Friday, April 11, 2008

Screaming at pan and scan

Yesterday's lunchtime viewing was the 1966 biopic, El Greco. As movies go, it was OK, but not nearly as good a look at an artist as Lust for Life was with the life of Vincent van Gogh. Unfortunately, the viewing experience was made that much worse by the Fox Movie Channel's showing it not in the original widescreen, but instead in a panned and scanned version. Indeed, there was one rather humorous scene in which the artist was supposed to be talking with his patron, while he was on a ladder painting one of his larger canvases. The two men and the large painting would fit in in Cinemascope, but what we got in pan-and-scan was a scene of El Greco talking down at thin air, followed by a cut to his patron, looking up, apparently declaiming to something, but God only knows what.

Widescreen really took off in the mid-1950s with the introduction of Cinemascope and Cinerama (there were some experimental widescreen formats as early as 1930, but they didn't last), and this presented a problem for movies on TV: the standard TV screen of the time was 4x3, about 1.33, while the new widescreen formats were anywhere from 1.86 to 2.35. (Indeed, the new "high definition" TVs, which have wider screens, are only in a 16x9 ratio, which is about 1.78. They'll still have the problem, albeit less so than the old TVs.) How do you translate that wide picture to a relatively narrow TV screen? I distinctly recall as a kid seeing some movies on TV in which the problem was solved simply by stretching and squashing the image so that all of the height and width were preserved, which had the effect of making everybody as thin as Olive Oyl. It's the ultimate Hollywood diet. The other solution was the pan-and-scan, in which "extraneous" parts of the image on either side are removed, so that the remaining image can be put in a 4x3 box. Of course, this often doesn't work either.

But now that we have letterboxing, all of the above information is fairly well known to viewers. What I'd like to spend the rest of this post doing is thinking of some scenes in older, pre-1950s movies that could have benefitted from a wider screen.

The first obvious choice would be Gone With the Wind. David O. Selznick pat a lot of effort into the scene depicting the sacking of Atlanta, but the massive scale of the effort was such that maybe a half of the bodies on screen are real human extras. A wider shot would have been much better for showing the devastation, as well as hiding the fact that many of the bodies are, in fact, dummies.

In TCM's piece on letterboxing, they mention Lawrence of Arabia where the widescreen format is essential. However, Erich von Stroheim would have been just as original 40 years earlier if he had had widescreen available to him when making Greed. The climactic scene is set in Death Valley, and von Stroheim would have been able to do just as good a job showing the foreboding nature of the desert as David Lean would do, if only he could have filmed the shot in widescreen. (Then again, perhaps von Stroheim should have spent his money developing a widescreen format instead of making nine hours' worth of movie!)

Stagecoach. John Ford made Utah's Monument Valley look gorgeous in his landmark 1939 movie, but I can't help but think just how much more beautiful the backgrounds would have looked if only he had been able to film them in a widescreen format.

No comments: