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The Price of Blu-ray Perfection

We’ve come to a point at which high-definition video is offering something of a “cinephile’s dilemma.”

The Price of Blu-ray Perfection

Jun 21, 2010 10:34 AM,
By Jason Bovberg

I probably watched The Wizard of Oz two dozen times through my childhood. My father would notice in the TV Guide that it was scheduled for Friday night, and he’d organize a movie night with popcorn and candy, and come Friday, after dinner, we’d all sit down on the living room and wait for show time. The air would be full of anticipation. And even on my family’s 20in. tube TV, broadcast in low resolution, interrupted incessantly by commercials, the movie boasted a timeless magic. The Wizard of Oz has been a favorite of this cinephile ever since.

As I’ve become a more discerning moviegoer, more demanding of presentation and practically obsessed by the sheer potential of high definition in the home theater setting, I’ve purchased my way through several home-video incarnations of the 1939 classic as it’s been scrubbed and color-corrected and returned to “new-to-theaters” glory. Each incarnation has become increasingly brighter and sharper and more colorful. Five years ago, I thought the special-edition DVD represented the greatest, most accurate glory that this film would ever achieve—and it was a beauty to behold!—but the recently introduced Blu-ray restoration frankly blew it out of the water, bringing to Oz an almost surreal level of clarity and beauty.

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To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the release of Oz, Warner digitally restored the film, gave it a limited theatrical exhibition, then released it to home video, including a gorgeously pristine Blu-ray set. The restoration was performed with the use of a 1939 nitrate print, scanned digitally at 8K resolution—higher than any previous home-video restorations could achieve. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Blu-ray edition of The Wizard of Oz provides a presentation of the film that bests any ever seen. And that includes theatrical presentations in 1939! Film prints 70 years ago, long before the higher-resolution benefits of today’s technology, were simply much softer. Film exhibitors—and audiences—just didn’t have the high standards we have today, and they didn’t have the same expectations, either.

I don’t know about you, but my expectations are always high. Through my later experiences with Oz in the home theater, I began noticing, on one hand, fabulous texture and detail that I had never seen—burlap makeup on the Scarecrow’s face, freckles on Dorothy’s—but on the other hand, certain shoddy special effects—say, the obvious wires holding up the Cowardly Lion’s tail as it swished back and forth behind him in Emerald City. In theaters in 1939, audiences wouldn’t have noticed any such thing—again, because of the lower-resolution printing technologies of the time, and the creators of the film knew that. But in a 21st century home theater, beholding a newly struck print, audiences are seeing things in old movies they were never meant to see. And so, we’ve become more demanding. We don’t want to see those damn wires!

Thus, we’ve come to a point at which high-definition video is offering something of a “cinephile’s dilemma.” Purists argue that, beyond restoring a film’s basic, original cleanliness, no digital alteration should occur in the restoration process. In other words, no wire removal. Keep the “original theatrical experience” intact and unmolested. More progressive film lovers—and I count myself in this group—argue on the hypothetical side of the film’s director: In the case of Oz, Victor Fleming would surely have wanted no hint of visible wires marring his visual effect, and so if he were alive and able to view the film with the benefit of today’s projection technology, and had today’s digital-manipulation tools at his disposal—yes, he would most certainly remove those wires.

In the case of the Wizard of Oz Blu-ray, the restoration team has removed the wires (and made other minor digital improvements) to preserve the “magic” of the special effect. And I applaud them.

And the trend appears to be thriving. Recent word has it that the new restoration of Byron Haskin’s War of the Worlds—previously a mammoth offender in the “visible wires” department (check out the relatively recent DVD release, which shows a chaos of wires suspending the alien invaders in the sky)—would be going through the wire-removal process, thereby restoring the magic of the film’s effects. This despite the sometimes loud voice of the “cinema conservative.” I believe we’re at a point in the evolution of home theater that we can’t abide high-definition video releases of films that have been digitally cleaned up but that retain their glaring special-effect errors for all to see. We need to keep restoring the magic, not just the cleanliness.

I realize the argument is slippery. Where does the digital manipulation stop? If we’re talking about the hypothetical wishes of a film director who is no longer with us, how can we be sure we’re not going too far? Should we include film grain in the argument? Why not cleanse older films of all sense of their age, scrubbing all film grain and creating clean, sharp transfers of all older films? And what about goofs? Imagine restoring Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest and, in the process, digitally erasing that blond kid who covers his ears before Eva Marie Saint shoots Cary Grant. Such goofs have become part of film history, and erasing them would arguably sanitize a very human, warts-and-all endeavor.

See, now we’re moving into the realm of that infamous revisionist George Lucas. But, you know, I actually liked some of the Star Wars original trilogy special editions. I enjoyed the beefed-up special effects, and I liked the new backgrounds in the Cloud City scenes in The Empires Strikes Back, but I hated the rest, and now I find myself yearning for the original, unaltered films just the way I enjoyed them in the theater. Perhaps that should always be the litmus test: The home video presentation should offer the ideal presentation as enjoyed in the very best theaters. In other words, go ahead and remove the reflection of the cobra in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but don’t you dare make Greedo shoot first in Star Wars—a digital “fix” that has become emblematic of the wrong end of that slippery slope.

So, where do you stand? Where do you draw the line? What’s your litmus test?

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