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Reviewed by:
  • Widescreen Worldwide
  • Andre Millard (bio)
Widescreen Worldwide. Edited by John Belton, Sheldon Hall, and Steve Neale. New Barnet, UK: John Libbey Publishing, 2010. Pp. vi+236. $34.95.

When the Cinerama widescreen process was introduced in 1952, the film industry was losing customers fast and was fearful of the challenge of television. Brightly colored films projected on very large screens and accompanied by stereophonic sound were intended to lure film audiences back into downtown cinemas. This transformative moment in the film industry, called the widescreen revolution by the editors of this volume, is the subject of this group of conference papers. The papers are divided among four sections: the development of the technology, the different formats of the widescreen process, the impact on film aesthetics, and the spread of wide-screen [End Page 952] to other film industries in Europe and Asia. The contributors include well-known film critics such as David Bordwell and experts on the technology like John Belton, who is one of the editors. Befitting its subject, this is a handsome, oversized volume, printed on fine glossy paper, with numerous black-and-white images.

Although readers of Technology and Culture will no doubt direct their attention to the technology section, there is plenty to interest them in the papers that look at the ways the widescreen process affected the making of films, especially the composition within the frame, the mise-en-scène that exploited the new, wider viewpoint of filmmaker and audience. The aesthetics of film forms the main focus of the volume, and within the discussion of how widescreen influenced the composition of films and the ways filmmakers reacted to these new opportunities are many examples of the powerful interaction of technology and culture. Widescreen cinema favored expensive epics that filled the screen with lateral action and a cast of thousands, but its limited depth of field and distortion in close shots worked against close-ups and fast cutting. The to-and-fro between technical performance and aesthetic requirements framed the development of widescreen cinema. In the final section we learn how it spread far from Hollywood and evolved within different film contexts. In the hands of auteurs like Federico Fellini, widescreen cinema could accommodate styles of filmmaking far removed from the epic-event movies that were probably in the minds of the engineers who developed Cinerama.

As a series of conference papers, this volume cannot provide a comprehensive chronology or explication of the development and diffusion of widescreen technologies, but instead presents a series of case studies of the process. The editors made their job much harder by taking a global, rather than a national, perspective, but they managed to make a coherent whole out of a wide range of material and interests. Widescreen Worldwide addresses most of the important issues that emerged as film critics and historians evaluated the contributions of this technology, but it raises more questions than it can answer. There are many tantalizing propositions, such as Federico Vitella’s conclusion that widescreen might have “encouraged to a certain extent the maturation of auteur films” (p. 172) in Italy, but few resolutions. On the other hand, there are numerous examples of extremely detailed, insightful, and close reading of key scenes. John Gibbs and Douglas Pye take nine pages and twelve illustrations to take us through a few critical minutes of Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, for example.

Todd-AO and all those other widescreen systems with wonderful expansive names like VistaVision and CinemaScope might be long gone, dinosaurs in the history of motion picture technology, but widescreen has become the norm in film production and exhibition since its introduction in the 1950s. Images in today’s cinemas (at home and in the mall) are much larger than in the pre-Cinerama era, and they are getting larger and larger [End Page 953] as the film industry faces another technological threat as potent and disruptive as television in the 1950s. The increasing commercialization of the IMAX process as it moves out of its institutional base, the introduction of 3-D, and the multiplication of channels of film show that the widescreen revolution of the 1950s is being reinvented in the...


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