“…Has No Shadows”: An interview with Travis Bird of Shotgun Cinema

Photo Credit: Shotgun Cinema

I often find myself pondering on the state of moviegoing in New Orleans. We have some great programming (sometimes overlooked) but there’s always more to do. We have great venues, but not nearly enough (though they’re pretty wonderful). This is Hollywood South supposedly, and yet our film watching and appreciation culture could use some additional resources.

Just before this year’s Overlook Film Festival, the folks at Shotgun Cinema posted a blog entry about the recent closure of the Canal Place Cinema and its use at the event. This got my brain synapses firing, with many a question coming around to the surface.

I shot Travis Bird of Shotgun Cinema a series of queries on moviegoing in NOLA, what the future holds for our community of movie buffs and somewhat optimistic lines of thinking towards the mechanics of film exhibition. Digital tech can only take us so far in our recliners – there must be more elements at play. Something tangible. Something we can feel:

Bill Arceneaux: How would you grade moviegoing in New Orleans as an experience?

Travis Bird: Moviegoing here is a pleasant experience. Zeitgeist, the Broad, and the Prytania — which of course is all we have now for theatrical venues — they all have their distinct flavor and programming. 

The main thing I see is that cinephiles here don’t have an iconic venue around which to coalesce, as exists in many other cities. There can be a magical mixture of a special physical space, either renovated or new, and a programming vision that draws people in. With all respect, I feel we don’t really have such a place at the moment. It might be nostalgia, but people talk about the cinema at Canal Place before Hurricane Katrina, when it was run by Landmark, with such affection. I wasn’t here at that time, but I wonder if that place wasn’t playing that role for some.  

The closest thing we have to producing that kind of energy is the New Orleans Film Festival, which does a great job of generating excitement around seeing films. But we do have our small number of venues that are a pleasure to attend. I’m not taking into account the surrounding multiplexes, which provide their own experience on their own terms. 

BA: Zeitgeist recently moved into a new and bigger venue. Have you been? If so, any thoughts on the upgrade?

TB: I haven’t been — I’ve been traveling a lot in the past several months. But I’m particularly excited about their ability to increase programming and activate the space with frequent live music. The music being programmed there is among the most interesting in the city, along with SideBar. It’s vital that we have that kind of more adventurous and even experimental programming for music as well as film. Including myself in this group, the audience just needs to get ourselves to go there. 

Rene Broussard and Zeitgeist have made a lot online of how Arabi is actually not far away, and they’re right, which to me highlights the psychological barriers we have in New Orleans about getting to arts events. When we had our summer film series at UNO a few years ago, it was very tough to get people to go “all the way out” to Lakeview, despite the fact that Bywater is closer to UNO than it is to the Prytania. We have an ingrained collective sense of cultural distance in New Orleans — and maybe in other cities too — that doesn’t correspond to physical distance. 

BA: With “luxury” cinema having a wave of momentum now, how can true blue theaters keep up the competition? How can mobile units like Shotgun Cinema?

TB: I don’t think everyone likes the luxury experience. I certainly don’t, for a lot of reasons. Also, since luxury is by definition exceptional, the current version of the experience will quickly get “normal.” Those presentations have a lot of technical and conceptual problems, but the main thing to me is that they aren’t personalized in any way, and I think moviegoers actually want some kind of personal connection or sense of specialness. In this way being mobile is somewhat of an advantage because it makes every film a special event, just like talent appearing in person or showing a title on 35mm can make a screening special and often better attended. 

BA: “Being alone together” is exactly what I look for at the movies. What is your favorite memory of this concept? Worst? And why?

TB: One of my favorite films ever is Jacques Tati’s Playtime, and I first saw it at Christmastime in a theater with only a couple people, and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Which reminds me: there’s not nearly as much repertory film programming as there could be, and I think seeing old films is a particularly special experience because you get this feeling that you’re being let in on a secret, which you don’t get much with new releases. 

People do have varying ideas of what being in the cinema means, and they can be breathtakingly thick about it. But then you look at the scene in Cinema Paradiso with all the kids yelling at the screen, and you realize that our idea of proper decorum in the cinema is highly variable and changes over time. 

BA: Why is culture moving away from “alone-togetherness”? Does the new alternative have pros? 

TB: I think we’re encouraged to move away from togetherness in general. One factor is capitalism, which incentivizes the use of marketing, data, and psychology to get people to desire and then buy things. And to desire is to think individually. At this point in the U.S., of course, we get these cues constantly. On the other hand, many have an awareness of more ephemeral experiences and are looking for that. 

If you’re talking about watching movies on devices instead of in the cinema, the only pro is if it allows artists to be paid to make good work. As for the experience of watching movies on the phone, I feel it’s inferior in every way, with the only upside being that it’s the only way to see certain work. But I recognize that not everyone feels that way, and often for compelling reasons. 

BA: The documentary on film projectionists The Dying of the Light is frequently on my mind. A machine trade that was once as important to the theatrical events as the movies themselves. Now, as I understand, these techs take jobs all over the place (not just locally). Will we ever see a mass return of this position and the standards brought along with it? Whether film or digital, will movies always be a show of light and shadows? 

TB: We won’t see a mass return to projection because it would require so many other interrelated parts to be resurrected – developing labs, printers, shipping costs, projectors, service technicians – by entities that have no financial incentive to do that work. As for presentation standards, this is one of the big lies of digital: standards have opened up so much since the digital conversion, and sometimes just abandoned. Think of every out-of-focus, off-center, dim digital projection you’ve seen. The issues people had with bad film presentation are now present in bad digital presentation. 

My hope is that as time passes we’ll see more people being able to make a distinction between film and digital, and recognizing that they’re just two different media, like watercolor and oil in painting. Each one is best for some, but not all, work. This recognition will only happen if young people are able to retain the skills associated with film, and if those who own films continue making them available. There’s a huge amount of trust involved, and film handling really has to be seen as art handling at this point. 

What I see a lot more even in the past year or two is that film projection among both institutions and young people is being recognized as a specialized skill and is considered by more and more people to be cool and special. So that’s encouraging. But “light and shadow” is only a property of analog film – digital has no shadows. 

Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. His latest project is an independent film-centric publication focused solely on the New Orleans area. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews

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