Glenn Kenny poses a provocative question over at MUBI.com: “What, finally, is the point of the Blu-ray disc? Not just for cinephiles, but for anyone with a home entertainment setup?” This none-too-rhetorical query came on the heels of Kenny’s examination of a new set of Yasujiro Ozu Blu-rays from the British Film Institute. In Kenny’s words, the films “do not shimmer” the way many new ones do on BD (and the way many BD connoisseurs expect all films to on BD), largely because Ozu’s films weren’t filmed with shimmer in mind. In that case: what is the point? If you have a Criterion Collection DVD of “Tokyo Story,” do you need to buy it on Blu-ray as well?
It’s a question I’ve been pondering myself recently, having inherited my first HDTV from a friend and bought my first Blu-ray player just a few months ago. At about ten titles, my Blu collection is admittedly small. Do they look better than my DVDs? Abso-friggin’-lutely. To me, though, the real question isn’t “Do they look better?” it’s “How much better do they look?” And in some cases, the answer is “Significantly,” (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” on Blu-ray, for example, is absolutely mesmerizing) and in other cases the uncool but honest answer is “I don’t know.” Unless I had two televisions, and side-by-side DVD and Blu-ray rigs, how could I? Sites like DVD Beaver include comparative photographs of DVDs and Blu-rays in their reviews and the results are sometimes shocking: check out how much crisper and richer the images look on the upcoming Criterion Blu of “The Thin Red Line,” for example. But if I showed you the old Malick DVD images by themselves, would you know they were inferior? Probably not. Take a look at the image accompanying this post: is it a scan of the DVD or the Blu-ray?
In this world, looks can be deceiving. I was sent a screener of Kino’s Blu-ray of the 1951 movie “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.” Watching the film for the very first time, I thought it looked gorgeous. For two hours, I was lost inside Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor visuals. I didn’t want the film to end. When it did, I went online to read what people who know more about this sort of thing than me thought of the disc, certain I’d find raves for one of the finest repertory titles of the year. Nope; turns out the disc is considered by many to be inadequate. Dave Kehr, the fine home video columnist for The New York Times, called the “Pandora” Blu-ray “slightly disappointing,” and added that “to capture… detail the new print seems to have been digitally bleached and brightened; the deep shadows and darkling skies of the old version now seem oppressively cheerful.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, a man who has forgotten more about film than I will ever know, agreed with that assessment, stating that his memory of the film from 1951 was closer to the old transfer than the restored Blu-ray. “It’s obvious that the restored version is superior in terms of definition, lighting, and color,” Rosenbaum wrote on his blog. “But rightly or wrongly, I remember the film in 1951 as being darker, at least in my mind’s eye — a film bathed in black more than auburn hues.”
Let’s ignore for the moment the ludicrousness of someone speaking authoritatively about the visual quality of a print they saw almost 60 years ago, and assume that Rosenbaum and Kehr are correct. When released to theaters as a motion picture projected from 35mm film in 1951, “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” was a significantly darker looking movie than the one I watched on Blu-ray in 2010. Does that invalidate the joy I had in discovering it? Should I discard the Blu-ray in exchange for a more primative (but supposedly more accurate) older DVD?
This to me is the point where the argument becomes vaguely insane. How do we ever know how any movie really looks? And I’m not speaking in pothead pseudophilosophical “How do I know that what I see as orange isn’t what you see as red?” nonsense. I’m talking concretely. That new “Thin Red Line” Criterion Blu-ray boasts a “new, restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Terrence Malick and cinematographer John Toll.” But how I know if my television is calibrated to match the monitor Malick and Toll approved the transfer on? How can I be sure that Malick and Toll weren’t watching the film on a monitor that was slightly too dark? Or too light? Questions like this could drive a man to commit himself. Once they start, they never end.
Though I’m skeptical of Rosenbaum’s ability to remember how a movie looked when he saw it in 1951, I love that something he saw so long ago still resonates so powerfully for him. To me, that personal connection is what makes movies special. And that personal connection very rarely has anything to do with objectively “perfect” picture quality. I loved watching “Taxi Driver” on NYU’s faded, grainy 16mm print; the dirty, degraded image quality seemed to match Travis Bickle’s worldview of “the hell” of New York City better than any DVD or VHS copy I’d ever seen. But then watching a movie on film is always preferable to digital, right? Except when the film is projected in the wrong aspect ratio or the guy in front of you won’t stop texting. And so on.
I think we need Blu-rays, but I don’t know that we need to obsess over them quite so much, especially if that obsession gets in the way of our enjoyment. Because that, ultimately, should be the point.
Here’s a video comparing the old transfer of “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” and the new restoration. Is it too light? Judge for yourself: