Not What It Was

Remember the excitement that accompanied Robert Harris and James Katz‘s 1991 restoration of Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick‘s Spartacus? Called the “most extensive film restoration in history, painstakingly reconstructed from decades-old negative and color separation prints, at a cost of nearly $1 million,” etc.? The sumptuous detail of a large costume epic (set in Biblical times but not the least bit Biblical in story or theme) shot in Super Technirama 70 and all that?

It’s now nearly 20 years later and guess what? The 2001 Criterion DVD version of this restored epic, which I happened to buy at Barnes and Noble yesterday, doesn’t look very good when you play it on a Bluray player and watch it on a 42″ HDTV plasma (i.e., my own). It looks okay at times, and at other times vaguely shitty — weak, not sharp enough, second-tierish.

And yet the same disc looked fine when I played it on my old 36″ Sony flatscreen. The problem, I’m told, is the Bluray player, which tends to bring out weaknesses on standard DVDs that don’t show up when you play them on a regular DVD player. So basically I’ve pissed away the dough that I bought the Criterion DVD with, and I’m not happy.

And I’m not sure I’ll be all that happy either when the Spartacus Bluray from Universal Home Video comes out on 5.25. If it’s anything like their 1998 DVD, which looks pathetic — i.e., washed-out color and a 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio framing for a film intended to be shown at a 2.2 to 1 — it’ll obviously be a problem.

What needs to happen, of course, is for Criterion to produce its own Spartacus Bluray. But this can’t occur because Criterion doesn’t have the Spartacus home-video rights any more. Universal owns them, and they’re not about to let Criterion show them how the film should really look (corporate egos and all that) so forget it. Which means that all that incredibly difficult and super-costly work on the ’91 Spartacus restoration is basically a thing of memory. It would be nice if the full lustre of that restoration is revealed by the Universal Bluray, but it’s not very likely.

40 thoughts on “Not What It Was

  1. This is a B or a B-plus film, always will be. I’m not saying I can see why they’re never going to go all-out for it, but almost.

  2. Still have good memories of seeing the 1991 restoration at the now-obliterated Cineplex Odeon Century Plaza theater in Century City–same theater where I saw the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA restoration three years previous..

  3. With ya, Terry…. same with “Sound of Music”, “Dr. Zhivago” etc… In fact, I think the last film I saw there was “Apocalypse Now Redux”…. That was kind of a posh theater in the early-mid nineties… (I saw “Glory” there, too)… It was sort of a forerunner to the Arclight in some ways… ALWAYS celebrities there seeing stuff… (Danny DeVito was at the “Spartacus” screening I saw)

    Wells…. you bought a DVD at Barnes and Noble?! Impulse buy, Mr. Moneybags? It seems media there is always full retail. Maybe I’m wrong.

  4. Travis – now that you mention it, I’ve noticed that several times. The ‘All About Steve’ DVD picture was clearly taken in a Barnes & Noble (or Borders or B.Dalton or whatever) too.

    Especially the Criterion Spartacus, though; I remember buying that one out of a bonus check or something like that, because it is — or at least was — the most expensive 2-disc Criterion available.

  5. I wouldn’t be surprised if Universal just rehashes the really lousy transfer they used for the HD DVD release from a couple years back.

  6. The DVD looks like crap because Blu-Ray players don’t upscale for shit. Get a good PC, pop in a high-end video card with an HDMI out, hook that up to your HDTV and use the PC to upscale.

  7. I’m continually amazed how many people don’t realize what a trashy rag The Guardian is, I guess because of the soft and pleasing colors on its website.

  8. Universal’s DVD division is pretty sad. I’ve owned four DVD players and most Universal discs wouldn’t play properly on two of them.

  9. As noted above, a better upscaling DVD player might make some difference. But the Criterion Spartacus is about 10 years old now. In the mean time, you’re TV has gotten better and bigger, and telecine/datacine and digital restoration techniques have gotten better, which have made your standards go up.

    I’m sure a Criterion Spartacus BD would look awesome. Maybe we’ll see it in a few years after Universal has had some time to cash in on their forthcoming disc.

  10. Bluray players are vary greatly with regard to upscaling DVDs. Borrow someone’s BD player, or bring the disc to a decent AV store to compare.

  11. @joncro: I don’t believe that piece for a second. If it was true why would Jan Harlan hire Cruise to narrate the doc ‘Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures’ two years after Kubrick’s death?

  12. SK, just like most great artists, constantly second-guessed himself about his most recent works. IIRC, he made similar comments to people about The Shining and FMJ.

  13. What I want to know is, is that excellent Criterion commentary track still included in the new Blu-Ray, or will I have to hang onto my DVD copy?

    Every spec-listing for the BD I’ve come across seems to point to that track not making the transition — probably clearance issues with certain dead actors’ estates, and/or Criterion demanding too much money for it (i.e., the new Chasing Amy Blu-Ray).

  14. @joncro: I don’t believe that piece for a second. If it was true why would Jan Harlan hire Cruise to narrate the doc ‘Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures’ two years after Kubrick’s death?

  15. joncro – Todd Field has responded to that article somewhere, saying basically that (a) it’s completely untrue, and (b) Kubrick didn’t get along at all with Emrey and the story itself makes no sense if you know how badly they got along.

  16. What needs to happen, of course, is for Criterion to produce its own Spartacus Bluray. But this can’t occur because Criterion doesn’t have the Spartacus home-video rights any more. Universal owns them, and they’re not about to let Criterion show them how the film should really look (corporate egos and all that) so forget it.

    Criterion never actually owned the home video rights, they were always licensed from Universal — Criterion’s entire catalog is licensed from someone or other, except for a couple of public domain titles). Universal’s “corporate ego” allowed them to license the DVD rights to Criterion after their own botched ’98 DVD, and if they don’t let Criterion handle it on Blu it’ll be out of purely commercial considerations. I seriously doubt anyone at Paramount hit the roof when they saw how Criterion totally shamed their old Days of Heaven DVD.

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  21. That is the B as well as any B-plus roll film, generally shall be. I am not necessarily expressing I’ll understand why they are in no way gonna visit all-out regarding it, nonetheless practically.

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