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Believe it or not, there was a time not too long ago when movie theaters offered better picture quality than you can get from your high-definition television at home. As anyone who went to see “Dunkirk’s” blockbuster 70mm engagement at the Somerville Theatre this past summer can attest, there’s nothing quite like watching light projected through old-fashioned celluloid on the lovingly restored 1914 theater’s massive 30-foot screen.
And whether you’re watching Charlton Heston as Michelangelo or Tom Cruise as Maverick, bigger will be better at the Somerville’s second annual 70mm & Widescreen Festival. Running from Wednesday, Sept. 20 through Sunday, Oct. 1, the series showcases 15 big-screen spectacles from Steven Spielberg’s worst (“Hook”) to Alfred Hitchcock’s best (“Vertigo”) while celebrating antique analog formats that put our current digital presentation to shame.
“Everyone keeps asking why people don’t go to the movies anymore,” says The Somerville's director of operations Ian Judge, citing the deluge of stories in the press about how Hollywood suffered its worst box office summer in decades. “I think a lot of that’s just overblown media hype. We had a great summer! But you need to knock people’s socks off. You want them to come back.”
Larger format film releases had seemingly gone the way of the dodo before filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan used their considerable clout to introduce a new generation of moviegoers to the aesthetic ecstasy of 70mm. Most theaters are currently projecting either 2k or 4k DCPs (digital cinema packages with a horizontal resolution of approximately 2,000 or 4,000 pixels), presenting a mere fraction of the picture information provided by regular old 35mm film, let alone its big brother 70mm — which has a resolution estimated somewhere comparable to 13k.
In the 1960s the format was most often used to photograph big-budget epics such as Somerville perennials “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But in the 1980s, many films shot on 35mm were blown up to 70mm for select prestige engagements and in order to take advantage of the larger prints' capacity for six-track magnetic sound. This year’s programming offers the expected, more traditional spectacles while also getting a little funkier and dipping into Reagan-era selections such as two Tom Cruise movies (“Top Gun” and its spiritual sequel “Days of Thunder”), Jim Henson’s freaky-deaky “The Dark Crystal,” and yes, even George Lucas’ notorious megaflop “Howard the Duck.”
“We gotta mix it up,” Judge laughs. “We leaned heavily on the classics last year, and I think next year we probably will return to a little bit more of that. Look, we have ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ and films that are more on the serious side, but you’ve got to have fun at the movies, too. If we get a lot of people for ‘Top Gun’ or ‘Wonder Woman’ and 10 of them come back to see ‘Cleopatra’ then my job is done. I’ve continued to keep these important movies in the consciousness. We just want to make enough money to keep doing it.”
The 70mm print of “The Untouchables” (running Sunday, Sept. 24) previously screened at the Somerville in June of last year as part of IFFBoston’s “The World Is Yours: Brian De Palma On Film” series. It’s a movie I’d seen maybe a dozen times as a kid, and it always seemed more than a little corny on my tiny television set. Yet this time around the grandeur of the presentation made De Palma’s operatic bombast feel perfectly at home. The broad, mugging performances and self-consciously virtuosic camerawork were all of a piece on that giant screen, as Ennio Morricone’s score shook the walls. Sometimes seeing a movie the way it was meant to be seen can feel like you’re seeing it for the first time.
I wonder if "Howard the Duck" will be nearly as revelatory. "Eh, what the hell?" Judge shrugs. "Everybody likes to slow down when there's a car accident."
The Somerville Theatre's second annual 70mm & Widescreen Festival runs from Wednesday, Sept. 20 through Sunday, Oct. 1.
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