My late uncle, Fred Karmel, once dared to argue the merits of letterboxing with me. “I paid a lot of money for that 25-inch Zenith, Scotty,” Freddy grumbled, “and I’ll be goddamned if I’m not going to see the entire picture.” When told that without the bars at the top and bottom one was likely to miss out on over one third of the image, Freddy pointed a finger and countered with, “That’s the bullshit talking.”
A tradition continues. My recent tirade against AMC Theatres’ insistence on blowing up their images to snugly fit the screen and avoid showing so much as a hint of black at the tops and bottoms of frames made the print edition.
It’s still not clear what’s worse: blowing up the image and chopping information off the frame or encouraging patrons to bring cell phones into movie theaters.
There is no having it both ways. Exhibitors cannot ask theater patrons to pack cellphones and expect them to heed the “Please Silence Your Cellphone” pre-show slide. Rumor has it the latest trend at local high-end dinner-and-a-movie joints is texting food and drink orders during the movie. Whatever happened to buying concessions before taking your seat?
In addition, studios of late have developed an ugly habit of projecting pre-show slides at screenings that encourage guests to pose before them and social media the hell out of the snapshots. In the case of Mission Valley #19, where I caught most of 22 Junk Street, there will be bleeding.
Call me persnickety — hell, you can say I’m straight-up anal — but a good portion of my life has been spent on a crusade to see the big picture. Before letterboxing, you were grateful to take what the networks and 16mm rental exchanges gave you.
How many pan-and-scan viewings of Mister Roberts — the Paleozoic, slightly un-squeezed TV and 16mm rental prints that made Cagney’s head look bigger than the Elephant Man’s — did I log before finally graduating to a restored 35mm CinemaScope print? For years the only uncut print of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West was the 4x3 atrocity broadcast on The Best of CBS. It didn’t take a genius to realize that something was lost in the translation when, after a 15-minute wait, the opening title credit spins on screen only to read: ce Upon a Time in the We.
Click on the picture to enlarge the pre-show slide. The missing information on the sides is obvious, but there’s just as much of the picture shorn off the top and bottom. Admittedly, there aren’t too many like Robert Aldrich left, those who tax every corner of the frame. Most contemporary comic-book peddlers think ahead and compose in center-scan so the finished product will look better when it airs cropped on HBO HD.
The funniest examples are the slides that are of no practical use to the studios, due to the mandatory cutoff. Web addresses and hashtags are generally arranged at the bottom of the image, the portion that frequently plays in the nether regions of the masking. At a recent Saturday morning kids screening, the pre-show entertainment asked fans to post their pictures at....
All that’s needed to get the full picture is one technician to spend a day in town tweaking the system. Edwards gets it right, and so can AMC. If they tell you otherwise, that’s the bullshit talking.