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IMAX Adventures in Wild California**

 I had some apprehensions about going to see my first IMAX® presentation and they turned out to far from unfounded. In the 1950's, the motion picture industry in this country, in order to offset the encroachments of television upon its market, began to experiment with various process designed to immerse the viewer in the image. If television gave everyone a little image in his or her household, then why not go in the opposite direction with an image  the size of football field before which every spectator would tremble? The first of these devices to be tried out was 3-D, but it quickly gave way to various wide screen processes, the most ambitious of which was Cinerama®, which employed three 35mm pictures projected simultaneously in synchronization on an enormous, deeply curved screen, although the various 65/70mm photographic processes such as Todd-AO® and Super Panavision®--which only needed the installation of projection equipment that could also be used for showing conventional 35mm movies--were the ones most widely used for commercially produced movies. 

IMAX® is the most recent episode in this wide image saga, which otherwise ground to a halt for economic reasons back in the 1970's. Improved technology made it possible to print up an anamorphically photographed 35mm negative to a 70mm release print, eliminating the need for expensive raw stock, processing, and specially designed cameras required by the 65/70mm process. The last film to be photographed using that format was Ron Howard's Far and Away back in 1992, whose disappointing performance at the box office was not likely to spur on any studio to repeat the experiment in the near future. Although 70mm prints have occasionally been screened in recent years in various parts of the country in conjunction with film festivals, the last time I saw a movie projected in a wide film print was when I saw Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy in Riverside in 1990. In the meantime, even the practice of putting out major releases in 70mm prints in key locations seems to have gone by the way.

Of these processes Cinerama® is the one that IMAX® most resembles. IMAX® movies are photographed in approximately a 1.33 aspect ratio on a 70mm negative using a horizontal pulldown and are horizontally projected from a 70mm print. The horizontal photography and projection is not an IMAX® innovation--in the 1950's and 1960's VistaVision® and the various Technirama® processes all used horizontal photography, although my impression is that horizontal projection was much less common, at least in this country. What gives IMAX® its peculiar cachet is a dome-shaped screen composed of hexagonal panels that cover the ceiling and which is thus integral with the architecture of the auditorium. 

Cinerama® always suffered from intrinsic limitations which made its use problematic for dramatic subjects. Originally the process had only been used for glorified travelogues, but in the 1960's, the company signed a contract with MGM to produce a series of feature films, but the collaboration only got as far as How the West Was Won (1963).  The extreme aspect ratio and angle of view of Cinerama® made it very effective for photographing exterior action sequences, but unwieldy for more intimate scenes. Moreover, a shortcoming that never could have been resolved was the presence of highly visible and distracting lines where any two of the 35mm images overlapped--and which was even more distracting when a Cinerama® movie was printed down to 35mm anamorphic prints for showing in conventional theaters, as anyone can still verify today by looking at the letterbox video or DVD of How the West Was Won. After that time, starting with Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Cinerama productions were photographed in Super Panavision® which enabled them to be projected on the specially designed screen minus the obtrusive lines and the hassle of keeping three projectors in synchronization.

But  the problems of Cinerama® pale in comparison with those of IMAX®. The Cinerama® image was only an even more elongated version of the already stretched frame employed by both 35mm anamorphic processes and the 65/70mm wide film systems. Nevertheless, there was something that still corresponded to a well-defined frame, even if it was composed of three overlapping panels. Not so IMAX®, whose upper half is a hazy smear, giving the image the look of a microscopically viewed amoeba enlarged a million-fold or so, if I judge from the evidence of Adventures in Wild California. Even worse, in many long shots objects deep in the image turn into a series of merging, washed-out planes. In all fairness, though, I must admit this MacGillivray-Freeman production succeeds in taking viewers back to the days of the primitive cinema, when audiences ducked to avoid oncoming locomotives. 

At the movie's best moments--for example, when skysurfers do their stuff in the wild blue yonder or a botanist studies the tops of giant sequoias--the process creates a sense of total spatial disorientation that surpasses anything that can be done with computer graphics. Otherwise, watching the movie was like suddenly confronting a genetically engineered 2500lb gopher. The first question that comes to mind is: What do you do with it? IMAX® carries the experiment commenced by Cinerama® to its reductio ad absurdum. Disney's Fantasia 2000 has been screened in some places in IMAX®, and I wish I had had the chance to see it, but it is difficult for me to imagine watching a feature length dramatic movie in IMAX®. Not only does the process go drastically farther in the direction of eliminating the distance between the spectator and the image begun by wide screen processes in the 1950's, but the virtual absence of framing on screen seems to me to liquidate a basic presupposition of film as art. If the emphatic horizontals and verticals of the traditional movie image might well be replaced by ovals and circles--which was often done by vignetting in silent films, a device also used by Keisuke Kinoshita in his remarkable She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (1955)--a blob does not seem an aesthetically viable alternative to a frame.

Directed by Greg MacGillivray, the less than an hour long Adventures in Wild California consists of a series of brief episodes beginning with the skysurfers and includes as well footage on a snowboarder, on a lady marine biologist raising a baby sea otter in loco parentis, a surfer looking for the perfect wave, two maintenance workers on the Golden Gate bridge and to conclude, a naturalist taking care of an infant eagle. All of these sequences are interesting, as are the interviews with their respective subjects. If MacGillivray--Freeman had been content to stick with a more or less straightforward depiction of the activities of these extreme athletes and eco-scientists, Adventures in Wild California might at least rate as an enjoyable documentary. Unfortunately, the producers have seen fit to tack on a relentlessly upbeat commentary hymning the wonders of living in the Golden State and degraded the movie well below the level of the most contemptible travelogue to that of a promotional reel put out by the Chamber of Commerce to attract tourists. 

MacGillivray--Freeman was in business making surfing movies for many years before turning to IMAX® and they know that business very well. When it comes to filming action sports, they have few peers, but they also have an irresistible predilection for the nauseatingly inspirational kind of glop that clutters up the soundtrack of Adventures in Wild California, although the narration here is not as intrusively obnoxious as it in the IMAX® Everest production. Why not let the images stand on their own? The relentless effort to pump everything up to the max in more than one sense of the word belongs to the worst excesses of television advertising much more than it does to film art, even of this rather Barnumesque variety. The fact that all the overblown visual and auditory rhetoric of tv ads has been leaching into motion picture production for several decades now is no justification for its use, which seems far more offensive in a context like this than it does in a theatrical vehicle like John Woo's Mission: Impossible II.

In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson might well have been anticipating IMAX® when he proclaimed in his essay "Nature" that in the woods "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God." Although there would a good deal to reflect upon in a conjunction that seems less fortuitous than an enormous Freudian slip, in the not so coincidental conjunction of the homonyms "I" and "eye"--supported by a long tradition going back to the beginnings of Western philosophy in Greece which associates seeing, cognition, and the ego--with the superlative "max" in the name of a process which so blatantly aims at overwhelming the spectator, this is not the moment to do so. More to the point is the way the Sage of Concord obliquely casts his shadow over Adventures in Wild California, whose true hero is incontestably Nature. If the movie proves anything, it is the extent to which the United States is still "Nature's Nation"--to cite the title which Perry Miller gave to a collection of his essays--and the chief interpreter of our national natural religion is the man whose essays like "Nature," "Self-Reliance," and "Compensation" even today remain among the most influential documents in the history of American culture. 

Whether he would have acknowledged them or not, all the outdoorsmen, naturalists, and endurance athletes who populate Adventures in Wild California and its numerous celluloid or video kin are Ralph Waldo's legitimate spiritual heirs. Although he personally regarded the West with suspicion, Emerson gave expression to the American age of pioneering as hardly any other writer succeeded in doing, and the quest for new frontiers to reach that he articulated lives on in the exploits recorded in Greg MacGillivray's film. However, for those of us with less hardy souls who live in the vicinity of an IMAX® theater and prefer to commune with Nature in the not so wild open spaces of a movie theater, Adventures in Wild California will provide a fillip to the less than benign natural thrills of The Perfect Storm, presently looming on the horizon.

To check out the Adventures in Wild California Web site, click here.