Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Baltimore’s Last Chance for Film As It Should Be Seen?

I haven’t had time to sit down and watch all of Tyler Perry’s “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” at The Senator yet. I plan to do that during the week, when our all-volunteer staff at The Senator is less busy. After seeing some moments of the film, however, I feel compelled to urge everyone to please give themselves the pleasure of what may be their last chance to see film presentation as it should be.

The craft of fine film presentation is dying. Multiplexes using average equipment hire teenagers to run projectors they barely understand and throw an image up on a relatively small screen with the edges not masked properly. Maybe the image is out of focus. Maybe the sound isn’t right, or isn’t high quality surround sound.

People wait to see movies on DVD and then even the best home theatres can barely match the reduced-quality multiplex experience.

You just don’t see the technical excellence of The Senator’s film presentation anywhere, anymore. For those who appreciate the luminosity of light cast through film and have eyes to see the quality of a sharp, focused, colorful image and hear the richness of awesome sound, this is indeed a painful loss.

Many of The Senator’s patrons realize that there’s something different about seeing a film presented on The Senator’s giant 40 foot screen. But few truly understand that it isn’t just the size and proportions of the auditorium or the screen, but an expert staff that has always striven for excellence. It’s why Michael Sragow, film critic at the Baltimore Sun, wrote:

But the Senator, under Tom Kiefaber, has carried on the tradition of movie theaters as places where audiences of many kinds can view the best movies of any type - action blockbusters like the "Indiana Jones" series, art classics like "The Rules of the Game" and "Rashomon" - with a presentation equal to the craft of the world's best filmmakers.

It’s also why film restoration expert Robert A. Harris was quoted by Sragow as calling The Senator “a beacon of professionalism, showmanship and the love of cinema."

Few realize that Lucasfilm’s Theatre Alignment Project measured various aspects of the film presentation at The Senator and when pressed by Tom Kiefaber for a rating compared to other theatres, acknowledged that The Senator ranks 2nd in the nation for technical excellence.

One of the unsung heroes of The Senator’s history is theatre manager and projectionist Bill Hewitt, who is an expert in all aspects of film presentation, of a caliber almost impossible to find elsewhere anymore. Mr. Hewitt visually inspects each frame of a film print before it is shown at The Senator. He is an expert in the care and preservation of film and the technical aspects of top quality presentation. Mr. Hewitt does not cut corners. He strives to make each show perfect and show the film to its full potential each time.

The lens being used for “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” is the best German lens made. The sound quality on The Senator’s amazing sound system is always excellent. When I looked at a few moments of the film over the weekend, the picture was in perfect focus, the colors were vibrant and rich, the images on the screen of breathtaking quality. I was stunned as I realized that this is how a film should be seen and that, depending on what happens over the next few weeks, this may be the last chance we’ll get to see a film this way.

Baltimore City is taking over The Senator on September 19th, barring some unforeseen reversal of the auction. The auction will be ratified unless there is a legally credible objection presented to the circuit court by September 18th. (Though there are many reasons the auction should be invalidated, that is unlikely to happen.) Once Baltimore City owns The Senator, they will put it through their RFP process to find a new owner and/or operator.

It is hard to imagine that any new operator of The Senator is going to strive for technical excellence, refuse to cut corners, and achieve the high standard of operation that Tom Kiefaber, Bill Hewitt, and the rest of The Senator’s staff continue to achieve up to this moment. Almost nobody else achieves this level of film presentation anymore. Almost nobody tries, and audiences don’t demand it.

Furthermore, the film business is struggling all over the country. Drastically reduced attendance means that the days when The Senator could operate profitably as a first run movie theatre are long over. We’re not talking about a case where another operator with a reduced debt load could cut a few corners and eke out a profit. We’re talking about something that is over and done with, kaput, and totally dead. If this were a Norwegian Blue parrot, it would be pushing up daisies and joining the choir eternal.

That’s why Tom Kiefaber has long been advocating a future for The Senator that involves non-profit ownership of the building and multi-purposes use for the theatre. That’s the way to guarantee The Senator’s survival for the next 70 years. Kiefaber should know. Contrary to the flawed perceptions of certain city and BDC officials, he is a nationally renowned expert in the field.

But meanwhile, top notch film presentation at The Senator may soon be over. Come see something you may not get a chance to see again.

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