The Film Society of Lincoln Center is presenting a series called “The Whole Wide World: Fifty Years of Widescreen Moviemaking,” starting today (well, maybe not!) and running through Sept. 4 at the Walter Reade Theatre, next door to the Juilliard School. I recently received an e-mail about the series containing this sentence: “The inauguration of CinemaScope 50 years ago changed the way we look at movies.” Literally speaking, of course, that’s true–movies do look different because of the invention of CinemaScope and the other widescreen processes that followed it–but did that change the way we look at them? And while we’re at it, was “Scope” (as film buffs love to refer to CinemaScope in lobby conversations, thus signifying their coolness) really such a great idea?
Like most art-related questions, this one isn’t as simple as it looks. Pre-Scope directors were mostly dubious about the various widescreen formats, which were introduced after World War II in order to help Hollywood compete with TV, the thought being that bigger pictures would tempt more Americans off their couches and back into their neighborhood movie houses. Older directors feared the loss of intimacy that would come from larger screens, and they were right to do so, as you can see by watching any of a hundred films shot in the Fifties by clueless directors who didn’t know what to do with all that extra space. In addition–though the inventors of CinemaScope couldn’t possibly have foreseen it–widescreen movies can’t be shown in their original form on a TV screen, whose “aspect ratio” closely resembles that of pre-Scope movies. Instead, the studios had to create special “pan-and-scan” prints of widescreen movies to be shown on TV, in which large chunks of the action simply vanished, letterbox viewing not yet having been contemplated. (For a viewer’s guide to aspect ratios, go here.)
In time, some older filmmakers got used to wider screens, while younger ones took the additional space for granted–which doesn’t necessarily mean they made good use of it. In examining the roster of widescreen films being shown at Walter Reade, I was struck by how few of them I’d go across the street to see. Yes, I’ll be glad to catch Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life, partly because James Mason is so good in it (I love his dark-brown Yorkshire accent) and partly because, like most of Ray’s films, it has yet to surface on DVD. But…Two-Lane Blacktop? El Cid? The Girl Can’t Help It? Aliens? Whenever I see schedules like this, I think to myself, film buffs are such geeks, by which I that whatever it is about movies that interests them, it isn’t their artfulness.
I told a friend of mine at lunch the other day that I thought the day would come when the producers of smart movies aimed at older viewers (i.e., anyone over 21) would bypass theatrical release altogether and market such films in more or less the same way novels are sold in bookstores. If that happens, I’ll be sorry to spend less time in theaters. The enveloping experience of watching a good film in a big, dark room–and in the company of a rapt audience–is unique and irreplaceable. Alas, it’s already been replaced, at least for most of us who love classic films. How many of the great movies of the past have you seen in a theater? Not many, I suspect, especially if you’re under 40 and don’t live in a film-friendly city like New York or Chicago.
Naturally, watching a movie at home has its own advantages, if you have a good TV and it’s the right movie. But there’s a catch: in a world where most people watch serious movies at home, the widescreen films of the past are destined to lose much of their impact. It happens that I’d never seen The Bridge on the River Kwai before I rented the DVD last month, and though it made an impression on me, I’m sure that impression was diminished drastically by the fact that I watched it on a letterboxed TV screen, not in a theater.
Is it possible that widescreen filmmaking will be seen in the very long run as an aberration–even a mistake? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time a “superior” technology turned out to be an artistic dead end.