How the West Was Won, Cinerama, and the future of IMAX.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Nov. 11 2008 9:50 AM

Imagine Seeing John Wayne in IMAX

That's sort of what watching How the West Was Won is like.

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But there never was a third narrative picture. How the West Was Won performed quite well financially, coming in as the year's second highest-grossing film, behind the well-attended but still unprofitable Cleopatra and just ahead of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. But making and screening movies in this format proved to be simply too difficult. A lot can go wrong shooting with a three-lens camera. Even more can go wrong in exhibiting films shot that way, especially once the format's then-unfamiliar multitrack sound system entered the equation. (Cinerama malfunctioned so often, in fact, that Thomas provided "breakdown reels": short, single-screen segments that could be played while technicians worked on the equipment.) Then there were the visible seams. No image created by three individual projectors will ever match up perfectly at all times, no matter how much care is taken in the setup.

Even when all went well technically, it was still difficult to tell a story with Cinerama. As one actor after another explains in David Strohmaier's excellent feature-length documentary Cinerama Adventure—included as an extra on the new How The West Was Won discs—Cinerama presented forbidding lighting challenges and made simple elements of film grammar like close-ups impossible. It makes sense for the Great Plains to stretch as far as the eye can see; Debbie Reynolds' face is another story.

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Narrative films proved too forbidding, but the best parts of How the West Was Won suggest it wasn't so much a dead end as a film ahead of its time. That's even evident watching it on DVD, which flattens out the action scenes but retains some of their impact, and especially on Blu-Ray, which uses a "Smilebox" process, essentially a curved letterbox, to simulate Cinerama's curved screen.

Maybe it's up to IMAX to finish the job Cinerama began. My experience with Cinerama left me skeptical about IMAX for years. Like Cinerama, IMAX is designed to overwhelm, not necessarily to tell a story. I once asked a veteran of the quadraphonic era why four-channel sound systems never caught on. He replied, "Because humans only have two ears." I used to use a variation on this line to describe my reluctance to embrace IMAX, a format I saw as ideal for many-eyed insects but less than perfect for humans, who can't really take in all the action at once. That my most memorable trip to an IMAX theater involved the 1996 movie Special Effects: Anything Can Happen, which spent a perverse amount of time revealing the secrets behind the Shaquille O'Neal-is-a-rapping-genie movie Kazaam, didn't help.

The Dark Knight changed that in a few oversize frames. Christopher Nolan's movieis the first full-length Hollywood film to be shot in part in the IMAX format. The landscape shots of Chicago (Gotham) and Hong Kong felt vivid and immersive, and the action scenes played out with a focused intensity. Nolan's direction keeps viewers trained on what they should be seeing. The rest isn't so much extraneous as it is ambient.

Is this how all blockbuster films will soon look? Or will The Dark Knight be IMAX's How the West Was Won? The latter possibility seems unlikely, especially given the financial boost Dark Knight gave IMAX theater owners. But IMAX will need to find more directors as comfortable with and enthusiastic about the format as Nolan, maybe even one willing to pick up How the West Was Won's challenge and shoot the whole thing in the format. The shifts in framing can be a bit distracting when watching Dark Knight in IMAX, and the question of whether it can be used to tell stories not involving caped men soaring across skylines remain unanswered. The IMAX format has great potential that The Dark Knight only began to realize. But as TV screens get bigger and home theater systems crisper, the time feels right for movie theaters to restate their claim on images that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.

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