What Price Hollywood?: The Finale of a Family-Run Movie House

***PLEASE NOTE: ALL OPINIONS IN THIS PIECE ARE MY OWN & NOT THOSE OF MY EMPLOYER OR ANY ORGANIZATIONS WITH WHICH I AM AFFILIATED***

I remember the first time I went to the New Beverly Cinema. I was 15 years old, I was a few months off from leaving the country to go to high school in Israel, and I was smack-dab in the middle of a “party-all-the-time” summer with my best friend Nanette and her two older sisters.

I felt nervous because we were sneaking snacks in and…YOU DIDN’T DO THATNOT EVEN CARROT STICKS. Which, by the way, is exactly what we snuck in.

We were watching Reservoir Dogs at midnight.  I remember bits and pieces of the experience: where we sat, that there were guys in the theater, that they were…”t-shirt guys.” You know, the kind of sloppy dudes who were older than me but might listen to the kind of music that I had been slowly getting into, now that my hair metal and grunge days were petering out- The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Mary’s Danish….T-SHIRT GUYS. I remember the dimly lit lobby. The sticky floor of the theater. The film itself.

That was 21 years ago.

In that 2 decades of my life, I have gotten 3 degrees & 1 special certificate in cinema studies from 4 different Universities. I have studied critical theory, feminist film theory, US film history and all different kind of film preservation and moving image archive studies. I am currently the Nancy Mysel Legacy Project recipient for the Film Noir Foundation in training (hopefully) to be their official preservationist when the time comes. I work almost exclusively with 35mm film. Digital was not very popular in the 1940s, I’m afraid.

Movies are my boyfriend.

I love film more than almost anything on earth. I have spent most of my adult life studying it, sitting in dark theaters, orgasmically grinning at that dark screen, feeling goddamn lucky that I, Ariel Schudson, get to see moving images on a big screen!!!!

But if it was not for the New Beverly Cinema I would not have had the inkling of a desire to become a film archivist. The fact that I have assisted on two restorations this year makes my toes curl with joy. These films are saved for the future. I owe this to the HOURS I have spent with the beautiful people in the dark on Beverly Blvd.

I knew Sherman Torgan.  He was the man who took the New Beverly Cinema and made it the welcoming cozy movie house that I fell in love with. I grew so attached to the theater that I got into a GIANT screaming match with my step-dad about why I thought Blade Runner was totally appropriate for my 9-yr-old brother. That argument was NUTS. Sherman was the greatest guy. I got to the theater after that fight, my face puffy with tears. Sherman just let the sniffling teen girl in.

Sherman Torgan, relaxing on the New Bev stairs

Sherman Torgan, relaxing on the New Bev stairs

I wish I had a picture to show you of what he looked like during the time that I knew him, but he was really the first guy that I remember understanding the idea of film community. When I moved into the New Bev area after college, he only charged me student prices (I was no student). One night we had a blissfully wonderful discussion about the audience that came for his Billy Wilder double feature.

“Sherman,” I told him, “I came alone to this double. Like I do to most films here.” I was probably 23 at the time.

He nodded, ok, so?

“I felt like I was FAMILY  with every single person IN there. Wall to wall people! That was genuinely the best movie experience I have ever had!” (I was overemphatic and excited as I still am about everything)

Sherman was a man of few words. But he said something to the effect of, “Well, they’re good movies. They’ll do that!”

I was so high off cinema that I practically flew home.

When Sherman died, it was crushing. But I watched Michael build the theater into something special. He worked hard. EVERY DAY. He never took vacations. The New Beverly was his life. Except for occasional post-screening dinners with regulars. Those were always fun. His cat passed away which (as many pet-owners know) is devastating but Michael took very little time off and dove right back into the New Beverly. He is his father’s son. Being a New Beverly Regular meant I got to see that Michael Torgan’s blood, sweat and tears were the things that drove the very organs of the New Beverly Cinema.

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Old School New Bev Regulars from 2009, RIP Jen Roach

That cinema could not run without him.

He slept there to wait for prints. He stayed until 2am to change the marquee. All the things that you do as a theater owner. Except…he didn’t own the theater. Quentin Tarantino does. So fast-forward to now. Houston, we have a problem. Houston, we have a lot of problems.

OK. One quick step back and some background- when Sherman died, the theater was in danger of closing. Tarantino stepped in and bought the land, becoming, in effect, the landlord. This was FANTASTIC!! Let’s be 100% clear about this: in no way, shape or form was this a bad thing. In fact, this was wonderful. Without Tarantino’s immense generosity, we would have lost our brilliant New Beverly Cinema 7 years ago and countless screenings, historical Q&As, and nights of 35mm brilliance. Thanks to him we have had Edgar Wright’s festivals, Patton Oswalt’s programming, festivals by Diablo Cody, Eli Roth, and Joe Dante,in addition to a film series I programmed that raised $3000 for Moving Image Archiving Students. Make no mistake about it, Quentin Tarantino’s purchase of this land was, as they say in the Fairfax ‘hood, a mitzvah!

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So skip forward to the official news that was made known today through the LA Weekly. Mr. Tarantino has decided to rescind the terms of the contract with the Torgan family. His statement, as published in the LA Weekly reads as follows:

Sherman Torgan opened the New Beverly [in 1978] and had been running it for decades. I had been going there forever. And somewhere in the last four years of Sherman running the theater, word got to me that it might close. So I started supplementing him, started giving him about $5,000 a month, to pay his bills, and meet his expenses. He never had to pay it back. I love Los Angeles, and I love the New Beverly, and I didn’t want to see it go. But then, unfortunately, Sherman died [in June 2007]. And the people who owned the property wanted to turn it into a Super Cuts. So, working through Michael, I was able to buy the property. And Michael’s been running the theater ever since. I could say, ‘Hey, Michael, can we do this, can we show that?’ but basically it’s been Michael’s baby. He’s really done a Herculean job. But after seven years as owner, I wanted to make it mine. (italics & bold mine) – LA Weekly

The Torgans have run the New Beverly for 36 years. In a highly corporate economy and city like Los Angeles, the New Bev is a well-loved family-run-business. And Quentin has had a great deal of control up to now. Basically anything he wanted to do or have, he could do or have. It was his theater. He could program anything he wanted, and have the theater anytime he asked. Any of this talk about trying to make it his is bizarre to me. I have been to several of his 2-3 month-long programming residencies and they were wonderful! The man has good taste. So what is he actually doing?

To quote Michael Torgan himself, in response to Quentin’s article (in the comments section), he states:

An important clarification to this article: like most business owners, my family did not own the physical property from which we ran our business.  We leased it since 1978, so we did not literally own the physical theater.  However, we did own the business known as the New Beverly Cinema 100%.  In addition to being the manager/chief programmer, I was also the owner of the business entirely.  This point has often been misunderstood, so I felt a need to make this statement even if I chose not to be interviewed for this piece.

So, this means that what QT is doing is relieving the Torgan Family of the New Beverly Cinema, of which they have owned for 36 years. Does this seem right to you? I can’t swallow that. Not even a little bit. There are far more decent ways that this could have gone. Destroying a family business not being first on the list. As I’ve read the comments today, people have talked all about the programming. “We’ll see what happens to the New Bev,” they’ve said, “Maybe it’ll be fine! We have to see what the programming is like.” WAIT. GUYS. Have you been living in a bubble for the last seven years?? Where have you been when QT took the entire month of March 2011 to program his birthday month? Or in 2007 when he programmed 1-2 months up until the release of Grindhouse? *insert puzzled expression here*

In the Weekly article, Quentin continues and says, “I want the New Beverly to be a bastion for 35 millimeter films. I want it to stand for something. When you see a film on the New Beverly calendar, you don’t have to ask whether it’s going to be shown in DCP [Digital Cinema Projection] or in 35 millimeter. You know it’s playing in 35 because it’s the New Beverly.” The New Beverly already DOES stand for something. This is also what makes me uneasy about QT wanting to toss out the people who have been running the theater for 36 years and “make it his own.”

I realize that many people are getting incredibly excited about the idea of a filmhouse that will be all-35mm-all-the-time, but my question is at what costWe have been talking about the loss of projectionists and 35mm theaters due to digital, but are we going to turn around and do the same exact thing to one of our own?? Does taking out a Digital Projector that is only used when it is absolutely necessary somehow diminish what the New Beverly Cinema has stood for all these years?

To this film preservationist, this decision is not in anyone’s best interest. I realize that there are a lot of emotions around this, but within my profession, I try my best to look at things critically, not emotionally, and from that perspective (shifting gears a bit) I don’t think this is a good idea. Not for the New Beverly, not for Los Angeles cinephiles, not for the continued discussion of why 35mm film is important.  886965_10200439778213465_146334779_o

Of course, we all know what this situation is really about don’t we? Sure we do. Let’s just come out and say it: digital. Everyone has been beating about the bush and mentioning the silly Wrap article as the cause of this. Let’s stop blaming The Wrap. It’s not their fault. The facts: Quentin had already made his thoughts on 35mm known. The problem is that there is no happy medium here. And there is a high level of format fetishization over film appreciation.  Ask yourself a question: would you rather watch a 35mm print for its last time ever before it falls apart forever or be able to watch a DCP of the same film? Some people will say 35mm. Simply due to the format. This is the unhealthy landscape that we have created for 35mm appreciation. A place where people aren’t aware of why Michael Torgan bought the digital system for the New Bev and how it was being used.

So let’s clear this up. I was able to get a statement from Michael about the addition of digital to the New Beverly and I think going to the source is healthier than conjecture. Provenance, y’all.

Michael states,

I installed the digital projector on May 5 of this year, so I imagine [most people] would have seen 35mm on [their] visits. The majority of our programs remained 35mm even with the new projector, and 35mm would have remained the preferred format always….I just have to say that was NEVER my intention when I made the decision to add a digital projector to my booth. 35mm would have always been the preferred format, with the digital projector there to allow us to continue the newer films we’ve always screened (but suddenly were no longer able to) as well as the occasional digital-only restoration. As a theater that runs all 35mm prints on 2,000 ft reels via reel-to-reel projection, the New Beverly thankfully still had access to lots of repertory 35mm titles from the studios, and I intended to book those prints as long as possible.

The comments that are turning up on the QT article are not unexpected but they are sad-making. Much like the digital technology changeover, these comments are favoring 35mm over human experience and that weirds me out since it is analogue we are choosing in this circumstance. Are we doing this because it’s Quentin and it’s his star power? Is it really a kind of format fetishization and intense nostalgia that will relieve us of the ability to see the time and energy that a family has spent a lifetime building? What does it REALLY  mean when a fancy filmmaker says, “After 7 years as owner, I wanted to make it mine,” and yet does not know that the New Bev already stands for film community, film devotion and film education? If it wasn’t for the Grindhouse Festival that he programmed in 2007, I wouldn’t have gotten into that genre! And the IB Tech films that he programmed were truly spectacular! I was in heaven!473764_4108270061541_2000490191_o

We are headed on the wrong track here if we allow things like this to continue. There is a necessity for both 35mm and digital in the film community. Not one nor the other but both. A friend said that he believed that 35mm theaters should show only 35mm film. Well, in my experience, those theaters may end up suffering great financial loss. Unless (as Tarantino noted) they have large collections like he does. It is extremely exciting to me that he is installing a 16mm projector. I LOVE THAT. That (again) showcases the necessity for these formats and the materials that exist (possibly) ONLY in that format!! There are films that may not have been able to be saved without a 35mm blow-up of a 16mm. My Film Saying is: never say never. But looking at this situation critically, I would never choose a format over a human. It defeats the purpose of what I do as an archivist and preservationist.

The Torgan Family is what the New Beverly Cinema stands for. And I stand behind that statement.

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When I Think Back On All The Crap I Learned in High School: Ode To Kodachrome, 1935-2010

I started having pictures taken of me as soon as I was born. My godmother was a photographer/art teacher at UCLA, and I spent the very early bits of my life in weird artsy places and dark rooms at UCLA smelling chemicals, as well as her incense and (very likely) pot-smelling apartment in Santa Monica.

She had crazy amounts of cameras. Underwater cameras. Regular cameras. By the time I was 6, going to Samy’s was like going to the park or the grocery store or something. I dunno. It was just something we did. I knew names of film (Fuji, Kodak) and I kept hearing about this strange thing called an ISO…?

She took pictures. And my mother took pictures. There was a shutter flashing every two seconds. *click*  **zzzz** I still happen to think that the sound of a manual camera is one of the sexiest sounds on the planet. Put that and perhaps an Irish or Scottish accent next to my ear, and I might just automatically have no bones in my body and a huge shit-eating grin on my face.

We have fairly decent collections of family albums due to the fact that before digital cameras came in and caused us to simply look at something and delete its existence forever due to someone closing their eyes or a misjudged hand in the “incorrect place” we got them developed. And not only did we get them developed, but we had this strange exhibit called a “slide show.”

I know, I know, some of you may not remember this or know what this is. For those of you who do not know what a slide is, I will give you a picture:

All kidding put aside, these were very important and essential parts of my life. I doubt my parents (or my excruciatingly stoned godmother and her partner my sorta other godparent-ish guy) ever knew how much these little pieces of my very early childhood this meant to me, but all I can say is that I probably would not be a cinephile if I hadn’t had slide shows all the time as a kid. I remember laughter, my mom having a drink and the ice clinking, and the crack in the wall (our house was built in 1919, or something ridiculous like that), and great photos. Whether they were artsy photos, family shots, or a mix of the two, we had a good time.

The main thing was that it was not unlike 16mm film. The 16mm format, introduced in 1923, was utilized as a way to create “real” movies but at home. It may not have been 35mm, but hey- it was still film, right? And you could project ’em yourself, too? Not only that, it created a sense of community and brought the family together in a way that other things could not. It was one way that, historically, media absolutely built bridges instead of tearing them down. The process of creating a film together, and then watching it together was a bonding experience. Look at the opening of the TV show, The Wonder Years.

Within this clip, you see a family that is very clearly having Family Fun Times. Ok, yeah. It’s a television show. But it’s a television show that I grew up with. I also watched this show explore some pretty harsh issues of the time in a fairly sensitive and smart manner, so I would have to say that opening the show with a 16mm family film was a good call. It showed the historical reality that was going to be presented withing the fiction. Not bad for an 8:00pm ABC show, essentially aimed at a mid-range adolescent audience.

So back to slide shows. My slide shows in the ’80’s served a similar purpose to the 16mm home movies. They really brought us together. Seeing as my family had quite a bit of tragedy happen before I was even in Kindergarten, we needed some o’ that. Plus they were all hippies anyway. It was their thing, man. At any rate, I enjoyed the pretty pictures. And now, with the death of Kodachrome, I am starting to realize (perhaps) where the birth of my love for cinema came from.

When I went to summer camp, I took a photography class. It just made sense. I liked the visual image. I like the pictures. I like making pictures with my eyes. I like certain photographers as artists much better than most painters, sculpters, etc. The first camera I ever used was a Pentax K-1000 up at Camp Swig, in Saratoga, CA. It was awesome. If I remember correctly (and I believe pretty heavily in the Dorothy Parker quote “Women and elephants never forget”) I believe I ended up being the assistant to the camera teacher. Her name was Emily, she had dyed black hair, and she really liked this band I’d never heard of called Pavement and wore khakis. She was really really really cool. I think about her sometimes and wonder whatever happened to her. I have a feeling we’d be friends now. not just because I have a very good sense of who the hell Pavement is, but just because I think we would. I liked her a lot. She was my entrance into The Camera.

Then came High School…and thus the title for this piece. The darkroom at Fairfax High School in 1995 was no joke…to me, anyways. I learned stuff and had a great teacher. And I met one of my better high school friends who I am still in and out of touch with. My first Punk Rawk Pal that was my own age! Imagine THAT!  Yeah, so upon entering that scarlet chamber, I was given several options: engage in a drug deal (generally pot, but I might’ve been able to go harder. Never asked. Wasn’t interested), lounge around and talk about the exciting and engaging world of high school sexuality and politics (Oooo! Sounds thrilling when I have a chance to have 2-3 hours of darkroom time) or use some decent equipment to print pictures with. I chose the latter of the three. Every time. My only issue was negotiating the other idiots who were inside that space with me and the people who actually wanted to work. Regardless, it got done. And I got lovely work out of it.

My next darkroom, at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts? So. Much. Better. I had my work in our shows, it inspired me to go to Venice Beach on busses and get into photography as a True Love For Life. I think at Fairfax it might have been just a crush that I was considering moving in with. But I committed, hook, line and sinker at LACHSA. My only regret? I missed the day that we did pinhole cameras. I think I might’ve been getting my braces off or it was the dentist or something stupid like that. Someday…I want to do a pinhole camera.

The question now, however, is…will I get to? Perhaps some of you have seen the articles floating around people’s Facebook pages about the Death of Kodachrome. And almost all of you have heard the Paul Simon song “Kodachrome.”

Yesterday, after 75 years of glorious color, Kodachrome came to a screeching halt. Dwayne’s Photo, the building in Parsons, Kansas, and the last Kodachrome developing processor in the world, is being sold for scrap. People sent their rolls and reels in from all over the world to get them in by the deadline, spent retirement funds, traveled internationally, just so they could get those “greens of summer.”

I know what you must be thinking. Is it really that good? Can’t they get those colors digitally at this point? They can do anything with computers now! Can’t they reproduce Kodachrome? The easy answer is yes. You can get that color. The problem is you will never get the tone or, more importantly, the feel. Because I have had close relationships with Real Live Film Projectionists for years, I have been lucky enough to experience the warmth of Kodachrome, and it is simply a film look that is like no other (save perhaps Fuji, but that *still* doesn’t have the same thing that Paul Simon sang of- the dude wasn’t stupid!!).

The thing about Kodachrome is that it keeps its color. It was highly regarded for that reason. It started getting beat out by cheaper processes, but there were studies done and according to professionals, archivists, and the scientists-in-between like Wilhelm Imaging Research, Kodachrome “clearly is the most stable transparency film in dark storage; the film is especially outstanding in terms of its total freedom from yellow stain, even after extended aging.”  Unlike other films, even a roll that is undeveloped can keep its color. Look at these two photographs after 20 years lying in the Canadian rainforest, partially buried:

Picture of the best film roll, no white balance

Picture of the best film roll, white balance applied

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So if that didn’t hit you, why don’t we try something a little harder. Here is a piece of film work where they seem to be testing out early incarnations of Kodachrome. No, this is not made today. This is actual honest-to-goodness, back-in-the-day, 1922 footage. I swear. If this doesn’t hit you on the glory of Kodachrome, I’m not sure what (if anything) will.

So, when I heard about Dwayne’s closing, and Kodachrome leaving us for good…my heart was broken. The amount of home movies and relationships that were created upon a format whose very emulsion had properties that outlasted the ones of other color film elements? Countless. The history that was made on Kodachrome photography? Beyond measure. National Geographic, for just one example. Familiar with this?

That’s Kodachrome. An iconic image. Documentaries were done about this photograph and the girl in it. Hey, Kodachrome, how ya doing? Naw, you’re not essential to American media culture. Not at all. We’ll just use the quicker, cheaper, ways. ‘S ok. We can fix all that with computers anyway. Digital! It’s the future!

What you can’t fix with computers is the warmth from the screen, the pure vibrancy of the colors of a printed photograph, the laughter amongst an audience, the bond between families making a home movie. These things take on lives of their own. It is no mistake that most artists consider their works to be “parts of themselves’ or their “children.”  In either situation, they are sentient beings or at least possessing blood, musculature and some possibility of animation.

The big joke was that Kodachrome was made by God and Man, as it was created by two musicians named Leopold Godowsky, Jr. and Leopold Mannes. Kodachrome was almost like a combination of the human and the divine. It could do what other color films could not do and for longer, and conduct great miracles (of the Canadian forest variety!). But it also shared a magic on-screen/paper/slide that others have not been able to match. It has touched people in a way that no other film has. Whether it was through a movie camera or the eye of a photojournalist, Kodachrome made an impact on American culture that was clearly almost religious. We have Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah named after it! Last time I checked, I wasn’t going and picnicking at Ilford or Agfa State Park!

And then there’s Paul. Oh, Paul.

So yes. This is a eulogy. But perhaps it is only a temporary one.  I feel that with the onset of the technological age, unless something changes fast, it will be permanent. The funny thing is that in Paul’s song he says “everything looks worse in black and white” and now that is the only way that Kodachrome can be processed, by a company called Film Rescue International. Oh, irony. According to the New York Times, some folks’re still holding on to their rolls of film because they are hoping that Kodak might “see their lack of wisdom” in killing Kodachrome. And to me that is how it should be. We should always hold out a little hope for the future. After all, it is Kodachrome. It is, has been, and always will be, as Todd Gustavson of the Eastman House says, “more than a film, it’s a pop culture icon.”