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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—13 November 2009

On The Evolution Of CinemaScope: Or, of you're going to be a stickler about names of formats and such, "The 2.35:1 Or So Aspect Ratio."

Above: The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953).

Above: Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958).

Above: Le Mepris (Contempt) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963).

When CinemaScope was introduced in 1953, the first film in the widescreen format was in the then au-courant sand-and-sandals quasi-Biblical-epic genre. The Robe still plays, in its silly way, as a study in gargantuan production value. And the gargantuan dimensions of the CinemaScope screen were seen as something of a novelty, a piece of showmanship rather than cinema per se, Zanuck's would-be blowback at television in an attempt to shore up the notion that movies were still going to be your best entertainment value.

What, though, had 'Scope to do with the art of cinema? And/or what director was going to be able to use 'Scope artistically? The answer came reasonably quickly, after Frank Tashlin moved from Martin & Lewis and Paramount and VistaVision (whose 1.85 dimensions redefined cinematic space in a less radical way, but redefined them nevertheless) and joined Zanuck's Fox. The Lieutenant Wore Skirts isn't often cited as a 'Scope milestone, but Tashlin's next Fox effort, the monumental The Girl Can't Help it, almost always is these days. Those days nobody was talking about that film as an art piece. Except for a Cahiers du cinéma critic named Jean-Luc Godard.

And then there was Otto. Let me quote the great Dave Kehr from his website, discussing his Times review of the Blu-ray of The Robe: "The Robe remains a transitional film, in that Kostner and his cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, seem to have discovered what doesn’t work in ’scope (big close-ups, over-the-shoulder cutting) without yet having found what does (such as the long takes and camera movements that Otto Preminger would soon import to ’scope from his established Academy ratio style)." Yea, verily. It's that, along with the gorgeous cast and settings, that make every single frame of a film like Bonjour Tristesse beautiful. (And Preminger knew when his material would support/be supported by widescreen. The subsequent Anatomy of a Murder—featuring oodles of over-the-shoulder cutting in intense back-and-forth dialogue—was shot in standard Academy ratio.)

And then there was Godard, who brought lessons from both Tashlin and Preminger to Contempt. Which happens to be the film in which Fritz Lang utters the immortal line about CinemaScope being suitable only for the depiction of trains and funerals (or is it snakes?).

The emergent technological advances and/or novelties redefining cinematic space today include IMAX variants, motion-capture animation, and new iterations of 3-D. Where are the genuine cinematic artists exploiting/experimenting in these realms?

Mr. Kehr believes there's at least one director who's been doing so for a while which leads us to...

Robert Zemeckis, Auteur: Kehr is a longtime champion of Zemeckis' work, including even, yes, Forrest Gump, which he sees less as a charming fable than as a Candide-esque reflection of its director's essential cynicism and pessimism. Zemeckis' latest is Disney's A Christmas Carol, which impresses Kehr as, among other things, a brilliant use of cinematic space: "[it] features a stunning 12-minute take — the entire 'Ghost of Christmas Past' segment — as well as some of the most elaborate and eye-filling camera movements in a Hollywood picture since the passing of Otto Preminger." Aha! Preminger again.

I meant to see Carol this week but got caught up in a bunch of other stuff, but I wanted to put this out there, nonetheless. Do you think the tech advances Zemeckis is working with are legit cinematic tools or not? Could you see Resnais working in 3-D? Wes Anderson? David Fincher? Will Cameron's Avatar change the game? Are we going to see a day when anything not made in such a format be an "art" film or an "indie" film by default? These are my questions of the week. What are yours?

I have usually rejected 3D and too a lesser extent IMAX because on a basic level nothing about it improves the viewing experience or at least the experience of the story. If it’s trash in 2D it will most certainly be trash in 3D. I haven’t seen Carol yet either and honestly don’t plan on it unless a friend recommendation would come into play, maybe a date but she would have to be very cute. Anyway, if there is some value that it introduces in 3D it’s scary and exciting times ahead. When sound was introduced it was a novelty in somewhat the same way. Then filmmakers were able to use it as a tool to support the narrative. Now you can play a scene out not only with what you show but what you play for the year. Footsteps slowly ascending a staircase would turn a rather boring shot of the top of a staircase into a nail biter (in the right hands of course). My problem with 3D is partly that of a harkening back to the ’50’s, trying to steal the audience back from TV not through superior product but cheap gimmickry. Another part, and this may relate more to CGI, is that the tool has yet to supply a new tool in the arsenal of the director. How I wish I could see Dial M for Murder in 3D as intended to see if the Master could have pulled something off with it. You can kinda get the idea from the framing but I imagine its not quite the same. Computer wizardy has only to yield matte paintings that are constructed in the computer, instead of a thousand extras you have thousands of lines of code, want a spaceship? Click click click done. And CGI blood is a crime against nature. But I get off topic. If this is something that develops in 3D, if it becomes capable of giving us something that could not have been done before, story wise, than I am excited to see it . But there’s a part of me that wants it to fail. I love cinema and the films that I cherish are all in 2D and none the less vibrant and beautiful. Maybe it’s a fear of losing tradition, but also Cinema must grow. If it is 3D so be it. If not hopefully people realize this soon and get angry about being charge and extra couple of bucks for something that basically gives you a headache.
My question — does it bother anyone else that Zemekis’ hyper-unreal motion-capture technicinema looks abysmal? I admittedly haven’t seen ACC, or all of Beowulf and Polar Express, because I just couldn’t bear to. Apart from the tediously alloyed plasticity and virtual hurtling all digi-cinema from Toy Story on can’t seem to escape (the snakes/funerals of 3D?), the characters all look airbrushed ala vintage Richard Corben/Heavy Metal, THEN Simonized and sent through some awful mid-80’s colorization process. I believe Godard might remark, roughly translated, yuck. I wouldn’t doubt there’s a Borthers Quay or Jan Svankmeyer or similarly sui generis talent who will find some real poetry in this technique, but just because the not-untalented Zemekis is first with the form doesn’t make him its poet.
Well, it was shot in 1.37, but I see that it’s meant to be projected 1.85. See the DVD Beaver comparisons here: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdcompare/anatomy.htm This could lead to another “headroom” argument ala the controversy over “Touch Of Evil.” I think the compositions look damn fine in either ratio, and, in any event, my point holds, I think. 1.85 ain’t 2.35, for sure. As another of Kehr’s unheralded masters of mise-en-scene, Kevin Reynolds, puts it, “2.35 kills the vertical.” Which is essential in over-the-shoulder cutting, I think.
I have seen “Up” in both 3D and 2D. No difference in experience because the story was still the key to its success. 3D can be legitimately a cinematic tool if it became less of a gimmick about expanding the depth of the screen and more about exploring a more immersive 360 degree space. And, of course, there has to be a story beyond this experience. The basic problem is that 3D is currently about showboating CGI effects which have long become tiresome and boring. Another problem is that most directors lack the ability to stage a coherent and fluid scene in 2D. Editing would have to be less frenzied and action would have to be staged in longer takes (truly exploring a space). Otherwise, it’s just a lot of quick money shots flying off the screen giving you a bigger headache than they already do in 2D. If Robert Altman were still alive, I would love to see how he would have used 3D to allow you to move your focus from one character to another in a scene with many characters.
this is slightly off topic…sorry… but, did i understand it correctly that “Ordet” was shot in standard 4:3, but the compositions were all made with the presumption that it was likely going to be projected wide (thereby losing a part of the top and bottom)? when i heard this i lost a little of my obsession with seeing “the entire frame as the director intended”. I consider Ordet one of the great masterpieces of cinema and this was hard to fully take in and swallow.
Peter, where did you get your information from? I just pulled David Bordwell’s 1981 book on Dreyer off my shelf, and there’s nothing in the text to indicate that “Ordet” was intended to be projected with a 1.85 matte. Not to mention the frame enlargements therein are all at Academy ratio. And the Criterion DVD is 1.33. So, as was the case with Rick Blaine w/r/t the waters of Casablanca, you may have been misinformed. Of course, matting has been one of the great sources of confusion and consternation among cinephiles through the ages, or at least over the past 50 years or so. See all of Kubrick’s post “2001” work, and even Dr. Strangelove, for that matter.
I heard it mentioned at some point in the “My Metier” doc that comes in the Criterion Box. If I remember right, they were “worried” that it might be projected matted in some place(s) so they compensated in the compositions. They didn’t intend it to be projected like that, however. You are right though, I might be wrong. I do not own “My Metier” unfortunately, so I cannot confirm this. But maybe you or someone else has it and can check it out.
David Bordwell here: As a Scope aficionado I enjoyed Glenn’s piece. And on the “Ordet” matter, Peter’s memory is accurate. In the bonus materials on the Criterion “My Metier” disc Henning Bendtsen reports a decision of forty years before and says that he and Dreyer decided to allow for “Ordet” to be projected in widescreen. He doesn’t suggest what that format was, however. I don’t know if the common European ratios of 1.66 and 1.75 were already emerging at that time, but even in America 1.85 was not yet the ‘unoffical’ standard. Interestingly, if Dreyer and Bendtsen indeed anticipated widescreen projection, they were quick on the uptake. “Ordet” was shot in 1954, when US filmmakers were just starting to respond to the arrival of CinemaScope in the fall. The Fox anamorphic system had been widely publicized in spring and summer, so other studios were primed for what was coming. In the summer of that year, US releases were often shown cropped, even if they weren’t shot that way. Perhaps Dreyer got news of this and anticipated a similar treatment for “Ordet” in some venues. As Peter indicates as well, on the DVD Bendtsen also says that they chose to premiere the film in the Academy ratio (ie, 1.37), which was evidently their preference. Anything wider was a secondary alternative. When I wrote my book in the seventies I didn’t know that widescreen was an option considered for “Ordet”; during my interview with Bendtsen, he didn’t mention it. In any case, the illustrations in the book were photographs taken directly from film prints, and even if I had known that Dreyer and Bendtsen had thought about alternative projection possibilities, I would have stuck with the standard ratio because that was what they evidently preferred. In the case of “Gertrud,” which was hard-matted to 1.66, I reproduced those frames accordingly. Ironically, the “Metier” documentary offers its own problems. Framed, at least on my monitor, at 1:1.45, it crops every clip, including silent films, to that odd ratio! In any case, the general question is a good one, not least because it reminds us that we need more research on trends in early widescreen cinema outside the US. Thanks to Jim Emerson for pointing me to this conversation.
OK, now that DB has weighed in, I can post the general info I was going to add (below) before deciding to check with him about “Ordet”! Just to throw some more math into the mix: ’Scope (2.35:1 or therabouts) is an anamorphic process, requiring camera lenses that squeeze the image onto 35mm film and projector lenses that unsqueeze it for the wide screen. Other standard ratios (1:33/1:37, 1:66, 1:85) are “flat.” (VistaVision — “The Searchers”! “NxNW”! — was a 1:85 process that involved printing frames lengthwise on the film, so that the sprockets ran across the top and bottom of the image.) When most movies are shot, the image is recorded on the film at full frame. It’s then projected at the intended ratio with the proper lens, aperture plate and masking — which is why, when you see boom mics dip into the frame it’s almost always the fault of the projectionist, not the filmmakers. In the days of 4:3 TV screen standards (and the years when letterboxing was rare), some filmmakers (like James Cameron) composed for two ratios simultaneously — anamorphic widescreen for the theatrical release and 4:3 for so-called “full-frame” TV and VHS. This eliminated the need for “pan-and-scan” video masters.
That is great info, Jim. I really didn’t know a lot of that. About your last point – I remember in my young, Hollywood infected days, seeing “Schindler’s List” in ’93 and thinking that it was the first film in a while that was not concerned with the “full frame”, TV reformatting inevitability that awaited it. I was literally shocked and delighted by the compositions (I am thinking particularly of one in the office with Kingsley on the far right and Neeson on the far right) only because I saw it as a “screw you” to the “…it has been formatted to fit your TV” bull that got me so mad, even when I was young. And I also thought, “This is Spielberg, there is no was this is going to be pan and scan when it comes out on video.” Were there other Hollywood filmmakers that starred right in the face of Pan and Scan? The only other early film that won that war was “Manhattan”, right? That was never shown in any way other that letterboxed as far as I can remember.
For what it’s worth, I think CORALINE was a massive step forward for 3-D. I, too, am still waiting for the first definitive statement on it, but that’s the first (and, to date, last) 3-D film I’ve seen that felt like it had to be that way in an artistically necessary way.
I’ll ditto Scott. Not only is “Coraline” emerging as one of the best films of the year and the best animated film of the year (slightly nudging out “Up” in my book), it’s the first 3-D film I’ve ever seen where the technology was absolutely essential to the film’s aesthetic. My reluctance to pick it up on Blu-ray is entirely due to my inevitable disappointment that any 2-D home viewing experience will be a shadow of the 3-D theatrical experience.
Responding to Jim Emerson above (and muddying the waters further) I wanted to point out that some (many, these days) 2.35:1 films are actually shot “flat.” James Cameron shot using the Super 35 format, which is meant to yield a 2.35:1 projected image, but actually exposes the full 35mm camera negative, including the area to the side of the frame that’s usually reserved for optical audio. That gave him (and like-minded filmmakers) a lot of room to play with opening up the image vertically for full-screen TV and video versions. Filmmakers sometimes shoot Super 35 as a practical consideration — anamorphic photography can be more demanding, especially in terms of the lighting required to get anything resembling a deep-focus shot — or because they prefer the optical characteristics of spherical (i.e. non-anamorphic) lenses. And, with the digital intermediate process, you don’t lose as much quality in the blow-up to anamorphic release prints as you used to. As additional cost-cutting measures, the practices of “three-perf” and, lately, even “two-perf” filmmaking have come back in vogue — you’re shooting a 2.35:1 image non-anamorphically, but you’re not exposing the full 35mm frame, which is four perforations high when you look at the sprocket holes on the edge of the film. Instead, you’re using a specially calibrated camera to expose only two or three sprocket holes’ worth of film for each frame. For instance, Steve McQueen’s Hunger was shot in two-perf, thus saving the production about 50 percent on the cost of raw film stock. The Techniscope process, which was used for films including The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, was two-perf. Much more info is available at Wikipedia, with good diagrams, if you’re so inclined.

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