Thursday, February 3, 2011

I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letterbox

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis (as opposed to those who just look at the pictures) are no doubt aware that last July some fast-talking CSR at CharredHer Cable convinced me I could save a little bit of money on my monthly cable bill by adding Showtime /The Movie Channel, etc. to the lineup of stations I get here on the TV set at Rancho Yesteryear.  To my delight, I also learned that the Encore channels (regular Encore, diet Encore, Encore Mystery, Encore Action, etc.) were included, and for those of you who think that the only reason why I haven’t jettisoned Showtime is because I’m addicted to Encore Westerns…well, I compliment you on your keen powers of observation.

Still, in the interest of full disclosure, I should also point out that I do watch a movie on Showtime (or The Movie Channel…or Flix, which is a little like Encore) every now and then—particularly if it’s a film of recent vintage that I’ve heard good things about and would like to get a gander at myself.  A very good example of this is the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker (2008)—recommended to me by noted film critic and e-mail spam authority Scott “World O’Crap” Clevenger.  I also, thanks to the Showtime acquisition, saw Best Picture nominee Inglourious Basterds (2009)…’cause had I viewed this film at my local googolplex I might have gotten a bit cranky and asked for my money back.

But the major detail that I’m leaving out with these two honored films is that I watched them (drum roll please) LETTERBOXED!  To quote noted TCM host Ben Mankiewicz: “How cool is that?”

I am one of the most passionate advocates of letterboxing films for television, to the point that when I watch a movie on TV and it’s not presented in that format…well, I get downright pouty about it and I’m pretty unpleasant to be around.  For years I patiently tried to explain to my BFF the Duchess that watching a letterboxed film was not a bad experience—she, like so many other individuals who have failed to see the light, was convinced she was being robbed of picture and content.  I told her that if she’d only keep an eye out for that TCM segment where people like Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese present their case for letterboxed films all would become clear to her…but even though she and I have been friends for over thirty-five years I for some odd reason have convinced myself that she will take my advice on something.  (I know, I know—what the heck was I thinking?)  Now, in her defense, I believe she’s slowly coming around to my way of thinking because the last time I mentioned seeing a movie in letterbox she didn’t derisively mock me as is her usual fashion.  (Progress is a wonderful thing.)

Ironically, it was while talking with her on the phone one Friday morning that I learned of Showtime’s progressive commitment to showing films in letterbox format; as we were holding forth on some subject (the details of which have since left me) I was nonchalantly channel surfing through the area cordoned off for the Showtime channels and discovered to my delight that Showtime Extreme had unspooled one of my favorites, the 1968 cult black comedy No Way to Treat a Lady starring Rod Steiger, George Segal and pretend girlfriend Lee Remick.  I think I let out a slight yelp upon seeing this.

“What’s wrong?”  Duchess wanted to know.

“Holy (major expletives deleted)—this (still more expletives deleted) is letterboxed!”  It was all I could do to resist getting up off the couch and dancing a jig of joy.  Instead, I danced over to my computer (after I finished my conversation, of course) and announced on Facebook that Showtime was featuring a letterboxed version of Lady because…well, that’s the sort of thing you’re required to do on Facebook.  (Seriously.  If you wake up one morning and have looked high and low for your pants with no luck, this information needs to be imparted to “the social network” tuit suite.)

Noted non-People magazine reader and proud new papa Rick “Cultureshark” Brooks posited the opinion that Showtime may be the only one of the cable movie networks to do this—I’ve yet to see such a phenomenon on HBO, and when I had Starz during my exile in Morgantown they would occasionally show a film in widescreen format (they set aside a special time for doing so).  Even Encore, a channel notorious for saying hell-to-the-no when it comes to letterbox is running the widescreen version of How the West Was Won (1962) on the Westerns channel (but seriously—how did people ever watch that in pan-and-scan in the first place?  “Oh, look!  There’s Carroll Baker’s ear!”), something I wish they’d follow suit with oaters like Rio Conchos (1964) and Hombre (1967).  But maybe—not in my lifetime, but when my niece Rachel and nephew Davis are fully grown—there’ll come a day when people of all races and religions and creeds can sit down on a couch with some nachos and watch movies on TV in the fashion to which I’ve become accustomed.

Until that day arrives, I guess I’ll be satisfied with acquisitions of movies like The Messenger (2009) and The Killer Inside Me (2010) and art house classics like F for Fake (1974), Heartland (1979) and El Norte (1983).  They’ve even shown Cabin Boy (1994) in widescreen, something that made me do a double take.

Turner Classic Movies has long been the go-to channel for letterboxing movies, which is why I don’t get too worked up when they show a fairly recent flick that’s outside of the classic film purview—it gives me an opportunity to grab it for my collection because unlike many of you who invested wisely and put away money for a rainy day I went through a great deal of cash via a life of wretched excess.  So if I happen to see The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Thelma and Louise (1991) scheduled, I do that off-the-couch-joy-jig again.

But sometimes TCM can be a fickle mistress.  Their presentation of Who’s Minding the Mint? (1967) Sunday night wasn’t letterboxed—of course, I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be; it’s a great movie though a friend of mine astutely pointed out it does play a little like a made-for-TV film, which may be why there’s no widescreen version available.  But when I checked the other morning to see if I got all of Last Summer (1969), I noticed that it, too, wasn’t letterboxed.  I started getting mopey again and wasn’t really feeling like my regular self until I had some peanut butter toast and a juice box.  I’ve since coped with this because I came across Paris, Texas (1984) on Showtime Showcase the other day…in all its widescreen glory.

Showtime…you’re my new best friend.  Call me!

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11 comments:

Laura said...

Your post is timely -- just a couple days ago I discovered Showtime Family, which I never watch, was showing the relatively rare Disney film SMITH! (1969, G. Ford, N. Olson, D. Jagger)...I set it to record, figuring it would be a fullscreen mess just like Encore, and couldn't believe it when I discovered yesterday they'd shown a beautiful letterboxed print. Wow, I wonder if they've got rights to any other hard-to-find Disney movies...

I keep Encore Westerns because I love having access to shows like MAVERICK, LAWMAN, and THE VIRGINIAN, and many of the Westerns I care about are from the pre-widescreen era. I sure wish the Encore channels would start using widescreen. I've had a theory that a lot of those channels show unwatchable (IMHO) pan & scans because they don't want them recorded and bootlegged or something...

I've also been disappointed by a couple pan & scans which I recorded on TCM very recently, including LET'S BE HAPPY (1957, filmed in CinemaScope) and WHERE LOVE HAS GONE (1964, 2.35 Techniscope). I know sometimes they're sent bad prints, but recently TCM has been as unpredictable as Fox Movie Channel when it comes to letterbox vs. pan & scan.

Best wishes,
Laura

Yvette said...

Ivan, you are such a funny writer. Not many can do it, but you do make me laugh out loud. Rancho Yesterday. HAHA!!! And believe me, these icy days, I could use a few laughs. Thanks.

Stacia said...

I believe TCM also showed the R-rated version of "Last Summer", not the so-called X-rated version (which would be a soft R nowadays anyway).

TCM seems to occasionally have trouble getting licensing for the widescreen prints. During "Skidoo" negotiations, someone who works/worked on Underground said that they couldn't get the license for anything but the pan 'n' scan version. And I note that the rootpeg version of "Skidoo" I already had wasn't the SAME pan 'n' scan version, so I guess different prints of films have difference licensing agreements.

No letterbox for "Where Love Has Gone" was SO disappointing to me, because the recent DVD release is widescreen so I assumed TCM would have the widescreen print, too.

While I got to see many hard to find movies on Encore and Starz back in the day ("Lounge Lizards" and "Joanna" come to mind), they were all pan 'n' scan and I finally gave up on the channels altogether. Seeing a film released in the last 2 decades in pan 'n' scan is ridiculous. I'm shocked that people still believe letterbox cuts off some of the picture; I really thought that was something that everyone got over by the late 1990s.

Java Bean Rush said...

How do people watch pan and scan? Gratefully.

They are just so glad to finally see that copy of 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, that they don't realize they are only seeing 5 1/2 of the guys.

I know. I was one of them.

Once letterboxing was explained to me, I couldn't go back. It's a pain to watch pan and scan now, which saddens me. I'd like to be able to appreciate a movie I've never seen before in whatever condition it's presented to me.

Oh well.

Laura said...

Java, I remember the days...I tell my children (perhaps more often than they'd like) about the days when you had to see a movie when it was on TV -- pan & scan, sometimes heavily edited (there was the time KABC in Los Angeles edited most of the musical numbers out of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN for the 90-minute 3:30 movie...), AND filled with commercials -- because that was the *only* chance you might have to see the movie for *years*. In particular I tell them about the time my parents let me stay up until 1:30 a.m. -- on a *school night* when I was in *7th grade*, LOL! -- because THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! was being shown back to back with SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (which was on the late 11:30 p.m. movie), and I was just beside myself over not seeing either of them. Of course, SEVEN BRIDES was a pan & scan!

My parents also used to let me go to bed early (to ostensibly make up the sleep) and set my alarm to get up for a couple hours in the middle of the night to see movies like THE MORE THE MERRIER or YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER. It's so hard for today's kids, used to watching what they want when they want, to comprehend needing to get up at 2:00 a.m. to watch a hacked-up mess. And yet, like you, I have fond, grateful memories...and I think I also appreciate what we have today more. The first time I saw our SEVEN BRIDES DVD on our large living room TV I honestly teared up because I couldn't believe I could just put the disc in and see such a beautiful big widescreen picture on my own TV set, any time I wanted. I hope I never lose that sense of amazement.

Best wishes,
Laura

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

TCM seems to occasionally have trouble getting licensing for the widescreen prints. During "Skidoo" negotiations, someone who works/worked on Underground said that they couldn't get the license for anything but the pan 'n' scan version. And I note that the rootpeg version of "Skidoo" I already had wasn't the SAME pan 'n' scan version, so I guess different prints of films have difference licensing agreements.

I think you're onto something here. Skidoo made the rounds of the Showtime channels in January and I got set to record a copy thinking: "If this baby is letterboxed Stacia is going to think I'm ten kinds of awesome."

Unfortunately, it was the p&s version that unspooled that morning. Showtime giveth, and Showtime taketh away.

Java's comments have also kind of put things a bit into perspective in that I've lost sight that there are a lot of children who go to bed at night without seeing classic movies. If you read my post it does make me sound a bit like an ingrate but that honestly wasn't my intent--I just wanted to convey how gobsmacked I was to see a movie presented in widescreen on something so bottom-line oriented as Showtime, etc.

It helps if you think of that old saying: "I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man wearing flip-flops." Or something like that.

Stacia said...

I don't think expecting a film to be presented in its original format is being ungrateful or an ingrate. No one would say the same about books, that we should just be grateful to have access to a condensed, expurgated, or censored version. Believe me or not, even as a kid in the 1970s, I hated seeing a movie on TV that was edited. When I discovered the difference between widescreen and PAS, I avoided PAS films as much as possible.

When "Blade Runner" came out in VHS in letterbox back in 1991 or so, I was ecstatic and sure that the tide had changed. I never thought that 2 full decades later people would STILL be watching PAS versions of films.

I understand that, due to the size of a TV (and probably other technical issues), pan 'n' scan was a necessity in the past, but why the studios (or whoever owns the rights) haven't made widescreen prints for the movies they lease is beyond me. Studios like Universal do truly stupid things like give TCM a widescreen print of "Charley Varrick" -- a beautiful print, by the way, rarely shown -- but then release the DVD of the movie in faded pan 'n' scan. I don't accept that I'm ungrateful just because I refuse to own the legitimate DVD of this release over the TCM copy I have.

Java Bean Rush said...

Laura,
We had a collection of VHS tapes, so much of my movie viewing was on-demand pan&scan. :) How nice that your parents allowed you to stay up on a school night; that wasn't happening at the Java residence.

I had a similar excitement as you when I first saw Seven Bridesin wide screen format! Couldn't believe it! I had read somewhere that you can see birds flying smack into the fake backdrop when Jane Powell sings "Wonderful, Wonderful Day." You can't see it on the p&s versions only in the letter-boxed one. I was thrilled!

Ivan,
I didn't mean to infer that you sound like an ingrate. Mea culpa. As I said, p&s is irritating to watch [especially a two shot with only one person in it].

It's great that someone appreciates that the home viewing industry has bothered to simulate original movie formats.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

When "Blade Runner" came out in VHS in letterbox back in 1991 or so, I was ecstatic and sure that the tide had changed. I never thought that 2 full decades later people would STILL be watching PAS versions of films.

Sort of like how when companies (MGM-UA being the notable example) would release both a standard and widescreen version of a film on DVD until somebody in the brain trust decided to release separate discs with each version. What makes me scratch my head in bewilderment is that some TV shows are letterboxed for telecast, and the public doesn't seem to have blinked twice about that.

Back in my and Pam's chat room days another denizen and I used to positively rhapsodize when AMC would schedule a widescreen version of a film normally shown in p&s. Of course, nowadays this doesn't seem like such a big deal since that once-proud channel has to put in pee breaks after every five minutes of movie.

Studios like Universal do truly stupid things like give TCM a widescreen print of "Charley Varrick" -- a beautiful print, by the way, rarely shown -- but then release the DVD of the movie in faded pan 'n' scan. I don't accept that I'm ungrateful just because I refuse to own the legitimate DVD of this release over the TCM copy I have.

Oooh. Still a sore subject here at Rancho Yesteryear, particularly since I'm one of those people who bought a copy and was righteously pissed upon making this discovery. They did the same thing with 1982's Missing--Criterion later re-released it in its proper widescreen format (and the film has turned up on TCM--but unfortunately, I'm still waiting for a Varrick encore).

Stacia said...

I also bought "Charley Varrick" on DVD without even THINKING of checking the aspect ratio! I was torqued, especially since I'd gotten rid of my VHS copy of a widescreen showing. It last showed before I had a DVR, as far as I know, so I had to get a copy from TCM from someone else.

Linda said...

We discovered a few days ago that we are getting all the Starz channels free for the next year due to their 25th anniversary. Starz, Starz West, Starz Edge, Starz "C" (not sure what the abbreviations on Dish mean), and Starz Kids & Family are all showing in widescreen, Starz Cinema and Starz "Blck" are not. Not sure why. We also get the Encoreplex movies, where Encore is widescreen, but the rest are not. Movieplex is not widescreen, but Retro is, Epix 1 and 2 are widescreen, but Epix 3 is not, and PixL is in widescreen and so is the Sony movie channel. No rhyme nor reason. And when the dickens is Fox Movie Channel going HD?

Thank God some of the channels have shown my favorites in HD. It was so nice to get GOOD MORNING, MISS DOVE in widescreen. Now if I could only find 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET that way...