May 1, 2012

This is...Cinerama!

I've always taken some issue with the notion that certain movies "must" be seen on the big screen. Obviously, theater viewing is always preferable, but is it ever so imperative that it renders any other form of viewing pointless? Prior to April 15 of this year, I would have dismissed that idea as hyperbole.

But then I experienced How the West Was Won in Cinerama.

For the uninitiated, Cinerama refers to both a filming and projection process that utilizes three synced cameras, resulting in a mega-wide aspect ratio. On paper, that doesn't sound terribly exciting. Breathless period advertising for Cinerama probably sounds just as quaint as ecstatic claims of "stereophonic sound!", if not more so. It was a gimmick developed so filmgoing could compete with television, and reads rather transparently as such. 

Due to the costly and involved nature of Cinerama productions, only a handful of them were made, and only two were traditional narratives: How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (the rest were shorts, travelogues, etc). I had never seen West before, and it certainly boasts an impressive pedigree - it's a three-hour episodic history of the West with segments directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall, featuring a mind-blowing cast that includes James Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Walter Brennan, Thelma Ritter, Agnes Moorehead, and more. I would have been happy enough watching the Blu-ray, but when the TCM Classic Film Festival announced that they were showing it in its original format I jumped at the chance.

Going in, I was still somewhat skeptical that Cinerama was anything remarkable. For me, I was just looking forward to seeing the film on the big screen, at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome, while harboring a bit of curiosity about this rare format. (I was also very sleepy, since the TCM folks decided to schedule this at 9:15 a.m. on a Sunday.) After all, it's just a really wide screen, right?

It basically is. But cinematic gimmicks are only as good as what you make of them, and West makes something spectacular.

Think about it. Would sound have made such a splash in movies if there hadn't been crackpot writers churning out unforgettable snappy dialogue? Would color have really stuck around if filmmakers like Victor Fleming and Vincente Minnelli hadn't created such breathtaking Technicolor imagery? Who would have given a hoot about widescreen if directors like Nicholas Ray and Frank Tashlin hadn't exploited it so marvelously? Is the modern-day ambivalence towards 3-D rooted in the medium's shift toward subtle depth perception over eye-popping thrills? Basically, you can only get out what you put in. The gimmick alone isn't worth a thing - it's up to the men behind the curtain to do something with it.

Cinerama and the filmmakers behind West are a match made in heaven. The directors and cinematographers behind the film present a jaw-dropping panorama of the American West, as filmed all over the USA. Tracking and helicopter shots present mountains, rivers, oceans, deserts, forests, caves, even 1960s urban centers (spoiler alert: the West lasted beyond the 1800s) in a stunning 146-degree display. (It makes perfect sense that so many Cinerama films were travelogues; I could have watched various types of scenery in triple projection all day.) The three simultaneous projections meant you could frequently see two blurry vertical lines dividing the image, but it's such a minor detraction that it hardly bears mentioning. In fact, if anything, it keeps the viewer constantly aware of the unbelievable creativity and effort involved in creating such a spectacle. 

And spectacle it is! There's a raft drowning in currents, the Civil War, covered wagons crossing rivers, a river pirate attack, a buffalo stampede, and a chase and shootout on a moving train. Even tranquil moments such as James Stewart paddling downriver in a canoe provoked gasps from the audience, at the sheer beauty of both the composition and pristine condition of the print. And if frame composition seems like the unsexiest thing imaginable, you have to keep in mind that the view here is so wide that the directors basically crafted a new universe with each shot. Scenery, props, animals, actors, extras are all arranged painstakingly, as if for a painting. That was in fact one of the frustrations of working in Cinerama - production designers had to prep much larger areas than they were used to. You almost want to pause every frame and scan across it to catch all the details.

I should also mention the sound. Admittedly, I don't usually think much about movie sound except in terms of volume. Perhaps this is more a function of subpar sound systems in theaters (although I will say that when I saw Thor at the Arclight Hollywood, I enjoyed quite a bit of seat-shaking from the bass). Traditional Cinerama recorded with seven (!) discrete audio tracks, and the sound at the screening was incredible. Particularly of note was the music, which is a mix of original compositions and bombastically-arranged hymns. Much of it was composed just for the film, so the modern influence is undeniable but it still somehow works with the period.

After the film, national treasure Robert Osborne did a brief interview with Debbie Reynolds, who is as spunky and kooky as ever. She mentioned how her character was originally supposed to be in just the first segment, but they just kept calling her back to do more and more. The filming was so long and intermittent that she gave birth to two children before it was all over. The production was an arduous one, too; Reynolds spoke of how the multiple directors pushed the talent to perform dangerous and life-threatening feats, and some stuntmen even lost their lives. On top of the physical challenges, the actors had to contend with the strange blocking that Cinerama required. If they acted out a scene the way they normally would, the eyelines and body language would be all wrong. In order for it to appear convincing in Cinerama, they were forced to perform otherwise normal scenes like avant-garde absurdist theater, facing away from and looking past their costars.

Is West even a good film outside of Cinerama? I honestly don't know. Most of the characters have such small roles that you never really get attached to anyone. The dialogue, while satisfactory, doesn't really stir the soul (although there is quite a bit of unexpected humor). As a history lesson, it's patchy and simplistic. But as cinema, there's nothing like it. I don't even mean that in a pretentious way, like how Godard might be cinema (and I'm not knocking Godard). I mean that no matter who you are, if you sat down in that theater and experienced what I did, there's no way you wouldn't have had your socks knocked off.

Click to enlarge! It's too wide even for this blog!
Human beings are limited in how well they can convey perceptive and esoteric events. Particularly someone like me, who's jaded enough that I don't often feel I've experienced something magical. But you'll just have to take my word for it when I say this was magic. (And not to be a crotchety old person, but this is coming from someone who has yet to be sufficiently impressed by IMAX or 3D.) I gasped. I literally gasped. 

These days, Cinerama is naturally pretty hard to come by. But if you live in the Los Angeles area, you're in luck - the organizers of the event alluded to a Cinerama festival taking place this fall.

Big props to the TCM Festival people for putting this together, and the five-man projection team (!!) for such a glorious presentation. More belated, miscellaneous musings on the festival will follow.

Have any of you ever had the privilege of seeing a film in Cinerama?