It’s All About Perspective – Criterion’s Visual Essay on Aspect Ratios for On the Waterfront (1954)

It was while I was watching and thinking about the video below that I think I finally figured out why so many film-lovers of my generation love and place so much emphasis on being able to see a movie, especially one from ages past “on the big screen”. I mean, it’s one of those things that many of us kind of take as a given today, but why? What is it about that experience that makes it so special? And why does it seem sometimes of lesser importance to kids coming up today who seem to be satisfied with watching movies and television shows on screens that are small enough that they will fit on a pinky ring? (Yes, I exaggerate, but not by much, and I figure it’s really only a matter of time.)

Family watching television, c. 1958
Family watching television, c. 1958 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, I’ll get there eventually, but it’s going to take a bit of a digression, so bear with me.

So I was having a discussion the other day with one of my younger co-workers about the “dinosaur days” when I was growing up. The talk at that time was brought about by my recent post concerning the differences between the dubbed and subtitled versions of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (click here to read that piece). He simply couldn’t understand why anyone with the choice would want to watch a dubbed version of a movie over the subtitled version. My point was that most of the time we didn’t even have that choice to make.

Y’see, kids, this was in that fabled long-ago pre-internet, pre-DVD (pre-VHS even), pre-cable age when the only viewing options we had were the three major networks (four if you count PBS) and if you were lucky, maybe an independent station on the (oft-times unreliable) UHF dial. (Don’t even ask me to explain the concept of the UHF dial. Or rabbit ears. Seriously, just don’t.) And even later, when things like cable and video tapes did become available, they were considered luxuries by most middle-class or lower families.

Yes, Virginia, those days really existed.

And that, I was trying to explain, was why the TV Guide magazine, and it’s weekly arrival at our house was always such an event. At least to a burgeoning young horror/sci-fi/”genre” movie geek like myself. There were times when the magazine, with it’s upcoming movie guide in the back was scoured immediately upon arrival to see if there was anything special that absolutely had to be watched that week. This situation became even more serious once we did get our first VCR and then eventually cable, because then choices had to be made about what to watch/tape, when different movies or favorite shows started and stopped, and whether there would be any overlap between them that would force an even harder choice.

TV Guide #1756
TV Guide #1756 (Photo credit: trainman74)

You see, here’s the thing. Back in those days, we really were at the mercy of the TV programmers and the choices that they made. If a movie came on that you wanted to watch, you had two choices – watch it, or miss it and wait until it came around again – if it ever did. Of course there were the perennials we could count on – The Ten Commandments would be shown every Easter, The Wizard of Oz also rated a yearly showing, but a lot of movies could literally get one airing, and that would be it.

So what does all of that have to do with dubbing? Or with differing aspect ratios, which is ostensibly what this post (and the video below) is about? Well, there were two things that TV programmers knew as “facts”: 1) American viewers would only watch movies that were in English, and 2) anything shown on television had to fill up the screen, no matter how it was seen in theaters, and it was these to factors that led to two other at times incredibly… shall we say “unfortunate” results when it came to the way that we were able to watch movies in those days.

Kung Fu Panda
If only the Shaw Brothers had come up with this concept. (Photo credit: ChadScott)

First of all, there was very rarely any chance of seeing anything that even vaguely smacked of a foreign movie. Oh, sure, there was “Kung-Fu Theater” on Saturday or Sunday afternoon with it’s laughably out-of-sync lip movements and over-the top histrionics, but most of those were really played for laughs. Even in theaters, when a foreign-born movie played in most locations, the soundtrack would be dubbed so that American audiences could understand what was going on and wouldn’t have to think about anything besides just, in the words of William Hurt’s character from The Big Chill, “let art flow over you”. And a lot of times those dubbing choices were made with only one idea in mind: make it look at least vaguely like the words being said were coming from the mouths of the characters that were supposed to be saying them. Accuracy of translation, and fidelity to the original script were definitely secondary to this goal, and at times were simply thrown out the window to the point where the movie seen here bore only a passing resemblance to the one that was shown in it’s country of origin. (This, of course, also led to things like the way the original Godzilla and other movies were basically recreated for American audiences, but that’s a completely different essay for another time. I’m already pretty far afield as it is.)

Secondly, it led to what was known as pan-and-scan. The idea here was that in order to fill up the TV screen and not have “those dang black bars” running across the top and bottom of a movie that might have been shot for a wide-screen theater release, a different editor from the original would look at the film. attempt to figure out the most important part of any scene, zoom in on that until it filled the proper space, and then, if for instance the scene was a conversation between two actors, pan his focus over to the other actor when it was their turn to talk. (Again, pan-and scan is another discussion for another day, but it does factor into the consideration of aspect ratio, so it seemed worth mentioning.)

Day 177/365 - Everlasting Moments
“Daddy? What was a movie theater’?”(Photo credit: Kevin H.)

Anyway, it’s this latter emphasis on filling the TV screen that leads us into the video below that, as I said at the top, led to all of this thinking, and also why, as I said, film-lovers of my generation at times have an at-times almost visceral reaction to the idea of “Wow! I get to see that on the big screen?! Cool!”

It’s because even though we know these movies, even though we may have seen them many times, we’ve never seen them the way they were meant to be seen. Especially if they are movies that we remember from our childhood that we haven’t watched, for whatever reason, since. This is our chance. There are certainly other factors, such as the opportunity to see these movies as a part of a community with other people of similar mind and maybe even discuss them afterwards and things like that, but I definitely think that this is a major factor.

Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in a screens...
Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in a screenshot from the trailer for the film On the Waterfront. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which, finally, leads to the video essay below. It was created by Criterion for their recent Blu-ray release of On the Waterfront, a movie from 1954 directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando. In it, they discuss the three different aspect ratios that the movie has been shown in, and why, when it came time to make the choice between them for the one to actually put on the disk, they ultimately decided not to make the choice at all, but to leave that decision to the viewer.

That’s right, the disk actually contains three different versions of the film that differ only in the aspect ratio, but ultimately leave the viewer with completely different experiences depending on the one that is chosen. It’s a somewhat bold and quite intriguing decision that definitely makes the disk a “must buy” in my book. Of course, it’s one that I’d want to own anyway, but this just cilnches the deal. Here, take a look to see just what I’m talking about:

What can I say? This is simply yet another reason why I love Criterion and always look forward to their release of almost any movie. They are a company that – rather than simply throwing out hundreds of movies a year without any concern other than getting the latest blockbuster onto as many store shelves as possible with the least muss and fuss possible – actually take the time to think about what might appeal to their audience and enhance the movie-watching experience. Yes, their disks may cost more than the average $5 Wal-Mart dump bin special, but they’re also almost always worth it. From upgrades in print quality to included extras, they do their best to keep the reputation for quality that they have earned. (And just so we’re clear here, no, I am not a Criterion shill, nor do I get any kind of kick-back from them for the praise I’m giving, I’m just a fan of what they do.)

Oh, and the movie itself is pretty darned good, too. There’s definitely a reason it’s considered one of the classics.

So, what do you think? Does the presentation of a movie like this make a difference to you? Are things like the aspect ratio even factors that you’ve thought about before? Was it even something you were aware of? As always, I encourage you to discuss these kind of things in the comments below.

And until next time, Happy Viewing!


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