Modern movies filmed in narrow aspect ratios: just stop it already

There seems to be an artsy trend to film movies both in black & white and with oddly narrow aspect ratios these days. One recent example is 2019’s “The Lighthouse” with Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, filmed in a “nearly square 1.19:1 aspect ratio”: Apparently this was done to create an uncomfortable, claustrophobic effect.

Now there’s Joel Cohen’s “the Tragedy of MacBeth” also filmed in B&W and a 1.19:1 aspect ratio. According to this gushing article:

The moment the boxy 1.19:1 aspect ratio suddenly becomes a peephole and then a natural spotlight is one of the most formally thrilling things to be seen in a cinema this year.

So, I’m not crazy about B&W, though I can understand and deal with it as a stylistic choice. But I call BS on the narrow aspect ratio. It’s bad enough to experience it at home on my wide screen TV; if I see a movie at a movie theater I want the full panoramic effect. I’d be pissed if I wasn’t forewarned and went to see a movie at the theater and it turned out to be in 4:3 or worse yet, 1.19:1. As a conscious filming choice t just seems fussy, contrived, overly artsy, and just annoying to watch.

Do y’all agree with me or am I just a cinematic philistine?

I vote for the latter.

Done right, a good film draws me in with the storyline, direction and cinematography. My #1 film is Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and I’ve watched it dozens of times over the past 50 years on everything from snowy, ghosted broadcast TV to the theater and now at home. Never have I been bothered by the aspect ratio because everything about the film is so great.

The French Dispatch is another recent one. And yeah, I can’t say that I’m a fan of the style choice.

Just to be clear, my beef is not with older movie prints that happen to be shown in a 4:3 format from the CRT TV screen days. Amazon Prime has a lot of older movies in that format, and it doesn’t stop me from watching and enjoying them. My beef is with modern movies that purposely use a boxy aspect ratio as an artsy stylistic choice.

But, why does it bother you? What’s ‘BS’ about it?

Seems like just as valid of an artistic choice as any other. Certainly makes for a very different starting point for composition choices, I’d say.
What about wider aspect ratios? Is a movie the better the wider the image?

I like black and white in general. What I am bothered by is the all too common extremely stylized color grading style, where everything either looks like the film is actually two-color, or where the image is extremely desaturated. I can hardly bring myself to watch any movie where all faces are orange and everything else is a shade of blue.

I don’t like modern use of B&W or modern silent films. I’m neutral on aspect ratios.

People made B&W films and silent films back in the day not because it was “artsy” but because they had to. This whole “no one wants to hear actors speak” was bogus in 1928. Just people afraid of change.

I mean, Shakespeare had color AND sound in the 1600s. So did the ancient Greeks. Renaissance artists didn’t paint B&W.

Raging Bull would be just as good a movie if it were in color.

Our eyes naturally track left and right. So a viewing experience is more natural and more enjoyable in a 16:9 or other panoramic ratio. As mentioned, I can tolerate this with movie prints that were made into 4:3 for old-style TV viewing purposes, or for older TV shows that were filmed this way, but to intentionally limit the aspect ratio for stylistic reasons I find annoying.

Uh no, clearly there will be diminishing returns. Maybe 2:1 max? The approximate field of view of the human eye is about 160° by 75°, a little over 2:1 in aspect.

This is a bit of a misunderstanding. Original movies were 4:3 not for TV, but because that’s what they were. Wide aspect films came out as a way to get people back into the theaters, to give them, something they couldn’t get at home.

Agreed. As I said, I can accept B&W as a stylistic choice more easily than I can narrow aspect ratios, but sometimes one has to ask, why? Was it really necessary?

And yet he included a dumbshow in Hamlet

There is some disagreement on this statement…

It’s no wonder Calvin developed behavioral issues and hallucinated a talking stuffed tiger, what with his dad gaslighting him his entire young life.

I lived thru an era where Hollywood was trying to make movies more lifelike and closer to actually being there. Since human hearing is surround sound, the movies began to recreate surround sound. Since human vision is stereoscopic and wider than high, movies tried to simulate that, first by wider screens, then Cinerama, then super-wide formats as technology permitted. As a moviegoer, I can attest the concept works quite well to immerse you in the picture.

Which is why typical smartphone videos really annoy me. They are a step backwards. And I’m apparently not alone in that thought – ever notice that when vertical video is displayed, it is often accompanied by an automatic graphic addition on the left & right? Why do you think that is? Because without this pseudo-imaging, our eyes would find a narrow view ridiculous, but with the widened image, we are less disturbed.

This new trend (if indeed it is a trend) seems to be going in the wrong direction.

And in addition to this, movies are generally more enjoyable when they’re bigger, so if you use an aspect ratio that’s considerably different than the aspect ratio of the screen, it will be smaller.

Yeah, I’m aware why screens are in horizontal format in general. My eyes scan normally. I actually haven’t seen the films you mentioned, but was curious of the specifics of the narrow format ruined the experienced.

I don’t like watching moving image in vertical format, but in movie theater scale or on a big TV a square format doesn’t immediately seem off-putting. Then again, I like minimalism and quirkiness, and the limitations of old media, so this kind of a thing may appeal to me.

Anamorphic goes too far then? Like Cinemascope etc? (2.35:1, 2.39:1, 2.40:1, or 2.55:1)

Is this considered panoramic for moving images? In photography at least panoramic seems to mean this:

image showing a field of view approximating, or greater than, that of the human eye – about 160° by 75° – may be termed panoramic. This generally means it has an aspect ratio of 2:1 or larger, the image being at least twice as wide as it is high.

OK, then, I suppose as a general rule: wider aspect ratios like Cinemascope work on larger viewing screens, like movie theater screens, but may be too wide and vertically narrow on a TV screen, even a larger widescreen TV. I’d say for general purposes, 16:9 or 2:1 works on a variety of screen sizes. Is that a satisfactory answer, counselor? :wink:

Yeah, cool. I’m just curious. Didn’t know if you were aware of the different developments of aspect ratios over time etc.

Here is an interesting (well maybe at least relevant) article about films with a narrower aspect ratio (from 2017):

I don’t mind when aspect ratio, ratio, even shaky cam are used effectively. It’s when wannabes use it lazily afterwards. Days of Heaven was great, but not worth the deluge of sepia-toned history movies that followed. Nowadays I’m sick of all the dark movies. I don’t mean evil-themed: I mean literally dark, with minimal lighting in doctor’s offices and grocery stores.

Oops, forgot attribution: