Aspect Ratios and Social Class

I was remarking the other day how radical a transformation in screen aesthetics has sneaked up on us. In the span of basically six years or so, televisual aspect ratios have moved decidedly from Academy ratio to variable widescreen formats. Whether through propsed HD standards, through letterboxing of advertising and programming alike, or through hardware-initiated stretching of the television image, the new aspect ratios undoubtedly will mean a change in television form as wide-ranging as the change in cinematic form in the 1950s. That is, not everything will be different, but spatiality of the television image itself may change.

Alongside the aesthetic dimension, however, there's the question of how and why this change happened so quickly. On one hand we have a tipping point in the nexus of technological development, regulatory shifts, and consumer electronics industrial factors. On the other hand, demand in the form of consumer preferences has pushed the technological changes in certain directions rather than others. It seems apparent to me that some version of class emulation was at play, whereby television upscales itself by adopting the aspect ratios prefered by cinephiles, particular those devoted to New American Cinema auteurs - a preference ensconsed in the DVD format.

Well, helpfully, James Kendrick chips away at this problem in a useful essay in Velvet Light Trap (Fall'05, no. 56) called "Aspect Ratios and Joe Six-Packs: Home Theater Enthusiasts' Battle to Legitimize the DVD Experience." In it, Kendrick looks at a consumer internet forum devoted to home theatre hardware and software and reads the discourse as a classed struggle, in Bourdieusian terms to assert cultural legitimacy in the consumption of DVDs. At first I was leary of the reading of internet chatrooms (call me old-fashioned), but it was a useful connection of the small picture to the big. As usual, my quibble is in his use of Bourdieu: I happen to think that rather than Distinction, Photography might have been a more appropriate model. While the technophile auteurists are making claims of legitimacy, they are less grand bourgeois autodidacts and more the modern day equivalent of the petit bourgeois photoclubs that fetishized the apparatus over the aesthetics of photographic practice. I don't mean that as a putdown, but as a reminder that class legitimacy is more than a high/low division, but often involves middle positions that are just as important in the grander class picture.

For the vertical files, too, Causeway Film & Video Forum has been following the Criterion Collection letterboxing controversy.


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