Part 4: Looking Up
In the internet age, streaming access to practically any visual stimulus is viewed as something approaching a human right. In the age of the videocassette, access to a few hundred tidily shelved titles was something approaching a miracle. All over Huntsville, video rental places came and went. Deciding what to rent became as much a centerpiece of a Saturday night as deciding what to have for dinner.
Before the VCR came along, viewing options were as obvious and unyielding as gravity. You could go out and watch a movie or stay home and watch TV. Movie buffs like my friends and me — movie snobs, really — poured contempt on those who said of a recent release, “I’ll see it when it comes on TV.”
One issue was editing for time. TV movies had commercials. Commercials took up time, and if a two-hour movie was going to fit into a two-hour broadcast window, it had to be cut for time. The day after a movie ran on one of the major television networks, we were all thinking maybe we’d had a stroke or something: “I may be crazy, but wasn’t there a scene where Petrovski was putting bullets into his gun with rubber gloves, and he was all sweaty?”
There was also editing for content. Nudity, bloodshed and swearing were excised, along with anything else that might cause offense to viewers or advertisers. With some movies, you sort of wondered why they bothered airing them in the first place.
In “Klute,” for example, per the Internet Movie Database, they “omit six minutes’ worth of footage, including a scene where Klute (Donald Sutherland) finds the clue that leads him to the murderer.”
With pay TV and movie rentals, these aggrievances were eliminated. Two out of three ain’t bad, but number three seemed insurmountable.
One common complaint about broadcast television was unfounded. TV sound was not lousy. In fact, it was generally as good as anything you would hear on FM radio. It was those cheap, crummy little TV speakers that ruined everything. As the 80s opened, MTV and a few other channels were making it possible to play their audio through an FM receiver.
Before that, hooking up your stereo to your VCR via the audio-out jack produced a quantum leap in sound quality that bordered on life changing. I tend to misremember strong emotions, but I may have wept.
That brings us to the TV screen itself. Tweaks had been made to improve the brightness and accuracy of color TV, and constant adjustments were largely a thing of the past. But the shape and resolution of the TV screen hadn’t changed since Bonanza’s 1959 debut — in living color, on NBC.
Since the early 50s, systems for filming and projecting movies had competed to elevate the cinematic experience above the stay-at-home pleasures of our trusty Motorolas. Not surprisingly, this produced movies that were virtually incomprehensible when they came to TV. The almost square proportions of the cathode ray tube locked the viewer out of a sizeable portion of a theatrical movie’s image. With features filmed in Cinemascope, for example, as much as two-thirds of the original image might be lopped off.
In order to make all the original widescreen credits visible — though not necessarily legible — a movie would appear with black blocks above and below it on TV. Whether this qualified as squishing or stretching was a topic of some debate, but eventually it became known as letterboxing, or more technically, original aspect ratio (OAR).
After the credits ran, the picture returned to full screen, and a process known as pan and scan was employed to keep the most important action within frame. It was better than nothing, but we wanted to see all of the movie, the way the Good Lord and the Director of Photography intended.
I began hearing about HDTV in the early 80s. Almost as an afterthought, a discussion of high definition television was included in a workshop sponsored by Panavision in the summer of 1982. The main topic was intended to be adapting film production techniques for video, but all anybody wanted to hear about was HDTV.
Our presenter, Harry Mathias, knew just about everything there was to know about this promise of AV geek nirvana, but it still wasn’t much. Like anything electronically advanced or cool, HDTV was already available in Japan, but he made no predictions on when it would come to the U.S.A., or what form it might take. “Wider and better,” was all he dared forecast.
We closed our eyes and dreamed what the future of at-home viewing might hold. It was worse than waiting for Christmas.
To be continued….