When I had the chance to voice my concerns to the Time Warner tech, he shruggingly explained that “most people” soon “get used to” the stretching and after a while “don’t notice it anymore,” but in deference to my persnicketiness he left me not merely with a DVR attached to the TV by a second HDMI cable, but additionally with the freedom to select whichever aspect ratio best served whichever channel. An old movie on TCM looked good, and the blades of grass on football fields could be counted, but a commercial DVD of a 4:3 movie still came out stretched and squashed.
The new arrangement meant moreover that all the DVDs I’d previously recorded of movies on TCM would be similarly stretched and squashed, or in other words rendered useless. The DVR would now be my recording device, dislodging the disk-maker. It would “fill up,” it would not be a permanent library, it would eventually be replaced. But oh well. I elected, while I was at it, to add to my cable bill the six-dollar-a-month Movie Pack, a cluster of commercial-free, three-digit movie channels comprising a dozen Encore channels, the Fox Movie Channel, the Sundance Channel, and the Independent Film Channel, opening the door to movies I hadn’t known existed, such as François Ozon’s first English-language film, Angel, from a superlative novel by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor, but as I like to think of her, the Elizabeth Taylor), Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais, Wim Wenders’s Land of Plenty, Nicolas Roeg’s Puffball.
It may be here or there, though it’s hard to know exactly where, that within a week the DVR started to act up. From the first it had been unable to receive one of my favorite channels, 24, a favorite not for the all-day-and-into-the-evening broadcasts of stupendously uninspiring City Council meetings, but for the irregularly scheduled broadcasts of Classic Arts Showcase, random videos of arts and artists past and present, Toscanini followed by Baryshnikov followed by Hitchcock followed by Argerich and Grappelli and Callas and Eartha Kitt. But oh well. One rainy and windy night, however, the high-definition image on Monday Night Football began to break up (a phenomenon I have since learned is known as “tiling”), and in the succeeding days the DVR would flatline, requiring a reboot at least once a day, crapping out maddeningly in the middle of my recording of Liliana Cavani’s adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith thriller, Ripley’s Game. I could not live with that.
The next Time Warner tech spent a couple of hours stringing up a new wire which — hallelujah! — carried Channel 24 into my home, plus replacing my balky DVR with a new or anyhow a different DVR, fielding my childish questions, and, under my fretful eye, reprogramming the gizmo so that (what I didn’t realize was possible) I no longer had to select the aspect ratio for each channel but instead had the correct choice made automatically. I regard this man as my savior, fittingly named Jesus, although the new or different DVR hummed so loudly that I called in another TW tech to tell me that this was altogether normal: “It’s a computer.” I learned to live with it by putting a folded towel underneath it to cushion the vibration whenever watching TV and by pulling the plug on the power whenever not.
Meanwhile I had been sharing my conspiracy theory with anyone who would listen. Fred Saxon looked at me doubtfully, perhaps pityingly, though he allowed as how he doesn’t watch commercial DVDs of old movies. I got him to agree to watch one of mine on his own TV and to report back to me. In scientific preparation, I popped Detour, 1946, into my player so that I would know just which letters were shaved off during the credits, and, lo and behold, it suddenly looked fine, all letters present and accounted for and at full height, picture relaxed and undistorted. This part of the story is highly unsatisfactory. We can’t know whether the Best Buy guy had done something “wrong” (much less what), whether or why the first Time Warner guy had fallen down on the job and failed to set matters right, whether or how Jesus had performed a miracle. Maybe the ghost in the machine had had its fun and spontaneously decided to behave. Whatever, the evidence of a conspiracy had evaporated.
Emboldened with the knowledge that there was a solution to the problem, even if mystified as to where the solution lay, I purchased another HDTV (same make and model, different vendor) to replace the smaller tube set in the bedroom. This one would be connected only to the cable and to a DVD recorder, not to a humming DVR. It would enable me to build upon my library of disks. And I would install it myself (bold indeed), inching vigilantly through the manual, making sure everything was done to the letter, attaching another HDMI cable for the “best” picture and clearing out all those cumbersome old obsolete cables. At the end of this operation, I put Detour in the tray, pressed Play, and up it came. Letters shaved, picture stretched and squashed.
I did not despair. I knew there was a solution. (Praise Jesus.) I pored over the manual. I checked the settings against those on the other television, minus the wild card of the DVR. I sat for a long while with my head in my hands, long enough for Rodin to have knocked out a preliminary study for a bronze. At some point a lightbulb must have materialized over my head. Not a deduction, certainly not a certainty, just a hunch, something to try. I disconnected the HDMI cable and reattached what I now think of learnedly as component cables and what I used to think of as the long fat black thingy with the green and blue and red thingies at each end and the equally long but slightly less fat black thingy with the red and white thingies at the ends. Et voilà. A perfect picture, or at least a perfectly “good” one. The disconnected HDMI cable turned out not to be relevant. It could be connected, too, as long as I selected the right “input mode” on the “input select menu” — if that makes sense to you. Nevertheless the HDMI cable emerges in my mind as the villain of the piece, aided and abetted by the mum instruction manual. Sometimes “good” is better than “best.”