Los Angeles has a shockingly bad track record when it comes to protecting its own history, especially when it comes to the grand movie palaces that were built to worship the movies that drive everything else in the city. You would think that if there is anyplace on Earth where theaters would be treated as important historical landmarks, it would be LA, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Even since I moved here in 1990, I’ve seen major changes, and few of them have been for the better. The Avco Theater in Westwood was used for years as a proof-of-concept house for pretty much every major breakthrough that Dolby made, so it was the first house anywhere with Dolby Stereo, the first house anywhere with Dolby surround, the first house anywhere to use Dolby Digital. Seeing “Jurassic Park” there in 1993, it was definitely the best sound out of any of the big LA engagements, and for some reason, not long after that, Avco cut the giant historic downstairs auditorium in half, creating two smaller theaters that both tilt towards what used to be the center of a giant curved screens. It was so wrong headed that it didn’t surprise me when the theater finally closed completely. The National is gone now, despite that being a great house that could have used some renovation instead of just shuttering the place completely.
The Chinese was the first theater I attended in LA, just a few days after I moved to the city in the summer of 1990, and I had a mixed experience. The picture was great, and I was impressed by the theater itself, the way it still preserved some of the ornate decor of a past age. The movie we went to see was “Days Of Thunder,” and it was a big deal for the Chinese to have a DTS system in place. It certainly sounded amazing right up to the moment when one of the speakers blew out, and the entire center channel of the film vanished for the last forty minutes. Over the years, it’s been painful to see how often the Chinese has been in trouble, and it seemed for a while last year like they’d finally run out of options. There was talk of turning the space into a nightclub, and I had to stop paying attention so I wouldn’t get emotionally invested in it. As a result, I was shocked when I heard that they were officially turning it into an IMAX screen and that they were planning to keep it a theater after all.
Monday night, I attended one of the very first screenings in the new space, and there was something very fitting about seeing a classic from the golden age of Hollywood like “The Wizard Of Oz” retrofitted for 3D and IMAX, on a brand-new state of the art screen that is housed within what they have worked very hard to make look like “the original Chinese.” It’s a lovely space, but they’ve used it in a very odd way. With most traditional IMAX venues, the way the seats are laid out, you end up with the entire screen filling your field of vision, and the result is completely immersive. With the Chinese, there are two separate sections of the theater now, but they’re both set far enough back from the screen that there is essentially a stage even between the lowest rows and the screen. The result makes it feel more like you’re looking at a screen, albeit a gigantic one. It’s a very strange set-up, but I want to see something that was shot in an aspect ratio other than 1.33:1 before I judge it for overall presentation.
The 3D conversion of the film was done expertly, and it’s very subtle work. More than anything, it’s used to convey space, and it’s interesting to see how much the film’s painted backdrops feel even more like painted backdrops now. You can see them dance right up to the edge of them, but instead of making it all feel fake, it is a reminder of just how clever production designers and cinematographers had to be in an age where you couldn’t just push decisions off until post-production. I would wager there has never been a film negative better protected and more constantly pampered than “The Wizard Of Oz,” and it is amazing to see how clear and sharp the colors are at this point. In a frame this size, on a screen this size, you can watch any of the performances in Munchkin Town in a way that would never be possible at home. If you’re as familiar with this film as I am, as I suspect most people are, seeing it like this is a chance to lose yourself in the details and see things you’ve never seen before.
I have had one major problem with “The Wizard Of Oz” over the years, and it’s interesting to see that the issue has been exasperated with this version. I’ve always believed that the use of color and black and white in the film is interesting and serves a thematic purpose at first. Dorothy sees Kansas as an unfair place, stifling and scary and frustrating, and it makes sense that she sees everything in black and white. When she gets to Oz, it’s a much more exciting and amazing world, so of course it’s in color. For the film to really pay off thematically, though, I feel like the film should be in color once she wakes up in Kansas again because she’s learned, as the film so emphatically states, that there’s “no place like home.” It feels like a fumbled opportunity to have everything end up in black and white again. I would have taken it one step further for this version, though. I would have made everything 2D until she arrives in Oz and then blown it out to 3D and color to express just how different the world was. Sure, the film is fine the way it is, but if they used the tools of color and 3D to enhance the storytelling, it would be that one final perfect touch.
The film is playing for a very limited time, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Warner Bros. start to bring this back on a seasonal basis. I grew up watching it on television every Thanksgiving, and it was a family tradition. I’m all for anything that brings families to theaters together, and “The Wizard Of Oz” presented like this is well worth a trip to the theater.