The Small Back Room movie venue in El Cerrito doesn't offer a lot of amenities. There's no place to get popcorn, the whir of the projector is extremely noticeable, and you have to walk upstairs to get to the bathroom. It's also a little cold.
There are compensations, however. It's free -- if you can get on the guest list. And you're going to get a nice introduction to the film by Peter Conheim, 45, a member of the audio collage band Negativland and the theater's proprietor. Well, not proprietor, really. The Small Back Room, named after one of his favorite Powell and Pressburger films, is what Conheim calls the 35mm movie theater he's built in the basement of his otherwise unassuming house.
Tonight's feature is the 1953 version of War of the Worlds. While I'm interviewing Conheim in his kitchen, audience members file in, only to be dispatched to the depths of the screening room, where they can choose their seats from an array of used couches and cushioned chairs. The room currently accommodates about 17, not including SRO crowds. Posters for Shock Corridor and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie adorn the wall, like you might find in any good retro movie house. One 16mm and one 35mm projector share the back space with a washer/dryer.
We'll be watching the movie in 16mm, the format Conheim collected before he got bigger ideas. He wanted to own 35mms, the large reels that professional theaters screen -- or used to, anyway, before digital projection became the norm. Tonight's audience, as always, is invitation-only first-come, first-served in response to an email. Demand for a spot is frequently greater than supply.
"It's gotten to the point when -- I send out my invite -- I have so many more people than I can fit, that I do two shows. I did Romero for Halloween. I said you can see Martin or Dawn of the Dead, because I can't hold you all."
His print collection comprises an estimated 75 35mm features, and a whopping 500 in 16mm. "There's like 400 here and another 100 at my mom's. I've actually gotten rid of a lot, pared down to essentials." The film reels live in canisters, which he houses on library-like shelves in a separate room.
Peter Conheim and "Turkey"; Photo: Taylor Jessen
I have always thought of myself as one of the bigger movie obsessives, but this sort of commitment to the medium is way beyond anything I can imagine. Conheim's history with film presentation began when he was six, borrowing educational films from the Long Beach library during visits to his grandfather, whose pawnshop inventory included projectors.
From 2004 to 2009, Conheim was a co-owner of The Guild Cinema in Albuquerque, where he could indulge his cinematic tastes -- to a point: "We very quickly realized that the more esoteric we got in our programming, the harder it was to fill seats." It was at The Guild that he got the 35mm bug, having an epiphany of sorts while projecting the The Wild Bunch, the first film in the larger format he had threaded up himself.
"Something just totally clicked when I sat in the theater," he says. "What made it so extraordinary and made it resonate was not so much that I was getting to enjoy this beautiful print .... but unlike with 16mm, I was looking at the actual object. And I suddenly had the realization: this is the piece of art, not a replica, and I am able to enjoy it as I would have in 1969. That's when I started to acquire 35mm prints."
The 35mm Print Hobbyist
The purpose of screening War of the Worlds is two-fold: to show the movie, and to assess it as a salable item. Conheim doesn't own this particular print, but is repping it along with almost 600 other features for another collector. The cache includes famous Hollywood musicals and a comprehensive collection of Ray Harryhausen titles, which he will shop on forums dedicated to the hobby. He and Chris Ullsperger, an early projection buddy, tell me print collectors are almost exclusively male. "All these guys know each other," says Ullsperger. "It is a very small community." One that includes Quentin Tarantino, apparently. "He has a vast collection," Conheim says. "His own screening room and his own projectionist. He's bought a lot of prints from me. His standards are pretty high, but not crazy high."
After everyone settles into seats, Conheim introduces the War of the Worlds print. He says, "It looks clean and should have the Technicolor we all love." Technicolor comes up a lot in these discussions. Ullsperger, for instance, is particularly proud of his Technicolor print of Performance, the odd 1970 Nicholas Roeg gangster film starring Mick Jagger. "I would argue (it's) unmatchable by whatever versions there are out there today," he says. "You get these Technicolor prints, there's a quality to them that's incredibly difficult to capture on video." Most people know the process through its most dazzling iteration, Technicolor IB, which used something called "imbibition," a labor-intensive dye-transfer technique that produced the remarkably vivid hues you see in color-saturated classics like The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain, and Meet Me In St. Louis.
When I ask Conheim if there's a Honus Wagner card of film prints, he names the British Star Wars, processed in Technicolor. It doesn't fade, he says. "They were still using that process in England up to 1977 or so. Those are really sought after, because even the original negative has faded." A Technicolor print of Vertigo is also valuable. "I saw one sell for $10,000 two or three years ago. I've never seen a Star Wars British version for sale. I know two people who have them. One guy is so freaked out it's going to be a disappointment he's never opened the box it came in. I've been standing in front of the box with him many times, he's like, 'I'll get there.'"
The Dreaded Vinegar Syndrome
Conheim saw another 16mm print of War of the Worlds selling for $2700 on eBay, but he doesn't think the one he's repping will go for anywhere near that. The reason is it has the beginnings of something he calls "the dreaded vinegar syndrome," the bane of all print collectors. "There's a lot of vinegar in this collection. When that happens, I have to lower the price."
Up until the middle of the last century, motion picture film was printed on nitrate stock, which, it turned out, was highly flammable and the cause of fatal cinema fires. In 1950, the industry switched to triacetate prints. But a new problem emerged: Acetate's molecular structure is susceptible to decay. When a print has started to degrade, it releases a vinegar odor, thus the terminology.
"It's a deal-killer for most people right away, because it's irreversible," says Conheim. Eventually, the print turns to "this horrible crystalline mess," making it unprojectable. In the 1980s, the industry moved to a polyester-based film stock, which is what movies slated for preservation are printed on. But anything acetate, "they're all just ticking time bombs. You can slow it by keeping things in cold storage, which is why the best archives have temperature and moisture-related storage. You can freeze them; there are crazy collectors who have a freezer full of prints."
The vinegar syndrome is just one stumbling block making the hobby of projecting film an order of magnitude more difficult than, say, collecting stamps. Another obstacle: manufacturers have ceased production of projectors, having switched to making digital equipment. "What concerns me is the ability to actually screen the prints," says Conheim. "Because the technology is not supported anymore. The machines are breaking down; eventually the parts are going to run out. The 16mm projector I have has a part that is starting to wear out. I have a few spares, and that's it." To solve that problem, he hopes to put together a consortium of collectors with equipment and stored parts, who will be able to repair projectors.
The difficulty of keeping the machines running is one reason Conheim thinks home projection is unlikely to enjoy the same resurgence as LPs, despite the hope of purists.
"The metaphor that a lot of people are tossing around is the vinyl LP. There's a big problem with that: the vinyl LP could come back because the equipment and records are so plentiful. (The) 35mm projector is a precision machine. You will not have the same capability that people have with records. The analogy falls flat right there, because it's too sophisticated, everything's out of production. It's over," he says.
Says Ullsperger: "I became a collector for a short time, until I realized projecting movies wasn't as straightforward as inserting the media and pushing a button. It's impossible to imagine any normal person getting into this hobby. You need to have a screening room, a place to project the film in the first place. You need to have this equipment, incredibly difficult to find, and constantly needs to be maintained. And then you need to spend all the time looking for these movies."
If the hobbyist dedicated to film is a rarity, the studios have abandoned the material altogether, shipping "Digital Cinema Packages" (DCPs), contained on a hard drive, to theaters instead. Meaning when you go to the movies, you're no more watching "film" than you are listening to a vinyl recording when you hit play on an MP3.
Because we've been in a transition period, our visual cortexes have been processing varying admixtures of digital and analogue in the production-to-presentation chain. Movies have recently been shot digitally or on film and projected digitally or on film too. The combination that purists and many film directors prefer is the one that is now the most rare: shooting on film that is then projected on film. So when Paul Thomas Anderson shot The Master in 70mm, he was making a statement about film aesthetics as well as resurrecting an old format. Conheim, who rarely goes to the movies, made a special trip to see that feature, because he thought it would be the last timehe'd ever get to witness 70mm film projected. He wasn't disappointed. His review: "Breathtakingly beautiful."
The Castro in San Francisco, one of the few area retro houses left, now indicates on its schedule whether it's showing a 35mm print or DCP. If you wanted to catch the recent Billy Wilder double feature, for instance, The Fortune Cookie was projected in 35mm, but Some Like It Hot was digital. I asked Conheim if he was to see that bill, would he be able to tell which was which? "In seconds," he says.
Your average moviegoer, of course, probably doesn't care; the studios, in fact, have been banking on it. But there are many in the audience who are deeply invested in film, and all that word implies, as an art form. The lament of my father, a professional cinematographer, touches on the notion voiced by Conheim that interacting with a tangible material is a unique experience: "There was something so beautiful about film," my father says. "You smelled it, you felt it."
And you saw it. "It's just an aesthetically different experience," says Conheim. "It's not the way they were lensed, it's not the way they were meant to be seen. Pretty soon that's going to be gone. If I'm looking at a piece of legendarily photographed, classical cinema, I believe there is an intangible difference of perception, the way that you absorb that information, if it has a certain amount of physical tactile levels. That could be a weave in the frame, that could be the flicker of the shutter, or in a more extreme case, dirt and scratches and anomalies. Nobody wants scratches and splices, but what I miss is the ability to see a beautifully created print that still reminds you that you are looking at an organic object, an object that light is shining through and hitting the screen. Your brain just knows that is not the same as rendering a bunch of pixels coming off a hard drive."
A few years back, Conheim went to a moving image archivist conference in LA. There, about 20 minutes of The Sound of Music were shown on a split screen, with one side displaying a brand new 35mm print and the other a digital version. "The idea was not to see how much better digital was, necessarily. It was, see for yourself and make your own decision.
"I was split, but I still favored the film. I thought, well, the digital version is consistent and it gets pluses for color reproduction. Perhaps it was sharper. (But) the film breathed life, and the digital was flat, motionless, perfect. Anybody who knows how motion pictures work and how a shutter works, the whole mechanism of it, it can't be so perfect as a digital image, which just never physically has to move anywhere. It's highly subjective, but I would say that is the major distinction. Not better versus worse, just organic vs. inorganic.
"Threading up The Wild Bunch in the theater left me feeling like I was seeing it exactly as it was intended at the time it was made. I'm seeing what Peckinpah and the cinematographer saw. I'm looking at the way they timed those prints, and they were making critical decisions based on the medium. If that film then gets converted to digital, it's just an entirely new ballgame. The cinematographer and director aren't around to go 'well that isn't a great representation.'"
One film display expert on hand for War of the Worlds is Craig Valenza, the senior projectionist at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and a regular at the Small Back Room. Valenza's been on the job at PFA since its opening in 1971. He says the handwriting for his profession is all over the wall: "It's cooked. The job used to pay great! It was a prestige deal. Now you got one of those jobs ... you're stuck." He says PFA is talking about digitizing everything. "The archives are talking about getting rid of the environmental rooms to keep the films in. It costs too much." I ask him what he thinks will be lost in terms of film culture, expecting a purist broadside. But instead, he expresses just the opposite:
"Last night, we're showing a film, Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven. It's got these two big scratches going 'je dee, je dee!' Tell me, who wants to watch that? Come on, what do the film people miss? The shutter flickering in front of their eyes? They miss the dust, the scratches?"
Valenza says he's not even particularly a movie fan. I ask him why he comes to Conheim's screenings, then, and his nostalgic answer belies his previous, technician's indifference. "I'm trying to keep it alive. I used to go to a place, the B. Lannes Cinema in Oakland (a private, underground theater). It was two brothers in a basement, they were showing three 'B' pictures on 16mm. (I went) every Saturday night, whatever it was."
Valenza says that even PFA audiences, cinephiles by definition, have reacted just fine when digital prints are shown. "Generally speaking, the audiences seem to think they like it. It looks good, looks sharp, looks bright."
The scratched-up retro-house prints prevalent before digital, he says, no longer cut it. "In the old days, that's all there was and you made the best of what you had. If they were spliced up and there were no other prints, that was the norm. But now that we've seen, quote, 'better,' they like that."
Trafficking in "Illegal" Prints
If the studios are less and less interested in film, Conheim says, they are also less interested in stopping people like him from owning prints, still officially illegal to possess privately, in most cases. Everyone knows that the movie industry considers film piracy to be a serious issue. But before cinephiles could download a desired title through iTunes, burn a copy of a DVD, or even record a movie on a VCR, someone who wanted to watch a movie at home on demand could only do so by laying their hands on an actual print. While some 16mm films were sold for the home market, for the majority of 35mm prints, anyone who obtained one was -- and still is -- in possession of stolen property belonging to the studio, which licensed the film to theaters, but never sold prints outright. When genuine film was the only game in town, this was a much bigger deal. Even trafficking in 16mm prints could get you targeted. I know someone who dabbled in the trade as a go-between in the early '60s, obtaining 16mm prints of films like Frankenstein and King Kong and selling them to a collector. He's still cagey about where they came from. "I got a hold of them from a friend. I don't know where he got them," he says.
"There was an underground cabal of collectors in the '70s who would very discretely sell new titles," says Conheim. "Where they were getting them from... a variety of sources. Contacts with labs, distributors, TV stations." He says big busts occurred in the '70s and '80s. "A guy I know got busted for selling, I think, Superman. Another for selling Casino Royale. When I met that guy he was so secretive, because he'd already been busted by the FBI. You couldn't even sell 35mm on eBay until a couple of years ago."
But, he says, "Studios have been giving less of a shit over the last 10 years. Some of the more progressive-minded studios like Columbia, Paramount... are well aware that private collectors sometimes have the only copies of something, and they actually might be able to rescue something. That's happened countless times. Private collectors have done a good job of rescuing some films (and) a studio has gone to get it."
The Death of Film?
After War of the Worlds finishes, the crowd -- each and every one invited personally by Conheim -- is almost totally gone, just like at a real movie house. Could it be that this was actually much less of a social event than it was, well, a screening? "It's not a party," says Conheim. "The party is incidental."
Plus a lot of pertinent discussion goes on during the reel change. That interruption is just long enough to have a conversation with the guy in front of me about the Spielberg War of the Worlds remake, and the movies On The Beach and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
Steve Dye, a collaborator of Conheim's in Wet Gate, an "All-16mm Projector Ensemble," hangs around after the screening, talking about the future of film projection with Conheim and Craig Valenza. Conheim opines about a projector sprocket manufacturer that ceased production because someone retired. "That was said to be the true nail in the coffin, because of the precision that was involved in that process," he says.
Dye wonders if the hobby can't persevere in the face of such obstacles. "I'm thinking of other collectors, like old automobiles. Is it like that?"
"My Dart in the driveway -- I can still get parts for that," says Conheim. "Someone can machine that part if need be. But you can't machine a sprocket."
Perhaps 3D printing is an option down the road, he muses. Valenza is doubtful. "There's one part of a projector that has to be absolutely dead on, it's called the star wheel. It's the thing that turns the sprocket, one turn at a time. If it's not perfect, the machine will literally just stop running."
I ask Conheim what his verdict is on the War of the Worlds print. "It had beautiful Technicolor that you can't replicate easily," he says. "Perhaps not as sharp as I would have wanted. But for a 50-year old print, it was in pretty good condition. The second half had some scratches."
Those scratches were actually very noticeable to me, I tell him. The image seemed a bit diffuse, and the color not as vivid as I remembered. Then I realize: I own the DVD of this film. When I get home, I pop it in, and it looks really good. Dare I say, better than the film version I just watched? Could it be all the Blu-rays and DCPs have made me intolerant of the very imperfection that devotees of The Small Back Room prize?
Almost guiltily, I float that proposition to Conheim.
"It's true," he says. "We just have to admit that's the way it's going to go from now on. Because clean and perfect is the way people expect to see these things. Wouldn't we all be so lucky to have a brand new restoration print to see? But we don't. That's going to be harder and harder now."
Still, in an age when you can watch all manner of material on your cellphone, there seems something truly admirable about the almost monklike determination to keep the old ways, the hard ways, alive. And media aside, Conheim's content is top-notch. Coming up, he says: Secret Ceremony by Joseph Losey and Shack Out on 101, with a 1955 Lee Marvin.
I see another trip to El Cerrito in my future.