Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 31, 2017 6:55 pm 
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A fading cinematic institution of rural India

"Showmen riding cinema lorries have brought the wonder of the movies to faraway villages in India once every year. Seven decades on, as their cinema projectors crumble and film reels become scarce, their patrons are lured by slick digital technology. A benevolent showman, a shrewd exhibitor and a maverick projector mechanic bear a beautiful burden - to keep the last traveling cinemas of the world running" - IMDb summary. This visually colorful and beautiful documentary appropriately begins with mages of a fairground movie show in a romantic dusk, because this is a film about the twilight of a world of once glorious, now creaky provincial entertainment for the young, the poor, and the naive who before TV came their way, relied on traveling annual fairs that mobile outdoor movie projectors were an essential part of.

This documentary is a labor of love. Some say Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya spent five years, filming this world. Hollywood Reporter's review and article by Alex Ritman, who interviewed Abraham, says it was eight years. Both of the "cinema travelers," Mohammed and Bapu, and Prakash, the man with the repair shop and the innovative "oil bathed" projector he still dreams will be a hot seller, do their work around Maharashtra, the vast state whose capital is Mumbai. There is something very Indian about all this. It's so very quaint, colorful, and increasingly rusted and collapsing. If the projectors weren't taken apart and put together every year and left out in rain and bad weather in a leaky lorry but kept indoors, they might be much more pristine: they look built like battleships. But nowadays, as the projection men and their crews and the seventy-year-old projector repair specialist and philosophizer Prokash see their occupations turn into a fading dream, it seems infinitely sad.

Partly this is the decline of a folkloric institution of temporary outdoor tented movie houses. Partly it's the decline of the use of film itself as a medium for projecting movies. Digital has taken over modern cinemas. But film's not vanished, or unvalued, despite what some will glibly tell you. There are some famous and prestigious directors who still passionately advocate using film stock against the takeover of digital for its visual warmth and subtlety. These include Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg; the two Anderson auteurs, Paul Thomas and Wes; Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson, James Gray, Judd Apatow, and the newcomer Alex Ross Perry. And these are no amateurs or cranks by any means.

But their use of the increasingly rare medium is a luxury. It's obvious that projecting digitally is simpler and more compact and now the only format universally available. (There is a campaign to insure there is one cinema capable of projecting celluloid film in every important town.) Almodóvar has said that he was forced to shoot his latest film, Julieta, on digital, because film stock was not available in Spain. He was not pleased with the color quality. But for all its beauty, there's a catch - film degrades in repeated projections, as digital does not; but that's part of film's charm, its thickness, it's look of emulsion, its accumulated scratches, an echo of the "baraka," the blessedness that comes from long use celebrated by Robert Graves in his Oxford Poetry lecture on this topic. Writing about this in The New Yorker in 2014 ("Don't Worry About the End of Film"), Richard Brody has commented that digitally restored films can look too perfect, and not natural.

These rural Indian guys, deep into the physical rituals and traditions of their giant machines, chittering reels, and old fashioned tent shows, can ill afford to convert or update their equipment - some nights they can barely afford to feed their staff. And worse still, the poor country Indian audiences seem to be losing interest in watching movies in a tent, no matter how they're projected.(The kids are the ones who always show up.) Home viewing is encroaching on public cinemas all over the world. Nonetheless midway in this film, an older cinema traveler approaches Bapu and tells him he should paint the lorry, which he himself occupied for fifteen years. Bapu, who seems galvanized, winds up getting digital equipment. It works, and he says he's as happy - for now - as on his wedding day when he sees the "DEMO" clip digitally projected ultra sharp on the country screen.

Bapu takes the big old projector in for scrap and bargains hard to get a couple of hundred dollars. Mohammed nervously blesses his new digital projector with incense and spices as they did for the old ones, but after the kids have announced a show, they can't figure out how to work it; an update requires an internet connection, which they haven't got. The last night of the season he shows a film on big reels again. We end with stills, as at the beginning, of the enchanted faces of children in the movie audience, accompanied with "Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum’s mournful score,"as Nick Schrader calls it in his poetic Variety review of this doc written at Cannes last year. The Cinema Travelers is a little slow and repetitious at times, but it is suffused with the poetry of olden times and simple pleasures and the bygone era of celluloid magic for ordinary people. It's an Indian Cinema Paradiso, only real.

The Cinema Travelers, 96 mins., in Hindi and Marathi, debuted at Cannes 15 May 2016 (Cannes Classics); shown in two dozen other international festivals including Toronto, New York, and the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC coming Apr. 15; screened for this review as part of the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival.
Showtimes SFIFF: Apr. 9 at 6 pm, Apr. 10 at 4 pm and Apr. 15 at 2:45 pm, all at at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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