“Stylish” means everything and nothing. It is a meaningless word, and it is top-heavy with disparate meaning, subjective the way that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is subjective. Clothes that looks “stylish” now will look goofy 10 years from now. In twenty years they’ll be retro; in thirty years, vintage; in forty years, normcore; in a century, steampunk.
“Stylish” is especially meaningless as applied to movies and TV shows: A critical shorthand for “looks different” or “looks unique” or “looks like stuff I enjoy” or “doesn’t look like stuff my parents enjoy.” Or just “looks cool.” I’ve used the word at least 23 times in the last four years—23 sins I will need to atone for when I meet my maker, whatever she is.
The Wire has been described by many people as many things, but I don’t think anyone has ever called it “stylish.” The Wire made already looked weirdly old-fashioned when it debuted in 2002. It shared a network with two shows that helped define the new visual vocabulary of television. The Sopranos was widescreen, with a richer and more shadowy color palette than other dramas on television; it was called “cinematic.” (“Cinematic” used to be the preferred euphemism for “stylish” things that weren’t movies.)
Sex and the City wasn’t as bold but might have been more influential; starting around season 3, the show starts to look like almost every single-camera sitcom on television today, with the leads all wearing brightly-colored fashion clothes. (ASIDE: The weirdest thing about Sex and the City season 1 isn’t how Carrie talks to the camera. It’s the fact that everyone dresses in indie-movie monochrome and mid-’90s brown. Like, look at this scene, count the colors that aren’t black or brown, then look at this scene from like two years later. END OF ASIDE.)
You could throw in Thomas Schlamme’s long-take walk-and-talks on The West Wing; you could note that the culture was just a couple years away from Lost, a show that defined a certain color-blasted “cinematic” style for the mid-decade fantasy-series boomlet. Visually, The Wire doesn’t really have anything in common with those shows. Hell, in close to a decade of people saying that The Wire is the best show ever, it’s rare to find anyone who talks about the visuals in The Wire at all.
HBO is, now. This week, the network announced that an HD-remastered version of the show would start playing in a marathon the day after Christmas, before it’s available digitally in January and on Blu-Ray later in the year.
Calling this process a “remastering” strikes me as something between a little white lie and propaganda. It’s always tricky talking about things like HD and screen sizes, because you’re either a nerd who gets hung up on things like pixels or frame rates, or you’re a normal person who just wants the confidence that you’re watching something the way it should be watched. Third possibility: You don’t care. But you should.
This is a shot from the second season finale of The Wire, in original form and in the new HD format.
Which is better? I would imagine that the vast majority of people, trained by the past two decades of general techno-cultural evolution, would say the second one. The DVD era helped to cement “widescreen” as a fundamental good—the implicit promise being that you were seeing the movie the way it was meant to be seen, whereas the VHS era trended toward grody pan-and-scan images that chopped Lawrence of Arabia into Rence of Ara. What do you actually gain from the expanded picture? More dockworkers. More “breadth.”
So which is actually better? The Wire co-creator David Simon has some thoughts. The simplest answer is complicated. Some stuff looks better; some stuff looks worse; everything looks different. To me, this “remastering” feels like fixing something that wasn’t broken. There’s a long history of this, of networks and corporations trying to make more money off old things by re-presenting them as new. Ted Turner and colorizing; George Lucas and “Special Editions”: We know the horror stories.
“Original Thing = Good, Needlessly Remastered Version of Thing = Bad.” This is the generally agreed upon counter-argument to knick-knackery like this. But I think that the Wire remastering hits at something deeper, something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year.
Indulge me for a moment? Here is a screen capture of one of the very first moments of The Wire, of a couple people hanging out on a city street, the red-blue lights of emergency vehicles dominating the otherwise brown square:
And here is a roughly equivalent shot—two figures, emergency vehicle, city street—from The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Now, I know the difference between apples and oranges. The former is the first scene from a low-budget beyond-R-rated HBO series, which was only ever expected to reach a weekly audience of a few million people. The latter is a CGI-assisted money shot from a kamillion-dollar superhero reboot-sequel. That shot was intended to be seen by…well, it’s one of those images that was specifically designed to be a Big Moment in the trailers, and the Amazing Spider-Man 2 trailers were everywhere for a few months, so when Sony bankrolled that single image, they probably had some reasonable expectation that it would be seen by at least 5% of the known population of living humans. (Is 5% too low? It feels too low.)
Now, we all know logically that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was terrible. That shot looks so cool, though, doesn’t it? The whole movie looked like that: Bright blue Electro, bright red Spider-Man, bright blonde Emma Stone, bright Green Goblin. Amazing Spider-Man 2 was shot on 35 MM. It’s a fallacy to say that everything shot on film looks better than everything shot on digital video. But if you caught Amazing Spider-Man 2 in theaters, in a 35 mm print, you could feel something different.
You can feel it even now, in this hilariously/obnoxiously reduced form, as screenshots on a website. Like, here’s what it looks like when two people have a conversation, with one person slightly out of focus, in the evening, in The Wire:
And here’s what it looks like in The Amazing Spider-Man:
I literally tried to pluck the most random moment from that Amazing 2 scene. The whole thing is blurry because I screencapped it off a trailer, and it looks dark because screen captures always look darker out of context of the moving image. You can still feel it though, can’t you? The watercolor hues of that tree, Emma Stone’s rouge lipstick off her blue scarf, that purple-pink background light.
Pretty much every big stupid blockbuster movie looks “stylish” now—”stylish” in a way that, say, Commando does not. There are various reasons for this. I tend to point to the fact that, starting about 10 years ago, studios started hiring young, cool, stylish directors and handing them hundred-million-dollar budgets. Christopher Nolan and JJ Abrams, Marc Webb and Gareth Edwards; Colin Trevorrow and Josh Trank; these are directors who were working with budgets of $10 million, or $5 million, or under a million dollars, who suddenly got promoted to superhero movies, monster movies, space movies, dinosaur movies.
This all led my friend Todd VanDerWerff to refer to this summer as the dawn of a new age of beautifully-directed blockbusters. They are beautiful, aren’t they? Godzilla 2014 certainly looks better than Godzilla 1998, and the average person would say it looks much better than the (low-budget, black-and-white, guy-in-a-suit) original Godzilla. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes a franchise that for most of the ’70s looked like backlots of a low-budget Star Trek spinoff and makes it look like a John Boorman naturalist horror film. You could freeze frame shots from those movies, and those freeze frames make excellent desktop wallpaper.
Then again, you could also freezeframe any individual shot from a Michael Bay movie, and it would look just as good. Better: Nobody else has mastered Michael Bay’s unique ability to make everyone onscreen look like they’re posing for the sexiest sweatiest most perfectly overlit photo shoot ever. But in motion, the Bay style is narcotizing, pummeling your visual retinas in hopes of deadening your brain.
And to me, there’s something deadening—and decadent, and empty—about the “beauty” of a lot of contemporary big-budget blockbusters. Something about the sheer beauty of these movies feels like an auteurist distraction: A way for talented young filmmakers to put their own stamp on material that is so clearly not their own. I can’t blame them. What do you do when your studio won’t let you do anything radical with your characters, won’t let you deviate from a story that was written forty years ago, won’t let even demigod Christopher Nolan make a clean getaway from his own standalone Batman trilogy without the implicit promise that Christian Bale could still maybe possibly return as Bruce Wayne?
In short: What do you do when you have to make two whole movies that will inevitably end with Gwen Stacy dying?
Well, you focus on making every scene with the soon-to-be-dead Gwen Stacy look as awesome as possible. It’s an aesthetic survival strategy—a phrase my former colleague Owen Gleiberman once used in reference to Zhang Yimou, another arthouse filmmaker who transitioned into composing gorgeously empty blockbuster adventures. (Admittedly, he’s not working for a corporation. Yimou’s working for China. Of course, so’s Iron Man.)
By way of contrast, consider Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s Hobbit. On a purely frame-by-frame basis, you could argue that The Hobbit trilogy looks better, or cooler, or more stylish, or whatever word you want to use for “prettier.” The colors glow more, there’s more texture to the digital/model faux landscapes, all the individual digital orcs in every army move more differently than before. But there are whole hours of Lord of the Rings that are etched in our collective globo-cultural memory; two movies in, there’s nothing like that from The Hobbit.
Part of the problem, I think, is that we’re living in this strange moment of in-between. A casual consumer has to face the fact that most major releases have at least two and maybe three radically different screening options: 2D or 3D or IMAX. There could be a fourth—Jackson has backpedaled from talking messianic about high frame rates, but here comes Messiah-in-arms James Cameron to pick up the baton.
The complicated response to all of this is that everything can look good or bad, and every format requires unique aesthetic strategies, and also sometimes things that are made by great artists are terrible and things that are made by inhuman monsters are beautiful.
The simpler response is: Maybe none of this matters at all, and maybe some of our most talented filmmakers are wasting an epoch worrying over the emptiness of gorgeous visuals. Like pretty much everyone my age, I grew up watching most great movies on crappy VHS, on crappy late-’80s television sets. I have vivid sense memory of hitting the “tracking” button in an attempt (always failed) to create something like a perfect image.
And I have vivid memories of The Wire, grainy, blurry, square-ish, dull-colored, and pretty much perfect just the way it was.