Most of the time you go to the movies, you’re getting bilked. This is to say nothing of the quality of whatever you paid to see, but there are so many levels of human or machine error at the multiplex that stand between you and getting your money’s worth, or getting the movie as it should look. The film could be projected on a crappy digital projector (run through a Playstation 3 or some such), someone could have left a 3D lens on from the afternoon screening, or the aspect ratio could be completely off and you wind up losing half the frame on the edges of the screen. Blu-rays look nice; watch movies at home.
You could go to the Somerville Theatre’s 70mm and Widescreen Festival, which stands as a beacon for all the best qualities of the moviegoing experience that have eroded in the 21st century, by loudly being the most aggressively retro slate of film prints on the block. The past decade and a half has seen the rise of digital video, and with it, the synchronous erosion of image quality at the multiplex to its lowest point in the sound era. This in turn sparked a fervent pushback driven by film programmers and filmmakers around the world to defend the virtues of movies shown on film. From the careful distribution tactics of Quentin Tarantino, PT Anderson, and Christopher Nolan, to multiple recent documentaries on the subject, to the collaborative efforts of art house theaters old and new to show 35mm/70mm prints around the world, celluloid film screenings are enjoying a spirited recovery after the digital cold-cocking that came with the 2000s.
Few events represent the newfound zeal for all things celluloid than the eclectic programming of this particular festival. Apart from 70mm’s tendency in application to sword-and-sandal epics, science fiction, and the odd western, little unites these Hollywood films apart from their initial format. The pleasure to be had from watching these movies at the Somerville Theatre owes a great deal to the rare chance of seeing these as they were made, and seeing how each of these diverse films delight in the bigness of their images offers a unique experience. It’s a quality that resembles live theater in a way. Viewers will find that this is especially the case for movies they thought they’d already seen on a laptop. The movie on film, on the big screen, hits on a higher register. And 70mm touches some of the highest heights.
What follows is a brief breakdown of the many films on offer, changing every day throughout the festival. You should check the site here: http://somervilletheatre.com/70-mm-presentations/
The Poster Children:
-LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
-2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
-WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
These three films are synonymous with the grandeur of widescreen, 70mm storytelling, where every shot is composed within an inch of its life and maximized to use every square inch of every massive frame. They’re all incredibly different, and are always in high demand. They play often, but for each an argument can be made that you haven’t really seen the film until you’ve seen it on 70.
If You Only Go to the Movies Once a Month or Once Every Couple of Months I Strongly Insist You Make This the Night:
-RIDE LONESOME (1959)
-THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
Here’s where I betray my bias – I’ll take westerns however they come to me, and, ironically, the rare 35mm print of Ride Lonesome stands out as my gem of the 70mm festival. Ride Lonesome plays Monday, September 19 at 6pm in a double feature with the inestimable The Wild Bunch, a film which otherwise belongs with The Poster Children above. I have had the pleasure of seeing The Wild Bunch at this very venue, and its big, bleeding heart pumps all the more emphatically at such a scale. I have never had the pleasure of seeing Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome – the best kept secret of westerns – on the big screen, but cannot imagine a more perfect counterpoint to The Wild Bunch‘s anguished cries.
The two films are united by genre and the centrality of violence to their stories, but approach their subjects from opposite perspectives. Stripped down to the absolute basics (the film was one of a loose anthology of seven collaborations between star and director) Ride Lonesome seems to drop out of time entirely. Nothing grounds it; the drama between ghostly wanderer Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) and the other outlaws is a wisp of a narrative which seems to play out on a different level of reality from our own. It may be humble in its origin, but the clash of characters within plays almost like a Greek tragedy. This style of drama and poetry is what many westerns would aspire to with their mythical internal language and backdrop of a dreamy landscape. Half a handful have achieved it on the level of Ride Lonesome, and Ride Lonesome did it by stripping away almost everything material. It will be a delight to see how that quality manifests on a large screen.
This is not a dig at the rest of the films; there is just so much to comment on I simply can’t give every film its fair shake. These run from the iconic to the half-forgotten, and cover a staggering amount of Hollywood’s history:
-LORD JIM (1965)
-IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (1963)
-SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)
-STAR TREK: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)
-THE VIKINGS (1958)
-THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)
-BEN HUR (1959)
The Somerville has made special note of the fact that the print of Sleeping Beauty is the only circulating 70mm, and thus is ultra-ultra rare. Fans of animated films are encouraged to go, to say the least.
Runs Friday, 9/17, to Wednesday, 9/21 – click here for showtimes and ticket info