10 September 2009

Three-Card Monte: This Is Cinerama (1952)

I have slowly come to suspect that most of what we believe we know about the early CinemaScope productions—that they’re turgid and static and none too exciting, and thus, implicitly, an anomaly of film history that forces us to conclude that the audiences who flocked to them must have been dupes—is either wrong or grossly misconceived. No amount of empathy will make Biblical pageants profound or explain Victor Mature’s brief bout of widescreen superstardom, but at some point we must admit that for many years these films were available in nothing like their original states: crisp Technicolor IB prints from original Eastmancolor elements, with four-channel magnetic sound and a full 2.55:1 aspect ratio. It was not simply an experience akin to seeing a modern release print in a good-sized multiplex; the color was deeper, the sound mix was decidedly, even eccentrically, geared towards demonstrating discrete and directional stereophonic effects, and the screen was rather larger than the one found at the nearest downtown house. (Even picture palaces of several thousand seats boasted screens that look modest today; in the forties Radio City Music Hall screened features at 22' 8" x 31' 3".) Obviously little of this grandeur translates well to TV, or even to a basic, no frills 35mm preservation.

Yet these genuine problems look like quibbling caveats next to the impediments that stand between us and a fair accounting of the Cinerama experience. Only three venues worldwide—the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, the Cinerama Theatre in Seattle and Pacific’s Cinerama Dome in Hollywood—can exhibit this unwieldy three-projector, five-projectionist, six-perforation, seven-channel, twenty-six-frames-per-second, one-hundred-and-forty-six-degree-curvature peripheral vision parody today. It was not without some justice that CinemaScope was considered a poor man’s Cinerama.

Today the rare Cinerama screening—only seven true three-panel Cinerama films were made before the trade name was re-appropriated for single-strip 70mm presentations like 2001: A Space Odyssey and only two of these seem to be available these days in restored prints—is met with a predictable audience: kids, nostalgia buffs, and the walking encyclopedias of Cinerama exhibition history. You will know them by their Theatre Historical Society or Cinerama t-shirts.

Yesterday’s presentation of This Is Cinerama at the Cinerama Dome (ironically, a venue built for the 70mm single-strip It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and never home to This Is Cinerama during its original Los Angeles run) held up surprisingly well, the limitations of the medium being a small price for the clarity and brilliance of this truly high-definition experiment. The seams joining the three images were always evident, like a fold-out map folding in on itself, with creased peaks and concave valleys. Indifferently placed editorial splices were gapingly present on screen. Lens flares appeared once or twice—nearly two decades before this ‘mistake’ became fashionable in the New Hollywood.

These ruptures were all somehow appropriate. Suspension of disbelief was never the name of the game with Cinerama. This Is Cinerama, in fact, foregrounds self-conscious spectacle. Producer-investor-narrator Lowell Thomas opens the film with a (pre)history-of-cinema prologue presented in a tinny, black-and-white small screen set-up. Zoetropes, Muybridge’s horses, a Fractured Flickers tribute to The Great Train Robbery—“and This -- Is -- Cinerama -- !” The curtains fly open and we’re in a roller coaster car, with all manner of whispers, carnival music, ambient sound jumping from one speaker to another at random. (The sound in this impressive segment is closer to Harry Partch than Westrex Noiseless Recording.) It’s a thoroughly technological kind of pleasure, though one image that follows shortly thereafter is a different sort of stunner: a view of Niagara Falls and a seemingly prosperous Upstate New York!

The first, and somewhat less interesting, half of This Is Cinerama takes a circuitous Grand Tour of Europe. Aside from the canals of Venice, all of the attractions are disarmingly unembarrassed retreads of Vitaphone and Movietone material: operas, boys’ choirs, Catholic solemnity. Unlike the early soundies, though, these segments inscribe the audience within the scene—indeed, the sight and scale of the gracious crowds are an integral aspect of the spectacle. With the tempo being as slow as it is, the attentive masses suggest the whole enterprise aspires more to being an implacable monument than a mere movie.

Following an intermission the Cinerama demonstration continues, but with the added interest of an undiluted Pax Americana flavor. Thomas boasts that his travels have taken him across this great country, but even he has never seen it like this. Cinerama is realer, and more legitimate, than real life—a crackpot version of peripheral vision that could only reach its apotheosis in the USA.

A digression: it rankles me when baby boomers of my acquaintance happen upon an episode of Leave it to Beaver and declare something like, “Boy, look how backwards things were in the fifties.” Backwards as the fifties most certainly were, it gives sitcoms, pinups, magazine advertisements, and similar kitsch too much credit to presume they offer an, at best, slightly exaggerated reflection of how people really felt and acted in that time. It’s more productive and honest to regard these things as artifacts of commercial calculation, what rich people believed middle- and lower-class people wanted (or would swallow) and what men thought they understood about women.

Thus the danger in looking at a film like This Is Cinerama almost sixty years on is in taking it at face value. It’s too easy to accept its ideological convolutions and patriotic pyrotechnics as an accurate distillation of national sentiment, as something that prompts derision today but did not back then.

What remains is a spectacle of breathtaking candidness, with the seeds of archetypes taken to the logical conclusions few would dare speak. Here are sun-kissed Southern belles who cavort by the Everglades, pure in morals and free from history, fully-formed dream visions made flesh. After preening hither and yon, and with no irony whatsoever, they shed their dresses and become bathing beauties, pliable bikini props for a round of water stunts. This Is Cinerama is, of course, hardly the only film to register femininity as the fulfillment of so many puerile clichés, but it goes about this with especially cardboard conviction.

Not for nothing does Thomas describe the Arches National Park as “pure fantasy”—the American wilderness itself being nothing if not the literal embodiment of manifest destiny. Indeed, This Is Cinerama achieves an astounding reversal: the American psyche is the canvas, natural wonders its artful contrivances. We do not project feelings onto landscape; landscape is, perversely, the projection of our dreams and desires.

A seven-channel stereophonic rendition of “America the Beautiful”—the ultimate product we never knew we needed until now—accompanies a helicopter tour of Square America. “This is how it feels to land a plane at the Kansas City Airport,” booms Thomas, presumably answering some imaginary, oft-voiced children’s prayer. Whilst in Washington, D.C., we glide silently past the White House and the Washington Monument, but the Pentagon receives a lengthy, purple prose tribute. By the time we reach Gary, Indiana, This Is Cinerama feels like the world’s most interminable and improbable slideshow, images from the family ‘vacation’ taken by the Junior Vice President in Charge of Marketing, Midwest Territory. They are the landmarks so bland and industrial that they barely rank as fifth-tier emblems of Americana.

Luckily Lowell Thomas finds an American Zion to wrap things up—literally, the Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah. From there, up and up to the pearly, soft clouds of the heavens. Of course.

This Is Cinerama presents a stunning collection of half-believed postures. As an artifact of imperial belligerence, directed within, it is appropriately rousing. It presents principles too essential for mere conversation or civic discourse. The purpose is not to persuade or indoctrinate, per se; indeed, the case for “America, the Beautiful” is incoherent, poorly researched, and insufficiently prescriptive. The object of this conquest is vision itself, the subject matter only the most uncontroversial, inconsequential approximation of mass feeling that could be harnessed to attain that bounty.  With a title like that, who’d have guessed that This Is Cinerama is, at heart, only an advertisement for itself?

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