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The promise of seeing something new, or at least novel, appeals to the child in each of us. It must be linked to the thrill of unwrapping a gift. Regardless of whether the present turns out to be a pair of socks (or, to cite one of the snoozefests in the current Music Box series, Lord Jim), there's undeniable satisfaction in knowing someone wrapped it up nice to gain our attention. P.T. Barnum demonstrated time and again that a good showman can make an audience feel good even about being taken in by a hoax; the buildup, which grows in direct proportion to the size of the audience, becomes a spectacle in itself.
As it turned out, Phantom of the Paradise was a perfect fit for Friday night's carnival atmosphere. It's a great funhouse of a movie, complete with scary clowns and oversized sets (by the great Jack Fisk, who also worked on The Master, screening next weekend in the 70-millimeter festival). Even on plain old 35-millimeter, it was a blast on the Music Box's big screen. DePalma made the film at the height of his abilities as a showman (just after Sisters and not long before Carrie), indulging in split-screen sequences, cartoonish sight gags, and elaborate camera movements that exist just to call attention to themselves.Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), which also screened this weekend in the 70-millimeter festival. This torturous children's film, among the worst I've ever seen, would seem to explain why American and western European studios stopped making 70-millimeter spectacles after 1970. (Studios continued to use the process for special effects sequences, however, and the Soviet Union consistently produced entire films on SovScope 70 into the late 1980s.) Chitty Chitty operates under the false assumption that bigger always means better, dramatizing even minor plot points with overblown musical numbers and setting ostensibly intimate scenes within imposing, cavernous spaces. Monumental scale does not make a song tuneful or a conversation endearing; if anything, it only makes a feeble idea seem that much more inadequate. (Really, is it that amazing that Dick Van Dyke's wacky inventor creates a piece of candy that doubles as a whistle? No candy factory crew would sing and dance about it for ten minutes, unless they were getting time and a half; even then, I doubt if everyone on the floor could tolerate the cloying Disney-reject melody that greeted Van Dyke's "Toot Sweets.")
Without an appropriate sense of awe (as in 2001) or compositional intelligence (as in Lawrence of Arabia), the 70-millimeter spectacle can seem leaden and dour—the filmic equivalent of a military procession's lumbering pomp. Of course the movies' misuse of cutting-edge technology didn't end with the failures of Song of Norway and Krakatoa, East of Java. The current wave of digital 3-D movies has been rife with false assumptions too, namely that audiences require nonstop action to get sucked into 3-D imagery. (A breakneck speed, if unbroken, can be monotonous in its own way.) Three years post-Avatar, the excitement surrounding the format seems to be dying down; it's likely that audiences are tiring of this particular come-on. Perhaps in 40 years, when the Music Box revives Tron: Legacy and The Smurfs as part of its digital 3-D festival, will the outmoded novelty seem novel again.