Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Wide, Wide West

It takes a good reason to get someone to drive 325 miles to see a movie. But if the reason is site-specific AND rare, you gotta make the trip. And so I attended the final days of the 60th Anniversary of Cinerama festival in Hollywood at the Pacific Cinerama Dome, one of only three theaters left in the world equipped to show the process.

The festival closed with a screening of How The West Was Won (1962), a star-studded* epic depicting 50s-era "manifest destiny," the American expansion west. It was one of only two narratives shot in Cinerama, a widescreen visual process that utilizes three strips of film set at angles that give a startling 146° angle of view. It was specifically designed to be shown on a deeply curved screen, which rectifies the wide angle of the collective image in an equally startling way. So when you watch a Cinerama movie the perspective seems amazingly natural, and you follow the action by turning your head, like you would in the real world. Conceptually, it's uncanny.

Practically, however, there are some strange limitations to the process. The seams between the triptych panels are never invisible: the optics of the time (Cinerama cameras were built in the early 1950s) couldn't make the edges blend perfectly. In How The West Was Won the filmmakers took great pains to hide the seams: they would position the actors so they were center in each lens, and often buildings or trees would coincide with the frame edges. One sequence near the end takes place in the interior of a house in Arizona: the wallpaper was a combination of little flowers, grey vertical stripes, and more grey vertical stripes. The frame edges were lost in a sea of stripes: Cinerama wallpaper.

An idea of just how wide the image is-- a frame from
HTWWW, probably a CinemaScope reduction print.
The seams are plainly visible, and you can see that each strip
is actually a tall rectangle.
Ultimately, the Cinerama process is so singular and unusual that it holds the narrative hostage. Since the cameras had only one set of lenses, close-ups were impossible. Medium shots were achieved by having the actors stand less than two feet from the camera, and even then the vastness of the settings dominated the frame. The overarching problem is the style of storytelling employed by the directors (yes, there were four directors): These old Hollywood pros came up in the Academy Format days, and it is obvious they were in their comfort zone with a single focus of action in each scene. An actor will talk: the other actors will look on blankly, as if they thought they were out of frame. So there is a lot of standing around and listening with the cast of this film. Even the wide-screen action sequences tend to have a stubbornly singular core of interest (be it a spectacular train wreck or a spectacular buffalo stampede). This center-of-frame emphasis tends to deaden the compositions, as richly designed as the sets were or amazing the location: They became just so much scenery.

(According to some commie social commentary I've read, regarding nature as "scenery" is a hallmark of bourgeois capitalism, the first step to the commodification of natural resources. That idea fits well here.)

Some folks have released HTWWW in "smilebox" format,
with a curvature added digitally.
This is how a medium shot works in Cinerama.
It took a new generation of filmmakers and a change in visual narrative language to get widescreen cinema to work more naturally. Mise en scene narrative, which uses the entirety of the cinematic canvas, sometimes in multiple centers of action over a widescreen frame, was just being defined at the time HTWWW was released. It would take visionary filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Jaques Tati and Blake Edwards to really open up the widescreen frame to it's unique storytelling potential.

With all of it's faults, HTWWW and Cinerama is still a marvel to behold. This film just does not work on video, HD or not: it does not even work in 'scope on a movie screen. It specifically designed for one and only one projection process, and I consider myself fortunate to have see it in it's proper grandeur.

*I picked out Harry Dean Stanton in an uncredited bit part as one of Eli Wallach's henchmen. How old IS that guy?

1 comment:

  1. The REALLY weird thing about Harry Dean Stanton is that he looked exactly the same age in 1962 as he does today.

    I'll add that as much as I love Tati's Playtime, I'll never be sure that it works.