Aspect Ratio is Moving

•January 20, 2009 • 3 Comments

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To celebrate one year of blogging I am moving this site to a new home with a new name. When I started Aspect Ratio I didn’t know how often I would post essays or if anyone would ever find the site. But with some serious persistence I have tried to post two new essays per month, and as a result I have found a small but very rewarding audience of readers and commentators. In an attempt to personalize my site and offer expanded options (like video and audio uploads) I have set up a new blog that will hopefully grow over time as I move from PhD student to whatever comes next. While I have decided to keep the style sheet the same, I now have greater control to fine tune some things that bothered me with the WordPress domain. My e-mail remains the same: mametesque@gmail.com.

In order to make this work smoothly I will continue to post new essays on this site for a little while as readers redirect themselves to the new site. I only ask that you update your bookmarks or RSS feeds or web links to include the new site.

The new blog is called Wright on Film and can be accessed at www.wrightonfilm.com.

Everything is up and running right now, so I hope to see you there. Click on the marquee below to check it out.

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Looking Through CG Eyes

•January 19, 2009 • 4 Comments

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Over at The House Next Door, Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard have posted a fascinating debate on David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After seeing the film myself, I have to agree with much of what they said, including their suggestion that the film represents little more than an age reversal gimmick. I’d like to avoid covering the same ground as Bellamy and Howard, since they’ve done an admirable job distilling some of the finer grained aspects of the film, but I would like to take a moment to discuss an area of Benjamin Button that has yet to receive much critical attention in the press (including the blogosphere).

That is, I would like to consider how the visual effects technology of the film undermines the structural and emotional arc of the narrative. My comments are still fairly fresh since I have just seen the film and am responding rather quickly to something that will no doubt require a little more thought. For those who have yet to see the film, there are serious spoilers ahead.

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The dramatic structure of Benjamin Button is familiar enough to mainstream audiences: it involves a framing device firmly rooted in the recent past (2005) during an infamous crisis (Hurricane Katrina). We then travel back in time via Benjamin’s own words (his last will and testament) and memories of Daisy, the love of his life, who lies dying in a New Orleans hospital bed. Throughout, Benjamin narrates his life story with voice-overs used to link time and place. The central story thread concerns Benjamin’s love for Daisy; a love that turns into an obsession as he grows younger. While he pines for her, there is little to suggest that Daisy is even deserving of such praise. She is cold towards him at various times and exhibits no real personality, except a single-minded vision to dance and mingle with an intercontinental set. At the same time, Benjamin’s single-minded journey to reunite with Daisy becomes tiresome when we realize that Benjamin is capable of so much more in life, yet he lives and acts as an observer to history, not a participant in history.

This film has been compared to Forrest Gump, not only because both share the same screenwriter (Eric Roth), but also because of the character-moving-through-history motif that characterizes both films. Some critics have suggested that Fincher’s work removes the sentimental gauze, which plagued Robert Zemeckis’ vision of a man caught up in major historical moments of the mid 20th century. However, I have read very little criticism of Button that highlights the striking similarities to Gump at the level of its narrative arc.

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The enduring appeal of Forrest Gump as a character is his ability to cut through a complex situation and insist on a simple solution. In his mind, he loves Jenny and there is no good reason why the two of them should remain apart. Critics and intellectuals have scoffed at this attitude, claiming that it reduces a generation of social unrest and activism to a sentimental fable. That Forrest is unwilling to participate but simply observe seems to be the chief concern of activist scholars and critics. Alternatively, Fincher bests Gump by removing the sense of social urgency by offering a grand fable that barely references our cultural history. What we glimpse is on television or the radio, not experienced first-hand by Benjamin.

Yet, like Forrest, Benjamin also prefers to observe and say very little. When called upon to explain himself or recount his past he is brief and has a penchant for what I can only call “Gumpisms.” When asked if he could explain what it feels like to grow young he replies, “I’m always lookin’ out my own eyes” Or when he reflects on the importance of strangers in his life, he says “It’s funny how sometimes the people we remember the least make the greatest impression on us.” Or this gem: “It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same. Smells the same. Feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed… is you.” When Benjamin speaks at any length it is in his voice-over, which is actually being read aloud by Daisy’s daughter, Caroline.

More fundamentally, however, Benjamin’s obsession with Daisy, to bring her home and start a family, mirrors that of Forrest and Jenny to the point that when Daisy rejects his offer to “sweep” her off her feet I thought he might reply, “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.” There are other plot point similarities, including the sea captain mirroring Lieutenant Dan, Queenie mirroring Mamma Gump, and everyone else being vaguely suspicious or sorry for Forrest and Benjamin because of their “deviation” from the norm.

My real question is why Benjamin is limited to his observational status, why he responds with few words and even fewer thoughts, and why he accomplishes so little in a life that is filled with potentialities? In a broader sense, the film — much like its characters — felt stiff, awkward, and unsure of itself. These peculiarities point to the visual effects as the potential problem.

The computer generated imagery (CGI) of Benjamin Button attempts to situate the audience in a parallel world where a baby ages backwards. To accomplish this, Fincher and the visual effects crew (namely the craftspeople at Digital Domain) utilized a number of techniques to give the illusion that Benjamin (as played by Brad Pitt) grew young in a photo-real way. As you know, most Hollywood CG visual effects aim to be photo-real; that is, they seek to blend computer graphics with the photographic properties of film. So, customarily grain is added to otherwise pristine digital images, and blending tools attempt to match the photographic “reality” of what was captured on set (or what would pass as “believable” or “realistic” from a photographic standpoint).

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For certain sequences, the look of old Benjamin was achieved by using stand-in actors whose faces were digitally replaced with portions of Pitt’s. (The New York Times recently ran an article with a revealing slideshow that explains much of the artistry that went into this process.) I found this visual effect to be disjointed and unconvincing, mostly because Pitt’s eye-line matches were off. There were also instances where Pitt’s eyes appeared to float separate from the physiology of his face. (The effect is far more convincing in still frame, as evidenced by the screen shots that I have included here.) In any event, it is clear that the achievement of this effect was predicated on having very few lengthy close-ups of Benjamin’s face. Which might explain Benjamin’s penchant for short answers and stunted movement.

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Even as the character grows younger and Pitt takes over the role (body and all), Benjamin moves very little and continues to say very little. Similarly, the reverse aging on Cate Blanchett results in a series of shots that show her smoothed skin. However, when she speaks we are treated to more reverse shots than close-ups or medium close-ups. This is plainly obvious when Benjamin reaches his teenage years and returns to see Daisy in her dance studio. The lights are out, except for an orange glow emanating from her office and the street lamps. Benjamin is bathed in deep shadow, but we can barely make out his smoothed, youthful look. Pitt’s performance in this scene is awkwardly static, as he hesitates to move out of the shadow, which only reinforces the artificiality of the whole aging process. We’re not allowed to see him in full light otherwise the seams of the effect might become visible. The same goes for old Benjamin, who we do see in full light, but only for very short glimpses. It’s also rather convenient that Benjamin never speaks too much, for that might require shots that linger on his blended face.

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In a sense, the film becomes a slave to technology when stylistic concerns are motivated by technical standards. Strangely, A.O. Scott in the Times praises the CG work in this film as building on previous models of cinematic illusion:

Building on the advances of pioneers like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis — and on his own previous work adapting newfangled means to traditional cinematic ends — Mr. Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac”) has added a dimension of delicacy and grace to digital filmmaking. While it stands on the shoulders of breakthroughs like “Minority Report,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Forrest Gump” (for which Mr. Roth wrote the screenplay), “Benjamin Button” may be the most dazzling such hybrid yet, precisely because it is the subtlest.

While the aging effects may indeed be subtle, they are also far too delicate to live and breathe on their own. The shots are too precious to be handled with a rougher style; they require the kind of rigid template that Spielberg aimed to overcome with his dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Initially, it was deemed to risky to move the camera in an effects shot, for it might reveal the “seams” of the technology. But, I would argue, that it was Spielberg’s decision to move his camera through the space of the galloping Gallimimus that made that shot.

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Just as Benjamin is an observer, so too is Fincher, who does not penetrate the visual space of the film but captures the space from a safe, static distance. Everything is too clean, too composed, if only because the CG age elements required Fincher to lock down his camera or limit his stylistic palette. We cannot know for certain why he chose certain angles or options, but we can consider Fincher’s other work, and what we find is a director that moves through space with his camera and allows his actors to move in space. In Panic Room, the camera is a roving macro eye; in Se7en the canted framing and hand-held shots in several sequences sets a tone; and in The Game the long shot is used frequently to isolate Nicholas in empty spaces.

In light of my comparison to Forrest Gump, it’s worth mentioning that I believe Zemeckis’ CG approach is the subtler one. Advocates of Fincher’s choices might suggest that back in 1994 audiences were less sophisticated when it came to pointing out CG shots. But even today I am impressed with the execution of Lieutenant Dan’s struggle with the loss of his legs. Watching the film for the first time I wasn’t really concerned with how the effects were achieved since I believed the situation. There were few “showy” set pieces for the CG leg effect in bold lights. Dan simply moves through space with no legs, while Zemeckis shoots the scene as if that did not matter.

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And while some might prefer Fincher’s detached, almost humorless view of things, there is the sense that Gump’s awe-shucks attitude and goofiness assisted in turning some awkward, showy CG shots into comic gems. So, in that sense, Zemeckis successfully pulled the wool over our eyes with Dan’s handicap, the blue-screen feather, and the multiplied crowds in Washington D.C., but tried with a bit of comedy to sell some awkward effects, particularly those involving Forrest’s celebrity meetings.

As I’ve already suggested, these are some very preliminary ideas that I hope to flesh out at a later date. In the coming weeks I will be returning to Button on a more positive note with some ideas on sound design and the importance of environmental ambiences. If you’ve seen the film and have an opinion, I’m interested in your comments.

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Happy Holidays

•December 23, 2008 • 3 Comments

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To all my loyal (and occasional) readers, happy holidays! If you’re like me, you’ll spend this time catching up with family and with some movies, too. As I approach the one year anniversary of this site, I hope to continue blogging and sharing my ideas on the movies with all of you. Aside from a New Year’s promise to complete a draft of my dissertation, I look forward to contributing to the discussion of film study with new posts and developing this site even further. The horizon looks very bright. See you in 2009.

When Men Wore Hats

•December 11, 2008 • 1 Comment

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As the year draws to a close and the movie award season gets going I have begun to look backward. Customarily I immerse myself in the latest releases and play catch-up with the critics. This year, however, I have the urge to look back on film history and discover some films that got away. In this respect, my move back to Toronto has been terrifically therapeutic in that I am finding the energy and time to devote myself to movie watching, which is something that was ironically lost during my years of B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. film course work. As I stare down the long gun barrel of my Ph.D. thesis I am returning to the safe confines of the (home) cinema, where I am finding new things to admire, discuss, and even write about.

Lately, my attention has been captivated by two filmmakers in particular: Samuel Fuller and Jean-Pierre Melville. There isn’t much connective tissue between these two directors, nor would I impose any arbitrary similarities to the two of them, but their work blends effortlessly. As a student at the University of Toronto and Carleton University I had very little exposure to Fuller and Melville, except some passing references in course readings. (I can remember one article referring to the glories of a Fuller close-up, and I am still trying to decipher what makes a Fuller close-up a Fuller close-up). The recent discovery of these filmmakers was made by accident, I suppose, much like my interest in Westerns was fueled by an undergraduate essay I wrote on the music of Ennio Morricone.

As cinephiles I cannot help but think that even as we mature in our taste, we cling to the fundamentals that structured our initial love for the movies. While educated in the finer points of movie snobbery, I still hold dear the deceptively simple power of genre cinema, from 40s noir to 50s sci-fi all the way to 70s Italian horror and AIP exploitation. This curiousity has also deepened my interest in film music recordings, which has led to some wonderful discoveries: the cool and methodical writing of Jerry Fielding, the eccentricities of Jerry Goldsmith’s 1970s sound, and the diverse works of Michael Small.

More than anything else, my taste has expanded over the years, which has made me more open to different avenues of cinema. For me, that is the real test of cinephilic maturity: the ability to grow into other modes, genres, periods, and styles. Such detours occur spontaneously, without planning, and account for real moments of discovery and surprise.

My changing taste has endured one casualty, which is a thickening skin. There are fewer breathtaking moments of genuine surprise. You can’t fall in love with movies for the first time again. The early experiences that made your imagination race and appetite grow feel more tempered and controlled now. Movie maturity brings a heavy nose of nuance, which replaces the punch in the gut. Can you really marvel now at Hitchcock’s elaborate camera movements with the same kind of enthusiasm that struck you as a teenager? I used to worship at the alter of Psycho, but now treat it with a clinical distance that befalls so many films of my youth. They become exercises in analysis instead of emotional experiences. Which is why I hesitate to study certain films, to put them under the microscope and lay bare their mechanical and technical properties. I would sincerely love to write about Back to the Future — my favorite film — but I know better than to do it. It’s like Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in Saving Private Ryan holding his memory of the rose bushes to himself, keeping it a mystery to his soldiers and the audience. There are some things best left unanalyzed.

Now, it’s about the subtleties. My latest discoveries hinge on a greater corpus of films, which is why I don’t think I’d be so taken by the films of Fuller and Melville if I didn’t know what came before and after them. Their work stands out to me because of the nuances, the small stuff. A tilt or pan, a particular framing, a certain way of using environmental sounds.

I came across these directors by accident a few weeks ago on a trip to the video store, but it is startling to see how well they go together. With Fuller and Melville I have unconsciously turned my attention to the era when men wore hats. I said earlier that there isn’t much connecting Fuller and Melville, but I can’t help but think Melville admired the street-wise Fuller, who was enamored with the dark alleys and lonely lives of “cannons” [pickpockets] and the disillusioned. Both men were boisterous, provocative, and perhaps more famous than any of their films. Melville’s white Camaro and stetson set him apart from other New Wave directors, who pushed against the walls of classical American genre cinema. Melville — if I can extend this metaphor — painted those walls a different color but relished living inside them. Fuller, with his briny New York-ish accent and trademark cigar, used his camera and sound track to enhance ordinary tales of human greed, sacrifice, and heroism. Their films are tightly edited glimpses into a strange world that feels far removed from our own.

Larger budgets alluded both filmmakers, but they did the most with minimalism. In fact, Melville made it an art. Fuller moved his camera to approximate movement, but knew when to leave it still. Martin Scorsese has said that the beating sequence in Pickup on South Street is particularly brutal because the camera is locked down. As Joey strikes Candy and drags her across the room, we witness it in a medium long shot. It unfolds in one shot, unlike the final subway fight which is cut in a more conventional way with establishing shots and closeups for emphasis. There’s no need to emphasize Joey’s behavior with Candy because Fuller demonstrates it with a cool, detached camera angle. Scorsese uses a similar technique in the pistol whipping scene from Goodfellas.

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Melville’s characters are no less violent, but he rarely attempted such brutality. The closest we come is the strangling at the beginning of Army of Shadows, which achieved real horror not from the image but from the sparse sound track. The silence of the room is shattered only by the muffled cries of the captive traitor. In Le Samourai, Alain Delon’s methodical assassin, Jef Costello, is so icy that the opening murder is accomplished with clinical flair. Melville’s title character is detached and sworn to a code like a Japanese samourai, but owes an aesthetic debt to Alan Ladd’s Raven from This Gun for Hire. Both find themselves attached to female nightclub entertainers. However, throughout Le Samourai and his other noirs — including Le Deuxieme Souffle and Le Doulos — Melville builds his narrative out of extended silences and what can only be called an existential quality that evades most American precursors. Melville’s authorial stamp is, indeed, comprised of homage and extension. It’s easy to see how he extended the quintessentially American crime film to include a distinctly French attitude. These films are steeped in American tradition but drip with French personality.

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As one French filmmaker put it, Melville lets his compositions “breathe.” His mise en scene is decidedly sparse, especially in Le Samourai and Army of Shadows where characters are often shot against a deserted background. In his color films, skin tones are more blue-green than pink, drained of any warmth. It was said he hated warm tones. As a result, the sound tracks often fill in the missing details with effects and musical cues that stress the loner qualities of the characters. In Shadows, the sound of wind and the ocean fills the empty space by enhancing the desolate environment. In Un Flic and Le Samourai, raindrops compete with near silences and distant traffic noise. It is as if Melville insulates his characters in the sounds of the real world, but separates them visually by placing them in empty rooms, on empty streets, as lone wolves on the hunt.

Fuller, on the other hand, used his technical skill to fill the frame with objects and movement. His use of black-and-white CinemaScope in Forty Guns is remarkably innovative for its time: extreme closeups and low angles that we once thought were the sole property of Sergio Leone. In the Poetics of Cinema, David Bordwell breaks down a complex shot from Forty Guns involving a pyramid of action using the extremes of the CinemaScope frame and deep focus. In the early days of Scope, he notes that Fuller fully illustrated “what could be done with nearly all the items on the menu.”

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The subtleties of these films showcase the real artistry of their creators. Melville once said that he didn’t believe filmmaking to be a true art because of its collaborative nature; real artists were solitary workers, much like his protagonists. On the other hand, Fuller seemed to embrace his auteur status bestowed to him by French critics and American filmmakers. If there is any connective tissue between these two men, I believe it’s in the details. They certainly didn’t redefine the medium, but then again I seem to be drawn to crafstmen who work within the walls of the studio playground. Sometimes the very best in innovation and experimentation happens in there.

And to think I have not even touched on Fuller’s war films like The Steel Helmet, Merrill’s Marauders, Fixed Bayonets, and The Big Red One. Another post, I suppose. My tastes might have changed, but I’m as curious as ever. The wonderful thing about the movies is that there’s always another that you haven’t seen, just waiting to be discovered.

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Confessions of an Early Adopter

•November 24, 2008 • 2 Comments

Shopping for Blu Ray

Yesterday I took the technological plunge and brought home my first Blu Ray player. In fact, I am surprised that it took me nearly two years to make the decision to buy one, since when it comes to most tech toys I’m eager to adopt right away. Especially home cinema hardware. And so far I regret nothing. True, while most of my beloved films are not yet available in the high-resolution format, film studios are releasing new and catalog titles at a breakneck speed, no doubt fueled by the upcoming Christmas shopping season. However, the question that plagues any adopter of new tech is whether or not there is a marked difference between the “new” format (that being Blu Ray) and the “old” (that being DVD, and for those that never took that plunge, VHS and LaserDisc).

The short answer is “yes.” The slightly longer answer is “yes, if you have a high-def television and audio processor.” If you’re still living in a world of tube televisions and rudimentary stereo sound, then HD media is of no importance to you. Scanning a recent thread of a home theater forum, I read one post where someone asked if they should invest in Blu Ray technology even if they still have a CRT (tube) television. To me, that would be like fitting a spoiler onto your Ford Focus. Or purchasing the finest culinary equipment when your idea of cooking is dialing for Dominos delivery. In other words, why bother? Either way, I believe it’s safe to assume that HD technology is hear to stay. And, pardon the hyperbole, once you’ve tasted the quality of HD broadcasting and other HD media, it’s hard to go back to standard definition.

In my field, which is academic film studies, there is a certain pride in being a technological luddite. One of the purveying philosophies of the film scholar is that if it’s not projected on film (16mm or 35mm), then it’s not “authentic.” I use that term very loosely since — as I suggested in my last post — we cannot assume there is an original or definitive experience of any film. They are, for the most part, approximations. Used incorrectly, this framework can become a catch-all excuse for even the poorest quality film presentation. And it does not dispense with the erudite film scholar’s preference for a 35mm presentation over that of DVD. I once endured a 35mm screening of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry in a fourth year seminar that was almost entirely pink from wear. So, not only was Harry Callahan’s face a warm shade of lavender, but also the San Francisco skyline was bathed in shades of salmon and amaranth. Could this be part of Siegel’s mise en scene? No, just the professor’s preference for the feel of film over the pixely grains of digital. By this logic, even the poorest 35mm print is superior to the most pristine digital one.

The pride of celluloid authenticity makes little sense in this case. I’ve spoken to some professors who feel they’ve been pushed into the digital realm because of simple economics. It’s far cheaper to house a collection of DVDs than a library of 35mm prints. It has also become more convenient to find early cinema shorts and a wide range of international titles on high-quality DVD transfers than on expensive 16mm or 35mm prints. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the age of video that this dichotomy seems so trivial to me.

Make no mistake, I can see and hear the difference between a celluloid presentation and a digital or analog video presentation. But with the state of film studies departments as they are — at least the ones I’ve visited — I would hardly call the classroom presentation “pristine.” My study of sound film in the classroom has been hindered by poor sound reproduction to the point that some rooms are not even equipped to handle simple stereo playback! In some lectures and conference presentations I’ve had to cue my audience to low frequency stings because bass is non-existent.

My embrace of Blu Ray partly stems from this frustration. There’s no doubt in my mind that I fetishize the cinema experience to the point that I complain about poor maskings in theaters and poorly aligned loudspeakers. I appreciate the control of my own cinema environment. I like the lights to be dimmed to a certain level, the conversation hushed, and I especially like the comfort of my own sofa and ottoman. Even though I question the relevance of the “pristine” movie experience I, too, fall victim to its trappings.

Of course, sound mixers hate to hear that their work is being tampered with by over-eager cinephiles who insist on cranking the subwoofer and rear channels to “enhance” the sonic experience. If they could control how you set up your living room equipment, they would surely try.

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Which brings me back to Blu Ray. After doing some simple A/B comparisons of the same film on DVD and Blu Ray, the visual and aural differences were striking. DVD colors seem dull and lifeless by comparison. Re-watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind again on Blu Ray I was immediately struck by the level of detail that was missing from the previous DVD incarnation. I specifically chose a film that I thought I knew very well, and I was surprised to notice textures and definition in the alien spacecraft and visitors.

Ironically, the A/B comparison of this film highlighted for me the remarkable quality of 35mm film to be able to retain such deep blacks, vibrant colors, and sharp detail. For the last thirty years video has tried to play catch-up with little success. Remember when we were told that VHS came so close to capturing the details of real life that we could hardly tell the difference between the two? Now, “Is it live or is it Memorex” is down-right comical. Similarly, we’re being told now that HD media produces “the look and sound of perfect.” So, does that mean it’s better than real life?

And yet as I embrace this format I fear other developments such as digital movie downloads. Apple TV is one example of a growing number of services that allow users to download films onto their computers or media center hard drives. Do I really want to watch movies on my laptop? My iPod? No. Will “new media” encourage vew viewing habits? Perhaps, but I have a hard time believing that digital copies will completely replace hard copies. In this sense, Blu Ray discs encourage viewing habits of the video age: pop something into a player and watch it on your television. However, companies like Apple who have invested in the wireless, objectless future with products like the MacBook Air and Apple TV have recently expressed concern with adding Blu Ray players to their products. Steve Jobs, as recently as October, stated that Blu Ray represents a “bag of hurt” due its licensing and hardware obstacles. Or maybe Apple is betting that the digital download will emerge as the real format winner.

Blu Ray isn’t perfect, though. There are some drawbacks that will invariably affect the way I watch movies. For one, there is the whole issue of repurchasing a slew of titles on Blu Ray. So, that means that now I have three copies of Close Encounters: Criterion LaserDisc, DVD collector’s edition, and now the 30th Anniversary Blu Ray. To connect the dots to my earlier post on multiple versions, I’d like to point out that this new edition contains all three versions of the film: the theatrical cut (1977) , the special edition (1980), and the final cut (which excises the interior of the mothership sequence, which Spielberg admits he should “never have done”).

The Blu Ray format also possesses some limitations. I can’t, for example, upload any Blu Ray frame grabs since my computer DVD drive does not support the format. That goes for classroom showings and conference presentations, too. So for the meantime if you want to see and hear How the West was Won in its Cinerama glory, you’ll have to knock on my door or invest in a player yourself. We will also have to wait for some prized films to be released in the format; namely the first Star Wars trilogy, much of the Criterion catalog, and my own personal favorite the Back to the Future series.

Thanks to DVDBeaver.com for this BluRay capture

Thanks to DVDBeaver.com for this Blu Ray capture

So, while Blu Ray may be another video format destined for the garbage heap in a decade’s time, it seems to provide the closest approximation yet to 35mm and uncompressed audio clarity. Even the purists must admit that these high-res formats force major studios to revisit their catalog titles and remaster worn out negatives and re-release forgotten gems. It’s no surprise that Blu Ray received a boost in credibility when the Criterion Collection announced earlier this year that they too will be releasing select titles in the HD format to satisfy their own interest in preserving and presenting acclaimed films in their finest quality. And to those who prefer to watch a pink Dirty Harry, I respect your commitment, but I’ll stick with the shiny disc.

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Film and Variations: On Multiple Versions

•November 11, 2008 • 7 Comments

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For the last few weeks I have been reading through back issues of Mix to get a sense of how the magazine has reported on the development of digital sound technology in Hollywood. One article that stood out from the rest examined the theatrical re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997. Larry Blake, the author of the piece and a sound practitioner himself, confronted the whole question of whether or not George Lucas was committing heresy by tampering with the “original” films. Essentially, Blake found that even in 1977 there were multiple “originals” in theatrical circulation. This finding also supports my view that, in some sense, we can never really discuss any film as a text without variation. There are, of course, expanded releases, “director’s cuts,” “special editions,” “remastered editions,” and “restored editions” that alter the ways in which we can study a film. There are also more subtle variations that quietly subvert a totalizing view of film as text. We need to consider the aural and visual differences between a film’s theatrical presentation and its home video release. And as Blake’s Star Wars analysis suggests, we also need to consider how multiple versions of the same film can exist in its initial theatrical run.

To this end, I support what Rick Altman has already called for in his “heterogeneous” approach to film study, whereby film is understood as a experience or event that is mediated by various factors. Altman suggests that by “Ostensibly analyzing the film, cinema critics have been at pains both to homogenize the lived experience of film-viewing and to avoid undermining that homogeneity. Rather than recognize the legitimate existence of multiple versions of a film, based on diverse social and industrial needs (censorship, standardized length, colorization, foreign-language dubbing, etc.), critics have regularly made a fetish of locating the ‘original’ version.”

Calling attention to the heterogeneity of the film experience, Altman offers a film-historical approach that removes the need to refer to the film as a single phenomenon. Instead, we should embrace the multiplicity of spaces and versions of the cinema experience. To put this another way, Altman worries that by homogenizing film as a singular, unchanging text we miss an opportunity to explore the diversity of spaces in which films are presented and the various “social contexts in which the film is seen.” Specifically, he is pointing to silent film exhibition where feature films were shown with differing musical accompaniment or different ticketing and seating policies, thereby contributing to an altogether different experience of the same film.

The modern exhibition environment offers the same variation, even if it is less obvious than silent film practices. There are first-run theaters, second-run houses, drive-ins, and countless combinations of home cinema applications that skew any sense of a singular film experience. Can we honesty say that a state-of-the-art screening of, say, Wall-E at a digital cinema will be the same at a run-down mall multiplex? Or during a screening geared at mom’s and tots? David Bordwell has recently noted that at such parent-friendly screenings the “theatre is a little more illuminated than normal, the sound a little softer.” This ties back to Altman’s call for film studies to incorporate broader parameters in the analysis of films. Indeed, we might learn more about film viewership and audience trends if we consider the conditions under which films are exhibited.

One of the most understudied components is, of course, home viewing. When films were first shown on television, they were — arguably — poor imitations of what audiences experienced in the theater. In the post-widescreen era, films were truncated to fit on the relatively square-shaped TV screen, the audio mixed down to accommodate the puny mono TV speaker, and color films were often seen in black-and-white by home audiences who did not own a color set. By the time of VHS and Dolby Surround, home audiences were closer to experiencing the version of a film that filmmakers intended, but sound and picture were still augmented to accommodate the different platform. Even in the age of Blu Ray and High-Def TVs, mainstream films are translated to video in a complex process that often results in color and sound being slightly “off” from the theatrical (i.e., celluloid) standard.

In recent advertisements, Dolby Labs tells us that their latest home cinema technology, Dolby True HD, offers unprecedented audio clarity to home theater buffs by including uncompressed “lossless” audio that mirrors what filmmakers heard during the mix. It’s an outstanding format, but Dolby and other home audio manufacturers have been marveling at their ability to “bring the theater into your home” for decades now. The tools may be new, but the offer is the same. Which is why it is important to consider that there is no tangible way we can achieve equivalence between home and theater viewing.

This brings me back to Larry Blake’s Star Wars article. During the original release of Star Wars in May 1977 Twentieth Century-Fox released no fewer than four versions of the film to North American theaters. While audiences may have seen the same film, they heard three different ones. Star Wars was one of the first films to be mixed in Dolby Stereo and the very first film to employ a low frequency effects (subwoofer) channel, resulting in some very experimental mixing techniques. No one was quite sure how to best create a multichannel mix and the tools were not yet in place to ensure that the Dolby Stereo mixes were problem-free. By my count, there were four separate mixes readied for distribution: a 4-track master (LCRS, or Left, Center, Right, Surround), a 6-track version (LCRS+LFE), a 2-track Dolby mix (LR), and a mono track.

To be sure, the differences among the sound tracks were not merely cosmetic. Some sound effects, foley, and dialog were missing from some mixes. Ben Burtt recalls that as he and his sound crew scrambled to create the various mixes in the weeks leading up to the film’s premiere “there was a lot of stuff [in the 2-track version] that wasn’t in the stereo optical [4-track], including lines of dialog and sound effects, because opticals were being cut in after the mix.” Burtt notes that the simple-stereo 2-track mix “was the first mix finished and was also the least complete creatively, because at that time the stereo optical [format] was an unknown quantity and Dolby wanted to test it and find out how it was going to work. That mix was rushed out of the door, and we didn’t think it was that important because it was only going to be heard in a few theaters.”

The second mix the crew readied was the 6-track version with the added low frequencies for 70mm engagements; these were considered the roadshow engagements and numbered only 35 across North America.

70mm_dolby_4

Blake goes on to suggest in his article that “Even after the film was in theaters…the mix was continuing at Goldwyn, in order to creat what Burtt says was considered by Lucas to be the genuine article…in mono!” Since the majority of theaters were still wired for mono sound, George Lucas and his crew felt that most people would experience Star Wars that way. Unfortunately, this meant that Burtt needed to create an entirely new mix, one that was fundamentally different than the stereo versions. Recalls Burt, “By the time we go to the monaural there were even further developments: more changes in dialog, more changes in sound effects, different processing.” He goes on to joke that “There was an offscreen line of Threepio’s, where he says, ‘That’s the main power station tractor beam switch, and you’ve got to go there and turn it off.’ And that was not in the 6-track version of the movie; it was only in the stereo optical [4-track]. It wasn’t even in the mono print, and I don’t know how it happened, but we found that line and now it’s back in.”

Thus, even before the 1981 re-release — wherein the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” was added to the title crawl — and long before the CGI upgrades and Han-Greedo dilemma, Star Wars was released with multiple sound mixes. So, will the real Star Wars please stand up?

no hope

title crawl

Some might suggest — as Ben Burtt has — that the 1997 redux version represents the most complete sound mix to date with every line of dialog, foley hit, sound effect, and music cue created for the film. But what about the more nuanced differences between home and theater presentations? Can a music or sound effect sting pack the same wallop at home as it does in a THX certified auditorium? More importantly, how do these changes in exhibition affect the film experience?

To help facilitate a broader discussion of this phenomenon, I believe we need to consider Altman’s “cinema as event” thesis. Even if we do not engage with the social dimensions of his platform, it is important to ask if a film text is a singular entity. We are conditioned to speak about films as singular texts. We tell our friends that we went to see this film or that film, not a version of that film.

To some, these variations are very minor and do not intrinsically change the nature of a film as text. But, as Altman contends, if we claim to understand the technical and cultural implications of a film, then it is important to consider the ways in which multiple versions contribute to this discussion. The “cinema as event” thesis affords us a more general flexibility to tackle this issue. It also provides a means by which we can discuss more dramatic changes to films.

Here I am referring to the process of renewal that we know as “remastering.” When E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was being prepared for its DVD release in 2002 Steven Spielberg remastered the original print, added some material, and (infamously) removed other material, including the replacement of guns with walkie talkies in the hands of the government agents. Some have reported that the line about Mike not being allowed out on Halloween dressed as a “terrorist” was changed to “dressed like THAT” in the VHS release from 1988 and “dressed like a hippie” in the 2002 theater/DVD release. (Note the compositional changes in the two frames below: Elliot’s head and E.T.’s basket have also been repositioned).

et untouched

et retouch

As such, it becomes harder to differentiate among versions when filmmakers and studios prohibit earlier versions from being distributed. In an eleventh-hour decision by Spielberg, the 20th Anniversary E.T. DVD set also included the original 1982 theatrical version. Many applauded this decision because it provided audiences with the option of experiencing Spielberg’s first “draft” or his latest draft of the film. This is a trend that has continued with the releases of multiple versions of Blade Runner and Touch of Evil, but many fans of the Star Wars saga are still clamoring for a yet-to-be-released “original” version of the first trilogy. I’m sure there are countless other major and minor examples of films that have been irrevocably changed, where original versions remain unavailable on video or extremely rare.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made it clear that they believe these works of popular art belong as much to the fans as to the filmmakers who created them. In a South Park episode titled “Free Hat,” Cartman and the gang learn that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are planning to release a remastered version of Raiders of the Lost Ark in order to “improve history.” Parker and Stone mock the “re-re-re-release” strategy of studios and filmmakers with send-ups of Saving Private Ryan (the word “Nazi” is replaced with “persons with political differences”) and The Empire Strikes Back (where all characters were replaced with Ewoks). Traveling to Skywalker Ranch to confront Lucas and Spielberg, the boys plead with them not to tamper with Raiders. Parker and Stone essentially argue that the film belongs to the world and to change it would mean changing history and memory: “movies are art and art shouldn’t be modified.” A very recent episode of the series suggested that Lucas and Spielberg “raped” Harrison Ford and, by corollary, the boys for having Indiana Jones meet interstellar beings in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

south park

I have outlined two approaches to the study of multiple versions; one considers the technical differences between mixes and presentations, and the other considers the cultural impact of the altered, er, “remastered” version on the movie-going experience. They are very different approaches, since the more fine-grained model requires the critic to be mindful of different material conditions as opposed to obvious content differences within a film. Both, however, demand critics and scholars to be more precise about the definition of a film as a text or an event.

To help facilitate discussion on this topic, I don’t believe it is necessary to point out an appropriate method by which to release or “restore” a film. I sympathize with those who feel utterly betrayed by filmmakers who change their films. To take a macro view of this trend, we should consider that perhaps we experience approximations of films that change over time. I doubt that even directors and editors experience their films in the same way from venue to venue, year to year.

As a film student this can be incredibly frustrating. One of the chapters of my Master’s thesis was devoted to the innovative sound design of Apocalypse Now. Right in the middle of my research it occurred to me that my analysis could be deemed completely subjective and baseless since I was hearing the film in my home, on DVD, in an audio format that did not exist in 1979 (5.1 Dolby Digital). How could I honestly write with authority about the movement of sound, the spatial dynamics of sound, and the textures of the sound track when I was hearing an altogether new mix?

This is a question plagued by many film scholars who give themselves the job of historicizing the technical and aesthetic qualities of cinema. To study early Technicolor (as Scott Higgins has admirably done) or sound design in the 1970s requires a caveat: material conditions change. Can we productively analyze Technicolor stock qualities based on a remastered DVD of Gone With the Wind? How about the study of mise en scene using a full frame copy of Blow Out? If we tow the party line of film studies, then there is no real difference. A film is a film is a film. But we know better, don’t we?

star wars rerelease 1997 rerelease

“I believe in America”

•November 6, 2008 • Leave a Comment

obamahope

I’m in the middle of writing a new post but did not want to miss an opportunity to express some thoughts on the recent U.S. election. As many of my readers know, I’m a Canadian citizen, so I couldn’t vote. But my connection to the U.S.A. runs deep. My mother grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and I share her enthusiasm for the people and institutions of the country to the chagrin of many of my fellow Canadians.

When my grandfather became a U.S. citizen in 1960 he took great pride in his ability to vote in the presidential election. I always admired that. He taught me many things, not the least of which was knowing your place in history and being a part of it. He passed away in 2005 but I wish he had been around to see the election of Barack Obama. Not only because he lived through the civil rights movement and recognized the struggle of black Americans, but because of the hope that Obama has infused into the international conversation. It’s the same sense of hope and possibility that he inspired in me as a child. He was adament about the love he had for his adopted country, so much so that I used to tease him that he sounded like Bonasera at the beginning of The Godfather: “I believe in America.” Just imagine a German accent instead of an Italian one.

My wife likes to point out that my family is resolutely committed to the hope and optimism that is routinely ridiculed by contemporary cynics. We’re about apple pies and trusting the nightly news. It’s a decidedly old world attitude, but one that seems more relevant today than ever before.