This is Cinerama
“This is Cinerama!” claims narrator and producer Lowell Thomas, as the small black and white frame opened up to the massive panoramic screen of a roller coaster ride so real your stomach turns and head spins in the nauseating movements. But before we jumped into this experiential and visceral novelty of cinema, with it’s three 35mm projections and spatialized surround sound, Thomas took us on a little history through protocinematic arts.
He claims that the history of art has always been about movement and that since the cave paintings, artist have been trying to make their work come to life. Then he goes through the development of daguerreotypes, the magic latern, Porter’s “Great Train Robbery”, and then stopping at “talkies” which we should all be familiar with by then (Sept. 30, 1952). The history lesson was a grand narrative of the trajectory of cinematic arts, one that inevitably ends with the Cinerama, because normal cinema is a “keyhole into the world” where Cinerama is a “new medium” of complete human vision and hearing. So had Cinerama finally achieved Bazin’s “total cinema” in which the weight of the world and human experience can be truly captured and re-projected? In many ways the cinema did create a more embodied sense of space through sound and through a deeper peripheral vision, as could be felt during the church choir scene. But what was missing in this total exposure of space was the very elements of narrative that drive the affective power of cinema. Story is a synthesis, a manipulated structure placed onto the chaos of existence in order to create meaning, patterns, and associations. The “total cinema” of Cinerama was a robotic and disinterested gaze that favored no element over another except possibly form, symmetry, and depth. There were no close ups of faces, hands, gestures, and pauses to bring the world closer and order it into the details that catalyze our imagination. One of the more effective elements was actually when the source of the sound was not directly visible or derived from the diegetic world, such as during the tour of Venice. The grand orchestral accompaniment of the scene was not part of the city and thus I found myself projecting an imagined orchestra into the theater space, guiding us through the silent film. Of course the power of this projection derived from the seven-track directional sound system that created that sense of space, but what made it meaningful is the play of space, the non-literal elements, which is the exact criticism that Arnheim lauded at sound film. I think a lot more could have been down with playful experiments with sound and visuals to really make us reflect on our sensory experiences and embodied existence, rather than reaffirm the obvious. So though “This is Cinerama” brought very exclusive spaces (Bull fighting, Opera, a candid Vienna’s Boy’s Choir, etc) into the more accessible and popular realm of the film theater, it was still done in such a literal manner that it sucked out any romanticism that might have festered in the audiences’ minds and rather replaced it with a World’s Fair technological novelty. This was the first Cinerama film made (and the only that I saw) but the issue seemed that the novelty couldn’t be sustained unless it was to have a greater formal experimentation or a more nuanced story structure, which is probably what has lead to a more traditional documentary and sometimes narrative screening of the IMAX today. So though I came in with all the dreams of experiencing an Antonioni-esque existential reflection on the nature of space, I came away with a rather unexcited technological history lesson. But ah what could have been of Cinerama!