One hundred and ten or so years into the deluge, we may choose to take our movies as mere collective daydreams or as infinitely manifold plastic-narrative artworks—or any phylum in between. But they began simply as spectacles. Beamed light, rectangular space, magically moving image—civilization was sent gaping. Individual nickelodeon viewing was only a provisional detour for cinema’s crowd-pleasing destiny; the medium required big-screen engulfment. The first publicly projected movies didn’t have to be about anything, any more than Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle does today. Movies, generally, need only loom.
And loom large: As in other varieties of spectacle—circus, World’s Fair, motorcycle stunt, Civil War re-enactment, celebrity wedding, civil slaughter—the huger the movie, the more we are enthralled. Two overlapping retros, AMMI’s eclectic widescreen history series, and the Walter Reade’s tribute to 1950s anamorphic behemoth CinemaScope, collect their entries only according to their peripheral-vision-stretching magnitude. This is summer moviegoing in an ideal world: not a spritz of living-room pixels or a 20-foot-wide multiplex swatch, but a movie the size of a soccer field, a panorama of giants’ dreams.
The AMMI screen is broad enough to handle the widescreen variations, from Abel Gance’s triptychs in Napoléon (1927)—at least the 1981 single-projector restoration of same, to the stretch of the 1950s giganto formats, devised to lure the TV-whipped public out of their homes with the one thing their Emerson consoles couldn’t give them—immensity. The initial plan to use an anamorphic lens for shooting and projecting ordinary 35mm film—the CinemaScope trick—soon gave way to 70mm celluloid, a strip of film nearly as wide as a slice of bread. Either way, movies became monumental, even when their subjects were intimate: Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956) (the former at AMMI, the latter at the WR) gradually accumulated auteurist kudos for CinemaScopically visualizing domestic turmoil as claustrophobic tragedy.
But does size matter? It surely does in terms of actually seeing the whole movie—video and print downsizing of wide flicks can subtract a full third of the image or more. (It’s the equivalent of watching The Hustler minus the last 45 minutes.) Consider the AMMI retro, then, as a chance to see every square centimeter of Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (1958), Oshima’s rarely screened The Sun’s Burial (1960), and George Lucas’s best film, the grim techno-critique THX 1138 (1971). They’ve even hoisted out Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966) and Inner and Outer Space (1965), infamous, grungy diptychs that aren’t “wide movies” so much as haphazard threads of self-ironizing nothingness, all happening at the same time.
The two series share gimmes like Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Fuller’s underseen mega-western Forty Guns (1957), but the Reade also pulls out, on the biggest screen in town, Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1999), Jack Clayton’s masterfully upsetting The Innocents (1961), Losey’s creepy nuclear-age thriller Those Are the Damned (1962), and Andre Dé Toth’s forgotten, Britishized Dirty Dozen retread Play Dirty (1968). Still, bigness is not its own end, and being widescreen doesn’t change the fact that The Robe (1953), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and Lisztomania (1975), all at AMMI, are all crummy films. Very wide crummy films. At the WR, you may be able to stomach Fellini Satyricon (1969), but the generous yardage of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) only means there’s more of them to yawn at.
It’s common wisdom that a theatrical viewing on the biggest possible screen is the filmgoing ideal. But I guiltlessly prefer the restless, dynamic pan-and-scan TV print versions of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), at AMMI, and Spartacus (1960), at the WR, to the widescreen restorations I saw in 1989 and 1991, respectively. Without the sometimes irrational reshaping and often epileptic cutting from one end of the super-image to the other, both films acquired tonnage, gracelessness, and torpor along with scale, like massively overweight hogs. Finally, I understood what the critics of the day meant in their kvetching about monolithic epics (writing in the Voice, Andrew Sarris dismissed Lawrence as “dull, overlong and coldly impersonal”). Sometimes, less movie is more movie.