The rare Hollywood movies photographed with 65mm film and then exhibited via 70mm prints traditionally share a quality of visual grandeur, so much so that they recall the old tongue-in-cheek Fritz Lang one-liner about wide aspect ratios—just as he said that CinemaScope was fit for snakes and funerals, one might surmise that 70mm was fit for landscapes and outer space. At least that was the impression given off by the sizeable amount of critics who questioned the format’s usage in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master  and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight , two of the three 21st-century narrative-fiction movies to be filmed and exhibited with that wide-gauge format; the former is a historical epic composed mostly in close-ups and medium shots, the latter is a western staged mostly in a single interior setting. What these dissenters might have missed, in their search for the picturesque, was the way these filmmakers used 70mm exhibition to bring relatively unprecedented levels of depth and clarity to their frames. Anderson slivered the visages of his actors into razor-sharp layers of focus, often directing our view not just toward faces but toward specific features within them. Tarantino utilized hyperdense production design and deep focus to bring a weathered sense of character to his cabin setting, often using long shots to make viewers aware of not just its spatial layout but also the various items that populated it, as well as the streaks of light that snaked through it. If 70mm makes a comeback, these films will have helped to cultivate it. But even if it doesn’t, they offered a valuable reminder that the format is about much more than mere grandeur.
They also gave Boston audiences an opportunity to reacquaint themselves with 70mm, alongside Interstellar  and repertory screenings of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey . Now the Somerville Theatre offers the chance to know the format more intimately. Its 70mm & Widescreen Film Festival will present 16 films from Sep. 16 through Sep. 25, with 12 movies projected via 70mm and the other four exhibited on 35mm. 35mm and 16mm film exhibition is a delicacy that we’re lucky enough to experience regularly here in Boston, thanks to the consistent efforts of the Harvard Film Archive, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Brattle Theatre, a few local film societies, and the Somerville Theatre itself. But the rarity of 70mm exhibition prints, especially ones collected together, is something that truly cannot be overstated: Though many 70mm prints of older films were struck during the 2000s, the proliferation of digital cinema exhibition makes it unlikely that many will ever be struck again (something that thankfully cannot be said of 35mm, at least not yet, given that boutiques like Janus Films, archives like UCLA, and even studios themselves occasionally strike new exhibition prints of restored pictures). To wit, the Somerville’s screening of Sleeping Beauty  (Sunday, Sep. 18 at noon and 4:45 pm) will rely on the last remaining 70mm exhibition print that Disney has to offer—and given the state of the situation, you shouldn’t expect to see it again. As for the screening of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur  (Sunday, Sep. 25 at 7 pm), that’ll occur by way of a 35mm IB Technicolor print—reason being that there are no 70mm exhibition prints of that film remaining, despite the fact that it was produced to be viewed in exactly that format.
Such restrictions aside, the Somerville’s festival provides a thorough portrait of 70mm’s use within the American commercial cinema, including efforts from the ’50s and ’60s (when it was employed regularly by the various studios) as well as from the ’80s (when it made a brief comeback) and the contemporary era (where its use remains reserved for an increasingly-small class of Hollywood-approved auteurs). The festival also spans across the many genres that 70mm was used in service of: Historical adventure epics will be represented by the film whose legacy is perhaps most closely intertwined with the format, Lawrence of Arabia  (screening Friday Sep 16., 8 pm), as well as by Lord Jim  (Saturday Sep. 17, 2 pm), The Vikings  (Saturday Sep. 24, 12 pm, 35mm), and Spartacus  (Saturday Sep. 24, 7:30 pm). Science-fiction comes in the form of Tron  (Sunday Sep. 18, 2:30 and 8 pm), Interstellar (Tuesday Sep. 20, 7:30 pm), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Friday Sep. 23, 7pm), and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home  (Friday Sep. 23, 10:15 pm). Biblical epics were long the domain of 70mm, and are spoken for by The Ten Commandments  (Sunday Sep. 25, 2 pm, 35mm). and Ben-Hur. Musicals will be represented by West Side Story  (Saturday Sep. 17, 8 pm, and also Thursday Sep. 22, 8 pm), animated films by Sleeping Beauty, and grotesquely oversized comedies by It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World  (Saturday Sep. 24, 3pm). Last but never least is the western, whose landscapes will be seen by way of Ride Lonesome  (Monday Sep. 19, 6 pm, 35mm), The Wild Bunch  (Monday Sep. 19, 8:20 pm), and Silverado  (Wednesday Sep. 21, 7:30 pm).
Almost uniformly, these are films that were made on a grand scale. Many were shot far from studio bases—Egypt (Commandments), China (Lord Jim), Spain (Spartacus), Norway (Vikings) —for the express purposes of capturing travelogue-worthy images. And their sole point of connection is a taste for the sort of images that critics call “sweeping”: for swaths of the desert stretching as far as the frame can see (Lawrence), for the sight of whole armies captured within a single frame (Ben-Hur), for tableaux of faraway mountains over the countryside (the westerns), for medium shots that seem to capture whole handfuls of characters (Mad World), or even for Jupiter and beyond the infinite (2001). But the exorbitant scope of 70mm does not discriminate; the frames themselves contain much more than twice the picture area offered by a 35mm print; and the improvement is borne out not just in the grandiose compositions, but also in the corners and backgrounds. And the greatest pleasure of experiencing that often comes from the effect it has on tiny details—I think back not to the vistas of The Hateful Eight, but to the way the 70mm print made one lone snowflake, seen dissolving on the tip of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s tongue, into an entirely legible detail. This is what’s most exciting about the Somerville festival, moreso than the stars and the ’scapes: the chance to see the faces of background dancers in West Side Story, or the painted quality of the textures on the two 35mm IB Technicolor prints, or the rays of hallucinatory light that softly bounce off the individual crevices of Keir Dullea’s face in 2001. You’ll often hear figures in the film industry noting that the big screen experience is most necessary for large canvas works, for the films that aspire to the status of “epic.” But so often it’s the textural details of cinema that remain in our mind’s eye the longest, even in those epics—the grains of sand, or the wind that whips them, rather than the desert itself. 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.
THE 70MM & WIDESCREEN FILM FESTIVAL. SOMERVILLE THEATRE. 55 DAVIS SQUARE, SOMERVILLE. 9.16—9.25. $15 PER TICKET. FESTIVAL PASSES AVAILABLE FOR $200. SEE SOMERVILLETHEATRE.COM FOR SCHEDULE AND OTHER INFORMATION.