In the comment thread for yesterday’s piece about Bob Furmanek‘s “The First Year of Widescreen Production” (which, again, I think is admirable for its comprehensive historical precision), an under-informed pisshead reader named “Michael” wrote the following: “Thankfully, nobody who releases films gives a shit about what Jeffrey Wells thinks about aspect ratios.”
This morning I ran the following reply:
“Actually, Michael, my view does hold some sway. You might want to check with Warner Home Video and George Stevens, Jr. (and Woody Allen, for that matter) about how the restored Shane was released on Bluray last year. Before I stepped into the fray in late March 2013 and singlehandedly led a “boxy” rebellion, that 1953 classic was slated to be mastered on Bluray at 1.66.
On top of which Criterion’s On The Waterfront Bluray was handled exactly as I would have if I was running the show. (Okay, I would have ignored the 1.85 version and just gone with 1.37 and 1.66.) I also agreed with and endorsed the Masters of Cinema’s Touch of Evil Bluray, which included 1.37 and 1.85 versions. On top of which Vudu is now offering boxy versions of Sabrina and The Bridges of Toko Ri. And let’s not forget Criterion’s recently-released 1.37 Bluray of Don Siegel‘s Riot on Cell Block 11.
The Boxy Brigade is strong and dug in and on the right side of the debate. Offer an “Orson Bean‘s-office-in-Being John Malkovich” version if you must, but also include the 1.37:1 alternative. For all their well-documented but ultimately meaningless research, the Furmanek crowd had their sails permanently trimmed when Criterion issued a featurette with its On The Waterfront Bluray that exposed 1.85 croppings on ’50s-era films to be aesthetically cramped and unappealing and, in the words of Criterion’s own narrator, “extreme.” No gongs or sirens sounded, but that featurette effectively heralded the end of the “cleaver” aesthetic that Furmanek and his ilk have sought to impose on Blurays and hi-def streamings of films from that era.
Advocating headroom and ‘boxy is beautiful‘ and saying to hell with 1950s and ’60s theatrical aspect-ratio mandates is an aesthetic preference based on the bedrock principle that cleavering visual information captured for a ’50s or ’60s film is fundamentally vile as it destroys information rather than allows it into the film. And for no sensible reason at all except to pay homage to the fearful impulses of theatrical distributors of the ’50s and ’60s who were afraid of television.
The principle, therefore, is that if you must cleaver a film from that era so it looks better on a 16 x 9 screen it should be done at 1.66 and not the reprehensible and oppressive 1.85. I’m speaking of a clear, consistent standard. More height is better, cleavering is bad, multi-a.r. Blurays are best, 1.66 > 1.85.
This is repetitive, but I said it pretty well in a March 2013 comment thread response :
“All I’ve said all along is that non-Scope films shot during the aspect-ratio transitional period of the early ’50s into the ’60s be freed from the absurd imposition of fake widescreen aspect ratios that the studio heads imposed when they panicked over the threat of television.
“I’ve also said all along that ‘boxy is beautiful’ because height and head-space are delightful and desirable properties in and of themselves, and that the opposite effect — a film presented in the visually cramped 1.85 aspect ratio even though it had been protected for 1.37 — is an unpleasant mauling of what the dp captured, at least in a potential sense. 1.85 was created in the early ’50s in order to hoodwink the public into thinking that movies were better by virtue of not just being bigger but wider. The 1.85 imposition that began in 1953 and throughout the transition period (which you could say lasted throughout the ’50s and into the early to mid ’60s, depending in the filmmaker or the dp or the distributor) was about what distributors and exhibitors were afraid of, period.
“There is no ‘original filmmaker intent’ issue when, starting around April 1953, directors and dps began to be ORDERED to conform to and compose for theatrical aspect ratios of 1.85. Directors and dps of that era were simply playing along in order to get along.
“Yes, 1.85 gradually became the standard in this country and we’ve been in that realm for many decades now, but no less a personage than Francis Coppola told me in 1981 that 1.85 (which he had ignored in the shooting of One From The Heqrt) was initially a ‘scam.’
“Multiple aspect ratios is the way to go in these Bluray disputes, although many on the 1.85 side of the issue have been less supportive of opening things up and insisting on taking the schoolyard bully approach by defaming my ‘boxy is beautiful’ viewpoint. The 1.85 fascist brethren can call me ignorant but the existence of the multi-aspect-ratio On The Waterfront Bluray and MOC’s dual aspect ratio Touch of Evil speak for themselves.”