IN AN ERA WHEN letterboxing has come to signal the quintessence of cool on TV commercials, it's only fitting that America should have discovered a retro enthusiasm for big-screen moviegoing. The restoration of the Martin Cinerama at the corner of Fourth and Blanchard—in my memory, a location permanently bathed in the lambency of spring evening, about 10 minutes to 7—couldn't come at a better time. But it's merely the latest chapter in a widescreen epic that's been in the making nearly as long as cinema itself.
In silent days, D.W. Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer didn't hesitate to manhandle the squarish "Academy frame," if only for the duration of a shot or two—masking off the top and bottom of the picture area to accentuate the vectors of the Ku Klux Klan, say, streaking across the horizon in The Birth of a Nation (1915). For the climax of Napol鯮 (1927), Abel Gance took the more radical step of enlarging the screen itself. Two panels the same size as the conventional screen were added on either side of it, enabling Gance to compose three-camera panoramas—Napoleon's army in Egypt, for instance—or to bracket the central image with other images in ecstatic collage.
Gance's three-camera experiment was to remain a one-shot. But that didn't stop Hollywood from having a brief fling with "wide film" shortly after the arrival of sound. Several systems were developed to photograph dollar-bill-shaped images on extra-large negatives: 65-millimeter instead of the standard 35. For Fox, Raoul Walsh directed The Big Trail (1929-30) on locations from the Grand Canyon to the Pacific Northwest. King Vidor made a widescreen Billy the Kid (1931) for MGM, while the playboy independent Roland West shot The Bat Whispers (1931), a cracked-brain but delicious remake of his 1926 silent hit The Bat.
All these productions hedged their bets, simultaneously filming with a conventional 35mm camera alongside the "Grandeur" or "MagniFilm" behemoth (or doing back-to-back retakes). Sure enough, exhibitors were loath to invest in yet another major overhaul of their theaters after having just rewired for sound, and scarcely anyone saw the widescreen versions. (Until the late '80s, that is, when both The Big Trail and The Bat Whispers were restored and showcased at film festivals and, subsequently, on classic cable networks and video.)
Widescreen lay dormant until the early 1950s, when Hollywood embraced the phenomenon as a means of attracting ticket buyers with something that the increasingly intrusive box in the living room couldn't offer. Starting with The Robe in 1953, Fox introduced CinemaScope, a process it had owned for decades but never put to use. Unlike the large-gauge systems of yore, CinemaScope utilized standard 35mm film stock and squeezed twice as much side-to-side image onto it by way of an anamorphic lens; a comparable lens unsqueezed the picture as it was projected in the theater. This was fine for Roman legions—or "photographing snakes and funerals," as the great Fritz Lang famously sneered—but it would be years before directors became comfortable with the vast oblong as a new way of seeing.
MEANWHILE, CINEMASCOPE was actually beaten out of the gate by another, more dramatic widescreen experience: Cinerama. Bankrolled by financier Jock Whitney (a pioneer in three-strip Technicolor in the 1930s), blessed by peripatetic journalist Lowell Thomas (who once chased around the Arabian desert after T.E. Lawrence), and impelled by the visionary adventurism of Merian C. Cooper (partner of director John Ford and one of the creators of that supreme bring-'em-back-alive spectacle King Kong), Cinerama revamped Gance's three-camera set-up as a means of "putting the audience in the picture." Its three parallel images were projected onto a giant curved screen so that the viewer—at least, one with the presence of mind to have bought a reserved seat dead-center—could look out the corner of either eye and see not an EXIT sign but the continuous wraparound reality of the spectacle of choice.
This Is Cinerama came out in 1952, and the title says it all. Whereas CinemaScope was (or would be) a comparatively modest enhancement of the local Bijou experience, Cinerama was an event unto itself and fundamentally about itself. You didn't go to the movies, you made a pilgrimage to the shrine where the miracle was available on a road-show basis. In my family's case, that meant driving 50 miles south to the Warner Theater in Pittsburgh. Others would follow on buses—church groups, school groups. It was like a field trip to a museum.
And what did we see? Most celebratedly, Lowell Thomas in small-screen black-and-white delivering a solemn introductory spiel—concluding with a ringing "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama!" and the rustle of curtains and masking, withdrawing to reveal what seemed like an acre of screen, and a color POV shot from the front seat of a roller coaster clattering toward the apex of its climb. The ride was swell, and so were some of the sequences that followed (a jet plane dipping into Western canyonlands arguably improving on the coaster). On the other hand, my 8-year-old self was underwhelmed with an endless sepia-toned study of the Vienna Boys Choir doing its static thing, and a lot of the travelogue stuff was as insipid as . . . well, travelogues.
Cinerama continued in that vein through the '50s, with more or less yearly issues of Seven Wonders of the World, etc. It was not until 1962 that someone hazarded a Cinerama film that told a story. Or more precisely, stories: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm wrapped a ho-hum literary bio-pic around several fairy tales, while How the West Was Won (1963), an all-star, five-part national epic directed by three sturdy veterans—Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall—undertook to memorialize "The Rivers," "The Plains," "The Civil War," "The Railroad," and "The Outlaws."
The dramaturgy was as shaky as the alignment of the three separate panels (though James R. Webb's subsequently Oscar-winning screenplay had its oafish charms), and the Cinerama screen finally played host to an aesthetically fulfilled moment: Ohio farm lad George Peppard, early in the Ford-directed Civil War segment, walking off down a sun-dappled country lane, headed into terror and mystery as "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" rises faintly on the soundtrack.
About this time, Cinerama made common cause with the other widescreen refinements of the day: the ultrasharp 65-70mm processes that had become de rigueur for epic films like Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia (also road-shown in major cities before moving out to the nabes in 35mm anamorphic prints). Stanley Kramer's supercomedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), filmed in Ultra Panavision 70, was the first Cinerama presentation unencumbered with distracting lines where the three panels used to meet. That it was also unencumbered by wit or any style save elephantiasis didn't preclude its becoming a hit.
GRADUATE SCHOOL BROUGHT me to Seattle in 1965, and casual access to the Martin Cinerama was one of the happiest dividends. True, the term "Cinerama" was starting to lose its luster. There was little to compel big-screen awe in the likes of The Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Hallelujah Trail (1965), or Ice Station Zebra (1968), and even a director like John Frankenheimer, coming off a half-decade of thrilling small-screen films like The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds, couldn't sustain the seemingly surefire excitement of Grand Prix (1966) in the face of a wheezy script and rote-English line readings by an international cast. Cinerama, Schminerama—a dumb movie is a dumb movie is a dumb movie.
Unless, of course, it's one of the smartest movies ever made, a movie that would not only validate Cinerama forever and a day but also change our understanding of the medium, and ourselves. I'll never forget what it was like to take a sixth-row-center seat at the Martin Cinerama one afternoon in April 1968, knowing nothing of what was about to unfold except that Stanley Kubrick was responsible for it and it had something to do with outer space.
The curtains parted, this piece of classical music began building slowly but surely, and within the darkness of the screen ever-so-slightly-less-dark shapes began to define themselves as a camera climbed upward in a space I couldn't quite encompass. Then, in the impossible largeness and absoluteness of the 70mm frame, there it was: the earth and the moon lining up obligingly for Stanley Kubrick, and the sun's radiant orb breaking over the smaller/larger masses in front of it. No filmmaker—no human being—had ever stood there before. Everything's been a little different in my life since that moment.
2001: A Space Odyssey at the Martin Cinerama was a cosmic event. The apemen leaping about in the foreground of the two "Dawn of Man" skirmishes at the waterhole seemed to detach themselves and pass back into the darkness surrounding the Cinerama screen. When scientist Heywood Floyd strolled through the Howard Johnson Earthlight Room on the space station and a voice softly paged some other visitor, people in the theater auditorium glanced around, giddily uncertain whether one of them was being advised to step into the lobby. And when the screen went dark for intermission after a certain close-up shot of silent lips in motion, for an instant all imaginary boundaries dissolved away: Was HAL 9000 shutting down the very projectors?!
Cinerama never topped that wondrous achievement. How could it? Within a few years the name had become an anachronistic corporate and technical irrelevancy, adopted by a distribution company that never produced a film in Cinerama and lasted no longer than a few seasons. But that was of no concern. We'd always have 2001. And now we can have it anew, on the screen it was meant for—a screen where, over the years since, even the most commonplace of movies has looked bigger and deeper and better than it had any right to. Open the pod bay doors, HAL.