Tampering with the Image
Art works and aesthetic objects
What passes for the cinematic experience in an age when many films are watched on ever smaller screens, with numerous potential eruptions and the possibility for numerous digressions? The person watching a film on their 13 inch computer with various windows open that allows for immediately accessed information on the director, actors and cinematographer, is surely not experiencing the film the same way as someone watching it in a large auditorium with their phone switched off and the lights dimmed. Yet this is the same film we are watching if the image remains evident even if it is diminished. This is quite different from someone twenty years ago watching Klute in the cinema, and then watching it again on a Warner bros video copy. The latter was panned and scanned like many videos released on the home market, and was thus objectively a different viewing experience. Director Alan J. Pakula uses wide shots early in the film when various characters are at dinner, and while Pakula offers it in one take, the pan and scan method narrows the number of characters in the shot and then cuts to one of them who has been inside the original widescreen image but outside the pan and scan video version. This creates a cut when none was intended, and changes the texture of the scene. Utilizing Blade Runner, YouTube shows how pan and scan works by creating a red rectangular line and illustrating what is inside the box as the pan and scan version of the film while still showing us the rest of the image outside it. In one shot we see how a two-shot interview becomes focused on just one of the characters.
When critic Paul Coates in The Story of the Lost Reflection wondered whether films should be watched on small screens or big ones, he asked exactly how big the screen should happen to be, acknowledging the unavoidably subjective dimension attached to watching films on screens of varying sizes. He has a useful point to make, but only if the image we are watching is still objectively the image we will see on the cinema screen. If, as with pan and scan, the image fundamentally lacks information (as in the two shot becoming an image of just one of the two men in Blade Runner), then we are watching very simply a different work. A variation of this would be the censorship practiced when numerous films have been shown on British cinema screens, television or video. The BBC News commented on Lars von Trier's The Idiots when broadcast on Channel 4. "The film included footage of real sex, but the screen was pixelated to prevent viewers from seeing what was going on." More or less the same happened to Seul contre tous when it went from festival screenings to cinema distribution. The BBFC said to director Gaspar Noe, "You have to take care of the unacceptable images," with Noe insisting "it's merely an erect penis going in and out of a slippery vagina...The real danger is to agree with the censors when they say it's unacceptable." (Guardian). The pixelation leaves the image on screen; just desecrated.
There are other censorial approaches of course. Shaun Kimber in his book on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer notes that scenes in the film were cut by the British censors. "Cuts were made to remove the movement of the murderer Otis's hand to the murdered wife's pubis area and to reduce to a minimum the mauling of her breasts." Here director John McNaughton more obviously listened to the censors than Noe and von Trier, and we were thus watching a slightly different film. One with edited footage rather than desecrated imagery. If pan and scan creates a slightly new image structure as two shots get reduced to singles, where wide shots become narrowed and more focused, then censorship can generate the elliptical and the absurd. In Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer the murder is less pronounced because images of sleazy aggression are removed. In The Idiots and Seul contre tous the pixels create a non-diegetic absurdity as we're watching a film that has been so clearly and conspicuously tampered with by the censors. Here we have visible versus invisible censorship. While it is unlikely anyone would know that images are missing from McNaughton's film, we cannot help but notice the image has been altered in von Trier's and Noe's.
It's as if the European directors are saying the censor can do what they have to do, but the filmmaker's aesthetic will remain intact. Now, in the instance of Klute, the subtlety of the sequence can seem, in the pan and scan version, an example of cinematic obviousness, with the cut to a character who was previously inside the shot making the film look like it is is telling us something it didn't originally want to make explicit. For example, if we have a dinner table scene and we film it in a long shot, with all the characters at dinner filmed in one continuous take, except for one close up, we might be inclined to wonder what the significance of this close up happens to be. If we discover that it is only there because of a pan and scan of the image, then we would be inclined to forgo any interpretation of its meaning. The aesthetic has been altered, whether by censorship or by viewer expectation: viewers, after all, were very slow in accepting widescreen versions of films, and only a few were released on video initially, with Woody Allen's Manhattan a conspicuous example. The demands of the audience were very clearly changing the aesthetic of the film. The viewer's perspective was being incorporated into the small screen experience: people didn't want to have a black strip at the top and bottom of the frame; they would prefer an image with less of the film and more space used up on their TV.
It is on this question of what we can say about the image from our point of view that makes us think of a differentiation offered by Mikel Dufrenne. "Dufrenne", Dan Yacavone says, "draws a primary distinction between the work of art and the "aesthetic object". Whereas the artwork is a physical entity, and "empirical reality in the cultural world", the aesthetic object is the work as and when it is concretely experienced, "wherein its full "sensuous" potential is actualized." (Film Worlds) When we watch Klute we are watching an empirical object in the world, but what is the correct object in that world? If one starts theorizing over the pan and scan version of the film, and its intentionality, then discover it wasn't an intention of the filmmaker but a pragmatic decision on the part of the video distributors who wanted viewers at home to get a full image on their TV screen even it means getting rather less of the film, then how valid would this theory be? Any interpretation of the work on aesthetic grounds should surely stem from the widescreen images that Pakula and his cinematographer Gordon Willis created. We might for various reason do so from the DVD, but at least we are getting an approximation of the original ratio the filmmaker was working within. As commentators note, "It is awfully difficult to make a widescreen movie fit on a standard television that uses the 4:3 aspect ratio. That is where the pan and scan comes into play. The pan and scan is basically a method of adjusting a widescreen movie so that it fits within the constraints of a standard television aspect ratio. In most cases, the pan and scan will cut off the sides of a movie so that the main action of the movie is shown within the middle of the television. The major downside to this method is that over 30% of the original image can be lost due to the cropping of the picture." (Steve's Digicams) Can we comment on a film if we have only seen seventy percent of the image?
Yet there are also sometimes problems even if the transfer respects the screen ratio. Watching, for example, Bruno Dumont's L'humanite or Michael Haneke's Hidden on a much smaller screen than the average one we get in the cinema, can lead to the viewer missing important details. At the end of L'humanite, the central character is seen sitting on a chair in handcuffs. Those handcuffs are very hard to discern on a standard size TV. In the closing scene of Hidden, two characters are talking to each other amongst a mass of school kids, and while it isn't easy to make them out as you scan the image wondering what you might be looking for in the cinema, it is a whole lot harder doing so on a screen one twentieth that size. We might be getting more or less all of the image, but sometimes size really does matter, and these are two examples of it.
In an important article in Film Quarterly, Charles Shiro Tashiro goes so far as to say that the notion of transferring a film from the big screen to the small screen is erroneous; that a better world would be translation. "While film and video share common technical concerns (contrast, color, density, audio frequency, response etc.) their means of addressing those concerns differ." Here he talks of the question of 'videobility'. "A film with videobility translates relatively easily, perhaps even gaining in the process. (Which is to say that there are elements in the film that come through more clearly on video. Subtlety of performance, intricacy of design, for example, may be lost in the narrative drive of the one-time-only cinematic setting, but enhanced at home). A film of low videobility translates with more difficulty." From this point of view L'humanite and Hidden are films of low videobility, as they create images that are almost impossible to make out on the small screen. Yet they're perhaps of low videobility because while they are both ostensibly mysteries, they are not so serpentine that one needs to rewatch and rewind to make sense of certain moments. In both Hidden and L'humanite investigations are set in motion. In Hidden, unknown tapes are being sent to central character Georges' house. In L'humanite, a girl is found murdered and detective Pharaon investigates. Finally, however, we notice the films are mysterious rather than mysteries, possessed of a portent that doesn't quite go away, rather than a plot that takes several viewings to disentangle.
In contrast, films like Memento, The Usual Suspects, The Dark Knight and Nine Queens have complicated storylines that pay repeated viewings, with the viewer finding things they missed first time. As David Bordwell says in The Way Hollywood Tells It: "Thanks to video cassettes, fans could study clever plotting at length, and a director could drop in details apparent only in repeat viewings and freeze-framing." L'humanite and Hidden are not interested in asking the viewer to work things out, but to feel cinematically the singularity of the experience. While in Fight Club we might return to the film determined to see all the cues and clues that indicate Tyler Durden and Jack are one and the same man (the clues that make the plot clear), in Hidden while we may feel there are reasons for Georges's son's resentment, or that his wife could be having an affair, rewatching the films won't allow us to work out the assumptions with any degree of certitude. Numerous, more commercially-oriented, works accept that while viewers may lose something of the audio-visual experience, the large screen and multi-speaker sound available in a cinema, they can make gains in puzzling out the pieces of narrative they missed first time round by watching it over and over again on the small screen. Hence their high videobility.
Indeed this complexity of story might be one of the gains available in an art form that has translation (in Tashiro's terms) as a key component of its aesthetic. A painting does not have this translatable need: obviously there are many paintings we have never seen in a gallery context, but it would seem odd for an artist to paint a picture thinking of how it is going to look as a photograph in a book rather than as a painting on a wall. The novelist likewise will accept there is a chance his books will be translated into other languages, but we would be surprised to hear of a writer who publishes first in Spanish or French trying to write it in a way that would make it easier to translate into English. When the writer does make such an issue of translation he stands out. Kazuo Ishiguro castigated fellow English writers," Tim Parks notes, "for making their prose too difficult for easy translation. One reason he had developed such a lean style, he claimed, was to make sure his books could be reproduced all over the world." (Guardian) Yet Ishiguro appears much more the exception than the rule. It is as if the painter and novelist are expected to have no interest in the translatable dimension to their work during the original painting or writing process.
Now of course the novelist might choose to be closely involved in translations of their work, even the impediment of it. Milan Kundera's friend and publisher Miroslav Balastik says, "I think the reason Kundera does not allow his books to be published in Czech is two-fold. Every translation is - to a degree - an interpretation and I think if he saw a Czech translation he couldn't just let it lie. He already works closely with translators into other languages but his involvement in Czech would undoubtedly be greater. It's safe to say he doesn't have time for that. The other thing is that if he did publish in Czech, I think he is worried about the hullaballoo that would focus on his person, rather than on the writing. As is well known, Kundera does not want to be 'physically known' as the author but to be present only in the text itself." (Radio Prague) Yet most writers accept that the work they do needn't either affect how they write, or lead to much time being devoted to worrying about the translations into numerous other languages, many of which they will be unable to understand.
However if film is a universal language, a visual idiom, then how does translation work in cinema? Should the filmmaker make a movie that is small-screen friendly? Should Bruno Dumont in L'humanite have offered another shot, a tight close-up, to show the handcuffs so that they would be easily discerned on a TV screen? Should Michael Haneke in Hidden have given us a two-shot insert showing the two boys talking? Or should he have at least filmed close enough to eradicate most of the other people in the scene? This would be a variation of what Geoff King describes (taking the term from the Research and Education Committee of the American Society of Cinematographers) as the "safe action area". Here filmmakers "choose the confines of the 'safe action area', or the more moderate 185:1 widescreen format, rather than suffer the horrors of pan/scan. Extreme edge framing is generally avoided...this is not an absolute requirement, but it is a strong tendency." (New Hollywood Cinema) Such an approach is a little like a cinematic version of Ishiguro's remark.
On the webforum Mubi, various contributors offer examples of the best use of widescreen. One instance given is where Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly runs through a graveyard; yet if we were to pan and scan the image then nothing would be intrinsically lost except the scope of the sequence. There is no extrinsic information that would be cut out, only a few less graves in the scene. Certainly this would be a huge loss to the image, but it wouldn't especially dilute meaning or leave the viewer feeling they have watched something contrary to the director Sergio Leone's intentions. There is no moment in the sequence for example where Wallach and Clint Eastwood are in the same shot and the pan and scan would ruin the composition, forcing the video company to resort to shot/counter shot. In Godard's Le Mepris certain scenes seem more intrinsically widescreen: when we see Michel Piccoli's character on the roof on the top right hand corner of the frame, for example, and Bridget Bardot and Jack Palance centre left by the window. Or the moment with Piccoli on the right of the frame, with a statue on the left, and the recessive walls in between. A marvellous scene in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, where we see the henchmen from behind and Charles Bronson in the distance facing them, could be panned and scanned and would still retain narrative point but ruin the purpose of a film that plays on the wide open spaces of the west. In Barry Lyndon a pan and scan on a painterly shot of light coming in from the window and the characters sitting around a table on the right to centre part of the frame would be compositionally ruinous, no matter if Kubrick supported full screen over widescreen transfers. "Some filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick even preferred the box-like, open video transfer of his video The Shining." (35 Years of David Lynch)
This leads us to two important questions. One is that of interpretation, comprehension and meaning from the viewer's point of view. If Dufrenne acknowledges there is both the object in the world and the subject having an aesthetic experience, how much obligation does that feeling have to the object seen? If someone were to say for example that they much preferred a pan and scan version of Once Upon a Time in the West because two thirds of the image was missing and the viewer could concentrate on the characters instead of all those useless, empty spaces, would the subjective response be denying the integrity of the artwork? The second is if the viewer's response is incorporated into the maker's decisions, to what degree does the aesthetic experience get diluted by the viewer expectation?
But the first question first. Can we say that the person who prefers the video transfer over the widescreen original is simply wrong, or is the death of the author the freedom of the viewer? When Roland Barthes said "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the author" he wasn't instigating a necessary hermeneutic free for all. All he wanted to do was remove the author from the centre of the interpretive world. "Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified." ('The Death of the Author') Texts are after all not the work of an individual imagination, "but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture." Yet how free should we be once we remove authorial assertion from it. Who is the author of Klute when we watch the pan and scan copy and see two shots where there was originally one? Who is the author of the pixelation in The Idiots? The question isn't really one of authorial control on the one hand and viewer freedom on the other, but one of attribution and argumentation. If one were to claim that The Idiots amusingly uses pixelation as an ironic nod towards censorship and insisted this was the intention of the filmmaker without acknowledging this came out of a compromise with the censors, then one would be giving credit to von Trier over a decision that was not a choice within the art work, but a concession for its distribution.
However, there are many examples of concessions made by filmmakers through censorship that has been absorbed into the fabric of an industry (Hollywood during the Hays code from the thirties through to the mid-sixties) or in films during Communism. Many people will admire in classic Hollywood what they see as a subtlety that is chiefly there because more explicit scenes wouldn't have been allowed. Gore Vidal unofficially worked on the script of Ben Hur and wanted to play up a hint of homosexuality. As Tim Cornwell says: "interviewed for the documentary "The Celluloid Closet", he said he [Vidal] persuaded the director to liven up the relationship between Ben Hur and his Roman rival, Massala, with a scene where Massala, played by Stephen Boyd, casts longing glances at Heston as they sip wine. The sub-text, driving the scene but which was never made explicit, was that the two characters had been teenage lovers and that Massala wanted to kiss and make up. That was explained to Boyd but kept secret from Heston, who would have "fallen apart". (The Independent) Perhaps telling Heston would have ruined the scene even if he had wished to play up the gay sub-text too, with the scene suddenly drifting off into a question of sexual desire rather than homosocial sublimation. The implicit benefits the film, which like many an epic is surely more about honour than desire. Vidal says that director William Wyler went with the sub-text, but didn't make it explicit partly because the studios obviously wouldn't have been happy, nor the film's star. But finally we will credit the film to Wyler's choices, no matter the various influences playing upon his decisions, whether the studio's or Heston's. Yet to attribute it simply to Wyler's genius for subtlety might be an example of false attribution and consequently weak argumentation.
It is this notion of false attribution and weak argumentation that would be the case if someone were to defend the pan and scan version of Klute, or any other film, without acknowledging that there was a different version that preceded it and that we regard as the art object, with the video version no more than a translation of that object. We might conceivably defend the pan and scan over the original (just as there are people who prefer instant coffee over freshly ground), but an 'educated' judgement comes from knowing what came before and not only what came after. To do so, taking into account Dufrenne's distinction, means that we are acknowledging both the object made and the feelings extracted: the work of art and the aesthetic object. Barthes' attack on the author wasn't removing the work of art and only leaving the aesthetic object, it was claiming the work of art was so much greater than the work of the artist. If the artist wished "to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner 'thing' he thinks to 'translate' is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely..." ('The Death of the Author') This is obviously the Structuralist Barthes, the one who sees not that man speaks but that language speaks through man. We don't have to agree with his position entirely to see that the dilution of the author as figure of absolute authority is a good thing: it frees us up for more nuanced meaning. It doesn't destroy the work of art, but it does allow more space for the aesthetic object.
Perhaps the key issue we want to address here is the problem when the two become confused and which moves us towards our second question. What happens when the work of art and the aesthetic object no longer hold onto their distinctions? One of the problems with the pan and scan image is that we get a different work of art with which to offer our aesthetic contemplation. We are entitled to remark upon it, but this is not the object made, but the object translated. If we were to comment exclusively on the narrative that might be fine, but if we want to talk about composition, then we need really to look at the film in its intended screen ratio format. But what happens if we are watching the film in the cinema, and yet we've heard that the film though shot in widescreen refuses to use much of the frame because they want to work within the safe action area? In this instance, we accept the director may have made compromises, but these have been made within the work of art and not through a translation of it.
Of course, no sooner have we answered one question another dozen questions pop up. How, for example, does this work for literature? As Parks says, "Who wrote the Milan Kundera you love? Answer: Michael Henry Heim. And what about the Orhan Pamuk you think is so smart? Maureen Freely. Or the imaginatively erudite Roberto Calasso? Well, that was me." (Guardian) However, anyone interested in world literature has to accept the limits of their own erudition. How many literary critics would be fluent in English, French, Spanish and German (a few), and also in Japanese, Portuguese, Czech, Russian and the Scandinavian languages (rather fewer). Most critics will be commenting not necessarily on the translation but through it: attending first of all to Kundera, Pamuk and Calasso, but acknowledging the translation that takes place. Just as someone determined to comment on the compositional aspect of a widescreen film panned and scanned for video would have to look at the original to make their claims hold, if someone were to remark on the use of certain words in a copy they are reading in translation they would do well to at least compare the book to the original. When Kundera looks at Kafka's work in Testaments Betrayed he says, "for a translator, the supreme authority should be the author's personal style. But most translators obey another authority: that of the conventional version of "good French" (or Good German, good English etc.), namely the French we learn in school." If we are going to credit an apparently original author with stale phrasing, how can we take for granted the stale phrasing isn't the translator's and not the writer's? Ishiguro's answer to the problem is, of course, problematic from Kundera's perspective. The writer writes the type of prose that gives the translator least difficulty, just as the filmmaker makes the sort of shot choices that keeps most of the action within a particular section of the frame.
However, we can think again of Dufrenne's differentiation, and see how in these instances the writer and filmmaker are confusing the artwork with the aesthetic object: they are perhaps overly concerned with the aesthetic object as received rather than the artwork made. If Alan J. Pakula makes Klute and then accepts it will be panned and scanned on the small screen then that is a compromise made to maximize the audience. But it is a compromise that leaves the original arwork intact, and only becomes a perceptual problem for the viewer, not an aesthetic issue for the artist. If Kundera is correct in saying that "every author of some value transgresses against "good style", and in that transgression lies the originality (and hence the raison d'etre) of his art", then surely the same applies to filmmakers of any importance.
Much of the greatness of Le Mepris resides in its compositional originality creating an objective correlative for the collapsing marriage it shows, and the film's refusal to turn it into the melodrama it might otherwise threaten to become. Its story of a marriage falling apart as the wife goes off with the producer while the writer struggles to work on a script he doesn't believe in comes from Alberto Moravia's novel, A Ghost at Noon. Godard treated the novel with contempt, saying, perhaps too harshly, "it is "a nice, vulgar [book] for a train journey, full of classical old-fashioned sentiments in spite of the modernity of the situations". (Film Criticism) It is as if Godard turned what he saw as the old-fashioned vulgarity of the book into a very modern film, only for the panning and scanning to remove much of that visual modernity. Yet if Godard had made the film according to the demands of a small screen audience it wouldn't be the monumental work it is seen to be as it shows us images of the sea by Capri, gives us immense, compositionally precise images of the brutalist Fascist architecture it captures and witnesses the ancient monuments it invokes. The problem resides in the compromises made infecting the work, so that the assumptions of the viewer become the demands upon the filmmaker. Godard work is devoid of such assumptions: there is no sense at all of a director working within the 'safe action area'. This might be partly because the film was made before cinema generally started catering for the small screen market, but it seems absolutely consistent with a Godardian aesthetic that wants to utilise the frame as much as it wants to tell a story. He cannot quite believe in the safe action area. As Harun Farocki says: "Generally, Godard does not distinguish between "essential and "inessential" images. Unlike most film directors, he doesn't use images as weak links in a narrative chain leading to strong ones, but only images which, in addition to serving a narrative function, also have independent value." (Speaking About Godard)
Clearly, intentionalities and contingencies in many instances are not easy to separate: as we can see in classic Hollywood cinema, for example, where the filmmakers were working under both commercial and moral constraints. But Dufrenne's distinction between the artwork and the aesthetic object helps us to understand the difference between the two and the dangers residing in the latter having too much impact on the former. Godard's film could have been ruinously compromised by any fidelity to the safe action area, and is ruined by pan and scan.
To conclude, we can can think of one more example of the latter emphasis endangering the artwork, of the viewing subject imposing themselves on the viewed object: colourization. Described by Michael Dempsey in a short Film Quarterly article as "disgusting cultural vandalism", he notes that at the time of the article (1986-87), "many video store customers turn up their nose at them [black and white films]; the kids aren't interested in...black and white film..."('Colorization') He insists that The Maltese Falcon, It's a Wonderful Life and Yankee Doodle Dandy had already been colourized, and though people defending colorization's use would say that we still have the originals, there was a fear at the time that soon people wouldn't easily have access to that original as the colour version took over. Many directors were dismayed: John Huston, Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen all expressed their outrage; eventually the process died out. But this was seen by many as a very real danger. Perhaps numerous classic films would have been made in colour if the money had been available and the technology more advanced.
However, as Dempsey says, "once black and white photography was chosen, the movies were designed, costumed and lit accordingly." Surely these choices had to be respected? Here was a halfway house though between viewer demand and creative origins. The viewer could get the film they wanted (there were usually both colour and black and white versions available), but the original work was still there even in the video format. Also, this was an example of very visible alteration, where most of those who were likely to watch a colour version of It's a Wonderful Life or The Maltese Falcon knew what they were getting. Clearly the colour was horrible, but that also allowed for a degree of discernment. It was easy to see it wasn't the original. Occasionally there have been instances where the black and white version became the accepted one, but the filmmaker was never happy that this happened to be so. Jacques Tati's Jour de Fete, for example: "Tati filmed it simultaneously in Thomson color - a volatile, untested colour procedure that was tough to replicate - and monochrome, to offer a back-up. When it proved impossible to print colour copies from the Thomson-color negatives, the colour footage had to be abandoned and it was released in black and white." Tati always wanted it to be in colour, however, but it wasn't until 1995, long after his death, that his daughter Sophie Tatischeff restored the colour version. Here is an accepted example of colorisation following closely the director's intentions. We might allow for the death of the author in many ways, but we still often believe in the author occasionally speaking from beyond the grave. This brief account of Tati's film can be found in Sight and Sound ('Remake/Remodel') on a fascinating series of short pieces exploring various different versions of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Blade Runner, Betty Blue, Heaven's Gate, Once Upon a Time in America and others.
But most examples of colorization are seen as going against authorial intentions, and are subsequently viewed with dismay. Thus when Tashiro makes a passing mention of the process in his article, saying, "colorizing, for example, while damned as an obvious distortion of the film, can also be defended as improving the original", it is a provocative claim. Yet at the very least we can say it is a blatant 'improvement', as opposed to a surreptitious change. When Tashiro talks of the alterations made to the image in Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni, many might assume that the colours evident in the video are Losey's. But as Tashiro says "vividness of colour and detail are lost, and the image looks as if's been washed with a dirty towel." ('Videobility: What Happens When You Wait for It on Video.') This is because "the operator decides to make an overall adjustment in contrast to bring all the brightness ranges into midrange, thus making the image more "acceptable" to video. As a result, the alternating light and shadow are readable as a pattern." Where cinema has far greater resolution that will allow for vivid colour in both foreground and background, and throughout the image, video has to compensate for this lack, by creating a much duller palette.
Obviously, with advances in technology, the more these problems become resolved, and the blu-ray DVD for example will be a heck of a lot closer to the cinema image than an old VHS copy. Yet our point holds, and that is the danger of the surreptitious over the blatant, the invisible versus the visible. Many filmmakers have accepted these 'dirty towel' transfers, these pan and scan images, while very vocally showing intolerance towards colourization. However, from a certain perspective the former is worse: the viewer might accept the film as the original, that the compositional changes and the colour compromises are credited to the very work. Far more people watching Klute in the pan and scan version would be oblivious to the idea that this is compositionally very different from the director's original intentions than those watching a colorized version ofIt's a Wonderful Life. Viewers of both are getting what they want, but only the latter are likely to be fully aware that what they are getting meets their demands over the director's intentions. Of course, we agree with Dempsey that "colorization is disgusting cultural vandalism", but the difference between colorization and pan and scan is the difference between having your windows broken and having someone tamper with your water supply. You know pretty quickly your windows have been bricked.
Now Dufrenne is talking about the artwork and the aesthetic object on rather more elevated terms than we have here, with Dufrenne interested in a phenomenological perspective that we have more or less reduced to a technological one. But this question of the viewer's wishes and the technology's demands are worth exploring as the very notion of what a film happens to be in the twenty-first century becomes moot. After all, if films can be made on phones and watched on them, what constitutes the cinema experience? Could we even say that if watching a film that was made for cinema on a small screen is somehow compromising our viewing, then is watching a film that was made on a phone but watched in a cinema doing likewise? The director working in widescreen formats like Panavision and VistaVision clearly wanted their work to be viewed on the biggest of screens, but no such claim can be made so easily by the director who films on a hand-held digital camera or a mobile phone. Films shots on digital formats have often looked grainy or irresolute on the large screen, and some of the best filmmakers have played this up. Godard in Eloge de l'amour, for example, using rich, fauvist colours and emphasizing the gap to create a colour bleed that emphasizes the blues and yellows and accepting, even pushing, the blurring of figures. In The Idiots Lar von Trier shot the film on digital and blew it up to 35mm, as if finding a formal correlative to the ad hoc nature of the enterprise. Von Trier's film, for all its brilliance, looks like it has been shambolically thrown together, an experiment about an experiment: a film about a group of Danes deciding to revolutionize their lives and the lives of those around them by 'spassing': pretending to be mentally disabled. It is all fiction, of course, but feels like it is searching out a truth that utilizes a form indicative more of documentary than fiction. On what size screen should such works be watched? If we finally say the large screen it is because the artwork incorporates within its intentions the desire for the film to be watched in the cinema. Godard's film is in monochrome initially before switching to colour digital; von Trier's wants the confrontation of the viewer with the grain: watching it on a small screen this becomes less emphasized.
Perhaps the artwork and the aesthetic object rarely quite meet, that the film might be viewed in ideal conditions technically, but for various reasons fail in other ways (a large head in front of you in the auditorium, the occasional unwrapping of a sweet in the seat next to you, a badly digested meal in one's own stomach), but there are surely degrees, and a look at the difference between Klute on an old VHS copy, and seeing it even on a decent letter-boxed DVD will give you some idea of the gap between the intentions of the film and the limitations placed upon it by a bad transfer or, in Toshiro's terms, translation. As the Sight and Sound article on alternative versions makes clear: so many of the finest films are available in more than one version. The artwork is frequently an equivocal thing to behold. Yet we also have the aesthetic object, and it is between these two places that we often have to negotiate to play fair to both the film and our responses to it. Terms like videobility, the visible and invisible, transfer and translation, can help us acknowledge this space of aesthetic ambivalence.
© Tony McKibbin