There Will Be Technicolor: Ambler Theater’s 35mm Film Fest (April 5th-7th)
What it takes just to get a moving image projected onto a screen, in focus, with synched sound, minimal damage, at the right speed, in the right shape is the result of more variables than you can imagine, built upon more than a century of continued refinement, yet it remains principally the same since its origination. And that is to say nothing of the sheer monumental collaborative effort and struggle it took to realize whatever eventually passes with seeming effortlessness and seamlessness at 24 frames per second in front of a blade of light in radiant fluidity. Compound that with the process of locating, verifying, booking, shipping, inspecting and building a vintage print in a highly proprietary landscape of scarcity, archives and private collections and you might have some idea of what it takes to craft something as exciting as Ambler Theater’s 2nd Annual 35mm Film Fest (April 5th-7th). All this is to say that the act of assembling the likes of Rebel Without A Cause, Barbarella, Dirty Harry and more, presented in an atmosphere of reverence, joy, community and learning makes the 35mm Film Fest an ode, an act of love, issuing from the continuity of cinema’s living history. Like the profound present-tenseness of all cinema, this special festival is contemporary to its constituent parts which date as far back as 1906 and all the decades between, thus we as spectators and audience members are made contemporary to that same historical present-tense.
As I learned from a generous interaction with the Ambler’s Lead Projectionist, Director of Operations and old friend Jesse Crooks, cinema projection is a coalescence of engineering, science, physics, imagination, vision, adaptivity and sheer will, and that it further takes a special combination of care, attention, passion, problem solving, trust and reclusion to make all the moving parts of the unsung projector, which brings hard-earned images brightly to life, work as they should. Everything is cumulative in the process of projection, every problem, misalignment or miscalculation compounds, every print is a record not only of the event of the film itself but an evidence of every projector it has played through, every time it has been built and broken down and rebuilt, every projectionists scrutiny, skill or lacking it has incurred. A 35mm print carries scars, blemishes, ghosts, and varied histories of contact. There is something beautiful and vital about that fact, something mysterious yet empirical about how that tactile history imbues its respective film with a new unintended and ever-changing affect.
Like the black-clad puppeteers of Japan’s Bunraku theater, the projectionist’s job is to make their process invisible and their presence unknown so that the film can be its transcendent self and the audience need not think about the “who” or “how” of what they are seeing. With 35mm Film Fest’s new Pop-Up Museum, a weekend long event held at the theater’s annex, the Ambler sets out to explode the anonymity of the projectionist, revealing (if not demystifying) the rich history, processes, posters and photos, nuts and bolts, lenses and lamps, triumphs and failures that have made the dream of the projected moving image possible. Context is the true virtue of this exhibition, and it will truly allow audiences to relish with greater depth the magic of 35mm and learn about other formats besides, many of which went the way of the dodo but are entwined in the lineage that brought the festival’s titular format into primacy. Through a lovingly curated exhibition of equipment, memorabilia, artifacts, posters, photographs and activities the Ambler also seek to give identity to the projectionist and their craft, the unsung final gatekeeper of any theatrical cinematic experience.
Jesse Crooks is a wellspring of knowledge, earned by his dedicated communion with the aging technology, demonstrated through his sensitivity to the details and quality of prints, his recognition and diagnosis of their time-earned peculiarities, evident in how he was able to explain the back story of nearly every element of the Pop-Up Museum. This is truly an historical dreamscape of gears, cranks, bulbs, and much more. I had the privilege of seeing the exhibition as it was just starting to come together, shortly after Jesse had put together a 100 year old projector that had been retrofitted for sound in the 30’s.
Beyond his own trials and errors as a tactile learner, Jesse credits archivist/collector/educator/pureblood cinephile Lou DiCrescenzo as being the true source of that knowledge, and the past two years, which have seen a renewed interest in film projection and preservation as the catalyst. “Ill call Lou up whether it’s 1pm or 1am with some obscure problem and he’ll be able to diagnose it and we’ll wind up being on the phone for an hour.” That generosity characterizes Lou’s relationship with Renew Theaters (County Theater, Ambler Theater, Hiway Theater, Princeton Garden Theater), who are the primary inheritors of his vast library of prints, objects, memorabilia, equipment and knowledge. You can also see his contributions at the Museum of the Moving Image (Astoria NYC) and… you know… the Smithsonian!? Without Lou, the flapper era silent comedy Bare Knees (1928), one of the centerpiece screenings of the fest, literally wouldn’t exist! He had the only surviving nitrate print which he donated to the Library of Congress. Bare Knees is preceded by Ladybug (1930) a rare two-color process short and the first film that Columbia made in color. When the Library of Congress discovered the original sound elements on RCA synchronous disk he donated that Nitrate print as well. Bare Knees and Ladybug went on a long journey to eventually grace the screen of the Ambler at this years fest, and in some ways its journey is a homecoming. For myself, this is evidence of the beating heart at the center of this festival. And to think this is but one of many anecdotal events that solidify Mr. DiCrescenzo as an integral agent of cinematic preservation, a maverick collector and a boon to the region.
For me as well, this festival is a kind of homecoming. The County Theater in Doylestown, the flagship of Renew Theaters is my cinematic stomping grounds, and the Ambler a close Second. My college years brought me into the city and I basically moved into the Ritz Theaters, but after graduation I also “elevated” my tastes, making the character-building slog to NYC to catch a newly struck print of Kurosawa or Ozu at Film Forum or IFC Center, or catching a film at the Japan Society. After scratching that credibility itch I came closer to my origins, frequenting the Lightbox Film Center at International House in West Philly for their incredibly diverse programming. Now I find myself rarely leaving the comfort of home-viewing ease, lest it be for a film shown on… well, film. Renew Theaters are meeting the challenge set by institutions like Film Forum, IFC Center, Alamo Draft House, International House and Bryn Mawr Film Institute with programming that has me truly excited enough to venture back out into the world, to sit in the theaters of my impressionable years once again. I’m not only speaking of the 35mm Film Festival. Under the guidance of Executive Director Chris Collier, who has taken over the reigns from Founding Director John Toner, Renew Theaters are developing new series like RETROGRADE, Film 101, New Frontiers , International Cinema Series hosting numerous smaller festivals and programs like Luna Fest and Film NOW Festival, and of course continuing their tried and true Hollywood Summer Nights staple, and in doing so are taking a full-blooded approach to cinematic reverence. The County Theater is where I cut my teeth as a novice cinephile, but the Ambler is now a true destination theater and the 35mm Film Fest is its crown jewel!
Special thanks to Shannon Quinty for helping facilitate Cinema76’s participation with this wonderful event and for Jesse Crooks for dropping some knowledge!
The 35mm Film Fest Lineup is as follows. Tickets and information available here
7:00pm The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacque Demy 1964)
9:30pm Barbarella (Roger Vadim 1968)
10:30am Cartoon Chaos (Technicolor shorts program)
1:30 Bare Knees (Erle C. Kent 1928))
6:30 Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder 1950)
9:30 Dirty Harry (Don Siegel 1971) (original Technicolor print!)
11:00am Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn Leroy 1933)
2:00pm Viva Film! (Peter Flynn 2019) (Followed by live demonstration of vintage 35mm projectors)
5:00pm Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Rays 1957)