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No Concessions: Digital Disaster at the New York Film Festival

The New York Film Festival, which got underway last Friday, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. I’ve attended every year since 1994. I’ve seen dozens of movies there–some extraordinary, many good, some run-of-the-mill, a few terrible. I wondered where Brian De Palma’s Passion, screened on Saturday, would fit in.

I’m still wondering. In what was for me an unprecedented event in my decades of festivalgoing, the screening was cancelled. Why? Three words: Digital Cinema Package, or DCP.

What is DCP? It’s heralded as the future of cinema projection, but really it’s the present; chances are your local multiplex has gone DCP, as your local independently owned theater or repertory house struggles to find a way to pay for it as celluloid goes up in smoke. The brave new world of digital projection comes with pitfalls, however. Like, if the system malfunctions, and no one can get a grip on what went wrong, you’re fucked like the fucking Diaz brothers, as the Film Society of Lincoln Center learned the hard way last night.

If you follow the festival at all you’ve been reading a lot about how Richard Pena, its programming director, is bowing out after 25 years of distinguished service. “I bet he wishes he retired last year,” grumbled a fellow patron as we all exited Alice Tully Hall after more than an hour of waiting. It had been a trying day: apparently a DCP of a Mexican film shown in the afternoon, Here and There, was plagued by intermittent subtitles that were here and there for half an hour until the problem was fixed. That was nothing compared to this utter fiasco, however. Has a festival presentation ever been cancelled due to a mechanical glitch? Not in the film cans days that I can recall.

Poor Pena–he’s a good guy (I interviewed him for Newsweek.com in 2001) and there he was, having to face not only a disappointed crowd but Brian De Palma, who’s not exactly Mary Sunshine. (I interviewed him for Cineaste about his last film, Redacted, which played without incident at the festival in 2007.) From my balcony seat I could see the filmmaker growing progressively more baleful, and when he was escorted from his box I knew we would not be seeing his movie. It can’t have been pretty backstage: “See this? I left my trademark safari jacket at home and put on a suit and tie for this thing! I was goddamned cheerful in my opening remarks, too!” 

Whatever the case, it was a humiliation. Pena, who had to keep coming onstage to deliver the worsening news, said that the DCP has been tested without incident minutes before showtime, but minus a code had somehow locked down. Minus someone who could fix the code that was it for the evening. That’s not the movies we knew and loved; that’s a plot contrivance on an episode of 24. Maybe they should rename Digital Cinema Package HAL, in honor of 2001‘s errant computer.

After a half hour or so of waiting Pena announced that audience members who couldn’t stay could get refunds at the boxoffice. Only 10-15% seemed to. Which was touching; we wanted to see the movie and were willing to put up with the inconvenience. (I watched the French-made Love Crime, the basis of Passion, the other night and wanted to know, like, what was up with the masks? And the chokehold?) But it was out of Pena’s hands, or De Palma’s hands, or any human hands. It was a glitch in the machine, a hiccup in the software. And with that the 50th anniversary of the New York Film Festival was tainted.

Watch this space for actual festival reviews, if technology doesn’t bungle further screenings. Too bad they can’t project film at a film festival anymore.