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Making It Big in Hollywood

September 26, 2002|MARK OLSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"They don't make them like they used to" is a fairly common complaint among moviegoers of all ages. In the case of grand wide-screen epics, it's actually true. Beginning tonight, the American Cinematheque's 3rd Great Big 70mm Festival looks to bring back those days of outsized movies, if only for the weekend.

From 1955 to 1970 some 60 features were shot in large format and toured around the country in the then-common "roadshow" style. Twentieth Century Fox developed the 70mm "Grandeur Film" process in 1929, which, though not a hit, would ultimately provide the basis for such later formats as Todd-AO, Panavision, Super Technirama and others. In all, four different methods were used to either expand the size of the film stock or squeeze big images onto 35mm film and unsqueeze them in projection.

The Cinematheque series opens with a screening of a newly struck Super Panavision 70 print of "Lord Jim." Directed in 1965 by Richard Brooks", this adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel stars Peter O'Toole as the title character seeking redemption and adventure on the high seas, with terrific supporting turns by Eli Wallach, James Mason and the perennially sleazy Akim Tamiroff.

A seemingly unlikely candidate for the restoration treatment, "Lord Jim" on the wide screen enhances its thrilling exploration of man against both nature and his own baser instincts, with many reverberations of Conrad's now better-known "Heart of Darkness."

On Friday the series screens a restored print of Franklin J. Schaffner's 1970 film "Patton," winner of seven Academy Awards, including best picture, actor, director and screenplay (the last award was shared by veteran Edmund H. North and a promising young writer named Francis Ford Coppola). It was one of only two films shot in the Dimension 150 format, which featured a special lens that rendered a 150-degree point of view. This explains both how Schaffner achieved his sweeping, panoramic battlefield shots and why there are so many of them.

Truly big-screen films demand a certain largeness from everyone involved, and few films exemplify this better than "Patton." In its own way quite daring for its portrayal of a military man at the height of the Vietnam War era, it is neither a puff piece nor a condemnation, but a portrait of a complicated man torn apart by his own contradictions. The film's storytelling is confident and relaxed, in an unfussy fashion that seems refreshing compared with today's thrill-a-minute joy rides.

George C. Scott's performance as the difficult general is justly regarded as one of the era's finest, bursting with manic energy. In the film's final moments, he walks toward the camera until he fills the oversize frame with his overgrown, swaggering girth. Schaffner then deftly cuts to a shot which shrinks this towering figure to a speck within the landscape, as the enormous screen, like the passing of time, overcomes him.

The series ends Saturday with an unlikely pairing of "2001: A Space Odyssey" with "Hello Dolly." "2001" is one of the most ambitious films ever produced with Hollywood's money (it was largely made in England). Even if one has reservations about the philosophical-cum-mystic point of view, there is no denying the majesty of the film's technical achievements.

Much pioneering special-effects work was done in the making of the film, and nothing shows off the product of those labors quite like a spectacular 70mm print.

At the other end of the spectrum from the high-minded pomp of "2001" is the unadulterated, rapacious glee of "Hello Dolly." The sheer mad exuberance of Barbra Streisand's take on the title role is overwhelming on the smallest of screens; here it takes on the energy of a gale force. Though ultimately not as good as some of the other directing efforts by musical legend Gene Kelly, the film is nevertheless a real kick in the pants.

The use of 70mm film died off by the early 1970s, in part because of the success of smaller-scale, youth-oriented films such as "Easy Rider" and in part because of the relative failure of the last handful of wide-screen films, including, according to some, "Hello Dolly." The format enjoyed a brief revival in the late 1970s and early 1980s (with films such as "Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Apocalypse Now" shot on 35mm and blown up to 70mm) in large part due to its capabilities for a more dynamic soundtrack. Even this advantage died down with the rise of digital sound. The last major Hollywood production shot on the larger format was Ron Howard's 1991 film "Far and Away."

With the onset of digital projection, this sort of lush, transcendently enveloping experience may someday be no more. Enjoy it while you can.

*

The 3rd Great Big 70mm Festival, American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd. "Lord Jim," Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; "Patton," Friday, 7:30 p.m.; "2001," Saturday, 5 p.m.; "Hello Dolly!," Saturday, 8:15 p.m. $6 to $8. (323) 466-FILM.

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