The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of how HDTV might change movies
They don't make movies like this anymore. Like many kids my age, I saw it may times on Saturday afternoon television, full frame with lots of cuts and lots of car commercials (which somehow weren't so obnoxious back then). It was fun enough just because of the characters. For a western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly didn't take itself so seriously -- mainly because Eli Wallach's weasely Tuco was so compelling.
But what I saw wasn't the real movie. Sergio Leone made widescreen movies, and he used the entire frame. What I saw, with pan-and-scan and interstitial advertising, was a Cliff's Notes version of the film.
Having recently watched on my 20" iMac the DVD of the restored version of the film, I can say it is a different movie. The iMac is not HDTV, and standard DVDs, though they have much more resolution than televisions can provide, are not HD DVD -- but even so, the movie offered what a lot of more recent movies do not:
Recent flicks like Batman Begins and even the well-done Good Night and Good Luck seem to lack the cinematic sense. Perhaps they're too much products of the TV age, shot for pan-and-scan and edited to keep things moving, rather than to give the next piece of the visual story.
And it really shows on high-resolution widescreen presentations. Last year's talk was the purportedly incredible effects of King Kong. I had problems with the commercials, where Kong is batting cars around like Tonka trucks, when really, if you think about it, it should have been more like batting around Christmas ornaments. (How is a car that shatters upon 60mph impact with a wall going to not shatter when a wall-like hand smacks it at 60mph?). No, I was not impressed. It looked like The Incredible Hulk with fur.
Even so, I was pretty shocked when I saw how fake Peter Jackson's film looks on HDTV. Perhaps it's the contrast compression or the flicker effect, but really, Kong looked like a cartoon. (Oh, the ideas, like the dinosaur stampede down the ravine, seemed interesting. But realitic?)
By contrast, in another example of the power of cinema trumping the power of special effects, a much lower-budget movie that plays well on high resolution screens is the cult classic actioner Mad Max (which without the appalling American dubbing actually had some indie movie charm). George Miller's sequel, The Road Warrior, also holds up -- as do much older, cinematic, visual films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Searchers, and even the staid 2001: A Space Odyssey (whose special effects amounted to clear plexiglas, some inventive stage construction and old-fashioned matte photography.
How well will today's special-effects epics be regarded in 2 or 3 decades, as the technology gets better?
As HDTV catches on, and more and more people watch movies on screens that recapture a bit of the cinematic aesthetic, it's my sincere hope that we'll see more movies that use visual language to tell the story. The overwrought, overscored, over-effected hyperviolence of today's epics (which are always made with an eye directed at the almost-square 19" television set) already leave me tired. Maybe that's why, rather than see the latest effects fantasy from the boy-executives in Hollywood, it's The Devil Wears Prada that gets me out of the house for the first time since Master and Commander.
If the Hollywood movie distribution system ever grows up and gets back to making cinema, I'll celebrate with trips to the movie theatre. Until then, I'll stick to my DVDs and wait for the convergence. And remember not to hold my breath.