The Big Picture

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

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.

"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.  

Today, in the Aughts, we've learned to suspect the philosophy of BIG. We know that a multiplex, for instance, is not multiple times better than a single screen. The philosophy of BIG has reached its bloated, logical end. Multiplexes are built in a state of economic denial, their proliferation having become a warped, self-sustaining logic in itself. Even as they go black nationwide, the screens prompt bankrupt owners to ask themselves, "How can the multiplex be an unsound investment? Look how many are still being built."

Which brings us to small.


The Heights auditorium is so pregnant with atmosphere and anticipation that you hush your voice automatically upon entering. Three years ago, it was a functional black box, the draperies and gilt designs of its heyday in the Twenties and Thirties muffled under a drab paint job. The best way to describe the ornate transformations carried out since is to suggest how fitting the room was for shows of this summer's glamorous Moulin Rouge. "It's a squirrelly building, it's a squirrelly film," Holmgren says enthusiastically.

The restored theater is on the subdued side of garish, though it retains something of its early character as a German music hall, for which it was originally intended by Arthur Gluek of Gluek's Brewery. Now, it sports a removable thrust stage used for live performances, an orchestra pit, and tapestries along the sides to augment the grand curtain in front of the screen. These renovations underline the theater's commitment to serve as a community theater. The Heights has become a space capable of hosting a GLBT fest or a "Holiday Gala Musicale" (as it plans to in the upcoming months) as well as a Miss Columbia Heights pageant or a concert by local Christian rockers Echelon (as it has in the past year).

"Ultimately, in the next 10 to 15 years, the theaters that are going to survive are the ones that provide a special service," predicts Holmgren. "You're going to see more and more luxury service: $15 and you're in a screening room that only has 45 seats. You'll have special food, maybe, or cocktails, places where you can't take kids under 16 or maybe under 18." The future is already manifesting itself at new theaters like the Maple Grove multiplex, which offers luxury boxes for high-rolling patrons. "That's exactly what we're doing, but with the whole room."

So, you could say that the Heights is not a typical art house, in that it doesn't focus on a steady, canonical diet of "great film" in the way Oak Street and U Film do. One of the reasons Holmgren and Letness are launching a 70mm series is simply that they can. The proprietors are proud of the capabilities of their two special projectors, salvaged from the late Shelard Park and Glenwood theaters, and they're not afraid to show off. So maybe you could call it a craft house, in that it's often devoted to the craft of film presentation rather than the art of filmmaking. There's no getting around it-1998's Godzilla is not The Rules of the Game.

Nonetheless, the Heights has its own elite core of patrons. "It's the same 500 people who keep coming back," says Holmgren, although, in optimistic moments, his estimate sometimes wanders up into the four-digit range. Many of those people have donated time and expertise to the theater as well. Four grandly reconstructed chandeliers loom overhead, lit by special antique bulbs that flicker to mimic natural fire. These renovations were performed by an electronics expert, who also lugged back 2,600 pieces of lead crystal after working on an overseas electronics project.

It's not a far walk from the screening room to the refurbished apartment that Letness and Holmgren share. Just up the stairs from the lobby and through the projection booth is the door to their living room, redone in tasteful antique paneling-although the enormous buffalo head on the wall might not be to everyone's taste. Here, Letness and his Wurlitzer consultants are listening to jazz. On 78 rpm, of course. More specifically, on a Victor 550, one of the first machines with an automatic platter changer. This scene adds to the sense of this theater as a sort of clubhouse for dead technologies--but a clubhouse open to anyone willing to drop a few dollars at the box office.  

"This is what people are doing in downtown Columbia Heights," Holmgren boasts, back in the exhibition room. "You know, this isn't Uptown. It's never going to be Uptown. It's never going to be Grand Avenue. But in its own interesting little neighborhood between here and lower Northeast--Harvey, stay out of the Coke. You're walking in the Coke, man."

Harvey Gustafson wanders up from the front of the theater, where he has been squeaking through the dried-up, sticky soda spill from last weekend. (The man who cleans the room called in sick this morning). A quiet, older man who seems to mill about the theater for relaxation, Gustafson is one of the theater's three organists that seem to play before nearly every show. His squeaking shoes remind Holmgren of another film moment, prompting a riff on Maureen Stapleton in Bye Bye Birdie. (The reference, it should be noted, eludes both his companions.) "I'd like to see that film," Holmgren then muses. "Clever little musical."

But can you get it in 70mm?

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