Monday, October 26, 2020

Cineramarama: Vacation's all I ever wanted


Directed by Robert L. Bendick and Philip De Lacy
Written by Louis de Rochemont III and Otis Carney (based on a book, somehow, called America Through a French Looking Glass by Renee Gossett and Pierre Gossett)

Spoiler alert: N/A

For two and a half years after This Is Cinerama premiered in September 1952, it remained the only Cinerama feature in existence.  I can't say why it took till then to finally give the public the second one; I expect it had a lot to do with the natural caution of businessmen who knew that their venture was, fundamentally, still an experiment.  Nevertheless, between 1952 and 1955, the Cinerama theaters that had sprung up kept showing This Is Cinerama.  People kept spending money to see it.  By this point, it had become a genuine cultural phenomenon, and secured the title it would keep forever, as 1952's box office champion.  But more importantly—far more important than any individual Cinerama film ever would be—it had wrought an enormous transformation upon the art of cinema, just as its inventor Fred Waller had hoped.  Not to his exact specifications, of course, yet, in less than three years, everything had changed: the old boxy Academy ratio was, by 1955, effectively a thing of the past.  Theatrical cinema was widescreen now, and widescreen was theatrical cinema.  What had not happened, however, was any industrial embrace of Cinerama itself.  As would become increasingly obvious, it had only opened the door: to ordinary, closed-matte widescreen, which in its 16:9ish ratio became one of the standards; and to the other standard, unveiled by 20th Century Fox in 1953 with The Robe, this being "the modern miracle you see without glasses"—referring to the short-lived 3-D craze, and presumably because "the modern miracle we shoot on an ordinary camera, and show without needing three Goddamn projectors" just wasn't that good a pitch-line.

This was CinemaScope, and 20th Century Fox had taken very much the opposite approach that Cinerama had been forced to take, when the  studios rejected Waller's process back in 1950.  Indeed, Fox threw those 'Scope lenses on everything they possibly could, from big-budget pageantry to mediocre romantic comedies.  In a fit of enlightened self-interest, they even loaned out the lenses to any other studio willing to use them, thereby justifying to all the nervous theater owners the renovations 'Scope presentation required.  Implicit was the promise that Hollywood would keep producing content to fill those huge, narrow rectangles until the end of time.  (And this promise has surely been kept: for no really logical reason, we still make hundreds of faux-'Scope movies that will never be seen anywhere, except between the black bars on a 16:9 HDTV.)  In a sense, Cinerama was the victim of its own success—certainly, with the arrival of 'Scope (and 'Scope's technically-superior successors), all of them easier to use, all of them easier to exhibit, Cinerama's days were numbered.  Its fate was to remain much the same boutique kind of product throughout its lifetime, a format that barely anyone bothered doing anything at all with besides This Is Cinerama-style travelogues (and not even a ton of those).  Even the exceptions really only tend to confirm why no other outcome was ever especially likely.

Still: hindsight's 20/20, ain't it?  It doesn't seem like anybody at the time realized Cinerama was already dying, and so it's nice to imagine that when Waller passed in 1954, he did so under the not-unreasonable misapprehension that he really had invented the future of cinema.  (And, after a fashion, hadn't he?)  When it was at last released to a waiting world in February 1955, Cinerama Holiday would've militated strongly in the direction of a more robust career for the format: for when it arrived in Cinerama's theaters—far more numerous now than in 1952—Holiday won its year at the box office, too.  (Unlike its predecessor, it did so within the calendar boundaries.)  That's not inexplicable—I like the movie a fair amount, and would doubtless like it all the more in actual Cinerama—but for a follow-up to an amorphous semi-documentary, that oughtn't really share much of anything with its forebear besides a basic genre and approach, Holiday is capable of a surprising number of sequel sins, effectively doing the same things we already saw the first time, except now they're not done quite so well.

Particularly, nothing about Holiday suggests that any notable development went into that two and a half year gap—in fact, I suspect that if you were shown the two films, without names or dates or introductory narrations, there would be a very solid chance you'd think Holiday was the first one, and This Is Cinerama the refinement.  If it's barely possible to argue that, for example, Holiday's (still rather occasional) independent camera movement reflects slightly less of a purebred primitivism than This Is Cinerama, it's absolutely a step back in terms of knowing what Cinerama was actually good for—which perhaps shouldn't be a total surprise, since Holiday was the result of a significantly altered team of craftspeople.  The production was led by one Louis de Rochefort, and his history was in newsreels, his biggest claim to fame being the co-creation of The March of Time series.  Rochefort seems like a good dude—he was, for example, early to anti-fascism during the run-up to WWII, and his documentaries touched on issues of race and class to a degree unusual for the era—but I suspect that his temperament was about as far as possible from This Is Cinerama's triumvirate of Merian C. Cooper, Mike Todd, and Lowell Thomas, all of whom had their own history in "non-fiction"-style non-fiction that tended to evince an attitude far more in line with the hucksterish, "check out this shit!" ethos that the epic Cinerama travelogue format virtually demanded.  Then there's Rochefort (whose son, Rochefort III, helped adapt the, er, story? plan? scheme? from a recently-published travelogue book), who's much more into infotainment, and has the most curiously-domestic idea of how to engagingly use a format whose most essential quality, of course, was the way it repudiated anything small.

This doesn't banish the ultra-widescreen vistas of gorgeous landscapes and stunts, because obviously they weren't not going to film those.  But sometimes it means spending five minutes in some French family's fucking house, while our French host explains who the people in his photographs are, ending on the last one, his brother, whom we learn just died in Vietnam.  The only ready explanation is that, yes, this Frenchman really did have a brother who died in Indochina, and this really was the precise moment of the French empire's collapse (Dien Bien Phu would've been roughly contemporaneous with the creation of this film), hence what right would Cinerama have to ignore such an important context?  But God knows it wasn't going to engage with it in any useful way, nor would any sane person have wanted it to.  It adds nothing but a brief (albeit memorable) derangement of the tone of what, of course, is nothing besides a lightweight piece of utter froth; and certainly I neither expected nor desired there to be a more substantive connection between Cinerama freaking Holiday and, say, The Battle of Algiers than the fact that both films try, in their very disparate ways, to occupy that nebulous space between cinematic artifice and documentary reality.

The one modest evolution, I suppose, is that Holiday manages an actual structure, though maybe all it really does is create a paper-thin narrative around what was already This Is Cinerama's own chaotic organizing principle.  So: like its predecessor, Holiday is fundamentally "about" the act of taking Cinerama cameras across the United States and Western Europe and filming whatever seemed interesting there.  This Is Cinerama simply did this, with neither excuse nor explanation, presenting itself as an anthology-of-random-stuff, and its confidence was in a way its strength.  Holiday, on the other hand, establishes a "why," and the reason is a swap: dual "adventure" vacations taken by two charming, attractive, middle-class married couples, one from Kansas City, Missouri, the other from Geneva, Switzerland, each of whom begin their tours where the other one came from.  (They meet briefly in Kansas City, and shall eventually come back together in New York.)  The Americans are Betty and John Marsh, the Swiss, Beatrice and Fred Toller.  I like the Tollers slightly more (though I like their vacation less), but in both cases their accents and non-actorliness make them questionable choices for the often-expository, usually-dorky, sometimes-amusing narration that they get up to—our Marshes are undeniably from Missouruh—and one feels a certain resentment toward Flicker Alley for the utter rudeness of failing to include SDH subtitle tracks on (evidently) any of their Cinerama blu-rays, insofar as this is the kind of basic amenity that you could expect from even the crappiest media these days.  But, you know, that's fine: I'm sure nobody who went to Cinerama as a child and wanted to relive their experience in their 70s could possibly be hard of hearing.

Anyway, if largely featureless besides their accents (the Tollers say they like jazz!), they are charming and attractive enough to be useful guides.  We therefore kick things off with a transatlantic flight into the Alps, immediately after a TV-scaled intro just like This Is Cinerama's before it, and the black-and-white Academy sky becomes, in a cut, that big blue Cinerama sky we came to see.  Soon we will learn that, despite having a structure this time, Holiday is a rather asymmetrically-built object: the interleaving of the American and European vacations is so clumsy and infrequent that you actually start wondering if the film forgot about the others while you're in the midst of watching one couple's adventure, and each couple will do, like, five different unrelated things before Rochefort or his directors remember to check in to see how their other continent is doing.  Holiday, to put it bluntly, does not have the rhythm its framing should've provided.  The other thing is that Holiday does not use its time as well as you'd hope, often feeling like it's not interested enough, at least not in the most interesting things it finds.

In its defense, lavishing too much time on just one thing that accidentally winds up boring was a clear and present danger for any Cinerama travelogue (why, just look at the next year's Cinerama, Seven Wonders of the World).  But Rochefort has a most unsteady hand in this regard, so that a trip to the Louvre, which is a beautiful building before you even get to the beautiful things inside it, somehow winds up with less screentime than a French elementary school.  I learned that the French only have a four day schoolweek, thus Rochefort taught me something; but I don't feel terrifically enriched by my new knowledge.  Now, it is still Cinerama (returning cinematographer Harry Squire was joined by Joseph Brun), so even within the very dullest stuff, like that mini-documentary on French primary education, we wind up struck by bolts of visual lightning: consider that one gorgeous shot, almost level with the water, of a hundred French schoolkids spending their day off sailing paper boats across an enormous pool in a park.  But there's not nearly as strong an editorial vision as This Is Cinerama had; that shot's over much more quickly than you'd like.  Maybe the most forceful example of what I'm talking about comes in the final phase of the Tollers' trip across America, where they've evidently run out of stuff worth discussing specifically and just resort to a big "American" montage.  In the middle of this, there's an image of some kind of metalworking that feels almost spiritual, even Malickian, like an idealized painting of metalworking; nevertheless, in about five seconds, it's gone.  For something that had literally no pressure to spend a particular amount of time on any particular thing, it's a surprisingly choppy film, darting here and there and sometimes forgetting—like tourists actually might, to be fair!—to truly absorb what's being seen.

That said, there's stunning footage here, and, ultimately, that's what Cinerama's all about.  Nothing here hits the same kind of ecstatic highs as This Is Cinerama's water skiing, but Holiday makes the attempt with some alpine skiing of its own.  (Is Cinerama effectively just a niche format for beautifully photographing people moving over surfaces on planks of wood?)  The unfortunate result, however, is that the film peaks very early: Switzerland is by far the best thing about this movie, and Switzerland is where we start.  There's a neat POV bobsled ride here—a technical nightmare to capture—but the magnificent cascade of human bodies skiing down the overwhelming visual austerity of the white slopes (complete with what look like some damned close calls; I cannot say if these were staged) actually looks even more dangerous.  Switzerland also offers an extended outdoor icecapade, which swings between majestic ice ballet and goofy-as-hell ice vaudeville, and even includes a full geometric production number; this scene offers some of the most impressive actual camerawork of the film, as the expensive rig smoothly tracks the skaters around the rink.  Even the quietest bits of Switzerland are fun: eating fondue at the lodge should be boring, but it punches things up with a little "impromptu" yodeling.  When it's on to France, it's actually a disappointment.  (As John drawls, "If you don't enjoy Paris, it's your own fault!" to which I reply, "don't you dare blame me, John.")  But Paris is perfectly fine, despite Rochefort's questionable emphases on what he thinks merit the closest scrutiny (and despite a long ride in a Paris cab where 70% of the screen is the silhouette of the inside of the damn back seat of the car; and despite a butt-level tracking shot of the Marshes on bikes that accidentally winds up with Betty demonstrating some the most aggressive VPL in film history).  Paris has shows, too, of course, including a fashion revue put on by Jacques Fath, which does offer up one truly great outfit, in the form of a slate-gray jumpsuit pulled tight with a purple sash, that strikes the camera as almost unspeakably modern.  Too bad the balance of the couturier's creations only prompt the question, "So... who's taking you to prom?"

You can see what I mean about choppiness; it's hard to even discuss without bouncing around.  The essential thing is that Switzerland is almost uniformly better than France, and Europe is almost uniformly better than America (this pattern is rarely broken, but broken hard in a gratifyingly indulgent segment with the jazz artists of New Orleans).  America, as a rule, suffers the most from the combination of Rochefort's social conscience and his unaccountable fascination with using Cinerama to capture the deeply unexceptional; both impulses find their most pronounced expression in a staged crisis and a staged rescue, from a source that the film takes significant and offensive pains to tell us the Tollers would never have expected.  These are "Red Indians!", and they are "not in warpaint, but in dungarees."  Can you believe that Apache herd cattle, and are sometimes named "Clarence"?  I can, because it is 1955.  It's not as cringey as it could be, maybe, because you can at least see the intent is to be nice, and there's a great Cinerama shot of the cattle; but really, so what?

Our journey ends with our couples' reunion in NYC, and if the "adventure of the four young lovers" poster tagline makes you think Holiday's most natural conclusion would be some hearty wife-swapping, you're not crazy, but you probably do need to relax.  Either way, Holiday makes one of its strongest, wackiest gestures right here, tipping merrily into self-reflexivity as the Tollers and Marshes go to the Manhattan Cinerama—to see, you guessed it, Cinerama Holiday!  This is mostly just the venue for our notionally-big finale, however, involving U.S. Navy jets (and not actually involving either the Tollers or the Marshes).  The fact is, Holiday blows its load embarrassingly early with a fast, loud Blue Angels flyby.  You'd think we could get some scintillating footage out of the Navy's famed aerobats.  Instead, we follow some new pilots making their first carrier landing.  Hypothetically, this is fraught, though since it's unimaginable that Cinerama would actually use this footage if one of these guys did bite it, it's not exactly suspenseful.  Besides the essential appeal of the sleek Grumman war machinery and the stark artificial horizon of the huge carrier curving across the Cinerama frame(s), it's so incredibly businesslike that, by the second landing, it's frankly only slightly more exciting than watching somebody park a car.  Even while we're airborne, the planes are dots about 90% of the time; and the camera plane's climactic resort to some barrel rolls seems more like a desperation move than anything else.  I hate to say this, but the best part of a rad fighter jets sequence should not be that silly, mostly-unstressed meta gag of "whoa! they're pretending to watch their own movie with us in the theater!"

That's Cinerama Holiday in a nutshell, though: a bunch of segments, some fantastic, some not, generally peaking early and sloping downward, but all of them jamming at least one incredibly striking, Cinerama-distorted image directly into your brain, and the whole damn thing never coming off as anything less than friendly.  (If Morton Gould's score is ever anything other than a mellow jaunt, I missed it.)  It's gently stimulating much like a real holiday ought to be, even if it is "an adventure" so rarely that you frankly wish they'd stop insisting on the term.

Score: 7/10

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