Universal's gorgeous, unblemished digital restoration of "To Kill a Mockingbird," which premiered in Washington D.C. last week and had its TV debut on the USA network April 7 (complete with Barack Obama intro), screened to a packed house at the Academy Wednesday evening. The night highlighted a recurring issue with Academy events: Good screening. Bad Q&A.
PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley gave an eloquent introduction to the film, though he mislabeled the screening format as a "digitally restored print." It was actually a DCP ("digital cinema package"), which is a collection of digital files, usually on a hard drive. It's understandable that Smiley made this mistake, as nowhere in the Academy's online promotion or in the leaflet programs was there a mention of the DCP — just that the film was screening as a "new digital restoration."
Not to nitpick, but if state-of-the-art theaters want to de-stigmatize digital projection, they should begin by labeling it as such. Take a tip from New York's Film Forum, which recently hosted the admirably-titled film series "This Is DCP."
The DCP of "To Kill a Mockingbird" looked great. The lush spectrum of greys in the black-and-white color palette were thrown into beautiful relief — particularly in those crisp close-ups in the opening credits. When Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) gives his agonized testimony, the sweat on his brow glistens. Robert Duvall as wordless Boo Radley glowed like an apparition. Gregory Peck's deep intonations during Atticus Finch's courtroom monologue rumbled with passion. There's still something sanitary about digital projection — it doesn't sweep me away like the vivid grain of a pristine 35mm — but, nonetheless, it looked and sounded superb.
Mary Badham (Scout), Little Rock Nine member Terrence Roberts and civil rights attorney Connie Rice were on hand for a discussion afterward. At this point, the audience's high from the film started to sink. Instead of talking about the film, Badham dominated the Q&A with long-winded stories from her childhood, and pushed an inner-city schools education agenda–and moderator Ellen Harrington didn't intervene. "Ignorance is the root of all evil, and education is the key to freedom," Badham said. Roberts cut through the platitudes: "That would work in a universe that didn't revere ignorance."
An unexpected delight from the evening was the French New Wave photography exhibit in the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre lobby. Sipping red wine while looking at off-set pictures of Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre and Francois Truffaut during the making of "Jules and Jim" is a good start to any night.