Dear Chicago Reader:
The abysmal quality of most "art movie" DVDs is lamentable. Compared to the competition, the Criterion Collection DVDs are remarkable for their overall high quality. However, your Culture Club column of December 29 gives the impression that every Criterion title is of the highest quality when in fact that is not true. Many Criterion DVDs suffer from some of the same problems that were complained about in the column, including incorrect aspect ratios, lack of extras, and most importantly, poor transfers.
Consider Alphaville, one of the titles I'm happy to own. The transfer is excellent for a film of its age. It's doubtful this film ever looked better in your home. However, it is not presented in its original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio, but rather as an unmatted, full-frame version. There is simply no reason for this. Even if Godard intended the film to be shown full frame, or Criterion felt this was a better format for home presentation, one of the great things about a DVD is that it can hold multiple versions of the same film. Criterion could easily have included both versions, allowing us to compare the two ourselves. Additionally, this DVD contains no extras, something that is also true of other Criterion DVDs such as M.
But by far the worst problem with the Criterion Collection is its consistent failure to provide anamorphic transfers of wide-screen format films. It is almost a truism among film buffs that it is better to display wide-screen films letterboxed rather than fitting them to a 4:3 TV screen using pan and scan. However, while this preserves the original aspect ratio of the film, it creates another problem. A standard definition television has only 480 lines of vertical resolution. When letterboxing a film, many of these precious scan lines are wasted drawing black bars at the top and bottom of each frame. For films shot in 'Scope, about half of the resolution of the screen is lost in this way.
Enter anamorphic encoding. The name is taken from an analogous process used to shoot wide-screen films for the theater. In this process, a film transfer is formatted for a 16:9 high-definition television instead of a standard 4:3 set. This wide-screen image is then squeezed to fit into a regular 4:3 frame. Played back in normal mode, everything would look too tall and thin. But played back on a 16:9 screen or one of the ever-increasing number of 4:3 sets that can emulate one, this image is unsqueezed back to its correct size. The net of this is that the image actually stored on the DVD, because it is taller than the unsqueezed image, makes use of more of the 480 available scan lines to draw the film instead of black bars. This provides about one-third greater vertical resolution on the screen, making a large difference in how the film appears to the viewer. (For those without the capability of displaying 16:9, the DVD player converts the films to a normal letterboxed image.)
Criterion's failure to produce anamorphic transfers of many of their wide-screen films means that no matter how pristine the print it was taken from, or how much effort Criterion goes through to digitally restore the image, it will still be far from the best image one could get on a DVD. Because of this, there are now non-Criterion releases that are actually better than the Criterion version, such as This Is Spinal Tap. Serious DVD fans insist on anamorphic transfers and many of them--myself included--typically will not buy nonanamorphic DVDs of wide-screen films. Criterion's nonanamorphic transfers shortchange their customers.
While Criterion does a generally solid job of producing DVDs, that doesn't mean buyers don't need to do their homework on individual releases. It is unfortunate that the Reader wrote a column that ended up being a puff piece sounding like it came directly from Criterion's PR department. As always, it is buyer beware.
Aaron M. Renn
Jim Jones replies:
Anamorphic transfers are great if you have a wide-screen TV, but those still retail for around $3,500. If you have a standard TV, your DVD player has to reduce the image from 480 scan lines to 360 to make room for the black bars, which it does either by combining every four lines into three or by dropping every fourth line. That being the case, a DVD that's already been matted into a letterbox shape by the studio may actually look better than a converted anamorphic image. We could probably argue that point until hell freezes over, but I can understand why even the most conscientious DVD producer might be hesitant to embrace the technology. On the other hand, digital TV will be here before we know it, so I agree with those DVD enthusiasts who believe that anamorphic transfer should become the industry standard.