By Darren Franich
Updated August 08, 2011 at 04:39 PM EDT
Everett Collection

We should be living in a movie-watching golden era. High-definition Blu-ray DVDs, ever-more-precise methods for digitally cleaning up faded old movie prints, the promise that genuine HD video streaming is just a few turns of the scientific-advancement wonder wheel away… it all sounds very utopian. But the truth is quite the opposite. In fact, I have begun to suspect that humanity is slowly devolving into a post-apocalyptic landscape where our doltish descendants will simply be too dimwitted to understand the wealth of knowledge accumulated over the last few millennia of human history. Because, my friends, even after all this time, I still know far, far, far too many people — some of them close friends, some of them beloved members of my immediate family — who haven’t learned the first fricking rule of owning a widescreen television: Not everything was meant to be viewed in widescreen.

There is a long, fascinating history of cinematic aspect ratios that quickly becomes a confusing jumble of numbers and colons — although the Aspect Ratio Wikipedia page at least comes with a helpful color-coded guide — but here is the most simplified version of the story. Most films made before 1953 were shot with a square frame. Then television came along, and movie attendance fell precipitously. In an effort to give the moviegoer more bang for their buck, Hollywood started shooting films in widescreen. What could have just been a 3-D style trend became the industry standard.

For the first couple decades of the home video era, widescreen films were usually clipped on either side in order to fit square-frame televisions. It was (and remains) a crime to see a glorious film like Lawrence of Arabia (or even a glorious cheesefest like Ben-Hur) in the square pan-and-scan versions — it’s the rough equivalent of reading a novel, but only reading 33% of the words, and if that’s your style then please turn 6. So the cultural rise of DVDs — and the presence of ever-more-affordable widescreen televisions — is a good thing. But I have lost track of the number of times I’ve visited someone’s pleasure-palace home entertainment system — Plasma screen! Blu-ray! Surround sound inside of the sofa — only to then have to suffer through the abject misery of a stretched image.

Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White: These are just a few of the films that were shot in the classic 4:3 format. Anyone who thinks these films are somehow diminished by not being widescreen is mad, mad I tell you! In fairness, Hollywood hasn’t always made it easy to keep track of the different aspect ratios. For several years, HBO was broadcasting two of the great shows in TV history. But while The Sopranos was shot in a cinematic widescreen format that made every episode feel like a mini-movie, The Wire was shot in the square-frame format which emphasized the show’s almost documentary-style realism.

So I can understand your average TV-owning Everyman wondering about the difference. What I can’t understand is said Everyman tapping his “zoom” buttons until Omar’s face is stretched across the vast breadth of the widescreen TV like some miserable parody of the chick from Brazil. Ignorance is no excuse. Educate your friends. Help your elderly relatives, who were blessed to grow up before screens of various sizes took over the universe. When in doubt, just google “[name of show or movie you’re watching] aspect ratio.” You’ll be doing your eyeballs a favor.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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