Last month, before a sold-out screening of Die Hard at the Charles—one of a few hundred movies that can be revived with some degree of success in America now—programmer John Standiford ran a double exposure of a super pink print of Michael Adrian’s Herowork (1977) and a decent-looking print of Pedro Aldmóvar’s first feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980). The soundtrack might’ve been Pete Drake, or “#9 Dream” by John Lennon. Everyone was settling in for a fine DCP screening of Die Hard, a childhood favorite I hadn’t seen in years, and five days before Christmas, it went over as well as you’d expect: there were a lot of people there.
A decent but smaller crowd came out for William Richert’s 1979 conspiracy comedy Winter Kills last night, a strange and obscure ensemble piece I’d never heard of before my godfather Michael Gentile emailed me about it last June. Quentin Tarantino must’ve been listening, because he’s sponsored a new 35mm print of the film touring around the country right now. It still looked great in Baltimore, but I don’t know how many prints were struck. How many were made for Oppenheimer? That one was consistently scratchy on the rightmost third just two days into its run at The Senator; no fault of the projectionists, though the print disappeared quickly.
Baltimore gets a dozen 35mm screenings in a good year. It’s gotten worse since the late-2010s for innumerable obvious reasons; but on January 4, there was Winter Kills, a conspiracy thriller from the tail end of the trend, when movies like Blow Out and Cutter’s Way (also starring Jeff Bridges, alongside a hopelessly hammy John Heard) were built on the premise that everyone had given up caring about the JFK assassination, and that no one believed the official story, anyway. Winter Kills feels the closest to our time: John Huston has his son, the President, assassinated for refusing his corruption; Bridges, the much younger son, is confronted with his brother’s death 19 years later, right at the edge of the 1980s, when Bob Dylan said, “the Devil is about to unveil his great masterpiece.”
The baron kills his son for cash, but before it’s simple as that, Bridges and the audience are sent through various assassins and allies in cameo (Sterling Hayden, Anthony Perkins, Richard Boone) and aging stars in flashback (Elizabeth Taylor, Eli Wallach, Ralph Meeker). It’s all as meaningless and confusing as the machinations reported on and gone over at 33 Thomas St., the brutalist Tribeca building that plays the exterior for Perkins’ surveillance lair. That’s why Michael emailed me about the movie—I grew up a few blocks away from that building, and my preschool was directly across the street. They had a great newsstand in the 1990s and early-2000s, long gone and probably boarded-up, worthless to replace.
How many other patrons like Tarantino and everyone involved in the restoration of Winter Kills are out there and young? Seeing film projected is thrilling but so sad, knowing that a DCP will never look as good as this, and it’ll never move people the same way. The loss of 35mm projection in the early-2010s contributed to the decline in moviegoing attendance as much as streaming. Even if people don’t know a thing about the technical details, they can feel it. We all grew up going to the movies and they were all on 35mm film. Everyone knows something changed, and something got worse.
—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith