Thursday, 23 June 2011

"Dear Projectionist..."

Stanley Kubrick
Whenever Stanley Kubrick's films are released on video, their aspect ratios always provoke intense debate. Most recently, the Warner blu-ray release of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick's exquisite period drama, has attracted criticism because it's framed at 1.78:1 whereas the film's original theatrical ratio was 1.66:1.

1.78:1 corresponds to the ratio of current high-definition widescreen TVs, thus the 1.66:1 image has been horizontally cropped so that the blu-ray image perfectly fits an HD-TV screen. Presumably, the studio felt that viewers would not tolerate the black 'letterbox' bars across their TV screens required for a 1.66:1 image. With similar reasoning, Barry Lyndon's original mono soundtrack has been remixed in 5.1 Dolby Digital on blu-ray, to accommodate contemporary multi-channel home-theatre systems.

Warner claims that the 1.78:1 ratio is in accordance with Kubrick's wishes for Barry Lyndon (thus apparently dismissing its own previous 1.66:1 laserdisc and DVD releases). Kubrick's assistant Leon Vitali told blogger Glenn Kenny categorically that Barry Lyndon's ratio had always been 1.77:1, and that it had never been released at 1.66:1, though this is clearly incorrect as its theatrical, laserdisc, and DVD releases were all 1.66:1. It appears, unfortunately, that Vitali is making these revisionist statements in order to justify Warner's commercial decision to reformat Kubrick's films to 1.78:1.

Kenny tracked down a letter to cinema projectionists in which Kubrick specifies the 1.66:1 theatrical ratio. Surprisingly, Vitali responded to this by insisting that Kubrick had always preferred 1.77:1, despite clear evidence to the contrary. 1.77:1 is a digital TV ratio, not an analogue theatrical ratio, thus it is practically impossible that Kubrick ever considered it for Barry Lyndon.

Kubrick's early, independent films Fear & Desire and Killer's Kiss were released in the Academy ratio, though he later favoured 1.66:1 for The Killing, Paths Of Glory, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon. Lolita and Dr Strangelove were released with variable aspect ratios, with individual shots alternating between Academy and 1.66:1. His epics Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey were premiered in 70mm at 2.21:1. His later films The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut were projected at 1.85:1 and released on video at 1.33:1 as per Kubrick's wishes.

Since Kubrick's death, Warner has released four Kubrick collections on DVD. The first Stanley Kubrick Collection, released in 1999, used the versions Kubrick had previously approved for VHS and laserdisc, and thus conformed to Kubrick's specifications. However, when Warner released the second Stanley Kubrick Collection on DVD in 2001, some of the original mono soundtracks were retrofitted into 5.1 Dolby Digital. For the third (Director's Series, 2007) and fourth (Limited Edition Collection, 2011) Warner collections, most films were cropped to 1.78:1 in addition to the 5.1 remixes.

Reformatting films to accommodate domestic audio-visual technology is hardly a new practice. All films are at least slightly cropped for television and video, as the original CRT TV aspect ratio was 1.33:1 whereas the conventional Academy film format was 1.37:1. Widescreen films were often pan-and-scanned on VHS and VCD to fit CRT TV screens. The contemporary high-definition widescreen TV ratio 1.78:1 does not quite match the standard theatrical widescreen ratio 1.85:1, thus 1.85:1 films are routinely cropped to 1.78:1 for DVD and blu-ray release.

The 1.37:1 Academy 35mm format was adopted as an industry standard soon after sound technology had become established in Hollywood. This format persisted, with very few exceptions (such as The Big Trail, in 70mm) until the 1950s, when Cinerama launched the widescreen revolution. The anamorphic 35mm widescreen format then became standardised at 2.35:1. Non-anamorphic 35mm films were projected at either 1.66:1, 1.75:1, or 1.85:1 aspect ratios. Today, 1.85:1 has become the standard non-anamorphic format, and 2.35:1 remains the standard anamorphic widescreen format.

(Kubrick's "Dear Projectionists..." letter has a reliable provenance, and it's consistent with similar correspondence I've seen at the Stanley Kubrick Archive and elsewhere. I also own an original Kubrick document: a signed Christmas card.)

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Moral Education: Ethics

Moral Education: Ethics Moral Education: Ethics
A Muslim group in Lucknow, India, has complained after a cartoon image of Mohammed was printed in a school textbook. There have been calls for the book, Moral Education: Ethics by Chandra Prakash, to be withdrawn; the offending cartoon appears in a chapter titled Being Good & Gentle. Visual depictions of Mohammed have caused international controversy ever since a dozen Mohammed caricatures were printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005.

This is not the first time Mohammed has been depicted in a school textbook: an illustration from The Remaining Signs Of Past Centuries was censored from Histoire Geographie in France. It is also not the first Indian book to feature a Mohammed image: the author of Hajarat Muhammad was arrested in India after his book depicted Mohammed on its cover.

Friday, 10 June 2011


Bangkok Twilight
Foreign-Familiar, a photographic exhibition exploring Western views of Asian landscapes and lifestyles, opened at BACC on 4th June and closes at the end of the month. The exhibition includes Bangkok Twilight, Nick Nostitz's disturbing portraits of sex, drugs, and death on the streets of Bangkok.

Friday, 3 June 2011


Cinema now has a new 'ism': Carnivalism, a one-day film event organised by New Media Communication students from Assumption University, takes place tomorrow at SF World (CentralWorld, Bangkok). All screenings are free of charge.

Incidental Art Festival

Incidental Art Festival
Wang Jun, one of the organisers of the Incidental Art Festival at Beijing's CCD 300 gallery, was arrested yesterday, and the Festival was closed down by police the day after it opened. One of the gallery's walls had been left blank, except for a small label bearing the name of artist Ai Weiwei. Ai, China's most famous contemporary artist, was detained earlier this year on vague tax-evasion charges.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Letter Fountain

Letter Fountain
Joep Pohlen's Letter Fountain: On Printing Types, published by Taschen, is an encyclopedic reference to typography, an expanded English translation of Pohlen and Geert Setola's Letterfontein (fourth edition). At 600 pages, it's far more extensive than the slim Typographic Desk Reference, and its comprehensive scope makes it the best general typographic reference work.

However, Letter Fountain lacks TDR's clear organisation and cross-referencing. The alphabetised sub-sections and extensive appendices are hard to navigate quickly; if tabbed pages or a detailed general index were added, the book's material would be easier to access. (For a detailed account of typographic history, see Printing Types by Daniel Updike and 20th-Century Type by Lewis Blackwell; in both cases, the first and second editions are superior to the third.)

Chiang Mai Now!

Chiang Mai Now!
LHOOQ Roue De Bicyclette
Chiang Mai Now!, a survey of contemporary art from Chiang Mai now showing at BACC, opened on 7th April and will close on 19th June. The exhibition includes an installation inspired by Marcel Duchamp.

A neon sculpture, LHOOQ, references the title of Duchamp's defaced Mona Lisa portrait; the letters are a pun on the French words 'elle a chaud au cul'. One of Duchamp's early 'found objects', Roue De Bicyclette, a bicycle wheel on a stool, has been slightly modified, with the stool replaced by a fire extinguisher.

Italian Film Festival 2011

Italian Film Festival 2011
Big Deal On Madonna Street
Last Life In The Universe
The Italian Film Festival 2011 opens next week, and includes tributes to Mario Monicelli and Pen-ek Ratanaruang. The Festival runs at SFX Emporium for five days starting on 8th June, and all tickets are free. The Festival is held annually in Bangkok; I missed it in 2010 and 2009, though I went to the 2008 Festival at Lido.

Monicelli's Big Deal On Madonna Street, screening on 9th June, was one of the templates for the Commedia All'Italiana tragi-comic style. Its original Italian title translates as 'The Usual Suspects', a reference to Casablanca ("Round up the usual suspects", also the inspiration for the masterpiece The Usual Suspects). The film features an impressive cast, which includes Vittorio Gassman (his first comedic role), Marcello Mastroianni (his most significant pre-Fellini performance), and Toto (an extended cameo from the comic veteran). The jazz score is another highlight, an ironic contrast with the film's visual style (shooting on location in the manner of Neorealism). Monicelli parodies the conventions of heist films (specifically Rififi), an approach employed four decades later in Woody Allen's Small-Time Crooks.

Pen-ek is one of Thailand's greatest contemporary directors, though he has no obvious connection to Italian cinema. He is represented at the Festival by Ploy on June 9th and Last Life In The Universe on June 10th.