I’m front-paging a retort that I wrote this morning to the adherents of cropping all older non-Scope films to a 1.78/16 x 9 aspect ratio. (They posted in response to yesterday’s article called “They Won’t Forget.”) I’m calling them the Aspect Ratio Brain Police, in part because they’ve been insisting that I’m “wrong” in claiming that the proper aspect ratio for Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho should be 1.37 to 1 or 1.66 to 1. Here’s the rant:
Objective truth? You want objective truth? I’ll give you objective truth. You and
Psycho is watchable with a 1.78 to 1 cropping, yes, but the somewhat higher, boxier framings are far more elegant, inclusive, well-balanced — they provide agreeable breathing space to the characters and compositions. My eyes know when they’re seeing a shot that has been too severely cropped, and almost every time I see an older film protected for 1.37 or 1.66 that’s been cropped to 1.78 or 1.85 those bells start going off….ding-ding-ding-ding-ding! I know, it I know it, I know it, I know it.
[Note: The difference between 1.78 and 1.85 is very slight, and in most people’s minds they are more or less the same thing. 1.85 is the current Academy-mandated theatrical aspect ratio and 1.78/16 x 9 are plasma/LCD screen proportions, but it’s roughly the same difference.]
In a 1982 phone interview Francis Coppola told me he didn’t like harsh wide-angle croppings either. We were discussing his insisting to exhibitors that One From The Heart should be projected at 1.33 or 1.37. At one point he drifted from the subject of his own film for a second and said that 1.85 croppings began as “an exhibitor scam” to create an illusion of a widescreen image that you couldn’t see on your TV at home. And, he said, this scam began to take hold, in his view, sometime in the mid to late ’60s.
Today’s scam is more like a corporate fascist order from on high — all older non-Scope movies shot from ’53 onward must conform to the widescreen aspect ratios of today’s plasma/LCD flatscreens. 1.78 croppings, in other words, are enforcing an Orwellian mandate of accommodating all non-Scope films to today’s widescreen high-def flatscreens — end of story, end of discussion, class over.
Higher framings were the rule during the VHS days to accommodate boxier TV screens of the day. Different ratio, exact same rationale — i.e., serve the dominant or prevailing film-viewing technology and not the films. It’s not about how good the film looks on its own terms, but about whether it conforms to the TV screen that everyone is watching it on. The cart before the horse.
Given this thunderingly obvious fact, the people arguing that the 1.78 cropping is the proper way to show and see Psycho are…well, I just have to step back and ask myself what they’re on? What is keeping these people from grasping this elementary simple-dick visual concept? If I wanted to be snide and insensitive I would call them seig-heil goose-steppers chanting the prevailing corporate sentiment of our movie-watching times — i.e., all non-Scope/Panavision films shot from ’53 or ’54 onward must adhere to the 1.78/16 x 9 mandate.
Well, many if not most non-Scope films of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, even, look nice and proper and head-roomy and visually agreeable with 1.37 or 1.66 croppings. I love the way Full Metal Jacket and The Shining looked with higher, boxier 1.37 framings. I’ve seen Elia Kazan ‘s A Face in the Crowd (’57) with 1.37 and 1.78 croppings, and it definitely looks better at 1.37. Arthur Hiller‘s The Hospital looks much better at 1.37, and anyone looking at the most recent DVD with a 1.85 cropping will notice a scene in a parking lot in which most of George C. Scott‘s head is bluntly chopped off. (The 1.78 brain police will tell you that’s a good thing.) Dr. Strangelove, same deal — nice breathing room & much more elegantly framed at 1.37. On The Waterfront looks best at 1.66 or 1.37 also — a 1.78 cropping when the Bluray finally comes out would be vandalism, pure and simple.
Scores of these ’50s and ’60s films used to be issued with 1.66 croppings in the ’80s and 90s on VHS and then on ’90s laser discs. I still own quite a few of these. Are the 1.78 goose-steppers going to come back and tell me I’m wrong about that? That my laser disc of John Frankenheimer’s The Train doesn’t use 1.66 croppings?
This is like living inside Sam Fuller‘s Shock Corridor, or begging to be calmly and considerately listened to like Olivia De Havilland does over and over in The Snake Pit. (Where is Leo Genn?) Another analogy is that I feel like Napoleon Wilson and that African-American cop beating back the gang-bangers during the finale of John Carpenter‘s Assault on Precinct 13.