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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

DVD Geek: This is Cinerama

There are two entwined reasons that people watch movies.  The second one is ‘discovery,’ the excitement and satisfaction of experiencing an entertainment one has not experienced before.  But the first is ‘nostalgia.’  Even when a viewer sees a film not seen before, the viewer is seeking to relive the pleasures experienced from seeing other movies for the first time.  With home video, the pull of nostalgia is even stronger; it is the desire to re-experience the satisfaction of that entertainment, and even to recall the circumstances of the original pleasure through the re-experiencing of that pleasure.  And nostalgia is the one component of a movie that increases with time.  Filmmaking technology may advance, tastes may change, and techniques may become more sophisticated, but as a film ages, the sweet heartache of longing for the past it instills can only grow greater, like an infinite curtain drawing back upon an infinite screen.

Along with a standard widescreen presentation, the Warner Home Video Blu-ray presentation of How the West Was Won included a ‘Smilebox’ presentation of the Cinerama feature, in which the sides of the film, which were shot separately from the center, gradually increased in height as they extended to the edge of the image.  The format is intended for the few wealthy viewers who own ‘curved’ viewing screens, but what we discovered is that the format works perfectly well on a standard widescreen TV.  You just have to make sure nobody is around to laugh at you, and then sit really, really close to the screen.  So long as your peripheral vision encompasses little more than the edges of your TV set, then the effect is just as realistic as if the TV were curved.

And so, armed with this knowledge and making sure that all of our doors were locked so as to avoid ridicule from those who do not understand, we eagerly ripped apart the fantastic Flicker Alley Blu-ray release, This Is Cinerama, and settled in with Lowell Thomas for 127 minutes of peripatetic thrills.  For whose unfamiliar with the 1952 feature, which introduced the Cinerama format, it begins with Thomas in the center only, in black and white, presenting a history of photography and motion pictures.  And then, the edges are revealed, the color kicks in and the camera is sitting on the front of a rollercoaster.  That is followed by a ballet performance, a helicopter trip over Niagara Falls, a church choir (in black and white, to emphasize the stereophonic music), Venice, Edinburgh, Vienna, a Spanish bullring, La Scala (Aida), and, in the ‘second act,’ Cypress Gardens and its aquacade, and an aerial tour of the United States.

Cinerama is dead.  It died before our grandmothers did.  To see the Cinerama format in a movie theater as a child, however, was to associate its startlingly wide image with life’s future, the grand possibilities that are spread out before one.  And so to relive that experience now, on Blu-ray, is to grasp, with all the fleeting, orgiastic thrill of grasping a ghost, the hopes and dreams and safety and anticipation of childhood.  By the time the helicopter was flying over Niagara, the tears were flowing from our own eyes with a fervor equal to the Falls.

Because of its boxoffice popularity and continued appeal, Warner could invest substantially in providing a sparkling transfer for How the West Was Won.  Even the vague triptych shifts that separate the Cinerama image into suggested thirds were electronically removed.  This Is Cinerama cannot justify that sort of expenditure.  The source material has undergone an extensive restoration effort, to be sure, but the age of the program is still evident and the ghostly panel borders are still there.  As is explained in a very good 19-minute featurette about the restoration process, the source material that was used came from the film’s 1972 theatrical revival, since older source material is far more heavily damaged.  While by and large, the colors look fresh—the shift from the black-and-white opener to the bright red borders on the rollercoaster car when it emerges into the sun is particularly exciting—there are lengthy passages where the hues are still somewhat yellowish.  In the bullfighting sequence, the lower right corner of the left panel is, for a while, unnaturally green.  The presentation looks great, and it is clear from the documentary that it has been substantially rescued, but it is not in the same league as the no-expense-spared studio restorations.

The film is presented in the Smilebox format only, but you can relax.  Even if you don’t want to make a fool of yourself and destroy your eyes from TV radiation by sitting so close, the format works well enough in a standard setting.  Some of the glimpses given of the film in regular widescreen format in the accompanying bonus materials make one wish that such a presentation has been offered as another option, but the curved top and bottom of the image is never a significant distraction, and is easily forgotten once the action on the screen gets interesting.  It should be noted that disc’s chapter encoding leaves a little bit to be desired.  The chapter marker for the rollercoaster, for example, should begin on Thomas (or there should be another marker there) intoning his famous introductory line, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama!”  Instead, it begins at the rollercoaster itself.  Other chapter markers are placed at the beginnings of each major segment, but do not offer jumps to highlights within those segments.

The original seven-channel soundtrack, which had three channels in back (technically, there were just two rear channels, but they were alternated between three speakers with a switch operated by the projectionist), is only replicated in the standard five channels, although otherwise, the DTS delivery is quite impressive.  The film’s sound has unusually warm tones, and its separation mix is intriguingly complicated.  There are fewer directional noises in the rear channels than a modern mix would have, but the left-right separations are very aggressive and exhilarating.  During the Edinburgh sequence, for example, there is a marching band that passes the camera, and while the music they are playing remains constant, as each group of instruments, be they bagpipes or drums, passes the camera, those particular instruments somewhat magically become more distinctive than the others.  It is doubtful any audio mix today would bother with that level of subtlety.  Additionally, compared to the precious few stereo tracks of its time or the couple of decades that followed, the dynamic range offered by This Is Cinerama is quite amazing.  There is a very strong bass, and a reasonably stable and clear high end.  In any case, it is well worth amplifying.  The film is accompanied by an Overture, Entr’acte and Exit Music.  There is no captioning.

In addition to the restoration featurette, there is a 2-minute alternate sequence for the opening of the film’s second act that is less ‘American,’ which was shot for the international market.  There is also a very interesting 5-minute ‘emergency’ reel that was to be put on if the film suddenly broke, while the projectionists worked to fix it.  The piece acknowledges the interruption and provides several stopping points, as Thomas shares a couple of embarrassing problems that occurred during his own lecture experiences.  A trailer is included that incorporates footage from the film’s original trailer to promote the most recent restoration, and there are two early TV commercials for This Is Cinerama and one of its sequels, Seven Wonders of the World, both featuring Thomas.  There is a lovely 15-minute featurette on the resurrection of Cinerama in Dayton OH in the late Nineties, a 4-minute montage of photos depicting a Cinerama theater in Denver CO that was later demolished, a 6-minute montage of production stills looking behind the scenes of This Is Cinerama, and another sixteen promotional photos in still frame.  Finally, there are a pair of radio interviews with Cinerama’s creator, Fred Waller, made during the film’s premiere promotions, in which he talks about his career (he also invented water skiing) and about the Cinerama process, and he enthusiastically foresees the day the film would appear on Blu-ray.  “Theoretically, it could be put on television right now.  Practically, I think television’s got quite a little way to go.”

A second platter, a dual-sided DVD, is also included, which presents the Smilebox version of the film on one side and the special features on the other.  The sound on the DVD is in 5.1 Dolby, and lacks the timber or the thrust of the BD’s DTS track.  The picture quality, however, is reasonably similar to its BD counterpart.

On both the BD and the DVD, the film is accompanied by a commentary track featuring several members of the restoration team and a member of the original production crew (“We were very much like a start-up in Silicon Valley.  We really did not know what we were doing.”).  Along with providing extensive background details about each setting (such as how many seats there are at La Scala, and a complete history of Cypress Gardens), they speak extensively about the film’s production history (the film didn’t have an official director, but both Michael Todd and Merian C. Cooper were substantially involved with the shoot), the history of Cinerama, the experiences viewers and critics had when the film first opened, and the many challenges encountered in the shooting and the projecting of the film.

“The take-up reels on all four machines, the three projectors and the sound dubber, had about eight thousand feet of film on them, and there was a lot of torque being pulled through the projector.  The film was acetate, which was not particularly strong, and Cinerama had film breaks, usually toward the end of the reel.

“It was the highest paid projectionist job in the union, and at that time, the union worked strictly on seniority, so the oldest projectionists were the projectionists for Cinerama.  The Cinerama reels weighed between fifty and seventy-five pounds, and you had to lift them up over your head to put them in the upper magazines, so Cinerama came up with a ‘reel elevator.’  You would roll the reel on the floor, over to the base of this elevator, put the spindle in the center hole of the reel, push a button, and the elevator would lift the film reel up about six feet.  Then you could swing the door around and place the film into the upper film magazine.”

For unsatiated Cinerama fanatics, Flicker Alley has also released on Blu-ray, in the same Smilebox format and with an accompanying two-sided DVD, the 1958 ‘Cinemiracle’ Cinerama feature, Windjammer Voyage of the Christian Radich.  Depicting the 8-month training cruise of a Norwegian ‘tall ship’ sailing vessel, the 142-minute feature follows the ship south to Madeira, across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and then North along the Eastern American Seaboard before crossing the Atlantic again to Denmark and Norway.  Since this is the unfettered ‘Road Show’ version of the film, there are, for impatient contemporary viewers, a few too many musical numbers staged aboard the ship, but if one overlooks the half-hour or so of redundancy and padding, the program is another thrilling widescreen spectacle.  The format works best when the camera is in motion, because that is when the illusion of immersement is the most persuasive.  Your mind doesn’t have time to analyze the tromp l’oiel, so you really feel like you are moving, too.  In the Madeira segment, there is a ride on a wooden sled down cobblestone hills that is almost as good as the This Is Cinerama rollercoaster.  During a visit to Philadelphia, there are rides on both old-fashioned and modern fire engines, and in another sequence, the camera gets strapped to the side of a diving submarine.

Once again, the presentation retains a strong nostalgic component.  Many viewers will feel thrilled just to see the ship in full sail, and it is stated specifically that the Nineteenth Century work environment is the best way to prepare young men for the challenges of the future.  At nearly every port, there are folk festivals and other celebrations of the past—even the horse-drawn fire engines racing through the streets of Philadelphia—and the encounters with modern naval ships and equipment are usually displayed in contrast with the presence of the sailing ship.

Like This Is Cinerama, the restoration of the film’s source material is to be hailed with great cheer, even though it is burdened with minor imperfections.  Unable, again, to use the original negatives, the restorers, according to a 13-minute featurette, took an existing, badly faded print and coaxed fresh colors out of it as best they could.  Hues are a bit pinkish at times, and are a little drab in other spots, but for the most part, the colors are reasonably accurate and the image is sharp.  Although not as energetically structured as in This Is Cinerama, the audio, again mixed from seven channels into five DTS channels, remains admirably detailed with a strong dimensional presence and invigorating separations.  Some of the music is quite worthwhile, as well, including an expertly recorded performance by Pablo Casals and an interlude with Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops.  The film presentation on the DVD is in 5.1 Dolby.  There is no captioning.

An excellent 56-minute retrospective documentary from 2012 is included with the film, interviewing a number of the men who were on the voyage and what the trip and the film has meant for them.  Many production details and plenty of gossip are also shared.  As with This Is Cinerama, there is a 14 minute presentation of additional travelog sequences in a standard aspect ratio that were to be used to bide time as projectionists repaired any interruption in the screening, along with a trailer, a good 9-minute montage of behind-the-scenes photos, a 3-minute montage of newspaper ads, a replication of a souvenir program in still frame, and a nice 7-minute piece about the ship visiting a Tall Ships Festival in Denmark in 2010, which ends with another event that is an overwhelming blend of nostalgia and discovery, a fireworks display.

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2 Responses to “DVD Geek: This is Cinerama”

  1. David Matychuk says:

    I hope that whoever hands out those “genius grants” to unlikely but deserving artists takes note of the first and fourth paragraphs of the above Blu-Ray review. Brilliant!

  2. Joe Durham says:

    One would hope the releases won’t end with just these two, and the other four Cinerama adventures, Cinerama Holiday, Seven Wonders, Search for Paradise, South Seas Adventure and Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm will eventually make their way to Blu-Ray and DVD as well.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon