Eyes Widescreen Shut
The Bradford Film Festival, now in its 18th year, is one of the UK’s leading arenas for seeing not only new discoveries and hidden gems but also (thanks to its revered Widescreen Weekend strand) classics presented in their best and/or original formats. Until this year, I’d never been – so when the opportunity arose to check out Widescreen Weekend, I jumped at the chance.
My specific reason was to catch one film which, amazingly, I’d never seen before: David Lean’s immortal study of sand, Lawrence of Arabia. It’s an obvious blind spot in my film watching but a very deliberate one. Having been introduced to most classics via boxed-in telly or grainy VHS, I decided around 15 years ago to reserve Lawrence for the big screen. Despite advances in home entertainment bringing surround sound and hi-def into the living room, I’ve stuck to my guns.
Bradford’s only an hour and a half drive away; better still, Lawrence was showing in its rarely seen 70mm, renowned amongst hardcore film geeks as the biggest and best format. Blu-ray? A gnat, compared to the behemoth of seventy-mil. Best of all, Widescreen Weekend this year was a showcase for the format, meaning that everything shown on the National Media Museum’s Pictureville screen was in 70mm.
As you’d expect, it draws a fiercely partisan crowd, comprised of academics, historians and bona fide grade-A cinema zealots, for whom details matter. I felt, in this crowd, something of a virgin! Just as well, then, that the day kicked off with Cineramacana, a grab-bag of clips, trailers, shorts and curios, all highlighting and introducing the format’s possibilities. It’s a strange ‘un, being shown 10 minutes of out-of-context footage from Willow, but it’s one way of getting to grips with the unarguable fact that 70 millimetre is fucking beautiful, even when you’re watching Warwick Davis fighting a man in a hairy monster suit in a field full of mud.
And Cineramacana unearthed some gems, notably five minutes of time-lapse photography of the clearest, starriest skies you’ll ever see, and a new 3D Roadrunner cartoon that pushed Wil E. Coyote into more pain than he’s experienced in decades. The organisers got so carried away that this initial screening overran by a full 30 minutes – a warning, perhaps, that Widescreen Weekend runs on different time to the rest of the world.
The first of the day’s features was Jim Henson’s cult kids’ flick The Dark Crystal, which I hadn’t seen since its first run in 1982. Even in an original, unrestored 70mm print, watching the film again transported me back to being six years old and utterly freaked out. For all the film’s flaws (including possibly the longest, most banal, expositionary voiceover ever recorded) it’s a genuinely visionary freakshow. Jim Henson’s hippie idealism is unshakeable, and this is a post-Star Wars fable of light triumphing over darkness, but by heck he ups the darkness. With the cruel humour of its vulture-like villains and giant beetle-esque warriors, it’s the nightmarish flipside to the Muppets’ joie de vivre, and disturbingly effective.
Next, a real treat: a screening of How The West Was Won in (as close as possible to) its original Cinerama dimensions. You’ll probably have seen this short-lived, wider-than-widescreen fad shown at theme parks as a first-person rollercoaster ride, but it’s difficult to see Hollywood’s attempt at a feature film because few cinemas can deal with it. Cinerama used three overlapping cameras, shooting simultaneously, to provide unprecedented coverage…and a host of technical problems that made it too expensive to catch on. Fortunately, the National Media Museum has a giant curved screen, allowing the three reels to be shown together.
The film itself is a guilty pleasure – a shamelessly cheesy compendium of all the things you ever wanted to see in a Western (injuns, shootouts, train robberies and a terrifying buffalo stampede) acted by a generation of legends (Wayne, Stewart, Fonda, Peck…although bizarrely the hero turns out to be George Peppard). But the fascination comes from seeing the joins between the three cameras, often disguised using vertical props like trees or fenceposts, or the weird perspective shifts caused by my sitting on the left-hand screen of the auditorium.
BIFF certainly gives value for money, with an introduction by Western expert Christopher Frayling – one of the best, most passionate speakers on old movies around – and a commitment to the original roadshow presentation, with a lengthy overture and a half-hour intermission. Trouble is, this stretches a two-and-a-half hour movie into a three-and-a-half hour one. Despite the break, the effect is knackering.
So I took a genuine break, down the pub, meaning I’d had a few when Lawrence of Arabia arrived. Great: I wait 15 years and then I’m pissed. No matter, because this was worth it. I knew all the classic bits (the match-to-desert cut, Omar Sharif emerging from a mirage) but no idea how it all fitted together, so this was a genuine revelation. The wit, the pace, the effortless charisma of Peter O’Toole…and above all the sudden realisation that the films I grew up on, notably the Indiana Jones series, had been shamelessly ripping this off.
And then… a combination of more delays (another introduction, another intermission), the booze, and the sheer length of time I’d been sitting in the dark, all conspired to make me very sleepy. I didn’t actually nod off, but I came close. Then again, the second half of Lawrence, where it tries to get all serious and meaningful but doesn’t quite pull it off, isn’t nearly as gobsmacking as the furious, visionary passion of its first half.
Surviving a single day left me with a healthy respect for the guys who can see all this stuff and then come back for more the next day…and a hatred for Bradford’s incomprehensible road system, which left me broken in body and soul after nearly an hour of driving around trying to find my shitty excuse for a hotel. Overall, though, I’ve earned my Widescreen Weekend wings, and my film buff credentials are now even more buffed up.