Portland filmgoers are about to lose something valuable.
No, not PMA Films, the Portland Museum of Art’s weekend film series itself – that’s still going strong, with SPACE Gallery co-founder and screenings programmer Jon Courtney at the helm. But its screenings of writer/director Charles Burnett’s cult classic 1978 drama “Killer Of Sheep,” Dec. 9-11, will most likely be the museum’s last ever movie projected on 35mm film.
There’s nothing wrong with PMA’s projector. The lovingly cared for 35mm projector was brought over from the late, lamented Movies on Exchange Street by Movies co-owner and Courtney’s predecessor, Steve Halpert, and is still ready and eager to show PMA audiences the finest films the world has to offer.
The problem is, the world isn’t offering much any more.
“It’s become a dinosaur in a really sad way,” said Courtney. “Ours is the last installed 35mm projector in Portland.”
Some background is in order here: Studios — apart from IMAX and event movies like Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” — don’t send out prints of new films any more. (Your multiplex pops in a dedicated hard drive these days.) And prints for older movies are more expensive and harder to come by – especially for theaters like the PMA’s that use the so-called platter system.
“Most distributors are circling the wagons on those,” Courtney said. “You have to splice the reels of a film together, then take them apart. As the market for prints shrinks, the prints you can get have been around the block — sort of rode hard and put away wet. There’s a pretty small Venn Diagram of good titles that aren’t all broken down and are still accessible.”
For those who’d counter that digital projection (which is what places like PMA and SPACE generally do) are an acceptable replacement for film, Courtney concedes that the loss of the longtime standard 35mm is inevitable but sad. That feeling of nostalgia for something precious that seems destined to be left behind went into his choice of “Killer of Sheep” as film’s final bow at the PMA.
“There’s a withering realm of films. There’s a lot of dreck,” Courtney said. ” ‘Killer of Sheep’ is a cornerstone lost American film that almost no one saw for 30 years, and it’s truly a classic of American cinema.”
The story of a working-class black family trying to get by in 1970s Watts, Los Angeles, it follows a kind, decent family man as he tries to provide for his family by working at a slaughterhouse, fighting the numbing effects of his job with life’s simplest, elusive moments of happiness.
Watch the “Killer of Sheep” Trailer
“It influenced a lot of people and wore a lot of its own influences on its sleeve,” Courtney said. “For me, it was the perfect film to go out with, an overlooked gem that also — because fan Stephen Soderbergh helped finance a 35mm re-release in 2007 — has a number of still excellent prints in circulation.”
As for the future of film at the PMA, Courtney said that’s up to the people of Portland. “If we see a strong enough turnout that seems to indicate people still want 35mm, there are some other great films still out there.”
He also said that the idea of installing a second, reel-based projector (which would increase film availability) could happen — if there’s enough support.
But overall, Courtney hopes people will come to see “Killer of Sheep” on film, in the theater.
“My ongoing hope is that people will remember the value of seeing something in a darkened room with friends and with strangers. No phones, no distractions, just a nice dial back to classic cinematic, theatergoing experience. It’s the experience of giving yourself over to a great film for 90 minutes.”
“Killer of Sheep” will be screening, on 35mm film, at PMA Films on Dec. 9, 10 and 11. See the PMA Films website for details: portlandmuseum.org/events/movies.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Thursday: “Deconstructing The Beatles’ White Album.” You know how there’s nothing more thrilling than talking about great music? Well, anyway, this documentary promises to be a treat for Beatles freaks as a music historian breaks down every track on the group’s sprawling, eclectic 1968 double album.
Sunday: “Under The Shadow.” Part supernatural thriller, part wrenching war drama, this Iranian film follows a young mother during the constant bombardment of the Iran-Iraq war as she becomes convinced that an unexploded bomb in her Tehran apartment building has released an evil spirit.