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.
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.”
I don’t recount this story to trumpet my triumph. I recount it to trumpet my initial failures, despite all due diligence, and perhaps to provide support and a public service to my brother ignoramuses. It must be easy to go awry however hard you try. The black cloud at the end of the story is the imponderable question of how many people out there, lacking the standards or the stick-to-itiveness, simply “get used to” or “don’t notice” a stretched and squashed image, how many in dissatisfaction consciously or unconsciously drift away from DVDs of old movies, how many confine themselves solely to the wide-screen window. How many?