Wednesday, June 20, 2018

On the Impossibility of Seeing a Film As It Was Intended to Be Seen

Screenshot from the trailer for the first CinemaScope epic, The Robe (1953)

True story. If you remember theatrical films shown on television in the 1960s, or if you just remember annoying things in general, you will recall that at the beginning of said films, and sometimes at their ends, all the figures on the screen would be compressed vertically, like Giacometti sculptures. Eventually, they would all pooch out again, and you would enjoy what you could see of the film's intended epic grandeur.

For indeed you were now helplessly held in the paw of the pan-and-scan technique, by which an arbitrarily designated squarish section of film was shot and transmitted, fitting the aspect ratio of your television screen. Many a night we would try to interpret what was happening in the off-stage portions of the film, as actors threatened and pleaded into the wings. This occurred most often when lauded Biblical or historical epics were on the schedule -- a big must in our family. (I never understood how big, beautiful, and fluid West Side Story (1961) was until I saw it in our local revival house, the Ogden.

The reason was of course the anamorphic lens. Whuut? Considering how smart I think I am, I sure don't know much about this subject. Here are some good links to help you understand the technology and its offshoots, rivals, boons, and limitations -- Harrie Verstappen's eloquent outline of the problem in Movie Screen Aspect Ratios on his Looniverse site; John L. Berger's wonderful; and Ben Kirby's elegant explanation in Empire.

These writers and other film historians demonstrate a constant shift in the presentation of film from one kind of advanced technology to the next; with decidedly mixed results for the viewer. The CinemaScope/Cinerama films could never be seen properly unless and until they were housed in the intended auditorium.

Aspect ratio is only one of many factors that are dicey in a movie theatre, at a drive-in, in a improvised venue, and on any one of hundreds of differently designed viewing platforms, from mammoth hi-def units to phones.

In theatres, images are usually too dim and sound is far too loud -- my first film back in a theatre after a long neurological illness? -- Blade Runner 2049. I nearly passed out and left squinting and deaf. On recorded film as well, the quality soars and craters. It takes a diligent viewer to buy, visit, support, and subscribe to

Digital distribution has its own drawbacks. I watched Frost/Nixon (2008) in a crowded theatre one night and, as Michael Sheen says, "Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?", the movie stops. Twenty minutes and any groans later, we were excused with vouchers for a future screening. There is no foolproof way. The best you can do is hope for a trained and concerned projectionist and house manager who work together to make the screening as high-quality as possible.

My personal CinemaScope/Cinerama fix got met at Denver's idyllic Cooper Theatre, perched on a hilltop in Glendale in modernist splendor. The best explication of its glories can be found here in Shannon Stanbro's "The Cooper, Theatre of Tomorrow" in Historic Modern Denver. There were elevated smoking balconies at the right and left rear; there were "crying child" rooms, soundproofed, fronted with large windows and containing speakers so that new mothers could stay and keep watching the film instead of fleeing into the lobby with their squawking kids.

I've meant to write about the Cooper as part of my long-running Formative Film series, and am about five titles away from talking about it in depth. It is safe to say that viewing some of the original Cinerama and CinemaScope titles there, including a pristine and astonishing archival print of How the West Was Won (1962), were life-changing film-going experiences. But then, anytime we wanted to see a 70-millimeter, large-format drama or action film, we went to the Cooper, unconscious connoisseurs. We did dwell in the heart of the New American Cinema era (1967-1982), more exciting and inclusive than it would ever be again, without knowing it.

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