Tuesday, September 18, 2012

167. THIS IS CINERAMA (1952)

I continue to have awestruck memories of my initial exposure to the miracle of Cinerama in childhood -- the parting of those pleated curtains felt, to me, like the parting of the Red Sea -- and this, the original Cinerama release, is something I've long wanted to see and experience. Flicker Alley is bringing THIS IS CINERAMA to Blu-ray, preserving the original three-camera, curved screen, panoramic experience by means of incorporating the proscenium at the Cinerama Dome Theater in Los Angeles, whose curtain and screen were digitally photographed and recreated here, with the film inserted in the Smilebox format. This results in a truer-to-experience, more satisfying memento than was HOW THE WEST WAS WON, the first Smilebox release of a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, the budget allotted to the 18-month restoration -- mastered from a 65mm composite negative -- was not on the same level as that earlier release, a feature film that also benefited from the lessons learned about this potentially static medium in the interim.

The primary fault with THIS IS CINERAMA, as a home video experience, is that it required its cinematography to be locked down, keeping much of its spectacle at a distance in order to be all-encompassing. So, while the overall image looks quite nice and ripely colored, with good contrast, there is a fair amount of minute detail -- leaves, rocky terrain, stage design -- that is too microscopic to be clearly defined. No matter what you do, nothing is going to change the fact that this film is more than half a century old. Obviously, the larger your screen, the closer you sit, enabling the image's periphery to dominate your own, the more accurate a demonstration of Cinerama you'll receive; otherwise, you might find it interesting to stand with your nose about 12 inches away from your screen during, say, the opening Rockaway Park roller coaster ride, to get an idea of how much of a sensory experience this film originally delivered in 1952. Because the playback is flat, however curved it may pretend to be, the centermost of the three filmed panels will appear to bulge forward, making images intended to appear concave, look convex instead. It's not Cinerama itself, but a souvenir of that experience.

Introduced and narrated by Lowell Thomas, the Merian C. Cooper production -- which also introduced stereophonic sound to the movie-going experience -- packages an epic tour of the technology's possibilities, not unlike the subjective "Hat" demo reels seen in Douglas Trumbull's BRAINSTORM (1983), though the content here is no longer calculated to knock anyone's socks off. Things get off to a rousing start with a wild rickety roller coaster ride, but then things settle way down for a long time with performances by a church choir and pipe organ, a beautifully staged opera performance at La Scala, the Vienna Boy's Choir, some cloggers, a Florida-based water show (which made me wish that THE ENDLESS SUMMER had been shot in Cinerama), and more -- topped off by an extensive aerial tour of the United States from coast to coast. On some levels, the film is fascinating as a cross-section of what US adult audiences of the 1950s considered luxurious, funny, patriotic and holy, but these same aspects can become grating at feature length, leaving the viewer feeling stuck in a church pew and/or a propaganda-happy political rally. I'm happy to be shown the majesty of the Grand Canyon, but to have "America The Beautiful" driven down my throat at the same time dampens my appreciation of its natural majesty. As drawn into the technology as we might be -- and the sheer futurism audiences were seeing here qualifies THIS IS CINERAMA as a kind of retro-science fiction -- its occasional overbearance and tastelessness makes one ready to take a break by the time the Intermission comes. Mine lasted over 24 hours.

I think most people who see the film now, for the first time and without the grace of nostalgia there to billow their sails, will find it on the tedious side; nevertheless, seeing THIS IS CINERAMA is an experience that every devotée of cinema should have -- as an insight into where our world was 50 years ago, and who our parents or grandparents were in their relationship to that world. Flicker Alley's Blu-ray includes a nice 20m documentary about the film's digital restoration process, a 5m "breakdown" reel meant for use in case the film snapped, a detailed audio commentary (which I've not yet sampled), an alternative post-Intermission opening geared to European audiences, and much more.

Viewed via Flicker Alley's Blu-ray, which streets September 25.      

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