The screen image deteriorates

November 17, 2014

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As I sat in an early screening of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” last week, I realized that I was experiencing a first in my career — which, at my age, is a rare thing.

It was the first time I had watched a major film at a screening for critics in a multiplex in which the film itself had a watermark (as anti-piracy protection) in one corner of the image for the entire film.

And it occurred to me just how far we’ve come (perhaps fallen is the better word) in terms of how we are willing to experience films, as critics and, eventually, as audiences.

Perhaps I’m old-fashioned – oh hell, I know I’m old-fashioned. But, once upon a time, reviewing films meant experiencing them under optimum conditions. I spent an adolescence of movie-love – in those dark decades before the advent of the VCR – settling for chopped-up TV versions of movies, which were censored for broadcast, as well as interrupted by commercials in afternoon and late-night hours. Revival houses inevitably offered 35mm prints bespeckled with dust and worse, often with missing frames or scenes.

Reviewing films should mean – once meant – watching them in what amounted to a near-to-pristine state. The prints were new, the screens large, the projector’s lens clean. Even if it was a small screening room, it was still a larger-than-life image being broadcast on a flat surface, ideally in exactly the manner the director imagined when he filmed it.

But, as has been noted at length in the past, there are simply too many movies these days – and certainly too many to be able to give each one that kind of treatment. One result has been a decrease in the number that are actually shown in screening rooms.

Indeed, at this point in time, I’d venture that half of the screening notices I get end with the words, “I’d love to send you a link or screener of the film.”

Which means two things: that you will be watching someone’s movie on what amounts to a TV screen – whether it’s an actual TV or your computer. And that you’ll be watching a movie with a watermark.

A watermark, for the uninitiated, is like a caption, burned into the top or bottom of the image (see the image above). Sometimes it’s the logo of the movie company; sometimes it says, “Property of Such-and-so.”

In the case of “Mockingjay,” it was in the lower right-hand corner and said, “AMC Empire 25 11/12” (the name of the theater and the date of the screening). So if someone tried to pirate a copy of the film from this print, the source would be easily identifiable and, theoretically, the pirates would be caught.

The point is this: The watermark was in the corner of the screen for the whole movie. And that’s true of the films I screen at home on DVD or online.

I will admit that, after a while, you stop seeing the watermark and get caught up in the film – until, say, a quiet moment of transition. The soundtrack is hushed, the screen may go dark – and there’s the watermark, burning brightly in the corner of the frame, yanking you abruptly out of whatever mood or state the film might have lulled and pushed you into.

Obviously, this isn’t happening to the films of David Fincher or David O. Russell or Christopher Nolan. While “Mockingjay” director Francis Lawrence isn’t in that league, I have to assume that, as the director of what is bound to be one of the top-grossing films of the season, he wants every chance he can get from the critics. And that includes the opportunity to see his film in an unsullied state.

(Never mind the critic’s mental state, after being forced to argue with security guards over being forced to surrender one’s phone before being allowed to enter a private screening he’s been invited to cover as part of his job.)

It’s a symptom of something larger – and that horse is long-gone from the barn. Even as faux controversy erupts about the sound quality of “Interstellar,” more and more critics are watching an art form meant for a big screen on delivery systems such as computers, tablets and the like. Watermarks are not new, but their invasive pervasiveness is.

The quality of the presentation of film is on a downward slope that ends with us watching movies on our phones and wristwatches – and filmmakers altering their approach to what they shoot accordingly.

Meanwhile, we’ll eventually end up paying the kind of outrageous prices Broadway now commands to see a film on a screen larger than the one in your living room. With or without watermarks.

 

 

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