Given the title of this column it would be remiss not to mention the fact that CinemaScope is 50 years old this year. In 1953, 20th Century Fox trumpeted The Robe, the first film in the new format, as “the modern miracle you see without glasses.” The film premiered on 16th September of the same year in New York’s Roxy cinema, on a screen measuring 65 by 25 feet. Cinemas around the world quickly refitted, widening their screens and curving them in concave imitation of CinemaScope’s famous perspectival logo. So encompassing was the new heightened experience of going to the cinema that it led to a shift towards epic settings and spectacular shooting styles and briefly halted the decline in cinema going.
But CinemaScope and its variations represent an ambiguous revolution in style, because they exposed a repressed anxiety of cinema: “What is it we can do that television can’t?” The answer both purified and vulgarised the medium.
The vulgarisation is well known. The Robe itself and films like How to Marry a Millionaire, released in the same year, look today like stage plays photographed by a camera plonked in the front row of the stalls. Film historians refer to the frieze-like way that actors were strung along the width of the screen as “washing line” compositions. Focus was very shallow, forcing everyone to act in a flat plane. Directors thought that cutting between shots on such a huge screen would jar audiences, so they kept editing to a minimum.
Luckily, however, widescreen cinema aesthetics predated CinemaScope, and there was an older tradition of directors engaging with the wide rectangle rather than the near square. As early as 1897, a now long-forgotten filmmaker called Enoch Rector photographed a Nevada boxing match in a widescreen process (which he called Veriscope) on a 63mm negative rather than the 35mm that would become industry standard. This is perhaps the first example of a filmmaker changing the shape of their canvas in order to find a better fit between it and the event he was trying to capture.
Three decades later, one of France’s most innovative directors applied the aesthetics of the extended horizontal to epic subject matter with such flamboyant success that the widescreen image became associated with spectacle thereafter. The film was Napol?on. The director, Abel Gance, used three adjacent cameras for scenes such as Napoleon’s departure for Italy. He then projected the footage from each of the cameras onto a single very wide screen. In the same year, the Parisian inventor Henri Chr?tien found a way of doing something similar but with one camera rather than three. He devised an “anamorphic” lens, used both in the camera and the projector, which squashed a wide vertical image on to a standard 35 mm negative, then reversed the process, “desquashing” it onto a wide screen. Chr?tien’s innovation made Gance’s avant-garde technique commercially viable. It would be 26 years before another country-America-realised its potential. Among the few who did so creatively were director Nicholas Ray in films like Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar. Ray had studied with one of the 20th century’s greatest horizontalists, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and he applied the aesthetics of Lloyd Wright’s buildings to the new compositional world of widescreen. The year after The Robe, director Stanley Donen made Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the first good widescreen musical. The fact that there were 14 characters in this film made it a horizontal shoo-in. Years later, when shown on television, its edges were cut off. The result might be accurately renamed Four Brides for Four Brothers.
This misfit between cinema and television, their failure to talk the same compositional language, was the very point of the commercialisation of CinemaScope and its variants (though some canny mainstream directors in the US started keeping the essential story information in the centre of the frame). In Japan, meanwhile, the bravura of master widescreen directors like Kon Ichikawa and Shohei Imamura was derived in part from other art forms. The tradition of horizontal scroll illustration was a clear precedent and the Zen idea of “mu,” which argues that empty space is a positive compositional element, provided such filmmakers with a rich conceptual palette. In one astonishing shot in Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge, the screen is empty except for a figure so tiny in the upper left corner that the effect would be similar if the double page before you was blank except for a single letter, top left.
By the 1970s, widescreen had become the norm and filmmakers were experimenting with other tools such as telephoto lenses and louma cranes. By the mid-1990s, cinematic horizontality had become so much part of the lazy rhetoric of conventional cinema that a group of innovative Danish pranksters, headed by Lars von Trier, banned its use in what they called their vow of chastity. They saw the near-square screen ratio as purer and more fundamentally cinematic than widescreen which, they argued, was a decadent perversion of the medium.
The fact that variations in the ratio of width to height in film can raise such fundamental questions about the nature of cinema is one of the reasons I like it so. Might we not also mention the matter of the squareness of the edges of the movie screen? The peripheries of human sight are soft and rounded. Shouldn’t filmmakers take this into account, and consider replacing the rectangle with the oval and ellipse? To do so would restart the question of centre and edge in film, and another compositional rethink.