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Critical Confessions: Part 1 - The Image is Everything

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Tuesday, Dec 4, 2007


Being a film critic does have its advantages. Yet the problems can often outweigh the perks. Seeing an anticipated title well before regular audiences remains an undeniable benefit. Having to explain in 1200 words why it fascinates or just fails miserably (sometimes, within 24 hours of the viewing) stands as the date stamped IOU. There’s a trade off that few really comprehend, entertainment for effort, the ability to ply one’s (hopefully) cultured aesthetic for the pure joy of dissecting cinema. Not every critic is a writer per se - words are not their paintbox, but their PR punctuation marks - and in an analytical paradigm where ‘good/bad’ often defines a reader’s literary limits, opinions are an unclear commodity. Still, there are factors one should consider when reading any review, aspects within the very process itself that frequently twist a scribe’s sensibilities.


Let’s start with the most basic element of the movie going experience - the image. Print quality, especially in the post-millennium ‘all but digital’ domain should never be a problem. Since a critic is getting the chance to see a first run film, the visuals onscreen should be first run quality as well. A good example of this maxim is illustrated by the recent press screening for Beowulf. While the film was released in both 2D and 3D versions, the studio made the wise decision of showing reviewers a gorgeous, near flawless multi-dimensional transfer. The characters literally popped off the screen, and any underlying issues (dragging second act, unsatisfying ending) were minimized by what was clearly an optical feast. Even the most seasoned skeptic walked out of that showing staggered by the detailed images presented.


On the other side of things was the recent screening for The Golden Compass. Desperate to regain the monetary momentum crafted by their Lord of the Rings gamble, New Line is trotting out this potential franchise with an ad campaign that emphasizes the epic spectacle and scope of the story. We are dealing with a fantasy realm that combines facets of art deco architecture, neo-sci-fi environs, and a CGI subculture of anthropomorphized ‘ice’ bears. It has Nicole Kidman looking swanky, Daniel Craig looking dashing, and the whole wannabe classic appearing sumptuous and rich. Indeed, based on the intriguing commercials alone, the visuals threaten to rival those of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece itself.


Yet that’s not how it looked at the preview screening this week. Instead of an experience that took your breath away, The Golden Compass was a clear ocular letdown (the film’s entertainment issues will be left for another day). The opening shots seemed acceptable, as did moments where two main characters walk an old fashioned Victorian college. But the minute the totalitarian Majesterium was revealed, a fuzzy, almost faded look became the norm. By the time the action moved to the ice bears and their kingdom, the computer graphics looked cloudy and unclear. Colors were faded, and details were in short supply. It was almost as if the studio supporting the picture had decided to trot out a worn out copy of the film for prerelease evaluation.


It’s a trend that’s become more and more obvious over the last few years. When Roger Ebert complained in the ‘90s that movie theaters were cutting down the candle power on their projectors (to save electricity to, in theory, save money), he was pointing to the beginning of an unnerving trend. While owners and distributers scratched their heads over why attendance was waning, exhibitors were passing less luminescence through their carefully constructed negatives. The result was routinely dissatisfied customers, bad image recreation, and an overall feeling that going to the Cineplex was a worthless, unsettled experience.


Home theater didn’t help matters much, and frankly, it still doesn’t. Over the last few months, DVD releases of Transformers, Ratatouille, and Hairspray have looked remarkably better than their preview screening counterparts. Since many critics don’t revisit a film once they’ve seen it (a question of pure time and future obligation), their one and only experience with a title prior to writing it is during these less than impressive press outings. When it happens, when a previously viewed film can seem totally different on your high end digital set up, the experience can be quite revelatory. Granted, there is an additional concept to be weighed - the initial shock of seeing something fresh vs. the familiarity inherent later on - but unless you’re purposefully trying to retrograde your visuals (ala Grindhouse), the first time out of the box should be the best.


That’s rarely the case, however. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine looked stunning during its screening. The Invasion looked awful. The Bourne Ultimatum was so bright and washed out it seemed neutral. Bee Movie practically vibrated off the screen. The importance of this distinction cannot be underplayed. Story is vital, as are cinematic standards like theme and mood, but when you can’t enjoy the proposed power of an animated animal fight to the death, when your enchanted realm (as in Stardust) looks like a badly photographed travelogue, when darkness obscures your chills and thrills, you realize the dilemma the critic faces. In fact, it boils down to one important question - how does someone charged with analyzing a visual medium respond to crappy visuals?


DVD reviews have it easy. The format mandates such scholarship. When Fox sends websites watermarked screeners (the better to fight piracy, so the studio says), critics frequently take the company to task. After all, how does a consumer advocate comment on the final product provided when he or she does not receive same? It’s like lying to the reader. Even better, why does a film journalist avoid said understandable declarations? If they sat through Halloween, barely able to see Rob Zombie’s reimagined horrors playing out on screen, shouldn’t they mention the subpar presentation? Or is it just a question of avoiding the issue all together, secure in the knowledge that the opening weekend audience will see the best print possible?


Yet that’s not always the case either. While the DVD version of 300 emulated the big screen version quite admirably, there was something about the clarity offered in the theatrical experience that was quite unique. On the opposite end of aesthetics, Spider-Man 3 looks better on the digital format than it ever did in a Midwest Multiplex. It could be a company by company thing (AMC seems worse than most, with independent theaters appearing to pride themselves on the best possible picture available). It could also be a matter of studios saving the best prints for paying crowds (even ticketed screenings are freebies to those in attendance). Whatever the case, there are definitely times when a critic has to overlook a sloppy transfer simply to do their job. It’s commiserate to having a music critic listen to a CD on blown speakers.


As directors like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis push for a switch over to pure bitrate purity, and Luddites lament the possible death of celluloid, the inconsistent visuals experienced both in and out of the big screen experience mark one of the main reasons for customer dissatisfaction. People want to see high quality visuals and their equally evocative replication for their money. High prices, dull product, and slight/scandalous subject matter may also become part of the disagreement, but the inability to clearly see the subtle beauty of a Scottish countryside (as in The Water Horse), marks a major stumbling block.


So the next time you envy a critic for catching your favorite superstar’s latest magnum opus, remember this considered caveat - they may not be seeing the best possible image of your hero/heroine. You, who fight traffic, pay for parking, stand in line, and feel the highway robbery pinch of theater snacks, may be getting the better end of the widescreen deal. At least you get to see the movie in the mandated style you agreed to. For the reviewer, early mornings spent shifting through incomplete narrative threads or avoiding preview audience glowers is par for the course. But the last thing they should have to worry about is the lack of contrasts in the climatic battle between witches, wildlife, and the wicked. For a film reviewer, image is everything. Sadly, most press screenings drop the ball on this vital part of the process. 

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