Michael Gaughn Tag

Review: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

One night about eight years ago, right around this same time of year, I had just introduced a five-year-old girl, a seven-year-old boy, and a prematurely jaded 20-year-old film student to some classic Max Fleischer cartoons and they were clamoring for more. I couldn’t find any other good ones on YouTube, so I decided to follow a train of thought—and take a big gamble—and introduce them to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse via the Christmas special.

 

All three sat rapt throughout. I was surprised that almost every big laugh landed and nobody in that rag-tag group was thrown by the show’s fever-dream take on the holiday. The only real comment came from the five year old, who reacted to Pee-Wee 

running around the playhouse screaming “It’s snowing! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” with a vaguely admiring “He’s crazy.” I couldn’t disagree.

 

The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is by far the best thing Paul (Pee-Wee Herman) Rubens ever did. The early seasons of the Playhouse had their flashes of brilliance, but seemed more daring than they were mainly because they were being shown on Saturday morning on CBS. By the time of the Christmas special, the series had run its course, having become a little too educational for its own good. There was really no reason to expect anything great out of this primetime offering, let alone an act of genius.

 

It’s no longer possible to appreciate just how bold the Playhouse Christmas was, unapologetically deploying just about every aspect of the gay subculture to challenge the hegemony of the safely patriarchal Bing Crosby/Perry Como

PEE-WEE AT A GLANCE

An exercise in inclusiveness before that notion became a divisive edict, as sweet as it is funny, Paul (Pee-Wee) Rubens’ genius effort might be the best holiday special ever.

 

PICTURE     

Far from state of the art, and about the best you can expect from late-’80s network TV, the show looks surprisingly good on Netflix.

 

SOUND     

Again, we’re talking 1980s TV here, but the audio does a good enough job of reproducing the dizzyingly eclectic soundtrack.

portrayal of the holiday. But the show didn’t spring from the rage, resentment, and overweening pride that mars practically every contemporary effort along the same lines, instead portraying a world of others where everyone gets along out of mutual tolerance and respect.

 

Just as importantly, Rubens also managed to honor longstanding comedy traditions—the show is practically a textbook of classic schtick—and the comfortable conventions of the network holiday special while doing the best job since Charlie Brown of actually capturing the feel of the season, which is why it’s as strong today as when it debuted in 1988.

 

It’s easy to figure out if the Pee-Wee special is for you: If the opening doesn’t have you convulsed with laughter, you’d be better off watching the Hallmark Channel or Die Hard instead. The beautifully modulated series of gags in this off-the-charts

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

production number rivals the pacing of the comic revelations in the best Chaplin shorts.

 

There’s little point in recounting the standout bits—although Little Richard on Ice, The Billy Baloney Christmas Special, Grace Jones in a crate, and Hanukkah with Mrs. René are all classics. And it’s hard to get enough of Larry Fishburne as a very urban Cowboy Curtis. That’s not to say that the show doesn’t occasionally sag, but the cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joan Rivers are all mercifully held to about 15 seconds each. The only truly

painful moment is K.D. Lang’s incredibly misguided take on “Jingle Bell Rock,” which she clearly meant as a goof but was unable to goose above the level of a high-school talent show.

 

The Christmas Special is from the late ’80s, before TV started aping film-production techniques, but Rubens turns all the various shortcomings of that deeply and permanently flawed medium into virtues. The playhouse is unapologetically set-bound, which reinforces the idea of a man-child living completely divorced from the outside world. (That the Pee-Wee character only really worked within the artifice of a children’s show helps explain why he never translated well into movies, and why his TV incarnation is way less retrograde and offensive than all the other man-children who overran the ‘80s—and plague us still.) The primitive computer graphics still work because they don’t try to be anything more than what they are—the projections of a child’s imagination. The now legendary puppetry and stop-motion animation remain brilliant.

 

I was surprised by how good the show looks on Netflix. But you first need to get beyond the opening animation, where a welter of artifacts makes the snowfields look like they’re covered in soot. You can’t expect a TV production from 30-plus years ago to have contemporary sharpness or subtle gradations of color—which would be way out of place here anyway. Everything is appropriately vivid and cartoony, and while there’s the occasional soft frame, there’s never anything egregious enough to pull you out of the show.

 

Watching the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is like listening to ‘20s small-group jazz—it’s impossible not to feel good. A lot of Christmas shows cynically try to nail the feeling of holiday cheer in an effort to spur a nation of knee-jerk consumers to buy yet another round of crap they don’t really need and on the outside chance the show will become up a perennial and rack up some ill-gotten residuals. But the Pee-Wee special has something sincere about it that reminds me a lot (and don’t let this creep you out too much) of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You—another genius effort from an outsider looking for redemption in the pop-culture heart of the holiday.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Who Killed Film Noir?

Who Killed Film Noir?

Film noir is dead. We, in our addiction to re-iteration and our blind political zeal, have managed to kill off what was probably the greatest—or at least arguably the most influential—American art form. But, before getting into all that, let me first define my terms.

 

Let’s start with what film noir isn’t. While many people confuse crime movies with noir, very few fit under that umbrella. In fact, most crime films, as exuberant expressions of unbridled strength and will, are the antithesis of noir.

 

The definition of noir can perhaps be summed up most succinctly via the title of a quintessential roman noir: You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up. Translated: Film noir is always and without exception a celebration—and a lament—of the chump. Its heroes always think they know the score, only to find that virtually everything around them is actively or blindly conspiring to do them in.

 

Noir is about total paranoia. It’s also about emasculation—more specifically, about the emasculation of white males. And, as such, it’s the antithesis of the myth of the American Dream. And, as such, it’s the thing that keeps us honest—real.

 

Or at least it did until the same regressive, Puritanical forces that have recently gutted so many other vital aspects of American culture got their hands on it. The rabid ignorati, in their bratty petulance, seem to have an unerring instinct for taking down the things we all need to remain balanced, (relatively) sane, and whole.

 

Of everything we’ve lost over the past few years, the demise of noir may prove to be the one we most greatly come to regret.

 

Noir could not be allowed to live, you see, because it was deemed irredeemably misogynistic. But let’s pause for a second to define misogyny.

 

If misogyny hinges on always seeing women as inferior, servile, on denigrating them in an effort to assert the superiority of the male, then that tag can never be hung on film noir. The female characters in noir tend to be sharper—certainly more dominant—than the males—to a degree that tends to put the male protagonists literally to shame.

 

And it also needs to be said that the characters in noir, both male and female, tend to display far more shades of gender identity than the characters in any other film genre, past or present. That this isn’t done within the narrow, sterile lanes of the current rulebook makes noir’s take on gender more relevant, not less.

 

But what about that great bugaboo the femme fatale? The whole point of noir is that everything is trying to do in the male protagonist—close relations, colleagues, strangers, institutions, objects, environments—everything. So why would the female the lead feels most strongly drawn to be excluded? Wouldn’t it be logical that, given his desire to feel whole, but fearing the ferocious power of sexuality unbound, he would come to see her as his greatest threat?

 

Again, to watch noir you have to understand that everything is a paranoid perception. There are no exceptions.

 

Given all that, explain to me how noir isn’t an evisceration of traditional notions of white male power, how it somehow empowers and emboldens the oppressor.

 

And just so this whole exercise doesn’t come across as an expression of my own paranoia, let’s talk some specifics. Who perpetrated this crime? Who has noir’s blood on their hands?

 

The list is long but I think the most telling example is the freshly recruited World War II bomber crew of hosts over at Turner Classic Movies. Carefully selected to address faddish ethnic and gender stereotypes but apparently not for their understanding of film, they recite dogma, smile, then wait for someone off camera to throw them a treat rather than offer any unbiased insights into the movies they’re presenting.

 

Essentially, TCM has become a school for political re-education, looking to so drastically rewrite history that it becomes impossible to see older films on their own terms but only through the lens of the current, borderline meaningless, standards. And given that film noir remains the most subversive of genres, it should come as no surprise that it’s the body of films they have most firmly fixed in their sights.

 

TCM guts noir by turning it into propaganda. Its mannequin-like hosts will tell you all that really matters about noir is its female leads, who are all wonderfully strong, independent, and assertive—in other words, role models. The day anybody goes to noir for positive life lessons is the day the trumpet sounds, the moon turns to blood, and we break the Seventh Seal.

 

But it’s hard to say who are the guiltier criminals here—the commentators or the so-called creators, the latter largely a herd of film-school replicants safely skating atop genres they don’t understand because they’re too damned scared to look beneath the surface, cranking out bright, nasty objects without life or soul.

 

I would posit that the labyrinthine and woefully misguided rules about what can and can’t be presented, how what can be presented has to be presented, and who’s deemed acceptable to represent and present have made it impossible to create anything resembling true noir. (I originally wrote “honest” noir, but what value would the genre have if it wasn’t inherently dishonest, the shabby, disreputable home of iconoclasts, tricksters, and other miscreants who no longer have a place in the contemporary world?) The only form that could possibly survive the current puerile gauntlet is faux noir—and who needs that?

 

We seem fated to a near future—and likely further—of makers and their Pavlovian subjects who believe embracing “dark” somehow wards off true darkness, little ornamental rituals of pain somehow inoculate them against true pain, and rigidly codifying and policing behavior can protect them from any and all transgressions—i.e., reality. Self-pitying masochism provides no basis for legitimate expression. Noir has nothing to offer any tribe that silly and shallow.

 

At a time when the paucity of new releases has led to more and more people being exposed to older films for the first time, it’s never been more important to approach classic movies with due respect for the way they were originally created and perceived. How anybody could look around at the fine mess we’ve made of current society and think we’ve advanced in any meaningful way, let alone in a way that would allow us to damn the past, would be laughable if it wan’t so grisly. No other film genre is as challenging or insightful as noir. Considering it with an open mind can provide a new, healthier perspective on the present. Approach it with blinkers on and you might as well go watch a Teletubbies marathon instead.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

A Different World

A Different World

The steady drip of announcements and events that could very well signal the demise of chain movie theaters continues unabated. On the heels of Mulan going straight to Disney+, the Tenet fiasco, and the latest Bond film being held until next April, we’ve now learned that Pixar’s Soul is going to follow the same path as Mulan, earning a Christmas release on Disney+; Dune is being pushed from Christmas to October 2021; and The Batman is being banished to the incredibly distant date of March 2022. And there’s speculation Wonder Woman 1984 could be going straight to HBO Max, which would be a huge change of strategy for Warner Bros., shifting from pretty much forcing theaters to reopen so they could lose their shirts on Tenet to dumping this once-prized ode to gym memberships onto a struggling streaming service’s anemic subscriber base.

 

In another major sign of just how much things have changed, there are reports MGM tried to shop the Bond film around to Netflix et al. in lieu of a theatrical release only to find there were no takers. Is it really conceivable the latest 007 could end up 

so tarnished it could find itself in the streaming equivalent of the bargain bin?

 

It’s time for the studios to relent and take everything else they were going to hang onto until, when, Doomsday? and send it straight to the home market—something they should have done six months ago. It’s not just about the economics. In a world that bears little resemblance to the one that existed at the beginning of this year, do they really expect these movies to resonate with audiences today—let alone half a year, a year, or a year and a half down a very uncertain road? We now live in an in many ways worse and in some ways better world, but undeniably one with only a few tenuous connections to its previous incarnation.

 

The whole sad and in some ways silly tale of Tenet and the movie theaters is just another example of the kind of bass ackwards thinking that’s pretty much determined how everything has played out during the pandemic. To state what ought to be obvious (but there’s little evidence to suggest that’s so): We need to rethink our priorities. The economy isn’t some independent organism that must be fed at all costs, but a man-made and -controlled (when we want to be responsible for it) mechanism meant to serve the needs of people. In other words, it’s nothing but an artificial construct, a tool, a means to an end. Hell, at this point, I’d be happy to see us go back to the barter system—even potlatch—if it would spare us the spectacle of more human sacrifice on the mass scale.

 

Tenet has, rightly, become the poster child for everything that’s hopelessly balled up about the present moment. Something never felt right about that whole exercise in denial—even beyond the manifest irresponsibility of urging theaters to reopen in the middle of a pandemic, and Nolan’s Olympian hubris of thinking his ridiculously expensive little trifle was worth risking even a single person’s life.

 

Tenet tanked not just because releasing it was a brain-dead business decision but because it had been built up so much by Nolan, Warner Bros., and IMAX as something that had to be seen in a movie theater, that, viewed in the context of a global crisis, it ultimately felt trivial.

 

We’ve come—I believe, stupidly—to make huge emotional investments in movies, and especially franchises, when they’re almost inevitably the products of children of privilege indulging their extremely stunted emotional development.

 

Movies, honoring the hipster mantra, have become little more than diversions, distractions, one-note confections able to induce enough of a sugar high to get you to crave the next one but never able to supply enough nourishment to be in any meaningful way satisfying, elaborate yet ultimately crude devices that qualify as entertainment only in the most primitive way, and never as art.

 

I might really be dreaming here, but I’m hoping the current 

upheaval proves to be the ultimate Kryptonite or Death Star or whatever and finally frees us from the tyranny of the superhero movie. No matter how pretentious directors want to get about them, at the end of the day, they’re inherently adolescent, silly, and, worst of all, fascist (Goebbels would have loved Gal Gadot), exhibiting all the overheated excess of a form of entertainment on the verge of collapse. (Which helps to explain why they tend to lean so heavily on kitschy Late Romantic retreads for their soundtracks. Mahler, R. Strauss, and Wagner were harbingers of the imminent demise of tonality.)

 

The studios are willing to commit so much money to producing superhero movies and push them so ferociously not because they’re more entertaining than other genres, let alone because they’re more edifying and profound, but because they more readily lend themselves to merchandising and video games and they help keep the populace in an uncritical state of arrested development. At the end of the day, it’s an economic and marketing decision and never a creative one—not even close.

 

Now, I realize that decades of indoctrination have led to a culture of fantasy über alles, but I’d like to hang onto a slim hope that recent events will shake us from our stupor and get us to realize that almost every mainstream genre we’ve succumbed to since the Reagan era—and this would include action films and other heedless celebrations of war—are ultimately forms of oppression.

 

Just to be clear: The last thing I’d want to see is a world awash in earnest little dramas without flair, socially-conscious efforts that ultimately just reinforce rampant intolerance, and ambitious epics that show no understanding of the rudiments of cinema—in other words, Oscar fodder. If we’re going to reinvent the movies, let’s really strip them down and rebuild them from the ground up. And just to show that this isn’t just some vague and abstract wish, let alone an exercise in nostalgia, I’m hoping to toss out a few suggestions for reimagining in a future column.

Michael Gaughn

 

Disclaimer: My views are my own. They represent neither the general position of this website nor the opinions of any of its other contributors, who I’m pretty sure don’t much agree with me about any of this.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

1968 (as I mentioned in my review of Rosemary’s Baby) was the year Hollywood, no longer able to lure people into theaters, blew everything up and started all over again. 2001: A Space Odyssey was the most radical product of that very radical year—not only because it flouted all the conventions of mainstream storytelling but because it went full-court Brecht to subvert the audience’s addiction to identifying with the protagonist, refused to use dialogue to Mickey Mouse viewers through the action, openly pissed on the convention of the traditional Hollywood music score, and stubbornly refused to be wedged it into any identifiable genre.

2001 is utterly sui generis—no film had looked anything like it before; no film has looked anything like it since. It exists in its own, somewhat rarefied, universe.

 

Kubrick would never do anything that overtly adventurous again. Sure, Clockwork Orange was more outrageous, but kind of in the same way as Dr. Strangelove; and “outrageous” isn’t the same thing as “adventurous.”

 

But neither adventurousness nor outrageousness on their own, or even together, are enough to make a film great. (The path from 1968 to the present is littered with the corpses of films that managed to do both, but little else.) 2001 is great because it sets an impossibly high bar and almost achieves it. Adventurousness and outrageousness are symptomatic of that ambition, but neither is essential to realizing it.

 

Which is why—to again return to an earlier review—I have to give The Shining the edge as Kubrick’s most 

2001 AT A GLANCE

Stanley Kubrick’s utterly unique and still radical big-budget experimental film is almost as compelling as its original Cinerama presentation in this 4K HDR release.

 

PICTURE     

So well done that the film is on par with The Shining as a reference-quality download. HDR in particular helps enhance the impact of space travel, celestial bodies, and Bowman’s hallucinatory hotel room.

 

SOUND     

A faithful reproduction of a deliberately pared-down soundtrack that was always meant to complement and comment on the action, not mimic it.

accomplished work. Almost everything he does big and bold in 2001 he achieves quietly and more deftly in that later film. 2001 is the product of an artist so giddy he can’t help but show off; The Shining is the work of a master so confident in his abilities that he can just quietly drop clues and then wait as the rest of us scurry to catch up.

 

But why even go into all this? Because both 2001 and The Shining hinge on the experience of pulling you deep inside the film—not in a superficial, escapist way but so you begin to have the sensation of actually occupying the same physical space as the characters.

 

That the 4K HDR presentations of both films are reference-quality seriously ups the “you are there” ante—but with a crucial difference. And there’s the rub. The Shining is almost one-to-one true to the movie Kubrick created. When you watch it at home on a high-quality system, you’re seeing what he wanted you to see. 2001 in 4K HDR is just as extraordinary—but as a title card in the closing credits reminds you, this was originally a Cinerama presentation. And, unlike most of the other filmmakers who dabbled in Cinerama, Kubrick didn’t deploy it as a gimmick (Grand Prix, anyone?) but made it absolutely central to creating that sensation of taking an epic voyage into space.

 

So, is 2001, viewed in 4K HDR, in any meaningful way inferior to The Shining? On the technical level of the transfer, no, they’re both excellent—almost flawless. But since you can’t do Cinerama at home (at least not without a hell of a jerry-rigged

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The Shining (1980)
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setup that would have to verge on absurd), The Shining is truer to the original film.

 

All of the above is really just an exercise in praise by faint damning. The Kaleidescape download of 2001 is one of a handful of films so well served by the 4K HDR treatment that it has to be part of the foundation of any serious film collection. If there’s a single significant hiccup in this presentation, I didn’t see it.

 

Cinerama quibbles aside, to get lost in 2001 today, you have to get beyond ticking off what has and hasn’t come to pass and look past all that Swinging ‘60s clothing and furniture and get on the wavelength of the film Kubrick actually created, which exists in an elaborate and self-consistent world that merely uses the trappings of reality to achieve escape velocity.

 

The 4K resolution can’t reveal every detail of the original 70mm print, but it shows so much more than any previous home video incarnation that it’s shocking to realize to what 

extent Kubrick created outside his era, how unencumbered he was by the stylistic ticks of that time (or even of the future). On the level of film technique and film grammar, 2001 still holds.

 

What really takes the experience to a new, truer level is the HDR. Yes, many of the special effects now even more obviously look like still photos traveling across painted backgrounds. But shots of actual physical objects in motion, like the space station, The Discovery, and most of the extravehicular footage of the pod, are stunning. The brightness of objects in space is one of the things 2001 got basically right and the HDR makes them look so crisp and cold they’re almost tactile.

 

Three scenes in particular will give you a good idea of what I’m talking about, beginning with the shot of the scientists walking down the ramp into the lunar excavation, where Kubrick shoots directly into a large worklight, with the light so intense you almost have to look away. Next, the beginning of the final act, where the floating monolith guides Bowman into the Stargate, is especially compelling because of the convincing luminosity of Jupiter and its moons. And, finally, the virtual hotel room where Bowman goes through his transformation, which Kubrick created to mimic the look of early video, is more convincing with the white and other light tones pumped just enough to glow without becoming bloated or diffused.

 

As for the audio, talking about the soundtrack of 2001 has always been kind of a ticklish business because this is essentially a silent movie. Kubrick rediscovered and then reinvented the core grammar of silent film, much of which had been glossed over and obliterated by the tyranny of the microphone during the Studio Era, and used it to not just drive this film but all of his subsequent efforts. It’s not that the audio is superfluous; it’s just not redundant with the visuals, the way it had been since the introduction of sound—and continues to be.

(Curiously, another product of 1968—Blake Edwards’ The Party, which, like 2001, was much maligned at the time and is now revered—is also basically a silent film. Edwards, on a parallel track with Kubrick, dipped back into silent comedy to bring a sense of grace and redemption that had been missing from movie comedies since the Chaplin era.)

 

So, things like The Blue Danube, the heavy breathing, and the various warning sounds all sound perfectly fine. But this is a film of stripped-down and barren environments, without warfare or roaring engines, so there’s, thankfully, little audio-demo fodder to be found.

 

As for the extras—all I can say is “beware.” I’ve already sufficiently dumped on the team that created (although that seems far too kind a word) the promotional videos disguised as mini-docs included with Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. Their efforts here are equally awful. Unfortunately, the other videos are just as irritating and, for the most part, pointless. 

 

The trailer included here isn’t the one from the film’s initial release or even its 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

legendary initial re-release but a decidedly contemporary stab that feels like a cliché film-school exercise (people are going to look back 20 years from now at our addiction to dips to black and laugh their asses off) and indulges in exactly the kind of manipulative melodrama Kubrick despised.

 

The only extra worth going out of your way for is a 76-minute audio-only interview Jeremy Bernstein did with Kubrick in 1966. You get to hear the director walk through his whole career to that point, beginning as a failed high school student who became the youngest photographer ever at Look magazine and then went on to learn filmmaking, in a world without film schools, by making his own features. Not only is it better than anything any writer has ever done on Kubrick, it confirms, beyond a doubt, that Peter Sellers’ Quilty in Lolita is basically an extended Kubrick impression—which puts that deeply flawed film in a whole new light.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Ep. 10: What the Hell’s Going On with the Movies?

The Cineluxe Hour logo

After a longish hiatus, The Cineluxe Hour returns with a wide-ranging, freewheeling discussion of what’s been happening with new movie releases over the past year, and what that means for the movie theaters and for people watching films at home.

 

The episode opens with Cineluxe’s Dennis Burger, Michael Gaughn, and John Sciacca laying out the chronology from how the movie studios initially reacted to the pandemic through the decision to pull movies like Bloodshot, The Invisible Man, and Onward from theaters and offer them for home viewing.

 

At 9:35, John, Dennis, and Mike recount the events that led to the disastrous release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in theaters, and the impact that decision has had on other movie releases.

 

At 14:45, Dennis and John discuss their recent columns about Christie’s patent to allow theaters to send first-run movies to people’s homes.

 

18:37: How the pandemic has accelerated the decline of movie theaters and the flourishing of streaming, and how the theaters might not be able to recover.

 

20:25: How the proliferation of inexpensive high-quality big-screen video displays is allowing a much larger number of people to have a better-than-movie-theater experience at home. But John raises concerns that this could signal the end of the “event” movie.

 

27:15: Dennis discusses Disney’s decision to send Pixar’s Soul straight to Disney+ and to reorganize its company to focus on streaming.

 

31:30: Michael speculates that the world has changed so much over the past eight months that movies the studios have been hanging onto, like No Time to Die, The Batman, and Wonder Woman 1984, might seem out of touch and out of date by the time the studios finally release them.

 

And, lastly, at 34:07, everyone nominates their favorite older films that look exceptional after receiving a 4K HDR upgrade.

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Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: Vertigo

Vertigo (1958)

Lazy commentators on Hitchcock will tell you Vertigo is his best film like that’s the beginning and end of the discussion. I’ll allow that it’s one of his best—it’s definitely his most psychologically probing and, in its strange way, intimate—but I would also argue that both Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt deserve to be placed on that same top tier.

 

What is inarguable is that this is by far the best of the first round of Hitchcock films to receive the 4K HDR treatment. Whereas the releases of Rear Window and The Birds are merciless in exposing the flaws in both the original productions and the current state of the film elements, Vertigo is practically seamless in its presentation, gliding from image to image without any 

jarring technical distractions (with one exception, which I’ll discuss below). If you’re a Hitchcock fan, this is the 4K title to start with.

 

But it’s not necessarily the best place to start if you’re new to Hitchcock. Vertigo lacks most of the puckish little gimmicks he used to lure in the masses and, if you take it on its own terms, it’s a pretty disturbing tale of a damaged and fundamentally weak man completely gutted by his belief in the cultural tropes of the saint and the whore. And it can get especially unnerving when you realize that that man isn’t really Jimmy Stewart—who delivers an amazingly fearless portrayal of a pathologically vulnerable ex-detective—but Hitchcock himself.

 

Also, Hitchcock takes his time with the pacing, which won’t sit well with the jolt-a-minute immediate gratification crowd. It’s a cliché to say Vertigo feels like a dream, but that doesn’t make the cliché any less true. And there’s

VERTIGO AT A GLANCE

An essential, impeccably presented and with the impact of the original film completely restored, putting it on a whole other level from the 4K HDR releases of Rear Window and The Birds.

 

PICTURE     

Almost flawless, with the HDR staying true to the film’s dreamlike imagery and sumptuous colors.

 

SOUND     

A fitting showcase for Bernard Herrmann’s legendary score, giving the timbres of the various orchestral instruments a vivid presence rare on a movie soundtrack.

something about the tactile crispness of the images and the sumptuousness of the colors in this release that just enhances that effect. (But, ironically, given how nightmarish Hitchcock’s imagery can be—Norman Lloyd falling from the Statue of Liberty, anyone?—Vertigo notoriously contains one of the worst dream sequences ever.)

 

Seriously aiding that sense of being seduced into and then trapped within a dreamworld is Bernard Herrmann’s masterful score, probably his best. It’s something to be savored, and is especially well presented here, sounding both epic and intimate in its Wagnerian longing, with the orchestra not just some indiscriminate wash of sound but an assembly of individuals where you can feel the bows being drawn across the strings, the metallic resonance of the French horns, and the reedy, wooden resonance of the clarinets. For just one example among too many to name, watch the scenes of Stewart’s car drifting up and down the hills of San Francisco where the muted strings, like a siren’s call, subtly limn his character’s failing grip on the objective world.

 

This is undoubtedly Robert Burks’ most accomplished work for Hitchcock, with one subtly, and sometimes strikingly, stunning image after another. Given that this is Hitchcock, there is some occasional overreaching, but you can’t really fault Burks for not being able to rise to an impossible challenge.

 

There’s one borderline moment where 4K HDR really comes through. The pivotal scene where Madeleine reborn emerges from the green mist in Judy’s shabby hotel room had always looked corny on previous home video releases, like she was stepping out of a time transporter in a ‘50s sci-fi film. But here, by hitting just the right note with the green tone—not just in this shot but in the ones leading up to it—and by now being able to just see through the haze, you can experience for the first time outside of a movie theater exactly what Hitchcock was aiming for—and it works. It’s not just a clever effects shot but a deeply 

subjective portrayal of a man, using another person to purge his demons, ecstatic as he senses himself on the verge of redemption.

 

Of course, a lot of the credit for the sublime beauty of this 4K release goes to the 1996 restoration by Robert Harris and James Katz, who refurbished the film on 70mm to mimic its original VistaVision presentation. (I’m usually wary of extras, but it would have been useful if the Kaleidescape download had included something that put this somewhat controversial restoration in perspective since it’s so crucial to the film’s impact here.)

 

There is one glaring flaw, which I feel obliged to point out because I can see it’s going to be an issue with 4K releases of catalog films until someone finds a fix. The photo-backdrop cityscapes out Barbara Bel Geddes’ and, to a lesser degree, Stewart’s apartment windows are unconvincing, and look so flat and static that they run the risk of pulling you out of the film. But that’s just not how they looked when Vertigo was shown in theaters.

 

This is the subject of an ongoing conversation between Gerard Alessandrini and me, and something he broached in his “When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1.” These backdrops don’t look fake today because people were more gullible back 

Vertigo (1958)

in the ’50s. (In some ways, Studio Era audiences were far more sophisticated than today’s adrenalin junkies.) The cinematographers and production designers knew what they were doing and factored in the impact of images projected on a screen when they created their sets. But they couldn’t have anticipated what modern technology would do to their efforts. It’s kind of like seeing La Gioconda for the first time and only noticing the cracks in the paint.

 

Vertigo ranks up with The Shining as the best 4K HDR release of a catalog title I’ve seen to date. You not only get the benefit of enjoying Hitchcock at his peak—you get to experience what greater resolution and a wider color gamut can do to restore the impact of an older film.

 

And, O yeah—Vertigo has a nice little Easter egg for Cineluxe readers and John Sciacca fans in particular. Jump to the 1:49:00 mark and you’ll get to see John’s grandfather selling Jimmy Stewart a pair of women’s shoes.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

1968 saw the lowest movie attendance in history. It was also the year of 2001, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Night of the Living Dead, If . . ., The Producers, Bullitt, The Party, Petulia, Planet of the Apes—and Rosemary’s Baby. In other words, the movies that would reinvent Hollywood and define it for the next 50 years.

 

Coincidence? Of course not—and it’s exactly that creative ferment born from cultural strife that gives me hope this eerily similar era might lead to another radical reinvention of the movies. Because boy do they (and we) need it.

 

But that’s a topic for another day. The focus of attention here is Roman Polanski’s genre-defining, damn near perfectly calibrated horror/thriller Rosemary’s Baby. And let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: This is not a serious film, let alone an art film. Polanski knew full well he was making a trashy potboiler and didn’t care. He wanted to know what it felt like to

create a big hit within the studio system, and he did. He hit the jackpot.

 

That’s not to say that Polanski colored within the studio lines. He toys with both the studio conventions and a very wary but looking to be jazzed audience the way a cat torments a half-dead mouse. The movie gets its big perverse kick from seeing how far it can push the boundaries without breaking them. There’s the continual sense that this stuff shouldn’t be happening in a mainstream crowd-pleaser and yet it is, which makes the film, beyond its subject matter, feel very much like a nightmare. But that approach has since become so commonplace that it’s lost its punch—which means you have to approach Rosemary’s Baby on its own terms and with fresh eyes if you’re going to get anything out of the experience at all.

ROSEMARY AT A GLANCE

The movie that reinvented the horror film still makes for a riveting shocker more than 50 years on, even in HD.

 

PICTURE     

The best it’s ever looked on home video—which makes you wonder what it would be like in 4K.

 

SOUND     

So well mixed that it’s atmospheric as hell without any kind of surround sound reinterpretation.

There’s barely a frame that doesn’t bear a graceful, brutal swipe from Polanski’s claw, but probably the most striking example, especially since it essentially sets the whole grisly machine in motion, is Teresa Gionoffrio’s suicide juxtaposed with the entrance of the Castevets. We go from shots of a woman’s head framed in an improbable amount of blood (Weegee never photographed a crime scene that gory) to a seemingly incongruous low angle of two archetypal geriatric Manhattan flânuers strolling toward the camera dressed like they just came from Mardi Gras. The whole sequence is as disconcerting as it is hilarious. It’s like, “OK—I just got my first big, gruesome shock, so why am I laughing?” It’s Polanski’s way of saying you’d better trust him on this ride or you should just go watch another film.

 

There’s no point in recounting the plot or the set pieces. If you’ve seen the movie, you know all of that well; if you haven’t, why spoil it for you? What’s worth underlining is that—like Kubrick’s The Shining, which owes Polanski’s film a huge, and amply acknowledged, debt—Rosemary’s Baby still works. I know it’s arguable, but I don’t think anyone’s ever pulled off anything as odd yet apt—diseased yet airy—as the elaborate ritual leading to Rosemary’s insemination, where she’s granted an audience with a Samsonite-lugging Pope while being straddled by Satan.

 

The film has flaws, but Polanski, out of sheer creative exuberance and guile, manages to trump them all. He’d wanted Robert Redford for the lead, which would have been amazing. He got John Cassavetes instead—which would have sunk the whole enterprise under the hand of a lesser director. Cassavetes acts like an asshole from the very start, so of course he’d sell his

soul to the Devil. And yet the film somehow manages to glide right over that major lost opportunity.

 

I was also struck during this most recent viewing by what an outright flake Farrow’s Rosemary is. I realize Polanski wanted to keep the audience wondering if all of this was happening in the character’s head, but this Antichrist-infested Midwesterner is such a dim bulb you almost don’t care if she’s delusional to boot.

 

And I have to ask: If Farrow is a housewife and Cassavetes is a struggling actor, where did they get the money to rent an Upper West Side apartment that would easily sell for many millions today?

 

I’ve never had a chance to see Rosemary’s Baby in a theater, so watching it in HD on Kaleidescape was a better than expected experience—that only made me long to see it in 4K. William Fraker’s cinematography was more compelling than I’d remembered from other home video incarnations—although I would hope that going to the next level of resolution will help minimize that damn flashing they used throughout when printing the film. It seriously dates what would have otherwise been an exquisitely photographed movie (and will forever haunt a large number of otherwise excellent films from the late ‘60s through the ’70s).

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Christopher Komeda’s weird gothic-jazz score, bringing the evil of the East European woods into ‘60s Manhattan, still holds up, partly because it’s applied sparingly instead of being blared wall to wall. And this, like Rear Window and The Birds, is yet another older film that would seem ripe for an Atmos makeover, but the original audio mix is so ingeniously done that expanding the surround field wouldn’t necessarily make it more atmospheric. That said, as with those other two films, I’d be intrigued to see somebody give it a shot.

 

To repeat myself: Nobody needs to convince you to watch Rosemary’s Baby. Its reputation as a horror classic is unassailable and secure. But I would urge you to first scrape away as many of the accreted conventions Polanski’s shocker has spawned as you can and try to see it as if all those other films had never happened, as this is the place where it all began.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: The Birds

The Birds (1963)

Without The Birds, there would be no Jaws—and, arguably, no Spielberg, since he lifted so many of his filmic mannerisms from this brutal and detached end-of-the-world tale. The really ironic thing is, while this is far from Hitchcock’s best film, it’s still better than Jaws. I realize that conclusion is heresy to the popularity = quality crowd, but it underlines the vast difference between what an adult with adolescent tendencies and a perpetual adolescent with no interest in growing up can do.

 

As I mentioned in my Psycho review, Hitchcock, in that film, managed to intuit the entire course of the movies from that point on. But, for whatever reason, he wasn’t able to assimilate and exploit what he had achieved there and spent the rest of his career sputtering, trying to remain relevant while leaning on his past glories from the Studio Era. But, increasingly consumed by bitterness, he just couldn’t make any of those old conventions hold.

The Birds was his next film after Psycho, and seems meant to function as a kind of companion piece, but because he had lost so much confidence in himself and in the very nature of the movies, his attempt to make a shocker with studio polish resulted in a very uneven affair. This is especially obvious on the technical level, where the heavy reliance on process shots and matte paintings means things rarely sync up visually for large swathes of the film. That’s not to fault Robert Burks’ cinematography, which is beautiful and effective when it just gets to record things without having to allow for any trickery. And it’s not really to fault the dependence on Albert Whitlock’s matte work, which almost succeeds in giving the film a warped pastoral quality, like the action is playing out on a vast theater stage. But it’s kind of sad to see Hitchcock’s reach constantly exceed his grasp and sense his slipping ability to maintain a proper sense of proportion.

 

The things in the film that go well go very well and more 

THE BIRDS AT A GLANCE

Hitchcock’s 1963 avian shocker leans a little too heavily on process shots for its own good but still delivers in the end.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR transfer hews pretty closely to the original film, which is a blessing during the well-realized sequences but tends to underline the bits that come up short.

 

SOUND     

The original mono mix, which was pretty atmospheric to begin with, is nicely enhanced by the stereo here, but makes you wonder what the film would be like in surround.

than justify the time spent watching it. Since it really doesn’t have any stars, just the semi-talented Robert Taylor and Tippi Hedren as the leads, Jessica Tandy gets to steal the show with her rock-solid performance as a deeply needy yet domineering mother. The scene where she discovers Dan Fawcett’s body still plays—and is one of the things Spielberg lifted pretty much straight for Jaws. And he didn’t just pilfer The Birds for that reveal of a mangled corpse. The subsequent low-angle shot where Tandy staggers out of the house to stand gape-mouthed next to the farm hand would also become a Spielberg staple.

 

As would the low-angle track-back late in the film where Tandy, then Hedren, then Taylor are shown, with the ceiling looming low above them, as they listen for signs the bird attack has subsided. Not only would Spielberg get an absurd amount of mileage out of this, ’80s filmmakers leaned on it so heavily they eventually broke it.

 

What really doesn’t work at all is the famous attack on the school children—which I would have to shift into the “infamous” column, and not just for its technical blunders. The animation at the beginning of the crows welling up from behind the school house is crudely done and all out of scale. And the pacing of the rear-projection shots creates the weird sense of everyone running in place. A cineaste would argue Hitchcock was trying to evoke a nightmare sense of frantic effort with no progress. He wasn’t—he just couldn’t pull it off.

 

The equally famous attack on the town almost works, creating a borderline apocalyptic feel larger than what’s being shown on the screen. But it’s marred by that hokey series of shots of Hedren reacting to the stream of flaming gasoline and especially by all the heavily processed rear-projection stuff while she’s trapped in the phone booth. 

 

But it wasn’t ultimately the technical miscalculations and gaffes that undermined Hitchcock—they were just the symptoms, not the disease. There’s something really disturbing, but not in any entertaining way, about how he obviously relishes showing children being attacked and witnessing atrocities. Even more foul is how he sets up the doll-like Hedren just to have her brutally taken down—especially during the elaborate bird-rape in the attic at the end. It’s as if his faith in cinema to protect him from the outside world had been shattered and he felt he had to lash out at the audience in his fear and rage.

 

All of that said, Hitchcock deserves tremendous credit for doing a horror/thriller film without a score. Yes, the absence of music tends to lay bare a lot the movie’s flaws, but it also makes many of the scenes—like the discovery of Fawcett’s body,

the later discovery of Annie Hayworth’s body, and the final attack on the Brenner home—far more effective. There’s no John Williams here to Mickey Mouse everything by dragging you through the film by the nose, clobbering you with cues, telling you what to think and feel. You’re thrown into each of the scenes without any ersatz late-Romantic bluster to act as a buffer, which is not just bracing but kind of liberating.

 

The 4K HDR transfer is for the most part faithful—which means it gets the best-photographed moments—which includes most of the interiors—absolutely right, but also tends to emphasize all that frequent mismatching between shots. Probably the worst shot of the film is the very first one, done on location in San Francisco, which looks like it was grabbed surreptitiously on a 16mm camera. (It wasn’t—it just looks that way.) Get beyond that, and you’ll be able to experience some patches of Burks’ best work.

 

The one shot I can fault the transfer for—although its problems lie in the original image—is the very last one in the film, an elaborate high-contrast matte shot that borders on monochrome. The HDR crushes the blacks and punches up the whites so much it becomes not just too blatantly artificial but visually chaotic.

The Birds (1964)

If ever a film cried out for a surround mix, this one would seem to be it. So much of it hinges on things happening from just out of frame and on characters being engulfed that it’s a natural for the 5.1 or Atmos treatment. And yet the original soundtrack is so well designed that the DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix here is surprisingly effective. The staccato bird cries followed by the sudden, muted crescendo of fluttering wings that signals the beginning of the final attack is so chilling it’s hard to say whether a surround reworking would be an improvement. But I’d be curious to know.

 

I’m not going to resort to one of those “You can tell I had problems with this film but it still makes for a great night at the movies” conclusions. But I will say this: With very few exceptions, time spent with a Hitchcock film is time well spent. Even if you just watch The Birds to pick up on all the Jaws/Spielberg parallels, you’ll have, in a way, improved your life. The Birds is a suitably disturbing thriller; it’s just not quite the film Hitchcock set out to make.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Ed Wood

Ed Wood (1994)

I told myself I was going to make this one a quickie and not belabor my points. So, Point No. 1—this is the only good Tim Burton movie. Point 2—it features Johnny Depp’s best performance, by far. Point 3—it’s astonishing Martin Landau did such a great job of playing Lugosi without getting much help from behind the camera. Point 4—Ed Wood died at the box office, not because it’s not a great film—it is—but because it doesn’t fit within the all too predictable definition of what a Burton film is supposed to be. And because it committed the unforgivable sin of being in black & white.

 

I guess this is going to take some explaining after all.

 

I continue to be amazed by the number of people who haven’t seen Ed Wood, and by the number who have seen it but didn’t realize Burton directed it. In an age where practically everything, no matter how inept, has its rabid fan base, there’s 

something fundamentally wrong about the neglect this film has suffered. It seems like its financial failure caused Burton to decide to only do “Tim Burton” films from that point on—akin to what happened after De Niro played a very Ed Wood-like Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy. Audiences weren’t willing to accept him as anything other than the hardboiled “Robert De Niro,” so he was essentially harassed into being that somewhat limited character for the rest of his career.

 

If the points I rattled off at the top weren’t enough to get you to check this movie out, how about these? It’s got one of the great opening-credits sequences, which manages to capture both the feel of Wood’s movies and set the tone for 

ED WOOD AT A GLANCE

The best Tim Burton film, Wood also features the best efforts of Johnny Depp, Matin Landau, and most of the other above- and below-the-line talent while managing to capture the feel of Halloween.

 

PICTURE     

Stefan Czapsky’s both gritty and elegant black & white cinematography comes across with punch and depth even on Amazon’s plain-vanilla HD.

what’s to come without feeling arbitrarily grafted onto the rest of the film. Beyond Landau and Depp, there are some hugely entertaining turns by Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, and especially Mike Starr as the head of the C-grade exploitation house Screen Classics. (But there are some big casting missteps as well, especially a so-meek-she’s-barely-there Patricia Arquette as Wood’s wife.)

 

Then there’s the writing. Ed Wood stands above Burton’s other films mainly because it’s one of the few times he’s had an exceptional script to work from—by far the best effort from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the team responsible for the unexceptional The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, and the inexcusable The People vs. OJ Simpson). Their portrait of Wood might not be very accurate, but it’s exactly who we need Wood to be, serving up one big fat softball after another for Depp to knock out of the park.

 

The movie is laugh-out-loud funny in a way Burton films rarely are. You can thank the script for most of that, but it’s more than ably realized by Depp, who displays some genius comedic chops he’s just been too cool to bother to use since; Murray, who adds some nicely timed flourishes; and especially Starr, who aces every scene he’s in.

 

The script can also claim most of the credit for the nicely modulated shifts of tone. While Ed Wood is mainly a comedy—and frequently a really broad one—it occasionally transitions deftly to drama, especially when dealing with Lugosi’s drug addiction. And it pulls off the really neat trick of not having Wood come across as just a cartoon or complete loser or clown. The actual Ed Wood doesn’t get enough credit for having tapped into the often trashy archetypes that define American culture in ways more sophisticated directors have never been able to. Wood wasn’t the worst director of all time, just the most naive.

 

Then there’s Stefan Czapsky’s both gritty and elegant black & white cinematography, which convincingly evokes the feel of ‘50s LA despite having to constantly push back against the director’s typically half-baked ideas. The images are punchy with a decent sense of depth, even in plain old HD on Amazon Prime. Besides, a color film about Ed Wood would just be absurd.

 

In the same way this is the best work from Burton, Landau, Depp, and Alexander & Karaszewski, it’s the only Howard Shore score I’ve ever been able to stomach. Pared down and witty, it’s an effective complement to the action and helps paper over some of the deeper sags in the mis en scène.

 

And, finally, Ed Wood is well worth watching because it’s one of those rare films that just feels like Halloween. While we tend to associate that holiday with shock-machine gore fests, they rarely capture the feel of the evening itself—which is one of the reasons why the studios tend to dump them on the market at the end of summer. But Ed Wood—along with Pixar’s sublime Coco—is suffused with the atmosphere of All Hallow’s Eve.

 

To say Ed Wood was one of the best films of the ‘90s would border on being a slight, since that was a pretty abysmal decade for filmmaking. Better to say that it stands outside that decade, and the rest of Burton’s oeuvre, as an example of what happens when the right forces come together at the right time and somewhat magically manage to conjure up something that’s better than the sum of its parts.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

The critics hated The Shining. Some of the more prominent, and dubious, ones put it on their “Worst of the Year” lists. Some pointed to the first Friday the 13th installment, released around the same time, as the future of horror and dismissed Kubrick’s effort as quaint and out of touch. Stephen King famously damned the film—then went on with his own adaptation to prove that he knows nothing about filmmaking.

 

The Shining has, of course, since become a classic. But films are usually deemed “classic” more for their ability to pander to mass taste than for any inherent worth. The more important question is: Is it Kubrick’s best film?

I’m not completely sure about that, but I would tend to argue yes. In The Shining, his technique is in perfect sync with his ambitions, his execution fully, inventively, and surprisingly realizes his themes, and he dives deep enough into the much-abused but still fecund roots of the culture and returns with enough gold to craft something that might still survive when almost every other movie has been forgotten. The Shining is so well done it makes even the best of Kubrick’s previous efforts seem a little callow.

 

There’s no point in hashing out its merits as a traditional horror movie. While he does deploy some conventional elements, Kubrick primarily pursues horror through other, more effective, means—by using the very nature of film technique to keep the audience uneasy and to pull them into the action against their will.

 

The most obvious instances are well known by now, the two most famous being seeing the hyper-realistic manifestation of the old woman rising out of the bathtub at the same time 

SHINING AT A GLANCE

This 1980 horror classic is arguably Kubrick’s greatest film, presented here in an inarguably stunning transfer that’s one of the best 4K HDR efforts to date.

 

PICTURE     

Absolutely faithful to the original film, filling the frame with so much sharp detail and so accurately evoking the cold winter light that you feel like you’re trapped in The Overlook with the Torrances.

 

SOUND     

The appropriately subtle DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix enhances the various sonic signatures within the hotel and convincingly creates the sense of an enveloping winter storm.

her cackling horror-movie double is already chasing Jack Nicholson from the room, and Nicholson asking Shelly Duvall “Which room was it?” only to have the film cut to a cold open of a Miami newscast. (Kubrick intentionally placed that cut at a reel change so the audience would think the projectionist had screwed up.)

 

Things like that and the infamous title cards make you wonder “Is this supposed to be joke?” while baffling you why it should be, eventually inducing a skittish sense of “I can’t trust anybody here.” Taking a puppet-master’s delight in messing with the audience, Kubrick’s cunning runs the gamut from puckish to perverse, dancing right up to the edge of sadistic.

 

More relevant for our purposes is his astonishingly successful effort to transport the viewer into the film. It’s a cliché to say that The Overlook is a character in The Shining, but going there kind of misses the point. Kubrick took the strategies Roman Polanski used in Rosemary’s Baby to give The Black Bramford a palpable presence and seriously upped the ante by grafting them onto the medieval Art of Memory to achieve not just the sense of being lost in the film but trapped inside a labyrinthine hotel with a madman.

 

But anyone who’s only seen The Shining at less than 4K resolution—even on a cinematic home theater screen—has never had this experience—which means they’ve never really seen this film. All of which is a longwinded way of saying that this 4K HDR release is the first time anyone has had the chance to experience The Shining at home with the impact Kubrick intended.

 

That impact hinges on a number of things, but primarily on accurately reproducing the naturalness of the artificially created outdoor light, matching the resolution of the original film print so all of the detail—especially in the landscape shots—is faithfully reproduced, and having enough resolution so the movie can be experienced from the proper viewing distance, without distractions.

 

That last point is the most key: Sit at the right distance, and you begin to experience The Overlook the way the characters do. You accurately feel the scale of both the large and smaller spaces and can mentally navigate the corridors the same way they do—even when they’re not around. After a while, you begin to have this sensation independently of the action on the screen. You feel haunted, in real-time—which is what makes the film uncanny and horrific in a way no other movie has been able to achieve.

 

None of that would be possible at home without this transfer, which is the most beautifully done, and faithful, 4K HDR translation I’ve seen of any movie. Nothing is overemphasized; all of it is in the service of the film.

The Shining (1980)

And you can feel the full impact from the very first shot, where the faint ripples on the surface of the lake create the sense the small island is rushing toward you, and where the detail deep in the landscape makes the shot seem almost 3D—an effect maintained throughout the opening sequence, where the images have so much detail in the distance that they border on vertiginous. With HDR, the landscapes seem not just grand but crisp and cold and almost nasty.

 

This carries over to the interiors, where the ability to perceive even the smallest details reinforces the reality of The Overlook, adding to that sense of being trapped within it. I was especially awed by the wide shots of the gold ballroom, where you can clearly see the variations in the metallic surfaces and on the parquet walls way in the back of the room, and where all the lighting sources and reflections are properly balanced without being blown out. The movie hasn’t looked this good since the pristine prints from its initial release.

 

The quality of the transfer is just as important in the many striking closeups, with their natural skin tones and often uncomfortable intimacy. Letting yourself get lost in those shots helps reinforce the sense of being a complicit member of the highly dysfunctional Torrance family.

 

I really can’t fault the transfer for anything—except two somewhat inadvertent things. The HDR is so revealing that it gives away how Kubrick was able to achieve the seemingly impossible overhead shot of Wendy and Danny walking through the middle of an improbably elaborate version of the hedge maze. And Kubrick relied on the random variations of film grain and the motion of the film through the projector gate to sell the shot of Jack sitting frozen in the snow. Seen as it is here, with no film or grain movement, it’s all too obviously a photo still.

 

I don’t mean to shortchange the film’s soundtrack, but the images are so beguiling that you have to force yourself to really focus on what’s going on there. First off, the music score is to be savored. Without question the most effective use of existing cues in any film ever, Kubrick so carefully wedded and molded its elements that most viewers probably assume it’s an original score.

 

As for chest-thumping explosions, window-rattling gunfire, and the other aesthetically dubious bombast we’ve come to expect from a contemporary surround mix, there’s none of that here. Kubrick was too much a master of his craft to resort to gratuitous jolts. Intent on keeping you inside the action, he wouldn’t have wanted viewers thinking about the potential seismic damage to their homes.

 

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is as deft as the visual transfer, enhancing the atmospheric sense of inevitability without drawing attention to itself or doing anything that would make you wince. The best stuff is the most subtle—the contrasting sonic signatures of the hotel’s rooms, lobby, ballroom, and other spaces, and the first hints, and then rising presence, of the winter storm. It’s like a perverse twist on New Age pablum, using the sounds of nature to lull you into a nightmare.

 

I feel obligated to mention the extras while kind of dreading it. To save the best for first, there’s “Making The Shining,” a documentary by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian that Kubrick suppressed during his lifetime but couldn’t keep from popping up on

YouTube and elsewhere from time to time. Because of his daughter’s unrivaled access and her skill, even at 17, as a filmmaker, it’s really the only portrait we have of Kubrick as a director. It’s also surprisingly revealing about Nicholson, Duvall, and Danny Lloyd, and the whole dynamic on the set. If you’re even casually interested in Kubrick or The Shining, it’s a must-see.

 

“Wendy Carlos, Composer,” available only on the DVD version, is mildly interesting for both the casually curious and for students of Carlos’ work. The audio commentary, also only available on the DVD download, is a very mixed bag. Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown has a decent number of insightful remarks about his work on The Shining, but Kubrick biographer John Baxter is nothing but a train wreck. You’d think a biographer would be strong on details, but he gets so much wrong you get the sense he’s just making it all up as he goes along. And his Felix the Cat recounting of the action while we’re watching it play out on the screen is so dumb and pointless that it becomes funny after a while. It’s like he’s narrating the film for a group of incredibly gullible blind people.

 

“View from the Overlook: Crafting The Shining” and “The Visions of Stanley Kubrick,” by the same team that perpetrated Full Metal Jacket’s “Between Good and Evil,” manage to neutralize the impact of any interesting comments by 

The Shining (1980)

various actors, directors, studio executives, and authors through their appallingly inept editing of footage from the film. Like the Full Metal Jacket travesty, they’re a textbook example of what happens when you give people with no discernible taste or talent free rein to butcher brilliant material.

 

But don’t let any of that cause you to hesitate to download this film. This release of The Shining will quickly become the jewel of any serious film collection. But it’s not there to be revered but watched. This film’s impact hasn’t diminished a jot since the day of its release. And this 4K HDR version takes us all the way back to that first day without compromise. It’s kind of like the movie just keeps repeating itself in an infinite loop without ever aging. Right . . ?

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.