Spectatorship and New Screen Technologies in the 1950s

This Is Cinerama premiered on the 30th September 1952 in New York to wide commercial and critical success. To get an idea of just how different this new technology was, take a look at this;


John Belton: “Large-screen and widescreen processes [have] redefined traditional notions of spectatorship”

These ‘Traditional’ notions of spectatorship include Andre Bazin’s ‘screen as window’, Jean Mitry’s ‘screen as frame’ and especially Jean-Louis Baudry’s merger of these ideas with psychoanalytic thought into a notion of the screen as a ‘Lacanian mirror, in which the child…(mis)recognised its own image as an Imaginary, ideal, unified, and more perfect reflection of itself”

Baudry’s spectator resembles inhabitant of Plato’s cave, who watches immobile as shadows move upon to wall of the cave and takes this to be reality. For Baudry the screen is also a mirror-like apparatus which reflects the desire of the spectator, and so perpetuates “the ideology that had originally produced it”

The spectator is likened to the prisoners in Plato\'s Cave

Stephen Heath takes this idea further, claiming the ‘screen-as-mirror’ does not reflect desire, so much as ‘fix’ it. That is, the mechanical apparatus is also an ideological apparatus which “transforms spectators into subjects of a state-like institution”. Heath’s notions of spectatorship presume a uniformity and fixity of film framing which, according to Belton, does not exist, at least not after the 1950s. 

Belton argues that, in the past, theorists like Stephen Heath have focused too heavily on the metaphorical frame/screen theorising spectatorship as determined by the content of the film, while neglecting the important role which the size and shape of the actual screen has in determining spectatorship.

Technology redefining spectatorship

Wide-screen technologies including: Cinerama, Cinemascope, Todd-AO, Circlevision, VistaVision, Ultra Panavsion, Super Panavision etc.

These technologies constituted a distinctly new and different cinematic experience, whereby the “heightened physiological stimulation provided by wraparound widescreen image and stereo sound” redefined the spectator’s relationship with the screen.

No only did the screen now physically enter further into the spectator’s space but the screen became so large the edges could not be held in view, which, combined with marketing campaigns…

 …encouraged the spectator to experience the screen as borderless, the image not contained within a frame. This was specifically, if not actually literally, true of 3D films;

In this case the spectator’s space is ‘invaded’ by the cinematic image, rather than in other wide-screen formats where the spectator is felt to be ‘entering’ the cinematic space, but they both share the central position that is is possible for the spectator to ‘share’ the cinematic space, as in a theatrical production.

Parallels with the theatrical spectator were often drawn by critics and advertisers alike. The vastness of the screens meant that not only was the spectators entire field of vision taken up, but they were forced to shift their attention around the screen “as one would watch a play where actors are working from opposite ends of the stage”

However theatre is not the only parallel to be drawn:


 Consider the ancient tradition of the fresco, which requires the spectator to actively move and shift their gaze in order to comprehend the image.

The bottom half is the Cinerama 2.59:1 ratio, but the film was also entirely re-shot in the more standard 1.77:1 ratio because of concerns that many theatres would be unable to screen the new format. In the end the standard version was never even released!


2 Responses to “Spectatorship and New Screen Technologies in the 1950s”

  1. Intense!

    I love that they re-shot that entire film. Oh, Hollywood, Hollywood, Hollywood.

  2. machinepeople Says:

    Do the perimiters of the frame disappear when you’re absorbed, no matter what the size of the screen?

    Invasion of perceptual and somatic space by sound waves is also interesting to consider…

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