Thomas Lawrence’s war.

The following scene from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — depicting a conversation between General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), Mister Dryden (Claude Rains) and Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) — came to mind while watching Charlie Wilson’s War last week:

DRYDEN: Are you really going to give them artillery, sir?

BRIGHTON: I was wondering that, sir. Might be deuced difficult to get it back again.

DRYDEN: Give them artillery and you’ve made them independent.

ALLENBY: Then I can’t give them artillery, can I?

DRYDEN: For you to say, sir.

ALLENBY: No it’s not. I’ve got orders to obey, thank God. Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind.

DRYDEN: Let’s hope we’re not.

What’s interesting is how the earlier film allows you to think that this attitude (that there are limits to how much aid a military superpower should give to the natives who help it, lest the natives turn that aid back against the superpower that gave it to them) is somewhat condescending or paternalistic, whereas the new film is arguably somewhat sympathetic to this attitude.

Disney cartoons, aspect ratios, bad transfers.

David Bordwell posted an interesting item recently on the various aspect ratios used by Jean-Luc Godard, and the difficulties that arise when projectionists and DVD producers try to crop them or mask them to fit standard screens. I am glad I am not a Godard buff, and so I do not have to grind my teeth every time a poorly framed DVD of one of his films comes out — but I feel a similar frustration whenever I see a new ‘Walt Disney Treasures‘ set.

I griped about this here and here when More Silly Symphonies: 1929 – 1938 came out last year, and the frustration continues with two new sets that came out earlier this month. I have only watched about half of The Chronological Donald Volume Three: 1947 – 1950 so far, but I can’t help thinking that at least some of these cartoons seem a little … pinched. Examples abound, but two screen captures from Drip Drippy Donald (1948), in which Donald Duck turns his head when the phone rings, will suffice for now:

Now, I suppose it is possible that the animators always intended for Donald’s face to be cut off like that by the edge of the frame, but somehow I doubt it.

Then there is The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a collection of extremely rare silent cartoons that were produced by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks for Universal Studios shortly before they created Mickey Mouse for themselves. Granted, some allowances have to be made, since many of these cartoons have been lost altogether, and some of the surviving films are in pretty bad condition. But one look at frames like this and you just know that the people who transferred these images to DVD were either deliberately or sloppily cutting off part of the picture:

Note the word cut off at the top, and the way the hand-drawn frame is almost cut off to the right. Incidentally, this image is a terrific early example of Disney’s obsession with rear-end humour, something I first noticed several years ago while watching Pinocchio (1940; my comments), Melody Time (1948; my comments) and other early Disney films.

Anyway, the Oswald cartoons, like all the other Disney cartoons, are handled fairly inconsistently: some of them are “windowboxed”, which means they are set within a black frame which may or may not be cropping part of the image; some of them fill the screen but you suspect the edges have been cropped just the same; and some of them have black bars only along the sides or along the top and bottom, and again, you suspect that at least some of the time the DVD producers have cropped part of the picture.

Here are two examples — from Trolley Troubles (1927) and Sky Scrappers (1928) — where some sort of picture loss would seem to be indicated by the fact that the words used to signify sound in these silent cartoons are cut off at the edge of the frame:

Matters are just as bad, and possibly even worse, when you turn to the even older Disney-Iwerks cartoons that are included on this set as bonus features. Note how terribly off-centre the opening iris shot in Alice’s Balloon Race (1926) is:

That last frame is where the iris stops; for the rest of the shot, two corners of the image on the DVD are obscured and two corners are not. And then note how the band member on the far left of the following shot is cut off by the edge of the frame:

But what really takes the cake is this bit from the end of Bright Lights (1928), where the DVD dissolves — in mid-shot! — from a fairly clean print to a fairly beat-up print:

Now, I have no problem with the dissolve itself; if the clean print comes to an end after this point and the only surviving copy of the remaining footage is from a beat-up print, then you have to work with what you’ve got. But note how the beat-up print is “windowboxed”, and in a way that clearly crops part of the picture; and note how the lion’s foot is now pushed right to the edge of the black frame, where before it would have had a little more breathing room.

This sort of thing turns up all the time on these sets, and it really shouldn’t have to. One of this disc’s bonus features is a scene from Sagebrush Sadie (1928) that now exists only in the form of the original pencil sketches that were done for the film. The pencil sketches are stacked on a light table and animated just as they are — and as you can see from the screen capture below, we get to see the entire sketches, right to the edge of the page and beyond.

Now why can’t they do something similar for the actual films, and show us the complete image, exactly as it is on the filmstrip?

The Water Horse — the review’s up!

My review of The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep is now up at CT Movies.

AVP-R — another irreverent marketing hook

Four months ago, I noted that there was a curious religious — or at least seasonal — element to the green-band trailer for Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem. As the trailer reached its climax, the Christmas carol ‘Silent Night’ played ethereally and ironically over images of various violent deeds, and a series of title cards told us “there will be no peace on Earth” this holiday season.

Now, Lou Lumenick of the New York Post notes that the studio behind the film is explicitly positioning it as a rival to one denomination’s religious observances:

20th Century Fox offers a novel alternative to midnight mass on Christmas Eve: midnight showings of “Aliens vs. Predator: Requieum” an 86-minute horror sequel starring nobody you ever heard of but featuring a cross between the titular creatures. Moviegoers at the Union Square in Manhattan and the Chinese Theater in LA will receive T-shirts emblazoned with “I survived Midnight-Mass-Acre Christmas Eve 2007.” Classy! Does Bill Donohue know about this?

I am neither Catholic nor a fan of the Alien Vs. Predator movies — I love the first two Alien movies, but not the sequels, and I thought the first cross-over film was pretty bad, though tolerable if you really lowered your expectations — so I can’t say the new movie’s release pattern clashes with anything on my schedule. I might see it out of curiosity, though, somewhere down the road.

Canadian box-office stats — December 23

Here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

The Golden Compass — CDN $6,170,000 — N.AM $48,418,000 — 12.7%
P.S. I Love You — CDN $610,457 — N.AM $6,505,000 — 9.4%
Atonement — CDN $512,524 — N.AM $5,787,000 — 8.9%
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story — CDN $362,464 — N.AM $4,100,000 — 8.8%

Enchanted — CDN $7,470,000 — N.AM $98,351,000 — 7.6%
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street — CDN $681,141 — N.AM $9,350,000 — 7.3%
Charlie Wilson’s War — CDN $666,679 — N.AM $9,618,000 — 6.9%
I Am Legend — CDN $9,190,000 — N.AM $137,490,000 — 6.7%
National Treasure: Book of Secrets — CDN $2,110,000 — N.AM $45,500,000 — 4.6%
Alvin and the Chipmunks — CDN $3,410,000 — N.AM $84,867,000 — 4.0%

A couple of discrepancies: Atonement was #10 on the Canadian chart (it was #11 in North America as a whole), while Juno was #10 on the North American chart.

Two articles on the perils of film preservation.

First, a Variety story from three weeks ago:

In Cannes this year, Martin Scorsese talked about the importance of preserving such films as Ahmed El Maanouni’s 1981 Moroccan music documentary “Trances.”

But he didn’t mention that his own “Taxi Driver” is deteriorating.

Although the 1976 film is part of Sony’s vast library, few are rallying to its aid. The myriad film-preservation orgs throw their money and muscle behind titles that are indie, foreign or obscure. It’s assumed Hollywood’s majors will take care of their own films. In fact, they don’t.

One Paramount veteran compared the studio’s vault to a teenager’s chaotic bedroom. In fact, a visitor accidentally stepped on the negative of “Rosemary’s Baby,” which was unspooled on the floor.

With constant pressure on the bottom line, studio execs often lack the funds — or interest — to make sure their heritage is being cared for properly. Digital technology, which was touted as the salvation of film, has turned out to be deeply flawed, deteriorating faster than anyone imagined.

Movies “get lost in the wilderness unless (studios) pay attention to them,” says Ridley Scott, who found the digital version of his 1982 “Blade Runner” in fragile condition. “We discovered inadvertently that a lot of digital stuff was fading quicker than expected. We think it’s safe forever on disc, but, in fact, it was actually fading.”

Roger Mayer, a former MGM honcho who’s now chairman of the National Film Preservation Foundation, estimates each studio spends $5 million to $10 million a year to fund preservation or restoration programs — a sum that wouldn’t even cover the marketing costs of a low-budget comedy. . . .

Things get scarier from there. And now for a story that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times:

But then came digital. And suddenly the film industry is wrestling again with the possibility that its most precious assets, the pictures, aren’t as durable as they used to be.

The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled “The Digital Dilemma,” the council’s report surfaced just as Hollywood’s writers began their walkout. Busy walking, or dodging, the picket lines, industry types largely missed the report’s startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.

Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is “born digital” — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.

All of this may seem counterintuitive. After all, digital magic is supposed to make information of all kinds more available, not less. But ubiquity, it turns out, is not the same as permanence.

In a telephone interview earlier this month, Milton Shefter, a longtime film preservationist who helped prepare the academy’s report, said the problems associated with digital movie storage, if not addressed, could point the industry “back to the early days, when they showed a picture for a week or two, and it was thrown away.” . . .

So perhaps copyright violation is really the least of anyone’s worries. Either the movies simply won’t exist to be pirated in the future, or the pirates will have inadvertently filled the gaps in the studios’ own archives. So democratize the process, I say.