How to Fix a Drug Scandal
Rarely have I been more frustrated by a documentary production’s formal choices and how they interfere with the engaging content of the story they’re trying…
Guest commentary by Peter Debruge
I don't doubt that "Bourne Ultimatum" played on an IMAX screen [as recently reported], but it certainly wasn't an "IMAX movie." The company is very selective about which films it releases on its screens, going through a painstaking digital "up-resolution" process of optimizing the 35mm prints for their 70mm format. A movie like "Bourne" is clearly just about the least appropriate film for the Imax environment -- all that quick cutting and movement would be simply overwhelming. (Christopher Rouse, the "Bourne Ultimatum" editor and one of the best in the biz, warned me "I would not recommend watching "Supremacy" or "Ultimatum" from the first three rows of the theater!" and the IMAX experience pretty much makes every seat feel like the front row.)
Now, here's my theory on this whole quick-cutting phenomenon: By alternating quickly between shots, the directors, cameramen and editors effectively create an IMMERSIVE experience. Rather than allowing us to sit back and admire a handsome shot that encompasses all the action, they situate us in the middle of the action. We have to WORK to understand what's going on, constructing the geography of the space in our heads, as if we'd been dropped in the middle of the action. I can't think of a more perfect match for this technique than a "Bourne" movie. Why? Because the guy has amnesia, his mind is blank, and he's having to rediscover his own identity and environment as he goes. Given Greengrass' approach, we have to do the same thing as an audience. I don't often use the word, but I think it's fair to call the tactic "genius."
Now, as it turns out, "immersive" is also the word the IMAX folks repeat most often when pitching why their format is so superior, but they go about it in an entirely different way. They have a screen so big and wide that it encompasses your entire field of vision. Close-ups hurt. Quick cuts are confusing. A typical IMAX documentary features long, unbroken takes in which the audience can selectively swim around and pick out which details to attend to (see something in the upper right corner? you have all the time in the world to study it. did a movement on the left side of the screen catch your eye? Well, wander on over there to look around). The viewer is still doing work, but it's a different type entirely.
In the last few years, IMAX has been partnering with studios to adapt specific films for IMAX screens, working with the directors themselves to optimize the experience. They're extremely selective, both in content and in style. But recognizing that (a) they can charge more for IMAX tickets and (b) audiences want that experience for other movies as well, exhibitors have been throwing other blockbusters up there as well (I remember seeing a 35mm print of "Lord of the Rings" on IMAX, and a San Antonio theater offered "Jurassic Park"). But it's not the same thing. The brightness is weird (because IMAX screens are silver, to support their 3-D movies), the edges are distorted because of the curvature, and the aspect ratio (1:2.35 in "Bourne"'s case) looks strange on a nearly square IMAX screen, with lots of wasted space. Simply put: These movies were not meant to be seen this way.
All that said, IMAX just announced they would be adapting "Transformers" to screen beginning Sept. 21. Bad news in my book. The Michael Bay approach (specifically, the editing and camerawork) doesn't lend itself to IMAX AT ALL. But I suppose there's financial incentive to try it (and I bet if you looked close enough, you'd find that the same theater that projected "Bourne" on an IMAX screen probably showed a 35mm print of "Transformers" that way, too).
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