Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Gravitational Distortion in 70mm: Hitchcock and Kubrick in VistaVision, Cinerama, on Blu-Ray

Summer means barbecues and blah blah but also giant outdoor screens, roadshow Cinerama out under the bugs and picnic favors; and for the indoor kids, lots of intense air-conditioned journeys into beloved classics via the miracle that saved us all, HD widescreen TV and Blu-ray remastering from the 70mm negatives of classic Hitchcock and Kubrick. And man, with their entire oeuvres now transferred onto Blu-ray--even old Barry Lyndon-- life is good. Real good. But what about the movies themselves? You've seen 'em all before, a thousand times, does all that popping color and definition make a difference worthy of double, triple, quadruple dipping?

Oh, Johnny-Oh. Of course it does.


NORTH BY NORTHWEST, REAR WINDOW, and VERTIGO always held up even on full-screen (though I always had my doubts about the latter), but now with the full brilliant intensity of VistaVision (which was 'taller' rather than super wide in 70mm) captured on Blu-ray (maybe not as well as the new highly touted 4D or whatever -but still mind-blowing in its clarity), the precarious angles and dangling off roofs, the plunging hills of San Francisco, the detail in all the little apartment backyard windows, and the presidential noses all make sense in a whole new way-- we can imagine the plummet straight down through Midge's window in VERTIGO (above) on I-Max 3D and feeling the bottom drop out in our spines, too, looking down at the street or the rocks below Mount Rushmore in NORTH all the better picturing original audiences going "whoa" and closing their eyes when beholding these staggering drop offs on a three story 70mm VistaVision screen (but not getting motion sick from too much quick camera movement and rapid cuts- hence the relative 'glacial' or 'stately' quality.

North by Northwest (walls as censor-and-gravity-defying beds.)

Meanwhile smaller spaces and angles take on vast dizzying nonlocality in Hitch's framing. Which direction is up vs. down is always a key motif in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (as the title might indicate). The collapse of the bed in Eva Marie Saint's train compartment while fooling around with Cary Grant, for exampe - illustrates Hitch's using the power of a giant screen to play with audience's sense of gravity (and thus do a little pirouette around the censors): though they are pressed against the wall, the vertical effect becomes almost horizontal - rolling against the wall and changing positions feels like they are on the bed, that the bed has become the size of the wall. Gravity has shifted - the angles of the frame and the angle of Marie Saint's eyes are the only things stationary, the center of the spinning compass, as she and Grant twist around moving down and then up the wall while slowly spinning around each other and it gradually seems as though they were filmed lying down, rolling around on a bed together, which is something the censor would never permit.... so it's abstracted, and a simple close quarters love scene is turned--through Hitch's savvy anticipation of the effect of VistaVision's giant screen--into a kind of smokin' hot amusement park ride.

North by Northwest (tire = sudden rupture of screen/distance)

The planes dissolve-
(the small razor mirroring the dwindling safe spaces vs. the large open field (no corners).
Then the immediate kiss-off
after he transforms again into regular suited Cary, shaven,
she makes the call, and it's all arranged, to send him off into the desolate fields.
Flatness reins - the geometry of the screen has been reduced to a child's conception of the horizon line (sky a blue band at top, ground a brown band at bottom.)
Without corners to hide in, mice feel terribly exposed.

"Big face, small razor" North by Northwest
"That plane's dustin' crops where there ain't no crops," notes the average joe on his way to wherever. He's the harbinger - a sign that from now on things will be done where they are not done - lying down in the crops becomes like standing and leaning against a a wall. Standing against a wall, like lying in bed.

The plane and Cary now mirror again the plunge to the earth / wall;
the plane's angles come down in triangles. The more triangles are created in this landscape, the more chances to hide. Eventually Cary all but draws his way out with angles, and Hitch makes sure math is obeyed, if not gravity.  The plane eventually has no choice but to collide into a truck. What a plane can do by buzzing down on a guy in a field no one knows, it's a dumb way to do it (when a simple drive-by would have been easier), marking the decline of Mason's villainous upper hand.

North by Northwest (directional lines invaded)

But the plane explosion marks the turning point - he'll play "his very last role" as the petulant lover now - and from then on, be free of roles (except as 'himself,' since he's agreed to keep up the disguise of the undercover agent - in other words, he assumes the mistaken identity, he validates the villain's previously wrong presumption). Just as Cary, if he'd been really that drunk and pointed downhill in his car headed towards a cliff SHOULD have gone over the side - now he should have been killed on the road. He's beginning to reverse the polarity. From now on - with the explosion of the plane - he's baptized in disillusionment - he's on the offensive.

North by Northwest (Grant loses equilibrium)
An earlier example of the gravitational distortion that small screens used to mask, but Hitch--in his infinite wisdom--nonetheless added for our future benefit: Consider the scene in night court early on when a drunk Cary Grant is being led into night court for his drunk test at the local police station: staggering around, the cop supporting him over to the bench as he staggers to one side. He sees another cop bend over to tie his shoe - and so Cary starts leaning over too, as if he presumes the bent over cop is actually standing up and it's Cary who is upside down! It's just a throwaway bit that I missed the first hundred times I saw it.  It's the sort of small detail Cary and Hitch just toss away -there's no cutesy musical quotes around it, no close-up of Cary's mugging face, and Bernard Herrmann is no Mickey Mouser --it's just folded in, a gift to notice only on the big screen, or now on the mighty Blu-ray Bravia (2).

By now our Thornhill is a master of corners, and screen traversement (North by Northwest)
I always loved North by Northwest, but some other big screen gems in the Hitch cannon---Vertigo and To Catch a Thief in particular--used to bore me senseless. With analog video's faded colors, the giant 70mm frame cropped mercilessly, the long shots of San Francisco and the French Riviera seemed far away and dull, like something that might be shown by a grandparent in an endless slideshow, or in some 7th grade geography class taught by a public school alcoholic who knew we'd rather snooze through travelogues than feel the squeak of his chalk and nasal voice vibrating in our aching braces.

No matter. Seeing To Catch a Thief for the first time on Blu-ray, via my big HD 'deep black' home screen via a quality HD TV of decent size (like my beloved 60mm Sony Bravia), digitally restored from a vivid VistaVision 70mm negative, was literally a revelation, as in a transformative religious experience.

To Catch a Thief - stills via DVDBeaver and 1000 Frames of Hitchcock
To Catch a Thief on VHS was a bore; on DVD it was okay; but on this remastered Blu-ray, man, it is one of the 'essential' vacation duplication movies in my roster. I watch it every winter on my 60-inch Sony Bravia and every summer on my 60-inch Sonia Bravia, and I feel like I'm there, having taken a running dive through my 60-inch Sony Bravia into the sunny waters of a magical France where everyone speaks English and I can roll with a sunbaked Cary Grant in that crazy gray sweater and red cravat combination as he gingerly avoids Grace Kelly's smoldering weirdly child-like perversity, as well as that annoying little scamp Brigitte Auber (1). (We all know the one he should have hooked up with is Grace's badass mother [Jessie Rose Landis], but who's counting?)

The ending with all the stuffy period costumes gets a bit draggy even so, Endless lords and ladies all gussied up like you keep hoping for Cary's old gang to stop catering and dress like revolting peasants and guillotine the lot. But the slow leisurely pace is far less grating on a big beautiful Blu-ray where the colors of every flower pops and makes a personal connection so deep you can smell the roses, and taste Grace Kelly's expensive lipstick. Though the big party seems like a drag, it really gives you the remembrance of what it's like to cater an event like that. The endless standing around, waiting to go home, or for Cary's hair-raising rooftop chase, which is now worth the wait --all bathed in intoxicating greens, making full use of VistaVision's harrowing downward plunges.

To Catch a Thief
Speaking of GraceKelly, I used to have with Hitch's color 50s canon: Rear Window (1954).  I used to wince at the notion that this elderly anemic hobbled little gray-haired apple-haired gray-cheeked 'decent' all-American squaresville schmuck Jimmy Stewart as one LB Jeffries, kept trying to talk super rich doing hottie Grace Kelly out of dating him, ranting about the rough and tumble life a globe-trotting photographer that she'd have to tag along with him on his journeys, as if wives accompanied soldiers into battle, like they were handcuffed togther. I felt like Grace Kelly was really slumming, dealing with old gramps here, when in other movies she was picking the far more worthy Cary Grant (or me!). Why on earth would she be courting this geriatric homebody artiste-type and why would he be insane to try to talk her out of it?

I would watch these scenes frequently for I had it on the same tape that had Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Naturally, I'd compare them, and imagine what Bill Fields--who was willing to marry the loaded Mrs. Hemoglobin (an uglied up Margaret Dumont) in order to put a nest under his little niece Gloria Jean--would think. Sir, you impugn this lady's austere character!

But time makes fools of us all, and I ended up feeling semi-trapped too in a similar relationship, from 2003-07 and so see it a different way. I 'grew' into understanding LB Jeffrey's reticence and now, on the big screen, or via high quality Blu-ray Sony Bravia or whatever, I can get the effect of uncanny sexual fear generated by Grace's heedless adoration and that it's totally intentional.

any similarity to Raymond Burr is purely subliminal (Rear Window)
 Hitch frames her as a vampire appearing out of the darkness, sixty feet tall, over a shadowed, crippled, shriveled, semi-asleep (symbolically neutered) and somewhat fear-frozen Jimmy Stewart. Her sheer proximity on a 70mm super-tall movie screen, face right up in extreme close-up, like a gigantic devouring vampire giantess beaming down lovingly but hungrily at a child she's about to drain, and us in the audience, and I can relate - a feeling like being tickled or looking down from a very high structure (!)

The Gigantic space-invading Mother Moab (Rear Window)

The best he can do to dissuade her is to rant about elephants and dusty African safaris, as if every wife had to accompany every travel photographer on every sojourn, having no other purpose or interest (in reality, it's clearly the reverse - he dreads being trotted out to the opera and being bored at glib advertising parties, charity ball (I know, from experience.)

The other main benefit of the big screen Blu-ray 70mm enhancement of course is the clarity of the window boxes. Imagine you're seeing it on the big VistaVision screen: the figures in the small boxed windows approximately the size of you, in the audience looking up and deep as if you're snooping on real apartments across from the screen. Grace Kelly moving across and climbing up the window a parallel to your own 'entering' the 3D massiveness of the screen like she crept out of the audience and into the film.

Climb on up and rescue the red-headed damsel (even in the 1950s, uptown NYC spinster/divorcees preferred short red hair.)
With this enhanced added effect, the dramas in the windows have a new added sense of lost beauty that is is clearly indebted to the paintings of Edward Hopper, intentionally or no. The above scene of "Miss Lonelyhearts" for example, is so sad because she's unaware of our empathy (and is too dumb to just take off her fancy clothes, put her feet up, crack open a bottle of wine and some ice cream, and watch TV all night, like a real American). Yet she's right there, framed expertly in the golden Hopper light against the ominous darkness. In earlier versions, even the older DVD, she was still far away - like little dolls, with Jeff the life size character.. But now, in glorious deep black HD, we can step into these far away windows as well as Jeff's apartment. We don't see Jeffery as much as see through him - we're as trapped as he is (him by his own leg in a cast; us by the legs of those closer to the aisle in our row) and his gaze is ever shrinking into these far away windows. The more you look at these people in these little dioramas, the more the vision shrinks to tunnel focus, like cell phone addiction - so the larger real world becomes terrifyingly large.

Thorwald exits the frames; enters theater / Stewart's domain (Rear Window) like the truck in North by Northwest
So when the threat--the imposingly Nordic-named Lars Thorwald (Burr)--finally seeks him out and enters his apartment it's like he's a towering giant, an ogre, he's come out of the frame from the back, and worked his way around behind us in the theater, and he is gigantic, Jeff is like a frightened child menaced by a giant evil thug. He has in a sense now shrunk down to the size of one of his windows. He's become that which he spies on. (He can only pray someone across the way spies him now, before he's killed and dismembered like Mrs. Thorwald). By now Jeff has become the total cinematic viewer stand-in, the type who hides in the dark and prefers to deal with reality through a small window rather than face the giant unruly beings like his girlfriend and nemesis / shadow. As a viewer it's unnerving because we can imagine being Thorwald as well as Jeff. We all hope aren't being spied on from across the way; Jeff's only saved from being branded a stalker by his relative lack of focus, he's a restless channel flipper, whomever has their curtains open and is home is fair game. 

another steep drop (Vertigo) and one of the first shots outside the theater seat/apt
Here's a man who probably never committed a crime before being driven mad by his shrewish invalid wife and now he's being toyed with due to the snooping of a bored Life photographer. That doesn't change the power of the moment - and once again - there's a steep drop off, as Burr tries to throw him out the window, i.e. out into the courtyard / into the screen, where now he'll be regarded by all the neighbors he spied on, rupturing the screen/audience barrier (and another steep drop - not as high but scary due to precarious leg healing (back to the bone mend drawing board and all that motionless for nothing),

Moving ahead --- to 2001 via 1968

This super clear, nearly-3D effect of the super 70mm clarity has other benefits long forgotten after decades and decades of cropping, small screen- such as the similarly gigantic (just wider, surrounding instead of towering via 'Cinerama' instead of 'VistaVision'), Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), now that it's not cropped for TV, and the clarity enhanced, the colors restored via 70mm (or in this case 65) negative  Kubrick's stately stereo side framing strategies begin to make more sense, especially as we compare his angles and stillness or slow glacial movement with, say, How the West Was Won and other films shot for 'Cinerama,' and roadshow wrap-around screens.

(from top: How the West was Won (x2), 2001 (x3), This is Cinerama)

Consider the way the astronauts flank the porthole of the escape pod during HAL's lip-reading scene.) The 'pure' Cinerama of say This is Cinerama (below) isn't quite the same but as you can see, the 'fisheye' wraparound effect is largely the same in Kubrick's framing (HAL's vision being the perfect analogy to the wraparound effect. As the sides of the wraparound frame are invariably closer to the audince, and--ideally--nearly vanishing into their peripheral vision, it makes sense that they are invariably closer to the camera, larger, and the center of the action always in a kind of middle shot being slowly advanced towards. If you reverse it, and put, say, a close-up in center frame and then distant background on either side, the fishbowl effect gets more pronounced, not unlike the reflections in the space helmet visors.
2001 was shot in Super Panavision 70, a process which involved principal photography on a 65mm wide, 5 sprocket hole high film frame (standard photography is on 35mm wide 4 sprocket hole high frame). This was projected back from a 70mm print, the extra 5mm being two 2.5 mm magnetic soundtrack strips "outboard" of the sprocket holes... In the original Cinerama installations, the film was projected on a deeply curved "louvered" screen which wrapped the image around the audience, sweeping them into the image. The Super Panavision version of Cinerama had an aspect ratio of 2.21:1 (the three-film and "rectified" Ultra Panavision versions of Cinerama were noticeably wider with an aspect ratio of 2.59:1). - Thomas E. Brown

Cinerama screen as background wall for moon shuttle - 2001
We saw the tag for these formats in the credits ("filmed in Cinerama") but never expected we'd benefit decades later. Could they have known back then we'd be reaping the benefits of that clarity in the 21st century from the comforts of our hovels? I bet Kubrick had an inkling. Certainly he fills the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY frame with reflections of wide home theater screens (above).

It explains so much about the boredom factor involved with 2001, as well as the travelogue nature of Vertigo and To Catch a Thief as discussed above. Quick edits and jarring close-ups in such gigantic formats would leave audiences dizzy and probably vomiting, similar to the effect Blair Witch or Dancer in the Dark has on those sitting too close to the screen. Thus, in Kubrick's elegant compositions, we have images of stately wide shots with the focus of the action usually medium center and larger (close-up) images framing the sides and in the lower foreground that our eye can use somewhat like the edges of our peripheral vision. This gives viewers the immersive effect of being about halfway inside the screen, moving ever forward towards whatever is in the background center (the entirety of the film follows outward/upward movement - man's evolution as a steady outward stream of awareness, perfectly fitting this slow glacial gliding.

The early "Dawn of Man" scenes carry an--I'm sure intentional--Natural History Museum diorama vibe. Shot mostly on sets with the rocky ground ever on the bottom of the screen - 2001

The subtitle of the film "A Space Odyssey" makes more sense when considering this original wraparound 'event' presentation format. For 2001 is both more (way more) and somewhat less than the average 'thinking man's' sci-fi movie from the 60s (this being the age of Heston). It's also meant as one of those forty minute IMAX films shown in museums for a small additional ticket cost, about the history of balloon flight or African geese migration patterns, that you watch on museum field trips or with your grandparents. (the 2001 being at a very forward-thinking planetarium). In other words, it is both trippy narrative and covertly NASA-driven Cinerama spectacle. Years of seeing it in full frame have left it seeming merely glacial. But now, even if we're not seeing it in Cinerama, just knowing that it was meant to be seen that way helps contextualize the structuring of the frame and the slow, deliberate pacing. We're not just watching a movie, man, we're on a goddamned ride. 

1. one of the few dislikable 'kid sister' characters in Hitch's ouevre - see Diane Baker in MARNIE 
2. if you noticed it before me, on, say, a VHS tape or on normal analog TV, hats off!

Suggested Cont. Acidemic Related Readings:

SHINING Examples: Pupils in the Bathroom Mirror (from 10/11)

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