Friday, December 23, 2016

CINERAMA's RUSSIAN ADVENTURE: Blu-ray (Cinerama Releasing Corp. 1966) Flicker Alley

Conceived over an eight year period with footage culled from no less than six movies originally photographed by the Russians in their inferior Kinopanorama process, Cinerama’s Russian Adventure (1966) was seen by its producer Harold ‘Hal’ Dennis as a way to bridge the socio-political chasm between the U.S.S.R. and America; a goodwill gesture on the part of the Russians too, who preserved and presented over fifteen hours of raw footage to the U.S. production team to whittle down into a manageable 122 minute feature-length presentation. Russian Adventure is hosted by Bing Crosby (a close personal friend of Dennis, he occasionally – and forgivable – has trouble pronouncing some of the more florid names of those depicted from the Bolshoi ballet). There are many reasons why Russian Adventure should be the final jewel in Cinerama’s travelogue catalog to receive a home video release via Flicker Alley; not the least, because for almost three decades it was considered a ‘lost film’ – all but vanishing from movie screens after its illustrious and highly profitable premiere engagement. Two things to consider here: first, Russian Adventure was not a true Cinerama production but cobbled together as an independent feature made “in Cinerama” (more on this in a moment); the machinations and necessary clearances required from both the Russian and U.S. State Departments a logistical quagmire, skillfully resolved by Dennis in his passion to make this dream project a reality. Second, apart from its world premiere on March 29th, 1966 and very limited engagement thereafter at Chicago’s McVickers Theater, virtually all of the other theatrical engagements were shown in an inferior 70mm composite, not Cinerama’s more cumbersome (but more spectacular) 3-panel method of projection. Hence, when restorationist and Cinerama enthusiast, David Strohmaier elected to give Russian Adventure its second theatrical debut in 2000 the version then screened for audiences was derived from this same flawed 70mm master; then, recently discovered, unloved in an un-air-conditioned and abandoned metal storage container outside of Los Angeles. The reissue proved fortuitous, as Strohmaier was informed by members of the Dennis family in attendance of a complete tri-panel separation master having survived the years, and still very much a part of their private archives. It is these elements that have been loaned out for this more ambitious home video restoration.
We really do owe the Dennis family and David Strohmaier a sincere nod of gratitude (the latter, not just for this release – but actually, for making the entire Cinerama travelogue catalog – long neglected and even more lengthily absent from public view, finally available to home theater enthusiasts in region-free hi-def home video releases). Strohmaier’s efforts thus far have managed to rekindle at least a part the majesty of the Cinerama experience in a theater. Let us address the elephant in the room: true Cinerama can never been ‘fully’ experienced at home. It requires a curved screen to create an uncanny illusion of depth and scope; in short, an immersive movie-going experience. The 180 degree focus of the human eye does, after all, see the world in ‘Cinerama’. But experiencing Cinerama full scale is something quite unique; hearing 7 tracks of true stereo enveloping on all sides. Alas, Strohmaier is only one man and his efforts have been uniformly stifled by limited resources. It takes money, folks – a lot of it – to save and preserve Cinerama and Strohmaier and his highly competent team of digital restorationists, in part, have exercised ingenuity as well as diligence in their efforts.  Employing floating mattes and other stabilization tools at their disposal, the image quality generated on virtually all of Flicker Alley’s previous Cinerama travelogues look years younger than they once did. Regrettably, all of these releases are still only an approximation of Cinerama and an imperfect result in hi-def, despite all the meticulous attention paid. In a perfect world, we might hope for some badly needed infusion of capital to come Strohmaier’s way via interventions from The Film Foundation, The AFI and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – to list but three more fiscally robust organizations – to spend their time and money correctly in support of Strohmaier’s efforts. But no – he is working alone, or rather – practically – and from a profound passion for the format, to achieve some impressive results. These nevertheless fall short of re-producing the sort of complete and ‘ground up’ restoration as Warner Home Video’s How The West Was Won (1962), only one of two actual plot-driven movies photographed in true Cinerama (the other, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm still MIA on home video and yet to be given a ‘proper’ Blu-ray release).  
Cinerama’s Russian Adventure is more than a tad naïve in its voice over narration, the production attempting to recreate the kinetic energy of 1952’s This Is Cinerama virtually by emulating its structure; the screen immediately ‘expanding’ to its full aperture after Bing Crosby’s brief introduction (he is even seen talking in an office setting vaguely reminiscent of the one used as backdrop for Lowell Thomas’ memorable introduction in the aforementioned movie). “What is a Russian?” Crosby inquisitively inquires; a crooked smile, perhaps to suggest a good many Russians from the Cold War period likely making similar queries about Americans. Russian Adventure is a more engaging movie than most of the other Cinerama travelogues, for the most part because the Russian cinematographers responsible for this footage seem to have had no quam about keeping their cameras in constant motion. Unlike a lot of the American photographed productions, usually relying on single stationary setups – the three-cameras simply fixed to a spot on the horizon while action takes place in front of them for interminably long stretches – the camerawork throughout a good deal of Russian Adventure feels less encumbered by such stiltedness; the Cinerama cameras strapped to planes, trains, automobiles and horse-drawn troikas racing across the frozen wilderness. Crosby’s narration does dispel a few myths about Russia along the way; covering 1/6 the earth’s landmass, its hardly snow and ice from side to side or top to bottom, but as diverse in its climatology as its indigenous peoples. We get prairies of waving grain, and cultured palaces; metropolitan cityscapes juxtaposed with lush, exotic - even tropical - forest vegetation; the garish spectacle of the circus vs. the refinements of the ballet; plus a few truly unanticipated sights – a brutal whale hunt at sea, the cruelty of its slaughter sure to impress and stagger (also likely nauseate a few of the more faint-heart Greenpeacers along the way), and, a playful – almost cartoony/screwball pantomime – featuring bears, hungry for fresh honey, assaulting a beekeeper’s colorfully decorated farm and stealing his sleigh after loading it with several battered hives.
Cinerama’s bug-eye view of the world is, as always, a little off-putting to those unaccustomed to its panoramic extreme depth of focus, the effect of distance amplified in home video presentations, never able to approximate, much less replicate the wrap-around effect of the theatrical engagement and thus adding even more distance between the images on the screen and the home viewer.  The result: some of the most startling displays of color and action on the screen on opening night tend to fall more than a tad flat herein; the ballet and circus sequences in particular, appearing as frozen tableau. There are some ingenious attempts to ‘animate’ the art of dance here; low angle shots to concentrate on the Cossack dancers’ feet in foreground with a row of Ukrainian-attired female dancers caught between their high-kicking legs and in full body view in the extreme background. It all makes for a diverting pastiche/homage to Russian heritage. The biggest complaint I have with Russian Adventure is that unlike American-produced Cinerama outings, the Kinopanorama footage provided to Hal Dennis and his team is rarely aligned to perfection and in a lot of cases, horribly misaligned and highly unstable; the vignetting (or color darkening between the seams of ‘A’ and ‘B’ and ‘B’ and ‘C’ panels) further distorted by some nightmarish gate weave between all three panels and truly horrendous overlap that cuts off figures unlucky enough to cross from one panel into the next. The skiing sequence at the start of the first half of Russian Adventure, and the harrowing road trip into the Ural Mountains featured after its midway Intermission painfully reveal the shortcomings of the Kinopanorama process. Cinerama was not free of these distortions either. But Cinerama’s inventor, Fred Waller was very keen on clever ways to mask these imperfections. The Russians appear simply to have embraced the flaws of the system outright and run with the notion nobody else would care.
Interestingly, having seen a few Cinerama features in 3-panel projection at various revivals, a lot of these shortcomings do not immediately distract nearly as much when witnessed on a gargantuan louvered screen, I suspect because one is so enamored with the overall size and clarity of the image itself, the built-in flicker is dwarfed by the spectacle of it all. Alas, home video draws out these peculiarities and imperfections – hi-def presentations, even moreso. Again, we ought to doff our caps to David Strohmaier and his team for ‘stabilizing’ the image herein, as much as is technologically possible on a limited budget; also give thanks for the considerable amount of color balancing ably to have restored continuity to these visuals – again, not to a refined level as more money thrown at these restorations might have – but to a point where the abnormality of independently-plagued color fading (from panels ‘A’ to ‘C’) is marginally camouflaged to the point where it can be tolerated, if not entirely overlooked. Honestly, I really would love for some indie investor with deeper pockets than my own to have a crack at all of Flicker Alley’s Cinerama’s travelogues (with Strohmaier’s complicity and participation, of course) because while I do sing the praises of Strohmaier to the rafters on each of these outings, I must in the same breath suggest none of the currently reconstructed Cinerama home video releases except How The West Was Won adequately recaptures the essential ‘wow’ factor of opening night Cinerama splendor.
What I love about Cinerama in a theater – the dwarfing of the spectator in a completely darkened room with a 360 degree vista of towering images hurtling at the screen; careening from the front seat of Rockaway’s roller coaster, almost driven under the hooves of speeding stallions caught in a spirited troika, plowing into a blustering gail with a windjammer traversing the seven seas, Tahitian gals in their grass skirts doing an exotic hip-swivel, Russian ballerinas hippity-hopping on point, nose-diving into craggy canyons and cresting over glacier-covered mountain tops from the nose of a B-57, etc. et al – indelibly preserved images, only to be culled from the memory of those fortunate enough to have actually ‘experienced’ Cinerama full tilt under such optimal conditions. All of these wonders in Cinerama evaporate when pseudo-Cinerama is attempted at home. I have sincerely tried to replicate the ‘Cinerama’ experience at my home. Yet, even in up-rezed 4K projection on a 140 inch screen – albeit, flat instead of curved – something gets lost in translation. Even a hint of the Cinerama experience simply isn’t there when viewing ANY Cinerama travelogue on a conventional TV monitor, no matter the size of the monitor or positioning of one’s armchair just so, to approximate the ‘scope’ value of these ‘Smile-boxed’ images. So, what we are left with then is an experience at home more quaint than epic and very much seeming even more ‘out of touch’ with the expectations of what Cinerama had to offer back in the 1950's and 60's. It is important to note not all movies purporting to have been photographed in Cinerama actually were, nor were but a handful ever projected ‘in Cinerama’, leaving a good many spectators – having heard of its wonders– more than a tad disappointed by the experience. We cannot stress enough – for sheer equilibrium-altering, stomach-turning discombobulation, nothing – absolutely NOTHING – beats 3-panel photographed and projected Cinerama. Not even single, bug-eye lens Todd A-O, and certainly never 70mm Panavision. We won’t even broker the argument for IMAX. IMAX is bigger vertically, but not nearly as all-encompassing from side to side. In Cinerama you either hold on to your head or your heart, but ultimately end up losing both to the overwhelming spectacle of its ‘carnival ride’ styled exposés.
Apart from ‘This Is Cinerama’ – the granddaddy of them all - Cinerama’s Russian Adventure is probably my favorite escapist travelogue of the lot. Covering 1/6th of the globe from corner to corner, Russia itself is the ideal subject matter for a larger-than-life format like Cinerama (or Kinopanorama, if you prefer). As with most of Strohmairer’s impeccably preserved Cinerama Blu-rays, Russian Adventure has been culled from a reassembled 3-panel composite and is presented in hi-def in a 2.56:1 aspect ratio. As already mentioned, alignment issues persist, chiefly because this footage has been gathered from multiple film and audio sources.  Strohmaier and his team have done their utmost to cushion the inherent distortions. They have been mostly successful at eliminating a lot of age-related anomalies, including color stabilization, built-in flicker and color density issues glaringly obvious between the tri-panel seams (minimized, though never fully eliminated). Aside, I am not certain how much more could have been achieved here, even with a Warner-styled ‘dream’ budget. But it should be noted image depth and color reproduction is decidedly a notch below other Flicker Alley Cinerama home video releases. That said, this is by far the most technically robust presentation of Russian Adventure yet seem – apart from its theatrical release. Since this feature has been assembled from various film sources, also various Kinopanorama movies shot under varying conditions, image quality ranges from middling competency to extremely satisfying.  Again, Flicker Alley and David Strohmaier have done there absolute best here with particularly impressive results, but especially under such budgetary restrictions. So, while the overall impressions herein can best be described as adhering to a time-capsule, dated quality, Russian Adventure nevertheless looks and sounds very organic. About the sound: we get 2 tracks to consider: a newly mastered 5.1 and 2.0 – both LCPM. Curiously, Russian Adventure’s audio is not quite as robust as I anticipated, and, on occasion, more than a tad lacking in bass tonality.  It has been curated to perfection without excessive digital tinkering and, again, we give thanks for the results if, in tandem, acknowledging more might have been done under perfect conditions.
I think the biggest disappointment for me was the absence of an audio commentary to accompany this feature. It would have been beneficial to have a blow-by-blow account of the locations as well as some backstory on the Russian ballet stars and circus performers appearing herein. Instead, we get some fairly interesting footnotes to consider: first, Fortress of Peace (1964): an Oscar-nominated Swiss propaganda movie shot in Cinerama in 1964. We also get 1966’s Concordeshot in 70mm, but advertised as ‘in Cinerama’ about the then soon to debut supersonic plane. Hal Jr. and Craig, the sons of the late producer, Hal Dennis weigh in on the making of Russian Adventure with a 23 minute puff piece interview. The two have a lot of fun recalling those heady days with their dad, but are rather light on the particulars. David Strohmaier regales us with the trials and tribulations of preserving and remastering Russian Adventure for Blu-ray – it’s quite a tale, alas told in miniature. Finally, there are ads, publicity campaigns, theatrical trailers and a reproduction of the original ‘press kit’ to sift through: overall, nicely packed this kit. Viewed from the rubric of today’s even more attenuated political uncertainties between Russia and America, Russian Adventure is a fascinating time capsule made in the spirit of goodwill at a time when it all but seemed to be in very short supply. Then as now, the footage on tap herein gave westerners unprecedented access to a way of life behind the Iron Curtain; traditions and progress intermingled, and definitely, to captivate and satisfy. A lot of good stuff here with the added bonus of being in ‘the miracle of Cinerama’…well, not quite. But close enough to gratify this cinephile for the time being. Bottom line: Russian Adventure is a lot of fun with a few caveats to consider and recommended today, more for its historical value than as a ‘must see’ entertainment.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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