[Editor’s Note: Phil emailed us an impassioned commentary on the recent HD DVD release of “A Clockwork Orange” – which seemed like it should be shared with the world. I asked Phil if he wanted to re-work as a guest post, which he did, and here we are – Welcome aboard, Phil!]
Hello, and who am I?
I’m Phil Smoot, born and live in North Carolina, will be 57 a few days before Christmas of this year (2007), and I have been invited to be an occasional contributor to UpcomingDiscs.com.
Well, maybe Geritol is a potential sponsor for the site [Not yet, but we’d be happy to take their money – ed], but I hope it has more to do with my background and passion of film (and video and electronic media and tomorrow land—the real one, not just the Disney park rides).
Background? What’s some guy from Asheboro, NC, got to offer? (Yeah, Asheboro, where the only thing of note is that the state has one of the few natural habitat zoo’s in the world. I live close enough to apes, lions, polar bears and other predators that make me feel right at home in the film industry).
Okay, I love new technology, and I’m excited about the future, and I have some history in film. I’ve worked on some 65 to 70 feature length motion pictures —And continue to do so and hope to do so for many years to come–plus some 3,000 commercials, short films, industrials and TV productions. In 1973, I graduated from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) with a double major in Radio-TV-Motion Pictures (RTVMP, a department that is no longer there but combined with Communications) and Dramatic Art (whatever that means, I just had enough credits to add it to my diploma).
Upon graduation, I thought I would work on classics like CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA, TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, or like the Universal classics THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Instead, my first film credit was on a redneck drive-in movie called HOT SUMMER IN BAREFOOT COUNTY. It was quickly followed by the likes of titles such as AXE, TRUCKIN’ MAN (re-titled & re-released later as TRUCKER’S WOMAN), KIDNAPPED COED, DARK SUNDAY, DEATH DRIVER and others. So, I received an MBA degree from UNC-Greensboro in 1985, but that didn’t help either. Thirty-four years after my first professional motion picture experience, I’m still waiting for my CITIZEN KANE.
So, that brings me to my first post—The high definition (and the new down-rez’d 2-disc standard definition) release of Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
I first saw the film when it was first released to theaters in ‘71/’72. And did I ever see it! My girlfriend at the time, both of us undergraduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill, saw it six different times together (and we journeyed to different theaters in different towns just to enhance the experience.). I had never seen a film like it. It really got to me, and my girlfriend too. I remember what the ticket-taker at the theater (either in Raleigh or Durham, NC) where we first saw the film said to us– “They do things in this movie that I never thought I would see in a movie.” Yes, things and mainstream movies were different then.
Yes, things have changed, and before you read further, I now have to issue a Bad Parenting Alert!!!
Religious fundamentalists and pop-culture psychologists will be offended and ready to raise money for their phony baloney causes with the revelation ahead—
While in Los Angeles and staying at a friend’s place some 3 years ago, my then 12 year-old son was with me. On a couple of mornings I was getting things ready before beginning the day and there was not much at the apartment to entertain him. Of the less than a dozen dvd’s my friend had available, there were only two that I thought would interest my kid. One was THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. I was right. Instant Vincent Price fan. And, on another day, the second title was viewed. Yes, I let my pre-teen son watch A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Now, forget what the rest of the world now think’s of me as a parent, and ask the obvious, what did he think?
Answer–Along with DreamWorks animated THE ROAD TO EL DORADO, Disney’s animated THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (yep, more bad parenting), Kubrick’s 1971 classic instantly and remains one of the now 15-year old’s favorite films (and, unlike his father, he’s not obsessed with movies). Not only did he like the film, but upon returning to North Carolina, he made his mother buy him the soundtrack, the dvd, and the book (Wow! My son actually reading. He can turn off X Box Live that long?).
So, what’s the point?
It is that the film was and still is an important and moving work. And, in defense of my bad parenting, I think that A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is a fantastic focal point to begin discussions about right and wrong, personal responsibility, and a whole bunch of other stuff beyond my qualifications to review.
Right? I’ll leave it up to you. Some did not like it then (1971), some will not like it now (2007). Can’t make everybody’s day.
But something is wrong today. What is it? I’ll tell you—The new (October 23rd) release that arrived in HD (both Blu-ray and HD-DVD) and the down-rez’d 2-disc standard dvd copy just ain’t right! More than that, it’s a crime! And on-line reviewers don’t seem to be up to the task of defending older movies, and this is my rant:
I find it really bothersome when reviewers (often, younger reviewers) critique an older film and confuse the problems with the film transfer as always being the limitations of the older materials. Now, there are often such problems—But not the kind of problems to which they refer. As an example, from their reviews, one has to think that they believe older films were either shot entirely out-of-focus from the head credit to the end, or that they simply get that way with age. Some of the things I read from the reviewers on the mainstream dvd websites are just so outrageous that I wonder if a 4-year degree program should be instituted before anyone can be authorized to write professionally about film transfers and dvd presentations. But, before being so radical, can we at the very least get reviewers to stop with the “this is an older film, and the best it has ever looked” when it is not and “this is the best we can expect it to be” when it just ain’t so!
Okay, the above rant and variations will continue in the future. But what is wrong with the new home theater releases of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE? Well, to the credit of most reviewers of the HD discs, they all think it’s lacking something in detail or whatever, they just don’t know what. Unfortunately, just about all fall back on the “well, it’s an old film” excuse and this is “the best we’re gonna get.”
And it’s not true.
We’ve already had better.
I have an older standard dvd that’s non-anamorphic (which compromises it from the start) that comes in that awful type box that Warner used to use. It sports a tiny 1971 and 2001 copyright on the back and claims “Digitally Restored and Remastered” on the front. The transfer is not to bad if one forgives that they throw away bits with the matted widescreen, and it was good enough to excite me about the upcoming high def version. I could hardly wait.
Now the wait is over, I’m hurt, and I want more than my $20 back (20 bucks, that’s what I paid for the high def version). We have made a step backward. What’s the real problem? Well, it’s out-of-focus! Tech talk, maybe not “out-of-focus”, but that’s the result. I’ll explain.
It’s not so dramatically out-of-focus that the average viewer will know what’s bothering them about the film, but it’s like when I sit in a motion picture theater and the lazy Projectionist who needs his glasses prescription changed can’t quite get the focus as crisp as it should be—And, in the Projectionist’s defense, the theater may have a cheap lens and the projector’s film gate may need some work. But, the audience doesn’t know enough to complain—They just have a sense that it does not look real good, like when something’s not running exactly right with my car but it’s still moving– And the kid running the projector can’t see well enough, and does not know enough, to do anything if you tell him. If I talk to him, I become the local nut-case in his life. He’ll just tell me it’s the film. He’ll tell me it was shot that way. Lot’s of diffusion, that sort of thing. Like he knows, and that there’s nothing that can be done. Yep, guess they shoot new movies out-of-focus too—From head credit to end credits. Right?
So, do I think it’s possible for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to become a razor-sharp demo disc for the modern high def home theater? No, it’s not, but that does not mean what we have is acceptable.
Yes, Kubrick’s film has lots of wide-angle lenses that may have been used with the lens opened fully for low light photography. Yep, makes it not as razor sharp. Lots of soft lighting? Yep, makes it not as razor sharp. Perhaps some diffusion? Maybe. If so, yep, makes it not as razor sharp. But that does not make it out-of-focus, and it certainly does not make it pretty much in-focus on one earlier transfer and suddenly turn to semi-focused mush when we get to high def.
What happened? I’ll take a guesstimate. Could be one or more of several things. But I’m going to aim at just one for controversy. Anyone that really knows the answer, I welcome to update.
My guesstimate—Possibly digital manipulation to remove film grain and dirt.
But I said out-of-focus, right? Right. Well, say it’s possibly to much digital wizardry that just turned this film to a gentle mush. Not so dramatic that one can just point and say, that’s exactly it, but something in the ballpark.
Why do I say this? Well, going back to the late 1980’s, I would post commercials that had been shot on film and were being transferred to videotape. And every telecine artist/technician/colorist would immediately switch on whatever grain-removing piece of software and hardware they happen to have available. God forgive that film have grain! The video world was upon us, and grain must be eliminated. Often, it would soften the image so bad that I would totally reject the use of the grain reduction completely. Over the years, it got better, and I liked what new software and such could do, but now the devil has returned with a vengeance.
Understand that I’m more than a little thrilled at what can be done to clean-up, remove the grime and take the wiggle and shake out of many an older movie (and new one’s too). In fact, it’s the only way that some have become watchable again. But, at the same time, the combination of overzealous & sometimes unsupervised dirt removal/dust busting software use along with excessive grain reduction has marred many a film-to-homevideo presentation. And I think that may be what we have here. Yes, the marvelous tools given to us by the techno gods of our age can also be used against us—
Take a film that’s not razor sharp to begin with, try to get rid of every piece of dirt and dust at the lowest cost possible, and then try to remove anything that makes it look like film grain was ever present and you have a product that is less than the sum of it’s parts. Is it technically correct to call it out-of-focus? Argue with the moon, because I think so. Out-of-focus is the result, so why not call it that.
So why do I want more than my $20 back. Let’s go with 3 reasons:
- A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is significant piece of cinema. The public should see it at it’s very best.
- The new high def formats are trying to distinguish themselves above a lower resolution format (and I have owned an HDTV since 2001, so I’m definitely an early adopter and supporter). For this film, the old standard def disc is the only way to watch on dvd—The film is unpleasant in it’s new offerings (And, warning, if the new high def is poor, then stay away from the new standard def 2-disc edition—It will be worse.).
- Whether my assumption as to the cause is right or wrong, we should identify the problem rather than giving an okay simply because a film is older.
Warner Brothers should take Sony’s example with their first release of the high def version of THE 5TH ELEMENT (and it was not as bad a job as CLOCKWORK, nor nearly as important a film), and they should correct and offer a replacement for owners of the high definition versions (both Blu-ray and HD-DVD)—And even the new standard def if purchaser’s request.
End of first rant.