How Blu-ray Killed the Classics

We live in a time of change, everything is going from analog to digital; music, movies, books, even the technology used to film a picture—a move that producers like Rodriguez are trailblazing. We all know the benefits of these changes; with digital and HD technology movies are now clearer and more transportable than ever. But don’t be fooled into thinking that these advancements don’t have a price; while there are drawbacks to digital music and books, movies suffer the worst, especially the classics. Most films produced before 2000 are inferior for the upgrade to HD and Blu-ray and, as a result, we are losing a lot of the movie magic in the films we loved as children.

Naturally the home entertainment execs are desperate for us to replace all of our DVDs with Blu-ray discs just as we replaced our VHS cassettes with DVDs ten years ago but, you can’t say you weren’t warned, spending your money and upgrading isn’t necessarily going to mean an improved watching experience.

There are, of course, some classic films that hold up well under the scrutiny of HD and Blu-ray. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a prime example. Due to a combination of great care being taken with the negative, as well as the set design and special effects, the film looks better today than ever. Unfortunately, most filmmakers did not have the foresight to think about their films as entities beyond the cinema, much less in a digitally enhanced format where the product can be scrutinized endlessly frame by frame and now the less-than-perfect craftsmanship is there for the world to see.

When watching a copy of The Wizard of Oz (1939) on Blu-ray details that have never been visible before pop out on the screen, giving film fans a glimpse behind the curtain they wish they’d never had. Take the backdrops of Oz and Munchkinland for example. It’s far too easy to tell where the set ends and the backdrops begin and many of the props appear to be painted cardboard, not exactly what you’d expect to find over the rainbow.

In The African Queen (1951) Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn have never looked sharper, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The ‘attacking flies’ effect now looks like nothing more than bits of black ash floating over the negative. Blemishes become visible on what, until now, appeared to blemish-free faces. Not only does this take the edge off the idea of classical Hollywood glamour, it’s also a little bit sad because Katherine Hepburn would never have wanted to look anything but her best. This is a problem even in contemporary films, actors’ makeup is often unnaturally visible and any acne, scaring, or other blemishes are actually visible enough to become a real distraction. I’m not suggesting that I expect actors to look perfect, but there must be ways of softening blemishes—if they could convincingly touch up Rita Hayworth back in the day I’m sure they can sort it for Gwyn in HD.

I’ve seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) countless times on VHS and DVD and I also saw it on a 35mm print recently for the first time. The print was a bit worn, but there was something delightfully nostalgic about it. I could have watched the film in the comforts of my home on (nearly) crystal clear DVD up-scaled to 1080p on my Blu-ray player and HDTV whilst having a drink and relaxing with my dogs. But instead I chose to drive over an hour and sit in a picture theatre. Why did I go to all this trouble? I was going for an experience; an experience I can’t get in my living room. Sure, castle Camelot may be a model, but on a 35mm print, you can’t tell until Gilliam actually points it out.

Now, I chose to travel to see a film that I love in a format that did it justice but not everybody would do this same. Recently, a coworker told me that a friend of his actually refuses point blank to watch movies released before the year 2000. This, to me at least, is a ludicrous way of thinking about film. Granted, most films made post-2000 look great on Blu-ray and in HD, and as we’ve established the earlier classics do not, but if a greater number of people start thinking this way 100 years of cinema could end up being disregarded. It’d be like that scene in The Time Machine (1960) where Rod Taylor realizes all the books have rotted and that civilization been lost. Horrifying!

As a final note it’s worth mentioning that HD is here to stay and, for the most part, I welcome the use of new technology if it enhances the film experience. But Blu-ray isn’t necessarily here to stay and as a consumer with the power to vote with your pocket you should try not to be taken in by all the big directors doing their special Blu-ray rereleases. It’s 50/50 which way the home entertainment is going to go at the moment particularly with the upcoming plans for Premium Video on Demand (VoD). The model is backed by all the major studios who no doubt see its potential as a massive money-maker so any Blu-rays you buy now might seem a bit of a waste of money in 6-12 months time. If you must buy into the Blu-ray revolution best be selective about which titles you choose, Klaus Kinski had a bit of a distracting face even back in the days of VHS.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of New Empress Magazine.