It's how a lot of us got hooked on movies in the first place. When I was 8 or 9 I saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 70 mm in Milwaukee with my mother. My memory's fuzzy on the particulars but I recall asking so many questions about the obelisk on the drive back to Racine, she had to pull over and compose herself for a minute and, as the tears streamed down her cheeks, she said quietly: "Michael, I just ... have no idea." It didn't matter. I'd never seen anything like it, and the Star Child never looked bigger, or scarier, or better.
Today through Feb. 28, the Music Box Theatre — Chicago's sole remaining venue capable of projecting 70 mm, with an actual projectionist in the booth — presents a nine-film extravaganza designed to wow 21st century cinephiles, some of whom are newcomers to proper 70 mm, with the high-resolution density and deeply saturated beauty of the format at its best.
The Music Box has presented 70 mm films, and mini-festivals, as part of its repertory programming in the past. This is a more concentrated blast, however. Last year the Music Box hosted a special late-night advance screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," shot mostly on 65 mm and projected in 70 mm. The hunger was there, clearly: The sold-out Music Box crowd dove into Anderson's most beautiful sequences like they were diving into an antiquated movie past that, miraculously, wasn't past at all, but mouthwateringly present and alive.
The eye-popping quality of 70 mm isn't a matter of a wider screen image; it's the resolution, which allows a richer picture that holds up on large screens. A 70 mm frame offers “twice as much resolution as a standard 35 mm image,” says Scott Foundas, longtime film critic and recently an associate programmer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Foundas curated the center's 70 mm festival in December.
"I defy anybody to look at a pristine 70 mm print and not say it's infinitely richer-looking than the best digital projection," he says. "Whenever we ran 70 at Lincoln Center and then went back to showing 35 or digital, the disparity was shocking."
The Music Box is taking this seriously. The theater staffers have upgraded their equipment and done all they can to make these scarce 70 mm prints look the way they should. Happily, the more responsible and forward-thinking of the major studios have spent the money to strike new 70 mm prints, at a cost of $40,000 to $50,000 apiece.
The Music Box will be presenting what Foundas says is a "gorgeous" new 70 mm edition of "2001: A Space Odyssey."
And "The Master" will return to boggle a new round of moviegoers, in its optimum presentational format.
For more information on the Music Box Theatre 70 mm Festival, go to musicboxtheatre.com.
And 70 mm wonks can have a field day at in70mm.com.
The full schedule:
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick. 9 p.m. Friday, 9 p.m. Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday
"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968), directed by Ken Hughes. 2 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday
"Hamlet" (1996), directed by Kenneth Branagh. 2 p.m. Feb. 24; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26.
"Lifeforce" (1985), directed by Tobe Hooper. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9:40 p.m. Feb. 24.
"Lord Jim" (1965), directed by Richard Brooks. 5:30 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Monday
"The Master" (2012), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 9 p.m. Feb. 22; 8:30 p.m. Feb. 23; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25.
"Playtime" (1967), directed by Jacques Tati. 6:30 p.m. Feb. 22; 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28.
"Vertigo" (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 6:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
"West Side Story" (1961), directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. 2 p.m. Feb. 23; 6:45 p.m. Feb. 24; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27.