During his life Stanley Kubrick was renowned for his exacting and unstinting attention to detail. The late filmmaker didn't just oversee every aspect involved in the creation of works such as Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, he also paid close attention to how they were screened for the public. Stories abound – particularly from the 1960s and 1970s when releases often played one cinema in a city for an extended period as opposed to the blockbuster era of opening as widely as possible – of Kubrick's staff checking every technical detail in advance, with the supposedly reclusive director even being known to check projection booths.
Despite this level of dedication while alive, debate over how Kubrick's work should be seen has intensified since his death in 1999, especially as new formats and viewing platforms have come to the fore; no-one doubts that Kubrick knew exactly what he wanted, but he didn't always make it clear to outsiders.
The latest kafuffle centres on the new Blu-ray / DVD edition of Kubrick's 1975 feature, Barry Lyndon. The film, about a young man (Ryan O'Neal) whose 18th century adventures end in personal loss and despair, was issued last month in America by Warner Home Video (and is currently for sale in Australia) with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Many critics and fans immediately voiced their concern, or in some cases anger, over claims that the film was meant to screen at 1.66:1.
There have been numerous aspect ratios – that is, the ratio of the width of the screen image to its height – used in the cinema, and many films were summarily cropped or widened when they first appeared on VHS or DVD, but Kubrick typically paid close attention to the matter while alive. The idea that the image on Barry Lyndon – a movie full of painterly compositions – was incorrect, with the composition unbalanced by extra pixels on the right and left hand sides of the frame, upset both critics and fans.
WHV were able to call on Leon Vitalli, who had an onscreen role in Barry Lyndon and went on to work as Kubrick's personal assistant and to play a close role in the transfer of various Kubrick titles for the director and later his estate, to speak to the media.
“Never was it ever 1.66, it wasn't shot in 1.66, we never released it in 1.66 in any format whether it's film or television or DVD. It was 1.77… And anyone who thought it was meant to be in 1.66 is sadly delusioned. Seeing as I was there, at every stage of it; shooting and everything, I should know,” Vitalli told film critic and blogger, Glenn Kenny.
But not everyone believed Vitalli, and as strident as his denial was evidence to the contrary has accumulated. It was pointed out, for example, that in Michael Ciment's book Kubrick, a Warner publicist in Europe recalled the lengths Kubrick went to – supplying cinemas with projector plates – so that Barry Lyndon could be screened at 1.66:1. Others noted that previous DVD and laserdisc editions had been in 1.66:1, and that in fact the one ratio never used was 1.77. No-one agreed, no-one was happy.
The debate goes on, with frame-to-frame comparisons and claims of “corporate vandalism”, but what is clear is that for all the accumulated weight of cinematic history, and the sheer breadth of films available for us in numerous different ways now, it remains a medium where uncertainty can win out over time. If this potential mistake could befall Stanley Kubrick's work, what might happen to that of lesser directors?