It is now the brink of the new fall line of movies for television, according to Judith Crist in the current crystal-ball issue of TV Guide. (Never mind her enthusiasms or the eager salivating over such mediocrities as Hospital, My Fairy Lady, Funny Girl, and the haughty sniffing at such intriguing objects as What's New Pussycat? Irma La Douce, The Secret Life of an American Wife.) But as you warm your palms over the promise of The Wild Bunch or The Graduate or Planet of the Apes or Ryan’s Daughter, it is not out of line to remind you that, though you may indeed watch these deluxe items on your home screen, you will not really see them, not quite. Already this caution may be sounding like yet another — good God, yes, another! — contemptible attempt on my part to such the fun out of movie viewing. But it is not that, really.
Everybody knows of and possibly even admits, the damages done to a movie by commercial breaks, by excisions in the running time to fit the time-allotment or moral standards of the sponsor, by the laundering of dialogue, by the adding of newly filmed scenes, and by the often ghoulish, gaseous color quality of TV. These things have stimulated so much anguished baying that they can be passed over here, in order to light specifically on the ravages caused by the size of the TV screen.
To illustrate the problem, you can take out your six-inch plastic ruler and your Bic Banana, and draw a rectangle one-inch high and one-point-six-six wide (1 x 1.66) or one-point-eight-five wide (1 x1.85). These rectangles give you the average proportions of a movie image today. A Cinemascope image, which a large fraction of movies use, is in a considerably more extreme ratio (1 x 2.35). Hold up any of the rectangles to your square-ish TV screen and you can begin to whiff some awareness of what you are losing when you watch a movie on TV. On a Cinemascope movie — and most of the titles mentioned above were filmed in Cinemascope — you actually are missing half of the movie: Not half of the movie's length, but half of the width. (Prior to the early Fifties, the standard image was in a squarer size (1 x 1.33): and so, the older movies are that much less troublesome to watch on TV.)
The most obvious damage done to a movie that has been trimmed, cropped, to fit the TV space, is to the composition of the images. It is like a museum trying to fit a painting of The Last Supper into tight-squeeze space by knocking off three or four disciples from each end of the picture, or — another solution — knocking off all the disciples on one side of Jesus so that He would be sitting over at the altered picture’s margin. Plainly, there is a loss of information in a movie image that has been cropped for televising. And even when the trimmed information it not obviously vital — when it is just scenery or emptiness — the loss still upsets the film's peculiar sense of space, and balance, and density. The task of the editor who decides which portion of the image to retain inside his cramped square is not enviable, of course, but it is not easily forgivable, either. A favorite example of the dilemma comes from Sam Fuller’s Cinemascope western, Forty Guns, where there is, in a main-street showdown sequence, an extreme close-up of Barry Sullivan’s eyes, very dramatic, a perfect snug fit in the Cinemascope slot. But what do you retain if you must reduce it to a square image? Sullivan’s left eye? His right eye? First one eye then the other? If you can catch this movie on TV, you will see the solution they have come to — an enchanting image of the bridge of Barry Sullivan’s nose, not very dramatic.
Another, subtler, injury at least as nasty as the injury to composition — is done to a film’s rhythm if it was shot in Cinemascope originally. For every frame of every Cinemascope film is recut to the square size under the guiding rule of selecting the major focal point of each moment. Which means, for example, that in a scene of dialogue, the major focal point is the face of the speaker. Now, it is perfectly possible for a film director to arrange four heads across a Cinemascope screen or to position two figures at each side of the screen, and then to allow them to talk back and forth in a long, single take, unbroken by a cut. But a TV editor, going over such a scene, will cut constantly, back and forth from one speaker to the next speaker And in creating these cuts, which were not in the original film, he has laid out on the operating table a scene whose original point of view was broad, all-encompassing, detached, and unbiased, and whose original rhythm was calm and smooth, and he has chopped it up or cropped it down, actually — into a scene whose new point of view constantly switching and preferential, and whose new rhythm is quick, jumpy, nervous, pingpong-y. (And this, so far, is to say nothing of the fact that he has disposed of half of the actors’ performances — the time they spend listening, rather than gabbing.)
Presumably a lot of people must think "big deal" and "what of it?" and "who cares?" Certainly the TV people must think so, and certainly so must the TV watchers who want to see these movies, any way they can, free of charge. And this is one of the signs, of which there is no lack of the visual illiteracy, as it were, and indifference, and placidness, of movie viewers who watch a movie mainly to get out the sort of information they can pass across the lunch table the following day. (And who are getting pretty much what they deserve when they are given movies made with very little eye, and little care, and little attention to detail, and little respect for their audience — and it is not hard to find such movies, easier all the time, in the theatre page of the daily paper.) The moral of all this is not to suggest the pointlessness of watching movies on TV, but to raise an alert to the harms done to movies in fitting them inside the TV. Once the viewer is alerted, it is possible for him to, in a sense, reconstruct the movie in his mind to imagine the original look, and original intention, from the fragments contained within the TV screen.