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Critic's Notebook: Television's wider, sharper, distorted view

Giant screens are impressive, but they don't automatically improve the content. And it's not good when older or historical images are adapted to fit widescreens.

January 16, 2011|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

I watch TV on a 20-year-old, 21-inch Panasonic television set with a single RF input into which I run a DVD player, a VHS machine and a cable box chained in sequence. It is the only television in the house, though sometimes I do watch things online — on an even smaller screen, a 15-inch cathode-ray computer monitor of no certain age (though it has survived more than one CPU). The Panasonic has never given me a lick of trouble, and although I am sure that the mere writing of those words guarantees its failure in the near future, I have no plans to upgrade until that happens. It would be wasteful and disloyal.

Televisions have changed since I bought this set, and television has changed along with it; it has shaped itself to the technology. And though I would say that this old Panasonic has a great picture, its age, almost by definition — by high-definition — argues otherwise. It is not the sort of TV that TV is being made for nowadays, with its widescreen, sharper image. At least some of the time, when the picture is not "letterboxed" – framed above and below with black bars that let a widescreen picture run whole on an old squarer screen – I am missing something.

When I see Giant TV at a friend's house or in some bar or lined up in banks at the gadget store, I am impressed, in a way, though not to the point of desire, as when as a tot I would have to be dragged away from any color television. Eventually, when the Panasonic goes to its reward, I will own a flatter, bigger TV — a wider one, at least — and it will fascinate me for a while, and then it will just be a television set.

I won't argue that there isn't something more "advanced" about the new models, but making TV prettier or more immersive does not make it smarter or bolder or funnier, any more than the super-widescreen stereo Technicolor films of the 1950s, made in response to television's infiltration of the living room, were necessarily any good — though the viewer may be dazzled into a kind of confusion. By the same token, good stories or good jokes can play just as well compact, on a little screen on the back of an airplane seat, or even a smart phone; the smallest picture can draw you in when there's something worth looking at it. Sometimes bigger is just bigger; sometimes a clearer picture just lets the seams and the wrinkles show. But once the new paradigm is set, it's hard going back. We see things differently.

We are still in a transitional period between these modes of perception. Visiting friends whose new widescreen monitor is filled to the edges with the distended image of a show made in the old squarer "standard definition," I tell them, "That picture is all stretched out — everybody's short and fat. Can't you see that?"

But they can't, or don't care. They could correct it with the push of a button, but prefer not to waste a square inch of the screen on the buffering black spaces – called "pillarboxing" when they appear at the sides -- that would put the picture in the proper proportion. If circles are squashed to ovals, so what? Similarly, many viewers with old sets like mine prefer to watch cropped "full screen" videos of widescreen theatrical features to the uncropped, letterboxed kind, which I think is foolish as well.

What you stretch in the privacy of your own home is one thing. What's distressing is the way that older images are now being pre-stretched for your convenience: It has become common practice in documentary filmmaking to elongate archival footage, shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio to fill a 16:9 widescreen frame. Even Ken Burns does it. And it's wrong.

Because whatever shape you want your TV picture to be, people are shaped as they are; stretching them like Silly Putty changes not only the way they look but the world that contains them; it warps the speed at which they move through space, and space itself. It is no different in kind than describing Abraham Lincoln as short and fat or Mt. Everest as a low-lying hill. It gets in the way of history and truth, distorting the record, literally, for the purpose of making us feel good about a big-ticket electronics purchase.

This is even worse than colorizing — that now largely abandoned attempt to "improve" old movies for viewers disinclined to watch anything in black and white. (It was the visual equivalent of "electronically rechanneling" monaural recordings for stereo, which itself was a foretaste of what will happen when 3D TVs take over, and all the old 2D series are rejiggered to artificially recede and pop.) Any picture is already just an impression of reality, to get a little metaphysical, but the point has always been to capture the world or to render some imagined world as convincingly as possible, or to artfully reimagine the actual. To make the image less accurate just to fill space — I can't understand why filmmakers want to do it, or agree to do it or are not marching in the streets shaking their Bolexes in protest.

Consumers demand choice, but demand also kills choice, as supply falls in line with what sells. New technologies turn tyrannical: You'll never hear analog again. The special beauties of black and white film and of the 4:3 frame — the shape (more or less) of "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca" and pretty much every television show made in the 20th century, including the first season of "The Sopranos" — become not just outmoded but unacceptable. Already, on new shows, the action is migrating outward, to the edges of my humble antique TV screen, leaving the center empty.

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