Monday, March 24, 2008

The Cropped Emperor

I was one of those who were extremely breathless at the prospect of a four-disc Criterion boxed-set of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. Right now, I'm beside myself every day trying to decide whether to order the set or not. I'm a little broke, you see.

The Last Emperor was a real event when it came out in the late 80s. It was a huge epic that paid incredible attention to the minutest period detail. Vittorio Storaro's sumptuous grand photography and Bertolucci's sweeping vision were one of a kind, with many, many memorable scenes (one of which Criterion has chosen as its DVD cover).

Over the years I've had the film in various formats, from VHS to DVD, but none of the transfers were really acceptable. All the DVD versions before this Criterion one were completely hopeless. You just couldn't believe that such a beautiful film wasn't given the proper respect it deserves. But I knew someday it would be.

As chockful of extra goodies as the Criterion boxed set is, with both the longer version and the theatrical versions of the film included, it was quite a shock to hear that the transfer here isn't in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Yes, it's shocking, but apparently this is the format in which both Bertolucci and Storaro intended the film to be seen.

It's 2.0:1, with cropped sides, but if it's what the filmmakers wanted, then it should be so. Peter Becker wrote an explanation about the aspect ratio and why it is so, on the Criterion blog.

Producer Jeremy Thomas revealed that the original intention was for the film to be released on 70mm, in 2.2:1 or 2.0:1. But of course, there were also going to be 35mm prints in circulation, so the filmmakers filled the wider frame as well.

I'm just hoping David Bordwell would do a side-by-side frame comparison on his blog. It would be interesting how Bertolucci worked with an expanded frame while preserving the characters' relation to their space, as is Bertolucci's main preoccupation.

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