Shackleton (Reflections on IMAX)

Had my first ever IMAX experience the other night, seeing Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure (narrated by Kevin Spacey) at Fernbank as part of their Friday night Martinis and IMAX series. Afterwards, while sipping a classic gin martini underneath massive dinosaur skeletons with S, I reflected that Shackleton was more interesting in its treatment of “ways of seeing,” as this Cincinatti Enquirer reviewer suggests. 70mm IMAX shots are interspersed with photographs and film footage taken by photographer Frank Hurley during their expedition, which began in 1914 (Hurley’s footage was itself edited into a popular 1919 film, according to the review).

The film takes the standard narrative, men surviving great odds to prevail over impossible conditions (okay–I admit, I’m trying to highlight my implicit masculinity critique), but the real story in my experience is the photography itself, and the rugged icebergs and barren islands provide the cameras with compelling material although the attempts at re-enacting the survival efforts fell flat, for me at least. IMAX films require epic scope, and Shackleton’s story is certainly epic, but the contemporary performances felt a little contrived. I think I would have preferred a much more careful montage between Hurley’s photography, which for me was the emotional center of the film, and contemporary images. I also found the use of different people reading crew members’ diary entries in voice-over somewhat distracting. Keeping a consistent v/o (Spacey’s) might have made Shackleton feel less “artificial.”

The IMAX shots that captured the shape and scope of the icebergs and landscapes were quite effective. Given their visual power, I can see why IMAX films are so attracted to these images of the “natural world.” Nope, I can’t avoid the scare quotes; I’m far too aware that these IMAX images are carefully constructing an image of the natural. Manovich’s distinction between realism and photorealism is probably in the back of my mind here (as well as pretty much anything Derrida wrote in the 1970s).

Looking back at my own review, I realize the film seemed to reinforce a specific narrative about nature (that it is epic, that men compete against it) rather than any other number of potential narratives. I’m still struggling with my language here, with wrapping my thoughts around the technology. This is my first IMAX experience, and I want to get a better sense of what the technology does. I’d like to know what experiences my readers have with IMAX and whether they also find it somewhat contrived in its construction of the natural world?


  1. kenrufo Said,

    July 18, 2003 @ 9:48 am

    Was just reading through old entries over here to learn more about the place, and came across this one. Sometime last year I saw a Lewis and Clark film that was also a part of the Fernbank IMAX/Martini series.

    I loved it. Lots of problems with the narrative, but the visual shots are impressive, and it doesn’t hurt to have the whole event framed by alcohol and that certain Fernbank’s high-culture glow. There was at the beginning, a heavy load of overhead shots, typically swooping up and down mountain ranges and along rivers, which of course dizzied much of us in the audience. I imagined that it was all purposeful, a disorientation that, in contrast with the more stable shots to come, would in turn help orient the viewer to the IMAX.

    I also recently watched the Matrix Reloaded at the Metreon IMAX in San Francisco, which is apparently the largest IMAX in North America. Some of the action scenes actually suffered (too large of a screen to allow for all the movements to register – don’t know if that’s a technology issue or a limitation to the eyeball), but it had a similar dizzying effect at times, though probably with less strategic intentions. Nevertheless, it was an interesting and immersive experience.

    And of course, as with all IMAX theatres, the sound field is exquisite, and scaled to the slope of the chairs, which really does help one get ‘lost’ in a film.

  2. chuck Said,

    July 18, 2003 @ 2:13 pm

    Interesting reading of the Lewis and Clark film. I was surprised at how “un-dizzied” I felt during my IMAX experience. Part of that is probably due to the fact that we arrived too late to get a martini before the movie. It may also be that Shackleton lended itself less to immersion because of the use of photographs and older film stock in several sequences (which still makes the film very much about the projection technology, but in a different way).

    Still, it’s a very pleasant experience, with the aura of Fernbank definitely adding to the enjoyment.

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