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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

"Check the plate, please..."

I've always been a fan of Monterey Pop*.

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (Criterion)

While many may find it difficult to believe that people actually wore those clothes, and had those hairstyles only 35 years ago, making it look very much like a "period" film, Monterey Pop* is THE document of one of the great pop festivals.

Like Woodstock* (edited by the young duo of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, and directed by Michael Wadleigh), which chronicled the 1969 festival two years later, MP* takes you back to a period during which our nation was being torn apart by the war in Vietnam, and love and flower power was being preached from Greenwich Village to San Francisco.

We were all so young then, and distrustful of anyone over 30.

And like Woodstock*, MP* takes you into the center of the action, documenting the concert-goers, while getting in close on the performers.

Memory can play tricks, and while I can't be certain, I seem to recall seeing Monterey Pop* at the Kips Bay in New York, blown up from 16mm chrome to a 70mm stereo print to take advantage of the stereo sound. Could it have been 35mm magnetic?

While Woodstock is filled with glorious editorial and multi-screen pyrotechnics, MP* is an unassuming and simple film, yet brilliant in its simplicity.

Criterion has done a beautiful job of packaging MP* with a disc of outtakes and a third disc containing performances by Otis Redding (Shake! Otis at Monterey) and Jimi Hendrix (Jimi Plays Monterey). It should be noted that while the latter have been transferred from 35mm dupe negs, Monterey Pop* comes directly from the original 16mm A and B rolls.

Which leads me to a few comments on quality and the actual filming, which must have been akin to guerrilla filmmaking.

Let it be understood that 16mm offers an extremely tiny exposable picture area.

Approximate Max Extraction Areas - 16mm

Approximate Max Extraction Areas - 35mm

To put it in a very simplistic form, while standard 35mm offers either 0.368 square inches of exposable area for 1.85 or 0.586 for scope, at best one can expose their images to an area just 0.1378 square inches.

This is really, really tiny.

And with that minuscule area come a number of potential problems, which can easily turn into production minefields.

Grain can easily seem an overriding function of the image. We won't even discuss grain in 8mm. And the only way that images captured on 16mm can be acceptable is via moving grain or the continuity of continuously changing frames.

I've been writing recently about the importance of original grain structure in film, and MP* is a superb example. Working from the original 16mm rolls, Criterion has been able to perfectly capture the look of the film and replicate it on DVD.

Add to the acknowledged problems of sub-standard format the exigencies of shooting in a single-take, sometimes dark environment, in which everything cannot always be checked... and the worst can easily occur.

Always a fan of The Mammas and The Pappas, I never understood why there wasn't more footage of them in the final cut product. Now I know why, and it is the wonderful offering of outtakes and unused footage on disc two of this release which tells the story.

There are many cases in studio filmmaking, where after an extremely important or difficult shot, the director or DP will request that the camera operator pull the gate.

The rationale behind this is to check for bits or emulsion left behind by scratches or in the usual case, dirt, hairs or dust which has adhered to the gate - "Niz."

In the environment of a shoot like Monterey Pop* one cannot easily pull the gate for inspection (if the gate is actually removable), which is why when you view disc two, you'll discover as I did, why the group was under-represented in the film.

What one would consider the "A" camera, used for close-ups of the lead singer, in this case Mamma Cass, had an aperture filled with the most horrific "niz" that I've ever seen on film. It literally cuts across and segments the frame, looking much like horrific mold growth on ancient poorly stored rolls of motion picture film.

The work of other performers is scarred by emulsion scratches; sometimes by poor audio as a performer moves toward and away from a single microphone, or problems with lighting - or simply light in general.

The performances on disc two represent a pantheon of those singers of the era, many of whom are no longer with us.

Watching the incredible Janis Joplin in both the final product and the outtakes is a reminder of how much we have lost of our musical heritage. Alternatively hitting perfect blues notes, crying and shrieking into the mike, Joplin was a consummate performer, gone too soon.

But for a few rarified days in the early summer of 1967, those who attended were treated to incredible live performances. Hearing them now with audio beautifully crafted and cleaned by Eddie Kramer from the original 8 track tapes, in these single takes, without the perfection and protection of the studio environment, one can see and hear these performers less as distant "acts" and more as people performing live before an audience.

My advice is to pick up a copy of Monterey Pop*, set your decoder to Dolby 5.1, crank your amp and let D.A. Pennebaker take you back to that time of flower power and music 35 summers ago.

Speaking of "checking the plate," there is one very well know filmmaker who shall go unmentioned, who on occasion, after the very last shot of his films will "check the plate."

The filmmaker in question will personally check it for dust or emulsion, and then when and if satisfied that the shoot is over, will place it gently in his pocket and walk off the set. With a wonderful souvenir of the production. Obviously a good customer, the camera rental company has no problem with this. If however, you are on a "budget" shoot for your first film, I suggest you not try it.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the HTF's Ron Epstein for the picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

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