Essays (book reviews)

Widescreen Cinema
by John Belton
(Harvard University Press, 1992)


In 1946, the French film theorist André Bazin wrote “The Myth of Total Cinema”, which is, in part, a speculation on the motivations that drove the earliest inventors of the film medium. For Bazin, it is clear that these originators, however fumbling and piecemeal their efforts, were aiming “straight for the top” of the cinematic medium. “In their imagination, they conceived of cinema as the complete and total representation of reality. From the outset they foresaw the creation of a perfect illusion of the outside world through sound, colour and three-dimensionality” (What is Cinema?, 2009 Caboose edition, p. 15).


Although many theorists of a later era would tend to describe this Total Cinema as a myth in a derisory sense – betraying the original ideological sin of Realism – Bazin offered it as a guiding, almost mystical dream. “Cinema is an idealist phenomenon; men’s idea of it existed fully equipped in their brains, as in Plato’s higher world” (p. 13). And Bazin’s idealism found perhaps its most resounding echo in the 1950s, during the heyday of what John Belton calls widescreen cinema (Cinemascope, Panavision, Cinerama … ).


While mainstream exhibitors and distributors of the era trumpeted the true-to-lifeness of the wide screen (in an echo of earlier efforts dubbed with fanciful names like Vitascope and Realife), critics such as Charles Barr, in his oft-reprinted 1963 essay “Cinemascope: Before and After”, celebrated the realist aesthetic that had seemingly achieved its fullest flowering in the complex widescreen films directed by Otto Preminger (Advise and Consent, 1962), Elia Kazan (Wild River, 1960) and Nicholas Ray (Rebel without a Cause, 1955).


Bazin himself greeted the arrival of widescreen with open arms, and it is little wonder. In the detailed landscapes of widescreen Westerns or the overpopulated sets of Cinemascope musicals, as much as in the more naturalistic, psychological dramas that Barr admired, Bazin saw his particular dream of Total Cinema coming true in almost every detail. If the vocation of cinema was to record the visible traces of the world, here was more of that world, wrapped right around the head of the viewer; and if the loftiest style open to a filmmaker was a democratic one, resisting pointed manipulation while giving the spectator the time and space to draw his or her own connections, the wide screen virtually enforced what Barrett Hodsdon once called an “open-plan aesthetic” on its users.


It seems a very long time since the first chroniclers of film history indulged in grand narrative myths as idealistic as Bazin’s. Since the 1970s, in the wake of Louis Althusser and especially Michel Foucault, the writing of film history has taken a sharply materialist term (under the umbrella methodological term of historiography – which includes reflexive attention to the history of history-writing itself). This has, on the whole, been a good thing. Historical researchers today easily resist the lure of searching for those special, originary moments in film history invented by amazing visionaries – a journalistic obsession perhaps summed up best by fey Aussie humourist Barry Dickins’ offhand remark that Charlie Chaplin “invented the pan shot and the jump cut” (no mean feat for a lone individual!). The current histories – or rather, historiographies – cast themselves as archaeological, discontinuous, non-linear; Belton presents his case study as one “written forward and sideways as well as backward”.


Contemporary accounts of film history look beyond the screen in ways that Bazin and his contemporaries would scarcely have entertained. This is partly because, as Thomas Elsaesser noted in a survey-review of four books (Sight and Sound, Autumn 1986), modern historiographers actively seek “the relevance of evidence disregarded by traditional film histories: business papers, court records, city ordinances and fire regulations, urban transport policy and demographic data of all kinds”. At the very least, any historic treatment of the film-text must take in the immediate paraphernalia of its context, its social circulation: where and how it played in theatres, the reviews and newspaper reports, the ads and posters, and the myriad of likely media spin-offs (like popular jokes or discussions on TV talk shows). Elsaesser dubs the fruit of such research the New Film History, and Australia has produced many impressive examples of it (like Tom O’Regan’s work on the interface of the film and TV industries, or Stuart Cunningham’s book on the Chauvels).


John Belton’s Widescreen Cinema is as fine an example of the New Film History as one could wish for. Belton builds up a multi-layered, interconnected web of historical determinations for the widescreen phenomenon: economic, industrial, technological, aesthetic and cultural. For those readers who might have hitherto assumed (as I did) that this cinema was essentially a fad that appeared and disappeared in the 1950s, the book will be a revelation. It shows conclusively that widescreen cinema has been around almost as long as the cinema itself. Belton charts the pre-history of widescreen through Abel Gance’s three-screen (“Polyvision”) Napoléon (1927) and early-talkie Hollywood efforts such as The Bat Whispers (1930) and The Big Trail (1930) – all of which have been reconstituted in widescreen formats after decades of invisibility.


One of Belton’s key historiographic questions is this: if widescreen was possible in so many ways and across so many years, why did it materially emerge and then whither in precisely the pattern that it did? Bazin in ‘46 asked almost exactly the same question of particular aspects of his Total Cinema. But we are very far here from “Plato’s higher world” in which “technological revolutions” arrive just at the right moment to realise the next, long awaited phase of a universal human dream. Elsaesser (citing Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery’s textbook Film History: Theory and Practice) muses: “[T]here is some truth in the assertion that ‘the state of technology at any given moment imposes certain limits on film production’. But would a historian not have to ask: limits in respect to what? Total self-expression? Total realism? Total illusionism? Further, what factors or forces hinder technology in its relentless forward thrust?”


Belton turns the realist apprehension of widescreen completely on its head. He argues that (despite whatever hype to the contrary) the value of widescreen to the film industry was not its increased realism but, on the contrary, its novelty value – specifically, as a spectacle which could reawaken the “affective thrill” experienced by the first viewers of the first films, bewitched not by a so-called window on the world but by the amazing, uncanny special effect of vast images being projected in a dark, featureless space. Belton pinpoints the real ideology of widescreen cinema – he calls it Cinerama’s Original Sin – in its “essential affinity for the episodic and the picaresque and its fascination with journeys and various means of locomotion”; in other words, a touristic, imperialist world-view that encompasses widescreen extravaganzas from How the West was Won (1962) to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – not forgetting the programmatic Around the World in 80 Days (1956, remade 2004)!


Ultimately, Belton’s history of widescreen is an attempt to write the history of audiences and spectatorship. Here, too, his book marks a significant shift within cinema theory. For a period in the 1970s, psychoanalytically informed speculations (by Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry and others) on the metapsychology of the film viewer took an essentially ahistorical form, with the emphasis on concepts like hypnosis, fascination, seduction, voyeurism, fetishism – and an implicit notion of the viewer as always singular (yet paradoxically “ideal” or “formalised”, as Dana Polan once suggested), locked up in his or her somewhat Gothic Imaginary. Since that time, commentators have turned more to a social history of the viewing audience – now cast as a volatile crowd of bodies fitted into ever-changing arrangements of the filmgoing experience. This new history of spectatorship starts (for Belton as for many other current writers) with Siegfried Kracaeur’s and Walter Benjamin’s early speculations on media-induced distraction, and arrives in the shopping malls and home-cinema rig-ups of the present day as analysed by Francesco Casetti and many others.


The empirical richness of Widescreen Cinema will come as a surprise to those who mainly know Belton only from his fine earlier book Cinema Stylists (1983), with its proud emphasis on the personal expressivity of the medium’s greatest auteurs. That book seemed like the summation of the most inspired and precise aspects of 1950s and 1960s film criticism, with its meticulous attention to the details of mise en scéne, narrative and star performance. Another strain of Belton’s work through the 1980s, however – his studies of the “bionic eye” of the zoom lens, and of modern stereo sound – showed his sensitivity to the historical interplay of available technology, standardised technique and individual style.


If anything, one can regret the relative absence of aesthetic analysis in Widescreen Cinema. Belton occasionally gestures to the complex, dramatic use of the wide screen in this or that film, as if such understandings were already received wisdom, old news. The unfortunate truth is that widescreen cinema, from the classics of Preminger to contemporary, festival-feted productions like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) or Jacques Doillon’s The Little Criminal (aka The Little Gangster, 1990), has almost never been accorded the kind of close, patient, stylistic attention it deserves. Perhaps this is because, in the age of home video, certain forms of textual analysis have become a routine part of everyday life – but the real, affective thrill of the big, wide screen remains a special and irretrievable event.


© Adrian Martin March 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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