Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Cineramarama: Beautiful for spacious skies


Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Michael Todd Jr., Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Gunther von Frisch

Spoiler alert: as inapplicable as it gets

The highest-grossing movie of 1952, in 1952, was Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show On Earth.  I have no idea why; it's terrible.  But if we do not restrict ourselves to the calendar year, the highest-grossing movie from 1952 was a film far better fit to bear the crappy circus epic's title.  Perhaps one would even be more comfortable calling it a show, that is, as opposed to a movie.  Sure, it meets any strict definition of the latter—it flickers images to produce the illusion of movement, hence, "a movie"; and it was projected on a large screen in a dark space, in case that's still part of your faltering definition, here in 2020—yet it's hard to say it satisfies the connotations the word "movie" brings to mind.  It was both the technological experiment that helped drag cinema into modernity and one of the most cloying works of gimmickry in film history.  It was Cinerama—in the present tense, This Is Cinerama—and it made $4 million in just four locations in its first year, and $41 million in total, as the specialized venues it required spread across the country and across the globe, only to disappear more-or-less entirely by the early 1970s, albeit revived here and there by some of the most enthusiastic nostalgists you'll ever know.

Though that too is in the past.  This year, of course, we have watched helplessly as the long decline of the movie theater reached its sputtering climax, with American audiences, at least, remaining unmoved by the encouragement of several prominent filmmakers (and a fair number of film critics) to risk drowning in their own pink foam, because "movies belong in a movie theater."  Their irresponsibility has been disgusting and despicable—and deadly—but at least hardly anybody listened to them, less I imagine because Americans are conscientious (I mean, it's obviously not that), but because the gap between "the theatrical experience" and the home experience has narrowed so much in the past decade that it's just not worth courting death to see, e.g., Russell Crowe play the truck from Duel, but on a bigger screen.

Not that it would be "worth it" in any event, but that gap was far vaster in 1952, between even the ordinary Academy-ratio motion pictures and those newly-popular tiny glass tubes which snatched fuzzy scanlined black-and-white images from the ether.  Obvious inferiority had not stopped television from devastating Hollywood, however, cutting into its business by more than a third, the numbers I'm familiar with being 90 million theatergoers a week in 1948 (boggles the mind, don't it?) becoming just 56 million by 1952.  Hollywood had made some efforts to counteract this, mostly in terms of embiggening their productbut not yet the experience itself.

Enter Fred Waller, who had been a special effects technician and short subject director at Paramount, but spent the late 1930s developing a new "widescreen" process that collaged multiple filmstrips together onto the screen, by way of multiple projectors.  He dubbed this Vitarama, and a modified version found life not in theaters, but as what I assume was the world's first video game, though naturally nobody then thought of it in those terms.  The U.S. military called it "the Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer," an interactive screen experience involving blasting away at simulated air attacks.  After the war, Waller sought to apply his technologies to the civilian world, but getting Hollywood to bite on widescreen was harder than you might expect.  At the advent of the 1950s, Waller made what was, by all accounts, a highly successful exhibition of what would become Cineramathat is, the three filmstrip/three projector system that delivered three simultaneously-shot 35mm movies side-by-side onto a giant curved screen (and in seven-channel surround sound, to boot).  Yet his first and most enthusiastic backer wasn't any studio boss, but Lowell Thomas, the broadcaster and newsreel narrator who'd made his name in the 1920s flogging the story of T.E. Lawrence (which Lawrence reputedly didn't much like).  Thomas fell in love with the format, and brought it to the attention of director-producer Merian C. Cooper, of exotic documentary and King Kong fame, as well as producer Mike Todd, Mr. Elizabeth Taylor no. 3 amongst other things, who put together the financing for a Cinerama feature but saw the flaws in it clearly enough to have abandoned the venture by the time This Is Cinerama premiered, already pursuing his own eponymous Todd-AO process.

Of course Todd wasn't wrong about this: Cinerama was hard to make movies out of and hard to show movies with.  But that didn't matter on September 30 1952, when This Is Cinerama was revealed to a waiting world at the Broadway Theater in Manhattan, not a "movie theater" as such, though fittingly it had been one of Walt Disney's partners in his own too-early attempt at "Fantasound" in 1940-41 with FantasiaThis Is Cinerama was a similar effort in many respects: it too sought to class up this proletarian medium with fancier arrangements than the usual motion picture presentation.  (I mean, can you imagine going the movies in a tux?)  This Is Cinerama found greater success than Fantasia, however, proving itself the hit of the seasonand one of the great phenomena of the decade.  Two years later, it was still playing.

I regret to spend so much time on the history, though I hope it was useful and interesting.  (Clearly, I can never really tell.)  But it maybe suggests that there's nothing interesting about This Is Cinerama itself.  I don't know; I dug the hell out of it.  Perhaps needless to say, I've never seen This Is Cinerama in Cinerama.  I have seen it only at home, in the vain hope that 21st Century technology could bridge the divide.  I'm under no delusion that I truly saw This Is Cinerama, then.  But I can say this: I can imagine why audiences in 1952 (and 1953, and 1954...) went so out of their minds for it.

A word on that home presentation, then, which comes courtesy of Flicker Alley's series of Cinerama films on blu-ray, heroically restored, each displayed in the curved "Smilebox" format first unveiled on a special edition of How the West Was Won, one of the (only) two Cinerama narrative features.  There is a possibility that, in terms of purely qualitative presentation, the blu-rays have their advantages, because the digital restoration made a point of integrating the three filmstrips into a much more cohesive single image, leaving just enough fuzziness at the seams of the triptych to retain a certain quaintness, while also smoothing out some of the more angular joins between the three images.  The blu-ray also never breaks, which was a common enough danger for real Cinerama that they shot an apology reel, starring Lowell Thomas, whose tetchiness at even imagining the situation is pretty hilarious within the structure of his script, which, due to the indeterminate duration of any potential problem, has him finishing his time-killing spiel several times with a "I'm sure they're ready now" only to immediately transition into a visibly-annoyed "okay, I guess not."

None of the presentation's finer points are apparent immediately upon starting This Is Cinerama, nor would they have been in real Cinerama in 1952.  The film begins instead with a tiny little standard picturein black-and-white, no lessin which we find our guide to this new cinematic panorama, Thomas himself, holding forth on the development of the "moving" image over the millennia, from the first suggestion of movement in primitive cave art to the far more complete illusion of movement developed by scientists in the 19th century.  Our dude holds forth for a while, in fact: a good twelve minutes.  I appreciate it anyway: besides my inordinate fondness for 1950s narrators who toss stolid infotainment at you in preparation for a feature, I'm not sure that what comes next works without the itchy feeling of sitting down to a cutting-edge spectacle only to be confronted with a TV-scaled guy-in-a-room.  But at the close of Thomas's long lecture, the footage turns to color and the screen opens up, way up, and the format's virtual reality at least theoretically puts you right into the front seat of a roller coaster, a fine metaphor for the ride that This Is Cinerama wants to take you on.

As Thomas says, what follows has no plot or characters (it actually has one named character, to whom some small amount of incident occurs, but this is basically accurate).  He explains it is neither "a stageplay, nor a feature picture, nor a travelogue, nor a symphonic concert, nor an opera, but it is a combination of all of them... this is Cinerama."  Which is the salesman's way of saying, "here's a bunch of nearly entirely random stuff."  It is divided into three very clearly-separated parts, but that's it as far as any structure goes.  This first part is the most random, in that there is literally no theme whatsoever besides what Thomas reiterates at the beginning of each of these initial segments, "and this is Cinerama!", which isn't even completely forthright: one of these segments, a sepia-toned Christian choir, was not even shot for This Is Cinerama specifically, but dates back to the 40s as part of Waller's proof-of-concept.  Well, it's nice enough, as is a helicopter visit to Niagara Falls and a totally out-of-context dance sequence from Aïda.

The subsequent "acts" find some tenuous unity, at least, and the remainder of the film (it's no coincidence that this is where it also picks up substantially in quality) can be divided into a "European" half and an "American" half, with the American half being bigger and better, befitting the ethos of its makers.  The European part retains the introduction's hugely-noticeable magpie quality, skipping arbitrarily across the continent.  Usually this comes with the reduction of its cultures into charming curios, inaugurating what I understand shall be a tradition in these Cinerama documentaries.  Such is particularly the case with its Viennese and Edinburgh sequences, the former of which involves a boys' choir in lederhosen, and is explicitly present to show off Cinerama sound (there's a later interstitial without any images at all, devoted entirely to the orchestra).  The Edinburgh sequence indulges in a rather more visually-interesting performance, in the form of a Highland pageant, though if it's pageantry we're after, this impulse finds its highest expression at the La Scala opera in Milan, where another sequence from Aïda plays out, this one the triumphal parade of Act 2, Scene 2, a solid choice for the demonstration of Cinerama's usefulness for broad, albeit relatively-static spectacle.  There's also a bullfight in Spain, thankfully limited to its prologue, not its climax.  The highlight of Europe actually comes early, with our trip through the canals and streets of Venice, which beautifies Italy's famed open sewer in ways that I doubt actually being there could ever accomplish.  As a rule, all this footage is genuinely stunning.  If This Is Cinerama has any one author, it's cinematographer Harry Squire, though it's always difficult to ascertain who filmed what where.

The Cinerama system centered on a seriously curved screenin a fit of poetics rather than, I'd wager, solidly-founded optics, Waller's invention called for lenses mimicking the human eye, and a screen mimicking the arc of human visionand the Smilebox attempts to replicate that.  I have no idea how successfully, though it's known that Cinerama theaters had fairly circumscribed "sweet spots" where the distortion was least noticeable; the Smilebox, anyway, outright embraces distortion.  The aggressive wide angle lensing, the illusion of weird arcing movements along the z-axis, and the way the camera's own z-axis movement warps straight lines into strange curves all combine to create a certain look that's the most remarkable thing about This Is Cinerama, which strives to capture "reality" but can't help but make an alien dimension out of it.  This otherwordly hyperrealism is maybe the single coolest thing about it, downright magnetic even when its actual content is no more exciting than, "hey, a bridge!"  (The Venice sequence also begins This Is Cinerama's most noticeable motif: it loves going underneath bridges.  That this is a motif is probably just the result of the film's heavy reliance on aerial photography, and famed cinematic aviator Paul Mantz's well-attested penchant for flying underneath every bridge he came acrosstypically without permission! because it's dangerous!but it works well in the film's favor, giving a consistent impression of traveling through gateways into endless new worlds, on top of offering a little spike of adrenaline every time it does so in a B-25 going 180mph.)

Upon our return to America, Thomas explains that we've arrived in Florida, specifically Cypress Gardens, once just a piece of swamp, but now manicured into an attractive tourist destination.  (The European alternate intro relates this to the legend of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth, which seems miscalibrated, unless Leon really is as famous in, say, France.)  It's at this point that whatever thesis This Is Cinerama offers begins to take incipient shape.  A modern viewer may well look at Cypress Gardens with some suspicion: it would just be a nice-but-quotidian botanical preserve if not for the added feature of its human ornamentation, a bunch of "local girls" whose job was to sit around the reclaimed swamp in fanciful sherbet-colored antebellum dresses.  I am really at a loss as to what Cypress Gardens was all about: it can't have been pitched at anybody besides couples, because platonic friends don't typically row platonic friends on boat rides through romantically sun-dappled wetlands; yet leering at hot women play-acting as plantation princesses isn't much of a "couples" activity, either.

It is, far and away, the most fascinating thing This Is Cinerama offers as a sociological document, and you get the sense that this is the affirmative case for what Nazis want when they say "make America great again": an Arcadian, never-real vision of "Southern charm" populated exclusively by young, pretty white people, enjoying a highly-artificial rendition of "nature" punched up with the tantalizing suggestion of female sexual availability.  This is a deeply white movieat best, maybe the Ethiopian slaves in Aïda weren't just Italians in blackfacebut this pushes a very particular image of mid-century America-as-paradise, and if I taught sociology, it'd be an extremely useful teaching tool.

Of course, I don't teach sociology, and it helps that its racism, while pervasive, is only implied.  Taken on its cinematic merits, anyway, it is a gorgeous little sequence, if not the best here then certainly the best showcase for Cinerama's visceral effect.  It's the first time This Is Cinerama gives any of its subjects a name, Toni (Toni Valk, who is the only person here other than Thomas who ever gets so much as a medium close-up).  She's one of the garden girls, who, for some reasonthere's no real effort to convince us that they're capturing spontaneous, unstaged actionis always late, which is too bad for her when her idyll gives way to the more exciting half of the sequence, a rad water show with motorboats and trick water skiers and, kind of surprisingly, the crypto-sexual thrill of a long voyeuristic shot of the girls changing out of their dresses, which reads as "stripping down" even if they've already got bathing suits on underneath.  (Okay, one last historical note: the very first invention Fred Waller patented wasn't even anything to do with moviesit was water skis, something I guess I'd never thought of as being "invented" in the first place.)  I have no idea how this show could possibly play out to a real-life audience: it seems to range out over creation, and the skiers would be little dots.  But whateverin Cinerama, it's a bolt of needed lightning in what is otherwise maybe a little too relaxed for the tech demo it fundamentally is.  Brilliantly edited more for the sensation of bold movement than for continuity, but photographed within the midst of the action with robust physicality, it's pure joy.

Which sets us up for the final segment of the film, a long flight beginning in New York but spanning the breadth of our mighty continent, whereupon that thesis I mentioned really crystallizes.  Soon, we see Pittsburgh, cloaked in smog on a clear day and the ugliest thing in the movie, a reminder that there was a time when this city was even filthier.  But as we fly west, Thomas describes all that we see with love.  To him there's nothing American that isn't awesome: Gary, Indiana, is spoken of as a glorious industrial engine; within the film's consummate 50s naiveté, even an open pit mine becomes abstractly beautiful.  (To say nothing of the checkerboard plains and Rocky Mountains.)  And while the contributions of numerous film composers (and Verdi!) have made This Is Cinerama a pleasure to listen to throughout, now nakedly-emotional American hymns join us on our tour of America's wonders.

Travelogue, opera, symphonic concert, sure; but what was truly made here was a celebration of nations, somewhat inhuman in its complexion, but making up for that by being so much larger than life.  By the end, the cosmopolitanism of that pursuit has given way to the most sumptuous red-white-and-blue propaganda imaginable.  They say that it's an accident that "Cinerama" is an anagram of "American," but if a photographic process could be American, surely there could be none more American.  The story goes that the finale made Dwight Eisenhower cryI can believe it.  I can believe, too, that the president had every intention of exploiting it for all it was worth, hoping to send a floating Cinerama on a decommissioned aircraft carrier on a mission to carry this pristine dream-vision of America to foreign shores.  Congress didn't approve the funds, but when it went overseas by other means, it was almost as popular there as here.  This too is understandable.  I can easily see why This Is Cinerama was so epochally successful, because it really is such a monumental piece of technological arteven if in some respects it's such pure cinema it's just barely "a movie" at all.

Score: 8/10

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