Anamorphic widescreen, wide-gauge 70mm and state-of-the art digital projection, these were but a few of the joys I’ve already mentioned in part 1 and part 2 of my report on Bradford’s wonderful Widescreen Weekend way back in March, but there’s one other aspect of what one might term as expanded cinema that the city’s National Media Museum is particularly well suited for serving up, namely multi-screen cinema, the subject of this long-overdue final installment. On top of boasting the UK’s first ever IMAX screen, the venue also plays host to Europe’s only functioning Cinerama system – in fact, the only regularly-programmed Cinerama screen anywhere in the world opened here back in June 1993 in its Pictureville theatre. Not only do we have the fully louvred curved screen, but also original carpets and fixtures and fittings acquired from a now-defunct Cinerama venue in America.
What better way to celebrate then than with the restored 3-strip version of the first Cinerama fictional feature, How the West Was Won, an epic Western released in 1962 with sequences directed by Hollywood veterans including John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall. I’ve actually rather a soft spot for this admittedly rather bloated and bombastic cinematic spectacular, since I first caught it on the rather wonderful Blu-ray release that came out in 2008. For those not within travelling distance of a Cinerama screen (ie, most of the world), it is the only way you’ll get to witness the film in a manner at least approximating the way it was meant to be seen, with one of the versions on the disk emulating the wraparound curved screen effect.
This episodic intergenerational story of wild west pioneers whisks you from era to era with all the monumental extravagance of a James Michener novel and boasts some truly wonderful sequences such as a bison stampede and a gunfight on top of a runaway train, all staged so that the viewer feels central to the action. It also features an all-star cast including James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Debbie Reynolds and that George Peppard fellow. Yes, it is overblown and triumphalist and incredibly long, as well as rather one-dimensional in its politics compared with other Westerns of its era, but it is still a lot of fun, and I lapped up the chance to see it in the manner it was originally intended. Sir Christopher Frayling was at hand to provide a thorough introduction to the film, which should be appearing on the in70mm.com website at some point, along with all the rest of our introductions.
For me however, this three-panel presentation was a mere taster for the topic of Sunday morning’s highly elucidating onstage discussion between Thomas Hauerslev and Stanley Long about Circlorama Cavalcade, a British production made with the intention of filling all eleven screens at the 360° panoramic Circlorama Cinema that some of the audience members remembered located in Piccadilly Circus for a brief period of little more than a year back in the early 1960s.
Perhaps Circlorama might be considered a precursor to the curved dome of the IMAX screen. Its antecedents stretch right back to the origins of cinema, but the first real commercial endeavour was the 9-screen Circle-Vision 360° or Circarama system that Disney opened in a number of its theme parks in the 1950s. Circlorama had an even more immediate ancestor in the form of the Circular Kinopanorama system developed in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, which as I mentioned in my own introduction to Dersu Uzala, can still be experienced in the All-Russia Exhibition Centre in Moscow, built in 1959 (unsurprisingly, the in70mm.com site also features a page devoted to this system, which will certainly be top of my tourist agenda should I ever visit Moscow). The London attraction was a venture between Leonard Urry and the Russian entrepreneur Leon Heppner, who’d been based in London for several years before deciding that introducing the Russian system might be a lucrative commercial proposition – although ultimately he was proven wrong. We were all given a handout of a magazine article from the time (I still need to chase down a reference for this) extolling it’s virtues:
“Eleven screens surround a circular auditorium, the perimeter of which is 150 feet, and the eleven films making up the wrap-around picture are projected through small portholes on the side masking of each screen. The films, each of 35mm. width, are shown by Philips FP 20’s, which are spaced equi-distantly around a “gallery” surrounding the circular auditorium. All the projectors are electrically synchronised, and all are started and stopped from a master control. Adjacent to each machine is the pulsator unit. A nine-channel magnetic sound system feeds fifty-one speakers situated behind the screens, in the ceiling and under the floor.”
Stanley Long’s part in the story begins when he was called in by Urry to provide a film for the system. By his account, the Russian film that was playing there, Russian Roundabout, was failing to pull in the London crowds, so he was hired to make something with more local interest, which is how Circlorama Cavalcade came about. The result film, which clocked in at just under 30 minutes, was actually shot on 16mm in the end, and the number of soundtracks reduced to three from the original nine, all for budgetary reasons. Its contents sound rather familiar for a film of this type – a trip down the Thames and other London landmarks interspersed with performances such as a scene with circus lion tamers (shot on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, apparently) and a live concert in the Empire Leicester Square from the 60s Merseybeat pop combo The Swinging Blue Jeans. You can read a lot more about the production in a full interview with Stanley Long on in70mm.com. I have to say, I found the talk a fascinating one, albeit rather tantalising – even if there were the facilities to show the film in Bradford, all the prints were lost after the Circlorama company went bust shortly after it was made.
Incidentally, if the name Stanley Long sounds familiar, it is because in later years he became more associated with a richer vein of cinematic showmanship that proved rather more lucrative to the British film industry, shooting and producing such landmarks of UK tit-and-bumillation as Naughty (1971), Eskimo Nell (1975) and Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976) and its variants. I made sure I picked up a copy of his autobiography X-rated: Adventures of an Exploitation Filmmaker, co-written with Simon Sheridan, which he was signing after the talk, which also includes some information on Circlorama Cavalcade – essential reading for anyone even vaguely interested in the history of UK film exhibition.
I’ve covered what were for me the most interesting aspects of Widescreen Weekend 2011, but there was plenty else on offer. Not only was it an education into aspects of film history, exhibition and production that I was not familiar with, nor just a chance to catch up with familiar, much-loved titles on the grandest scale imaginable. There were also some genuinely wonderful discoveries to be had, and I was amazed by the passion and knowledge of everyone involved in the event. For someone whose formative years of cinephilia were instructed by home video, it really brought home the kind of thrills and pleasure that cinema used to provide to audiences, and maybe still can. I for one am really excited about returning in 2012, and can’t urge enough anyone reading this to do likewise.