Home Video Hovel: Cinerama’s Russian Adventure, by Dayne Linford
Cinerama, the practice of stitching together three different rolls of footage to be displayed concurrently across a massive screen, was one of the great experiments in film, concocted to try and out-spectacle television and get viewers back into the theaters in the 50s and 60s. Widely utilized but largely relegated to circuit markets and specialty theaters, it never broke through into the mainstream, only employed in a few disparate films, most notably How the West Was Won. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating experiment, and Russian Adventure, a pseudo-documentary travelogue of the American rival, introduced and narrated by Bing Crosby, is a delight to view. Playing as a variety show made up of the efforts of disparate filmmakers throughout the vast USSR, it’s an entertaining, breezy two hours, of interest largely as an historical document and cinematic experiment but still nonetheless fun to watch, particularly with the help of the new “Smilebox” technique, replicating the look of the original piece as directly as possible, though “formatted to fit your screen” as all things must be.
Moving easily from the opening display of a troika rushing through the snow to the Kremlin then to an underwater dive and out to a hunt in Siberia (perhaps the most visually stunning portion of the film), the variety show style covers numerous topics lightly with heavy emphasis on playful spectacle and the “foreign-ness” of its subjects. Crosby particularly pushes this narrative, presenting Russia, so often then in the news, as a completely unknown place for his American viewers, even as he leans into popular American conceptions of the empire state, remarking upon it as “a land of extremes.” Indeed, such slight comments aside, this is a film completely devoid of politics or drama, interested only in the kind of sweeping spectacle Cinerama was designed for, and largely delivering. In its light, amiable way, each small vignette carries itself easily from piece to piece, buttressed certainly by the historical curiosity of a Russia that probably never was.
That strange historical incongruity carries interest through a couple sequences, most notably a whale hunt in the artic sea. This sequence spares no detail, displaying the capture, killing, and processing of a whale carcass in detail not seen since Melville’s long passages in Moby Dick. However, unlike Melville, this sequence lacks entirely any outside perspective, sense of history or industry, any comment at all on the very well-known plight of the whales throughout the world. It’s hard to say if this was tactful avoidance of political hot buttons or if the context was simply assumed on the part of the viewer. Regardless, it was a sobering sequence and a reminder of the changing historical circumstances in the fifty short years between this film and now.
As a showcase for the capabilities of Cinerama, as all these circuit films were, it’s largely successful. Particular vignettes really stand out, utilizing the breadth of the three-camera scope and its capacity to capture movement to full effect. Most impressive, in terms of the skill of the camera operator and a well-considered montage, is an antelope hunt in Siberia near the end of the film. Even smooshed into my little TV screen, the sweep of thousands of animals rushing across such a vast plain was simply breathtaking. This was also the segment most willing to engage in experiment and utilize the unique nature of Cinerama to full effect. Only one other segment experiments similarly with the technology, a small piece about bears and honey farming. To display the anxious dream of a sleeping farmer, one of the three reels occasionally cuts to a close-up of him, sleeping, while the other two continue to show the dream, a comic scene of bears sneaking onto his property and loading up boxes of hives onto a cart to steal them away. It’s funny enough and fairly clever, but clearly the economic parameters surrounding Cinerama technology kept it from achieving any kind of interesting, actually new and unique experimentation. Ironically, around this time, avant-garde artists like Stan Brakhage were doing much more vital work with simple, 35 millimeter film than would ever be done under the auspices of Cinerama, a technology seemingly made for this kind of play.
As these segments explore Cinerama’s spatial limits and tease a little at its experimental possibilities, other segments display the weaknesses inherent in Cinerama, either because of its economic demands or technological limitations. There are many dance segments, each only as interesting as the dancing taking place before the camera. Even then, these are largely rendered dull by the static wide shot, often unchanged from the first step to the last, the space of the stage barely escaping the edges of the frame, with no sense of montage or dynamic framing. It’s clear this filmmaker was content to simply cover as much space as possible and then turn the machine on, the laziest and most boring approach to cinema conceivable. Melies displayed more visual acuity within staged sequences 62 years previous. Conversely, a circus segment is both the good and the bad, moving from an exciting sequence featuring show-riders, the camera panning in a fast circle to keep up as we get to see their tricks in close up, to a long, entertaining enough but visually dull sequence with some lions badgered into climbing atop horses and riding casually around the ring. Where it really suffers is in showing tightrope walkers, the line of the rope itself a strange diagonal slash across the screen, compressing the distance travelled and, therefore, blunting the skillfulness of the performers on-screen.
One wonders if this particularly is an aspect of the Smilebox technique and would’ve been more impressive across 146 degrees of canvas. Regardless, it highlights the weakness of attempting to stitch together three different cameras, creating a dull uniformity throughout and necessarily weakening any impulse to visually manipulate audience reactions beyond “ah”s and “oh”s. Particularly coming out of Russia, this is clearly past the glory days of Soviet cinema; despite such stunning and potentially interesting technology at hand, nothing here even approaches the dynamism and power of the images filmmakers like Eisenstein and Vertov were making in the 20s, not to mention the invention of montage, unequaled still. Russian Adventure, though, is fun enough and worth watching today but it remains rather disappointing to realize that Cinerama was killed long before it had a chance to realize its full potential.