I’m part of a generation that grew up watching movies in adulterated VHS incarnations, many of them prior to the popularity of letterboxing.  As a bona fide film nerd, I learned early about the horrors of pan-and-scan, how it cut out, sometimes arbitrarily, half or more of the information contained in any given shot.

But it wasn’t until I watched this video that I began to consider the effect pan-and-scan had on a generation of movies that may never be subject to that technique.  It particular, it was the footage from the Ben Hur chariot race scene that gave me the idea.  Seeing it with the pan-and-scanned section highlighted against the background of the scene in its original aspect ratio, it’s easy to see how the direction loses clarity.  A person watching the pan-and-scanned version has to try harder to piece together the trajectory of the action than would a person watching it in full.

But what struck me most about the comparison was how much the scene begins to resemble the style of many modern action movies.  Compare it to the first race in The Fast and the Furious, for example.  In particular, watch for quick cuts to and away from close-ups, tight shots on action, and the almost total lack of shots that frame multiple characters together.

The director, Rob Cohen, was born the year after commercial television programming began in the States; he would have been about 22 the year VCRs became commercially available.  I can’t say for certain that he learned his visual aesthetic from watching pan-and-scanned movies on television and video, but he’s certainly part of the first generation that had the opportunity to see movies at home as often as they saw them in their unadulterated theatrical release.  It wouldn’t be surprising to know that they had absorbed the aesthetic of pan-and-scan and turned it into their own.

Which could be interpreted as a dismissal of that particular directorial style.  It isn’t.  Saying that the directors like Cohen employ a different aesthetic is like saying that they speak a different language.  The range of things that can be said by the two languages, that of William Wyler’s generation and that of Cohen’s, differs slightly, and you wouldn’t expect Cohen to direct the same sort of action scene that Wyler did.  But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t valuable things to be said using Cohen’s idiom, any more than I would suggest that Milton’s use of English barred him from writing an epic poem of the caliber of his Greek and Roman predecessors.  By no means would I class The Fast and the Furious with a movie like Ben Hur, but that distinction has to do with more than the handful of directing and editing choices I’m talking about here.  That it would have, by no means, been right for Ben Hur does not mean that there isn’t a movie where it would have been more appropriate than Wyler’s capacious use of the widescreen format.

And yet, the idea intrigues me, that a particular style of action direction, popular with contemporary directors, may have evolved out of their familiarity with adulterated version of classic movies.  It means, among other things, that they had to work harder to understand complex sequences in the movies they grew up watching, and that they are conveying that sensibility to a new generation.

But I wonder what sort of lasting power that will have.  After all, pan-and-scan is a dying technique.  The shift from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray has all but antiquated it.  More and more, modern audiences are taking a position that was once associated with cinephiles like Scorsese and Pollack.  Television aspect ratios have adapted to the 16:9 standard that movies first adopted in order to distinguish themselves from television.  It may be that the next generation, not having fed on so steady a diet of pan-and-scan, will have less affinity for its evocation in current action cinema.  Or, what seems more likely, the choppy, tight, and often disorienting style of the generation raised on pan-and-scan will take its place as merely one technique among many, to be mobilized when its effect is deemed most useful, and to be avoided when something more majestic, like Wyler’s direction in Ben Hur, better suits the subject of the film.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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