Last night, I settled down to watch a film on the TV. It was ‘Prisoners'(2013), starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhall, Melissa Leo, and the underrated Paul Dano. I had heard good things about this abduction thriller, and was pleased to see it arrive on TV so soon after release. As it was premiered on the usually excellent Film 4 channel, I concluded that there would be no cuts, and the full film would be shown. Allowing for the breaks for ads, the film got its full running time, so I prepared to immerse myself in the great cast, bleak story-line, and compelling visuals. So far, so good.
I have (moaned) written before about the shortcomings of modern televisions. The four year old, 40-inch Flatscreen LED TV that we own seems incapable of rendering true black. As a result, night scenes, or gloomy locations, are hard to watch, at the best of times. Extraneous light has to be avoided, lamps that reflect in the screen must be turned off, and even with all these preparations, vision of my standard will struggle to see through the murk. I put up with it. What else can I do? The old CRT televisions are no longer available, and short of spending every penny I own on the very latest ‘True Black’ technology, I am stuck with it, for the time being at least.
Of course, the film and TV programme makers don’t help. In their quest for more realism, they avoid the use of additional lighting. A Victorian street scene is rendered as it might have looked before 1900, and we see the world as the characters see it. This sounds perfect in theory, but the price we pay is eyestrain, and problems following any action, or the plot. If a film scene is set in a dark cellar, or poorly-lit back yard, the viewer can forget being able to actually understand what happens next. Transfer the action to a dark woodland, or pitch-black desert, and I might as well be listening to a radio play.
That brings me to sound. Our modern TV has a basic speaker system built in, equipped with stereo, and a sound options menu. I don’t want surround-sound speakers all over the room, wireless or not, and I am reluctant to fork out cash for a modern ‘soundbar’, when the technology is changing daily. For most ordinary TV shows, and the majority of films, the set-up works fine, and the middle setting on the volume control is perfectly adequate.
Of course, TV ads are always louder, everyone knows that, even though few of us understand how it is achieved. But recent trends in the presentation of some dramas and many films have left us with ‘Natural Sound.’ Like ‘Natural Lighting’, this might seem to be satisfyingly realistic. Whispers are barely audible, snatched conversations impossible to follow, but sudden car chases or explosions are deafeningly loud, just as it is in real life.
But this isn’t real life, it’s a film, or a TV show. And that leaves me, frustratedly trying to watch a long film or drama series on TV. Straining to follow most of the action in darkened rooms, constantly adjusting the volume control up during scenes involving conversations, then rushing to lower it, as soon as something loud happens.
‘Prisoners’ was a classic example of this type of broadcasting. Hushed conversations and whispers were essential to the plot, but I couldn’t hear most of them. A breaking window, or gunshot however, had me scrabbling to reduce the volume, from the almost deafening level it was being broadcast at. I manfully endured the full running time. I got to the ending, and enjoyed some of the performances. But as a viewing experience, it was more of an ordeal, than the pleasure it should have been. And I think my remote is going to need new batteries…
Whilst I am on this rant, I will include something else, to save you the drudgery of another moany post from me. Since when was it acceptable for film and TV companies to make plot reveals and crucial events happen by cast members receiving text messages, or scribbled notes, both of which are impossible to read on a TV screen, unless you are 18 years old, and have perfect vision? (That’s it for that one.)