Monday, March 31, 2014

Who let that evil wizard into the Music Box Theatre?

Posted By on 03.31.14 at 02:58 PM

William Friedkins Sorcerer (1977)
  • William Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977)
I found it odd that much of the anticipatory buzz surrounding the rollout of the new restoration of William Friedkin's Sorcerer (which I discussed a few weeks back) emphasized that this would be the first time that many viewers would be able to see the film in its original aspect ratio. True, all home video releases of Sorcerer have presented it in the Academy ratio of 1.37:1, which is noticeably boxier than the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Yet Friedkin has often said that he shot his movies to work in either format, meaning that no visual information would be lost when the films converted to the dimensions of old TVs (Stanley Kubrick also employed this method from the 1970s to the end of his career). Viewers wouldn't see more of Sorcerer on a big screen, just a more rectangular version of the movie they already knew.

When I caught up with the restoration at the Music Box this past weekend, I understood what all the fuss was about. In the Academy ratio, Sorcerer's images have a certain breathing room at the top and bottom of the frame—without that breathing room, Friedkin's pessimistic vision feels especially potent. One of the most remarkable things about Sorcerer is that it feels just as claustrophobic as The Exorcist or Bug, despite taking place almost entirely outdoors. Friedkin is one of those filmmakers for whom the frame is first and foremost an enclosure—it often feels like the air is being sucked out of the shots.

In a theater, Sorcerer's offscreen sound effects are far more menacing than they sound at home, suggesting that the world outside the frame is even more dangerous than the one inside. The film's title, according to Friedkin, refers to the "evil wizard of fate," which can upturn our lives when we least expect. Thanks to the imaginative sound design (which garnered Sorcerer its only Oscar nomination), I felt as if that evil wizard was creeping up behind me.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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