Kicky Baby Blog: Fake HD

Originally posted on the Kicky Baby blog, April 23, 2009.

(Apologies for not adding material here for a while… I’ve been finishing and revising MARIPOSA, the sequel to QUANTICO, and now it’s in production with a November pub date from Perseus/Vanguard… More time to blog!)

It’s no biggy in the grand scheme of things, but the little irritations and the small dishonesties can add up over time.

And so it is with a deep sense of proportionality that I bitch about cable television channels and their fake claims of broadcasting movies in high definition. Having just  Tivoed DEEP IMPACT on TNTHD, for the second time, trying to watch a decent high-def version of a pretty good movie, I am once again stuck with what appears to be a standard-def picture, and  not even a wide-screen picture, but a “stretched” version from a 4:3 aspect ratio copy.

This seems particularly common for films from Dreamworks, which has either not paid for hi-def transfers of many of its films, or doesn’t care that their pictures are being marketed under false pretenses.

All good movies, but—

The screen roll-bys announce these are hi-def, available on hi-def channels only, and they aren’t.

It matters in several ways, because cable companies are competing with each other for bragging rights over the most hours of hi-def shown. Fake hi-def showings are counted in those listings.

Notable exceptions: SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, in true hi-def on TNTHD from the beginning, and JURASSIC PARK, which debuted in the bad “stretched” format a year or so ago, and finally has been shown in decent hi-def on SCI-FI HD and elsewhere.

All of the Lord of the Rings films have been shown multiple times in true hi-def.

TWISTER has not—it’s stretched standard-def. STARSHIP TROOPERS–stretched.

USAHD has shown a fine HD version of CASANOVA, and yet has also deceived–too often–with other films to be trustworthy.

A beautifully colorful transfer  of JACKIE BROWN (probably my favorite Tarentino movie) suffers only from a  creative language edit that replaces the F-word with a fascinating variety of poetic euphemisms.

And that brings me to the second part of this rant. Up until a few months ago, the late and somewhat lamented MOJO network and the still-extant Universal HD showed their films in uncut hi-def, complete with full credits and minimal commercial interruptions. A lot of obscure movies (and quite a few very good movies, not always mutually exclusive) got shown multiple times on these networks, notably 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, uncut, unaltered, usually in their original aspect ratios; a movie fan’s dream.

No more.

MOJO is gone and Universal HD seems to have teamed up with USA HD to co-broadcast many of the same movies, now cut for time, language, and the irritating commercial aspirations of somebody who really no longer gives a damn about the movie audience.

I suppose it’s all about survival.

But it’s also about the diminishing of the basic cable dream these two networks were offering late-night and other viewers: that they wouldn’t have to pay for HBO to see movies as the filmmakers intended them to be seen.

And so–back to Netflix. When streaming internet video brings us full hi-def in a few years, then it’s bye-bye to the last few  inane deceptions and one-size fits all world of broadcast and cable TV.

(Of course, if it all works, we’ll be paying for those films individually–or perhaps as part of a non-cable package… And that might end up costing as much as HBO, but at least the selection will be bigger.)

Away from the broadcast world,  video tapes and Laserdiscs are essentially analog media (some eventually acquired digital soundtracks), which means it is was not technically feasible to hand over control of the viewing of such material to the studio lawyers.

As soon as DVDs came along, that changed.

DVDs are digital start to finish, and studios have forced player manufacturers to cater to them in oh so many ways to even be able to license DVDs of their films.

The result: we’ve all seen the FBI slide about piracy every single time we plug in a disc. We can’t avoid it. The lawyers want to grind it into your eyeballs, because they don’t trust you, even when they have your money. (To be fair, the public attitude toward piracy doesn’t engender much trust. If hamburgers were digital and could be hacked and copied, McDonald’s would long ago have gone out of business–because as we all know, hamburgers want to be free, just like information.)

But the lawyers aren’t solely  to blame for losing control of your viewing life.

Plug in a DVD, and as often as not, it will go straight to trailers–or other warnings about piracy–while deactivating your skip or chapter controls. The display on the screen, when these useless buttons are pressed, should read, “Sorry, schmuck. The ad department says if we don’t force you to watch these things, you’ll just skip them. So here goes. But wait–you say you bought this disc of Pinocchio twenty years ago, and those movies in the trailers have long since come and gone…? Well, that means you didn’t buy the latest digitally enhanced transfer on Super Triple Def DVD, available for a limited time only…”

Pfaah.

As for production credits–real flesh and blood people labor long and hard on movies and TV shows. They are frequently well paid, but credit is part of their pay, as well. When those credits are truncated, sped up, shrunk to a crawl, and supered over with commercials or promos…

That’s a crime.

I’ve probably spent six or eight months of my life being warned by the FBI not to steal this disc that I’ve already rented or purchased. I think the lawyers can assume that every human being on the planet who watches movies knows the text of their warning by heart.

Interpol may have expressed interest, but I do not.

Give it a rest. And get the technical details right. And give control of our viewing experience back to the audience that pays your way.

Coming soon to Kicky Baby: The Great Nipple and F-word shortage of 1940.