Plastic Patton (Redux)

July 21, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

When I wrote the original "Plastic Patton" piece a couple of weeks ago, I didn't expect there to be a Part 2. Just goes to show you never know where on-line articles are going to take you…

Following a lengthy phone conversation with Robert Harris, who voiced the initial disapproval of the Patton Blu-Ray disc, I went back to the drawing board, so to speak. Following Mr. Harris' advice, I took my disc to a local high-end home theater store and was able to view the film's first 20 minutes on a 10-foot screen. Following that (disheartening) experience, I returned home and re-watched the entire movie on my own equipment, switching back-and-forth between the special edition standard DVD and the new Blu-Ray. (My wife's lament: "You're watching it again? You just watched it last week! You're obsessed." In the interests of marital harmony, I did not mention how many times she had read the Harry Potter books.)

Seeing the movie blown up to near-theatrical proportions caused the following sound byte to echo through my mind's ear: "Houston, we have a problem." Bigger, it seems, is not always better. At 120", Patton still looked crisp and clear, but it was immediately apparent that something was amiss. The salesman's comment of, "Oooh, looks spectacular, doesn't it!" didn't dissipate a sinking feeling. It's hard to pinpoint the problem, and even more difficult to put it into words. There's something wrong with the texture. It's too smooth. "Waxy" doesn't really cover it, nor does "plastic." Then, remembering misspent teenage years gazing at navels through staples, I know: "Airbrushed." Only in this case, it isn't only George C. Scott who has been given Hugh Hefner's favorite treatment, it's the entire movie.

I returned home and began my marathon experiment of A/B comparisons. It's apparent that the smaller the screen, the less this is a problem. On my 30" LCD, the Blu-Ray looks wonderful. The evidence is visible on my 52" screen, but only because the 10' picture educated me what to look for. The Blu-Ray provides amazingly crisp images but there's something artificial about them. Details are smudged. Yes, the movie pops off the screen, but is it supposed to? According to Mr. Harris, the problem isn't just the removal of grain but the fact that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. In stripping away the grain, high frequency information was lost. That translates into those missing little details: the little details that differentiate film from high-quality video.

So, am I happy with the quality of the disc? That's a difficult question to answer, and fence-sitting is hurting my groin. Given my current setup, it's perfectly acceptable (if not all I might have hoped for). It is an improvement over the DVD, although the tradeoff almost feels like a deal with the devil. But I know that if I was to upgrade to a 96" screen, things about this disc would bother me. And it concerns me that Patton could become a template for future releases where the desire to present an eye-popping image trumps the desire to replicate a film.

The cynic in me wonders about something. Will Fox recognize that this is a problem? Will they care? In the unlikely case where the answer to both is "yes," I still don't see them re-issuing the disc - at least not now. It's not in the business model and, to be frank, how many people will care? But what about in two years? What if they could re-issue the title, get it right, and boast something on the order of a "brilliant new transfer"? It wouldn't be the first time a studio pulled something like this. Remember the transition to anamorphic DVDs? How many titles were re-purchased to take advantage of a feature that should have been there in the first place?

Double-dipping doesn't only occur with genre titles. I have purchased four versions of Raise the Red Lantern (VHS, laserdisc, two versions of the DVD - and they still haven't gotten it right). This is my sixth Patton (VHS, laserdisc, laserdisc SE, DVD, DVD SE, Blu-Ray). Correcting Patton, however, really isn't the issue. It's whether, in two or three years, we're seeing all the older movies being stripped and polished like Patton. It may not make much of a difference on my modest 52" display but, to paraphrase the saying - the bigger they are, the harder they fail.

P.S.: Robert Harris' original post about the Patton Blu-Ray situation has been removed from The Digital Bits at his request so, unfortunately, his discussion and analysis are no longer available for perusal.