In last week’s preview of the Somerville Theatre’s 70mm & Widescreen Film Festival, I wrote about the old canard that the big screen is inherently better suited for large-canvas movies. Within the narrow viewpoint of my own personal experience, that line of thinking is demonstrably false—“so often it’s the textural details of cinema that remain in our mind’s eye the longest, even in those [70mm] epics,” was how I put it, “the grains of sand, or the wind that whips them, rather than the desert itself.” Having spent the weekend at the Somerville festival’s opening screenings—Lawrence of Arabia , Lord Jim , Tron , and Sleeping Beauty , all projected from relatively pristine 70mm prints—there’s one big thing I’d alter about that sentence. Instead of invoking the desert, I would’ve written about the water instead. Lawrence and Jim stare into it, both with the same gaze. They look beyond the wakes, with the ripples of the ocean refracting the faraway sun’s reflection, its light bouncing as far as the frame can see. Some films exhibited on 70mm display such a fine layer of photographic grain that you can barely even perceive it. It can appear as though the images has no limit. Your gaze seems to carry forward infinitely.
That was the lasting impression of 70mm imparted by those first two movies, though it’s one that’s sure to be augmented throughout the remainder of the 10-day program. Lawrence of Arabia opened the festivities on Friday, and was presented in a manner that would recur throughout the coming days. Director of Operations Ian Judge welcomes audiences to the screening, speaks briefly about the upcoming films, and rightfully warns the crowd to turn off their cell phones. On that opening night, he also explained the long process required to facilitate and curate this festival. “It took us 12 years to get to this place,” he noted, in reference to the time spent improving the general presentation of the theater (which was running second-run releases at discounted prices as recently as the early 2000s) as well as to the time spent procuring the equipment required to project 70mm prints in all their vagaries (soundtracks, for instance—the Somerville boasts the ability to exhibit from most of the varying magnetic sound formats contained on older 70mm release prints). Traditionally following Judge is head projectionist David Kornfeld, who gives history on the chosen film (in one case, speaking about the process used to create Tron’s optical effects), offers specifics regarding the sound format (in another case, capably explaining the historical reason that Lord Jim had three-track audio), boasts about the high quality of the Somerville’s projection booth (many of these screenings may be last-chance opportunities, he implies, given that the prints might “go to some other theater, where I’m not there, and they’re going to screw it up”), then lastly describes the provenance of the given 70mm print (in the case of Lawrence, the distributor’s own copy failed to meet his standards—we saw a print struck during the film’s 1989 rerelease, sourced from a restoration overseen by preservationist Richard Harris, which was tracked down by the theater instead).
This leads us to another oft-repeated statement about 70mm, although this one has truth behind it: The format legitimately represents the best possible way to experience Lawrence of Arabia. It’s not merely that the visions of the sand and the sea are served best by the format, but also the pacing and structure, which require a level of concentration generated by an immersive theatrical experience. The film’s editing moves continually in the same cycle, rotating from faraway long shots into more intimate medium shots and close-ups. And that cycle moves at a rigorously metered pace, one set to Maurice Jarre’s score—the sort of pace that affects a trance on the viewer, the kind of trance enhanced by the sensual clarity 70mm can afford to layered photography. The dense nature of the production design and the lived-in locations, working alongside the detail-intensive performances, all help to amplify this power—it’s not just the famous sights of distant figures within overwhelming landscapes, but also the small occurrences seen legibly within the film’s many long shots. Like the playful gestures displayed by Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) during his earlier days in the British service, which are worn out and evaporated by the commencement of the film’s second half (the intermission doubles as a particularly vexing ellipsis, another quality best experienced within the theatrical setting). Or the rare use of close-up shots for both Lawrence and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), another technique that’s most effective when paired with the wide-gauge format’s extraordinary resolution. Lawrence of Arabia’s close-up shots are typically employed at its character’s greatest moments of trauma, and the jarring details of those frames—the deepening crevices of Lawrence and Sherif’s faces, contrasted harshly against the intentional lushness of Lean’s desert landscapes—serve as the shocking high notes within the film’s calculated tempo.
Daytime exterior shots exhibit the most striking level of clarity, with innumerable layers of roaming extras and wandering animals stretching back so far that they threaten to vanish. All this textural detail expands the character of Lawrence—the contrast between the weathered close-ups and the overbearing landscapes rhymes with the film’s interest in the inextricable gulfs between inner lives and outer personas. The same photographic clarity is seen in writer/director/producer Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Conrad’s Lord Jim, another epic-sized shot-on-location 70mm production starring Peter O’Toole, though the use of the format is not so ingrained in the structure of the work itself. Brooks’ film is another reconsideration of white savior narratives, with O’Toole once again playing a strategic genius (a former seaman gone rogue) who leads a native population (the country is fictional, the movie was filmed in Hong Kong and Malaysia,) in a charge against their oppressors (while also struggling with the White Oppressor within himself.) The rhythm and individual sequences of the film are entirely typical—spear-throwing, slow-kissing, voice-overing, usual mid-century Hollywood adventure stuff—but 70mm exhibition elevates it significantly. The print shown at the Somerville was struck from the original camera negative, and its detail was altogether transporting, again most notably in daytime exteriors. Under bright sunlight, those shots—docks filled with layers of ships and workers, or a mourning ceremony attended by scores of extras—wear no discernible sheen. They are clear, sharp, crisp, and they create an unrivaled sense of depth in the frame. It’s truly three-dimensional cinema—no filtered glasses necessary.
Animation seen via 70mm is a radically different experience, but one that’s still intertwined with depth. In Sleeping Beauty, it’s the surprisingly weathered appearance of the backgrounds that keeps your eye’s attention, like the peeling bark on the trees during “Once Upon a Dream”—they create their own transfixing contrast, standing against the immaculate color and delineated angles of the foreground animation. And what Tron accomplishes most beautifully is a feat of visual rhyming: The computer-generated and hand-animated layers of neon lights and electrical pulses vanish into the 70mm frame, but then are evocatively doubled by the nighttime cityscape shots lensed in the “real world,” where unending stacks of windows and lights look like circuit boards. Both films also feature kaleidoscopic animated effects—an opening rush through a three-dimensional grid of lights in Tron, or the hallucinatory “spells” unleashed by way of colorful smoke clouds in Sleeping Beauty. Their effects are rendered with typically astonishingly clarity (Beauty was photographed with the Technirama process and then printed onto 70mm film, Tron was filmed almost entirely with 65mm cameras,) sometimes even to a fault (an early matte painting in Tron, used to extend an office setting in a live-action sequence, drew laughs from the crowd, once its unreal textures were revealed by the clarity of the film’s own print.) The films are not searching for photorealism, but the 70mm projection pushes them toward an adjacent quality: These prints revealed even the lightest brushstrokes, whether they were meant to be seen or not.
In the live-action films produced and exhibited with wide-gauge formats, the sharpness of the projection similarly leads your eyes toward the sort of elements you’d never otherwise notice. You see the beads of sweat on an actor’s face, or the scrounges of dirt hanging off their toes, or the threads that make up their jacket. You look through a shadow and note that, unusually, you can discern the surface resting behind it. Or you realize that your eyes cannot comprehend an endpoint among those waves rippling within the ocean. In every case, it’s the depth of the film image itself that’s entrancing you. In that same preview feature, I wrote about the way that 70mm can help to emphasize the most subtle aspects of filmmaking—my conclusion was that “it’s for this very reason that every worthy film deserves the expanse of the theatrical experience, regardless of the size of its scope. And within the contemporary moviegoing experience, there is nothing more expansive than 70mm.” After experiencing the first round of 70mm screenings at the Somerville, I’d make a slight alteration to that sentence as well. It’s not just a matter of expansion, but also one of immersion.
THE 70MM & WIDESCREEN FILM FESTIVAL. SOMERVILLE THEATRE. 55 DAVIS SQUARE, SOMERVILLE. SCREENINGS RUN THROUGH SUN 9.25. $15 PER TICKET. SEE SOMERVILLETHEATRE.COM FOR MORE. UPCOMING SCREENINGS INCLUDE…
WEST SIDE STORY . THURSDAY, SEP. 22. 7:30PM. 70MM.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY . FRIDAY, SEP. 23. RATED G. 7PM. 70MM.
STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME . RATED PG. FRIDAY, SEP. 23. 10:15PM. 70MM.
THE VIKINGS . SATURDAY, SEP. 24. NOON. 35MM.
IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD . SATURDAY, SEP. 24. 3PM. 70MM.
SPARTACUS . SATURDAY, SEP. 24. 7:30PM. 70MM.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS . SUNDAY, SEP. 25. 2PM. 35MM.
BEN-HUR . RATED G. SUNDAY, SEP. 25. 7PM. 35MM.