Sunday, April 03, 2011


Director Dario Argento's 1970 film THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE/L'uccello Dalle Piume di Cristallo helped the the notion of post-modern Italian thrillers now known as "giallo" take a firm hold in the consciousness of audiences the world over. The fathers of the American "slasher" film and built on the ruins of thrillers of the 1960s like Psycho and Peeping Tom, early giallo were often based on paperback pulp novels published with bright yellow covers - "giallo" is simply Italian for "yellow", and though they called them 'thrillers' in 1970 eventually the name stuck. Directors including Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi, and Sergio Martino moulded gialli (the plural of giallo) through the 1960s, where the films were typically a modest success, owing (as is so often the case with "terror" films) to their broad international appeal and floor-low budgets, but the explosion that dominated the Italian industry for a decade and change really began with this 1970 film.

Dario Argento - who at the time was both a successful critic and an emerging screen writer - was given permission to direct the film when he came up with what he felt was a really novel concept, but which he knew was one that could have been ruined if the script were given to a director who couldn't film "the twist" in a way that ruined the surprise in the final reel. The film is often noted as the first film in a trilogy - the "Animal Trilogy" followed by Cat O' Nine Tails and 4 Flies on Gray Velvet - but the three films are totally unrelated in terms of characters and narrative. As is so often the case, the first film is probably the best of them, but there's very different qualities that make each film worth seeing on its own - assuming, of course, that you're into the unique vibe that gialli from this period often seem to revel in.

Mirroring his superior 1975 feature Deep Red, a film Argento himself has suggested he made to turn the genre itself inside-out and force other Italian film makers from ripping him off using only the most basic clichéd elements found in the "Animal Trilogy", the identity of the killer is actually revealed at the time of the first act of attempted murder in The Bird With Crystal Plumage, but it's presented in such an unusual and subtle way that most viewers don't consciously recognize the "reveal" until the end of the film. This isn't some clever Fight Club bullshit or anything - sadly, that would come later as his career faltered - but true to his vision, Argento fought producers tooth and nail to get it completed and distributed, and when all was said and done it was number one at the American box office and took most of Europe by storm. Not bad for a skinny little mysoginist, right?

Aw, we just can't stay mad at him!
...then again, Giallo (2008) was gi-awful.

Blue Underground released The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (henceforth, just "Bird"), restored from the camera negative supposedly, on DVD in 2005. The same master was given a Blu-ray release in 2009, and as I've pointed out previously, went out of print earlier this year. The disc contained most of the Special Edition DVD supplements, boasted a lovely transfer in the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and included not one, but two lossless English tracks plus a lossy 5.1 mix of the film's Italian dub with English subtitles. The only thing missing was the original mono track, which is especially disappointing since one line of dialog wound up missing on the surround remix, but it's a minor enough gaffe that I'm still willing to point towards the Blue Underground release as a disc that anyone with even a passing interest in gialli should have on their shelf. It's also, incidentally, the sole disc I've seen in Blue Underground's rather vast catalog of European horror films that I'd consider citing as a reference transfer.

News was swift and brutal that Arrow Video, currently the premier UK distributor of cult horror films, would be releasing their own edition of Bird sometime in 2011. As is typical Arrow has created a host of original interviews and commissioned a lovely new piece of cover art from modern pulp legend Rick Melton, who's deliciously retro style is highly recommended around these parts. The release is set for May 2nd, and anyone interested can pre-order it from their retailer of choice for about £15 (currently about $25 USD, shipping included, if you go through Amazon UK as I do).

There's a dark cloud hanging over the Arrow Video release, however, and it's not even their usual track record of DVNR and low bitrates... I'm afraid the bad news is that they're not recycling the Blue Underground master (as they had done with City of the Living Dead), but instead are using a newer HD restoration supervised by none other than the film's Director of Photography, Vittorio Storaro. DP's are usually consulted for restorations of older films anyway, so this is neither shocking nor surprising in and of itself. The problem is that Storaro is rather infamous for feeling that the theatrical standard of 2.35:1 is simply not "good enough" for his own films, and has demanded that any and all transfers of his award-winning photography be cropped into the less expansive 2:1 aspect ratio.

We can't single out Bird as the only example of Vitto's insanity, however. In the early 1990s, while trying to find a compromise to present Apocalypse Now! on letterboxed laserdisc, he decided that the original 2.35:1 "scope" theatrical ratio was too blurry on any normal TV set, and settled on 2:1, cropping off about 17% of the original frame in the process. He cites the framing of iconic works of the Renaissance like "The Last Supper" as his inspiration, and has even pushed to have all films presented in this compromise between "Flat" 1.85:1 and "Scope" 2.35:1. Storaro's actually written quite a bit about the theoretical advantages of his so-called "Univision" (or "Univisiom" in his native Italian) aspect ratio, and to his credit, he may have been on to something back when the average TV was a block about 20" wide and nearly square.

HDTV standard became wider at 16x9 (1.78:1), or smack-dab between 1.33:1 and 2.35:1, making Storaro's intended compromise for preserving scope films in their original aspect ratio a complete non-issue; the difference in real-world resolution between 2.35:1 and 2:1 on a screen measuring 1.78:1 is largely negligible, and far less harmful to the image than cropping would ever be. Unfortunately, he's dug his feet in on the issue and continued to approve only cropped 2:1 transfers of Apocalypse Now! well into the new millennium, saying that the original framing simply "doesn't work" on a high definition monitor. Even the Criterion Collection release of Storaro's The Last Emperor was in this insane 2:1 ratio... despite the film having won an Oscar for Storaro's 2.35:1 cinematography. Let's face it, if even those untouchable bastards of the cinematic landscape couldn't get around Storaro's insanity, it's clear that the slasher-slinging kooks at Arrow Video didn't even stand a chance.

Storaro swears that cropping his own films isn't an issue because he selectively re-frames each and every shot as needed, preserving the "important" details as they appear. So let's take a look at what Bird in its' brand new Univisium ratio looks like in action, shall we?

"Scope" Blue Underground Blu-ray (OAR)

"Universium" Wild Side DVD (CROPPED)

If you want to see more of the cropped framing, take a look at the following gallery courtesy of French distributor Wild Side. There are numerous moments in which the entire frame is used - for dialog scenes, as well as scenes where the hero is being stalked through the streets - so while Storaro could pan and scan and fudge the framing as he saw fit for some films, it's just not going to work here for each and every scene.

Hell, let's just look at one of the single most iconic images in the film...

 One so awesome, Tarantino stole it verbatim!

There's got to be a way to preserve the integrity of this sequence at the 2.0:1 ratio, right? I mean that's why Storaro has literally overseen the panning and scanning of his other two most notable films. Maybe if we center it perfectly...

Fuck, that didn't work. It doesn't look like viewfinder marks at all - A-HA! I got this, what if we try to cram it over to one side? You know, just to get one of the viewfinder marks in view...

Well. That, uh... that really doesn't work, either. Not it looks like we're looking through half a camera, and now the guy on the right of the frame just looks like framing noise instead of a possible character.

I look at this and tend to think "well shit, that's not so bad..." , but by pushing the transfer over we're focusing on the man where in the original frame the target was much clearer. It's the lesser of three evils... but pretty dang evil none the less.

The fact that we're even talking about a pan-scan transfer for a Blu-ray coming out in March of 2011 is so unbelievably depressing that it makes me pine for the days when the biggest complaint I had were that the film was out-of-fucking-print. Oh yes Storaro, that's what your Univisium bullshit is, at least as far as anything you shot before 1998 is concerned. None of these three possibilities are anywhere near as good as the ORIGINAL GODDAMNED TECHNISCOPE FRAMING as seen on the Blue Underground transfer, so why would you bother fussing with it?!

By literally placing this woman in the cross hairs of the killer's camera, Dario and Vittorio are warning us together of her impending peril, placing us vicariously not only in the eyes of the victimizer, but in touch with the inevitable victim. These scenes open the film and continue throughout, giving the viewer a then-new type of chill, not only warning the audience of the violence to come but savoring it every step of the way in a way thought nearly unthinkable just weeks before it opened. It set the standard that slasher films would emulate - often poorly - a decade later, and remains one of the corner stones of quality giallo thrillers. Bird was not the first gialli, nor even the best, but it set the standard and tone for which each and every knock-off would follow, turning the genre into Italy's biggest cash-cow of the 1970s until Argento created Deep Red specifically to change the rules forever. The visuals in this film are incredibly important, and it's ghastly to think that one of the two people most responsible for them is not only willing, but eager to change that vision to prove that he picked the "best" widescreen format is nothing short of pathetic.

If you didn't buy the Blue Underground Blu-ray back when it was selling for $11 on Amazon, you're out of luck; with every new European release in the recent past or forseeable future having been sourced from the Storaroized Univisium 2:1 transfer, the Blue Underground release remains the best looking and most authentic to the original experience release available, and that bastard of a Blu-ray starts at about $50 via Amazon sellers, and eBay isn't looking much cheaper. My guess is that Blue Underground created the transfer themselves as proprietary materials, and are holding it for a fee - either that or Storaro has made it a point to not let the licensors release the film again in scope without someone going over his head... the only "someone" in that position being Dario Argento, who clearly didn't know (or care?) enough to step in and try to talk some common sense into Storaro in the first place... not that it would have done a lot of good. Storaro's such a nut that he's created a three-perf format to get as much resolution out of the 2:1 Universium format as is humanly possible - and then had to release the lot of them in 2.35, since nobody in their right mind would adopt the format for theatrical purposes. Storaro's off in his own Private Idaho, and the only people it affects are those who actually like the films he worked as DP on decades ago.

While it's not totally Arrow Video's fault, that doesn't change the fact that the framing is going to be a bloody mess on poor Bird. I'd recommend ponying up for the BU release, should you ever find it, but the Arrow Video extras and packaging may still tip some of you crazy collector-types over into owning both. That's fine, I won't fault a person for wasting their own money and I know I do it regularly... just don't say I didn't warn you first.

Oh, and before anyone asks, I have no idea if the Arrow Video release will have that odd minty green cast as the Wild Side DVD caps.  Only time and reviewers far more willing to slog through cropped transfers than myself will be able to tell us a month from now or so.

2 comments: said...

Ugh - I, too, can't blame Arrow entirely if this is all that was available to them. But the blurb on their press release for the title is misleading in a disgusting way: "Brand new High Definition restoration of the film from the original negative presented in Director of Photography, Vittorio Storaro’s original 2:1 Univisium aspect ratio" (emphasis mine)

With color + Techniscope being my favorite shooting format, I weep. said...

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