In Plattsburgh, a Celluloid Fan Screens a Lost Art Form

| July 16, 2014
Andy MacDougall - ETHAN DE SEIFE
  • Ethan De Seife
  • Andy MacDougall

The existence of Champ, the plesiosaur-like beast that allegedly dwells in the depths of Lake Champlain, has never been scientifically verified. But the legend of Champ was an amply sufficient "hook" for the latest film screening by Andy MacDougall, a true-blue cinephile and devotee of celluloid. He seized on the putative resemblance of Champ to the titular creature in the 1953 monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and showed that film last Friday evening at the Newman Center, a church near the State University of New York at Plattsburgh campus.

MacDougall believes that Champ is real — partly for cinematic reasons, it turns out. In justifying his belief, he quoted a character from the 1974 Hammer horror film Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter, who, in rebutting a disbeliever of vampires, says, "What could be more improbable than God? Yet I believe in him."

But the faith that MacDougall puts in the existence of this cryptid isn't the chief reason he programmed the film as part of Plattsburgh's 37th annual Mayor's Cup Regatta and Festival. That has more to do with the movie's power to emblematize the way films used to be — before they got corrupted, in MacDougall's view, by pixels.

For him, the only true cinema is an analog cinema: no computer-generated imagery, no digital color correction and no digital projection. He projected The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, for which special-effects master Ray Harryhausen created the renowned stop-motion animation, onto a screen stretched out on the church's altar. Everything about the event, from the movie's animation to the clackety projector, was handmade. MacDougall called it "the most ambitious project I've ever undertaken in 30-plus years of showing 16 millimeter."

MacDougall, 52, is a collector of genuine-celluloid film prints, and he's preserved and exhibited them under a number of different banners, such as the Illegitimate Son of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the Picture Show Man (his current incarnation, named for an obscure 1977 Australian film about itinerant movie showmen). He'd love to make a living from this passion, he said, but the dominance of digital entertainment makes that unlikely. So he's cobbled together a series of jobs: handyman, film critic, ESL tutor. None seems to have inspired him like old cinema.

MacDougall can be dogmatic about what film is and should be. In an email, he referred to "Hollywood's runaway overindulgence of CGI into soulless, imagination-inhibiting, attention-span-stunting insults to the memory of motion-picture special effects in the truly classic, tangible, organic sense." But the man has a genuine feeling for the experiential qualities of film.

That feeling guided MacDougall's decision to include in Friday's event selections from Arcade Fire's 2007 album Neon Bible. Just as he despises CGI, MacDougall loathes such sonic fripperies as the digital sound processor Auto-Tune; he admires Arcade Fire for their insistence on using "actual instruments."

More than that, though, he said, "I'm trying to get across ... that sense of wonder. How was Harryhausen able to summon up the superhuman patience not only to design the figures from scratch, but weeks of blood, sweat and tears that would accomplish only a small amount of footage? ... The sense of wonder that is generated by [Arcade Fire] is very, very close to what I'm feeling when I'm watching Harryhausen's stop-motion. It engulfs me, that lingering sense of wonder. It lasts."

MacDougall's analog-only ethos can be a tough sell, especially to younger audiences, who have never known digital-free popular entertainment. The crowd at the screening — fewer than 15 people — was smaller than MacDougall had hoped for, and it certainly did not skew young. He said he regretted his decision to allow the publicity for the Mayor's Cup to "carry" his event.

The weekend-long Mayor's Cup events included a regatta, live music and family-friendly activities, but the film screening was a first. When MacDougall pitched his idea to the planning committee, the members received it enthusiastically, said Beth Carlin, assistant to Plattsburgh Mayor James E. Calnon. "That's one thing we're trying to build on: having community people step forward and bring things to the event that we haven't had in the past," she explained. "He suggested it, and we went with it. He's done all the planning; he's picked out the movies. We're just glad that he's a part of it."

For attendees, the screening was an enjoyable throwback; for MacDougall, it was only the most recent salvo in a lifelong battle to preserve the kinds of films he grew up watching. Wowed at a young age by monster movies on late-night TV, MacDougall started collecting 8mm "condensations" — basically, repackaged highlight reels — of his favorites.

That hobby blossomed into a full-blown obsession: He estimated that he owns 100 features and "a whole slew" of shorts on 16mm, as well as many articles of cinematic ephemera. He's also slowly cataloguing his father's old 8mm home movies. On Friday evening, MacDougall busted out an 8mm projector to show one of the condensations: a soundtrack-free print of First Men in the Moon, a 1964 adaptation of an H.G. Wells story and another Harryhausen classic.

MacDougall announced the midfilm break with one of those cheesy, semi-psychedelic intermission trailers — anachronistic, but clever and amusing. He had planned to show a second, unpublicized film after the first: the original 1954 Gojira, which was inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. But by the time a couple of sleepy Seven Days reporters left to catch the late-night ferry, MacDougall didn't think he'd make it a double feature after all. The audience just wasn't there.

"CGI's got nothing on this stuff," he declared just before the feature began. But he sounded a little heartbroken. MacDougall is a proselytizer for the wonderment of the cinematic experience, and his congregation appears to be shrinking.

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