Destination Film: Museum of the Moving Image - New York

Join us as we embark on the first in our international journey of movie destinations.

Opening on the former East Coast corner of Paramount Pictures in 1988 after years of foundation and connection to the world famous Astoria Studios where the Marx Brothers, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino made their movies, the Museum of the Moving Image is regarded as the first and most comprehensive American museum devoted entirely to film, television and the visual arts in general.  When I first heard about the New York based Museum of the Moving Image’s See It Big! 70mm film festival with both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Brainstorm on the schedule, a trip to what is arguably America’s greatest cornucopia of cinema history was born.  Little did I know what I was getting myself into when I set foot inside the theater’s lobby designed by architect Thomas Leeser.  Clearly, I was stepping inside one of our nation’s most elite film venues and it didn’t stop there.  Adorned with countless exhibits with many real film props including but not limited to the actual Yoda puppet used in The Empire Strikes Back, a majority of the Jim Henson collection, tons of artifacts encompassing an entire history of cinema and even a comprehensive video game retrospective, Martin Scorsese is said to have called Moving Image the “ultimate American museum”. 

From the onset, the futuristic look of the sleek and sterile white lobby couldn’t help but remind me of the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the writer’s home in A Clockwork Orange.  Projected on the wall in front of the service desk was an ongoing panoramic three-dimensional painting which seemed to be both constantly moving and always visually stunning to behold.  After grabbing my tickets, my travel companion and I ascended a neon blue lit ramp leading up to the theater.  The theater itself, called the Summer M. Redstone Theater, looked and felt like something out of a science fiction film as envisioned by James Cameron.  Covered in blue felt-paneled walls and ceiling and stadium seating accommodating 267 seats with speakers placed at almost every angle, the acoustics of this venue are truly unlike anything this Movie Sleuth writer has ever heard before.  Equipped with projectors ranging from 16mm to 70mm, the ultramodern and futuristic design of the theater leaves one with the impression they’re not seeing a film at a standard theater but the studio equivalent of a screener room for Hollywood executives.  Covering the theater screen is a kaleidoscopic curtain resembling the Stargate sequence concluding 2001 along with a podium with the museum logo imprinted on the front.  Then the lights went down and the films began.

I have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey numerous times in the theater over the years, the first time on a 70mm print, then on 35mm and eventually a Blu-Ray projection at the Main Art Theater.  For as many times as I’ve seen this film, nothing comes close to the presentation I saw at the Moving Image film theater.  Detail was impeccable with bright light and every nuance of sound often buried in the soundtrack due to weaker presentation was now audible.  Up to this point the best sounding theater I had heard was Michigan’s very own Henry Ford IMAX with Interstellar being one of its top highlights.  To say the Moving Image’s presentation of 2001 blew it away is both a testament to the power of the theater’s acoustics as well as affirming the belief that films of the past still have the ability to outdo modern film experiences.  For all of the technical innovation of DTS and Dolby Atmos audio in modern theaters, 6-track analog sound on 70mm still sounds better with greater warmth, clarity and density.  Bass levels here were deafening and I managed to hear things I hadn’t heard before.  At times it was so loud I feared for my hearing and the crystal clarity of the soundtrack was like hearing glass shatter.  Equally strong, if not stronger, was the first presentation of Brainstorm in 70mm in over 30 years.  Reportedly the Museum tried to play the film the year prior and ran into problems trying to project the ultra-rare print, a snag that was thankfully remedied this time around.  Seeing the screen image shifting from 1.66:1 35mm footage to 2.20:1 70mm footage undoubtedly paved the way for the norm of IMAX shifting from 2.35:1 35mm to 1.44:1 70mm commonly seen in Christopher Nolan films.  All in all, it was truly an out of body experience seeing Brainstorm in this venue.

new york andrew kotwickiSomething of a curse and a blessing for this cinephile, it was as educational an experience as it was life changing.  After you’ve seen the very best technical quality a movie theater can possibly offer, while you can cherish that experience forever it also colors nearly every cinema experience that follows.  Nothing can come close to it other than one day going back and for every die-hard moviegoer out there, the Museum of the Moving Image is essential to one’s theatergoing vocabulary.  To say it opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of film exhibition, theater design and the austere environment in general is an understatement.  One of the greatest, if not the greatest, film viewing experience of my life and the one time I can honestly say I saw two of my favorite films of all time properly and as intended by their makers.   

-Andrew Kotwicki