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The Big Three

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Many years ago I was given three movies titles to see on the big screen in order to be taken seriously as a lover of classic cinema: Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now. I can’t remember who provided me with these three titles. I want to say it was McCrea or someone in ALPHA when I began my independent study project, although it is equally possible I was influenced by Ebert’s 2001 review of Lawrence of Arabia (in fact, reading the last paragraph, I’m pretty sure this was an influencing factor). Either way, I’ve had these three titles stuck in my head for well over a decade. A task I had set myself to accomplish within my lifetime. Last week, I accomplished that task.

Francis Ford Coppola released an extended version of Apocalypse Now in early August of 2001. I remember seeing it at the Cinema 4 at College Square, first alone, then dragging my father and brother to it on a night later in the same week. This was years before digital projection, so I would have seen it on 35mm film stock. I know the original film was blown up to 70mm but I couldn’t find any info online if the Redux version was as well, and there’s no way for me to find out which print (if 70mm was an option) Cinema 4 screened. No matter. I had only previously seen the film on a washed out VHS copy (2 cassettes, no less). Not ideal conditions for watching Coppola’s most visually stunning film. So when I saw it in the theater, I remember feeling as though I was seeing it for the first time. I remember the clarity of the shot of Martin Sheen reading a letter on the boat at sundown, every minuscule bead of sweat visible on his face.

In May of 2009 I scheduled a weekend visit to Chicago centered around a screening of 2001 at the Music Box, followed by a Q&A with lead actor Keir Dullea (he bowed out shortly before the event and was replaced with Gary Lockwood, whose rambling and often incoherent tales of 1950s Hollywood lost my attention after only a few minutes). The Music Box Theater is an impressive venue, worth seeing in person (so I won’t bore anyone with an attempt at describing it). I took a seat a few rows from the front, next to the right aisle. Anyone who knows me know I love this movie, and seeing it projected on an enormous screen was one of the best theatrical events of my life. The opening, the ape discovering the use of tools, the ballet with the spacecraft and the docking station, the claustrophobic loneliness of the Discovery One, HAL’s ominous red iris, the split-scan, the “zoo” bedroom, the star child… I was engulfed with all these magical images, and I was elated.

And so… about a month ago I was reading an article on about E.T. being re-released in theaters as part of some film series. I went to the series’ website and discovered they would also be re-released Lawrence of Arabia for one day only, October 4th, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its theatrical debut and to drum up publicity for the Blu-ray release for later this year. The film had recently undergone an extensive restoration process:

The key is that this is a 4K digital restoration. When a machine called the Imagica EX scans across each frame of a film’s negative, it creates a digitally encoded replica that consists of 4,000 (actually, 4,096) pixels on each horizontal line. Multiplied by the 2,160 pixels on each vertical line, this makes for a total of 8.8 million pixels per frame.

By comparison, high-definition TV broadcasts and Blu-ray Discs are made from scans of 2.2 million pixels per frame. In other words, 4K images have four times as much detail and resolution as HD or Blu-ray.

In a connect-the-dots diagram, the more dots there are, the more detailed the resulting image. Similarly, in digital scanning, the more pixels there are, the more that image resembles the actual film. The significance is this: The 8.8 million pixels in a 4K scan are enough to reproduce all the visual information in a frame of 35 mm film — every detail of the image, the full dynamic range of bright to dark, the entire spectrum of colors, even the sheen of “grain” that distinguishes film from video. (Lawrence of Arabia was shot in 65 millimeter — nearly twice the width of a 35-millimeter frame — so its negative had to be scanned in 8K, creating 8,192 pixels across each line. But it is still referred to as a 4K scan because it has the same density of pixels, the same resolution across 65 millimeters that 4K has across 35 millimeters.)

Robert Harris, who led the 1980s restoration process, gave his approval to the 4k digital cinema presentation of Lawrence of Arabia, and the 4k format in general has been embraced by such visual masters as Ron Fricke, who filmed Baraka in 1992 in 70mm and released their newest film Samsara earlier this year in 4k (it was shot in 65mm), as well as cinematographer Roger Deakins (Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men). If the process is good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me!

The film was coming to Cinemark theaters across the country, but only to three locations in Iowa: Ames, Des Moines and Davenport. I bought a ticket online for the Ames location as it was the shortest distance from CF (a mere 100 miles away). I left work around 11am, drove to Ames, drove around town for an hour and then went to the theater and took a seat near the front, right in the center.

And then I waited. And waited. And waited some more. The trailers (???) began, but they froze up (?!?!?) during the third one. A woman I assume was the manager peeked her head through the door, apologized and said she’s have it going in a few minutes. Ten minutes later the program began again, this time a 15-minute introduction to the film by Martin Scorsese. Okay, fine. Then a very short (30 second) intro by Omar Sharif. Fine. Then it froze again. Hmm. I waited some more, for about 20 minutes, before the feature finally began. But it wasn’t the feature, it was a b/w newsreel footage of the filming, showing King Hussein of Jordan and his son visiting the set. Kinda neat. Then newsreel footage of the premiere. Meh. Then, finally, the feature.

To see it on the big screen, to see what Ebert meant about the incredibly tiny black dot emerging from the waves of heat of the desert sands, slowly growing in size until an actual figure can be made of it… this happens twice during the film, and both times it is totally captivating. No matter how large of a flat-screen television there is, it will not be large enough to display these spellbinding images. Nothing compares to seeing this film on the big screen. And I am so glad, so grateful that I had the opportunity and good fortune to do so last week.

Although I’ve now seen the three film I had been focused on for all these years, there are many other classics I’d like to see on the big screen. I’d still like to see one film projected in 70mm (as Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film The Master currently is), but those screenings are hard to come by. I’d also like to see a Cinerama film, although that’s almost impossible outside of the west coast. But I’m going to do what I can.

On a side note — other classic films I’ve seen on the big screen include The Evil Dead at the Dundee in Omaha, Evil Dead 2 at the Collins Rd Theater in Cedar Rapids, High & Low and Jules et Jim on separate occasions at the Bijou in Iowa City (both were coupled with recent releases), Back to the Future (35mm) and The Godfather (low-res, possibly 2k) at College Square 12.


Written by camcarlson

October 8, 2012 at 8:53 PM

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