bigger than the movies::
cinemascope through the lens of bigger than life
By Madi Lyn
CinemaScope as a form - a tool used to create an artistic and aesthetic statement, presents a plethora of possibilities for filmmakers. As a tool to represent reality in filmmaking, it can be juxtaposed expertly with that of montage cinema - an overbearing elaboration of the real world as seen through the eyes of the editor. CinemaScope, however allows the viewers to immersively experience the film as opposed to passively watching the carefully created sequences in that of heavily edited cinema. The width provides a previously unthought of depth, allowing for a totally engaged relationship with the film. While the direct effect is a wider image, filmmakers like Nicholas Ray also used this form to create the illusion of depth within the image. Multiple planes of action occur within such a wide frame, creating a three dimensional effect. This can be used to increase the amount of detail in the world of the story without oppressive editing to accentuate the detail, i.e. cutting to a close up or excessive shot reverse shot. The result of this is creating a picture in which the viewer must find details themselves instead of being instructed in what is important. This creates a much more active viewing experience.
The bridge scene lays the groundwork for the rest of the film. It happens early on in the film. Two bridge tables are placed in frame, one directly in front of the other. This establishes two distinct areas of action that cross into one another. The conversation had across both games breaks the line of delineation. Once this occurs, it allows for the viewer to enter into a far more three dimensional realm, essentially becoming a part of the story world. Seeing characters move not only left to right, but also up and down the frame creates a nearly 3D style effect without the use of cheesy red and blue lenses that rivaled CinemaScope for immersive form. This increased simulation of reality allows for the story to exist in a world akin to that of neorealism. One can use this film form to whatever degree of reality they so choose, whether that be the emotional truths or the visual accuracy of the world. One can see characters travel along all axes of vision on the screen, especially illustrated in the bridge scene, but also in the numerous scenes that take place on the staircase. As Ed, Lou, and Richie walk up and down the staircase, they move through different planes, all existing together. This creates an effect of realism in the visual world. This is best exemplified the “Let’s face it, we’re dull” scene immediately following the card games. The camera tracks throughout the house, like an ominent viewer, able to float around within the world of the story. This gives the viewer the presence of a fly on the wall in an observable reality - in addition to the already engrossing world of CinemaScope.
Nicholas Ray additionally uses motivation within the story world to increase the immersion. He strategically places diegetic light sources to make the viewer assume that the source is creating the dynamic and emotive light that truly sets the scene. This pulls the viewer into an emotional connection that feels grounded in reality, a suggestion of emotion that often flies under the radar to the standard audience member. This invokes a visceral response, controlled by the auteur of the piece - while remaining in the ideology of realism. Some may attribute this kind of control to trickery, not holding up the realist origins of movements like Italian Neorealism. It is however an emotional truth, which bears more significance than that of truly diegetic light. This gives the audience a subliminal understanding of the mood through the character’s eyes without being forced to see whatever the director has in mind. Very controlled set design and full screen space with which to work allows active viewing while still catering to the director's vision.
CinemaScope creates an entire world with which an auteur can work. This can be used as an asset to those professing realism in their films or as a gimmick for those whose sole desire is people in the seats. While not as hokey as William Castle’s vibromatic chairs or high flying skeleton, many critiques of CinemaScope still relate the two forms of engrossment. Supporters, however, realize the potential of the form the same way that sound and color was contended and then subsequently embraced before it. Cinemascope has the ability to create realism in a true and emotional sense, visually speaking. Whether or not that is done is up to filmmaker to decide.
Bordwell, David. “Widescreen Aesthetics and Mise En Scene Criticism.” The Velvet Light Trap, vol. 21, 1985.
Epstein, Jean, and Stuart Liebman. “Magnification.” The MIT Press, vol. 3, 1977, pp. 9–25.