Just before Speed Cinema’s screening of “Andrei Rublev,” the three-hour-long black-and-white masterpiece by Soviet-era Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, a trailer played for the Alfonso Cuarón film Oscar-nominated film “Roma.”
The snippet of the film was beautiful. Full of sweeping, gorgeous images, it had a depth of field and revealed an eye for detail and composition suggesting Cuarón has reached the height of his powers as a filmmaker. And yet it was kind of depressing — “Roma” film had been released on Netflix a little over two months earlier, and it wasn’t going to be showing anywhere around Louisville.
Then the Speed’s projectionist stepped in front of the screen with a microphone to introduce the movie the audience had come to see. But before departing, he said one more thing …
“Some of you may have noticed a trailer we played just now …”
He went on to announce that the Speed would be getting “Roma” after all. From somewhere in the audience of button-downed film nerds, someone yelled out in genuine surprise: “Wait, here?”
“Yes, here,” confirmed the projectionist.
“Oh sh#t!” the film buff exclaimed.
Nobody else was yelling expletives, but the audience was very jubilant.
Insider decided to talk with Speed Cinema’s curator Dean Otto about why people still love seeing movies on the big screen, and why “Roma” should be one of them. Otto first saw “Roma” at last year’s Toronto Film Festival.
“I was feeling really guilty about taking time out during festival travel to see something I knew we couldn’t probably play,” he said.
“Roma” played at a few theaters last year, a technicality that allows it to be nominated for the Oscars, but chances of a wide release seemed slim. Netflix started talking about giving the film a wider release, and Otto decided to go after the film.
“I said, ‘I’m going to pursue this because it hasn’t been screened here.’ And since then, there’s been a wider kind of boycott of that film.”
That’s right, a boycott. Movie theater chains have been waging a slow war against streaming platforms, and the “Roma” Netflix premiere put it in the crossfire. Luckily, Speed Cinema doesn’t have a horse in that race. Otto just wants Louisvillians to see the best films possible, in the best format possible.
“Roma” has since been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. The Oscars will be held Feb. 24.
Just about everybody has heard the imperative “You’ve to see it on the big screen!” And there are certain sights and sounds that are impressive when upsized. But technical specifications aside, what do people get by going to the movies?
“People really want to have that communal experience of seeing the film projected on a big screen,” said Otto. “Also to be around other people, to be able to discuss the film as well. And to have an incredible venue to do it.”
“Roma” opened at Speed Cinema on Jan. 30, when the wind chill outside was in the negatives. But a good-sized audience still turned out. From appearances, somewhere around two-thirds of the 138 seats were sold. One suspects that absent a polar vortex, that showing would have been sold out.
After seeing “Roma” on the big screen, it seems almost silly in hindsight to think that many people are seeing it, at best, on flat-screen televisions in their homes and, at worst, on cell phones or iPads.
In the cinema setting, with a sound system designed for an immersive viewing and a camera that feels almost like a POV shot, the audience is in the film. When something is happening in a scene that would be “behind” the camera’s eye, the audience hears it behind them. It’s not a new technique per se, but it’s normally used for alien killers, hungry dinosaurs and explosions.
In “Roma,” if the camera is across the room from a conversation, the sound is across the theater from you, no matter where you’re sitting. In several chaotic sequences, when the characters are in physical or emotional distress, the sound closes in on them, but it also closes in on the audiences. There is so much noise and bustle, and while those characters are intensely agitated and afraid, so is the audience.
The audience at that first screening was completely enthralled. And upon leaving the theater, one could hear those conversations — the ones Otto said people come to the theater for — sprouting up all throughout the hallways.
“It’s like at any moment you could have frozen the film, and it would have been a perfect picture,” one person said to her companion.
Other people talked about the plot, the relationships of the characters, the incredible sound.
Among the other awestruck audience members was the same film aficionado from the night the impending arrival of “Roma” was announced — the “Oh sh#t” guy seemed pretty thrilled with what he had just seen.
It’s hard to describe that feeling after watching a truly incredible film, in the dark, with a rapt audience. But after watching “Roma” at Speed Cinema, it’s almost as hard to imagine watching it on a cell phone or tablet.
“Roma” continues at Speed Cinema through Friday, Feb. 8. Tickets are $9.