Friday, September 14, 2012

Techno-peeves: rampant incompatibility, planned obsolescence, and the windowboxing of TCM

I’ve felt lately like the Funhouse has been under siege. Not by hacking or other extraordinary threats, but by the one problem that is all too common — and far too easily accepted by everyone these days — the notion that consumer tech products have only a scant few years to last, if that much, and then you toss ‘em out (whether they’re broken or not) and buy the latest model (whether you have the money or not).

The mini-DV camera that I’ve used to produce the Funhouse TV show started malfunctioning several weeks back. The computer that is my main tool to produce this blog had a hard-drive collapse two weeks ago. Both items are a few years old and have served me well, as is apparent when one considers I’ve produced several dozen episodes each year at and at least one chunky blog entry every week or so.

In this current, debt-driven economy, one isn’t supposed to repair one’s tech-tools; you’re supposed to “upgrade” to the latest model, and sink hundreds of bucks into a newer version that will be outmoded and inoperative in 2-3 years at best.
Although “planned obsolescence” is a phrase that was popularized in the Fifties (it was coined in the Thirties), it has only been in the last two decades that it became the sole operating principle of electronic tech, primarily because of the influence of money-grubbin’ “visionaries” like iCapitalist Steve Jobs, who hit on the master stroke of not only making his products entirely incompatible with the competition, but also making them incompatible with themselves, in past or future iterations.
This approach to electronics — constant upgrading, the incompatibility of everything with everything — has made the tech game (and a game it most surely is) a massive goddamned headache for those of us who want to buy a product that will last and can be repaired. To the average consumer, bells and whistles count for more than quality and durability. The “mad men” of advertising obviously won.

It was as the above techno-strife hit, and issues of incompatibility became the focus of my existence, that I discovered that certain networks on my cable carrier, including top fave Turner Classic Movies, had begun to windowbox their programming for compatibility with widescreen TVs. TCM is one of the cable networks, at least on my carrier (TW in NYC), that has an identical signal on its standard channel and its high-def alter-ego. In fact, the horrid-looking windowboxing of the channel seems to be an outgrowth of the clamor by some hardcore fans for a version of TCM in “true high-def.”                                           
That argument is discussed in detail here, but it doesn’t matter to me at all — all I know is that the two channels are now identical, you can switch from one to the other and wouldn’t even know that the channel has been changed. I have no interest in high-def, since I have a regular square TV and am deliriously happy that it has worked perfectly well for me for over 15 years at this point. On a related note, I believe that watching a great movie on TV is watching TV (albeit exceptionally wonderful TV), while watching a movie in a theater is cinema (but more on that below).
For those who don't know what windowboxing is, it's a measure taken to ensure that every single millimeter of a square film image can be seen. Black bars are placed on both sides as well as the top and bottom of an image. I first saw a windowboxed film on AMC (remember when the channel was aptly named American Movie Classics?), the silent version of The Last of the Mohicans (1920). The film was shot in a ratio that differs from the square (aka "flat") one (1:33) that fills a standard box-like TV screen.
I do want films to be shown in their proper ratios in theaters and on TV. I think letterboxing is absolutely essential for any film that differs greatly from 1:33, as with the three “widescreen” ratios that are the most common (1:66, 1:85, and 2:35). Fer chrissakes, we went more than four decades in the U.S. before any networks would show a letterboxed film at all (Manhattan was the first, thanks to Woody demanding it; AMC was the first network to present letterboxed films on a regular basis).
These days, though, one doesn't need to wait 40 years for technology “updates.” Now updates happen overnight, and the user is left trying to catch up. Remember the digital TV debacle? The U.S. government decided that we were going to become a digital nation and forced poorer folk and seniors to scramble and figure out some way to cope with a change that didn't need to be made. I wrote about it at the time.
But once it did take place, cable carriers and TV manufacturers were delighted, and seniors like my dad had to suddenly subscribe to Time Warner Cable to be able to continue watching their TV. Other folks bought new TVs since they couldn't deal with the annoying and unnecessary switchover (those digital conversion boxes are a joke, barely functioning in many urban areas where "clearance" is an issue).

The single funniest (and most accurate) comment on the digital TV "upgrade" was made on The Armando Iannucci Shows:

The TCM conversion to windowboxing isn't equal to the rupture-ous loss of over-the-air signals — in this case, possessors of regular TVs are still “allowed” to continue to watch what they love without a converter, but the image will look a whole lot odder. Those like myself, who have no desire to upgrade to a widescreen TV while my boxy stalwart still works, are being encouraged by the switchover to windowboxed transmission to join the cool kids and buy one’a those sleek rectangular TV sets. Join us in pretending your house is a movie theater! (Two words: it ain’t.)
So the fate of the viewer who cannot resize his/her screen is to watch the movies on TCM as if they were broadcast (to borrow an Internet poster's phrase) “through a postal slot.” Now every credit can be read on every film, since not a SINGLE millimeter of the cinematic space is ever lost. But those of us with square TVs wind up seeing a box within a box — so that means when and if Hellazapoppin' plays, the movie-watching scene that spawned MST 3K would allow us to see a box within a box within a box....
The “perfection” of the television image brings up another peeve, one that doesn't have to do with planned obsolescence, but is all about the acquisition of the latest viewing tools (from big-ass widescreens to tiny video-file players) and the notion certain cinephiles have that watching movies on TV makes one a self-contained, hardcore movie buff. These folks have indeed made movie-watching a regular part of their life — but they rarely if ever set a foot inside a movie theater.
The folks who live in an area that has no arthouse cinemas, no rep houses, and no university screening rooms are not who I'm talking about here. I am stunned more by the lazyfolk who reside in major urban areas that are filled with “alternative” screens and only watch their cinematic fare on some form of a TV screen (be it a giant TV, a laptop, or a variant of Dick Tracy's goddamned wristphone). It's a fascinatingly limited path, akin to being a voracious music-lover who never, ever attends live concerts.
As for the many corollaries to this ridiculous “the-technology-of-the-moment-is-best” mindset, I took the time to read the wildly indulgent “conversation” between the two critics in the New York Times this past Sunday (on a related note, is there really that great a need to import the reviews of the one who lives on the West Coast — or did she ever deign to move and actually reside in our cramped little city?). The two critics pondered the difference between films being made and projected digitally, and the stalwart filmmakers and movie houses that still use film.
I fall on the side of the true-film advocates (thus, I guess my spokesperson is the West Coast NYT critic?). To extend the musical metaphor above, seeing digital projection in a movie house (which has, of course, become the norm because it's cheaper and far closer to “perfect,” right?) is akin to attending those live concerts where people gather to watch freshly restored digital and holographic images of icons like Elvis and Tupac. The activity has the semblance of art, but it's closer to experiencing the stuff at home — and that, in most folks minds, is the only “perfect” way to receive the information.
This trendy, “perfection”-seeking mindset conforms to the laughable dictum that “all information is on the Internet, somewhere.” It's an oddly hermetic concept and offers a reliance on, and a wildly misguided confidence in, technology that I don't think I'll ever have. 

Technology drove the arts throughout the 20th century, but these days it's overwhelmed it, because folks who only desire a limited range of information in the first place believe that “everything” is on the Internet and “everything” is available on DVD or as a download or... pick your platform (it will change in the next several months). My friend Brian Camp wrote about the digital/film debate — with a side-trip into the notion that "everything" from the last two decades is on the Net — in this blog entry.
The incompatibility factor between old and new technologies is most pronounced in relation to computers and Internet access. Consider, for instance, the average interactive website. Not video sites like YouTube or Daily Motion, that seem to function strictly by their own rules, but sites that are supposed to truly cater to the user, like a bank site or, let’s say, BLOGGER, for instance.
These sites now update their interfaces and announce to the user “We detect that you're viewing this site with an older browser. For best results, upgrade to these browsers....” The translation is obvious: we’re all a part of the great consumer culture that doesn’t request but demands that you buy the latest model, or you won’t be able to use a website that formerly was VERY elementary in its approach. Pay a bill, write a blog — don't you think you need a new computer?
Back in April of of this year Blogger updated its interface, so it would be more attuned to its parent and sister sites (Google, YouTube, etc, etc). No matter that Blogspot was without a doubt one of the easiest sites to use before April of this year — now the Forces That Be at the site would prefer that I have a newer computer. Thus, countless changes have taken place, and if the user has any questions, well, he/she can just leave a message on a forum board and hope that some friendly person has an answer.
I have written into the Blogger forum and have received very polite answers on occasion. They all seem to require inserting something in the raw HTML code, an aspect of this blog that I NEVER needed to tinker with before the accursed upgrade that took place in April of this year. 

What I take this to mean is that Google/Blogger would prefer that those of us with computers older than a year or two, computers equipped with the dread “older browsers” (used because the newer browsers won’t WORK with the computers we’ve got), simply go away and stop using their sites, since only those with the latest, coolest consumer products need apply.
If the devices had been kept simple and had been manufactured to be durable and long-lasting, the user/consumer would never have bought anything new until the old things broke on them. Thus, the digital revoluton! Just take a gander as the suckers on line (while their “smart” phones are online) in Best Buy, the Apple Store, and Brookstone haul out stuff that won't be operative in a few months, never mind a few years.
But back to the windowbox dilemma (searching for images for this piece produced the cover of Toledo Window Box, George Carlin's LP from a million years ago — on vinyl, the format that became trendy again when the suckers who flocked to CDs finally realized digital sound is “pure” and perfect, but a lot less rich). As my final argument that TCM's windowboxing is an unnecessary, distracting extravagance solely meant for those with cine-OCD and others posing as purists, I will merely point to the Criterion Collection.
Criterion has been making available the most pristine copies of films in the home-entertainment sphere since the days of the laser disc (back when “film grain” was still part of the restoration process — I miss it dearly, but that's a discussion for another time...). The folks at that company dote on the ways in which to best present classic films on a TV screen. They haven't seen fit windowbox films made in the 1:33 ratio-purists because, again, it is not necessary (and looks godawful on a regular square TV).
Last week, TCM aired Godard's masterwork Vivre Sa Vie (aka “My Life to Life”) with windowboxing. The print that was shown looked identical to the Criterion copy, but on TCM it was reduced to a square within a square. The result wasn't a better presentation of the film — it was a pointless and irritating variation on what is on the Criterion disc.
So to those individuals lacking funds who remember a time when it was not uncommon to have a portable radio for five years, a wristwatch for ten, a TV set for a decade or two, and a stereo system for nigh unto a childhood or adolescence, I salute you. Quality is not a major issue in debt-ridden America — having the latest, coolest device is.
And if you feel tired after a long day’s work, please do go and experience film in a local arthouse or rep theater, where classic films are presented as they should be. OR you can just turn on the TV and watch a classic picture. Through a postal slot.


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