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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Wednesday, 18 March 2009 19:00|
The official specifications for the Digital Video Disc were finalized in December of 1995. By 1999, even the most stringent of cinephiles had grudgingly put aside their laserdisc obsession and begun collecting DVDs.
I know this because in 1999 I'd bought my first DVD: Criterion Collection's three-disc edition of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. The set included a number of special features and presented Gilliam's original uncensored version of the film in all of its letterbox glory.
As my DVD collection grew, so did my disdain for the rather substantial stack of VHS tapes off in the corner. The burgeoning contempt for the tapes, which only months before had been treasured items, was not because their picture and sound quality was lacking in comparison to the crisper digital picture and sound that DVD offered but because the tapes presented the films in the dreaded edited-for-television ‘pan-and-scan' format.
As any true fan of cinema will inform you, fullscreen presentations are a bastardization of the director's original vision. Each shot in a film is carefully crafted by its makers, and the format of the theatrical movie-screen provides opportunities for aesthetic composition that become utterly lost when up to 44% of the image is cut off in order to fit 4:3 television screens. As if that weren't bad enough, the term ‘pan-and-scan' refers to a fullscreen technique whereby additional camera moves are added (by literally "scanning" over the existing print) to include a character or image that would otherwise be cut off by the fullscreen formatting. When watching a pan-and-scan version of a movie, not only are you missing images the director intended you to see, but you are witnessing camera moves that were never meant to be there!
The advantages of viewing a film in such as way as to preserve the director's intended vision should be all but self-evident, yet, at this very moment, there is a customer standing in a Blockbuster explaining to the poor first-year film student who works there part time that they "just can't stand those black bars at the top and the bottom of the screen." The Blockbuster employee is smiling politely and nodding, while secretly thinking, "If this idiot is so goddamn stupid that he actually prefers fullscreen to widescreen, then why doesn't he just turn on the TV, watch sitcoms, and leave cinema to the real fans?!"
But what if, dare I suggest, that ignorant DVD renter has a valid point?
I was recently astounded to see the Scream trilogy on sale at HMV for 10 dollars. It was too good a bargain to pass up, so I quickly purchased the set. Upon arriving home, I realized just why the set had been so cheap: it was the full screen version of all three movies! I contemplated returning the entire thing, but, at 10 dollars, it hardly seemed worth the effort.
I opened the jewel case, reluctantly, and popped the disc into my DVD player. I then experienced something startling: a smart and funny horror film full of beautiful close-ups filled my modest 32" television screen. I watched the entire movie in the dreaded fullscreen format . . . and it was beautiful.
A single shot in the prologue of Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring forever changed the face of modern cinema. A coalition of elves and men gather at the foot of Mount Doom to battle an army of goblins. The camera sweeps across the battlefield as thousands of digital soldiers charge at one another. Witnessed in the movie theatre for the first time, it was an utterly breathtaking shot. Never before had such an epic image been committed to the screen. In that instant, the scope of cinema expanded.
For the first time perhaps since cinema went widescreen in the first place, it seemed as though anything was possible. Movies could be bigger and better than ever before. To lose that newfound sense of scope in order to better fill a small television screen was unthinkable. Worship of the widescreen DVD prevailed.
In the near decade that has followed the unleashing of Jackson's epic vision, Hollywood budgets of grown almost in equal proportion to the size of people's televisions. Everything has become larger and more complex. HD widescreen TVs and Blu-Ray discs project each pixel in brilliant high definition, and, with enough money and a decent enough sound system, the theatre going experience can be recreated at home. But as we strive to view each and every single one of those thousands of orcs in perfect definition, we've lost an appreciation for one of the most powerful of cinematic devices: the close-up.
Not every film is The Lord of the Rings, and, sometimes, it is what is going on in an actor's eyes that is most important not the thousands of villains charging at him or her from a distance. Not everyone can afford a widescreen TV and a Blu-Ray player, and sometimes being able to see the brilliant verisimilitude of Neve Campbell's caged innocence while watching Scream on your little television is what really matters.
As hard as it is to believe, someone had to invent the close-up, and that someone - like most basic early narrative film techniques - was director D.W. Griffith. The first filmmakers, inventers like Thomas Edison in America and the Lumière brothers in France, generally placed their camera a good distance from their subject matter, but, Griffith, working for Hollywood production company Biograph in the early years of the 20th century, directed dozens of short films that pioneered film techniques including the cross-cut and the establishing shot, along with the close-up. Griffith went on to direct one of America's first feature length films in 1915, and he is generally regarded as the individual most responsible for forging and solidifying the vocabulary of techniques that compose cinema's visual language.
By 1928, in France filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer Jr. had created a film in which the close-up was not just part of the movie's visual language but its central storytelling device. Staring Maria Falconetti and Antonin Artaud (of the Theatre of Cruelty fame), The Passion of Joan of Arc is a landmark work not only in the history of silent film but also cinema as a whole. Shot almost exclusively in close-up, the film chronicles the final hours of Joan's life (her capture, torture, and execution) in much the same manner as a Christian passion play. Falconetti's performance is one of the great thespian feats of all time, and Dreyer captures every moment of her perfect anguish in exquisite close-up.
Faced with direct competition from television in the 1950's, cinema was forced to grow larger in order to differentiate itself from the home viewing experience. New anamorphic widescreen technology depicting sweeping Technicolor epics such Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments became the order of the day. While filmmakers filled their movies with battles featuring hundreds of characters and massive sets (sound familiar?), television became the place where close-ups were most regularly featured often to obscure low-budget set and production design on soap operas.
Conflating 1950 movies and TV with the post-LOTR modern situation, however, doesn't quite work due to advances in digital technology. As televisions grow larger and HD prevails, the differences between cinema and television are deteriorating at an increasingly rapid pace. Not only can the theatrical viewing experience be brought home, but cinematic techniques associated with big-budget feature films are now regularly appearing on television. The type of special effects-laden dog-fighting starship battles featured in big budget science fiction movies like Star Wars are now done on a weekly basis on TV series like Battlestar Galactica. In fact, a mere two years after Peter Jackson's battle of elves and men, Joss Whedon used the same special effects technology to depict Buffy's battle with thousands of Hellmouth vampires in the climax of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's series finale.
The close-up emerged out of necessity. The muddy quality of early film stock often made it difficult to see what a character was holding in their hand or looking at in the distance, and a close-up helped to clarify. Today, HD televisions can reveal not only what a character is holding their hand but also exactly how the leaves on a tree three hundred meters in the distance are swaying in the wind. Amazing as that technology is . . . sometimes the oldest technique are still the best. As my experience watching the fullscreen version of Scream reminded me, no matter how realistic our cinematic recreation of reality becomes, we must never forget the power of a good ol' fashioned close-up.