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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—5 February 2010

Called It, Bitches! (Or, Homage To Hammond and Wells): Here's the text of a mass e-mail I sent out yesterday.

"I first saw the Miramax Blu-ray disc of Gangs of New York in the summer of 2008, I guess. June to be exact. This was roughly two weeks before its official release, because Miramax was still sending me screeners then, and there was person (me) in the living room watching it, cause I had been laid off from my office job by then.  I called my wife later in the afternoon to see what she had in mind for dinner. Anyway, back to the DVD. After the initial rush of seeing the 1080p resolution, such as it was, I started to get put off by some things—the flesh tones in the picture looked kind of orangey, the snow kind of blue. The flames of the torches as the Dead Rabbits, or whoever they were, marched through the bowels of their fortress or whatever it was—they looked like they were animated rather than live action, which is the sure sign of bad video compression. Weirdly enough, though, the disc got a rave from Leonard Norwitz at the normally reliable DVD Beaver website; he gave the disc's image quality a rating of "7/9." (Yeah, I know: quoth Norwitz in that review: "[I have a new scoring system for the Image in order to make the first number rationalize with the other scores]: The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray DVDs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVDs, including SD 480i." Get it? ) Eventually the main thing this signified to me was to take any Beaver reviews by Leonard Norwitz with a grain of salt."

"I held off writing about it until I got an assignment from Popular Mechanics in the fall of '08, to write a major feature on the craft and art of high-definition digital transfer and how it relates to Blu-ray discs of classic and contemporary films. My hook—my 'you are almost kinda-sorta-there' anecdote for the lede—involved Martin Scorsese's editor Thelma Schoonmaker supervising a high-def transfer of Scorsese's The Color of Money. In the course of my interview with Schoonmaker, I brought up the Gangs Blu-ray, which another of my interview subjects, film preservationist and restoration expert Robert H. Harris, pronounced as among one of the worst he'd ever seen. Schoonmaker practically shuddered when I brought it up, saying that while she hadn't yet seen it, that it had been made without the input of her and Scorsese, and that she had heard what a disaster it was, and that she was almost afraid to look at it. A mutual friend reported some time later that Schoonmaker had seen it, and was shocked. But enough about her."

"Here is what I, Glenn Thomas Allen Kenny, wrote of the 2008 Gangs of New York Blu-ray in the January, 2009 edition of Popular Mechanics, (a magazine founded in 1902, and hence, incredibly credible; it is also owned by Hearst, which has this really neat building right at 57th Street and Eighth Avenue; and it still pays real magazine rates and everything!); it's the first time I talked it up: 'But as glorious as HD film restorations can be, they can also be disastrous. Scorsese’s The Color of Money is arguably an improved product over even its theatrical release, because it was remastered with care and attention. But the Blu-ray of Gangs of New York, produced without the participation of Scorsese or Schoonmaker, is a sloppy mess. In the opening scene, as Liam Neeson’s gang marches through its underground headquarters preparing for a turf war, the flames of the torches and candles illuminating the scene look like cartoons. Skin tones are often orange, and the visuals are made all the more surreal by edge-enhancement techniques that give the characters full-body halos.'"

"The same day I participated in the first Gurus Of Gold on November 4th and it was only time I ever participated in the Gurus of [wait, is it 'Of' or 'O''?] Gold but actually that was in 2007 so never mind. (Aside to Poland: Congratulations on fatherhood, I guess. I still think you're kind of a tool, though. Whatevs.)"

Wells to Kenny: I might have joined you, Glenn, if I hadn't been so busy counting every single bit of film grain visible on any given freeze-frame from Criterion's grainstorm version of The Third Man.

"That Popular Mechanics article was not used by Santa Barbara Film Festival chief Roger Durling in any way, shape or form as far as I know. However, this week, with pretty much zero fanfare, a new Blu-ray of Gangs, boasting a brand-new digital transfer, hit the streets, as we like to say. It is a staggering improvement on the 2008 version in every respect. The sharpness is real, not artificially boosted as the first one seemed. The fleshtones are right. The flames are right. The whole thing presents Scorsese's flawed but often breathtaking epic as it ought to be seen on the home theater screen. I implore everyone equipped with a Blu-ray player to check it out and eagerly await DVD Beaver's 'we wuz wrong' review."

"But most importantly, I want to point out to you all that this was ENTIRELY MY DOING, and call upon you all to, as that one crazy guy on a bunch of blog posts likes to command apropos Kristen Stewart, BOW."

"What's going on? You're not bowing."

"Well, fine then, suit yourselves. I've gotta dash, I'm need to figure out who I have to blow to get totally comped for the Santa Barbara FIlm Festival. Ciao."

I have not seen a flame, in any film, screened on a modern television that did NOT look like old-school animation. Often flames and bright light sources look like the old “burn in” from a 1980s model video camera. In other words, I’m still waiting for someone—anyone—other than me to lament the plain fact that there are NO “televisions” (plasma, LCD, whatever) now that are without inherent flaws. Irrespective of the signal being sent to it—and God help you if your plasma set is hooked up to standard cable for a night of TCM viewing—picture quality is always compromised in some respect. Every manufacturer I have spoken with, and dozens of dealers, readily admit that these new, insanely expensive items are not “there yet.” Indeed, A Crutchfield catalog page is devoted to the “differences,” and the best tv for viewing sports as opposed to films. Pop into Best Buy and marvel as the sales associate gleefully admits that certain types of movement, versus color, varies from format to format. For only $2886.99 ! I’m guessing cinephiles use a projector to watch BLU RAY.
Provocative, interesting observations, Doctor. I get quite a bit of satisfaction from my Hitachi 50-inch plasma, and believe that Hitachi and Panasonic make the best plasmas for the cinephile. But nothing is perfect, no. Nevertheless, the new “Gangs” does look pretty damn fine on my set, take my word.

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