Letterbox Movies and the Physically Challenged!
Since you are reading this web page, it is pretty certain that we share a love for home theater and wide gauge movies. As such, we also share a concern for the preservation and availability of these human treasures. Still, as with any art treasure the value of preservation is in providing access to the beauty to many generations. To lock away a movie classic is tantamount to not having it available at all. I am physically challenged, I require a wheel chair to move around. Because of this, most movie houses are not accessible to me and millions of other film lovers. Living in New York, some of my fondest movie memories were in the Ziegfeld theater. The sound and projection system is among the best in the world. This theater has been made "handicapped accessible." This usually means a ramp is placed at the door and a bathroom stall is widened and fitted with handles. This does not in itself provides accessibility. For one thing, the neighborhood has to be accessible as well as the theater. In the case of the Ziegfeld, the nearest parking is many blocks away and there are no curb cuts to permit wheelchairs access to the block of the theater. There is little or no public transportation that provides access to the area. Once in the theater. Other problems are encountered. Most accessible movie houses do not provide a place for our chairs. This means we have to park before the first row of seats. Talk about a pain in the neck!!
Because of this, the physically challenged often are forced to depend upon video tapes and cable TV to enjoy scope movies. Even here in NYC laser disc movies are often difficult to locate so the VHS format tape is our primary source of letterbox entertainment. Also, many of the stores that sell letterboxed movies themselves are not accessible to many people. As such, when we find a store that is available to us, the word tends to travel rapidly. A step or stair to some is nothing to most but an obstacle to many.
Still, there are many fine video tapes out there in letterbox format. Recently, I purchased several from a full accessible store. The jewel of the find was the Star Wars trilogy box set. This release was not only letterbox but also in THX! Finally, a series of movies I had enjoyed in pan and scan was viewable to me in the way that the film was intended to be seen. Another national chain store, The Wiz recently had a sale on letterboxed videos. Many of their stores are accessible and in those stores where stairs do exist, employees of the stores were willing to bring a list of available tapes to me for my selection.
Remaining as the best source of scope movies for the disabled is the cable or satellite services. In my area, satellite dishes are not permitted. While this would be the best way to receive scope movies it leaves the premium cable stations. The best of these is American Movie Classics (AMC). The often show the pan and scan versions during prime time and the letterbox release in the wee hours of the morning. I found this out by accident since I work in the early hours verifying a wide area network. Over the forth of July weekend AMC presented many favorite musicals in letterbox format. Included were greats such as Oklahoma! In both the 35mm and the 70mm TODD-AO versions. This was done to raise money for film preservation. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the techniques used to transfer the movies to cable themselves damaged the precious original prints. There was also a report that in some areas the movies were presented in mono. This was not the case in my area and seems the fault more of the cable company than the people at AMC. AMC also presents many Sci-Fi, drama and comedies in letterbox. Recently I was able to view a childhood favorite, the original Fly starring Vincent Price and Al (David) Henison.
The important thing to remember is while transfer to other mediums do damage the original prints, cable and tapes are often the only alternative for many lovers of scope movies. There are also many aspects of dependence upon tape that are not immediately obvious to those able to frequent movies. One is that often, only "Directors Cut" editions are available in letterbox. I greatly enjoy seeing the image as envisioned by the director as much as the next movie lover but, often this special edition is vastly different from the theatrical release. One drastic case is in the second installment of the Highlander trilogy. The entire plot was altered for the letterbox directors cut! A major aspect of the plot was removed by re-editing the footage shot for the movie. Another is the directors cut of Blade Runner, a personal favorite of mine for years. The directors cut of this movie eliminates the explanatory voice over and providing a darker ending. The result is a different movie sold in letterbox than in pan and scan.
Very often, the directors cut just adds violent or sexual footage removed appease the movie rating people. This footage is often not germane to the plot or structure of the film but does permit added profits via the sale of Special Edition tapes. As a scope movie enthusiast I am placed in the position of viewing the film as released in the theater in pan and scan or seeing a different movie presented in letterbox. The scope lovers rock and hard place!
As such, it is best to see a scope movie in the way intended, a scope-outfitted movie theater. Still, for many of us, this is not practical or impossible. Tapes and cable are our only means to view film classics. This makes the disabled scope lover community dependent upon the production of tapes for sale and cable viewing that are not only true to the original theatrical release but produced in such a manner as to preserve the precious original prints for future generations.