FILM: 70mm and beyond the infinite

A brief trip to Seattle's Cinerama leaves our film critic contemplating what really matters in cinema

2001“I noticed a mistake,” said the man sitting behind me in the cinema. He was talking to a friend during the intermission of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which screened this past weekend at Seattle’s gorgeous Cinerama. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. In the scene where HAL is playing chess with an astronaut, he elaborated, the supercomputer describes a move incorrectly. But it made him wonder: Was this intentional, perhaps an early, subtle clue that something is wrong with computer?

Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the most fastidious of perfectionist filmmakers, incites this kind of debate in cinephiles. Amusingly enough, this particular gaffe is the first one to come up in the goofs section of the film’s IMDB page. But what I found most interesting about this dive into the deep end of movie minutia was how, in the 45 years since “2001” was first released in theaters, we’ve evolved as moviegoers.

The youth culture at the time embraced the film after a marketing relaunch a year after it was released that focused on the psychedelic experience to be had. The posters showed off the star child, or a massive close up of an eye, adorned with the words, “The Ultimate Trip.” Those rambunctious youngsters dropped acid, went on the ride and embraced the picture. I could be wrong, since this was more than a decade before I was even born, but I doubt those folks got into such minor details as the appropriate description of chess moves in the film. They were probably too busy having their minds blown and trying to remember where they parked their car to care one way or the other.

Look, I’m all for deep introspection and theorizing. After all, a giant chunk of what I love about movies is thinking, reading about and discussing them. But hearing this fellow talk behind me in the theater had me thinking, dude, sometimes you just gotta sit back, let the images and sound grab hold of you, like an ape using a bone as a weapon, and enjoy the experience. Nothing, after all, compares to the actual act of watching a film in a theater.

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The Cinerama in Seattle is in the midst of another 70mm Film Festival. The theater is a treasure, one of only three left in the world capable of showing true cinerama movies. Walking in to it for the first time last Friday, before “Baraka” began, I was taken aback by the sheer size of the screen, concave and stretching 70 feet across. Was it worth taking a two-day trip to another city simply to watch some old films I’ve already seen several times? You’re damn right it was.

cinerama 1

Seattle’s Cinerama in all its big and beautiful glory

There’s nothing better than 70mm film projection on a giant screen. It’s the filmic equivalent of high definition. The sound in the Cinerama shakes the theater at times. Several moments in “Baraka” and “2001” forced most people in the audience to cover their ears, it was so loud. The experiences for both those films was so strong I fear that watching them on DVD is now a fool’s errand, for I’ve seen them in the absolute perfect conditions, and I can’t go back to a dinky TV screen, no matter all the fancy digital bells and whistles it may have. Nothing is more immersive or capable of inducing awe.

Perhaps you’re wondering why all the talk of a Seattle movie theater on an Oregon media site? Well, the folks at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland have in their possession a couple 70mm film projectors. They’re tracking down some parts to get them in working order, but the plan is to bring this large format to the Rose City. And since there’s only so many films available in 70mm prints, there’s little doubt that all three movies I saw at the Cinerama will screen here when the projectors are operational.

An image from "Baraka"

An image from “Baraka”

Here’s the breakdown of my experience: “Baraka,” from 1992, is an awe-inspiring, completely visual (read: no dialogue) documentary showing man’s relationship to technology, modern living and nature. It’s gorgeous. Watching it (and “2001”) on this giant screen ranks as one of the best experiences of my life at the cinema. But the other film I watched last weekend, “Lawrence of Arabia,” I could’ve skipped altogether. Though it’s considered one of the best films of all time, I just don’t see it. There are certain films that carry a reputation so strong in the public’s memory that they are unimpeachable. The visuals of “Lawrence” are breathtaking to be sure. The desert has never looked so good on the big screen (and seeing ‘Lawrence’ in a theater is the only good way to watch it), but that’s just not enough. I refuse to drink the Kool-Aid with this one.

If there’s any concern for Portland audiences eager to experience films on 70mm at the Hollywood, it’s that the theater’s screen has to be huge to really get the full experience. The Hollywood sports a very respectable 50-foot screen, which is nothing to sneeze at, but I fear the common moviegoer who buys into the hype of the large format may be left confused. As big as that screen is, the 70mm movies may not seem any different than a 35mm presentation for most people. At the Cinerama, you’re engulfed by the screen’s massiveness. At the Hollywood, I recommend sitting as close as possible. The picture quality will be pristine, but again, I worry most folks will not really notice and be confused.

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Director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “Brick”) made a bold proclamation when he appeared on The Q & A podcast in October 2012. “I think the film/digital debate is the most boring thing happening out there right now.” Even though I just regaled you with my glorious experience seeing some classic titles shown on film, I agree with him. Mostly because, much as I still prefer film as the superior format, it takes away from the far more interesting subjects to discuss about movies.

As a projectionist and manager at The Northwest Film Center, our devoted audience (specifically, the people who come to just about everything we screen) is concerned with format. I often get emails, questions in person and general concerns from these patrons as to how each movie will be shown. Most of them are film purists. One such gentleman told me recently how he’d seen Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Academy Theatre six nights in a row, not just because he really liked it, but mostly because it was being shown on 35mm.

film comparison

This guy, who I must admit makes me smile every time he walks into the box office at the Whitsell Auditorium (where the NWFC screens films), fears that there’ll come a time when he’ll never be able to see films shown on actual film, and  I’ve heard him say he doesn’t want to watch movies if they’re not shown on film. That I can not understand. Let’s try to turn the discussion back to what’s most important: the stories, the characters, the writing, the cinematography. Or all the rich history about the makers behind these works of art that have captured our imagination and will continue to do so. Isn’t that what matters most?

Movie theaters converting from film to digital has been the subject of many articles in Portland alone. Across the world, it’s an ongoing debate. I think it’s time to move on. For one, digital projection is only going to get better. I’ve already written about one fantastic experience seeing a classic film screened on DCP (the new digital projection format). And another, more vital point: film is NOT going away. It’s already niche, but it’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future as far as I can tell.

If you live in big city with proper independent/arthouse theaters (of course, we are spoiled in Portland) that still demand to show what’s available on film, then there’s no reason to think it’ll completely go away. Like the resurgence of vinyl, film projection will be the reason for many people to come out the cinema. It’ll be THE major selling point. Case in point: The Hollywood is showing eight obscure, completely unavailable film noir titles this weekend as part of the first Noir City festival in Portland. The man behind the festival, Eddie Muller, has made it his life’s mission to restore, preserve and present undervalued, barely known crime films on film. He’s not the only guy doing this. There are lots of  private collectors out there (like Dan Halsted, of the Hollywood Theater, whose sizable collection continues to grow). I also believe that small companies will emerge to strike prints so they can be shown exclusively at theaters with the means to do so.

The game has evolved, and will continue to evolve, not unlike how moviegoers’ have changed throughout the many decades of the medium’s existence. You’re probably reading this article because you’re a fan of cinema (that or you’re my mom; in that case hi mom!), and you like reading about it. Isn’t getting boring to hear another apocalyptic story about how digital is killing the movies? So let’s realign the focus back on what matters. Change is inevitable, especially in an artform so heavily reliant on technology. Instead of balking at the new, let’s back up and remind ourselves that this medium has gone through all kinds of change. After all, cinerama and 70mm films were made because everyone thought television was going to kill movies. Didn’t exactly happen did it?

Go for the experience. Sit back, relax and escape into another time, another world, and revel for a few brief hours in the pleasure of seeing the world through others’ eyes. Go for the discussion after, the countless debates to be had with friends. You don’t necessarily need to drop acid to have your mind blown at the cinema. It is its own kind of intoxicant. But let’s not forget what’s most important: going to see the movies themselves.

NOTES
-Article about how a new marketing campaign, and a fateful meeting with Kubrick, led to the eventual appreciation of “2001”: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/nov/02/marketingandpr

-A list of all known films available on 70mm: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_70_mm_films

-A brief history of Cinerama: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinerama

-A dense, easily digestible guide to 70mm in three parts: http://cigsandredvines.blogspot.com/2012/08/cigarettes-red-vines-presents-guide-to_8174.html

-A list of all the noir films showing this weekend at the Hollywood: http://hollywoodtheatre.org/noir-city/

Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday.

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