Saturday, October 10, 2009

Film documents architecture in new Forgotten Chicago feature

To me, much of best architectural photography is almost incidental - not the prettified, often impossibly abstracted images that have come to define the discipline- but shots where a city and its architecture are backdrops, stage sets for a narrative. The advantages are that this brings us much closer to how a building is actually inhabited and experienced by people in day-to-day-life.

Along these lines, the invaluable website Forgotten Chicago has added a page, Drama, Documentation & Discontinuity, that looks at fiction films shot in Chicago. There are stills from everything from The Hunter with Steve McQueen to two other Chicago films by famous directors in the at the beginning of their careers - Phillip Kaufman's Goldstein and Arthur Penn's extraordinary Mickey One.
One of the unsung services of Alfred Hitckcock's 1959 masterpiece, North by Northwest, which is being shown in a new restoration at the Chicago International Film Festival on October 18, is how cinematographer Robert Burks probably gives us the best documentation of the interior of the LaSalle Street Station waiting room, of how later modernizations meshed with the original 1903 design, and most importantly, how its space was actually experienced by a person moving through it.

And no, despite what you may have heard, I was not around in 1903 to see the station new. However, another snapshot on FC evoked a flood of personal memories.
In this shot from Goldstein, we see the late McVickers Theater, on Madison where One South Dearborn can now be found, with distinctive marquee art - panels of red plastic with black lettering and line drawings for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which I remember deeply and fondly. As a very young kid I went there to see that film several dozen times during its six month run in 1963-64. Along with Lawrence of Arabia, which my grandmother also took me to see, at the old Balmoral Theater near the Edgewater Beach Hotel, it was one of two movies that turned me on to both film and classical music. Chris MacNamara of the Trib reported on a new $100,000 screen at the Navy Pier IMAX, 60 feet high, 86 feet wide, but the screen at the McVicker's was even bigger, a massive three-part Cinerama screen on which Mad World was projected.

It actually marked the death of Cinerama, a process that revolutionized movie making by replacing the traditional squarish 1.37:1 aspect ratio with a 1: to up 2.85 widescreen ratio, made up of three separate strips film projected by three synchronized projectors on the tri-part Cinerama screen. The process reached its narrative peak with 1962's How the West Was the Won, the first fiction epic to be shot in Cinerama - and the last. Mad World was actually shot via the single-camera 70mm Ultra Panavision process, and projected on the curving Cinerama screen with a special lens. There would be other films billed as being shown in Cinerama - all the way up to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - but all of them were really regular 70mm shoots.

To a very young kid walking into the McVicker's and seeing that huge screen wrapped in a red curtain, watching the lights in the great dome above the balcony dim, and Ernst Gold's incredible score come pouring through the theater's state-of-art sound system, making it feel that you were in the front row of Orchestra Hall, then seeing those curtains part for Saul Bass's amazing title sequence - simple, witty line animations against deeply saturated backgrounds that jump-cut from red to green and back again - and watching those spectacular opening copter shots of cars racing down a thin strip of highway lost in the huge, hilly expanse of the California desert was - simply put - mind-blowing.

It's funny how many deep memories a single, blurry movie still, a celluloid madeleine, can evoke.


nrn312 said...

Marina City has been in a lot of movies, of course, but one that you wouldn't expect is Bullitt. While the film is probably the one most strongly identified with San Francisco, the opening sequence pans west (from the old Executive House?) over the old Sun-Times Building, IBM Building, Marina City, etc.

Here's a screen cap from the Netflix streaming movie service. I'm PO-ed that they don't have Mickey One available as that looks pretty interesting, but I've got Goldstein at the top of my queue!

Michael said...

Goldstein is by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Henry and June). One they don't mention that includes a lot of late-Daley-era Chicago (including that indoor amusement park in Bolingbrook or wherever it was) is Brian DePalma's The Fury.

Cinerama is a fascinating story unto itself that one could geek out on for hours; I got to see it at the somewhat short-lived revival by some Cinerama geeks in Dayton Ohio and the combination of massive image and wraparound visuals with 50s color was marvelous, far more breathtaking than any Imax film. The McVickers, incidentally, has a weird footnote in Cinerama history: after they stopped making three-camera/three-projector Cinerama movies, the company bought the rights to a Russian knockoff shot in "Kinopanorama" (this was the era when anything we could do, the Soviets claimed to have done first and better, and vice versa) and the McVickers was apparently the only place that "Cinerama's Russian Adventure" ever played.

Lynn Becker said...

Yes, I went brain dead. I knew that Goldstein was Kaufman, but my lazy mind apparently convinced me that it would be so much easier to just have to list one director. Correction made. Thanks for the catch.

Forgotten Chicago said...


Manumitted Negro said...

Mickey One is stunning. Wish it were on DVD. Also: The S-curve, old Randolph Street, and the backside of old Block 37 turns up on "Prime Cut", a Lee Marvin/Gene Hackman flick from '72 or so.