The Mysteries Of Blu-Ray

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What am I looking at?

While you might not be able to make it out from the picture above (taken on my blackberry and uploaded to a twitter account at lo-resolution), last night I was privileged to view Raoul Ruiz’ latest masterpiece Mysteries of Lisbon in its entirety, with infamous producer Paolo Bronco introducing.  The festival director introduced the screening to a sold out audience, something you’ve come to expect from Rotterdam, informing us that IFFR is the first festival to screen the film this way.

 Back up right? The inquiring reader might wonder whether this is possible pretty much anywhere, at any festival in the world, to sell out a screening by a world talent like Ruiz. That is generally true. But you see Ruiz’ film runs a whopping six hours and the theater arguable held between 250 and 300 viewers. Okay… you might say, but what the hell does this post have to do with blu-ray.

Well Msr. Bronco informed the audience that we’d be watching the film on the format once touted in Seattle by an unnamed venue to be “a superior audio-visual experience”. A statement that seems to be catching on with distributors and filmmakers alike. Blu-ray is becoming a rather ubiquitous exhibition format these days. It’s cheap to ship, and yes the quality is certainly head and shoulders above dvd. Often even better than digiBETA or BET SP. Yet my experience last night forces me to once again raise some very important questions about the format.

On with the show then. After Bronco introduced the screening, the lights dimmed and the beautifully crisp images of 19th century Lisbon began flickering across the screen. Having heard from many in the programming and critical world that this latest work was a must see, within minutes of viewing I was quickly beginning to agree. Then  something happened, that would occur over and over again throughout the evenings screening. At the twenty-five minute mark the images on the screen froze in time, for actually an extended period of time. The hems and hahs of the audience ensued as per any glitchy screening I’ve attended. The projector went dim, the lights came up, the protectionist announced that he would try again. Repeat. Lights dim, projector sparks up, images move and freeze once more.

After some serious tinkering, the protectionist discovered that if he played the blu-ray at a lower resolution somehow he’d avoid the problem. The once “superior audio-visual experience” grew less superior by the minute. Digital glitches passed in green and red streaks like comets invading the intoxicating period piece. Yet the dedicated Rotterdam audience, me included, persevered. 

Three hours in we were granted a twenty-minute intermission. At this point the screening was running at least 15-20 minutes later than expected due to the various reboots.  Did I mention that the film started at 6pm? I grabbed a sandwich and a cup of coffee to refuel for the final three hours and sat back in my seat.

Before the screening started back up, Msr. Bronco announced from the top of the stairs that he had convinced the protectionist to return the formatting back to its original quality, the image was suffering too much. He had spent the last three hours trying to track down a more professional blu-ray player or a playstation 3! He insisted this wouldn’t have happened if only they had a playstation 3!    Okay Msr. Bronco, duly noted.

We all took a deep breath, hoping that this time the images would make it through. But some 30 minutes in, picture locked again, projection degrades the image quality and we start back up. At the end of one hour, and upon the producer’s request,  the image is changed back to full quality. As if we didn’t know what was going to happen. And it did. Once again. As planned. Thirty minutes. And stop. Repeat.

The mystery of course of the screening was not found in Lisbon, but in the theater. Nearly all audience members, myself included, made it to the end of the film. We forgave the technical problems because the work was definitely strong enough to withstand their failures. But I was left wondering, wouldn’t a hard medium format like digiBETA or BETA SP, or even (gasp) VHS have suffered less, or at least caused fewer interruptions? Don’t we all know from our own home viewing experiences that no matter what player we’re using, this is just an artifact of the medium itself? I had to answer of course.

The hour plus extra time that elapsed as a result of the glitches, caused a cancellation of the q&a, but it didn’t diminish the dedication of Rotterdam audiences one bit.

Follow my European festival journeys here: http://twitter.com/#!/NWFF

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