The Night “Passion” Didn’t Play: On the Digital Difficulties of NYFF 2012

As the New York Film Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary, it faces some growing pains as it literally no longer plays films and turns to digital projection....Read More
Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams in Brian DePalma's film "Passion"

If such a cruel fate was going to befall a director as what occurred at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday night at the New York Film Festival, at least Brian DePalma knows a thing or two about sabotage from his work. In attendance for the premiere of his latest thriller “Passion,” the director had promised the audience was “going to have fun,” but just after his introduction and the festival’s bumper trailer played, the screen went dark and the lights came up. Soon, the festival’s programming director Richard Peña emerged onstage to tell the audience that something had gone wrong with the film’s digital projection.

Sitting on the right wing of the hall’s balcony, intended to be a public spot where a spotlight is traditionally drawn at the end of a film at the festival to garner an ovation, DePalma never left his seat, seemingly unflustered by this chain of events but not unconcerned. At first, arms crossed and then forming a temple with his hands triangulated at the bridge of his nose as if he were the Godfather, DePalma was consulted Film Society of Lincoln Center programmer Scott Foundas, who in true consigliere fashion, would lean in on his left to give updates. Indeed, by the time Richard Peña appeared onstage once more to tell the audience he was “mortified” to report the projectionists had no further luck, a hit had happened and like a quick cut in one of his films, DePalma had vanished.

Only an hour earlier, Peña had been across the street at the Elinor Bunin Film Center’s Amphitheater reflecting back on some of the best and worst experiences he had in programming the New York Film Festival as part of a panel on the festival’s selection committee. While he could laugh now about opening night miscalculations such as the Coen Brothers’ “Miller’s Crossing,” which Phillip Lopate chalked up to the acoustics at Avery Fisher Hall as much as the film’s grim tenor, he surely never endured a situation like what happened Saturday night. He told the audience at the “Passion” screening that the projectionists had unlocked the code that allowed the movie to be shown and tested a few minutes from it before audiences entered Alice Tully Hall, but when Passion was intended to ease into its place following the NYFF bumper, it had somehow locked up once more, with what one can assume were panicked calls to Technicolor and others to find a solution.

While audiences were given the option of a refund or to wait patiently after 30 minutes, no such recourse could be taken by patrons earlier in day when roughly 45 minutes into the Mexican film “Here and There,” the subtitles dropped out right when the story began to take shape. As 15 minutes passed as “Here and There” continued to play, hisses and catcalls from the crowd of “No subtitles!” were followed by clapping for attention. There were indicators that something might be amiss with the track – certain lines from the film disappeared from the screen the millisecond they appeared – and after subtitles suddenly reappeared on the screen, an announcement was made over the loud speaker that the film would be restarted from the moment when the subtitles stopped. (At which point, I and a few others made our way outside.) Remarkably, the film only paused for but a brief moment to make this fix, like finding a chapter on a DVD, suggesting if and when mistakes such as these occur, they’re no doubt crisper and more quickly remedied than on film. That is, if the film can be unlocked.

As it happened, digital projection got its biggest showcase at the festival the morning after with the presentation of a fully restored “Lawrence of Arabia,” which went off without a hitch. Indeed, Peter O’Toole’s eyes have never looked so blue or the specks of sand in the desert appear as finely granulated as it does in the much-hyped 4k restoration. Preservationist Robert Harris spoke before the screening of Sony Pictures’ Executive Vice President of Film Restoration and Mastering Grover Crisp’s dedication to perfection in recreating the picture quality of David Lean’s epic by ignoring the previous restoration done on the film, which used a “wetgate” printing process that masked imperfections, to go back to the original negative which were then processed through a machine called the Imagica EX.

It may be a false analogy, but if digital and film can coexist as well as they do in “Lawrence,” perhaps there’s a small ray of hope they can elsewhere and everywhere in the future, if nothing else to prevent scenes like the one on Saturday night in New York.

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