Friday, January 8, 2016

The Hateful Eight Roadshow and the Revival of the Movie-Going Experience

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite movies was The Great Race, a 1965 film featuring Tony Curtis (a.k.a. “The Great Leslie”), Jack Lemmon (a.k.a. “Professor Fate”), and Natalie Wood (a.k.a. the first obvious feminist I had the pleasure of encountering as a child). If you don’t know it, it’s a classic in every sense of the word, at least to my mind: Professor Fate, tired of always being one-upped by the debonair Great Leslie, challenges him to an automobile race from New York to Paris. Leslie, of course, accepts, and thus commences a sweeping, nearly three-hour journey across continents, wherein the characters encounter saloons and outlaws, snowstorms and melting icebergs, royals and doppelgangers, and much more.

Now, watching a movie was almost always an event in my family, regardless of the film. Friday nights, we’d order a ton of food and spread out on the couch with our plates of lo mein and dumplings, or my brother and I would eagerly await the snacks my mom and dad would bring down to the den, usually including this disgusting popcorn-and-melted-gummy-bears concoction my dad made that we’d grown to love. And we’d get all excited deciding – or fighting about – what movie we were going to watch that night. We were just that kind of house. Basically, movies were a big deal.

I’m sure we watched hundreds of movies in that room, but there were certain movies that we came back to again and again. One of those was The Great Race. Maybe because it’s such a long, all-encompassing saga, or maybe it’s the inclusion of an overture and an intermission, which I found irresistibly quaint and peculiar as a kid. In any case, I know I always felt somewhat more grown up watching it, like it was a special occasion I’d been invited to participate in. This past Christmas, as I sat in a darkened theater with my parents, my brother, and my husband, and the screen lit up – blood red, the word “overture” emblazoned in thick black letters – to the strains of Ennio Morricone’s ominous score, The Great Race popped into my head. Although the two movies have almost nothing in common, they do share one thing, and that is the feeling that watching them is An Event.

Of course, that’s exactly what Quentin Tarantino wanted when he conceived the idea of turning The Hateful Eight’s premiere into a limited, throwback-style roadshow: “The thing about the roadshows is that it made movies special. It wasn’t just a movie playing at your local theater. They would do these big musical productions before the normal release of the film. You would get a big, colorful program. It was a presentation.” Not only would The Hateful Eight have the music and the programs; Tarantino insisted the movie be shown on 70mm film – a gargantuan task requiring the skilled hands of a special projection and sound company (read more about that in this fascinating article). You have to give Tarantino credit for being passionate enough to seize upon such a monumental undertaking and run with it.

Despite some setbacks – since seeing the movie myself, I’ve heard tell of melting film and other issues at some theaters, none of which I encountered, luckily – I think Tarantino pulled it off completely. When my group and I arrived at the theater, we were presented with the programs, which featured the cast, full pages of glossy photos, and facts about the making of the film. I avoided looking inside too carefully for fear of spoiling anything, but it still felt distinctive, like getting the playbill before a play. Inviting.

Now, although I love the theater near my home, I will say that on a good day, the seats are old and squeaky and the audience is typically kind of… spirited. On a bad day, your seat is practically sagging to the floor and the audience is chock full of boisterous kids with little parental supervision. I’m a little surprised the roadshow even made it to South Philly, but I guess that’s the benefit of living in a city. However. The “Event Effect” seemed to permeate the entire audience during The Hateful Eight. Despite tons of chair squeaking before the start of the show and a packed theater, you could have heard a pin drop during the movie itself – which is especially significant when you consider that the movie has a runtime of over three hours. I’m not sure I’ve seen an audience sit so still for so long – without ever peeking at their phones, no less – well, pretty much ever.

Frankly, I don’t believe it’s because The Hateful Eight was so incredible that the audience was awed into total silence. The Hateful Eight is a solid, entertaining movie, but it’s still a long, imperfect film. It has slow parts. It makes a few missteps. But it was the “special event” aspect of the whole endeavor that really suckered me in – the fact that it was shot in Ultra Panavision, a format that hasn’t been used since 1964; the unusually wide aspect ratio (2.76:1, rather than the 1:85.1 used for most movies shown digitally in theaters today) that made vast shots of the snow-covered prairie and interior shots alike seem positively grand or unbearably intimate. The program, the overture, and the intermission – all the little hallmarks of an exclusive experience for which one would typically expect to pay far more than a few dollars.

Tarantino’s “roadshow” provided something that even today’s biggest blockbusters no longer seem capable of: the promise of a complete movie-going experience. He provided an experience for serious film geeks to sink their teeth into, an experience worthy of and in deference to our collective, enduring love of cinema. The fact that it was such a feat to pull off in itself proves Tarantino’s own love for the art of film. Had I not seen The Hateful Eight roadshow version, I’m not sure I’d ever have found myself very driven to watch it again. But given the memory I now have – waiting in the dark with my family for something singular to begin – I’ll always appreciate the film, Tarantino, and the memory he gave me. I’ll put it on the shelf right next to The Great Race.

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