Pinching Mimsie Starr

If you read my open letter to St Michael’s a few months ago – a letter that was, in its intent, far more sincere than I discovered some people assumed – you’ll know that Melbourne’s Astor Theatre, a cinematic emporium whose cultural importance cannot be overstated, was under threat of closure.

By virtue of circumstance, St Michael’s Grammar School, the owners of the extraordinary art deco building that houses the Astor, was cornered into the role of the villain. It was clear that they were only acting in the best interests of their students, but those interests were working in direct opposition to the survival of a unique cultural institution, and one many of feel very, very passionate about. To use a cliché that I trust St Michael’s advises its students against using in their own writing, they were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t. I did not envy them.

The community rallied, and turned out in force for the massive Save The Astor rally this past June, but what followed was a worrying silence. There was a sense that something was going on behind the scenes, but nobody on the outside of the bubble knew what that was. Last week, we found out.

Lionel Barrymore:             not Ralph Taranto.

St Michael’s Grammar has relented, and sold the building to businessman Ralph Taranto.

Who is this man? A ruthless corporate figure, one who’d no doubt be played by Lionel Barrymore in the film, who would tear the building asunder and sell it off, molecule by molecule?

Thankfully – gloriously – no!

Ralph Taranto loves his cinema, and having spoken to some people who have had dealings with him, it sounds like this love is genuine and sincere. Taranto clearly has a passion for keeping the Astor going, and he’s already committed to extending the business’s lease, as well as giving the building some much-needed refurbishments.

Right now, you probably want to give him a bear hug. Get in line.

Mr Taranto is definitely a hero in this situation, but he’s not the only one. (Although, as my Hell Is For Hyphenates co-host Paul Nelson pointed out to me, the saving of the Astor Theatre has a strikingly-similar narrative to the saving of its spiritual sister, the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Not least because the Astor was saved by Ralph Taranto, and the New Beverly was saved by the nominatively-similar Quentin Tarantino!)

It strikes me that we should also be thanking some of the higher-ups at St Michael’s Grammar. They deserve a significant amount of the credit for this result, because they were under no obligation to sell the building. Zero. It seems apparent that they did so because they recognise that they are themselves part of the community, and the community had made its feelings very clear. If you’re wanting to give Ralph that hug, St Michael’s deserves, at minimum, a high five.

It goes without saying, but none of this would have happened without the incredibly tireless efforts of both the Astor Theatre itself and the Friends of the Astor organisation. I know at least one of the key figures prefers not to be singled out for credit, so we’ll simply credit the larger entities.

So, what next? A suggestion that you, the reader, support the Astor?

No. Definitely not. To ask you to ‘support’ the Astor is to suggest that it’s some sort of responsibility, a task you do out of duty*. And if it was such a thing, it would never have survived the past eighty years.

Tomorrow night, the theatre will play a double featuring two of my favourite films of the year: The King of Devil’s Island and Declaration of War. Great films on their own, but the pairing is inspired.

There’s a David Lean retrospective starting on Saturday, featuring Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and the brand new restoration of Lawrence of Arabia. (The first time I saw Lawrence was in 70mm at the Astor. The second time was in 35mm at the Astor. I can’t wait to see their 4K digital print looks like.)

Then there’s the amazing four-hour Woody Allen: A Documentary, a Wes Anderson retrospective, a Russ Meyer ‘Vixen-Fest’, the George Romero Night/Dawn/Day trilogy on the one night, the Back to the Future trilogy on the one night, the extended version of Kenneth Lonergen’s Margaret, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 70mm, a Jodorowsky double of Holy Mountain and El Topo, the Lord of the Rings extended edition trilogy on the one day, a double of Cabin in the Woods and Drag Me To Hell… and all of that within the space of only three months. Not only is the above just business-as-usual for the Astor, but I actually left out a whole lot of incredible stuff. Go take a look if you don’t believe me.

This is one of those rare instances when everybody wins. St Michael’s still gets to use the Astor for school events. We get to keep our beloved cinema. And much like the classic films it so frequently plays, the building itself will be subject to a gorgeous restoration. The only way this could be better is if I was allowed to live there.

So don’t feel obliged to ‘support’ the Astor; just visit it every night for completely selfish reasons. When I’m back in Melbourne, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.

* That said, you should definitely join Friends of the Astor.

Those Who Junk History…

A couple of weeks ago, something incredibly rare and rather extraordinary happened: the BBC announced that two full episodes of 1960s Doctor Who had been recovered. One was “Air Lock”, the third episode in the four-part story “Galaxy 4”, with William Hartnell as the Doctor. The other was the second episode of “The Underwater Menace”, this time with Patrick Troughton in the lead.

This wasn’t just significant news for Doctor Who geeks (although, as a card-carrying one, I have to say it certainly was that), but also big news for cinephiles and movie lovers who may not care one iota about a black and white 60s UK series. Here’s why.

In the 1970s, the BBC began deleting their old TV shows. Tape was expensive, and back then it was practically and financially ridiculous to even consider repeating these old shows, so the likes of Dad’s Army, Z Cars, Steptoe and Son, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only… But Also…, and Doctor Who began disappearing from the archives.

When it was realised by the fledgling fan community – made up of people who had only just realised, in pre-internet times, that there were others out there just like them and they could probably form a community of some sort – that these episodes were being wiped, an outcry began. The BBC’s policy changed overnight. They went from junking episodes to recovering them, and, with no small sense of irony, the search for the missing episodes begun.

It’s easy to scoff at the short-sightedness of the BBC, but back then television was not the eternal, well-preserved artform much of it is now. There was no home video, and repeat viewings were exceptionally rare. It was radio with pictures, ephemeral and soon forgotten, and the idea that they would one day be treasured, fifty years on, would not have crossed a single person’s mind.

So, with the benefit of that cautionary tale, with hindsight clear and present, why are we being so short-sighted now?

The big film studios have recently announced that they will soon stop renting archival 35mm prints of their old films to theatres, because the costs of storage and transport have become too hefty, and the number of vintage theatres too scarce. The old film prints, so goes the plan, are going to be junked, and replaced with a 4K digital scan.

On one level, I totally get this. Why have expensive physical copies of films when you could have a single hard drive with multiple hi-def movies stored with greater efficiency? When the rental is – or will one day be – the simple click of a button, rather than a pricey courier? Why continue pouring all these resources into films most people don’t really want to watch?

The answer – or answers, for there are many – should be obvious. We’re talking about our cultural heritage here. This is the modern artform. The actual, physical film that these movies exist on are not simply bulky storage methods, but an intrinsic part of the work. Digital prints are useful, but they don’t have the soul of the film print. And if you think I’m being needlessly sentimental here, ask yourself if you’d destroy the paintings of da Vinci, Picasso, Van Gogh, Pissarro, because someone took a photograph of them. The celluloid is the canvas.

But even if keeping exclusively digital copies was a good idea, we’re not there yet. The technology is great, but it doesn’t yet have the depth that film provides. If, as has been suggested, the replacement backups are in 4K, what will we think in a few years when 4K is superseded? The technology keeps getting better, and as crazy as it is to pointlessly draw a line in the sand, this is not the place to do it.

Melbourne’s Astor Theatre has been fighting the good fight for a while. Although it’s adapted to include 4K digital, it still regularly plays 35mm prints, as well as 70mm prints of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, and others. The theatre has its own distribution arm, Chapel Distribution, co-directed by Astor proprietor George Florence and Potential Films director Mark Spratt, who have worked to acquire as many prints as possible. The Astor even goes so far as to offer free storage of film prints to other, storage-challenged distributors to discourage them being junked. Many older films are kept in regular rotation on the calendar to keep the prints alive. The Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse double, for instance, plays every few months to ensure those prints remain in circulation. From 2014, the Astor is going to be one of the last few places in the country still projecting film.

Hasn’t the BBC’s immediate about-face on the junking of old programs taught us anything? Can’t we weigh up the importance of having these works against the mild inconvenience of storing them and arrive at the conclusion reached by the village idiot ahead of the film executive?

There’s a cinema in Los Angeles called the New Beverley, which is basically the spiritual sister of the Astor. It also plays classic doubles in 35mm, and is committed to film preservation. It has started an online petition to save film prints, and I urge you to take two seconds out of your day to sign it. You may not see the value in it at right this moment, but we’ve lost enough over the past century to recognise what we’ll one day wish, with clarity of hindsight, we’d saved.