Archive for July, 2009

Kubrick’s Tube: The Aspect Ratio Debate

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 17 July, 2009 by Ally

The Aspect Ratio Debate. It’s not a pretentious art-rock band, but a question that has plagued Stanley Kubrick fans since the beginning of home video. What did Kubrick intend for us to see on our television screens, and does this still apply since the widescreen TV boom?

The issue originates from Kubrick’s dismay at seeing a pan and scan version of 2001: A Space Odyssey — a version formatted to fill a 4:3 TV screen by cropping off the edges of the image. As a preventative measure Kubrick shot his subsequent films in open matte, essentially capturing more of the image than was needed for widescreen theatrical presentation. This allowed for TV broadcasts without the use of pan and scan (which compromises the original cinematography) or letterboxing (which, although it would be my favoured solution, Kubrick reportedly found distracting).

It was these fullscreen versions that were released on VHS and DVD, and thus the versions that many fans have grown to love after years of repeated home viewings. They were indeed the versions favoured by Kubrick for home display, but not for theatrical presentation. This is perhaps most obvious when you compare the opening scene of The Shining. In the full frame version, the camera helicopter’s shadow can be glimpsed for at least one second, while it is hidden in the widescreen version. Surely a perfectionist like Stanley Kubrick would not ultimately favour the version with such a blatant technical glitch.

And the simple fact is that home display has advanced greatly since Kubrick’s death. High-definition widescreen televisions offer the most cinematic experience currently possible without an actual cinema, and the theatrical version comes closer to filling the screen than the so-called “fullscreen” version of old. Consumers are more aware of aspect ratios, and less likely to panic at the first sign of black bars on their screens.

But when films like The Shining were screened in two different formats (slightly wider in the US, slightly taller in Europe) it becomes harder to honour the film-maker’s intentions. Warner Brothers could offer fans the choice, but considering there are three possible aspect ratios and two different cuts of The Shining, the prospect of all those transfers becomes daunting (not to mention prohibitively expensive).

The current DVD/blu ray release of The Shining uses yet another aspect ratio — the current widescreen TV standard of 16:9, which is somewhere between both theatrical versions. It’s preferable to a compromised version of the film based on outmoded technology, but it is still a compromised version of the film… just one based on current technology! It’s less drastic a change than the one necessitated by 4:3 screens, but honestly, are black bars really that distracting when they allow us to see the vision originally presented to us in the cinema?

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The Unique Melodious Thunk

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on 5 July, 2009 by Ally
Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk

The listener’s relationship with Thelonious Monk seems to follow a common pattern — years of puzzled indifference, then an epiphany followed by ever-increasing affection and devotion. So it was with me.

A few years ago I bought my first Monk album, but it left me cold so I left it languishing on the shelf. Skip to earlier this year, when BBC Four broadcast a documentary about Monk’s friend and patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. The story intrigued me, and for the first time I found myself moved by Monk’s music. I had to hear it again. And again. Mere months later I’m gradually running out of Monk albums to buy. It has become an addiction.

But what can I add to the discussion? I’m late to the party by 50 years. Critics and fans have already waxed lyrical about his unconventional straight-fingered piano playing, his goofy syncopated rhythms, his beautiful melodic ideas and his enigmatic personality. I can but add myself to the list of admirers, and hope that my enthusiasm will inspire others to give themselves the second, third or fourth chance it might take to unlock this musical treasure.

Blue Monk (1958)