Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Two Final Thoughts on Aspect Ratios, Golden and Otherwise...

The recent kerfuffle over the Barry Lyndon aspect ratio (my blog post is here but the real action wound up occurring over in the comments thread to Glenn Kenny’s post at Some Came Running) got me thinking about two things.

  • Back in the 90s, when we were constantly told that it was Kubrick’s express intention that The Shining be released full-frame on video and TV, it was an article of faith among Kubrick fans that unmatted full-frame (at an aspect ratio of 1.59:1 or whatever) was the proper way to appreciate that film – with all that extra headroom supposedly enhancing the forbidding loneliness of the Overlook Hotel and adding to the general sense of unease. I’d seen the film dozens of times – always on video – by the time I finally got to see it projected, when Film at the Public (Remember them? They were awesome) screened it sometime during the Summer of 1993 while I was taking a course at NYU. When the lights went down and I realized the film was being shown in widescreen (I can’t remember the specific aspect ratio), I felt a bit uncomfortable. But then the film began and I realized that the tighter matting seemed to work well. There had always been something curiously languorous about The Shining, but now the image was closer, the emotions onscreen more intense. Before, that extra headroom seemed to laugh at these characters; now, it was gone, and we were left alone with them. I remember letting out a little yelp when that famous axe-in-the-door sequence (pictured) came along: I’d always thought that Kubrick’s repeated lateral pans following the swing of Jack’s axe had seemed a bit…dinky. Now, framed tighter, the pans felt seismic. I walked out of that screening with my palms sweating and my heart racing – the first time this had happened to me with this very familiar film in a long time. So, do I prefer the tighter aspect ratio? I still don’t know. But suddenly, I realized that the issue of the “right” aspect ratio for a film can be more complicated than we might think.

    • When it comes to Barry Lyndon, I’m a little less agnostic. Unlike The Shining or other Kubrick films that were big cult items (A Clockwork Orange, 2001, etc.), Barry Lyndon didn’t really have that big a reputation through the ‘80s and much of the ‘90s. It had been my favorite Kubrick film since the first time I saw it –March 20, 1992, to be exact – and I seem to recall being astounded at the casual dismissals of the film I encountered after that, in books, articles, etc.; even back in the early days of alt.movies. kubrick there was a sizable number of Kubrick-heads who considered it some kind of noble failure. (Most of them have since been “corrected.”) Maybe because of that, it rarely got screened, save for the occasional (and might I add much appreciated) presentation of a faded, scratched up 16mm copy at Theater 80 St. Marks. I remember scouring listings trying to find a proper 35mm screening. (There’s actually a pretty funny story about the first time I came across one, in 1996 – when the American Museum of the Moving Image, where I was working, screened it as part of a Kubrick retrospective, and, as a Museum employee, I was NOT ALLOWED to see the film, even on my DAY OFF.) Anyway, as a result, those of us who were obsessed with Barry Lyndon had to watch it either full-frame or 1.66, over and over again, all those years. And we became intimately familiar with that very full frame. So to then have somebody come along and tell us that, not only is that frame now gone forever, but that it was never meant to be – and, in an additionally surreal twist, that it never actually was…well, you can perhaps understand why some folks got their panties in a twist.


    1. Wait a sec... they didn't let you go see it as a regular paying customer? Huh?

    2. Like I said, it was weird. The whole place was run like a police state at the time. Not helped by an act of EPIC cowardice on my then-boss's part. Remind me to regale you with the story one day.

    3. Just to clarify, for the Shining, the home video transfer used the full 35mm frame, which is 1.37:1. However, it was also cropped on the sides to the 1.33:1 ratio of 4:3 TV. If you check the comparisons on DVDBeaver, it looks like they cut off the left side unilaterally for the earlier 4:3 transfers.

      For Barry Lyndon, there's debate on how much image was actually exposed onto the original negative. There's suggestions that the original negative is "hard matted" to somewhere around 1.59:1, meaning the rest of the 1.37:1 film frame was left unexposed. This would suggest why the earlier releases of it were letterboxed instead of 1.33:1, since no additional vertical information was available for such a transfer.