Cinematic Bedford Falls, Video Pottersville

In today's New York Times, there is a nice short piece about the Drexel movie theater in Bexley, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. It's not really an art house theater, although it occasionally shows filmfest fare. But neither is it a decaying single-screen relic. Instead, it's an experiment in populist preservation, created and sustained by Jeff Frank and his wife Kathy, natives of the area who bought it in 1981 and turned it into a showcase for classic Hollywood films, jazzed up with some old-fashioned hype (such as giving free passes to people who wear red shoes to Red Shoes). Blessedly, the Franks seem to have made a go of it.

I especially liked Jeff Frank's comment that he after graduating from film school, he went home to Ohio with the thought, "Go to Hollywood! Go to New York! Be involved in the film industry." But now he sees himself "as a sort of George Bailey, who never fulfills his dream of leaving Bedford Falls, yet comes to realize that remaining in his hometown is his passage to a wonderful life."

Perhaps we will see more such efforts, now that the technical quality of how consumers watch is declining just as the technical quality of what they watch is rising. All the fine camera work and special effects in the world are lost when people see movies on cell phones (a delivery platform that gives me even worse heebie-jeebies than those crummy little screens on the backs of airplane seats).

At the other extreme you have the phenomenon described by Joe Morgenstern in this weekend's Wall Street Journal (see below): the grotesque distortion that occurs when 4:3 images are stretched to fit deluxe flat-panel TV screens whose ratio is 16:9. As Morgenstern writes, "compact cars resemble stretch limos, puffy faces look like their cheeks have been pulled out," and "actors, even basket ball players, seem to have put on 30 pounds."

Why do people tolerate this? Morgenstern interviews two top cinematographers, whose reaction is to pretend it's not happening. And who can blame them? No true craftsman wants to see his careful work end up in a pawn shop in Pottersville.


A Stretch Too Far
Why distorted flat-panel pictures are ruining TV shows and movies
September 22, 2007; Page W5

Wherever I go these days -- homes, bars, restaurants, airports, hotel rooms -- I see beautiful flat-panel TVs displaying awful, distorted pictures. Yet no one seems to notice, or care. I feel like a guy spouting off about the emperor's new clothes, except this emperor's problem is that his wardrobe doesn't fit.

Why should anyone care? And what does it have to do with movies? First things first: Why it happens.

American television is moving inexorably, if belatedly, from analog to digital, and from conventional to high-definition broadcasting. At the moment, though, we're in a period of higgledy-piggledy transition, thanks to bungling by the government, which is increasingly befuddled by new technologies, and to resistance by broadcasters and consumers. Almost all flat-panel TVs are tailored to the proportions of hi-def transmission -- they have screens with 16:9 aspect ratios -- but they don't all receive hi-def signals, and most programs are still being beamed conventionally, in a squarish 4:3 format that was never meant to fill a wide screen.

Many owners of wide-screen TVs don't make the distinction. Since they paid a premium for the width, they want their programs to fill the screen; never mind that 4:3 programs are correctly displayed on 16:9 panels only with black bars flanking the image. So people set their TVs to stretch the picture, or allow their TVs to set themselves. Either way, the result is distortion -- compact cars resemble stretch limos, puffy faces look like their cheeks have been pulled out in opposite directions.

As a movie critic, I try to tell myself that it's only TV. Moviegoers can still find impressive images on theater screens, where projection has actually improved in recent years. But condescension toward television doesn't wash. As everyone who watches TV knows, some programs and series are terrific -- lots better than the average feature films that fill the multiplexes. And everyone watches TV, which is one reason I obsess about the visual quality of what they're watching. If people don't care what they see, then what future can there be for the dazzlingly powerful -- and proportionate -- images I've been smitten by ever since I was a kid?

It doesn't pay to obsess about things you can't change, but I forget that each time I find myself a captive audience in a hotel room with a flat-panel TV that's been set to stretch every picture it processes. The setting can't be switched with the hotel remote; you need the remote that came with the display, but getting your hands on one can drive you crazy.

First comes a call to the front desk: "There's something wrong with my TV. I need the remote that came with it so I can fix it." The response may vary by hotel or region, but in New York it's always the same: "I'll send up the engineer."

Rather than being a designer of airplanes or skyscrapers, the engineer is more likely to be a bleak, overworked handyman who looks at the TV and says, "It's fine." Not really, I begin, hating my obsessive self as I start to explain, yet again, why the picture is cockeyed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I had so much trouble communicating with the last engineer, who may have been Russian, that I pinched my cheeks and pulled them out to demonstrate the problem. The man stared at me as if I were insane, but he did bring the remote, watched patiently as I changed the setting and then shrugged a semi-private it-takes-all-kinds shrug before moving on to another nut job in another room.

In the course of my obsessing, I've sometimes wondered how such ubiquitous distortion and the public's indifference to it affects the people who create those dazzling images on the big screen -- cinematographers of the first rank. Writing this confessional gave me an excuse to call two of the best shooters I know.

Caleb Deschanel said the way his films get stretched on TV bothers him a lot, and public indifference puzzles him. "It is odd when people don't notice that actors, or even basketball players, seem to have put on 30 pounds. But all sorts of things in modern society bother me. Kids in their 20s and 30s think absolutely nothing of stealing intellectual property on the Internet."

John Bailey is not a heavy TV watcher. "I'm the guy who finally got rid of my 20-year-old Pioneer square-screen TV not long ago, and I only did that when the sound went out." But he acknowledged the subject's crazy-making potential. "It makes you ask the question, 'What the hell am I doing? What are we all doing?' Once you get beyond the theatrical exhibition, it's a free-for-all. But you really can go crazy if you start to think of the downstream implications. The only thing I feel I can control, and shoot for, is to make negatives or show prints as good as they can be. Then, if they go back and remaster something years later, at least the archival material is of the highest quality."

That's good, philosophical advice, and I plan to take it. The next time I'm tempted to make a call that will summon the engineer, I'll call room service and order a drink.

September 23, 2007 9:34 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by Martha Bayles published on September 23, 2007 9:34 AM.

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