Widescreen and other screens
(These notes are inspired by the lectures of the American film historian David Bordwell, during the Zomerfilmcollege 2007, Brugge, Vlaamse Dienst voor Film Cultuur/ Royal Film Archive).
When you are in a movie theatre, the fate of the aspect ratio is in the hands of the projectionist. The task of the projectionist is to show a film as the maker has intended. This sounds easy and simple, but in practice it is a challenge which only the brave and ingenious could handle. Roughly speaking there are three possibilities: Academy, Widescreen and Cinemascope, but there are many variations and there are also many weak spots (for instance: 35mm-prints are very vulnerable). So you are blessed with a devoted professional in the projection booth.
Suppose we have a perfect projection (or a perfect rendering on DVD), then we can see different uses of the screen format. Historically speaking there is a shift, starting in the fifties, from the use of Academy Ratio towards different forms of widescreen (including Cinemascope). There are several aesthetic possibilities of the technology of widescreen, the technology has an impact on creative choices. Cinemascope offers other possibilities and other limitations than Academy Ratio.
Professor Bordwell stated back in 1985 his intentions for a Widescreen Aesthetics: “An aesthetic of the wide screen must reckon with the centrality of intersubjective and intertextual norms – their relation to economic and aesthetic forces, the range of choices they offer to filmmakers working within them, and the possibility of systematic violations of them.”
source: Bordwell, David, ‘Widescreen Aesthetics and Mise en Scene Criticism’, in: The Velvet Light Trap, no 21 (summer 1985).
The anamorphic lens was invented at an early stage of film history, but it was not put in commercial practice until Hollywood studios in the fifties were searching feverishly for a way to compete with the rise of television. They thought to profile their product by offering giant and spectacular images. In the Fifties, Cinemascope offered a lot of optical problems and technical constraints. It is interesting to reconstruct how the artists reacted. The members of the film crews were rooted in a long tradition of outstanding visual storytelling through careful compositions of the shots. Behind the scenes you needed experts, capable to adapt themselves to the new challenges of staging compelling scenes, handling more difficult ways of lighting and focus, and you also would need a cast of good actors, capable to carry a more intricate staging.
During the Summerschool 2007 in Brugge we were treated on perfect projections of several outstanding Cinemascope films.
To give just one example: MOONFLEET (Fritz Lang, 1955): this is an unknown and underrated film. It shows a masterful use of the Cinemascope format. MOONFLEET is a gothic adventure film, in the British tradition of GREAT EXPECTATIONS or JAMAICA INN, but it offers also many themes and motifs of the more famous films of Fritz Lang, such as: the presence of a dark underworld, the character of a powerful man who pulls all the strings behind a mask of respectability, and who has a double personality: a devilish aggressive criminal and a caring father, mourning the death of the mother and suffering from social injustice. At the end he is chased in a man hunt, like many characters in films of Fritz Lang. MOONFLEET also offers good dialogues with many nice one-liners, a cast of good actors and a beautiful set design (for instance: the castle decorated with a glowing blue). MOONFLEET is a film fit for a children matinee, but also challenging further academic analysis.
There is a canon of excellence in early CinemaScope, some beautiful staged Hollywood films from the Fifties: RIVER OF NO RETURN (Otto Preminger, 1954); A STAR IS BORN (George Cukor, 1954 – restored in 1983); CARMEN JONES (Otto Preminger, 1954), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (Nicholas Ray, 1955). An European example of high rank early CinemaScope would be LOLA MONTES (Max Ophuls, 1955).
BONJOUR TRISTESSE (Otto Preminger, 1958) proofs to be a delightful film, with very artificial and very beautiful compositions of the Cinemascope image.
It would be interesting to program the film next to MARIE BAIE DES ANGES (Manuel Pradal, 1997), which also gives an image of a daring and frivolous young girl at the French Riviera, in Cinemascope. The French South Coast of woods, cliffs and beach was never prettier.
Filmcritic Roger Ebert is negative about the Pradal film, but it was shown at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 1998 and distributed in The Netherlands.
There are also many Cinemascope films from Hollywood and elsewhere that deserve more recognition.
The film heritage festival ‘Il Cinema Ritrovato” in Bologna is one of the most energetic promoters of the good cause. VIOLENT SATURDAY (Richard Fleischer, 1955) for instance was screened at Bologna 2007. Nice coincidence: COMPULSION (Richard Fleischer, 1959) was screened in Brugge 2007.
These films belongs to the small collection of outstanding black and white Cinemascope in Hollywood, like THE APARTMENT (Billy Wilder, 1960).
I am curious to see more unknown Cinemascope films from the Fifties, like GARDEN OF EVIL (Henry Hathaway, 1954) or NIGHT PEOPLE (Nunnaly Johnson, 1954).
And I would like to have a second vision of several Cinemascope films of more famous Hollywood directors: entertainment productions such as KISS THEM FOR ME (Stanley Donen, 1957), PARTY GIRL (Nicholas Ray, 1958), GIGI (Vincente Minnelli, 1958) or SILK STOCKINGS (Rouben Mamoulian, 1958).
In the sixties and seventies Hollywood continued to produce landmark films in Cinemascope, like THE HUSTLER (Robbert Rossen, 1961) or JAWS (Steven Spielberg, 1975).
Outside Hollywood Cinemascope became fashionable in the sixties. You could say that Francois Truffaut introduced in his films a more loose way of using Cinemascope, starting with LES 400 COUPS (1959) and that Jean Luc Godard experimented with collages of abstract images, pushing the limits of possibilities of staging, in films like LE MEPRIS (1963), PIERROT LE FOU (1965) and MADE IN U.S.A. (1965).
In Japan Cinemascope became very popular, the visual style of these films is breathtaking.
Some of my favourites of Excellent European and Japanese Cinemascope of the sixties:
Recent publication:
Belton, John & Sheldon Hall & Steven Neale, Widescreen Worldwide, Bloomington: Indiana UP 2011.
Contemporary Cinemascope
Nowadays, the technical limitations are diminished. Cinemascope is more flexible and easier to use. Does this technical change have an influence on the creativity of the filmmakers? Are the compositions less daring and the scenes edited in a more conventional way? Perhaps the answer is yes, because you can see many films where Cinemascope is used in an indifferent, bleak way. The imagination seems to shrink when the freedom expands.
Still, there are many examples of glorious use of Cinemascope in recent times.
Some of my favourites of contemporary Excellent Hollywood Cinemascope are:
SHORT CUTS (Robert Altman, 1993), HARD EIGHT (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996), MEMENTO (Christopher Nolan, 2000), THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (Wes Anderson, 2001), DONNIE DARKO (Richard Kelly, 2001), THE AVIATOR (Martin Scorsese, 2004).
Some of my favourites of contemporary Excellent European Cinemascope:
IL PIU BEL GIORNO DELLA MIA VITA (Cristina Commencini, 2002), LE CONSEGUENZE DELL’ AMORE (Paolo Sorrentino, 2004), AZULOSCUROCASINEGRO (Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, 2006), LA SOLITUDE DEL NUMERI PRIMI (Saverio Costanzo, 2010).