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

Glenn Kenny

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?


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