Technically speaking, it’s nearly impossible to see a film these days.
Movies abound; on multiplex screens, devices from the handheld to the wall-mounted, and streaming services, you could conceivably watch a movie every minute of the day, no matter where you are. But over the last decade, digital has become the medium of choice, making it increasingly rare to find the opportunity to see actual film flickering through a projector at 24 frames per second.
This weekend, the Ambler Theater will offer classic film buffs and curious binge-watchers the opportunity to experience the joys of celluloid at the first 35mm Film Festival. The two-day program celebrates the return of classic reel-to-reel projectors to the theater following its 2013 conversion to digital.
“Luckily we’ve entered a moment where there’s reinvigorated interest in 35 millimeter, much like vinyl or other older analog technologies,” says Michael Kamison, associate programmer for Renew Theaters. “Digital is clearly the way of the future, but we always knew that we would want to reinstall these projectors in order to show films on film and use it as a teaching moment for film history.”
The festival opens on Friday night with Cinema Paradiso, the 1990 Italian Oscar winner about a film projectionist that Kamison calls “a welcoming love letter to cinema and to film itself as a medium.” On Saturday evening, it will conclude with screenings of the Gregory Peck/Audrey Hepburn classic Roman Holiday and a late-night screening of the Ed Wood anti-classic Plan 9 from Outer Space, often dubbed the worst movie ever made.
Earlier on Saturday, local film historian and preservationist Lou DiCrescenzo will present a program of Technicolor animated shorts intended to show off the radiant colors of the obsolete color process.
That will be followed by Dying of the Light, a documentary about the fade-out of 35mm projection and those diehard few – including DiCrescenzo, one of the film’s subjects – fighting its looming extinction.
“Digital’s here to stay and it looks fine for what it is,” DiCrescenzo shrugs. “But it’s really just glorified TV. It’s a video presentation. I try to keep the old film alive.”
A veteran projectionist who got his start in the mid-’60s, riding the bus from his home in Yardley to movie theaters in Trenton, DiCrescenzo fell in love with film at an early age. His father was a home movie enthusiast, so young Lou watched his childhood play out on a big screen at home. “I always liked to see the gears and the reels spin on the machine,” he recalls. “That’s how I got started.”
In the half century since he got his start in the projection booth, DiCrescenzo has amassed one of the largest collections of original film prints and projection equipment in the world. Items from his collection have been donated to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Museum of the Moving Image.
There are those who would argue that film is an antiquated medium, that prints age, colors fade, and images get riddled with scratches.
DiCrescenzo shoots down such protests, however.
“If it’s handled properly, nothing gets scratched,” he insists. “See, I started 55 years ago when we had the same picture in the theater for six months and you had to know how to run it and not scratch it. That all got dumbed down in the last 20 years when we put unprofessional people in the booth because film companies didn’t want to pay anybody.”
As for the faded pink tinge that so many old color films take on with age, that’s not a problem for the original Technicolor process, which overlaid three images with primary color dyes to achieve vivid, unreal colors that never fade – another victim of Hollywood cost cutting.
DiCrescenzo is hardly a purist, despite his love and advocacy for vintage formats. He continues to work as a digital programmer for the AMC Theatres chain. “I’m a 2018 guy as much as I’m an 1897 guy,” he jokes. “You have to adapt. But there’s still a great history lesson to be learned from what we did in the past.”
That’s Kamison’s hope for the festival, which he plans to make an annual event, as well as more regular 35mm screenings at the Ambler.
“We want [the festival] to be entertaining and fun,” he says. “But we really want people to interact with film history before it’s an entirely lost art.”
35mm Film Festival
- Friday-Saturday, Ambler Theater, 108 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, $12-$60, 215-345-7855, www.amblertheater.org.