Tuesday, October 9, 2012

That Was Cinerama

Little Dougie dragged me out last week to the Arclight Cinerama Dome where we saw the 60th Anniversary revival of This is Cinerama, actually projected with the three projectors. (The Cinerama Dome, prior to about 10 years ago, had never run a true Cinerama film, It opened just as it became obsolete. For the 50th Anniversary Cinerama festival 10 years ago, the theater had to be retrofitted to be actually able to project true, three-panel Cinerama.)

I never got this logo. Wouldn't a better logo have been more like this:

This at least gives an idea of the screen.

Cinerama was basically three strips of film, three projectors, three images linking up as well as they can, which isn't very, projected on a HUGE screen with a deep, 146 degree curved screen. It is not, and never was, intended to be seen "flat".

Note that the individual images are basically vertical images, unlike normal 35mm photography.
Put together, it looks like this:

Please remain seated until this movie comes to a complete halt, which it will once the black & white choir comes on.

So that, allegedly, you get an effect like this:

Or you could just go to an amusement park and ride a roller coaster.

The process is explained by this handy diagram:

It made for killer travelogues, but that was about it. In This is Cinerama, they show portions of a performance of Aida at La Scala shot by a static camera that just sits there while the opera sequence, devoid of context, bores you. Simple videos of opera stage performances are more interesting visually. Even worse is when it just sits and watches a choir at a distance sing a cut-down version of The Hallelujah Chorus. Talk about boring! Watching a bullfight, even at a distance and only for only 2 and a half minutes is still revolting. "Hey, let's torture and murder a bull for 'entertainment'!" In another scene, the camera sits and watches the Vienna Boy's Choir sing The Blue Danube Waltz. Who knew it had lyrics? The boys look sweet and sing like angels (and the youngest of them still surviving is over 70) but Stanley Kubrick put The Blue Danube on a Cinerama screen with more impact in 1968, and only needed one strip of film to manage it. Also be warned, one of the segments in the first half depicts a "Gathering of the Klans" in Edinburgh (Where Little Dougie's Family originated) which features a LOT of bagpipe "music," - in stereo yet. As the late, great Wally Boag used to say: "The Irish invented the bagpipes and gave them to the Scots, who still haven't gotten the joke yet."

Here's how it looked at the end of the run if you were color blind.

The second act was a considerable improvement. We see a spectacular aquacade which seems to be impossible to see from any other vantage point but the camera. The live Florida audience seems to be MILES away.

Where would an audience be to see this - and HOW?

WHERE would the live audience be?

I'm serious. Just where the HELL would the live audience be?
The film's finale is the one part that remains well worth seeing, a 30 minute aerial travelogue of America, shot from a B-52 piloted by a daredevil master-flier named Paul Mantz, and produced by Merian C. Cooper, the man behind King Kong and my own 1935 film, HER! The man was very right-wing, but his patriotism found a near-perfect, non-jingoistic expression in this spectacular view of how America looked in 1952.

A lake in 1952.

Lower Manhattan in New York still looks pretty much like this, though it looked quite different for a while.

Lowell Thomas kept repeating that we were "Seeing America as no one ever saw it before!" Well this is Midwestern farmland, and I can assure you that the ONLY way I've ever seen it is like this, from a plane flying over it. They call it "Flyoverland" for very good reasons.
It's hard to say what was odder about this demo film of cutting-edge film technology of 1952. Was it the way they billed The Mormon Tabernacle Choir as "The Salt Lake City Tabernacle Choir," as though they (Cooper and Thomas) were afraid that using the word "Mormon" would keep audiences away? Little Dougie's grandmother was in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and not ONCE did she ever tell anyone: "I was in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle Choir." (This is Cinerama was the highest-grossing movie of 1952 AND 1953. Do you really think the word "Mormon" would have made it a failure?)

Mormons singing.
They sing nicely. It's voting where they have their heads up their asses.

Was it Lowell Thomas introducing a Catholic choir and Catholic alter boys as: "something with which you are all familiar," as though everyone that will ever see this movie is a Catholic (Catholics who all loathe Mormons, like being Catholic was somehow better than being Mormon)? Was it the lingering "scenic" shot of the biggest strip mine on earth, a disgusting copper mine in Utah, as Thomas tells us this horror is beautiful, magnificent, and awesome instead of obscene and revolting?

No, I think the weirdest moment was Lowell Thomas informing us in no uncertain terms that we were beholding the majesty which is Bridal Veil Falls while we were clearly looking at Yosemite Falls. It's not like MILLIONS of people don't know the difference between these two great natural wonders which are, certainly, less than a mile apart. And they've only had 60 years to fix that GLARING error.

NOT "Bridal Veil Falls"!

NOT "Yosemite Falls"!
(Both pictures taken by Little Dougie.)

The film opens with Lowell Thomas, a smarmy newsman of the day who seems to find himself clever. Here's an example of his "wit" from the first scene in the movie, when, in normal 35mm and black & white, he lectures us on the history of trying to record movement in pictures. He shows a cave painting from 20,000 years ago that depicts a boar: "He wanted the animal to be in motion, so he added eight legs. [Pause, smarmy smirk from Thomas, then with backhanded thumb-pointing adds:] "Eight legs." You know, Lowell, if you are utterly unable to come up with an amusing observation, try hiring writers. He runs most of The Great Train Robbery with snarky non-comments: "Violence! Action! More violence!" He runs bits of The Sheik with more smug commentary. About the time it gets so irritating that you're ready to walk out they switch on the Cinerama effect and you're off on that Coney Island Rollercoaster, but you've waited a full 16 minutes for the gasbag to shut up and show us Cinerama.

Lowell Thomas in Cinerama talks fatuously. To the right of Michaelangelo's painting of God giving Life to Adam (In the close-up of this painting in the film, Adam's genitalia is just below the camera frame. What a coincidence!) you can see the boar with 8 legs. Here Lowell is NOT singing "Mammy".

Mike Todd produced most of the first half of the film. (which may explain why someone thought we wanted to see 10 minutes of an opera shot by a static camera sitting there watching folks march past in "colorful" outfits) Todd was eventually let go (He had a unique talent for pissing off anyone who got near him) and was replaced with Merian C. Cooper, who was a true film maker whatever his politics. Todd went on to co-create Todd-AO, a frankly-better one-panel huge screen format closer to today's Imax. For his first Todd-AO movie he shot Around the World in 80 Days, which won the Oscar for Best Picture for 1956. Around the World gets bad-mouthed a lot today as an undeserving Best Picture Oscar winner, as though it were as lousy as DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, when in fact, it's a perfectly lovely comedy-adventure that follows the book fairly well, and certainly shows you the world. That film also begins with a lecture, this time on travel and the shrinking world, delivered by Edward R. Morrow, a somewhat more respectable newsman than Thomas, in color but still in a standard 35mm frame, so Todd can again pull the stunt of having the screen grow when the process actually begins, never mind that the first ten minutes of the film could be wholly cut and lose nothing.

When the Intermission ends (The Intermission is announced by a graphic showing two floating cigarettes with their smoke trails spelling out the word "Intermission," thus cutely encouraging you to go smoke yourself up some cancer. Ah, the 1950s. Man, "The Greatest Generation" was stupid), you hear Lowell Thomas yelling at you "QUIET! QUIET! QUIET!" As I said to the person seated next to me whom I was trying to answer a question for: "I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you. The movie is being very rude." Mind you, the house lights are still up, the curtains are still closed, the projectors are not turned on, but Lowell Thomas is screaming "QUIET!" at us. And he's doing this to introduce another Cinerama innovation, which he calls "Stereophonic Sound." Write that term down. You'll hear about Stereophonic Sound again someday, I'm sure. (Lowell and Cinerama would have you believe that this is the first-ever movie in stereo, as though Fantasia and "Fantasound" never happened.)

Don't take my word for it. Check out the DVD. He screams at us on it as well.

Now, at long last, you can see This is Cinerama the way it was intended to be seen: on your iPad while you're riding a bus!
The DVD uses a process called "Smilebox" to approximate the effect of the deeply-curved screen, and does a good job of it.

For ten years they made Cinerama films, and each did quite well indeed, but then a team of men at Cinerama, one of them Little Dougie's Uncle Mack Lunt, developed Ultra-Panavision, which allowed the entire size and curve of the Cinerama screen to be filled up with only a single panel. With the release, by and "in" Cinerama of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Cinerama became obsolete overnight.

The thing is, how many travelogues can you make? After ten years, there wasn't much left. They tried making fictional story films in the process, but it was ill-suited for acting and drama. Here's a close-up of Debbie Reynolds and Thelma Ritter in How the West Was Won, the last-ever movie shot in 3-panel Cinerama:

Who really wanted to see Thelma Ritter that big?
Look at that: they barely take up one-third of the image. Let's say you did a Super close-up of Debbie Reynolds, one where her face spread across all 3 panels; you'd get the "seams" down her eyes. It would look awful, not to mention the sharp points it would give her head, since there are three focal points instead of just one. And if you placed an actor in panel 1 talking to an actor in panel 3, they had to look past each other in order to appear to be looking at each other. It was highly confusing to act, to direct, to shoot.

And of course, if you weren't seated in the center of the theater, you ran the risk of Jimmy Stewart looking like this:

Jimmy Stewart, like practically everyone who worked on this movie, leaned heavily to the right.
The first attempt to do a fiction movie in Cinerama was George Pal's The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, not George's best work.

Actually, it's The Deadly Dull World of the Brothers Grimm, with lovely fairy tales.
 Although the three fairy tales full of special effects are charming and delightful like most of George's best work, the main storyline, an endless tale of the Brothers risking their jobs and romances to write fairy tales, is just terminally boring. It was a movie with something to bore the whole family. Soon George was putting his great talent to use on a worthier project, his wonderful 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.

The second and final Cinerama fiction film was How The West Was Won. Although no one's nominee for "Great Screenplay," the sprawling epic saga of the Prescott and Rawlings families over about 40 years is entertaining and dramatizes major developments in America's 19th Century history in a series of spectacular set pieces. The Civil War, the central American event of the 19th Century, gets short shrift, but then, Gone With the Wind had already been made, but the river rapids scene, the much-greater train robbery, and especially the amazing, jaw-dropping sequence when the Iroquois stampede a herd of bison across the train building site are incredible, make fantastic use of Cinerama, and more than make-up for the plodding plots, for trying to pass off Gregory Peck as a charming gambler-rogue, trying to pass off John Wayne as a human being (A specific one: General Sherman), and for Russ Tamblyn's pretty embarrassing performance.

Russ Tamblyn holds a unique position in Cinerama history: he's the only actor in both of the Cinerama 3-panel fiction movies, playing a prince with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak in Brothers Grimm quite charmingly, and playing a demented Confederate deserter who tries to assassinate General Grant. (Oh, the suspense: Will Russ Tamblyn kill General Grant years before he became president? Well, no, he doesn't.)

Buddy Hackett, Jim Backus, and Terry Thomas all appeared in Brothers Grimm and then went on to appear in the first non-Cinerama Cinerama film, the aforementioned Mad World.

But the form was out-of-date and dead in 1963. When How the West Was Won ended, so did Cinerama. Never mind that, these days, every third release is in Imax, a vastly superior system. These days even My Dinner With AndrĂ© would be in Imax and 3-D. ("Now you can actually TASTE the food AndrĂ© eats!")

And how Cinerama was lost.
But at least the name lives on to do further service at one of its former theaters.

That's entertainment!
("Ladies, bring your husbands!" Yeah, do that.)
Cheers darlings.

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