John-Badham-Cold-War-Film

Happy thanksgiving, everyone. Here’s a movie I’m thankful for, WarGames; the clever script and direction just manage to stay on the believable side of far-fetched, no easy task. Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, the hilarious Barry “I’d piss on the spark plug” Corbin are all at their prime, while nothing says 80’s flick like the adorable Ally Sheedy.

Today’s post is about a very little moment that I think has big implications. But first, let’s get some technical things cleared-up: When making his compositions on set, director John Badham shot this film open matte, which allows for presentation in both 1.85 (the movie-theater version of our modern TV’s 16:9 rectangle) and a square 4:3 image for 1980’s TV’s. That is, he kept the lights and boom way out of frame so he could just show more above and below the rectangular movie theater composition when the film would be presented on the square, ye olde fashioned TV.  He did this to avoid the horrible “pan and scan” process that wide films had to go through to fit onto the old 4:3 square TV’s. This means there are actually two different versions of the movie (much like Touch of EvilThe Shining and Empire of the Sun) – you see more in one than the other which is nominal, but somehow still great, fun.

All that being said, this youtube version is the 4:3 square, old TV version. So you have to imagine that in the theaters and on HBO & DVD you see even less of what I’m about to point out, making the sound effect all that more important and effective. This all goes back to my previous post on E.T. about the reliability and power of sound in a film and this is a very simple, subtle, but I think important, example. So many directors, particularly in television, I feel, don’t trust or value sound and feel the need to over-cover moments to death with the camera. But check out this beat in WarGames which was atypical enough to make me post about it.

Moment in question is at 4:18, but please do start at 3:03.

At 4:18, David (Broderick), totally frightened & unnerved that the computer is not only still playing the “game” but is actually phoning him, hangs up on it. But it calls back, and we learn the machine is not going to stop playing until it’s won. Now understand, the scene is all about the relentless computer stalking him via the phone lines and refusing to end the game. So the beat of the phone being hung up is an important one.

Badham’s Sound Choice

When seeing this in the theater, and even in this 4:3 youtube clip, the phone being hung up is off camera (way off camera in 16:9). But we hear the tell-tale sound of that action, followed by another ominous ring. I can’t tell you how many directors and especially execs now-a-days wouldn’t have the nerve to trust the audience to understand a beat such is this without showing it. I crap you negative. They’d fret or get/give notes from above and sooner or later every moment that might, on the slightest outside chance, be missed is shot so obviously and blatantly that before we know it, there’s nothing left to discover, nothing to figure out for ourselves, leaving us with a literal, flat presentation.

Okay, this is all. Carry on and enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday. Today I’m thankful for John Badham letting me get a beat through sound and my brain!

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