A few words on a large format | Bleader

A few words on a large format

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From One, Two, Three, which screened yesterday
  • From One, Two, Three, which screened yesterday
The Music Box Theatre organized its Billy Wilder series so that the director’s three films in black-and-white wide-screen—The Apartment, Kiss Me, Stupid, and One, Two, Three—played on three successive weekends, thus forming a little retrospective within the retrospective. These screenings made for some of my most pleasurable moviegoing this summer, as I’m a sucker for that format and jump at any opportunity to see it on the big screen. Seeing it three Sunday mornings in a row would have been a treat even if the films in question hadn’t been Billy Wilder comedies. (If you missed these screenings, the Music Box will present Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, which is partly in black-and-white ‘Scope, on August 18 and 19.)

So many movies are shot in wide-screen today that it’s easy to take the format for granted (and, indeed, many filmmakers do). But in the 1950s, the expanded frame was advertised as a spectacle in itself, much like Technicolor before it. The sense of showmanship inherent to the format made it seem naturally suited for color—which may explain why black-and-white wide-screen movies of the 50s and 60s feel somewhat anomalous. They seem as much an intellectual spectacle as a sensory one. You watch them in full awareness of the parameters of the frame, with a sort of architectural curiosity about how they’ll be filled.

From Kiss Me, Stupid, which screened last week
  • From Kiss Me, Stupid, which screened last week
For Wilder, it was an ideal form in which to stage a farce. The longer horizontals made interiors seem roomier, the better to contain narrative complications and conflicting desires. And the black-and-white photography ensured that the films’ color would be determined by the characters and dialogue. I’d argue that the films don’t even look much like comedies, which is what allows their humor to sneak up on you. The mise-en-scene doesn’t offer you cues as to when you should laugh: consider the crushing, petit-bourgeois normalcy of Ray Walston and Felicia Farr’s ranch home in Kiss Me, Stupid or the offices in Apartment and One, Two, Three, with their harsh, overhead lighting. Comedy in these films often derives from the blocking—characters having to traverse a great distance within a medium shot or multiple bodies crammed into a close-up.

One could program an entire series of great films in the format; I often wish somebody did. What a great excuse to bring together some of the best films by Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low), Nicholas Ray (Bitter Victory), Francois Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim), Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships, The Pornographers), and the Coen brothers (The Man Who Wasn't There).

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