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Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

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Figures Traced In Light

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Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

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A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

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Archive for the 'Film technique: Widescreen' Category

Tony and Theo

Man on Fire (Tony Scott, 2004); The Suspended Step of the Stork (Theo Angelopoulos, 1991).

DB here:

In January of 2012, while shooting The Other Sea, Theo Angelopoulos was struck by a motorcyclist and died soon afterward. In August, Tony Scott committed suicide by jumping off Los Angeles’ Vincent Thomas Bridge.

Both men mattered to cinema. But which cinema?

From 1970 onward, Angelopoulos produced solemn films about Greek history, world war, emigration, and the collapse of struggles for political change. His hallmark was the extended—some said excruciating—long take. He presented his work as that of a thoughtful and passionate intellectual, a witness to history (or as he sometimes said, History) who was telling us hard, melancholy truths. His work received little mainstream distribution outside Europe and Japan, and some of his best films weren’t circulated nontheatrically or on video. Severe and abrasive, he alienated powerful members of film culture and was reported to have responded sourly when he did not win Cannes’ top prize.

By contrast, after Top Gun (1986), Tony Scott came to be the prototype of the ADD Hollywood director, a master of the blockbuster action picture. He gleefully marshaled visceral technique to jolt the eye and hammer the ear. His movies were unabashed booty calls, spotlighting female pulchritude in a tone of laddish camaraderie in an all-male milieu (sports, the military, the workplace). Not lacking intelligence, he avoided the sweeping pronouncements that made Angelopoulos look pretentious, but his early partnering with Simpson and Bruckheimer stamped him as raucously vulgar. He even dated Brigitte Nielsen.

 

Extremes meet

Déja vu (2008); Eternity and a Day (1995).

The statuesque versus the kinetic, the monumental versus the ephemeral, ponderousness versus cheap flash: To all appearances, these men lived in different cinematic worlds. Their careers were oddly counterpointed too. Angelopoulos, a festival darling in the 1970s and 1980s, became more unfashionable. By the time of his last release, The Dust of Time (2009), some critics were openly scornful. Scott faced gibes from the start but won some critical respect in the 2000s. After his death, critics were calling him a master. To many, Angelopoulos’s stubborn allegiance to 1970s modernism looked old hat, while Scott’s bodaciousness and eye candy seemed to have finally seduced audiences and critics alike.

I confess that both give me qualms. When Angelopoulos strains for significance, as he does at many moments throughout his oeuvre and almost constantly in The Dust of Time, he arouses all my impatience with pretentious Eurocinema. When Scott builds a scene out of  Fuck-you-motherfucker dialogue and lingering views of pole dancers he reminds me of just how low contemporary American cinema can sink. And the style of each one can become predictable–an angled shot down a street portends a pan in Angelopoulos, while once somebody sits down in a Scott movie the camera is likely to start to twirl.

Despite these misgivings, I find that I can admire and enjoy both men’s films quite a lot. Their most venturesome work offers us powerful experiences, and they can teach us things about cinema—not least, how creative filmmakers can rework the medium and its historical traditions.

And their worlds overlap at least a little. Both men treat cinema as an art of scale. To see Man on Fire (2004) or Alexander the Great (1981) on home video, no matter how big your monitor, is to shrink the films fatally. Correspondingly both men relied on spectacle, stuffing the screen with sweeping, startling effects. True, Scott’s spectacle is maximalist, while Angelopoulos’s is austere. Yet once you’ve calibrated your bandwidth, the train that rumbles through the migrant camp in The Weeping Meadow (2004) becomes no less rattling than the rogue locomotive in Unstoppable (2010). “Go big or go home” might be each man’s motto.

Both play games with narrative as well. As early as The Hunger (1983) Scott’s incessant crosscutting uses the soundtrack of one line of action to comment on another. The time looping of Domino (2005) and Déja Vu (2008) creates flashbacks, replays, revised outcomes, and jumping viewpoints. More sedately, Angelopoulos perfected the time-shifting long take. The camera movements of The Traveling Players (1975) glide among different eras. From scene to scene, Angelopoulos will provide few marks of tense. Scene B may follow A, or precede it by several years, and no Hollywoodish superimposed title will help us out. It may be several minutes before we realize that decades have passed.

Yet the time-scrambling both directors enjoy isn’t wholly at the service of drama. Storytelling takes on a curiously subsidiary role in their work. Neither filmmaker, it seems to me, is centrally interested in probing what many of us take to be the core of narrative—character psychology. This isn’t to say there aren’t poignant moments and glimpses of inner lives. But each director also leaps beyond them.

I think in fact that Tony and Theo explore what happens when narrative slips away, when cinematic textures and patterning are allowed to override drama—to inflate it, deflate it, thrust it to one side, take it as a pretext for something more tangibly enthralling. Both filmmakers seek to shape our perception and emotion, letting the fluctuations of images and sounds engender a kind of mesmeric attention in themselves.

They accomplish this within two different traditions, that of modern Hollywood and that of “art cinema.” Yet they share a commitment to going beyond the given: Each director pushes his tradition to a limit.

 

Pulp fictions

Déja vu (2008).

Scott’s tradition is, most broadly, Hollywood narrative cinema, and up to a point he plays along. The plots are propelled by goal-directed characters who clash with others, and the results are contests (Top Gun, Days of Thunder, 1990), investigations (Beverly Hills Cop II, 1987; Man on Fire, Deja Vu), pursuits and conspiracies (Revenge, 1990; The Last Boy Scout, 1991; True Romance, 1993; The Fan, 1996; Enemy of the State, 1998; Spy Game, 2001; Domino), and ticking-clock suspense situations (Crimson Tide, 1995; The Taking of Pelham 123, 2009; Unstoppable).

At the center there usually stands one man, or a duo, who must undergo a test of courage and resourcefulness. In The Fan, an example of what Kristin has called the parallel-protagonist movie, a normal guy finds himself pursued by an obsessed admirer. A woman might serve as a gutsy partner, as in True Romance, or the object of the quest (Revenge, Spy Game), or the reward for success (The Last Boy Scout, Unstoppable). Only Domino has a female protagonist who survives through being as abrasive, dirty-minded, and foul-mouthed as her male partners and adversaries. Yet by her own admission, she has daddy issues and a longing to return to cozy wealth.

At bottom, then, Scott worked with straightforward pulp stories, and for about a decade he played them in the proper spirit. But with Enemy of the State (1998) he began to use the slipperier narrational strategies spreading through Hollywood of his time. Like Tarantino, who supplied the script of True Romance, Scott became willing—inspired, he suggests, by rock’n’roll and the films of Nicholas Roeg—to go a little wild.

His scripts started playing with what we usually call point of view. Some films become markedly, not to say traumatically, subjective. Spy Game splits the protagonist figure into two and gives us each one’s standpoint on the action. The Fan, from Peter Abraham’s fine novel, tracks a man’s obsession as it turns deadly. Man on Fire plunges into John Creasy’s mental world as he distills pain, guilt, piety, and alcoholism into a merciless sadism.

By the time we get to Domino, story presentation is pitilessly disjunctive. The main action is bracketed by a conventional frame showing the heroine telling her story to a police officer. A good thing, too; we couldn’t follow the action without her commentary. The tale fractures into quickfire AV displays, with pauses, backing-and-filling, alternative outcomes, and even written titles, as if we were getting the most juice-jangled PowerPoint talk in history.

Another multiplication of perspective takes place via spy games. Most directors situate modern surveillance techniques within their story world; Paul Greengrass seems happiest shooting people bent over workstations. When your average director gives you a swooping helicopter shot, you don’t take it as the POV of a sinister government agency or a sensationalistic TV livecam. In Scott’s late films you’re likely to. He realized that all today’s security cameras, cellphones, and hostile eyes in the sky can do two useful things. They can chop story space and time into teasing fragments, and they can refresh the shot’s visual texture.

For quite some time Hollywood movies have used television for exposition. Characters tap into the flow of story events via TV broadcasts, and sometimes, as in The Siege (1998), the film simply cuts in news clips presented directly to us, without any mediating character. Passages like these, a contemporary equivalent of the newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts of classic studio cinema, usually smooth out the plot, linking things concisely.

But Scott takes pleasure in playing up the disparities among the footage, cutting from “direct” presentation of material to mediated images and sounds. In the conspiracy films, the video images seem to be coming from a vast image bank or database that the film is sampling on the fly. Moreover, the constant interruption of one shot by another, seen on computer or news broadcast or spycam, creates a nervous visual narration. In effect, Scott imports the mixed-format collages of Stone’s JFK (1991) into the action film (with more skill than Stone summoned up for Natural Born Killers of 1994 and U-Turn of 1997).

At the level of presentation, though, a narrower tradition shapes Scott’s style. In interviews and director commentaries he ceaselessly reminds us that he started out as a painter, and he has, I think, brought a fresh pictorial intelligence to the action film.

 

Too much is not enough

Days of Thunder (1990).

Like Michael Mann, Scott seems to have felt the need to give the action picture a dose of self-conscious artistry. The problem was the competition. The gold standard of the genre emerged in 1988 with the poised, tightly-woven classicism of John McTiernan’s Die Hard. How was an ambitious director to match that? Most directors were embracing variants of a style I’ve dubbed “intensified continuity”—fast cutting, simple staging, polar extremes of lens lengths, almost constant camera movement. The efficient but routine Richard Donner and Renny Harlin worked along these lines, while Michael Bay represented the style in almost pristine form. But what if a director who had trained as a painter at the Royal College of Art could take intensified continuity into new territory?

So yes, go along with the trend toward fast cutting; but make it even faster. In an era in the average shot in the average film runs between 3 and 5 seconds, why not make them 2 seconds? Or less? This was Scott’s choice from The Fan (1996) on. He seldom repeats a setup, largely because he has so many cameras stationed on the perimeter of the scene. Man on Fire contains at least 4100 shots, Domino over 5000, but perhaps we will never know just how many. Long passages are built out of multiple exposures, superimpositions, stop-and-go motion, and color shifts within a “shot.” The cut ceases to be a firm boundary as layers float up and slip away.

     

At times Scott, like Vertov in Man with a Movie Camera and Pat O’Neill in Power and Water, simply abandons the concept of a discrete shot, letting images seep through his frame.

And yes, move the camera; but move it in arabesques quite different from McTiernan’s unfussy following shots and tense track-ins. In particular, take the swirling camera as a given but then pivot your subject a bit as well. Cutting from one rotation to another can yield a little ballet of sculptural solidity, with barriers gliding by in the foreground and bursts of tonal values throughout. Here’s an example from Unstoppable.

                         

In the 1980s and early 1990s films, Scott mixed haze and sharpness. Some scenes would be shot in metallic or earth tones and swathed in those smoky layers brother Ridley had popularized in Blade Runner. Other scenes would boast silhouettes, crisp edges, and blocks of bright color. Consider these images from Revenge, The Last Boy Scout (2 frames) and True Romance.

     

     

All framings–long-shot, medium-shot, close-up–tend to be covered by several cameras with very long lenses, which flatten and abstract the image. Later, having discovered the power of cross-processing reversal stock, Scott mostly gave up haze for what he called hyperrealism: high contrasts, along with Hockneyish color ripeness and thick but still transparent shadow regions.

     

Scott adds to the canons of intensified continuity the punch of the axial cut, that shot change that yanks figures toward or away from us (an effect that his last films mimicked by snap-zooms). Combined with long lenses set at various distances, this option creates a sense of constantly losing and refinding the point of the shot. As Connie swivels during a later stretch of the Unstoppable scene, the axial cut with different backgrounds pins her against varied blocks of color.

     

Critics complained that Scott’s style reminded them of MTV videos and commercials, a great number of which the Scott brothers produced. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with filmmakers drawing inspiration from advertising (as painters like Warhol and Stuart Davis did) or from video clips (as Wong Kar-wai seems to have done). What matters is what you do with your sources. It seems clear that Scott subjected these techniques to a new pressure, using them to thrust current norms to new extremes.

Intensified continuity, as I argued in The Way Hollywood Tells It, offers a mannerist version of classic continuity. If that’s accurate, then we might say that Scott provides a Rococo variant of intensified continuity itself. Michael Mann, another pictorialist, is more of a purist, seeking a sober gravity, while Scott doodles and scrawls across the surface of his scenes. Not only does he interpose reflections, rain, dust, and other particles between his subjects and us, but he reiterates lines of dialogue via supered titles.

     

Mann lets us soak up his images, but Scott tosses out one gorgeous composition after another in bewildering profusion. In the accelerated late films, they barely have time to register. The film seems to whisk away under our eyes. Shots lack an organic arc; they’re lopped off. Partial impressions pile up, defeating our urge to dwell on a composition. Sometimes you can’t trust your eyes. During the kidnap scene of Man on Fire, a thug prepares to shoot back at Creasy as a burst of flame is reflected in his car.

Problem is, nothing has caught fire in the scene; for once, no explosions. It’s purely a crazy jolt, literalizing the idea of a “firefight” without any realistic motivation.

These techniques are motivated to some degree by story demands: the need to suggest a mental state, to portray a heroic posture, or to amp up a fight or chase. But Scott’s visual and auditory handling exceeds the demands of clear storytelling. He wraps the most perfunctory dialogue scene in a dazzling embroidery that arrests attention in its own right. Mere decoration? I’d agree. Still, decorative art isn’t an unworthy calling, and decoration pursued with conviction and inventiveness demands our notice.

And this decoration isn’t dainty. Domino, Unstoppable, and the second half of Man on Fire have a grunge dimension, with shots that make our world look at once harsh and dazzling. Scott could be our Sam Fuller (complete with cigar), and Domino could be his Naked Kiss. Fuller might echo Scott’s gaffer, who said of Domino: It isn’t pretty, but it is beautiful.

 

Threnody

Ulysses’ Gaze (1995).

From The Birth of a Nation to Lincoln, American studio cinema tends to show grand historical events intertwining with the private dramas of great leaders or common folk. But there were other options. Eisenstein’s first three films—Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October—floated the possibility of the “mass protagonist.” In these films, history is made by groups, and individuals are given largely symbolic roles. During the politicized 1960s, this model was taken up by filmmakers on the left.

The filmmaker who explored this option most fully was the Hungarian Miklós Jancsó. Although his films seem to be little-known today, he was a major force in reviving the idea of presenting history through group dynamics. Individuals play a role in The Round-Up (1965), Silence and Cry (1968), and The Confrontation (aka Bright Winds, 1969), but they are usually bereft of personal psychology. These figures are defined by their roles in a struggle—a civil war, a revolution, a clash with a domineering regime—and they are often pawns in a game of shifting power.

The Red and the White (1967), available on DVD, is a good example. This saga of the Russian Civil War that followed the 1917 revolution takes us through skirmishes between clashing armies, the tactics pursued by a squadron of Hungarian volunteers, and episodes in a Red Cross station. Individuals come to the fore briefly but are likely to vanish from later scenes, or simply die on the spot. One young Hungarian threads his way through the action, but he can hardly be said to be a point-of-view character, and we learn nothing of his background or motives. A great deal of the film is taken up with rituals of questioning prisoners, torturing and shooting captives, and ravaging innocents caught in the crossfire. At the climax, a tattered Red unit marches defiantly toward a superior White force, the entire confrontation played out in a stupendous landscape.

The Red and the White could defend itself from charges of formalism through its affinity with Soviet-style war dramas, but as Jancsó went on to examine episodes in Hungarian history, he soon gave up realism. He staged historical events in symbolic forms, on a bare plain or as obscure rituals in festivals rippling with music and dance. Examples are Agnus Dei (1972), and Red Psalm (1969; available on DVD). These films relied on endlessly tracking, craning, and zooming; the camera floats, and space stretches and squashes. The result was long-take extravaganzas. The Red and the White has fewer than two hundred shots; The Confrontation (1969) only thirty-five; Sirocco (1969) and Elektra, My Love (1974; on DVD) fewer than a dozen.

It seems to me that after Angelopoulos’s first film, he picked up and expanded Jancsó’s idea of investigating a nation’s history through mass dynamics and stripped-down spectacle. He proceeded more or less chronologically through modern Greek history. Days of ‘36 (1972) examines the dictatorial rule of General Metaxas (1937-1941) while The Traveling Players of 1975 covers the Nazi occupation and postwar civil strife. The Hunters (1977) revives the years from the civil war (1944-1949) to the mid-1960s through an arresting narrative device: present-day hunters find the corpse of a civil war partisan, as fresh as if killed yesterday. Alexander the Great (1980) doubles back to a period from the turn of the century until the 1930s, showing a bandit taking power over a remote village.

This tetralogy did pick out individuals, but it made them symbols of larger forces, often through names drawn from history or mythology. The travelling players are named Electra, Orestes, and the like; Alexander the bandit is a brutish version of his legendary namesake. Nevertheless, Angelopoulos’ presentation did little to acquaint us with them from the inside. He drew on none of Scott’s subjective tricks to convey instant impressions or fragments of memory; even his quasi-subjective flashbacks were likely to include the protagonist as he is today in the scene from the past.

Popular filmmaking depends on our accessing characters’ thoughts and feelings, but Angelopoulos largely gave that up. He made his plots depend on large-scale political forces. Sometimes, as in Days of ’36 and The Hunters, we are taken behind the scenes and shown the machinations of power, but usually history unfolds through impersonal forces—often outside the frame. When the apparatus of power is made visible, it’s through visions of police, soldiers, or other authorities. And those are often presented as rigid and impersonal.

Below, in Ulysses’ Gaze, a candlelight march is confronted by row upon row of police. The calm, mechanical way the officers fill up the middle ground makes the impending conflict quite suspenseful. When you think the composition, and the confrontation, have exhausted the shot’s duration and space, a crowd of citizens appears in the foreground to bear witness. All three groups are made into homogeneous blocks through the distant framing and the consistency of texture (flickering candles, uniforms, umbrellas).

     

The drama comes when our characters are forced to respond to the forces of oppression. They flee, they hide, or they’re captured and sent to prison or execution or exile. It’s an inglorious version of history, filtered through a Brechtian belief that distancing us from charged situations, presenting emotions dryly rather than melodramatically, can bring lucidity and a grasp of macro-dynamics. But Angelopoulos also traced his the origins of his oblique, sometimes opaque style to the pressures of censorship. Under the Greek junta, it was impossible to speak about history directly.

So I sought a secret language. Tacit understanding of the story. The temps morts  in plotting a conspiracy. The unsaid. Elliptical discourse as an aesthetic principle. A film in which everything that is important takes place outside the frame.

Even after censorship ceased, Angelopoulos continued in this taciturn vein, making his films thoroughly decentered and dedramatized.

Yet in the 1980s, he tried to offer audiences more. He began to put distinct and individualized characters at the center of his films, and he achieved his survey of political change by sending them on modern Odysseys. In Voyage to Cythera (1983) a film director is conceiving a new project, and he visualizes the story of an elderly Communist let out of prison and returning to his village. In The Beekeeper (1985), a schoolteacher abandons his family and embarks on a trip across a bleak modern Greece. Landscape in the Mist (1988) follows two children convinced that their emigrant father is waiting for them just across the border. In The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) a television journalist tracks down a prominent politician who seems to be hiding in a refugee village.

Two 1990s films plumb the characters’ pasts in more detail. Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) follows an archivist (called simply A) searching for a lost film and his own family history in the Balkans. In Eternity and a Day (1998), a poet in the last days of his life reflects on his life while accompanying a boy trying to return to Albania.

In the 2000s Angelopoulos began again thinking on an epic scale. Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (2004) announced itself as the first installment in nothing less than a history of the twentieth century told through the experience of a single family. Concentrating on a refugee couple—one Russian, one Greek—it sets their fugitive romance against the events of World War I, the rise of Fascism, and the Greek Civil War, while also hinting at parallels to Attic tragedy. The second installment, The Dust of Time (2009) runs parallel to Voyage to Cythera and Ulysses’ Gaze in centering on a filmmaker, but he becomes less central to the plot than his father, his mother, and his mother’s lover–all victims of 1950s Soviet Communism who survive to see the fall of the Berlin wall.

Over these years, Angelopoulos collaborated with the Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra (who died about two months after the director). Guerra, who worked with Antonioni, Fellini, the Tavianis, and many other directors, may have helped turn Angelopoulos toward less forbidding storytelling. The more vividly drawn protagonists of the late work were often played by well-established actors (Mastrioanni, Moreau, Ganz, Keitel, Dafoe, Piccoli), and two of the films center on children, one common way to kindle emotion. Eleni Karaindrou’s scores, full of threnodies rising up from massed strings, by also gave the films after Cythera a plangent warmth reminiscent of doleful musical pieces by Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt.

Still, these late films are only comparatively more accessible. Their stories come across as downbeat, episodic, relatively empty of conventional drama, full of  “dead time” and unmarked time shifts, and deeply somber. Which is to say that they belong to the broader tradition of postwar European art cinema, its norms given fresh realization through echoes of Greek mythology and a signature style of exceptional rigor.

 

Stasis and sublimity

Alexander the Great (1981).

At the level of technique Angelopoulos again emerges as a synthesizer. An admirer of Mizoguchi and Antonioni, and again probably influenced by Jancsó, he became identified with the long take. From The Traveling Players on, scenes are presented in very few shots, often only a single one. Three films of the tetralogy contain between 125 and 150 shots, while The Hunters makes do with 49. And most of the films are very long (two nearly four hours), so the average shot length runs from 72 seconds (Days of ’36) to 206 seconds (The Hunters). As the later films became more accessible, the editing paced quickened only a little: no film has more than a hundred shots, and in all the average shot runs between fifty seconds and two minutes. Add together all the shots in Angelopoulos’ thirteen features and you have less than a third of the shots in, say, Scott’s Enemy of the State.

Most long-take filmmakers scale their framings to human activity; think of Ophuls and Renoir, capturing gestures and reactions as time flows through the image. But Angelopoulos combined the long take with the long shot, putting landscape at the center of his work. The stunning shot I’ve excerpted from The Red and the White above isn’t wholly typical of Jancsó’s films, which tend to have many close framings and to save vast views for climactic moments. By contrast, Angelopoulos makes very distant shots his default mode for exteriors, even for moments of high drama: a conversation in The Hunters, a death in Alexander the Great.

     

There are very few conventional close-ups in his films, and mid-shots are often forced on him by fully-built interiors, either locations or sets, as in the frame below from The Weeping Meadow. Even then, the camera often keeps its distance, subordinating characters to impersonal architecture and making their encounters seem fragile (The Suspended Step of the Stork).

     

Sometimes the tableau that results has considerable depth, as with groups gathered in interiors (The Hunters, below). More pointedly, a horrifying scene in Landscape in the Mist almost cruelly forces our eye back into the distance. In each shot, the most important action is furthest from the camera.

     

At other moments the long shot yields what I’ve called planimetric images. There’s still a fair amount of depth, but the shot is framed perpendicular to a back plane and figures are spread out in strips or layers. Some images earlier in today’s entry afford examples, particularly the developing street confrontation in Ulysses’ Gaze. The Weeping Meadow shows that this principle can be applied to a raft and rowboats too.

Like Scott, Angelopoulos relies on very long lenses, but he holds the shot so that the flattening effect of the lens creates a gradually changing   pattern.

Both depth framings and planimetric ones were exploited by European filmmakers of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but Angelopoulos focused rigorously on them and joined them with consistently distant camera positions. As the dramaturgy downplays individual psychology, the shot scale makes individuals figures in a landscape. The result is often a rhythmic organization of the frame, a pattern of symmetries and abstract geometries (Traveling Players, The Dust of Time).

     

In the later films, moments of personal drama are played out in no less opaque distant shots. In Voyage to Cythera, the exile’s wife goes to their old cottage and coaxes him out. They must be exchanging a look of understanding, but only on the big screen is it visible.

     

Such fixed shots are riveting enough, but how can the filmmaker dynamize them and prepare for them? The answer for Angelopoulos was keeping the frame mobile. He refuses the giddy sweep and beguiling tempo of Jancsó. Angelopoulos is severe. Like Scott, he will use the zoom, but his enlargements or de-enlargements are stately, not staccato. (Again, that Red and the White shot may have been an early model for him.) In all, his mobile framings are as austere as the color palettes (earth and metal tones) and the lighting (subdued, often chiaroscuro, with usually a drab sky).

His camera pans with passing characters, sometimes letting them come close enough for us to identify them or catch an expression; a prolonged traveling shot follows Spyros’ wife in the scene above as she approaches the fence. But the very plainness of this technique can sharpen our expectations. As often in postwar European film, the extended, dialogue-free walk creates its own arc of interest. We rarely know where a character is headed on that walk, or what they see that makes them approach. In a way this technique recalls the thriller or horror film: show the reaction and pan to the cause of it. But with Angelopoulos that cause will tend to be something stupefying in scale, a revelation of a side of the world we haven’t suspected, perhaps a realm closer to surrealism (The Suspended Step of the Stork; Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow).

     

Hallucinatory images like these, presented with a calm gravity, suggest that the forces of history, like Goya’s dreams of reason, bring forth monsters—not raging and tumultuous ones, but ones displaying deathly, disturbing stillness. The emotional shock of the characters communicates itself to us as a pictorial shock, itself achieved by the simplest means. In Eternity and a Day, the protagonist and the boy come upon a refugee camp where the detainees, clinging to the fence, seem suspended in the mist.

          

The result of all these creative choices is a cinematic pageant, and not only because of its splendid imagery. Like the medieval pageant wagons that rolled scene after scene past a crowd, Angelopoulos’ scenes become a procession of tableaux. They are broken by movements—sometimes slow, sometimes sudden, almost always small. Only he could imagine this shot in Alexander the Great in which a tourist edges out from behind a pillar at the Temple of Poseidon and lifts his finger for silence. His arm arrests our attention without losing the monumental context.

If Tony Scott’s images are hurled out in a mad rush, Angelopoulos gives us time to see the smallest changes. Sometimes these emerge in cramped interiors, guided by aperture staging or a gliding camera. At other moments we must scan a vast space to spot our protagonists. What eighteenth-century thinkers called the Sublime, the fearsome majesty we apprehend in the enormity of the world outside ourselves, as during a storm at sea, has been given a political weight. Not despair, Angelopoulos insists, or even pessimism: rather, a collective melancholy at recognition of a sad destiny.

Like Scott, Angelopoulos pushed to new extremes certain premises of the traditions he chose to work in: Dedramatization, depersonalization, the long take, a reliance on staging that is dense or spacious, deep or planar, and the urge to represent history and contemporary life in a more abstract, majestic way. Heir to Antonioni and Jancsó, he carried their visual ideas to new limits and showed what more they could do. That strategy laid bare his own artifice, to the point that the minute fluctuations of style–no less “cinematic” than Scott’s–fascinate us in their own right.

 

All I’ve done is to trace some curves and whorls of each filmmaker’s signature, his characteristic principles of handling story and style in relation to the norms of his time. I haven’t tried to launch fine-grained analyses of particular scenes or entire films. Both are necessary, of course. Still, the sort of analysis I’ve outlined seems to me essential to appreciating their work fully.

That work has something broader to teach us about film and film criticism. Too often critics think that their job is to expose a film’s meanings. For most critics, that often entails a Zeitgeist interpretation. The movie is held to reflect the events, popular mood, or wish-fulfillment needs of its time. For academic critics, the hunt for meaning may also entail mapping a set of theoretical concepts onto the film, as with psychoanalytic or postmodernist interpretations.

But filmmakers like Scott and Angelopoulos remind us that we should say, more accurately, that films produce effects, of which meanings are only one type. The film provokes us to have an experience, part of which may be the search for themes and implications, but another part–perhaps the biggest and most basic one–is a guided process of perception, thinking, and emotion.

Of course, meanings matter. Enemy of the State warns us about how surveillance and data-mining can obliterate personal identity. Landscape in the Mist suggests that in the age of migrant labor, disputed boundaries, and ethnic wars, Europe has destroyed childhood. So far, so good; and we should go further. But tracing the dynamics of theme still obliges us to analyze the perceptible force of these films. That, I think, can best be recognized through a study of how the resources of cinema are deployed to give us an experience that isn’t reducible to paraphrasable ideas.

These cinematic resources, flaunted without apology from moment to moment, are the fabric of the movie. In fact, both men pretty relentlessly drain their scenes of thematic meaning. In Enemy of the State, Scott piles up so many surveillance and counter-surveillance stratagems that the anti-technology message seems just a pretext to multiply images, switch points of view, and futz up our own information-processing. In Ulysses’ Gaze, the shot of a dismantled Lenin statue floating down the river on a barge makes its “statement” immediately, but Angelopoulos won’t let it go. He follows its progress, shows people on the river banks kneeling and praying to it, and accompanies the whole sequence with Karaindrou’s surprisingly lilting music. The Symbol of Dead Communism has been drained of its portent and has become a curiously lyrical audio-visual display. These men go so far that they come out the other side.

Accordingly, both have been called heavy-handed: one is shallow, the other hollow. Granted, many viewers find art works that depend on kinetic impact or slow accumulation unsubtle. Yet sometimes force, bursting out or released in minute doses, is welcome. The Rite of Spring and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima both strike with a physical impact. Here the odd couple Tony and Theo find one more affinity: They suggest that subtlety in the arts may be overrated.


Information about the posse Tony Scott ran with in his early days can be found in Charles Fleming, High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess (Main Street, 1999). The gaffer discussing Domino is Bruce McCleery, and I’ve paraphrased his original comment: “It’s definitely not pretty, but on some level it can be truly beautiful.” See Pauline Rogers, “Lady Killer,” ICG Magazine (October 2005), 35.

Scott’s death has provoked a lot of good writing on the Net. See for example Manohla Dargis, “A Director who Excelled in Excess”; Jim Emerson, “Films on fire”; Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson, “World Out of Order: Tony Scott’s Vertigo”; Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “Smearing the Senses: Tony Scott, Action Painter”; and, for discussions of individual sequences, see “Tony Scott, a Moving Target,”  the remarkable round-robin hosted by MUBI and Daniel Kasman and Gina Telaroli. Reliably, David Hudson has compiled web critics’ reactions at Fandor.

Jancsó’s films deserve closer scrutiny than they’ve received. My Narration in the Fiction Film includes an analysis of The Confrontation (not, so far as I know, available on DVD).

Perversely, having claimed that these directors’ images suffer when reduced, I’ve given you postage-stamp illustrations, and for this I apologize. Take them as waving you toward the need to see the films at full stretch. As for their quality, I’ve drawn as many illustrations from 35mm prints as I had available, but I’ve been obliged as well to rely on DVD copies, and those yield uneven results in the Angelopoulos frames. For discussions of the versions of his films available on DVD, see the Criterion Forum and Mubi.

The critical and academic literature on Angelopoulos is decently varied. Dan Fainaru’s Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews is a very good place to start. The best overview of most of the oeuvre is Andrew Horton’s Films of Theo Angelopoulos, which provides essential historical and biographical background. See also Andy’s anthology, The Last Modernist. For Cineaste Andy also wrote a touching reminiscence on the occasion of the director’s death. Catherine Grant has assembled a vast online dossier at Film Studies for Free, and David Hudson has charted immediate web responses here.

The French journal Positif was a loyal supporter of Angelopoulos, publishing articles and informative interviews for decades. My quotation above comes from Angelopoulos’s essay, “In my end is my beginning,” Positif no. 463 (September 1999), 62.

A little discussion of Angelopoulos, in the context of the fortunately short-lived ruckus about eat-your-vegetables cinema, can be found in this entry on our site. Chapter 4 of Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging is an expanded version of my essay in Andy Horton’s collection, and I’ve borrowed some of its ideas here. I hope to write more about Tony Scott’s work on this website later this year.

Enemy of the State (1998); The Traveling Players (1975).

What next? A video lecture, I suppose. Well, actually, yeah….

DB here:

We’ve said several times that this website is an ongoing experiment. We started just by posting my CV and essays supplementing my books. Then came blogs. We quickly added illustrations to our entries, mostly  frame enlargements and grabs. Eventually, video crept in. In 2011 we ran Tim Smith’s dissection of eye-scanning in There Will Be Blood. Last year, in coordination with our new edition of Film Art: An Introduction, we added online clips-plus-commentary (an example is on Criterion’s YouTube channel), and near the end of the year Erik Gunneson and I mounted a video essay on techniques of constructive editing.

Today something new has been added. I’ve decided to retire some of the lectures I take on the road, and I’ll put them up as video lectures. They’re sort of Net substitutes for my show-and-tells about aspects of film that interest me. The first is called “How Motion Pictures Became the Movies,” and it’s devoted to what is for me the crucial period 1908-1920. It quickly surveys what was going on in cinema over those years before zeroing in on the key stylistic developments we’ve often written about here: the emergence of continuity editing and the brief but brilliant exploration of tableau staging.

The lecture isn’t a record of me pacing around talking. Rather, it’s a PowerPoint presentation that runs as a video, with my scratchy voice-over. I didn’t write a text, but rather talked it through as if I were presenting it live. It nakedly exposes my mannerisms and bad habits, but I hope they don’t get in the way of your enjoyment.

“How Motion Pictures Became the Movies” is designed for general audiences. I’ve built in comments for specialists too, in particular, some indications of different research approaches to understanding this period of change.

The talk runs just under 70 minutes, and it’s suitable for use in classes if people are inclined. I think it might be helpful in surveys of film history, courses on silent cinema, and courses on film analysis. If a teacher wants to break it into two parts, there’s a natural stopping point around the 35-minute mark.

Some slides have several images laid out comic-strip fashion, so the presentation plays best on a midsize display, like a desktop or biggish laptop. A couple of tests suggest that it looks okay projected for a group, but the instructor planning to screen it for a class should experiment first.

I plan to put up other lectures in a similar format, with HD capabilities. Next up is probably a talk about the aesthetics of early CinemaScope. I’d then like to spin off this current one and offer three 30-minute ones that go into more depth on developments in the 1910s.

The video is available at the bottom of this entry, but it’s also available on this page. There I provide a bibliography of the sources I mention in the course of the talk, as well as links to relevant blogs and essays elsewhere on the site.

If you find this interesting or worthwhile, please let your friends know about it. I don’t do Twitter or Facebook, but Kristin participates in the latter, and we can monitor tweets. Thanks to Erik for his dedication to this most recent task, and to all our readers for their support over the years.

Side by side by side: Quick catchups

David Lynch in the documentary Side by Side.

DB here:

Some developments related to recent posts we’ve done!

On digital cinema: Cineaste magazine has published a wide-ranging “Critical Symposium on the Changing Face of Motion Picture Exhibition” in its most recent issue. It gathers in-depth reflections from Grover Crisp, the Ferroni Brigade, Scott Foundas, Bruce Goldstein, Haden Guest, Ned Hinkle, J. Hoberman, James Quandt, D. N. Rodowick, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. I add some comments too. A preview is here, but the responses are available only in the print edition. That edition also includes two signature Cineaste interviews, this time with Kirby Dick and Eyal Sivan, along with another symposium of great interest, devoted to film editors’ response to the rise of digital postproduction. As regular readers know, the series I composed on digital projection, Pandora’s Digital Box, has been revised and turned into an e-book.

As for digital production, that’s the center of the new documentary film by Christopher Kinneally called Side by Side. It has played several festivals and is now available on Pay Per View via Tribeca. I think it’s a balanced, lucid introduction to the pros and cons of shooting digitally, as well as a helpful historical overview of the development of cameras and capture systems. It includes interviews with Scorsese, Lynch, Cameron, Fincher, and many other directors, along with a wide selection of editors and cinematographers. (DP Geoff Boyle adds some especially salty comments.) Side by Side is especially strong on post-production; how often do you get comments from Digital Colorists? There’s a little bit about exhibition too. Keanu Reeves makes a well-informed and unobtrusive interviewer. In all, the film would be a very good teaching tool in introductory courses. Kinneally discusses the project at Filmmaker.

I was a little surprised by the popularity of my entry on Cinerama, written in response to Flicker Alley’s magnificent release of This Is Cinerama on Blu-ray. Now there’s a podcast by David Strohmaier, the moving force behind reviving interest in the format. See The Commentary Track. Speaking of Cinerama, Kristin and I enjoyed our visit to Seattle’s Cinerama Theatre, where we saw The Master in 70mm. The theatre has been magnificently restored to its 1960s glory, Populuxe decor and all. Occasionally three-panel Cinerama films are screened there. And I should mention that while I was yearning from afar, the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles held a festival earlier in the fall.

LIke Cinerama, classic 3-D holds perennial fascination, especially for baby boomers like me. I was lucky enough to see the digital restoration of the stereoscopic version of Dial M for Murder at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I wrote about it here. Bob Furmanek, expert in the format, provided an in-depth discussion of it on his site, 3-D Film Archive. Now Bob and Greg Kintz have added an equally intense backgrounder on The Creature from the Black Lagoon. As Bob writes to me: “Only 48 more Golden Age titles to go!”

Now that Dial M is available in a 3-D Blu-ray disc, I think it’s worth mentioning that this is something of a milestone for film analysis. When I was first studying 3-D in the early 1980s, it was almost impossible to see vintage films in the format. Although archives held copies, those were typically flat versions. Even if the archive had both the A and B films, they would have been very difficult to screen. Worse, it would have been impossible to study 3-D shooting using the major tool at my disposal, the 35mm flatbed viewer. Now, viewers with 3-D TVs and 3-D players, can study Dial M and Creature shot by shot, even freezing frames to examine exactly how the shots are designed. This isn’t usually mentioned as a benefit of the new technology, but digital restoration and displays let us examine movies in 3-D in unprecedented detail.

In July I reviewed the local fracas over our old picture palace, the Orpheum. Things were quiet over the summer, but now it’s all up for grabs again. The promised foreclosure is in the offing, followed by interim management from the team that handles Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. The Wisconsin State Journal‘s Steve Elbow brings us the news here and here.

Finally, the video essay on constructive editing in our previous entry has attracted some compliments, for which we’re grateful. Its discussion of the Kuleshov effect has led some to ask us whether the several videos on YouTube are authentic footage of Kuleshov’s experiments. Alas, they are not, but Kristin and I don’t know their provenance. However, in Oksana Bulgakowa’s documentary on the Kuleshov effect, available on YouTube, there are some fragments of the surviving footage, starting at 4:28. Oksana has also helped complete the experiment by inserting a substitute for a missing shot. In addition, I’m reminded by Joe McBride and Katharine Spring of Hitchcock’s famous explanation of the Kuleshov effect, available on the DVD, A Talk with Hitchcock. An excerpt from that is posted on YouTube, probably illegally.

P.S. 11 November 2012: Jay Rath of Isthmus presents another, more optimistic account of the past and future of the Orpheum.

Inside Seattle’s Cinerama Theatre.

The wayward charms of Cinerama

From Cinerama Holiday souvenir book, 1955.

DB here:

Two slumbering potential giants stirred in the last months of 1952, and as 1953 got underway the motion picture industry was faced with the greatest upheaval since sound films revolutionized the industry nearly 26 years ago.

Winfield Andrus, “3-D Finding Its Place,” The 1953 Film Daily Yearbook (New York 1953), 147.

 

Andrus was referring to 3D and to Cinerama, two technical marvels that promised to revive American filmgoing in the postwar era. In the short term, that didn’t happen. 3D died quickly, and Cinerama remained a novelty before expiring in 1962. But eventually 3D became viable, as the last decade has shown. Moreover, Cinerama’s impact was felt throughout the 1950s. Studios competed with it by introducing other widescreen formats, stereophonic sound, and extravagant roadshow productions. Cinerama, people are starting to point out, was a prototype of what Imax has become. Just as we’re now more interested in classic 3D (see my entry on the reissued Dial M for Murder), we ought to take another look at Cinerama in its more or less pure state.

Devoted aficionados like John Harvey of the New Neon Cinema in Dayton have kept Cinerama alive in theatres, and the challenge has been taken up by other venues. One of the most passionate advocates has been David Frohmaier, whose documentary Cinerama Adventure graced our Wisconsin Film Festival some years back. That documentary showed up on the 2008 DVD release of How the West Was Won, and it’s an essential, affectionate introduction to this most ungainly of film formats.

Now Frohmaier has brought us the 1952 film that started it all. This Is Cinerama has just been released by Flicker Alley, one of our most exacting and adventurous DVD publishers. The whole meticulous package–the film itself, presented in Frohmaier’s Smilebox display, along with an abundance of extras—offers a good chance to think about what Cinerama amounted to.

Cinerama had its ups and downs over a decade. Control of the technology and the venues shifted unpredictably, as did the revenues and profits. But I think that Cinerama’s unique accomplishment lies partly in its unintended consequences. Seeking to become the most realistic form of cinema yet known, Cinerama demonstrates how enjoyably un-realistic, even surrealistic, movies can be.

 

One hell of a demo

When This Is Cinerama opened at the Broadway Theatre in Manhattan on 30 September 1952, it presented itself as the ultimate package of new entertainment technologies. It was of course in color, which was still something of a rarity in motion pictures. It used stereophonic sound, with five speakers behind the screen and two in the auditorium. The screen itself was a wonder: it was seventy-five feet wide and about 23 feet high, bent in a 146-degree arc. That made the display span fifty feet. Later, some screens would be nearly a hundred feet long and over thirty feet high.

All who saw the film felt that this was an immersive experience. The goal, claimed Cinerama’s inventor Fred Waller, was to approximate what our eyes take in, including peripheral vision. Indeed, Waller claimed that our sense of depth in the world and an image depended on peripheral information. Anyone who has been in a wraparound  theme-park attraction can attest to the fact that an image stretching to the edges of sight can provide a pretty compelling illusion, especially if the images carry us forward. You can undergo this illusion in Disney’s Circle-Vision 360°.

Cinerama’s colossal screen size and deep curve dictated a new approach to image-making. No standard 35mm frame could fill such a wide display without losing resolution. The scale of the show demanded three projectors, each trained on one-third of the screen. The image became a triptych, with thin overlaps or “blend lines” demarcating the panels. Naturally, all three had to be exactly aligned and kept in strict synchronization. If one film reel lost frames through a mishap, for future shows projectionists snipped the corresponding frames out of the other two reels.

The projectors were initially housed in separate booths, with a projectionist in charge of each. A fourth booth was given to the sound mixer (off to the right side in the above diagram), who oversaw the multiple track playback at each performance. Yet another staff member was in charge of monitoring the whole performance. Interestingly, the projectors were said to be placed level with the screen, in order to avoid any keystoning distortions of the display. But the diagram above, along with the Cinerama displays I’ve seen, position the projectors fairly high in the auditorium.

The image looked something like the still on the right. Even in this tiny image you can see slight differences between the panels and vignetting along the joins. Projectionists had to ensure that the three panels yielded comparable illumination and color temperature. Each projector’s gate had a little gadget known as a “jiggolo” that ran rapidly along the edges of the frame to blur the blend lines.

To gain resolution, each frame on the film strip used about twice the image area of conventional film. Surprisingly, the image area wasn’t much wider than normal film but it was 1 1/2 times the normal height (that is, 6 perforations high rather than the usual 4). To allow more frame space, the soundtrack was played on a separate magnetic film reel. The resulting images yielded very high resolution.

These sprawling images came from three cameras interlocked into a single bulky unit. The lenses were angled at 48 degrees to one another, turned inward to cross at a precise focal point. The camera lenses, all purpose-made, had a focal length of 27mm–another factor that would yield some striking pictorial effects. All three lenses shared a common shutter and had interlocked diaphragms to ensure comparable exposure. Because flicker would be disturbing on such a wide display, particularly on the edge panels, the film ran at 26 frames per second rather than the usual 24. The aspect ratio varied between 2.6:1 and 2.77:1.

This Is Cinerama was what we’d today call a demo. Lowell Thomas, one of the backers of the process, noted that if they’d told a story with actors, the emphasis would be taken off Cinerama itself, which was “a major event in the history of entertainment.” “The logical thing,” Thomas remarked, “was to make Cinerama the hero.”

The result was a travelogue (a word Thomas hated). After Thomas’ prologue, the film proper opens with the famous ride on a plunging rollercoaster. Then come episodes devoted to the canals of Venice, some church choral music, Scottish pipers, Viennese boy choristers, Spanish dancers, and an excerpt from Aida performed at La Scala. During the intermission Thomas inserts another demo, this time of the surround-sound effects. (We have to remember that stereophonic sound was a big novelty at that point; stereo LPs came later.) The bulk of the second part is spent at the Cypress Gardens leisure park, providing images of handsome men and women at play and climaxing in some exciting water-skiing. This is sort of double product placement–not only promoting the park but also water skis, another Fred Waller invention. The film ends with an awe-inspiring flight crisscrossing America, from New York and the Pentagon to the Golden Gate Bridge, and back to the rugged terrain of the West and Southwest.

In an essay for Cahiers du cinéma, the late Chris Marker pointed out that the film amounts to a religious-popular spectacle. For all the globe-trotting of the first part, the last half is a paean to the splendor that is the postwar USA. The last word spoken, or rather sung, in the film is “America.” Indeed, as many have pointed out, the word Cinerama is an anagram for American. I’ve sometimes wondered about the logo, that peculiarly zigzagged string of letters. It suggests a crumpled snippet of film, with squarish frames like our vertical panels, and its bumpiness evokes the ups and downs of a roller coaster. But there’s no mistaking the logo’s recurring color scheme of red, white, and blue.

 

Party like it’s 1952

As a novelty, This Is Cinerama succeeded,  running for over two years in New York. The system was installed in big-city theatres around the country. At a time when the average price of a movie ticket was $.46, the high-end seats for a Cinerama feature cost $2.80, or $24.34 in today’s currency. The Cinerama organization produced four more episodic travel-centered pictures: Cinerama Holiday (1955), The Seven Wonders of the World (1956), Search for Paradise (1957), and Cinerama South Sea Adventure (1958). Another picture made in a rival three-panel technology, Windjammer (1958), wound up in Cinerama venues as well. By 1957, Variety announced, the first three releases had grossed $60 million worldwide.

The problem was that on those grosses, profits came to only $6 million. Eighty percent of the box office take was used up in operation of the theatres.Morever, the complexity and cost of a Cinerama system meant that very few venues existed; by 1959, there were about twenty screens in the US and another eight or ten abroad, and not all were operating. In addition, overall US movie attendance was dropping, from about 47 million weekly in 1954 to 32 million in 1959.

New management succeeded in opening many more Cinerama theatres on a franchise basis, but the company needed fresh product as well. A coproduction deal was struck with MGM to use the process on fictional features. The results were The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) and How the West Was Won (London premiere, 1962; US release, 1963). To expand the audience, these films were also released in anamorphic widescreen to non-Cinerama venues.

Both films won large audiences, but they failed to make a profit. Soon the company’s theatres began exhibiting 70mm film releases under the Cinerama brand. The films were shown on curved screens, but with single-lens projection. The first of these releases was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); eventually even 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967) would be exhibited in “Cinerama.” In the course of these years, the company was acquired by Pacific Theatres, where it still resides. Classic triptych Cinerama was gone.

I never saw it in its prime.

I did see How the West in its original anamorphic release, and that has stayed with me for a couple of reasons. First, I was moved by it. It’s kitsch in many ways, but there are several exciting and touching scenes. Moreover, even as a squeaky-voiced teen I recognized something genuinely weird about the way it looked. Its imagery haunted me, though I didn’t have ways to understand them. Many years later, writing portions of a book that became The Classical Hollywood Cinema, I couldn’t watch any of the Cinerama travelogues in archives. I had to content myself with watching pink, cropped 16mm anamorphic copies of How the West Was Won. In all, it was very hard to get a sense of what the thing looked like (let alone sounded like).

Not until 2003 did I see both This Is Cinerama and How the West Was Won in the three-panel format, during a conference on widescreen cinema held at the National Media Museum in Bradford, England. That experience was wonderful, and it left me wanting to study the films more closely.

Now I can, and you can too. David Strohmaier has devised a transformation that captures the shape of a Cinerama projection. He calls it the Smilebox. The Flicker Alley DVD of This Is Cinerama is in Smilebox, as you see from my Venetian image above. Warner Bros’ 2008 Blu-ray release of How the West Was Won provides both a Smilebox version and a wider-than-CinemaScope letterbox version.

Through painstaking restoration by Greg Kimble and others, the films look clean and bright. Digital cleanup has regularized the color values from panel to panel and nearly eliminated the blend lines. The result conforms to what the makers would surely have preferred–a greater sense of uniform tonality, light, and space across the frame than surviving Cinerama images have.

For anybody interested in the history of American cinema, the Flicker Alley DVD is essential. It provides a long-missing chapter in the development of widescreen filmmaking. This Is Cinerama is a documentary that is also a document of postwar American pride, of film technology, and of the movie business. But I think it represents even more. For the most part neither Smilebox nor digital restoration has removed the peculiarities that, perhaps perversely, fascinate me about this unique format.

 

Nice big image you got here. Be a shame if anything happened to it.

Cinerama camera in a mock covered wagon for How the West Was Won.

Like any picture-making process, Cinerama captures the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface. Unusually in the history of cinema, it does it with a semicircular array of cameras. The images from those cameras are projected on a corresponding semicircular surface, in the hope that they will simulate not only the spatial layout in front of those three lenses but also the way the world looks to us.

Fred Waller thought that his invention provided greater realism, because our vision subtends a horizontal arc wider than that of conventional camera lenses. Fred fell a few degrees short, though. Claiming that we take in about 160 degrees, he thought that 146 degrees was a good approximation, but our visual field is actually a bit wider than 180 degrees. (Without turning our head, we can roll our eyes.) More important, though, is the assumption that a faithful image of the world should try to capture the curvature of the image as it passes through the cornea to the retina. We see a bowed world, many have claimed, so our pictures should present the way things look.

Yet there’s a difference between visual sensation and visual perception. Even if the light from the world hits our photoreceptors in a partial or distorted way, what we see is regular and unified. On our retinas, near things loom large and distant things look tiny, but we’ve evolved to adjust to the distortions in early stages of vision and see things in normal size. A person ten feet away is twice as large on our retina as somebody twenty feet off, but that’s not the way they look. We don’t see our retinal image, any more than we see the wildly misshapen image of the world projected to brain areas. The eye is a part of the brain, and the brain reworks the stimulus–cleans it, enhances it, corrects it, straightens it out, and gives it a stability that isn’t there in the raw input.

For the most part, normal camera lenses approximate the way the world looks to us after our brain has processed visual signals. Most images show straight-edged walls and sidewalks, railroad tracks meeting at the horizon, proportional human beings. When Cinerama or other nonstandard image-making technologies present distortions to our eyes, we take them for what they are: not “what we really see” but rather pictorial displays creating distinct effects of their own.

Hence the irregular appeals of Cinerama. Suppose we’re not interested in seeing the world as it registers on our sensory system. Suppose we’re interested in exploring uncommon pictorial effects. If we suppose all that, we can have the sort of fun watching Cinerama that we get from this 1877 picture by Caillebotte (Paris Street, Rainy Day),  a virtuoso reworking of geometric space.

Take image sharpness. In the 2003 Bradford shows, I was overwhelmed by just how precisely distant objects registered. This was partly due to the greater resolution of a bigger image area, partly to the use of wide-angle lenses with breathtaking depth of field in brilliant sunlight. I can’t illustrate some of the most dazzling effects here, including the sight of a very distant bathing beauty racing through a crowd and up to the foreground in the Cypress Garden sequence of This Is Cinerama. But if you have a large home theatre monitor or projected display, you might be able to spot her. Here I’ll just mention how the farthest stretches of the famous roller-coaster stand out crisply, and in big-screen projection, the people in the far distance do too.

Such short-focal-length lenses distort the visual field in predictable ways. For one thing, they make horizontal lines bow upward or downward. For this reason, Cinerama DPs were at pains to keep the horizon near the center of the shot and to avoid or cover contours parallel to the horizon. Linus Rawling’s canoe oar bends disconcertingly in the central panel even before it hits the blend line and shoots off on its own.

Verticals can get distorted as well. On the edges of each panel, human figures can look bulged, pinched, or oddly torqued.

Cinerama’s triptych format complicates perspective effects by welding three wide-angle images together. When presenting built environments, often each panel displays its own distinct vanishing point–sometimes central, sometimes angular, sometimes both. The results recall the Caillebotte picture, all acute angles and avenues flung out to left and right.

     

One cinematographer tells us that “special sets had to be built with curves and bends to rectify the false perspective inherent in three-camera systems.” But often we get contorted interiors. Dr. Caligari might feel at home in Lowell Thomas’ office.

The blend lines add their own constraints. From a distance, the Golden Gate looks very planar, but as our plane swoops nearer, the horizon remains flat while the bridge develops a couple of kinks.

     

For staged action, veteran cinematographer William Daniels warned that “We invariably consider the blend lines first, then plot and stage the action to suit the camera setup.” Most obviously, directors had to keep people away from the panel joins. We can see the unfortunate result in this image from This Is Cinerama. The gent on the far right is at once pinched and bulged, and the building in the B and C panels gets the Caillebotte treatment. Worse, a young Venetian man’s head on the blend line undergoes an unfortunate warping.

     

When a figure moves from panel to panel, the wide-angle distortions combine with the panel edges to create a faceted, almost cubistic space. Here’s the first anomaly I spotted when watching How the West Was Won as a kid in 1963.

          

As Linus is walking toward Mr. Prescott, James Stewart seems to stride diagonally forward a bit (in the A panel). After he pivots, he grows very large as he starts to walk straight (the B panel). , then stride diagonally into depth (the third panel). Each wide-angle lens makes people swell or shrink as they come to or from the camera, and with the creases supplied by the blend lines, scenes like this become attractively odd. With the panels ironed out, we see people taking strangely roundabout paths to one another.

The effect is even more noticeable in big action scenes, when horizontal movements that are really parallel seem to peel off from one another. During the Indian chase, the wagons are fleeing alongside one another, as a back-projection shows. But the more dynamic angle on the wagon teams creates an image that hits you like a cold shower.

     

To the audience in front of a curved screen, the movement in the second shot would have looked somewhat (but not entirely, I think) more linear. For us, we see a perspective we’ve never seen before, with wagons diverging from one another but neither getting smaller or larger. And how about the dizzy swerve that the pathway in panel C takes when it reappears in panel A?

The angled-triptych format obliged actors to adjust their performances in counterintuitive ways. “An actor in a side panel,” wrote Daniels, “cannot look directly at one in the center panel when speaking to him, but must cheat a little–direct his eyes a little behind the one in the center.” Here’s an example from The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm that stands out when seen in the flat format. Wilhelm is speaking to Greta from the C panel, but it seems that Laurence Harvey didn’t cheat his body quite enough. He seems to be speaking past her, an effect not helped by the disproportionate size of his body.

This Is Cinerama is obsessed with centering its action, but sometimes the center seems strangely off-kilter. With the water-skiing women shown earlier, the three cameras create a sort of hollow viewing station. Why do the flanking skiiers seem to be moving at angles to the central trio? Why do the ropes of the central skiiers fly off (jaggedly) to one side, rather than expand directly towards us, like train tracks?

As with the wagon teams, you have to imagine diagonal actions as rotated inward to parallel one another during projection. What you see is not what you’d get in the theatre. But also, what you see is something you’ve never seen in a movie before.

Most of these effects are heightened by the inability of the three-eyed monster to record close-ups. Because of the short focal length, the camera unit sat very near the actors: for a shot from the waist up, the central lens was between one-and-a-half and three feet away. Putting the camera so close necessitated lights being attached to the camera unit. But normally close-ups were avoided, so the human figures never dominate their locales. These movies are, more than most, about space–however buckled and bizarre that space might be.

Because of the panels, panning shots were to be avoided, but certain kinds of camera movement forward were welcomed. The signature Cinerama shot is the shot plunging toward the vanishing point–a boat rushing through the water, an aerial view banking toward the horizon. Even though the blend lines made shapes and edges wrinkle, this gigantic, embracing image streaming toward viewers gave a compelling illusion that they were hurtling forward.

The distortions are less visible from a perfect vantage point in a Cinerama auditorium–presumably, as close as you can get. Distortions on the display edges would be minimized by peripheral vision, which isn’t good at registering detail. Presumably some of the curvilinear shapes, like Linus’ oar, and those kinks across the blend lines, would be less egregious if viewed straight on. Watching from the front row in Bradford, I recall seeing these distortions, but they didn’t seem as vivid.

Naturally, not everybody in the auditorium has a perfect vantage point. In the original screenings, people who had sat on the sides complained that movement on the nearest flanking panel seemed to flow upward. Smilebox, which respects the overall geometry of the display, still yields disparities. Linus’ oar still curves, though not as pronouncedly.

My images here, and yours on your home screen, are unavoidably mapping a curved display onto a flat surface, so there will still be anomalies. If you want to try cutting down on them, sit close to the Smilebox display. I prefer to sit back and enjoy their weirdness.

 

They’re features, not bugs

What about the films themselves? Arguably no great film was made in the format, but all the releases probably have some admirers. I want to end by talking about the two I find most appealing.

Cinerama’s travelogues were episodic, designed to show off features of the process in different filming situations. The two fiction features had to highlight the process and tell a coherent, engaging story. They too tend toward the episodic, but they handle that option in different ways. And stylistically, both work against the official “rules” of the new format.

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, an entertaining family film, employs a frame story. The brothers are assigned to write the family history of the local Duke. Jacob, an expert linguist, does his job dutifully, but Wilhelm plays hooky to find and write up fairy tales he hears. His zeal to collect stories leads to the loss of their commissioned manuscript, and he falls ill, during which several fairy-tale characters come to visit him. Eventually Jacob is honored by the Royal Academy, but it’s Wilhelm who gets enduring glory by being swarmed over by hordes of children anxious to hear his latest tale. Within this overarching plot, three of the stories are enacted using various special effects, including puppet animation. Some of these shots appear to have been shot in a non-Cinerama format and “paneled” afterward.)

It’s tempting to ascribe the frame story’s direction to Hollywood veteran Henry Levin and the embedded fantasies to co-director George Pal. To the connoisseur of Cinerama, those fantasy passages offer some delights. If anybody told Pal about the rules for shooting in the format, he ignored them. The fairy tales give us whirling camera movements, bumpy subjective shots, and frequent assaults on the audience in the manner of 3D. During a wild coach ride, the coachman hurls himself to and from the camera. Later, a knight’s bumbling servant slays a dragon in lunging close-up.

     

     

You can even take certain passages as sly parodies of the brand. The Woodsman in the first tale has hitched a ride on the back of the coach, and he stoops to look underneath. Cut to his point-of-view: an upside-down version of a signature Cinerama shot.

     

Whoever directed the frame story scenes, however, was fairly bold too, moving his actors in zigzag patterns more flamboyant than the blocking of How the West Was Won. And instead of the small, high sets recommended for the format, Wonderful World shoots in throne rooms and palace salons that seem to stretch on forever. In smaller sets, like the brothers’ cottage, their friend’s bookshop, and especially the lair of a witch, the compositions take advantage of crannies and oddly angled planes that enhance the exaggerated distances.

     

As in German Expressionist cinema, the distortions seem to suit an atmosphere of fantasy. There’s even a massive violation of one of the basic rules of Cinerama: avoid tilting the camera. High and low angles were likely to exaggerate any distortions in the panels. Yet Levin, or Pal, or both occasionally throw in expressive angles, most strikingly a low angle showing Wilhelm’s family and friends ascending to his sickroom.

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm solves the problem of the episode film by giving us a frame story. How the West Was Won solves it by a more threaded structure. A family saga creates branching stories that show three generations of kin participating in the winning of the frontier. The story acknowledges, briefly, the conquest of indigenous peoples–the “liberal Westerns” of the 1950s haven’t been ignored–but slavery doesn’t play a significant role. This is a story of white people.

The Prescott clan sets out on the Erie Canal, but on the rivers all but two of them lose their lives. The warm, slightly romantic Eve settles with the trapper Linus Rawlings on a farm in Ohio, while her sister Lilith ventures west. Eve’s son Zeb joins the Union forces in Civil War and later moves west with the railroad, eventually becoming a marshall. Lilith joins a wagon train, takes up with a gambler, inherits a worthless mine in California, and reunites with her lover on a riverboat. They become entrepreneurs investing in the railroad system. Near the end of the century, Lilith loses her fortune and joins Zeb, now retired, and his wife and children. But before they can settle down on Lilith’s inherited Arizona ranch, Zeb has to settle a score with a bandit who intends to rob a train. The film falls into sections specified in the credits–The Rivers, The Plains, and so on–but not in the film, though the parts usually end with fades.

Marker might note that How the West Was Won revives the piety and chauvinism on display in This Is Cinerama. The Prescott women found a kind of holy family, bound, as one song puts it, “for the Promised Land.” Some writers thumb through the phone book to get names for their characters, but screenwriter James R. Webb seems to have favored the Old Testament. Eve, living up to the positive side of her name, becomes the first woman of the new land. In forcing Linus to become a farmer, she helps turn the wilderness into a garden. Lilith, whose name associates her with sexuality and demonic possession, becomes a dance-hall girl and eventually a millionairess, but she has no children. At the end she returns to her nephew, Zebulon, named for her father; in the Old Testament he is the founder of a tribe. And Zeb has named his daughter Eve. The family abides in an endless cycle, its members replacing one another and its history intertwined with the full flowering of the United States.

The film ends with the sort of God’s-eye views that conclude This Is Cinerama, but emphasizing the modern West, with its dams, roads, cities, even whorls of traffic. Interestingly, in the place of the forward rush of the earlier film, these aerial shots pull us backward, the classic mark of the end of a story. But the finale of the epilogue carries us forward once more, under the Golden Gate Bridge and into a sunburst over the Pacific. Since women have played a central role, no surprise that the final lyrics of the choral accompaniment celebrate heroes as “every mother’s son.” This country has reached its natural limit; beyond is heaven, and the chorus tells us, here at last is the Promised Land.

Most scenes are handled briskly, but with little nuance beyond what the actors bring to the story. The spectacle remains appealing, the music infectious, and the imagery always impressive–especially when it’s a little whacked out, as in my examples above and many other scenes of the film. Like The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, this has shown that Cinerama can be edited rapidly. This Is Cinerama has only a little more than two hundred shots, but Wonderful World has a thousand, and How the West Was Won has over eleven hundred. The chapters of the latter yield some striking results: most average between eight and nine seconds, but John Ford’s Civil War segment averages nearly fifteen seconds, while the climactic Outlaws segment averages about five seconds.

That climactic sequence, directed like most of the film, by Henry Hathaway, makes splendid and varied use of the format. Despite a heavy reliance on back projection and several shots that seem not to have been made in the three-camera process, this monumental remake of The Great Train Robbery is a showcase for how Cinerama could create exciting action through staging and editing. To the advantages of Cinerama–forward drive, looming landscapes, and immersive sound–Hathaway and editor Harold Kress add percussive cuts of logs sliding this way and that, along with painful stunts, including one showing a man flung off a train and into a cactus.

     

By contrast, the Civil War sequence shows how a director can triumph over an inflexible format by relying on expressive stasis. Ford the pictorialist will carve striking compositions out of the constraints of Cinerama. He exploits the depth of the 27mm lenses, sometimes stationing all his figures in the central zone, as if he’s trying to preserve the 1.37 aspect ratio. At other moments he confines the action to a single flanking panel.

     

Sometimes Ford simply ignores the triptych format in order to split the frame in half or, say, two-fifths. He also gives his actors postures, props, and gestures that allow them to underplay. With Ford, even fresh-minted junior stars like Carroll Baker and George Peppard can give performances of gravity.

Ford’s creative choices stand out most strongly in two scenes set on the farm. In the first, Linus Rawlings has gone off to battle, and his son Zeb is itching to follow. Eve, now old, accepts with weary sadness that he will have his way. There’s a Griffithian two shot of Eve and Zeb on the porch, her arms dangling wearily and her right hand rising and falling as she asks Zeb about whether he’ll get a uniform. The hell with Cinerama, Pappy seems to say: Just fill up half the frame with the cabin to keep us fastened on the couple.

     

After a quick embrace, Eve dashes into the house. A porch shot that is virtually a Fordian doorway framing shows Zeb leaping with joy before he turns, sees something in the house, and halts in his tracks. Ford needn’t show us Eve’s grief. This is the most tactful shot in the whole film.

     

Soon enough Ford will recall this scene. Zeb has left for the war. Eve, kneeling at the family plot, prays to her father before slipping behind the rail. Her face is hidden, but her hands again express her resignation, and prefigure her death. She was never the same, her other son will say, after Zeb left.

     

These homestead passages are echoed by a scene at the end of the Civil War segment. Back from the war, Zeb learns of his mother’s death from his brother Jeremiah. The two sit on the porch sharing a dipper of water and recalling their father. Zeb rises to go, they shake hands, and we get another muted Fordian moment. Why move your actors when you can pose them?

     

Now the old director, a master of depth since the 1910s, bends this newfangled format to his own ends. Zeb leaves the frame, comes back in the far distance, and is finally blocked by the farmhouse, leaving Jeremiah quietly weeping.

     

That’s how you handle this busy, noisy new contraption, Ford seems to say. Dwell on moments of stillness and pathos. Use handshakes, embraces, a drooping black shawl. Keep the action in a well-defined zone. And treat this as a silent movie.


The most comprehensive account of Cinerama’s development is Thomas Erffmaier’s 1985 Northwestern Ph. D. thesis, The History of Cinerama: A Study of Technological Innovation and Industrial Management. Also invaluable are John Belton’s Widescreen Cinema (Harvard University Press, 1992) and Robert E. Carr and R. M. Hayes’ Wide Screen Movies (McFarland, 1988), usefully supplemented by Daniel J. Sherlock’s emendations here. A good older work is Michael Z. Wysotsky, Wide-Screen Cinema and Stereophonic Sound (Focal Press, 1971). Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale put This Is Cinerama into the context of postwar blockbusters in Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History (Wayne State University Press, 2010), Chapter 7. On the Web, restorer and cinematographer Greg Kimble provides a thorough and well-illustrated account of Cinerama at In 70mm.

Chris Marker’s “Le Cinérama” appeared in Cahiers du cinéma no. 27 (October 1953): 34-37.

Cinerama grew out of Fred Waller’s experiments with gunnery-training displays during World War II, as Strohmaier documents in Cinerama Adventure. Waller discusses this work in “Cinerama Goes to War,” New Screen Techniques, ed. Martin Quigley, jr. (Quigley, 1953), 119-126. This collection includes other pieces of value on Cinerama, 3D, CinemaScope, and other new technologies. It would be interesting to know if Waller’s efforts influenced, or were influenced by, psychologist J. J. Gibson’s comparable wartime experiments with aerial training films. Gibson’s ideas about how we grasp space through “optical flow” and centered perspective have obvious parallels with the Cinerama process. Waller was said to have been influenced by another psychologist, Adelbert Ames, Jr., one of the founders of 1950s “New Look” psychology. Waller’s belief that our peripheral vision was more important than stereopsis in determining depth echoes Ames’ hypothesis that convergence and binocular disparity were overrated as depth cues.

Greg Kimble provides a thorough overview of the making of How the West Was Won in a 1983 article for American Cinematographer, available here. I’ve drawn as well on William Daniels’ article “Cinerama Goes Dramatic,” American Cinematographer 43, 1 (January 1962): 28-29, 50-54. Also useful was Darrin Scott, “Panavision’s Progress,” American Cinematographer 41, 5 (May 1960): 302, 304, 320-322, 324. My quotation about readjusted sets comes from Scott’s piece.

Three-panel Cinerama features can be seen occasionally today at the Pictureville Cinema in Bradford, the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, and the Seattle Cinerama.

Simultaneously with This Is Cinerama, Flicker Alley has published a lavish Smilebox version of Windjammer, also prepared by David Strohmaier. That’s a whole other story.

P.S. 5 October: You never can tell. Jim Emerson forwards me this Indiewire report by Len Maltin on a new short made in three-panel Cinerama.

How the West Was Won.

David Bordwell
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