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Summer 1997-8
(Filed December, 1997)

Reviews this issue include:


Titanic (1);
Titanic (David Gerrold);
Titanic (3);
Titanic (readers comments);
Devil's Advocate
Diana and Me (1)
Diana and Me (2)
Hurricane Streets
In and Out
One Eight Seven (187)
A Life Less Ordinary
I Went Down
Tomorrow Never Dies
Tomorrow Never Dies (2)
End of Violence, The
there's more, see the review index

There are two schools of belief when it comes to films in the 1990s. One is that films are an art-form. Canít argue with that. At their best, they are an art-form Ė albeit a collaborative one that requires the efforts of anything from a dozen to thousands of people in some cases. You can make a movie by yourself Ė but whom would you thank at Oscar time?

At their best, movies take us somewhere else and into the heads and hearts of the people who live there. They show us ugliness and great beauty, altruism and the darkest of mental illnesses, the take us into space and deep beneath the Earth. They sit quietly on video shelves under banners like Arthouse or Vintage or, in a good shop, Highly Recommended and people will return to them repeatedly. Encore cinemas thrive on films as an art-form because people want to see them again.

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The other school of thought is that movies are a product, just like diet pills, chia-pets, anti-smear lipstick and beer can holders shaped like Daisy-Mae from Liíl Abner. (Though I kinda like the latter.) You keep improving the product by market research, preview screenings after which you can change the ending if the punters didnít like it, advertise it with budgets that rival the costs of producing the movie in the first place and cut deals with other products so that they can be seen and advertised in your product. Even let the other product run your productís web site.

The problem here is that after the initial movie release and the video release and the television release, how many punters are going to rent your movie? When is the last time you got Forrest Gump out on video? Or Back to the Future? Youíve seen them a couple of times and thatís all there is. They have, on average, the life span of a canary.

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Thereís an ideological war on the Internet regarding movies as art/product. The arguments are about a simple process called Letterboxing.

For those of you raised in a 44 gallon drum, letterboxing is what happens when you get a video or watch a broadcast of a film that is shown in the original aspect ratio. Thereís probably a black strip either above or below the film. The Australian television transmissions of the Terminator movies last month are a good case in point. The Ten Network showed them in their original form and good karma to them for doing it. But Iíll bet the stations got calls from chronic couch-spuds asking why they were cutting the top bit off the movies.

Fact Number One: movies donít fit on television screens. Even the old ones have a 1.37 to 1 aspect ratio whereas a television screen is in a 1.33-1 proportion. A slice is missing from every Marx Brothers movie you ever saw on television or on video. This is called the Academy Ratio and it was the movie ratio up until 1954.

Widescreen movies these days have a WIDTH to height ratio of around 2.35 to 1, so you miss out on around forty percent of the film - as anyone who watched Pulp Fiction recently can tell you. (And didn't they fit the commercial breaks in so well! Must've had some kid on work-experience up in the booth that night.) Pan and scan techniques used to put films into television aspect ratios cripple films. Two-shots become two separate one shots - which isn't what the makers intended, breathtaking scenery becomes a bit of hill and you get that weird phenomenon where two people facing each other talking becomes a couple of faces (sans ears and hair) talking at one another across a wide frame.

By happenstance, I had the recent opportunity to see Fellini's La Dolce Vita on both tv and widescreen ratios. Both were in the original Italian, with subtitles. LDV is a black and white movie (don't get me started on fools who don't like watching B&W, that's an entirely new column to write) and so the white subtitles on the "square screen" version are sometimes partly obscured by pale backgrounds. The SBS broadcast version was in the original ratio and the subtitles were on the lower black strip. I'd never seen La Dolce Vita before and the difference between the two was striking. It's a film filled with memorable scenes, as David Stratton pointed out on the preamble to the SBS version and part of the magic of them is lost in the square box format. I'm a little sad that I saw the cullioned version before the full one. The first viewing of a classic film should always be a viewing of the full film. Come to think of it, any showing of any film should be the full version.

Two web sites helped me research this article. The first purports to be a Letterboxing FAQ and is full of inaccuracies. The character who wrote it thinks that to Letterbox is to cut a film, not the other way around. (Unless the site is a scampish trick to mess with people's heads.) It's at: http://members.aol.com/savetele/savetele.html The MGM site which gives a balanced for and against letterboxing argument, including stills from cut and uncut movies is at : http://www.mgm.com/mgmhv/letterbox/

See you in a darkened room where all the seats face the same way,

Terry Frost

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Filed: 1-Dec-1997 : Last updated: 13-May-2001 : Last tested: : Last compiled: 08-Aug-2014
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