(This is mostly for strange_complex
, who told me today that she'd have liked to go see this too but had to work yesterday. She's much, much better at film reviews than I am, but I thought I'd try a strange_complex
-style review of it for her.)
The very first film I saw at the media museum -- and, I'm pretty sure, the first time I was there at all -- was in Cinerama, and I've been enchanted ever since.How the West Was Won
is much more my parents' kind of movie than one to my tastes (IMDb calls it "A family saga covering several decades of Westward expansion in the nineteenth century--including the Gold Rush, the Civil War, and the building of the railroads"), so I think it says a lot that something I wouldn't have tolerated for half an hour on TV I was happy to sit through all 164 minutes of in the Pictureville Cinema.
There's something about Cinerama that I find really endearing, possibly how difficult it was to make and how lucky we are to be able to see it at all now. These days there are only three places that can do Cinerama: one's in L.A., one in Seattle, and then Bradford.
And the logistical issues if one of the films should break down were clearly recognized enough even at the time that a little "breakdown film" was made to keep the audience happy while frantic fixes were attempted, and indeed I saw this film I think all three times I'd seen anything in Cinerama until yesterday.
Even when it's working, it's not like watching other kinds of movies. The screen is so curved that things can look distorted, especially if you have to sit at one of the sides of the cinema. To a greater or lesser extent, the joins between the three projected film strips are usually noticeable.
It has for me the joy that analogue things do: it's difficult to do well in ways that are readily apparent and understandable to me, meaning I appreciate the skill and craft of the process much more than I can with something like, to use another cinematic example, CGI, which I intellectually know takes lots of people and lots of computers lots of hours, but which can't mean anything to me beyond that so I have no sense of what's impressive or what's new or whatever.
The kinds of films made in Cinerama are to some extent dictated by the format. It was meant to overwhelm, to dazzle, as a medium and so its subject matter will be chosen for the same reason. Plus there are limitations to Cinerama too: it's impossible to do close-ups with the special three-camera setup needed to make the early Cinerama films like the one I saw, and it's not easy to show people on the screen looking at each other when they're having a conversation or something; the curve of the screen makes it appear they're looking past each other. So you don't go to see Cinerama to see a murder mystery or a period drama: you go to see spectacle.
For me the biggest drawback of Cinerama isn't any of its technical limitations, but the fact that it was made in America in the 50s and 60s. Which brings us to yesterday's movie, called Seven Wonders of the World
Like the other early Cinerama movies, this one is just showing off what the format can do, trying to lure people out of their homes and away from the exciting new television. The first of these, This is Cinerama
(which the media museum show but which I still haven't seen), includes scenes on a roller coaster, then the temple dance from Aida
, views of Niagara Falls, a performance by the Vienna Boys' Choir, the canals of Venice, a military tattoo in Edinburgh, a bullfight, more from Aida
, a sound demonstration in stereo, a water skiing show...you get the idea. The variety and diversity make great advertisements for Cinerama, even if they do make a jarring hour or two of cinema. Seven Wonders of the World
is similar, with the conceit of "updating" the seven wonders of the ancient world by flying around the globe and filming, seemingly, whatever took Lowell Thomas's fancy.
Lowell Thomas was an American broadcaster and travel writer, who made Lawrence of Arabia famous. Apparently, a quarter-century later Thomas was still raving about Cinerama in his memoirs and wondering why someone wasn't trying to revive it. The expense and difficulty of it, evident to many others, never seemed to break through the enthusiasm that, while no doubt colored by the money he wanted to make from it, does shine through in the Cinerama films he presented: the breakdown film is him talking about how amazing Cinerama is, and at the beginning of Seven Wonders
he shows photos and speaks fondly of places like Nepal, saying "I wish we'd had Cinerama with us then," sounding like a father who'd like to spoil his children more than he's allowed to. He really does seem to believe that Cinerama is somewhere between a gift and a service to the public.
And in 1955, there must have been some element of truth to that. Flying and Cinerama are the real wonders this film is about, and quite right too, as how else could American movie audiences expect to see into the top of a volcano, the biggest waterfalls in the world, a runaway train on the Darjeeling Railway, baby elephants being caught and tamed, a papal blessing with all the pomp and circumstance?
It is, unfortunately, a very fifties American sensibility driving the script, both in places chosen ("here's Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments" and lots of other Old-Testament and life-of-Jesus stuff presented as blandly factual as anything else) and in descriptions (literally the first reaction you hear when Japan is mentioned is "Geisha girls!"; Benares is "a city of strange religion"; even the poor Amazon can't escape unfair description as we're told it's "the green hell").
Seeing posters advertising Seven Wonders of the World
in other countries makes me hope that the non-English subs or dubs were kinder to some of the places mentioned that are suddenly local!
This travelogue seems random and often very superficial, without much explanation or context given. A few shots of the Amazon and a clear fondness for Rio de Janeiro represent all of South America. Almost no one speaks but Thomas. Hardly anyone in the film gets a name -- leading to the strangest cast list I've seen: "Lowell Thomas, with appearances by His Holiness Pope Pius XII, Butera, Sherif Hussein"; Butera's one of a group of Watusi dancing for the camera, named as being the best dancer in Africa; Sherif Hussein is a leader Thomas greets with "This is like something out of the Arabian Nights!" to which Hussein says something in his own language and neither of the two seem to show much interest in understanding what the other has said. The papal blessing is clearly a big deal -- Thomas also says something about how he's always wanted to film this in Cinerama and he expects everyone to be as impressed with it as he is (but it goes on for ages and does nothing but reinforce my childhood impression that Catholicism is pompous and boring -- all the more so when it's in a language I don't understand!).
There are some stunning shots in it, the newly restored version I saw is perfect, with no visible seams and no worry that the fim would break. It is really impressive visually, but it's the kind of thing that reminds me why we had to invent political correctness, it would probably be more palatable if you wore earplugs...and let's just say I could make suggestions for RunPee
times, some extending long enough that you wouldn't need to run; a leisurely stroll would be recommended.