Sunday, August 28, 2011

How to Build a Great City for under $350 million, or Cleopatra conquers the Roman Forum in 70mm spectacle, by way of Seattle

click images for larger view
If you haven't seen a film in 70mm, even if you've taken in  various IMAX productions, you've probably never seen film at its highest point of visual spectacle.  A stunning detail of image, coupled to a huge screen and the kind of production budgets only Hollywood can provide created a series of spectacles that remain unrivaled, even against the best that the current state of CGI can provide. Just the names, names like Ben-Hur, Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia evoke the very idea of epic spectacle.

VHS, DVD, and now streaming video largely killed off the revival houses that used to screen vintage films.  Showings of motion pictures in their original 70mm format are especially rare as few theaters today are equipped with the necessary projectors.  At the present time in Chicago, only the Music Box appears equipped to screen 70mm.

So a festival of 70mm films is a big deal.  Just last week, the Paramount in Austin, Texas held a mini-festival of 70mm, but at end of September/beginning of October, things will go epic at Seattle's Cinerama Theater's Big Screen 70mm Film Festival, with showings over three weeks of  more than a dozen 70mm films, including, Lawrence, 2001, My Fair Lady, Baraka and Tron.  Like the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, Seattle's 800-seat Cinerama opened in 1963.  It hadn't showed a 70mm production in almost three decades and was in grave danger of destruction when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen bought it for $3 million, and spent millions more restoring it to its original glory.
Unlike the old movie palaces, which were either converted vaudeville theaters, or custom-built in the 1920's silent days to accomodate major stage shows, usually in some takeoff of classical styles, whether Baroque, Mayan, or Roman, theaters like the Seattle Cinerama, designed by architect Raymond H. Peck, were built specifically and exclusively for film.  Their high-tech, modernist design reflected the state-of-the-art status of the sound and projection.
 In Chicago, after showman Michael Todd bought the "legitimate" Harris Theatre, designed by architect C. Howard Crane, he enlisted talents such as Bertrand Goldberg and artist Joseph Albers to transform it into a glamorous showplace of contemporary design that he then named after himself.  After Todd died in a 1958 plane crash, the Michael Todd theatre, as well as the Cinestage just next door, remained owned by his widow, Elizabeth Taylor, until she discovered many years later that they had descended into showing soft-core porn.

Getting back to the roster for the Seattle festival, there's also Jacque Tati's amazing Playtime, where the 70mm format is used to explicate variations on an epic scale on the absurdities of modernism in general and modernist architecture in particular, and Richard Brook's film version of Conrad's Lord Jim, with Peter O'Toole in the title role.  Besides Lady, musicals range from West Side Story, to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to South Pacific, along with another film that was enormously popular in its time but largely forgotten today, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.

The Sound of Music, which will also be screened, was the high water mark of roadshow exhibition.  In city after city, its run was counted not in months but in years, as the picture went on to dethrone Gone With the Wind as the biggest grossing film of all time.  Today, the film's sugary nature - one critic remarked that it could not be endured within a dose of insulin - makes this seem inexplicable, and the studio interiors only add to the dullness. But in 70mm, you can see how the location shooting in Austria created images of richness and often stunning beauty.
Almost finally, there will be showings of the original Cinerama production, This is Cinerama, and one of  only two narrative films to be shot in that process, How the West was Won.  Cinerama films, as explained in this great post on the Harry Helms blog, were actually 35mm, but times three.  A special camera shot three separate strips of film, center, left and right, which were projected in exact synchronization on a single, massive curving screen.
 The move to narrative films also sounded the death knell for true Cinerama.  Beginning with 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad,Mad World,  "Cinerama" became a single ultra-wide 70mm print projected with a special lens onto the curving Cinerama screen.

Like IMAX today, the 70mm roadshow production was a clever ploy to enhance revenue by charging ticket prices substantially higher than that for standard releases.  In the mid-1960's, a midweek evening ticket for a roadshow film might go for $2.80, versus about $1.85 for a regular release at the United Arists or Oriental. At one time the Michael Todd and Cinestage (whose facades survive in front of the new Goodman Theater), the McVickers (demolished), and Palace all showed roadshow films, with theaters such as the Loop and Esquire also going along for the ride at times.  You can read more about the rise and fall of the roadshow in our previous piece  here.
Lawrence and My Fair Lady get occasional revivals, but the real rarity in Seattle will be sceenings of 70mm prints of 1963's Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison.  Costing over $300,000,000 in today's money, it still holds the title as the most expensive film ever made.  Taylor's serious illness had already set the production off the rails, and the studio brought on writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz to take over the production of a film that was already $5 million over budget.  The revised script was only half finished when filming restarted, with Mankiewicz, like David Selnick before him, turning to pharmaceutical reinforcement to allow him to write through the night the pages we would shoot the next day.

While the final result bears shows the literary hallmarks of the man who wrote such witty films as All About Eve, Cleopatra was not a critical success.  It was the highest-grossing film of 1963, but that was still not enough to cover costs.  In Chicago, it played not at one of the usual road-show houses, but at the State-Lake (now the ABC7 studios), which had a larger seating capacity to take advantage of the public's heavy-breathing, if short-lived interest in the tabloid details of Taylor's and Burton's love life.
A good bit of coherence was lost when Fox spurned Mankiewicz's suggestion to release the film as an six-hour epic shown in two parts, as the Russian War and Peace would be in the next decade.  Instead, Cleopatra was released clocking in at a still posterior-challenging four+ hours, and then cut again to closer to three for general release.

Still, Cleopatra remains a literate, often witty film.  It doesn't scrimp on the spectacle, and its climatic sequence of Cleopatra's entrance into the Imperial Forum,  demonstrating what the Romans might have achieved if only they had had Fox production head Spyros Skouros to write the checks to cover the overruns, remains one of the most spectacular sequences in cinema.

Of course, watching Cleopatra on You Tube is like viewing Guernica on a dinner plate

Seattle's Big Screen 70mm Film Festival takes place September 30th through October 16th, and includes no fewer than 43 scheduled screenings.   Five of those screenings are still listed as "TBA",  so is there hope for the additional a Spartacus or a Ben-Hur?  Check out all the information on the festival here.

No comments: