Friday, September 18, 2009

2001: a great movie in Cinerama--troubles on TV

The movie "2001" exemplifies the problems with watching on a TV set a movie made to be seen in a movie theater.

Honestly, many if not most movies made today are designed to look good on a TV screen. "District 9" comes to mind.

It's easy to tell if a movie was made to be watched easily on a TV: it's shot in mostly medium and close-up shots. We watched "District 9" in a theater and it felt like half the time I was looking at gigantic 20 foot high heads. I would have preferred it on our widescreen TV at home, in fact.

But 2001 is the exact opposite. It was made purely to be seen on a Cinerama screen, without no compromises and no thought to future DVD sales.

Imax screens are--traditionally at least--53 feet high by 72 feet wide. Cinerama is 33 feet high by a whopping 89 feet wide, on a screen that curves around you, so if you sit in the right place it occupies 146 degrees of your field of vision.

To get that experience at home you'd have to sit less than two feet from your big screen TV, then break it out of its frame to wrap it around you. And of course you'd have to have at least a six-speaker home theater system to go along with that.

This isn't possible. So what we're left with is watching a film that was magnificent in Cinerama looking like a miniaturized shadow of its former self.

"2001" moves at a stately pace. If you're sitting in a Cinerama theatre, surrounded by the film, you don't notice the passage of time. On a TV screen you're looking at it through a peephole, and what was magnificent can now seem tedious. Without that immersion we wind up looking in vain for the plot (it has one, but it proceeds slowly), unable to fully appreciate the atmospherics.

So if you've tried to watch "2001" on your big screen TV at home and wondered why it was so praised--that's why.

It also violates movie reality with real reality: that is, astronauts in "2001" talk like the highly emotionally stable engineers they are instead of with the emotive theatrics of Actors, as you see even in otherwise excellent films like "Apollo 13." Program managers speak with the kind of administrative CYA doublespeak the real ones use. So viewers accustomed to the more emotionally-charged line delivery of most movies find that it falls flat in "2001."

Current movies also tell you what's happening with the lighting and sound track at all times, then warn you what's about to happen the same way. It's nearly impossible to be actually surprised in a normal Hollywood film because of this. If you heard only the sound track of a standard Hollywood film, you could probably describe what's being seen.

But in "2001" the sound track is part of the movie, not a set of acoustic instructions, bobastically delivered, as to what you're supposed to think and feel at every second. Late in the film whole sections have almost no music, in a setting so quiet you can hear people breathing.

Lastly, in "2001" some visual tropes were introduced that now can seem cliched--a little like watching a Shakespeare play when the actors recite now-well-known lines like "To be or not to be--that is the question." It's hard to imagine the impact such lines had the very first time an audience heard them.

Thus the Stargate is now something found---and often done much better visually--on the cheesiest SyFy channel TV movies. But I saw it in Graumman's Chinese Theater first run, on that gigantic wraparound screen, and I'd never seen anything like it in my life--and I'd seen a lot of films, and it was...stunning. Stunning in a jaw-dropping kind of way I've rarely experienced since then, Michael Bay's hackneyed big-budget efforts notwithstanding.

I'm not saying not to watch "2001" on a big screen TV. I'm just saying you need to take into account what I said here, and try to let you mind make up, as best it can, for what's missing onscreen (and that includes about half of the outboard two of the three screens that comprise a Cinerama "screen").

The screen image included here is a case in point. In Cinerama, in a theater, this spaceship glided across the screen in the dim sunlight found near Jupiter. Kubrick photographed the model in a studio in that level of light--a difficult, time-consuming, costly task. But the result is more like what it would really look like than any movie before or since.

Yet at home, with a few lights on, you can hardly see the ship. It wasn't lit for viewing in a lit room--only in the level of darkness you find in a movie theater. And if you don't have a superb image on your home TV, you'll miss the exquisite detailing of the image.

See why it's so hard to watch this now? At least--if you agree with my analysis--you can understand why you didn't like it anywhere as much as those who'd seen it in Cinerama.

There are a few Cinerama theaters left in the world. You could always Google them, get their schedules, and schedule a vacation there when "2001" is showing.

Well, it's a thought...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're so right.