Of all the reasons to check out the Music Box’s 70mm festival, the most pressing may be rarity. With digital projection now the industry standard, don’t count on getting another chance to see what was once—and may still be—the premier format for moviegoing. Last summer, while seeking 70mm-ready theaters for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, TOC discovered the Music Box was the last in town.
Like widescreen and 3-D, 70mm is one of several gimmicks Hollywood trotted out in the 1950s to differentiate cinema from TV. Sporting a film strip twice the width of standard 35mm, the technology yields a picture of startling richness, color and clarity. Think of the great, panoramic epics of the 1960s, from Exodus to Cheyenne Autumn; many were shot for the supersized frame. And if you believe digital has made celluloid quaint, guess again: You’d need a digital projector with four times the resolution of the highest-end models to approach the awesomeness of 70mm.
The Music Box may not be a Cinerama Dome, but the theater has prepped for the two-week series as if readying for an athletic event. According to head projectionist Doug McLaren, the projectors have been completely rebuilt, outfitted with new gears and bearings.
The programming itself is nirvana. An opening-night doubleheader of Vertigo and 2001: A Space Odyssey is enough to make anyone as dizzy as Jimmy Stewart, but the showings of Kubrick’s sci-fi opus constitute a special event. This freshly struck print has only screened twice—and who knows if we’ll ever see a fresher one. When even Lawrence of Arabia’s 50th-anniversary restoration skips celluloid altogether, this may be your last opportunity to see 2001’s mind-blowing starscapes the way they looked in 1968.
A 70mm presentation promises to accentuate the crisp geometry of the Jet-Shark ballet in West Side Story, as well as the stunning blues of Freddie Young’s maritime cinematography in Lord Jim. For his joyous Playtime, Jacques Tati built a small city (dubbed “Tativille”). The care put into art-directing and composing every frame boggles the mind; only the pristine detail of 70mm does justice to the spectacular comic bustle orbiting Monsieur Hulot.
Perhaps the most left-field selection is Tobe Hooper’s schlockily enjoyable Lifeforce. Unleashing naked alien vampires in London, the 1985 cult classic sounds tailor-made for VHS. But as with many blockbusters from the ’60s through the early ’90s, the film was made available in a 70mm blow-up—a version that potentially retained more visual information from the original negative. If you want to take in every inch of Mathilda May’s seldom-clothed space vixen, now’s your chance.
Blow-ups also afforded viewers the advantages of 70mm’s magnetic sound—the best audio available until the rise of DTS in the ’90s. That innovation, coupled with the proliferation of smaller multiplex screens, pushed 70mm toward obsolescence. Until last year, Kenneth Branagh’s magnificent 1996 Hamlet was the most recent fiction film to use the format. Seizing on the possibilities for visual splendor, the movie eschews medieval scenery in favor of an opulent 19th-century court.
And, oh, yes: The Master. As you may have heard, Anderson held a surprise screening at the Music Box in August. The Midwest hasn’t seen the film in 70mm since then. Like Playtime, the movie doesn’t use the wide frame’s full 2.20:1 ratio, favoring tight shots and low angles. Yet the heightened quality of the light imbues every composition with an otherworldly glow. The imagery perfectly suits Anderson’s off-kilter Americana, filled with characters of exaggerated volatility, fears and secrets.
70mm screenings run Friday 15 through February 28. Passes are available at musicboxtheatre.com.