Home Video Hovel: Cinerama’s Search for Paradise, by West Anthony
Whilst watching Christopher Nolan’s regrettable snoozefest Interstellar in the 70MM IMAX film format, I was forcibly reminded that size isn’t everything, and in the case of cinema, neither is format. Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and their ilk are hollering for the preservation for celluloid and talking up all manner of grandiose plans to ensure the survival of filmed entertainment, and that is a noble and worthy aspiration, but although Nolan has certainly provided the film, he must have forgotten the entertainment in one of those vests of his. Coincidentally, a copy of the documentary Search For Paradise, the fourth in the series of films shot in the large-format process known as Cinerama, came my way, and it too offers epic visual splendor but without the ponderous storytelling tactics of Interstellar. Whether that is enough for the viewer depends more or less on one’s enthusiasm for travelogues and/or the technical achievement that Cinerama represents.
In 1950, there were six million television sets in the United States; only two years later, there were seventeen million, and Hollywood feverishly flailed about for something, anything, to bring precious moviegoing dollars back into their diminishing coffers. Perhaps the most obvious element to employ was size — after all, many TVs in those days had screens barely the size of iPads — and although Fox had experimented with 70MM film decades before with the Raoul Walsh Western The Big Trail in 1930, they instead developed the anamorphic widescreen process CinemaScope and introduced it to audiences with the Biblical epic The Robe in 1953. The advantage of CinemaScope was that it was the anamorphic lens that made the image extra-wide, so standard 35MM film projectors in thousands of theaters across the land would not have to be modified to accommodate large-format celluloid — they could just slap that lens on and they were good to go, which naturally appealed to cost-conscious theater owners.
But showman Mike Todd had no interest in making it easy on anyone. He wanted the biggest, most jaw-droppingly vast cinema process he could get his hands on, and for that he turned to writer and radio personality Lowell Thomas and inventor Fred Waller, who had developed a widescreen process that employed three synchronized cameras running three separate strips of 35MM film through its gears. When projected onto a massive curved screen with three projectors (and three very very nervous projectionists), the result was an astonishing, never-before-seen panoramic spectacle that reproduced nearly the entirety of the human field of vision, thus immersing the viewer in a cinematic experience that had a similar effect on audiences that 3D was always meant to do (and pretty much didn’t until technological advancements improved 3D in the 21st century). This was Cinerama.
And Mike Todd forged the path that Hollywood followed. This Is Cinerama, the first feature documentary to be filmed in this process, debuted in 1952 and, despite being unavailable in a great many markets due to the unwieldy nature of its projection process, was an instant smash sensation and the highest-grossing film of the year. This Is Cinerama — and its mammoth profits — is what started the studio stampede toward widescreen mania that begat CinemaScope the following year, as well as a dizzying array of other widescreen processes with names that always seemed to end in “vision” or “scope”. (You’d think a process called “VisionScope” would be a natural, but in all my reading I’ve never found one. Yes, I read about widescreen processes. For fun. Stop laughing.) The main reason Hollywood was casting about for their own processes was the aforementioned unwieldy nature of Cinerama — studios wanted the size but they wanted to put it in every theater in the land to maximize profits; even Mike Todd eventually realized that he could get his films before more eyeballs if they were presented on a single strip of celluloid, which led him to develop Todd-AO a couple of years later. With this proliferation of alternative widescreen formats, by the end of the decade Cinerama had fallen out of favor, and after two attempts at Hollywood storytelling in the format (The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm and How The West Was Won), it was abandoned in favor of yet another large-format process that managed to get a similarly-sized image onto a single piece of 70MM film; this was also called Cinerama, but although some fine films were made with it (Grand Prix, 2001: A Space Odyssey), it should not be mistaken for true three-strip Cinerama.
Today, Cinerama has become the SUV of large-format filmmaking: it’s impressive but absurdly oversize, it’s ungainly and cumbersome, it’s lacking in grace and finesse, and — at least if you live in Los Angeles — virtually no one alive today knows how to properly operate it. And yet, like the Spruce Goose, the Empire State Building or Dylan going electric, the mad originality of its scope and the boldness of its execution is exactly why it retains its appeal for cinephiles and widescreen aficionados today. By the time Hollywood’s legendary Cinerama Dome opened in 1963, the three-strip format had been cast aside, and so although it was designed specifically to show three-strip Cinerama films, the other projectors necessary for the format were never installed, and the theater debuted with the 70MM Cinerama feature It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. When the Dome was refurbished early in the 00’s, two additional projectors were finally installed, and upon reopening in 2002, This Is Cinerama finally debuted in the theater that bears its name. I saw it there (and later How The West Was Won — twice), and it really is as impressive and overwhelming as they all said decades ago.
This Is Cinerama, as well as the later Cinerama documentaries Cinerama Holiday and Seven Wonders Of The World, have been released on home video; they have been lovingly restored and enhanced with the “Smilebox” video format that reproduces the curved appearance of the Cinerama screen; now the next film in the series, Search For Paradise, joins their ranks. Could any of these films retain the sense of overwhelming wonder that viewers experience in theatrical exhibition? Well, no. If that’s what you’re hoping for, prepare to be whelmed. Even with the nicest blu-ray player (a DVD copy is provided in the same package for those unconvinced by blu-ray’s potential), even with the biggest flat-screen TV or digital projector money can buy, even with real butter on your popcorn and real sugar in your soda, it could never be anything more than a pale imitation of the theatrical experience. And so Search For Paradise, like its predecessors, must function on home video as the one thing Lowell Thomas couldn’t abide people calling them: a travelogue.
Thomas hated for the term to be applied to Cinerama films, as they were meant to be so much more, but on your TV or computer screen I’m afraid we are left with very little choice. Search For Paradise is a travelogue, a widescreen travelogue that journeys to distant locales in Asia such as Ceylon, Hunza, the Indus River, Kashmir and Nepal, and ending with an odd detour to an American air force base at the end to go out with a bang. Thomas, in his booming, stentorian voice that must have made for maddening casual conversation, narrates his travels and adventures across these beautiful and exotic locales, expertly photographed by cinematographer Harry Squire. In some locations there is abundant pageantry staged for the Cinerama team; in Kashmir, there are pleasant houseboats on idyllic waters; on the Indus, there is a hair-raising raft journey across rough waters in POV shots that must be terrifying on a theatrical screen. At home, not so much. As a cinematic exploration of foreign lands, Search For Paradise is a very good film; the widescreen Cinerama images lend everything a grand quality, and of course because it was shot on three separate pieces of film instead of one anamorphically-squeezed image, the depth and quality of detail in every shot give the eye much to take in, especially in the high-resolution blu-ray format. I was also greatly relieved that, while a bit patronizing here and there, Lowell Thomas’ narration was relatively free of the kind of casual racism one finds in American films of the era that would have turned an otherwise charming documentary into an unfortunate condemnation of Western imperialist attitudes. Thomas’ voiceover monologue is largely informative, and admiring and appreciative of the cultures he describes.
The songs, on the other hand, are kind of goofy. Previous Cinerama films contained music composed by a hodgepodge of well-known and lesser-known composers (including legend Max Steiner); in Search For Paradise, for the first time there is a score composed entirely by one man, and he’s no slouch: it’s Hollywood heavyweight Dimitri Tiomkin, by then a three-time Oscar winner (two for High Noon and one for The High And The Mighty) and later one more (The Old Man And The Sea), who provides an almost wall-to-wall studio production-level score with a full orchestra and a choir and the whole megillah. But yeah, there are several songs throughout the picture sung by opera baritone Robert Merrill, and sure, he’s got a fine voice and whatnot, but yikes, some of those lyrics sure are cornball.
Both sound and picture have been painstakingly restored by David Strohmaier, who has almost single-handedly spearheaded the Cinerama restoration movement; naturally, the blu-ray disc is the most splendid presentation of the film and its various extra goodies, but there is the aforementioned DVD if you’re allergic to splendor or something. Among the extras are an examination of the film’s restoration, behind-the-scenes footage, and an interview with director Otto Lang. The extra I was most looking forward to was In The Picture, a half-hour short film that represents the first attempt since 1962 to shoot in the original three-strip Cinerama format. My anticipation was, to put it politely, not rewarded. Strohmaier wrote and directed the film, depicting a quartet of tourists exploring Los Angeles, winding up at the Cinerama Dome; the cast is led by Stanley Livingston, best known for playing one of Fred MacMurray’s three sons in the television series My Three Sons, although he also appeared in How The West Was Won, hence his appearance here. Livingston is adequate, and that’s the best you can expect; here I dispense with politeness. The remaining three people, who I could never call “actors” with a straight face, and who at times resemble aliens desperately attempting to fit into their new earthbound environment, make Tommy Wiseau look like Daniel Day-Lewis. No fooling, gang, I was literally startled to see these alleged humans speaking in a vastly more realistic and natural manner in the short documentary about the making of this film than in the film itself. The “performances” are so jarring and terrible (a cameo appearance by Debbie Reynolds, also a co-star in How The West Was Won, provides an all-too-brief oasis of Hollywood glamour), they make In The Picture a cringeworthy atrocity that is all the more shameful because it is very likely the last time anyone will shoot a picture in Cinerama. Don’t just stand there, Christopher Nolan, DO something!
Search For Paradise is partly a travelogue, but also partly a curiosity for those who take an interest in the history of cinematic technology, a history that includes color, 3D, digital video and even Smell-O-Vision. (Look it up.) One can get a kick out of this quaint and curious volume of forgotten widescreen lore, but on another level some of us older viewers may derive a certain wistful nostalgia, as well as the sobering realization that, with each successive generation, everything we grew up with and love will eventually go away, relegated to history instead of the vibrant currency it once enjoyed. And alongside everything that goes away, sooner or later we go with it. Perhaps it is this realization that is secretly plaguing Nolan, Tarantino et al. — the realization that as they get older, their ability to shape the cinematic landscape will dwindle and fade, and just as tiny pockets of cinephiles discuss John Ford, Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz today, so too will miniscule numbers of movie lovers discuss today’s filmmakers tomorrow. Perhaps this is the motivation for these directors to, as Nolan quoted with annoying goddamn frequency in Interstellar, rage against the dying of the light. But we all gotta go sometime, gents, so you may as well get used to it; there’s room on the scrapheap for us all. In the words of another poet: I think we are in rats’ alley, where the dead men lost their bones.