Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #9: What Role Should Format Play in Movie Appreciation?

A reader named Robert writes:

“Last year, The New York Times published an article about a subculture of genre movie fans who, for the sake of nostalgia, prefer watching their favorite films on VHS.  Personally, I'm happy that the days of pan and scanned analog murkiness are gone.  I bought a blu-ray player a couple of years ago, and the first movie I watched on it was THE OMEGA MAN.  The clarity of the picture was startling.  Watching Charlton Heston cruise the deserted streets of downtown L.A., the sun gleaming off the windshield of his car, I felt that the enhanced quality of the film gave rise to a correlating sense of immediacy.  The movie became more impactful, more urgent, and less an artifact of early seventies cinema. 

My question is: to what extent, if any, should format play in one's appreciation of a movie?”

Robert, that’s a terrific question, and one worthy of much consideration and debate, actually.  In all my writing, I seek to be judicious, to offer a balanced appraisal where possible.  So in this case, I’m going to tread the same careful path of moderation.

A lot of us grew up with VHS and “pan and scan” murkiness.  And worse than that, even, many of us also grew up with films we taped off the air in the 1980s that were cut up with commercials, edited for content, and otherwise, well, corrupted.  So clearly, these are not ideal viewing formats.

And yet, I first saw King Kong (1933) on television, interrupted by commercials and edited for content.  I first saw Godzilla, King of Monsters (1956) in the same fashion.  I first viewed Planet of the Apes (1968), cut-up and split over two days on the 4:30pm movie on Channel 7 in New York.

I would not trade the timing or placement of those movie “discoveries” in my life for all the tea in China.  The movies came to me exactly how and when I needed them, and I devoured them all.  Did the inferior viewing format in such cases ruin those movies?

No. Not at all.

Now, by the same token, would it have been better to see the films uncut, cleaned-up, and in their original aspect ratios? 

Yes.  Certainly it would have been.

So I guess you could say I’m not a terrible stickler for format when it comes to appreciating movies.  I dislike VHS mainly because you lose approximately a third of the frame, and the format thus plays havoc with a director’s carefully-vetted composition. It's hard to interpret the imagery of a film when that imagery is so blatantly defiled.  

Yet I am also an advocate for experiencing great films in any way possible, even if there are format drawbacks to take into account and reckon with.

I know the purists will complain – because they always do -- but I believe if you ask prominent movie artists the same question you put to me here, the vast majority would rank their interests in this way. 

1.)    See the movie the way it was meant to be seen (preserving the integrity of the frame, uncut, and without commercial interruption). 


2.)    If you can’t do that, see the movie anyway, in whatever form it happens to be available. 

Personally, I can't fathom movie lovers who would rather see movies on VHS for nostalgia's sake in the era of DVD and Blu-Ray.  However, if a seldom-seen movie is for some reason unavailable in these newer formats, I will, without hesitation, seek out the VHS version – panned and scanned – to experience the film in at least some fashion. 

Bottom line: if I want to see a movie, I’m going to find some way, even an imperfect way, to see it, so at the very least, I will have some first-hand sense of it.

Of course, when we talk about format, we must acknowledge the other argument too, that Blu-Ray is a far crisper and more detailed format than was available decades ago.  Some special effects made in the 1960s actually look worse today on Blu-Ray – visible wires on miniatures and all – so by seeking something “better” in terms of clarity, are we actually denying the filmmaker’s original vision again, only in a different way?

I don’t know, honestly.  The Omega Man was also one of the first Blu Rays I purchased, and I agree with your assessment of its visual qualities.  The film, to my eyes, has never looked better.

But how to reckon with director’s cuts, extended cuts, unrated cuts, and special editions?  Are those formats a legitimate result of a director’s vision too, or just money grabs? 

And, finally, again in terms of personal choice, I find those critics who belabor format issues at the expense of actually discussing the artistic merits of a particular film a bit baffling.  To me (and again, this is a personal choice), it’s like picking up a great book and judging it not by the words, writing, and thoughts inside, but by the binding, the cover, and type font. 

Ultimately film is an art form that expresses human narratives in visual composition and words, and that’s where critical focus should land, not on the minutiae of “format.”   After all, when a lot of these films were initially released, quality was variable anyway because of the specific print, the quality of the projector, the projector's bulb, and even the abilities of the projectionist, to some extent.  So why be excessively snobby about a minute, color differential on a DVD version now?  Is that little thing enough to keep you from experiencing a film you want to experience?  For me -- and your mileage may differ -- the answer is no.

It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and better to see – rather than not see -- a film simply because of format issues.   So I think people should just be educated about what, precisely, they are watching, if that makes sense, and tailor responses accordingly.  Don’t review a pan-and-scan VHS and note that the movie looks like a “TV show” because, you must acknowledge, finally, you’re not seeing the full picture, but a cut-up one.   

In a nutshell, my answer is: be reasonable about format when appreciating movies.  Watch what feels right to you.


  1. For me, the biggest gifts of both DVD and Blu-Ray, greater than having films finally in their correct aspect ratio or anything of the ilk, is it gave me the joy of feeling like I was watching my favourite movies, for the first time, all over again. For example, I've seen Terminator 2 more times than schooldays I attended, but on Blu-ray, I was transfixed by the sudden increase in clarity that, not once, did I yawn and think "I've seen it all before".

    1. The Horror! Addiction!,

      I very much agree with your viewpoint.

      Experiencing Space:1999 Year One on Blu Ray -- which I've seen on broadcast TV, VHS, and DVD -- is a life changing experience for this fan.

      Also, movies such as Planet of the Apes and John Carpenter's Halloween look stunning in this format. I've become quite the Blu-Ray fan, and I agree, it is very much like watching these films again for the first time.

      I don't think you *must* watch all movies in this format, as I indicate in my article above, but for those who want to see their favorite movies or TV shows again, with a new crystal clarity, Blu-Ray is astonishing.

      Great comment!


    2. Funny you mention Planet of the Apes. I'd seen 1-4 and Tim Burton's remake before, but I've just watched 1 to 5 on Blu and am now going through the TV series on DVD, then the cartoon, then the 2001 version and finally Rise on Blu. The pictures are much better than I remembered (well, the sequels I mean, I knew I loved the first one). The extended Conquest is a much better film. I don't think gore always adds a lot, but that movie's darker and more violent tone is good to make it stand out more.

  2. Bring back VHS!

    Seriously, that's a joke!

    Where possible I gleefully replace. On ocassion, I have the rare VHS film unavailable in Blu-Ray or DVD [I'll replace those one day too] like the music videos of Paul Young. What can you do?

    Enjoying these question and answers and Robert has me even more enthusiastic about purchasing The Omega Man on Blu-Ray which I've been watching for some time.

    1. Hi SFF:

      I don't miss VHS, either. Somehow, someway, I occasionally miss VHS box art, but that's a different story. :)

      Like you, I will watch otherwise unavailable movies on VHS, if that's the only way to see them.

      And I strongly, STRONGLY second Robert's commentary on The Omega Man. The film looks fantastic on Blu-Ray.

      Thank you for an excellent comment, my friend.


    2. I'm going to be a BIT of a dick and say something I mean from the bottom of my heart - I do kind of miss VHS! It's simply because it was such an organic medium, the film was scarred from every viewing before, the way a book is marked from previous readings. I also liked recording three movies in LP (or Extended Play, for the people in the US) on one tape. I don;t know, I wouldn't go back, but I do miss it sometimes.

    3. Anonymous2:27 PM

      The making of document on my Fast Times at Ridgemont High DVD included a funny anecdote regarding this: apparently the part where we get to see the famous pair of breasts was very glitchy on rental VHS tapes.

    4. The Horror! Addiction:

      Interesting alternative view of VHS. I don't think you're bing dickish at all. You're right about how VHS tapes are "marked" by repeated viewings. I don't think I've ever thought about it in quite those terms.


      Your great comment reminds me of a movie I saw called "To the Devil a Daughter" on VHS. It starred Nastassia Kinski, and as soon as the tape came to her nude scene, the tape got very glitchy, as you say. In other words, that seems to be the scene everyone was rewinding and watching again and again...

      Great comments!


  3. Anonymous9:13 AM

    One of the most annoying things is to find out after a DVD purchase that it is a 4:3 aspect ratio release. This is annoying but it hasn't actually diminished the movie experience that much because, after all, movies are about the story, not about the technical specifications.

    No, I would never go back to VHS but I don't feel the need to upgrade to Bly-Ray.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      I can definitely understand your point of view here. First, it is extremely annoying to find a DVD with the 4:3 aspect ratio. That drives me crazy, because you're not getting the full picture, as I note in my article.

      I love Blu-Ray, but at this point, I'm being somewhat selective in purchases of Blu Ray, and still maintaining a strong DVD collection.

      For one thing, I share my movies with my 92 year old uncle -- an action movie lover (favorite movie: De Palma's Scarface!) and he doesn't yet have a Blu-Ray player. So I prefer to purchase those sets that come with DVD and Blu Ray, and least while I'm sharing with my Uncle Arthur!

      Right now, I'm reserving the Blu Ray experience for movies I absolutely love and cherish.

      Great comment!


  4. Anonymous3:06 PM

    John, like you, I enjoyed the VHS box art as I enjoyed the Album LP vinyl cover art before the small CD box cover art that replaced it in the '80s. However, before the '90s DVDs with many production extras arrived, I would always by VHS letterboxed movies if available. So I am happy about DVDs and that I stood with VHS long enough to bypass the laser disc temporary reign like the 8-track audio cassette of my boyhood in the '70s. DVDs have so much to offer in extras that the VHS never could. My Space:1999 complete series DVD boxed set with many extras is brilliant in content and now based on your comments John it looks like I will have to invest in a BluRay player to purchased the BluRay release of this series.

    OMEGA MAN(1971) is a movie that I saw as a young boy in the mid-'70s at the drive-in as the second part of a double feature with my family. It immediately became permanently part of my favorite science-fiction films short list.


    1. SGB:

      Great thoughts on VHS (and particularly the box art...which was really wonderful in some cases.) Good for you for getting the letterboxed versions on VHS. I should have done that. I went to laserdiscs and though I love them yet, they are no worthless, and getting laser rot...

      The Space:1999 Blu Ray is UNBELIEVABLE. I know how much you love the series, so I think you would totally groove on this. You can see details you've never seen before, and the lighting is brightened too, in an astonishing way. I find the series on blu-ray unbelievably entrancing. Honestly, it's the best Blu-Ray conversion I've seen yet. I wish the company would hurry up and release Year Two.


  5. Anonymous4:46 PM

    Great response to my question. Thanks!

    Back in the mid-nineties, when my brother-in-law was a teenager, he used to record television shows over the climaxes of VHS rental copies of movies in new release. He found it to be terribly amusing to spoil the ending to popular films. Because of this, I'm sure there is a group of northern Illinois movielovers who think SE7EN ends not with Brad Pitt and a box in a field but with with an episode of SABADO GIGANTE taped off Univision. I doubt these folks lament the passing of VHS...

    You made a great point when discussing the effect of Blu-ray's clarity on older films. I recently bought a copy of Chaplin's MODERN TIMES on Blu-ray. The format did nothing to enhance the picture quality. I was expecting, but did not experience, the same pop on the screen that I've had with other Blu-rays I own. I would have been better off buying the DVD version.

    One of my favorite films, THE BLACK HOLE, has yet to receive the Blu-ray treatment. If it ever does (and if the Blu-ray is contingent on a remake, forget it; I don't want it), I wonder how the old school special effects (which I adore) will look.

    Thanks again,

    1. Robert,

      You asked a great question, and you can see how it launched a great conversation here on the blog. Thank you for sending it to me, and please feel free to send others in too. :)

      I would be very interested to see The Black Hole on Blu-Ray, though I do wonder how those "old school" effects will hold up. I remember interviewing Brian Johnson, the effects director of Space:1999 in 2000, on the occasion of the DVD release, and he was not happy that the superior resolution meant that Eagle wires were now thoroughly visible in fx shots. The Black Hole may similarly suffer on Blu Ray.

      Some things, I don't really see as being vital on Blu Ray. The original Twilight Zone is one of them. Many episodes in the second season were shot on video. You can only "class that up" so much, I think. The series looks great in DVD, in black and white. But Blu Ray just seems like overkill, so I understand your hesitation about Modern Times.

      Great question, and great comment. Thanks again for sparking a great dialogue here on the blog today.


  6. Another interesting entry. I gotta chime in on Blu-Ray being overkill on older movies with special effects. I got the Blu-Ray of "7th Voyage of Sinbad" and the effects shots ended up looking so soft and hazy because of the layering used for the Dynamation process that it was very distracting. Scenes without effects shots look gorgeous (although I see some folks complaining about the colors being off). On the other hand there's the DVD version of "Golden Voyage of Sinbad", which looks a lot sharper than the old VHS copy I used to enjoy and looks consistent from scene to scene.

    I do have "Twilight Zone" on Blu-Ray and it is gorgeous. I never owned it on DVD and I was able to get the Blu-Rays sets at a good price. But you're right, those video episodes still look really hazy in that "shot on video" way.

    I try to only pick up Blu-Ray for flicks that I know will look great. A recent purchase of "The Godfather" and its sequel were well worth the money.

  7. I think format doesn't really matter when you first see a movie, especially as a kid. When I was younger I watched a lot of movies I grew to love. I emerged myself in the movies, couldn't hear my parents calling my name sometimes.

    Later seeing these movies on DVD, in widescreen, made me appreciate them even more, to see them in more artful way and not just as a B-movie or just an action film...films like Die Hard and The Hitcher, the cinematography is excellent.

    And with Blu-ray players DVDs also look pretty good still, so I don't really replace movies unless they're cheap. I buy far more DVDs than Blu-ray discs.

    The quality of older movies on Blu-ray is much more appreciated than newer movies. So, I really didn't care much about the quality when watching Inception on Blu-ray, although it's demo material disc. I love my Back to the Future set I bought in the US, I love how the eyes of people pop up on Blu-ray.

    I haven't said good-bye to VHS, I have a VHS player still and don't rule out using it to record something from the TV as I've got loads of tapes with old stuff on. VHS is nostalgia all the way!

  8. Terrific discussion, and there are no real "right answers" since it's up to individual tastes! I'm old fashioned, and switch technologies very slowly and grudgingly (like from LPs to CDs), and during the "VHS" era I collected some 1,700 movies on VHS, often cramming as many as possible on an EP tape! I've still got 8 hr tapes with four movies (usually older, shorter running time movies). So when DVD came along, I'd already invested a ton of time and money collecting on VHS!

    However, I can't say I PREFER the older VHS tapes for quality or content. I'm nostalgic, too, but I like the crispness of remastered versions and an aspect ratio that mimics the theater experience, and let's you see the whole picture as intended. And, while I don't yet have a BluRay player, I do enjoy seeing certain movies in BluRay at friends and families' houses. I recently watched 1966's "Grand Prix" on BluRay, and I swore I was actually in one of those race cars on the track! But the kind of clarity of BluRay is simply not a "must" for me, especially for "everyday" viewing. What I do prefer, every time, is an uncut movie (incl. longer "director's cuts" -- I wanna see all available footage!) and one that has the theater aspect ratio.

    So what I'm slowly doing is converting VHS movies to DVD, as money allows! There's no way I can afford to convert my entire VHS collection to DVD -- even if I could find ALL of them on DVD -- and to date some of the more obscure ones (including classic made-for-television of the 60's/early 70s) have not been put out on DVD (if you can find them at all, they're only on inferior bootleg DVD copies). So I'll probably get all the "doses of nostalgia" that I need thru the poorer, grainier VHS copies, thru simple economic necessity!

    Here's an example... For years I was only able to find Mario Bava's classic "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" (released in the U.S. by AIP as "The Evil Eye") on a bootleg VHS tape that looks like it was taken off TV, and it was the AIP's "Evil Eye" version. Definitely not a great copy, but still watchable and enjoyable. Finally I found the Italian original "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" as part of a Mario Bava DVD collection. It was a great experience to see an obviously remastered, very crisp and clear (subtitles notwithstanding), and to see a few scenes that AIP had removed.

    But here's my dilemma -- I actually prefer the AIP version ("The Evil Eye") in CONTENT to the somewhat different Italian original cut of Bava's ("The Girl Who Knew Too Much")! I like Les Baxter's musical score better than the original, and I like some of the scenes which AIP actually added BACK to the movie, which Bava had edited out of his Italian version! And yet I acknowledge that some of Bava's scenes, which AIP chose to edit out, definitely do add to the overall narrative. So what to do? Perhaps someday someone will do a "definitive cut" with ALL the scenes, put it out on DVD, and give you the option of which musical score to chose -- Baxter or the Italian original.

    1. BTW, as far as the classic movie "Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye" -- I readily concede that I'm probably in the small minority who prefer AIP's "The Evil Eye" to Bava's original. I know from the blogosphere that most folks like "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" better. But for several reasons I like "The Evil Eye" best. For one thing, having the film in English and not having to read subtitles. I don't especially mind subtitles, but I think one does tend to loose alot, visually, when constantly having your eyes go down to read subtitles. Bava's rich photography and scene set-up make this a definite distraction. Also, I think on a very subtle psychological plain, going back and forth from visual images to language text is jarring and unbalancing (again, just slightly, but maybe enough to take away from the total enjoyment of a movie, at least on a subtle unconscious level). I never feel like I've quite "gotten into the movie" and fully submerged myself into the experience when I have to plod thru subtitles.

      Second, I don't like Bava's use in "Girl Who Knew Too Much" of a narrator. I know Bava's reasoning for this rather unusual move -- to create a more "giallo feel" for the movie, but I find it just a bit annoying. As for the different scenes between the two versions, I guess it's mostly a matter of taste. I think the scenes AIP chose to add back do tend to give the film a little "lighter, more humorous" feel, but not too much. And maybe that contrast, between the "lighter" moments and the dark ones that Bava crafted so well, is a good thing.

      I agree that there are some key scenes, such as actually showing the face of the mysterious man on the Spanish Steps who pulls the knife out of the murdered girl's back, that do add to the narrative. It's definitely jarring to then see the same face in a portrait on the piano. But in "The Evil Eye" they chose to cut this out, so there's no emotional impact when seeing the picture. On the other hand, one of the best scenes of "The Evil Eye" (even though it doesn't add to plot development), is the one where Leticia Roman is settling into her room at her Aunt Ethel's house, and the eyes of the portrait on the wall seem to follow her as she undresses. And the portrait is actually of director Mario Bava! In another homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Bava chose to make a "cameo" by way of the portrait! Not sure why Bava then chose to edit this scene out of his Italian original, except that it's rather superfluous, and never explained just why the eyes keep moving. Still, it's fun and enjoyable, especially knowing it's Bava himself.