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I have to admit, I was highly skeptical about Quentin Tarantino’s gamble to not only shoot his latest homage indulgence, "The Hateful Eight," on 70 mm film with an Ultra Panavision lens — a format not used since the late '60s — but to also mandate its initial exhibition exclusively on old-school 70 mm reel-to-reel projectors.
The eye popper there being that besides a smattering of art houses and local chains like the Somerville Theatre and Coolidge Corner Theatre, nearly all movie theaters across the country have converted to digital, and only about 200 capable projectors remain in existence — many of them in deteriorating carcass form. Finding and getting projectors to the other 98 theaters across the country that Tarantino and The Weinstein Company had identified for their two week roadshow rollout was an arduous scavenge and scramble campaign, one well-documented and embraced locally, as most of the projector solutions came from the resourceful hands over at Boston Light & Sound.
But was the massive and costly effort worth it?
I reviewed "The Hateful Eight" for The ARTery after seeing it on a digital print. Even in that format, the movie, a Spaghetti Western of sorts retro-fitted to a snowy postbellum Wyoming, was well framed and handsome, but since most of it takes place inside the confines of a blizzard-bound haberdashery, I kept wondering how, in such tight quarters, the widescreen opulence of the bygone Panavision format would pay off.
I did anticipate a degree of greater richness, depth and warmth, but when I gathered up a seat for a crowded weekday showing at the Somerville Theatre, I really wasn't prepared for the stark scrumptious pop that overwhelmed me in nearly every frame.
There's a scene early on (it may be 40 minutes in, but it's all relative as the 70 mm version runs 180 plus minutes — the digital version is slightly shorter, clocking in at 168 minutes) of a stagecoach being driven along a snowy pass. It's a long shot, the six-horse team and carriage are miniatures at the center with vast white mountains consuming the rear, god-like and ominous. To the left, clear blue skies offer hope while, from the right, the wispy foreboding tentacles of the blitzkrieging blizzard reach nefariously after the fleeing coach.
How Tarantino got the shot boggles the mind, and the the 2.75:1 widescreen aspect ratio (more than two plus times wider than high — typical films are 1.85:1) only serves to emboss the panoramic effect — which, with all the grandeur of nature's might bearing down, makes the coach seem toy-like and insignificant. It's a breathtaking wonderment that I'm sorry to say, you just won't get on digital. Perhaps someday, but not today, not now.
Tarantino's not the only current auteur to shoot on 70 mm in the recent past. Paul Thomas Anderson did so with "The Master" in 2012. "It looked great," says Somerville Theatre projectionist David Kornfeld, but notes, too, that it wasn't in a widescreen format. It also didn't have the maniacal ego of a quirky cinephile, whose canon of works is a perpetual hat tip to the genre films of the '60s and '70s.
Tarantino conceived "The Hateful Eight" as a throwback filmgoing experience, leveraging the roadshow format from the '50s and '60s when films like "Ben-Hur" and "Lawrence of Arabia" were rolled out in limited theaters with a controlled number of prints, and the exhibiting format deemed an overture and an intermission to underscore the epic cinematic event.
For "The Hateful Eight," The Weinstein Company stipulated an exclusive two week release of the 70 mm roadshow format before going to a wide release on digital. Locally, the experiment has been a boon. The showings at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, where afternoon screenings in the 442 seat main theater have packed in 300 plus, have marked the most fiscally successful opening on record. And over at the Somerville Theatre, where lines for tickets have wound around the block in Davis Square, the desire for something different, yet genuine has been golden at the box office.
The Boston Common ended its roadshow screening last Thursday concluding the two weeks, which began on Christmas Day. The Coolidge, however, has extended the 70 mm roadshow format through Wednesday, Jan. 13, and Somerville will sustain it until month's end. The commitment to do so at both establishments goes far beyond receipt totals: It's a clear labor of love and a desire to serve the filmgoing community. "The most favorite part of my job," says Mark Anastasio, program director at the Coolidge, "is creating a unique movie going experience for the audience."
At the Somerville — which regularly showcases 70 mm classics in their intended widescreen format — cinema on celluloid is something of a mission for Kornfeld (who general manager Ian Judge calls the most knowledgeable 70 mm projectionist in the area). Exacting was the word that came to my mind when I visited Kornfeld up in his perch during a weekend screening. Being up in the projection booth at the Somerville Theatre is like being in a sportscasting booth: The action is crisp and clear, but also so far away.
The projectors are taller-than-a-man monoliths, and even though they are permanent installations, they had to be fitted with a special anamorphic lens to project the Ultra Panavision-shot film as Tarantino intended. Kornfeld knows everything about these machines — they're clean, pristine and well-honed — and it's no easy physical feat to run such an exhibition, as a reel (Kornfeld handed me one to sample) weighs nearly 40 pounds and has to be hoisted up 7 feet in the air to be placed on the projector's spindle arm.
About 10 years ago, as digital completed its conversion sweep of movie theaters across the country (the Somerville and Coolidge are digital-equipped as well), there was a whimper of lament from cinephiles, critics and theater professionals like Judge and Kornfeld. It may have been small, but it's been there, rumbling under the pixelated muting of darks and reds.
Anderson's "The Master" gave it a spark and now Tarantino has added the gasoline. Cost and logistics will remain obstacles, but given the filmgoing success of the "The Hateful Eight" roadshow rollout, the prospect for more looms. Anastasio is correct in his assessment of the "The Hateful Eight" exhibition experiment as a unique experience that should not be missed.
If you're a film lover, it doesn't matter if you're a Tarantino fan or pay any heed to the noise about his racial politics, this is about the aesthetics of film. Just go — you may never get a chance to see the cragginess of Kurt Russell's face or the poke-you-in-eye wiriness of his handlebar mustache in such opulent textured detail again.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter at @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.