Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Return of Cinerama


Long before Imax, there was Cinerama. Beginning September 28th, the groundbreaking wide screen process returned to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, one of only three Cinerama theatres still operating in the world. Some of the films have been remastered digitally while others, such as the enormously successful How the West Was Won, are being shown in the original three camera process. Many of the travelogues, such as South Seas Adventure, below, have not been since since their initial release.  The festival also includes some of the later Cinerama films shot in the 70mm, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (shot in ultra-wide Ultra Panavision -- squeezed 70mm), and such rarities as The Golden Head and Holiday in Spain -- otherwise known as Scent of Mystery, the one and only Smell-O-Vision production, a movie which critics at the time said truly stunk.  Too bad they weren't able to recreate that.  I suppose there really are limits after all.  I am giving those last two a miss.  

I can tell you that South Seas Adventure and especially Cinerama Holiday, the second Cinerama travelogue, are well worth seeing.  They also happen to have been painstakingly digitally restored. I was expecting more traditional travelogues but there was a surprising intimacy to both of these. Yes, of course there was the 'wow' factor of being on a bobsled in Switzerland or following surfers off Waikiki, but the directors chose, in the case of Cinerama Holiday, to get close and personal not just with the four main tourists, but to witness the rather amazing footage of African American mourners as they made their way from the Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans through the streets, gradually becoming more celebratory along the way.  It's truly haunting imagery from another era -- as are the views of an ocean liner long since broken up for scrap, a long but fascinating look at a 1950s night club at at the Lido in Paris, and ice skaters in Switzerland.  Whenever it feels as if it starts getting routine, it makes a sharp left turn into something completely different -- a fashion show and a puppet show in Paris, and even the exterior of the Cinerama theatre in New York City.  It's all very much like opening up a big, wide, high definition time capsule.  Both of these are well worth viewing when they are released to the general public on Blue Ray.

I was somewhat less enthusiastic about Search for Paradise.  Though presented in the original 3 projector Cinerama, it was a very badly faded print courtesy of a collector, but it simply was not quite as good a movie as the South Seas or Holiday.  When it is restored digitally, one can imagine seeing some glorious scenery that very few westerners are still allowed to visit in restored dazzling hues.  When these travelogues were originally made, most people simply could not afford the time and expense to travel the globe as people do now, but in the case of Search for Paradise, shot in Tibet, Pakistan and the border of Afghanistan, the region is even more difficult to visit now than it was then. Though I am grateful for those who organized this event, I do think they should have withheld this one and Seven Wonders of the World, which has been only partially restored, for next year.  Otherwise it was a shockingly grainy 35mm Panavision transfer (though I would have believed 16mm).  I simply couldn't stand to sit through it so I raced out of there at Intermission.  But it wasn't just that.  Seven Wonders was really what I was expecting all the travelogues to be like -- cliched, cornball narration by the nasally intoned Lowell Thomas, endless flyovers and the occasional ride on something to hopefully turn a few stomachs. It's the most dated of the travelogues; unfortunately not in an interesting way.

I had seen The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm when I was a kid when it was released in its regular, non-Cinerama 35mm Panavision version.  I probably wondered what the seams were all about, but I wasn't the type to complain.  I was always grateful to see any movie, especially when my parents conceded to see anything I expressed an interest in seeing.  My mother patiently endured it, but  I'll never forget my father bending over and hissing "You'd better be enjoying this" in my ear. That and the Disney Babes in Toyland were the first movies I recall seeing I truly disliked. I'd seen bits of Brothers Grimm on Turner Classic Movies, bent backwards, really impossible to watch, as if looking through a fish eye lens, but I could tell I hadn't misjudged it those many years ago.  Even so, I wanted to see the archive three camera Cinerama print -- which was actually in better condition than I was expecting -- but it's still just as cornball, trite and worse -- dull -- as I had remembered. The not terribly interesting story of the brothers themselves is painfully overextended and despite the efforts of a fine actor like Laurence Harvey to infuse some life into this corpse of a movie, it all goes thud in all seven channels of Cinerama stereo sound.  One finds oneself impatiently drumming one's fingers for the three dramatized fairy tales -- in about three hours running time and what seemed like six, surely they could have squeezed in more than a mere three.  Even so, Cobbler and the Elves, The Dancing Princess and The Singing Bone, like the rest of the movie, could be quite useful if played at bedtime for children who are plagued with chronic insomnia. If I hadn't seen versions of Grimm tales realized in far better movies made before and since, I would have wondered just what all the fuss was about these brothers. Also, for a production that was promoted to be so lavish, at times it looks downright cheap, as in Jim Backus' throne room which looks like Macy's drapery department in 1962.  As for Backus, he simply does his Mr. Magoo voice and leaves it at that.  Alas, even the Puppetoon sequences by George Pal are a let-down.  Despite the technical limitations at the time, the dragon might have been marvelous had Ray Harryhausen been asked to animate him.  But a bad movie is a bad movie.  It's very easy to see why it flopped and why my father loathed it.

Yet to come for me this week is 2001, which I've not seen in digital 2K but having seen it in 70mm several times, including once at the Dome around 1979, I have a feeling I'll be disappointed.  I have seen It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in the new print that was struck several years ago. That's a movie people seem to either love or hate -- I happen to have always loved it from the time I saw it when it first came out.  How the West Was Won is also the fairly recently restored 3 camera print, which if you see nothing else in true 3 camera Cinerama, that's really the one to see.  It's a big, wide, loud crowd pleaser, and though made concurrently with Brothers Grimm, it's a hundred times better.  It has a few clunker scenes, but by and large, it's good, rousing fun.


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