First let me confess. I do not know what I’m talking about. Anything naive, ill-informed, mistaken in what follows will be admitted freely without need of threat or torture. I am confident I speak for a legion of technological ignoramuses.
For years I resisted the acquisition of a wide-screen television. More than resisted, I scoffed. My chief experience of the innovation, outside of showroom displays with made-to-order videos of the Rockies or marine life or some such, was in the occasional hotel room where, on the touted plasma screen, all basketball players were short and stout and the entire roster of talking heads at ESPN and CNN had apparently been run over breadthwise by steamroller. How, I marvelled, can anyone put up with this, let alone tout it? Television shows, not to speak of pre-Cinemascope old movies, were shot and exhibited in a 4:3 aspect ratio and any attempt to fit them into a 16:9 would result either in cutting off the top and bottom of the image or else in turning the screen into a funhouse fat mirror. Or both.
Well, years passed. Somewhere along the line I must have absorbed that we no longer were calling them wide-screen TVs, which in the early days were often no more than big-screen TVs in the same old 4:3 ratio, and we’d taken instead to calling them high-definition TVs, or hi-def TVs, or HDTVs, which always seemed also to be wide-screen TVs regardless of how big or little. I would sometimes think to myself that I would be willing to fork over for something fitting the description of a high-definition TV if it came in a 4:3 screen, but even though I would see references on the Internet to such an animal, I never saw one in a display room and could never locate one through Google. More time passed.
Then last fall I went to Berkeley to see some Julien Duvivier films at the Pacific Film Archive (aside: Holiday for Henrietta, about two long-time collaborating screenwriters who harbor tragically and comically opposed ideas on the fate of their heroine, is one of the best films about filmmaking ever made), and my hotel room was not only equipped with a high-definition TV but the TV in turn was equipped with a number of high-definition channels into the bargain, HBO, ESPN, the major networks. Football players appeared in the proper proportion (thick though some of them might be), and I felt I could almost count the blades of grass on the gridiron. I would have gazed longer at HBO had it been playing something other than Australia.
This bore further research. Possibly some kinks had been ironed out when I wasn’t paying attention. Possibly the nationwide “digital transition,” to which I paid scant attention, had some benefit after all. From customer comments and “expert” reviews on the Internet, I gathered that my thumb or forefinger would be able to select the correct aspect ratio on the remote, so that I could view an image as it had been intended, squarish or rectangular, full screen or fractional. I began asking around. A friend in Boston who had recently gotten an HDTV sent advice (LCD, not LED or plasma) along with illustrative sketches of the aspect-ratio options. And an in-home demonstration by my amiable colleague Fred Saxon showed me, besides the blades of grass on a football field, that an old movie on TCM looked like an old movie ought, with black bars at the sides of the picture to preserve the 4:3 ratio and fill out the 16:9 screen, while a new wide-screen movie on, say, the Lifetime Movie Network offered not just more sharpness but more space at the sides. Last step was to ask another amiable colleague, and as prickly a stickler as I am, Scott Marks, whether he had anything against HDTVs. He didn’t have one of them, but he hadn’t. I was sold. I bought.
The next chapter is really a separate story. For present purposes, it is neither here nor there that I bought the thing online from Best Buy on the advice out of Boston and on the understanding (confirmed with a live person at the 800 number before finalizing the deal) that an ace technician would come along to install it and to haul away the boulder-sized old tube television; neither here nor there that it arrived on my doorstep via UPS with no one to perform those services; neither here nor there that I spent literally hours on the phone trying to round up such a person, listening to repetitive torturous prerecorded messages for more than enough time to resolve never again to buy anything online from Best Buy.
In the end a fifty-dollar credit was advanced for the inconvenience, and the services were performed. It is very much here or there, on the other hand, that these services included the hooking-up of something called an HDMI cable between TV and DVD recorder, to supply the “best” picture (as spelled out in the installation instructions) and to replace the tangle of cumbersome “component cables” that can supply only a “good” one; very much here or there that the services included tutelage on the Format button of the remote, permitting a choice of the 4:3 aspect ratio in addition to several choices of screen-filling, picture-stretching distortion. And while waiting for a Time Warner technician to show up with either a DVR, their version of TiVo, or else a set-top cable box (as it is still called despite the fact that you could barely balance a matchbox on top of the new slimline sets), I had time to be wowed by my never-opened DVD of Strangers When We Meet, letterboxed in a 2.35:1 ratio and “remastered in high definition.”
There was time as well to discover a defect. An old movie on TCM looked all right in 4:3, and a commercial DVD of a wide-screen movie looked better than all right in 16:9, but the television couldn’t or wouldn’t handle a commercial DVD of a 4:3 movie. In the 4:3 format designated on the remote, both sides of the image got cropped, so much so as to shear off letters in the credits, and whatever remained of the image got stretched out sideways in the manner that had appalled me on hotel plasma televisions in the past. The full-screen format restored the edges of the image but maintained or even aggravated the stretching. No option would relax the elastic and return the image to its original proportions. I was nonplussed. How could this be? How could no one have mentioned it? In my fevered brain I got to work on a conspiracy theory to the effect that this was more than just a defect in technology, it was a defect in personality, an intolerance of old and alternative ways of life and a strong-arm conformist effort to force everyone to view the world through a 16:9 window. Wide screen, narrow mind.