Leon Vitali plays the role of Lord Bullington in Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film Barry Lyndon. During that shoot Vitali and Kubrick became friends, and Vitali collaborated with Kubrick as a personal assistant and sometimes casting director on all of Kubrick's films up until the director's death after the making of 1999's Eyes Wide Shut. Since that time Vitali has been closely involved in the adaptation of Kubrick's work for home video. He was in New York today to speak to the press in connection with both the 40th anniversary release on DVD and Blu-ray of Kubrick's 1971 A Clockwork Orange, and the upcoming Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection on Blu-ray and Stanley Kubrick: The Essential Collection on standard definition DVD. I took the opportunity to ask him about the controversy concerning the 1.78 framing of Barry Lyndon on Blu-ray, which caused me a certain amount of confusion and the online community of cinephiles and Kubrick fans a fair amount of concern/consternation. What follows below is the best I could get to a verbatim transcription of our exchange on the matter.
Glenn Kenny: "Well, there’s already controversy brewing because the Barry Lyndon Blu-ray is 1.78 and there’s some feeling that it should have been 1.66..."
Leon Vitali: "Well I can tell you what now, okay; 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. It was shot it…I mean , the difference between 1.77 and 1.78 is miniscule, you couldn’t see it with a magnifying glass. 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. I should know."
Glenn Kenny: "Well, that’s about as definitive an answer as we’re likely to get; so where does it come from, then? Where’s the 1.66 idea come from…?"
Leon Vitali: "It comes from people who think they know and weren’t there and have something to say about Stanley all the time. You know, when I first went to Los Angeles, I could go to a party, and somebody’s voice would go up saying, ‘Oh, yes, that’s Stanley,’ and ‘Oh, Eyes Wide Shut,’ and I thought ‘Do they know Stanley, is this common that people at parties talk about him in a loud voice?” But it wasn’t that, it was because they knew…I was there. And you get those idiots…truly, who think they know. [adopts orotund voice] ‘Stanley was a very philosophical guy.’ I say: bullshit."
The interview took place at Manhattan's Essex House, which is reasonably close to the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, so I hiked over there to see if I could find any textual support to the idea of a 1.66 Barry Lyndon. Two biographies and five volumes of critical exegesis (including one actually subtitled "A Visual Analysis") later, and nothing. I shared Vitali's statement with a correspondent who I'll only refer to here as General Ripper, asking if he had any textual support for the 1.66 ratio, and he cited the old non-anamorphic standard-issue release of the film on DVD from Warner back in 2007, and added, "Vitali is on the WB payroll, not to be trusted." Okay, then. [N.b., there is no actual evidence to support General Ripper's surmise about the WB payroll and all. That's just General Ripper's surmise, reproduced here for your entertainment.]
In any event,the online Kubrick FAQ asserts, in an entry by David Mullen (question 11a), that Lyndon "was released theatrically in 1.66:1, even in the U.S. since Kubrick insisted on 1.66 hard mattes being sent to the various theatres showing the film (1.85 is the common 'flat' widescreen ratio in the U.S.)". There is no backup given for this, however, and many of the other questions on the FAQ have notes citing printed sources. And on the other hand, the massive Taschen book The Stanley Kubrick Archive, edited by Alison Castle "made in cooperation with Jan Harlan, Christiane Kubrick, and The Stanley Kubrick Estate" has a "Note About Aspect Ratios" on the contents page...which lists the aspect ratio of Barry Lyndon as...1.77. Not only that, all of the frame enlargements from Lyndon contained therein are in precisely that ratio. I don't recall all that many people on the internet gasping "oh my God where is that leaf!?!?" back when the book was first issued in 2004.
I have more, but it's not what I'd call essential at this point in time, but it might come in handy later. I imagine this will turn out to be a fascinating thread. In the meantime, I think I'll check out a Blu-ray.
UPDATE: I asked for printed citations, as opposed to logorrheic, self-righteous spewings about Orwellian schemes, and reader Dwigt, in comments, was kind enough to provide one. He says, "There's an interview with the at the time Warner head of publicity for Europe in the Michel Ciment book where he states that Kubrick as curious about how the movie would be screened. He had a few questions for the theaters that were booked in France and Germany and discovered that most of them didn't own a 1.66:1 soft matte anymore, while it cost a few quids. So, they sent the matte to all theaters."
Indeed, the interview is with Julian Senior, publicity director, and relevant passages are on pages 223 and 225 of the "definitive edition" of Ciment's Kubrick, published in the U.S. by Faber and Faber in 2001. Here is one passage on Kubrick's exacting methods: "He believes that every essential question can be answered through logic and common sense. I recall very clearly that, at the time of A Clockwork Orange, we drew up together what we jokingly referred to as a 'memory jogger' on releasing a film: how many prints should be made, how many trailers, does every cinema possess a projector with a 1.66 mask, do the TV networks prefer video or film, etc." (N.b., the Clockwork disc is in 1.66.) On Lyndon specifically: "For Barry Lyndon it was very important—given the experiments in lighting—for the projection equipment to be the best possible. Of course, we had neither the means nor the authority to replace them all, but what we discovered from checking all the principal cinemas in France and Germany was that two-thirds of them didn't have a 1.66 mask, something that costs no more than a few pounds. The projectionists told us that the image would overlap a little on the sides. So Kubrick's assistants had all the projectors equipped for a decent screening of the film—and at the same time for every other film!"
So there's that. Is Senior still with us, and available for comment? I'm looking into it.
Note that Senior's talking about Europe in the above cited-quote. A projectionist with whom I'm friendly had this to say about the situation in American cinemas: "I've read the stories about Kubrick sending 1.66 aperture plates during the initial release and I have to think they're a little apocryphal. In 1975, most USA theatres (other than maybe the major premiere houses in each major city, and that's a big "maybe") had fixed height screens with side masking adjustable for 1.85 and 2.39 scope only. Without a different lens (slightly longer in focal length than the 1.85 lens), sending a theatre with a fixed height screen a 1.66 aperture plate would be useless since all it would do is throw image onto the black masking above and below the screen. Of course, if the theatre did have the extra height and had adjustable vertical masking they could use the new plates and run it at 1.66 with their 1.85 lens."
The same projectionist also says, "I've handled a 35mm print of Barry Lyndon in 1993, and it was hard-matted to approximately 1.66 (I didn't get the calipers out to check it), and I ran it 1.85. The titles (which are the visual guide most projectionists use to center the framing) fit perfectly in the 1.85 area. My best educated guess is that it's designed for 1.66 (let's call it Kubrick's preferred ratio) and safe at 1.85 (since he had to know that most USA theatres would show it at 1.85). Warner, for some reason, chose to split the difference and put the DVD at 1.78." In a subsequent exchange, my friend says, "I pulled out the Taschen book last night as well and measured one of the storyboards—the one at the top of a right-hand page that is a montage of several photos and indicates the camera movements and timing. The 'blue box' drawn on the storyboard measures 1.77:1." The illo in question is on page 435, and is designated "BLY 20" for those who have the book. I took a photograph of the page in question and I apologize in advance for its poor quality:
This may never be what they call "settled law." And it wouldn't be the first time.