Saturday, September 16, 2017


I would suggest that mother! is one of the silliest, most masochistic, self-aggrandizing allegories/fantasies ever committed to film (or pixels, or whatever)—the Artist as All-Demanding, Relentlessly Punishing Deity and Universe-Sized Megalomaniacal Creator Whose Supplicants Are Not Worthy of Him-- but unfortunately, beyond the general hysteria and cacophony and gooey vaginal floorboard gouges and piles of bloody-pulp-rendered sacrificial lambs, I can’t be entirely sure of what I even saw.

And I’m not even talking about Lord God Aronofsky’s choreographed assault, which has reportedly sent whatever audience bothered to come out to see it on opening weekend into a blizzard of intense buzzing over *what it’s all about.* No, I’m talking about the actual projected image in the theater where we saw, if that word is even applicable in this instance, this happy picture show.

I paid around $48 for the privilege of escaping the crowds at the central AMC Burbank multiplex hub, heading instead to the AMC in the adjacent mall where mother!  was playing at a schedule-friendly 6:45 p.m. This theater has never boasted the finest all-around experience to be had, but with their digital projectors always reliably bright, and with the addition of now-apparently-de-rigueur reserved (and reclining) seats, I figured it was a safe bet. After sitting through 20 minutes of barely visible trailers, thanks (I assumed) to the fact that the house lights were at full brightness throughout, some underpaid kid flipped a switch and the searing lamps embedded in the ceiling threw the tiny auditorium into a more acceptable level of darkness.

Unfortunately, the projected image was still dim-- Jennifer Lawrence’s dream house looked as if it was being viewed through a glass opaquely. Maybe someone (in the house? at the theater?) forgot to pay the electricity bill? The smudgy dimness extended to exterior shots in ostensible bright sunlight too, and the movie’s occasional transitional fades to bright white looked tobacco-stained and in need of a healthy shot of Wisk Detergent, with Bleach. The faces of every actor in the movie—Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer—were rendered unreadable by the level of murky shadow they were left to fight their way through, the daring work being unfurled before the audience sullied, bastardized, visually diluted to a literal shadow play.

After about 10 minutes of this, long enough to determine that the canaries-in-a-coalmine lighting scheme was not one imposed upon the drama by the Our Grand Puppeteer, I walked down to the snack bar to ask the manager, who I’d earlier overheard recommending the movie to a patron while I stood in line for my Diet Coke, if something could be done. I described to him what was happening, and he kindly accompanied me back to the #6 cracker box so I could show him myself. We walked in, stood at the back and watched for a few seconds. He admitted that, yeah, the image looked a little dark. “Maybe a bad bulb or something,” he offered.

Then I asked him to accompany me next door to the #7, where a screening of It was under way. That image also looked dark and murky, as it had when I saw the movie at yet another nearby AMC last weekend, and he agreed It did indeed look substandard. (What the hell here? Is this creeping visual sludge contagious or something?) Then I dragged him down to the #5, we opened the door and observed some Spanish-language comedy or other whose title I’d never heard before, and the image in that cinema was as bright as could be expected, crispy and clear and vivid as the sky overlooking a digital garden of Eden.

The manager apologized, assured me that he agreed something was wrong, and offered further assurances that he would get his projectionist right on the problem-- he even contacted the poor, hapless, underpaid bastard right there in front of me on the snappy, AMC-provided Bluetooth communication system dangling from his big-shot ear. Now satisfied that something might actually be done, I returned to my seat, ready to settle into the movie, if I still could.

Ten minutes later the audience for the 6:45 screening of mother! was still staring at Aronofsky’s meticulously composed shit-show as if Aronofsky had stretched an ash-colored stocking over their heads, all the better to observe in supplicant wonder, I suppose, the treasure before them. So, I got up, marched back out to the lobby and asked not once, not twice, but three times for the attention of the same manager, who was too busy focusing on the task of stocking a cooler with bottles of Powerade to notice the agitated customer hoping to momentarily jangle him onto a new plane of awareness.

Once I finally did, I asked sincerely but disbelievingly, “So, is there just no way for the problem with mother! to be fixed?” (I realize that’s a loaded question, but it’s one for another thread of discussion, and my answer would be “no” anyway, so what’s the point?) The manager knew what I was referring to, however, and gave me some terribly weird and lame excuse that involved the movie being mistakenly projected through a 3D lens that was, I guess, left on the machine from a previous screening of a similarly obnoxious movie, Animated Cartoon Division, and that because mother! was already mid-film there was nothing that could be done.

So, he offered to have the projectionist come down and load me up with some free passes to make up for the fact that I paid almost $50 to watch a lousy movie through a jar full of pond water. Of course, I took him up on his desperate-to-get-this-obviously-steamed-customer-off-my-ass offer. And just to make sure the evening did not escape without that perfect little cherry on top, while the projectionist was making with the passes at the main box-office desk, some guy came bursting out of the #1, located just off the lobby and up a small set of stairs, and began screaming about how pissed off he was because the movie he was watching had been without sound for the first 10 minutes and counting.

Just another Saturday night at the AMC Town Center 8, I suppose. Honestly, despite some encouragement by some very smart people I know who got on mother!’s wavelength and appreciated what Aronofsky was up to, I didn’t really think the chances of me appreciating the latest offering from the Great and Not-So-Benevolent Dictator who dealt up Black Swan, The Wrestler  and Requiem for a Dream--all films I found, to one degree or another, absurd, obnoxious, tedious or unwatchable—were all that elevated to begin with. But I would have liked to have at least had the chance for the movie to get under my skin purely on its own terms. Instead, the wretched presentation put me off from the very start, through no fault of Aronofsky’s, and it only amplified the irritation I experienced that was part and parcel of His Holiness’s creative vision by the time the whole ungodly mess was reduced to ashes, both by design and by the gray fog through which it was projected.

And yet the 50-or-so audience members pretty much just sat there and took it, unaware or uncaring that the visual quality of the movie they were watching had been so degraded that it surely would have been a more affecting experience had we all just decided to stay home and watch it on our phones. This is how people who have dragged themselves out of the cocoon of their home theaters are treated for their $16, and how they react—not at all-- when the product they consume, on a purely technical level, is obviously substandard? If the movies really are dead or dying, or if at least the experience of going to the movies is dead or dying, it might have something to do with the zombies running the theater, or the ones sitting in their chairs, content to listen to Jennifer Lawrence scream while imagining the contours and animated details of her face for themselves through a veil of inexplicable shadows placed between them and whatever meager glimpse of humanity a movie like mother! might have to offer.

It’s enough to make me wish that Our Lord God Aronofsky had gotten wind of what was happening, descended upon AMC’s desecrated temple, smote the whole building and started over fresh, with exhibitors and an audience eager to give him the tender love and attention he so hungrily demands yet so stubbornly refuses to return, with his films, in kind.


UPDATE 9/18/17: I wish I'd read this six years ago. Here's a 2011 article from Collider entitled "Movie Theaters Continue to Rip Off Patrons with Incompetent Projection of 2D Movies" which details precisely what the theater manager was trying to articulate to me re the "3D lens" that supposedly couldn't be removed. There's also been quite the discussion of all this, and much, much more which has unfolded on my Facebook page. Please feel free to stop by and add your two cents, if you have the steely nerves! (Many thanks to Brett Michel, Michael Giammarino, Loretta Miles and Ariel Schudson for jumping in there with loads of good information.) Also of interest, David Edelstein ranks Aronofsky from zero to hero over at Vulture-- guess which one's the caboose?!



Terry McCarty said...

A week ago, I saw a INGRID GOES WEST there. Projection non-murky.

Joe Dante said...

Don't feel slighted, Dennis--this kind of thing has been going on for decades. I remember complaining to the manager about the fuzzy projection of "The Go-Between" in its first run in Philly only to be told "that's the way they shot it". The same kind of reaction has recurred countless times. It used to be that the managers were too afraid of trouble with the projectionists union to even call the booth to report problems. But digital was supposed to even out all those problems. HAH! Guess not!