The Big Picture

The Heights Theater's love of cinema's abandoned technologies is larger than life--as is their upcoming 70mm film series

Gordon MacRae is choking his chicken. Not choking it, maybe, so much as forcefully handling the bird. Heights Theater co-owner Dave Holmgren is showing off a digital printout of an old publicity still from the film Oklahoma!, a bit of cinematic context that begins to explain why actor MacRae might be seen imprisoning the fowl in a friendly headlock. In the process of explaining all this, Holmgren stops mid-thought. Interrupting himself to return to a desk whose clutter he has apologized for repeatedly already, Holmgren next unfurls a vintage Oklahoma! poster.

"It's not original," he admits. "It's from the 35 millimeter reissue. See?" Holmgren points to the block banner lettering along the bottom and reads aloud: "CinemaScope." The original was a 70 millimeter print--a number describing the width and format of the celluloid frames. It's a distinction that Holmgren says makes all the difference. CinemaScope merely blows up a standard print for a broader screen, debasing the visual quality in the process. The 70mm process actually creates a bigger celluloid image to begin with, resulting in the sharpest, most luminous pictures you're likely to see at the movies.

If that technical stuff is news to you, then the announcement that Oklahoma! will be showing at Holmgren's Columbia Heights art house in November might strike you as inconsequential. Who wants to see a dated cowboy ballet sure to summon up bad memories of your high school's drama club? Well, Dave Holmgren does, and he thinks you should too. Because the paradox of the movies is that the apparently dry technical stuff is the most exciting--the brightest and the loudest experience, whose raw material turns a film into a movie. Which is why Holmgren will be screening a dozen 70mm prints in a series this fall. The films range from period spectacles like Spartacus and The Wild Bunch to newer costumed extravaganzas like Titanic or Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet to top-shelf sci-fi like Aliens and Total Recall, with a few flicks tossed in that barely qualify as footnotes to film history, such as The Doors and 1998's Godzilla.

Breaking rocks in the hot sun: Kirk Douglas fights Roman law in a 70mm Spartacus
Breaking rocks in the hot sun: Kirk Douglas fights Roman law in a 70mm Spartacus

"Oklahoma! is truly the first of the 70mm films that was widely accepted. It kicked off everything they produced over the next 30 years," explains Holmgren. An unpretentious man in his early 30s, Holmgren wears a knit 4-H shirt with the words Minnesota: We're Into It and sports an understated tuft of beard. "It's something everybody needs to see whether or not you like the musical. You've got an image in the projector that's 250 percent larger than 35mm, it's incredibly bright all the way to the corners, it's got six tracks of stereo sound..."

...and so on. Holmgren's speech is peppered with adjectives like breathtaking and amazing, which makes sense--he does have a series to promote. But Holmgren is really more an enthusiast than he is a salesman, and he and his partner, Tom Letness, have spread that passion quite effectively. Since purchasing the decrepit Heights in 1998, the two men have revitalized and reinvigorated the old building, and the old neighborhood as well, reinvesting whatever money their specialty film programming brings in, as well as the cash from the Dairy Queen they own next door.

As Holmgren puts it, "Our patrons are extremely patient with us because they see change on a regular basis."

Evidence of their successful and ongoing endeavors is available right in the Heights lobby. A chunk of the Wurlitzer organ they are reconstructing rests above the doorway: an attachment that allows the organist to create the sound of horse hooves, gongs, and other incidentals. More important, there is a sense of vitality in the theater on this weekday afternoon. Miss Skippy, a black and white dog, skitters around the edges of our tour, announcing her arrival with a bark that is more of a doorbell than an alarm. Letness putters around throughout, emerging sporadically, answering questions laconically, disappearing again. Three volunteer specialists helping with the Wurlitzer reconstruction are also wandering about, asking questions and delighting in their environment.

It's only fitting that the Heights should launch a series of 70mm films at a moment when more patrons than ever are wondering why they should shell out cash for a one-time experience they can reproduce every night in their widescreen, digitized, high-definition homes. 70mm, after all, was initially introduced in the Fifties to combat the scourge of television, which was eroding the profits of the film industry. This is America, where the only way to battle technology is with more technology. And so, the moguls looked at their enemy and analyzed its flaws. Television could be convenient, it could be entertaining, it could be produced cheaply. But it sure couldn't be BIG.

And BIG is the defining factor of 70mm: Not only are the dimensions of the celluloid twice that of your basic 35mm print, but the projected image is larger as well. As with 3-D or CinemaScope, the intent of 70mm was to provide the most intense viewing experience possible. The process, however, was all but prohibitively expensive, and so it was reserved for blockbuster extravaganzas. By the mid-Eighties, even those failed to recoup the investment in 70mm, and the process was largely abandoned, except for a few special prints of select films made for limited engagements in the New York and L.A. markets.

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