I really like the streaming service Mubi.com. I was initially sceptical about its subscription model offering just 30 films at a time, with one dropping off each day and a new one added. But I have been entirely won over by the extraordinary and eclectic mix of movies, their smart curation and the site’s ease-of-use. From the offerings available in the UK today, for example, I really want to see the Hollywood classics directed by Frank Capra, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1933, and You Can’t Take It With You, 1938; the arthouse classics La Rupture, 1970, directed by Claude Chabrol, and Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, 1974; and the contemporary rarities Rouge, 2015, Sarah Winchester, Phantom Opera, 2016 and Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, 2016. Not bad for this month’s £5.99.
I have, however, been really disappointed by a couple of recent viewings, which delivered to me prints that had been mutilated (presumably for television) by having their frame ratios altered significantly. This is a problem for a site that trumpets its commitment to the art of film, and I hope (a) that Mubi.com can be more rigorous in its sourcing of prints in the future, and (b) at the very least it can change its policy to indicate where a film is being streamed in a ratio other than that in which it was made.
I was thrilled to see that Mubi.com was playing comic classic Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century, 1934, with its bravura performance from John Barrymore. But their digital file has been made from a print that has the top and bottom sliced off the 4:3 original to get it to approximate a widescreen image. This makes narrative nonsense of certain frames, especially those that show (now partial) close-ups of the dud cheques written by the Etienne Girardot’s delusional Baptist sweet salesman. But more than that it travesties Joseph H. August’s cinematography and his often careful balance within the frame of Barrymore and Carole Lombard (above, in a 16:9 detail of a publicity still).
Made just over three decades after Howard Hawks’ masterpiece, Arthur Penn’s The Chase, 1966, is an eccentric, little-seen drama with Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle filmed this in Panavision, which is a true widescreen process with a frame ratio of 2.35:1. Which is what we see in the Mubi.com print during the opening titles – and rather splendid they look. But as soon as the print cuts to the main action of the movie, it jumps in to a frame that cuts off the left and right-hand sides. Not good.
I think that the digital prints of both Twentieth Century and The Chase must have been made with an eye to television (or maybe airline) sales. But they travesty the original films, and they really have no place on a streaming service that promises ‘a curated online cinema bringing you cult, classic, independent, and award-winning movies… [and] a passport to the world of cinema.’ Especially when many of the expert entries on Mubi.com‘s Notebook are (rightly) passionate about the pure experience of cinema.
I raised this issue by e-mail with Mubi.com, and received a quick response from their customer service representative “CJ”:
The issue with Twentieth Century is due to being provided with a cropped version by the distributor. We decided to show this film despite this issue to to its importance. I have alerted our encoding and content teams to the issue with The Chase as well, though it may be a similar issue as it is the same distributor. If this is the case, we will be contacting the distributor and raising the issue with them.
Which is fine as far it goes, but really not good enough. As I say, Mubi.com needs to work harder to find pristine, proper prints – and to think hard about whether it should be showing incomplete and injured prints. And if there really are no alternatives, and if they still want to share something that’s a shadow of the original, then the site should detail this in the information provided online. I think that’s the minimum they owe to us as subscribers – and, more importantly, to the makers of these wonderful films.