>> Sunday, May 25, 2008

I have a friend who's a bit obsessed with high definition. I can't really blame him--he's an aspiring filmmaker, and I have to admit that there are some movies that truly look spectacular on Blu-Ray and a big TV.

And yet... I have reservations. Not that they matter; eventually I'll get a big TV with lots of lines and eventually I'll get a Blu-Ray player, and eventually I'll end up with whatever they come up with after that. My current TV isn't quite obsolete (not for my purposes, at least--if I watched broadcast TV or had cable, I'd need a converter box at some point in the near future), but it's already old, it takes an extra second to warm up and the colors aren't quite as bright as they used to be. I remember when televisions weren't disposable appliances: you could go in someone's house and there might well be a ten or twenty year old set doing service in a living room or bedroom. I remember dials and black-and-white sets and rabbit ears, and I remember wood veneer. But I digress.

High definition. Reservations.

The problem with the high definition formats is that they're high definition. I think we've all heard about the "hi-def porn problem." If you haven't--and please, this is an issue that's been discussed in geek media and even mainstream media like the New York Times (registration may be required), it's not just something dirty old men talk about--if you haven't, the basic issue is this: grainier formats like videotape and film tend to naturally obscure blemishes, scars, and other faults that become painfully visible at high resolutions where you can see everything. It's not just a problem for porn, either, though porn is getting attention for it because of porn's... intimacy: the Slate piece linked to, supra, mentions a reviewer being shocked at Cameron Diaz's skin after seeing a hi-def version of Charlie's Angels, and I've heard reports of makeup lines being visible in hi-def versions of mainstream Hollywood releases.

The reason it's on my mind at the moment is that I watched The Terminator again last night, first time I've watched it on DVD, and I found myself wondering if I'd ever want to see it on Blu-Ray. And I think the answer is "no," although it may be inevitable. It seems ungenerous to criticize Terminator's special effects: James Cameron and Stan Winston are obvious sfx geniuses, and Terminator is a wonderful harbinger of what would later come from them: Terminator's effects are impressive for a six million-dollar movie. And there are some moments in Terminator that make me hate CGI: the half-Terminator puppets used in the movie's final scenes have a physicality that is missing from a good 90% of contemporary CGI movie monsters; if Terminator were a low-budget movie being made today, they almost certainly would use computers and it would almost certainly look far worse than a movie made in 1984.

But the rear-projection scenes in Terminator didn't look good when I first saw the movie on VHS in the '80s (I've never seen Terminator in the theater, something we'll be coming back to), and they're worse on DVD. I have to give Cameron credit: it's far better than average rear-projection work. But it's got all the usual problems of the process, from the telltale faintness of the background relative to the foreground, to characters in the foreground being "immune" to activities in the background such as explosions or changes in lighting.

All of that is really noticeable on DVD and even on VHS. But the thing is, I'm not sure it has to be noticeable. What do I mean?

What I mean is this: I think I know the perfect environment for watching The Terminator. It's not an up-to-date home theater setup with surround and a hi-def media player and big-screen monitor. Nor is the ideal environment a contemporary, THX-certified multiplex cinema with auditorium seating. No, I suspect the ideal environment is, shockingly enough, the one the movie was actually made for, the kind of theater the movie was released to in '84: an old theater built in the '50s or '60s, with an underpowered bulb in the projector (a formerly common cost-cutting measure by theater owners that tended to darken and muddy images), with mono sound. And even, I think, with the secondary attributes of those old theaters: the sticky floor, the slightly-oppressive reek of mildew coming off the discolored red curtains serving as a crude sound-dampener over the brick or concrete walls.

It sounds sort of terrible, maybe, unless you happen to share my misplaced sense of nostalgia for those awful movie theaters of yore, but think about it: the problem with The Terminator in crystal-clear high definition is that the seams show. I mean, okay, it's great if you want to academically deconstruct the film's technique: "Notice how Linda Hamilton standing at the corner of the building doesn't quite react in time to the rear-projected exploding model truck, which fails to muss her hair." But that's not what the film was intended to do, it wasn't meant to make small talk for film students, it was meant to thrill and scare and amuse you while you're chowing down on buttered popcorn and enough soda to cause renal failure. I could be wrong--I never had the chance to see The Terminator in the theater (I was 12, and while I remember the posters quite well, there was no way my parents were taking me to an R-rated movie called The Terminator starring Arnold Schwarzenegger)--but I suspect the underpowered projectors muddied the movie up enough that everything looked good, which is ironic but there it is.

I'm not a Luddite by any stretch of the imagination--well, okay, I didn't get a cell phone until this year, but that's different. But I do wonder if the push towards higher-definition isn't doing a disservice to our classics (and yes, I'd consider The Terminator a kind of classic). Film is an illusion, the illusion of movement created from still images, the illusion of sound in space created by speakers. Darkness and silence in the theater causing sensory deprivation that sucks you into a world that's granular and fluttery so you don't even notice the roughness and blur. I'm sure at some point I'll own The Terminator and a lot of other older movies on some higher-definition format than DVD. I'm just not sure I'm looking forward to it.


Michelle K Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 8:16:00 PM EDT  

Well, just to throw this out there, some older shows/movies are being cleaned up for DVD.

We have the first two seasons of "The Wild Wild West" on DVD, and they look much better than I remember the re-runs on TV ever looking. We don't have Hi-Def and we don't have blueray, but they did a fair amount of work to make this show--the first season of which was filmed in black and white(!) look good on DVD.

I would assume that similar things may be done for other movies, or I could be totally off base and no one wants to spend that kind of money.

Me, I'll stick with the system we have now. I wouldn't mind upgrading our DVD player to blueray at some point, but that's mostly because the DVD player is six years old.

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