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State of Wonder

The Hollywood Theatre Resurrects 70mm Film with “2001: A Space Odyssey”


Hollywood Theatre programming director Dan Halsted in the basement's film archives.

Hollywood Theatre programming director Dan Halsted in the basement's film archives.

Aaron Scott/OPB

Whether you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic “2001: A Space Odyssey” or not, you know its cultural traces. There’s the opening music (actually a work by Richard Strauss). There’s the monotone, disembodied voice of Hal: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

But chances are you haven’t seen and heard it the way it was supposed to screen: in the exceptionally crisp, immersive and gargantuan 70 millimeter format. The film has all but vanished since the early ‘90s. But after a countrywide cinematic treasure hunt of sorts, the Hollywood Theater — on the march to becoming one of the most dynamic movie houses in the country — is bringing the storied 70mm format back to life with four screenings of the classic next weekend. The first three sold out immediately, and the fourth, on March 21 at 2pm, goes on sale today. [The Hollywood has now added a fifth performance on March 20 at 7pm.]

“I don’t know if I appreciated [the movie] that much until it showed in 70mm in 1991 at Cinemagic,” says projection technician Joel Miller, who owns NW Projection and has played an instrumental role at the Hollywood in tracking down all the sprockets, lenses, and film gates necessary to screen the film. “That was an experience that I will never forget. That made me realize this is only way to see this movie.”

If you were going to the theater in the 50s and 60s, you know 70 mm. All the big films were shot in it: “Lawrence of Arabia,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music.” Its frame is three times larger than 35 mm, creating much sharper, brighter images. 70 mm also brought six-channel sound to movie-goers long before the invention of surround sound.

When “2001” was first screened in 70mm in 1968, the Hollywood Theatre had the film’s exclusive run. During a recent visit, “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening told the story of seeing “2001” during it’s opening, and how Ken Kesey came in with a group of people, threw pillows down in front of the stage, and turned the theater into their living room.

The format experienced a renaissance in the 80s after the release of “Star Wars.” But it all but disappeared in the 90s when digital sound leveled the field for the much less expensive 35mm film.

In the last 10 years, most major studios and theater chains have eschewed film altogether, converting to digital projection systems exclusively. 70mm projectors haven’t been made in years, and the supply chain is almost non-existent. So when Miller and the Hollywood’s director of programming, Dan Halsted, set out to screen 70mm, they had a long search ahead of them.

Halsted started with a Kickstarter campaign, which quickly raised twice its goal. He traded trailers from his personal film collection (one of, if not the biggest archives of kung fu films in the world) for several film gates. They tracked down a Dolby sound system from a guy in San Francisco. Some of the film handling equipment came from a collector in Georgia. The lenses they got on eBay. And they found many of the projection parts in the basement of American Cinema equipment here in Portland.

“A bunch of extra motors and sprockets and shutter blades and sounds heads,” Halsted says, as he sifts through heavy metal parts in a box in the Hollywood’s basement, which serve as the film archives. “All this stuff that we probably would never be able to find again because these projectors are so rare. It was a puzzle to put it all together. For while I didn’t know it was going to happen.”

Halsted wants to screen other classics, like “West Side Story,” as well as the few more contemporary films shot in 70mm, like “Baraka.” It will be another program in the spread that has made the Hollywood Theatre one of the most dynamic cinemas in the nation.

“A lot of people regard the Hollywood as a landmark,” says Tara Johnson-Medinger, a film producer and the director of the Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival (POWFest), which is celebrating its eighth anniversary this weekend at the theater. “I’ve seen dramatic transitions with that facility not just in terms of renovation, but in terms of changes in programming and bringing experiences like this to the community.”

But don’t write 70mm off as purely a nostalgia technology.

The director Quentin Tarantino, who regular borrows kung fu films from Halsted, is filming his new western, “The Hateful Eight,” in 70mm.

“We assume we’ll be the only ones in Portland who will able to open it on 70mm,” says Halsted (indeed, the theater got first dibs on “Insterstellar” because director Christopher Nolan wanted it screened on film). “It will be really interesting later this year to see what happens.”

For more on the Hollywood Theatre’s history and dynamic programming, listen to our story. Also, don’t forget to check out the POWFest calendar.

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