Well it’s back to reality with a bump, having wended my weary way home on a series of slow trains back to London after a long weekend ensconced in Bradford’s National Media Museum for Widescreen Weekend, a celebration of cinema history’s biggest and boldest of spectacles held annually as part of Bradford International Film Festival. Daylight has been a rare commodity these past few days, with most of the films as long as they are wide: the first film I saw, for example, Dersu Uzala, clocked in at a relatively modest 144 minutes, a running time which had expanded to 162 minutes by the next day’s 3-strip Cinerama presentation of How the West Was Won and reached its apogee on the Saturday night with Lawrence of Arabia hitting whopping a 222 minutes. This left just about time between screenings or during the intermissions in the lengthier titles to grab a quick bite and a coffee and a lungful of fresh air, but it did mean I managed to pack a whole host of memorable, novel and diverse viewing experiences into my brief spell in Bradford: anamorphic widescreen and wide-gauge 70mm, state-of-the-art digital restorations and last but not least, 3-strip Cinerama presentations, of which I’ll write more later (although I should take time first to emphasise that not only are Bradford’s projection facilities second to none, but that the Pictureville boasts the only Cinerama projection facilities in the whole of Europe, and with the two Cinerama screens in the US (the ArcLight Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and the Seattle Cinerama) apparently in semi-retirement at the moment, is apparently the only continuously functioning Cinerama cinema anywhere in the world.
One always comes away from festivals having spotted themes and relationships between films, filmmakers and national cinemas one never saw before. In this instance it was the Soviet connection that stood out for me, with a very British picture based on an internationally-bestselling Russian novel (David Lean’s languorous 1965 adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago), a more genuinely Russian production directed by a Japanese director (Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala) and a fascinating onstage discussion with a British filmmaker known for his skin flicks recounting the bizarre story of how a 360 degree panoramic cinema system known as Circlorama developed in Russia ended up in London’s Piccadilly Circus in the early 60s, and his role in the production of its main presentation, Circlorama Cavalcade – but more about this particular bizarre piece of lost history in a later post… On another note, two of the titles screened, How the West Was Won and the 70mm presentation of 1965 British war film Operation Crossbow (directed by Michael Anderson from a script by Emeric Pressberger) served to remind those of us in the audience of the generation who grew up with The A-Team (a distinct minority at this particular festival, I’ll grant you) that George Peppard was actually once a major screen idol. But it was the closing screening of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, presented with its 4-track magnetic soundtrack cranked up to eleven, that in a relatively succinct 95 minutes, for me pretty much encapsulated what the whole thing was about – that films are really meant to be experienced sitting in the dark, with a full audience, with as large a screen and as loud a sound system as possible, to get their full effect. My perceptions finely honed by Argento’s sensual shocker, I emerged after the screening into the dark Bradford night as if reborn.
All of the titles screened here were made to be shown large – not on laptops, not on iPads, not on cellphones. Indeed the bulk were made in an era when TV broadcasts were low-res and monochrome and films had to be chopped up into little bits using pan-and-scan techniques just to fit them into the smaller and narrower frame for home viewers. It was, after all, the introduction of the smaller, more intimate rival of television that led to the cinema screen’s increase in size and width and additional sound channels in the first place. As such, the primacy of the films’ presentational aspects made for a rather different festival experience than usual, one as much predicated on all-immersive sensory overload as championing technology and mourning forgotten formats from the analogue age.
Sadly, my travel arrangements meant I had to miss Operation Crossbow and the final screening of the festival that followed it, Blake Edwards’ The Great Race (1965), not to mention the first film of the weekend, the East German production Goya – Or The Hard Way to Enlightenment (Konrad Wolf, 1971), for what might very well have been its first ever UK screening. I was up in time for Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa, USSR, 1975), however, which I was scheduled to introduce, although there was a brief few moments of panic when it seemed that the screen might not be ready for either me or the film. The motor that raised and lowered the main flat screen in front of the louvred Cinerama one had temporarily jammed, and no one seemed sure if it was possible to fix it before How the West Was Won was to be shown on the curved screen the next day. It seemed a little ironic, I thought, how a cinema capable of showing almost every single projection format ever created could find itself stimied by something as a fundamental to the process as the screen, but fortunately the problem managed resolve itself and the screening went ahead as planned.
I won’t go into detail about Dersu Uzala here as my introduction will soon go up on the website in70mm.com, a wonderful resource edited by Thomas Hauerslev. What I will say however is that compared with the various DVD releases that have been released (which are assessed by DVD Beaver here), this rare large screen airing on a 70mm print loaned from a private collector was an absolute revelation. If you look at most online reviews, the general consensus seems to be that the film is a trifle boring, a sentiment I indeed myself shared to some extent beforehand, having only experienced the old Kino release. The truth is, unlike many of the widescreen films from this era, whose images were composed with the fact that ultimately most people would experience the film on TV, this is a work that screams out for the full-scale theatrical presentation, preferable 70mm, with its recurrent scenes of its characters in wide shot mere pinpricks against a vast and imposing landscape. So many of the subtle details are lost on even the largest modern-day flatscreen TVs, such as the scene where Arseniev and Dersu are darting around the frozen lake, panicking when it becomes clear that night is closing in, bringing a howling blizzard along with it, and parts of their icy path back to shelter are not strong enough to hold their weight. I consider myself very privileged indeed to have been party to this extremely rare presentation in the form it was originally intended.
This attention to forms and formats was particularly notable with the three films by David Lean that showed at Widescreen Weekend, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Bridge On the River Kwai. I have to confess, I’d never actually seen the first two of these, and it was for this very reason: I’d been waiting till the opportunity to experience them on the big screen rather than just tick them off the box on TV or DVD. As it turns out, with Lawrence of Arabia, I ducked this very opportunity I’d been saving myself for, too tired and hungry to face a full four hours at the end of the Saturday. I did catch Doctor Zhivago, however, and as sacrilegious as it might be to say it, I found its 197 minutes an awful bore. Magnificent production design aside, it was a pompous, ersatz and soulless piece of filmmaking, and the casting was about as convincing as Joyn Wayne’s turn as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956). No, I prefer my Russian epics to be made by Russians, like the multi-part 1960s Sovscope 70 production of War and Peace I’ve mentioned in a previous post (available on UK DVD here). Bridge On the River is another kettle of fish entirely, one of the finest British films ever made, not to mention one of the finest war films too. It’s 161-minute running time just flew by, and the introduction by Sir Christopher Frayling was informative and just as entertaining.
The reason for this Lean overload was that the David Lean Foundation have recently treated the director’s films to new 4K digital restorations, and again, this raised the issue of whether these looked better than the original versions and whether they were authentic to the filmmaker’s original vision. Without getting to deep into the argument here, all formats have their virtues and drawbacks. The lack of such blemishes as scratches and crackles and pops on the soundtrack might result in a comparatively austere, sterile viewing experience for some, but at least the colours won’t fade over the next few decades and with the digital switchover well underway across the cinemas of the world, it’s a sad reality that there’s considerably more possibilities to screen films digitally than from 70mm prints, which hardly any venues are left capable of showing.
It’s an issue that seemed particularly pertinent with regards to one particularly title that screened on Saturday early evening, for the first time in 30 years. For me, Dance Craze was by far and away the standout surprise of the festival, a screen epiphany whose tragic disappearance from public consciousness is almost entirely attributable to the fact that the only screening copy available in this country is in 70mm. I’ll write more about this amazing time-capsule in my next post on Widescreen Weekend.