Wednesday, October 24, 2012

When distortions go unnoticed

A friend of mine had a unique viewing experience when watching District 9.

He watched some kind of pirated digital copy on his computer at work. Everything about the movie seemed normal; there was nothing that gave away the fact that it was an inferior reproduction. So he had no way of knowing that when there were no subtitles for the alien dialogue, this was a mistake. He thought it was just a bold creative choice by writer-director Neill Blomkamp -- a bold choice that he loved, which helped him love the movie. Kind of wish I'd seen that version of District 9, because the one I did see didn't leave me very smitten.

In discussing the movie with friends, he eventually learned that his copy was missing something. But that didn't change his impression of the film. District 9 was still a thrilling cinematic experience for him, even if it was the "wrong" experience, an experience he never should have had.

A thing like this happened on Friday night when I watched Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow. In order to understand the experience, you have to understand a little more about the LG 3D TV we bought back in June.

If you own a "sophisticated" TV, you know that it has any number of picture settings that make the picture look absolutely awful. Seriously. Out of the dozen or so distinct picture settings these TVs have, 11 of them look like utter shit. I guess the point is that under some circumstances, this is the picture setting you want. Us, we've found that the only picture setting we ever want to watch is the one called Game, as discussed in this post

However, as discussed in this post, we recently discovered a problem where the mouths don't always sync up with the dialogue when we watch Netflix streaming through our BluRay player. Sometimes they are off by just a hair, which is just enough to annoy the f___ out of you.

On Thursday night, when watching Get the Gringo (as discussed in this post -- okay, I'll stop now), I noticed the problem again and decided to mess around with the picture settings, which proved fruitful in the case of watching The Crucible (as linked to in the previous paragraph -- okay, really stopping now). I didn't find the magic touch to make streaming through BluRay look correct, but I did find a very good setting to watch the movie with correctly synched dialogue straight through our TV (which has an internet connection and a Netflix app as well).

I managed to forget that I had left the settings in a non-standard state by the time I put on Beyond the Black Rainbow on Friday night. That's kind of ironic, because this non-standard setting is actually called Standard. So I had non-standardly left it on Standard for my Get the Gringo viewing straight off the TV, but then gone back to watching BTBR through the BluRay player.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have noticed the problem immediately. Standard creates what I like to call the "Masterpiece Theatre look" -- everything you watch looks like a low-budget BBC production from the 1970s or 1980s. Simply put, it looks like cheap video with poor lighting.

With Beyond the Black Rainbow, though, that's the look they were going for. The debut film from Panos Cosmatos, the son of director George P. Cosmatos (Tombstone, Rambo: First Blood Part II), BBTR is a psychedelic horror movie set in 1983 -- and designed to look like it was actually made in 1983. I'd heard the movie described and recommended on the podcast Filmspotting: SVU, and it was part of a weekend binge of Canadian low-budget horror movies that also included Pontypool (also recommended).

So having forgotten that the TV was set wrong, I watched this movie unfold before my eyes, looking like it was shot on cheap video with poor lighting -- a phenomenon that utterly enhanced the fact that it was trying to look like it had been made 30 years ago, on cheap video with poor lighting. I sat there, mesmerized by the content itself, even more mesmerized by this impossibly executed filter of low-budget 1980s schlock. For the first half of the movie, I thought it might be one of the trippiest and most exciting movie-watching experiences I've had in years.

It was only at some point late in the second act that I realized that wait a minute -- I might have the TV set wrong. Indeed, I changed it back to Game, and indeed, the movie started to look a lot more conventional. You could still tell that Cosmatos was going for a look -- a TV setting alone can't either add or subtract that intention. But now it looked like low-budget film rather than low-budget video, which is decidedly a different thing, at least in terms of the paradigm under which I had already loved experiencing it.

So I switched it back to Standard and tried not to let it bother me.

It didn't bother me -- that much, anyway. It must have bothered me to some extent, because I was inspired to write this post about it.

The thing that's really funny is that I actually thought to myself earlier in the movie "You know, given how abstract and psychedelic this movie is, it doesn't even matter if the dialogue is off by a half-second. In fact, that might make it even better." So I knowingly accepted and in fact embraced an error in the audio synchronization, without even realizing the possibility that the picture setting was anything other than it should be.

I guess what bothered me is not that the experience of watching the movie itself was diminished by the realization I had the picture settings wrong. It's that I thought that Cosmatos had achieved something he actually did not achieve. I thought he had been actively responsible for shooting his movie in such a way that it created this cheap 1980s appearance, and was mesmerized by the level of success he had with that intention. When in fact, it only looked like it did because of a setting on my TV that makes things look terrible 99 out of 100 times.

I'm reminded a bit of the great documentary My Kid Could Paint That, which I watched about two months ago. The film has a lot to say about art and what it means -- whether art should be taken at face value, or if the history of its composition should come into play. Without giving away too much of that movie, I'll just say that it involves these masterful paintings created by a four-year-old girl -- and whether she was actually the one who painted them. Whether she painted them or not, they still are what they are -- they still create a certain emotional impact on those who behold them, if viewed in a vacuum, without any knowledge of their origin. However, it's certainly clear that the people who want to buy her paintings want to buy them because she painted them -- and not necessarily because they are objectively powerful works of art.

And so I am kind of left wondering about my own impression of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Was I as enthusiastic as I was about it only because I saw it on the Standard TV setting, or would I have found it just as profound if I'd watched it on Game? I can't go back and erase my initial viewing experience. As long as I had the reaction I had to it, does it matter how or why? Like my friend who watched the incomplete copy of District 9, I guess I will just be glad for the experience I did have, whether the movie "should" benefit from that or not.

However I end up coming down on that topic, I'm glad to say that at least two other things left me unambiguously loving it: 1) The terrific synth score by Jeremy Schmidt, which I have spent the better part of a couple days trying to find online to download; 2) The creepy lead performance by Michael Rogers, which contains (without hyperbole) some of the most nuanced expressions of emotion through minor facial expressions that I have ever seen in a movie.

The problem with my skewed viewing experience is, of course, the question of how fully I should really recommend it to friends. And at least with Beyond the Black Rainbow, there's something that prevents me from giving it my fullest recommendation: The movie has an extremely disappointing ending.

Then again, with a movie like this, neither the lucidity of the narrative nor the satisfaction of the payoff are really the point. I read a review that described it as poetry, and indeed, I think that's the best way to consume it.

Preferably with your TV on the wrong setting.


Monty Burns said...

I still say it was a great film without the subtitles. I thought the director trusted me to get from acting and context whatever it was the aliens were saying. I thought, man this really works well, the aliens seem extra alien-y, without their communication reduced to expository english dialogue. If I ever watch it again, I'll need to find out how to turn off the titles.

Vancetastic said...

Oh my God, you totally blew your own cover!

Um, what?

It's interesting timing for this particular discussion, because Argo withholds translation of some dialogue in Farsi in a way that's very effective, and indeed places you in the shoes of the American who are listening to it uncomprehendingly. The truth is, we *should* be able to get what they're saying from context, and usually do. Film is first and foremost a visual medium, so the visuals should tell us most of what we need to know.