birds circling overhead; eerily sweet folk music; a close-up of two slugs touching, oozing; hedges pruned in the shape of a phallus; naked dancing, leaping over an open fire; creepy low angles creating ogres of men; a young man brought to the island’s Aphrodite as an offering; an investigation; wicker burning. The Wicker Man – The Final Cut.

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Hardy’s original cut (known as The Director’s Cut or ‘The Long Version’ and with a 102 minute run time) made in 1973 was never released theatrically in the UK and was accidentally junked at some point to make space at the warehouse. The UK theatrical release or ‘The Short Version’ comes in at 88 minutes, cut under the direction of Mike Deeley at British Lion who wanted to fit The Wicker Man in a double bill with Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). However, A positive print of ‘The Long Version’ had been sent to the US to Roger Corman for potential distribution in the US. Hardy was determined to track down the original cut and have it released in the US. Soon he was working with the distributor Abraxas who had been sent ‘The Short Version’ from British Lion. With Hardy’s help Abraxas tracked down the print of ‘The Long Version’ that had been given to Roger Corman. A few additional cuts were made with Hardy’s approval and this cut became ‘The Middle Version’ at 93-94 minutes running time. This cut was never released anywhere for home entertainment purposes or theatrically in the UK and has only ever been seen on the first episode of Alex Cox’s Moviedrome in 1988.

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Whilst ‘The Long Version’ was available on VHS and transferred to DVD the video masters were not of a good enough quality to restore for theatrical presentation. This meant the only theatrical prints available were ‘The Short Version’ and ‘The Middle Version’. Which brings us to 2013 when Studio Canal embarked upon a worldwide search for the original materials and turned up a 35mm 1979 release print of the Abraxas cut, at the Harvard Film Archives. Scanned at the Harvard Film Archive in 4K, then sent to Deluxe Restoration labs in the UK, The Final Cut was put together from the 1973 88 minute UK theatrical release cut,  splicing in the extra scenes from the Abraxas cut, or ‘The Middle Version’ as its also known. The restoration is fantastic but of course there is a noticeable difference between the extra footage spliced in and the theatrical footage due to the condition of the original source materials. The Final Cut is 100 minutes in length, only 2 minutes shorter than ‘The Long Version’, or The Director’s Cut which Hardy doesn’t believe will be found. The major difference between ‘The Long Version’ and The Final Cut is the exclusion of that footage from the very beginning of the film in the police station on the mainland, footage Hardy decided was not essential to the story anyway.

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The rumoured 117 minute version – which would be from a ‘rough cut’ is not a version that Hardy is interested in pursuing because that is a version where scenes were cut rather than lost; including a lengthy monologue from Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) about apples. The most important distinction between this version and the theatrical cut is that it introduces the Summerisle character much earlier in the film. Robin Hardy is currently working on the third film in The Wicker Man trilogy with hopes of its completion by the end of 2014.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre with reference to Studio Canal’s official press release on the 40th anniversary restoration.

The Wicker Man – The Final Cut screens for a limited engagement Thursday November 07 – Sunday November 10, 2013.