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Size Matters - 'This is Cinerama' Reviewed

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Written by: Ross Anthony
Date: May 2002

'Cinerama' was a novel film technology and unique viewing experience when it debuted in the 1950s -- and it's now viewed as a precursor to 70mm Giant Screen films. The Cinerama Dome in Hollywood has recently been restored, and will show 'This is Cinerama.' Ross Anthony gives his perspective.

  

Category: Columns

[Editor's Note: The author was among the lucky delegates at this year's Large Format Cinema Association (LFCA) Conference, who made up the first audience to see 'This is Cinerama' in the newly-restored Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.]

What is Cinerama? Good question. A forerunner of the IMAX experience, 50 years later it's still fun and educational and, by now, historic. Lowell Thomas thought it was a revolutionary new way to shoot movies - the next logical step beyond the B&W-to-color transition. The camera is comprised of three 35mm motion picture cameras mounted as one unit sharing one motor (to keep them in sync). What the middle camera captures is projected on the middle of the huge curved screen, what the left camera captures is projected on the right side of the screen, what the right cam captures is projected on the left side of the screen. The cameras employ three fixed lenses, surprisingly small (not much larger than those on a cheap still camera) and they're mounted in a concave semi-circle. The point? To tantalize your peripheral vision, surround you with visuals - as well as audio (likely the first time surround sound was utilized) and virtually place you into the production.

One of Hollywood's lesser known (but nonetheless deserving) attractions - The Cinerama Dome was Recently (2002) renovated and reopened by Pacific Arclight who also took the opportunity to open a multiplex next door. But still that huge curved semi-engulfing screen remains. As I entered the theater dome, I wondered where to sit. Though most of the others sat ten rows back, I decided to sit in the front row as the distance to the screen there reached about 40 feet. It was to be a fine choice.

Surprisingly, despite its name, the Cinerama Dome never had the 3-projector system to run films in true Cinerama - until this screening. So, I must say, I felt it somewhat of a privilege to be a member of the first audience ever shown Cinerama in the Cinerama Dome. Enough background, let's get to the review:

Some cheesy fifties movie music, the lights dim, curtains spread and Lowell Thomas welcomes us to this new technology. In order to provide contrast, his intro runs in regular B&W 35, filling less than a quarter of the screen. He stands in his office/set, unbuttons the last button of his double breasted suit and, in the classic stiffness of 50's TV, walks us through the history of recorded motion referring to framed paintings hanging on the wall of his office. The nostalgia and contrast to modern times strikes a welcome vibration in our funny bones and this audience finds many a warm-hearted chuckle. "Eight legs."

Lowell even shows off a few antique methods of motion projection, "The Kiss" (Edison's first film) and other early films -- adding more educational value to the prologue. Ironically, films today are often criticized for violence, yet in a film nearly 100 years old, I watched a guy bang another guy over the head with a chunk of coal, then throw him from the train.

Soon enough, it's time to show off the racehorse. Lowell pauses and smiles, then utters, "This is Cinerama."

On the down stroke of a powerful orchestra hit, the curtains widen revealing 75% more screen and we find ourselves looking down the tracks of a wooden roller coaster drop (in color). The click, the roar, the simulated feel of fall, all affect you physically. You feel it in your stomach. Oh, that's fun.

Cut to: a staged dance. Dancers portraying an Egyptian style event fill the screen - if you like opera, you may appreciate this simulated experience.

Cut to: Niagara Falls from the air, a rainbow, then back to Lowell now also in color and Cinerama showing off the directional audio system.

Cut to: a church sequence, an organ player, and a chorus. The film appears to be shot in sepia here, either that, or the light is so low, that the color couldn't find its way to film. While probably very impressive in '52, this sequence overstays its welcome.

Cut to: Venice, St. Mark's Square stirring with circling pigeons, and then a gondola ride - this is simply a fantastic way to "economically" simulate a visit to a foreign country. (I've been to Venice - and I was still impressed.) Relaxing long shots.

Cut to: Edinburgh, Scotland, expansive hillsides, bagpipe marching band. Very nice.

Cut to: Vienna Boy's choir, cute at first, then trying.

Cut to: Truncated bullfight in Spain, then a village dance in Milan -- the latter hosting a crowd of spectators, more interested in this three-faced camera than the event in front of them. One particular gentleman in the front row has his neck turned with narrowed eyes directly at the camera half the time - it's charming.

Cut to: a huge opera house, rich people filling the skyboxes, then the opera itself.

Intermission. While the projectionists thread the second set of three reels, you can get out of your seat and take a look at the camera, which is displayed in the hallway.

Once seated, the second half, comprised mainly of Cypress gardens Florida rolls, a slow rowboat ride through the beautifully eerie swamps accented by damsels in bright dresses, then the big show. The damsels and hunky grounds men rush to the shore, hopping into speedboats and/or water-skis to impress the paying guests and Cinerama-goers. It's actually quite a lot of fun.

Cut to: aerial shots of 1950's NY, Chicago (which I barely recognized), countryside, Mississippi river, Gary Indiana. The plane lands in Kansas City, but then flies again over the wheat field's while a choir sings "America, the beautiful" for the soundtrack. Rushmore, Rocky mountains, Yellowstone, Titans, Utah, Copper mines, Salt Lake city, Oregon, Pacific Coast, Golden Gate bridge, Arches National Monument, Hoover dam, Lake Meade, Imperial Garden, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion. A sort of innocent tribute to American's purity and natural beauty.

Overall, this 90 minute plus production is still impressive even in light of today's standards. Btw, "This is Cinerama" was the top grossing film in of 1952, despite playing in less than 30 theaters nationwide during its initial release.

Some Facts from the Arclight (Pacific) press notes:
Dome: Originally constructed in an incredible 16 weeks by the Forman family and Pacific Theatres in 1963 (as Cinerama evolved into 70mm), the Cinerama Dome opened with the premiere of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." The Dome's geodesic ceiling includes 316 pentagons and hexagons making up the familiar shape which rises above Sunset Boulevard (at Vine Street in Hollywood) and is now the focal point of the Dome Entertainment Center. Since renovation in 2002 and in keeping with the historic integrity of the Dome, Pacific Theatres has maintained the classic deeply curved screen. The screen is 33' high by 89' wide, and will be masked horizontally and vertically to accommodate various film formats. The Dome seats more than 800 guests per showing, and has maintained the historic loge seating which has been a favorite of moviegoers over the years.

Ticketing:  All seats at the Dome are reserved, with guests offered the opportunity to purchase tickets based on their preference of the front, middle, or back of the auditorium. The custom reserved seat system eliminates the need to arrive hours in advance to get just the right seat for the latest blockbuster, and allows time to enjoy lobby exhibits about the Dome's history and to visit the Arclight gift shop featuring Cinerama logo merchandise and memorabilia. Tickets for all Cinerama Dome showings are available on-line at www.arclightcinemas.com, over the phone at 323-464-4226 and on-site at automated kiosks and the original Sunset Boulevard box office.

Starring Lowell Thomas.
Cameraman: Harry Squire.
Produced by Merian C. Cooper and Robert L. Benedick (c) 1952

Grade ...................................................A-

Copyright (C) 2002.

Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit: RossAnthony.com

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