WHEN: 10:40AM EST, August 21, 2012
WHERE: At my apartment in Portland, ME (Alderaan)
FORMAT: VHS on a Vizio 47″ LCD HDTV
COMPANY: None to speak of, intermittent cross-apartment traffic.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Wide awake, enjoyed a bowl of cereal.
In the 1970s, an epic battle occurred between two types of plastic shells containing magnetic tape. When the smoke cleared, the victor worked its way into the living rooms of the world, and Betamax lay wounded, dying, in the dusty garage of time. For three decades, The Video Home System, or VHS for short, made the magic of film (or a percentage of it, depending on the original aspect ratio) available for home viewings. In 2006, having itself been vanquished by DVD, VHS hacked up its final crop of feature film releases, ending with A History of Violence. Luddites everywhere bemoaned their inability to add 2007’s Spider-Man 3 to their VHS collections. An era of tracking problems had come to an end.
But I digress. This week I watched High Fidelity on VHS.
I had thought that the DVD’s combination of trailers (Mission to Mars, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, and Scream 3) gave a nice cross section of unacclaimed movies from around 2000. They have nothing on the lineup on the VHS release:
Mission to Mars
Down to You
The High Fidelity Soundtrack
Exciting new shows on ABC!
A vague celebration of the DVD format?
You know that a format is not long for this world when it contains an advertisement for its successor. Also, whatever happened to commercials for movie soundtracks? I’m not complaining or anything, I’m glad they’re gone, but did they disappear along with VHS? I just don’t recall seeing any recently.
“Your friends will yell at you to turn it off, just like in the movie!”
It is time to experience High Fidelity like never before…
Alright, I know I said that last week, but this time it really is true, because on the VHS:
Then what is with those black bars on the sides of the screen?
This is my first time viewing a full-screen cut of High Fidelity, and I was surprised to note that the there were not many egregious uses of pan-and-scan. Panning and scanning is when a film theatrically released in a widescreen aspect ratio has its ends chopped off so as to fit onto a square TV screen without those pesky black bars at the top and bottom. Like this example from The Music Man. The brighter section in the middle is the only part remaining after being panned and scanned:
76 trombones? I’m counting something like 17.
Now, normally I wouldn’t complain about less Music Man (if only they could pan and scan out “Madame Librarian” and “Gary, Indiana” while they’re at it, zing!), but this takes away from the director’s intended vision by literally removing a large chunk of the picture. For a really good explanation about the process and why it sucks, check out this fantastic video from TCM.
Now, the original aspect ratio for High Fidelity is 1.85 : 1 (not incredibly wide), so the amount chopped off the sides would be smaller than the example above, but still, having seen this movie 34 times, I figured I wouldn’t have much trouble figuring out what had been chopped off. Just an easy mental case of fill-in-the-blanks.
But throughout most of the film I was unable to figure out what was missing. This was because, much like Hammond’s computers in Jurassic Park, I was looking for missing information, not added information. Let me explain…
About halfway through the movie I noticed the legs at the bottom of a piano, and it occurred to me that I had never noticed them before. It was because I had never seen them before, because they are not in the shot in the theatrical version of the film. High Fidelity was shot in open matte. This means that, for some shots at least, the top and bottom of the film frame were removed for the widescreen theatrical release, but not from the home video release. This creates the same square image as panning and scanning, but by putting picture back instead of removing it. Take a look at this example. What lies between the yellow lines is what appears in the theatrical release:
I cannot believe I have lived without that extra bit of sweater for so long.
Now, does this extra bit of picture mean that the VHS release is better? No. If Stephen Frears had meant for you to see that bit of sweater, or the word “cassettes” in the sign, he would have framed the shot so you could see them in the theatrical release. The composition of the original shot is still compromised, even if bums like you or me might not notice for half the film.
But now that I know there are extra chunks of picture floating around the VHS release, I’ll have to go back and see if I can find anything hiding in them. Secret things. Things that weren’t meant to be seen…
Or it might be stuff you’d expect to find, like tiny creepy people and a boom mic.