The New Bootlegs: Open Matte Films & Unofficial Scans

The unofficial, often open matte scans of these films preserve a tactile history of cinema in its imperfect totality.

words by

Lexie Corbett

We want art, and artists, both polished and messy, remote but coy. We want them humanised in a private way, not oversharing online, but something unseen yet not hidden. A newly uncovered recording, an unpublished interview – things that happened to be captured in their time, and authentic because of it. When it comes to the art of the cinema, our desire for authenticity in the digital age is often to look backward at the beauty of analogue technologies, and the tactility of film grain. Sadly, such analogue curiosity is not shared by most of those in charge of official releases. Blu-Ray restorations of films like The Shining and Taxi Driver flatten the colours, offering up shiny digital versions. These releases feel much less vital to behold than they could otherwise have been.

In the past several years there has been a small market of cinephiles seeking out unofficial, often open matte, 35mm scans of some very famous films. These are cinema’s bootlegs, unique ephemera created by enthusiasts wishing to preserve film history with its blemishes intact. Recently, I’ve found myself obsessed with unofficial releases – The Shining, Taxi Driver, Psycho, Vertigo, and others, have all been made available.

___STEADY_PAYWALL___Open matte refers to the way the films were shot, in Academy ratio, with the intention that the top and bottom parts of the screen be ‘matted’ out by the projectionist for widescreen release. This was done to preserve a native aspect ratio for home video and television broadcast. It was also done simply to preserve the resolution during shooting. Open matte pulls aside the curtain, revealing things that were not meant to be seen. In the unofficial scan of Taxi Driver, when Travis (Robert De Niro) and Andy the gun dealer (Steven Prince) enter a hotel room, the camera pans to reveal the ceiling, outfitted with a simple lighting rig. In The Shining, a boom mic bobs above Jack’s (Jack Nicholson) head in the Colorado Lounge. The prints are brimming with the visual ephemera of film itself, replete with the rounded corners of film stock, and the running of the leader before the feature. Sometimes the colour grading is off. The scan of Vertigo appears as if through a muddy brown filter. The films are often missing frames, or even whole scenes. In Psycho, the scene where Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) murders P.I. Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is absent, and The Shining is missing several frames when Jack approaches the Gold Room at the halfway point.

Rumours and claims swirl around these unofficial releases. I’ve heard tell there is a scan of Eyes Wide Shut where a naked Tom Cruise can be seen clearly wearing nude-coloured pants. But I haven’t seen that one. While researching this article, I found the general feeling among film enthusiasts was somewhere between awe, and revulsion. Many consider the scans to be subpar, if not outright abominations, viewing them as essentially mangled fan products. I am inclined to agree. The films are mangled fan products, and yet I cannot look away. Unveilings of film sets or specious nude underpants are not my purview or concern. For whatever reason, being able to see the lighting rig in Taxi Driver does not disrupt my verisimilitude, though I’m sure Scorsese would hate it. Mostly, I find myself concerned with the experience of viewing it, and its production of authenticity through tactility. What these scans have to offer is something akin to the experience watching a film in the cinema on a 35mm projector years after its initial release. These mangled fan products exude materiality. And though they confound digital sheen, they would be impossible to obtain without digital technologies – assuming one happens to be without a 35mm projector. The distribution of these scans is a beautiful example of the possibilities created through the meld of analogue and digital. Yes, they are messy, they are mangled, and yet they are able to do something remarkable: by altering the way they are presented, these well-worn films are made anew in the eyes of the viewer, and made tactile through their native imperfections.

My introduction to these films came when a fellow cinephile and friend suggested I check out the open matte version of The Shining after I mentioned I was writing an essay on my favourite Kubrick film. It felt like viewing The Shining for the very first time. Unmatted, the implicit symmetry of the mise-en-scène leaps off the screen. The square frame seems custom-fit for Danny’s Big Wheel rides through the hexagonal hallways of The Overlook. The colours are rich and deep. It is a richness that belies the imperfections: a green line runs through the screen often, and the film is very scratched. Being able to see the grain, the scratches, and even the edge of the film vibrating near the top of the screen, comes to feel much more authentic than a digital restoration ever could.

Sometimes, these imperfections create complimentary meaning. The frames missing from The Shining occur after Danny is attacked in Room 237. In the next scene, Jack walks down the warmly-lit hall to the Gold Room. In the official release, the camera maintains a continuous shot as Jack enters the Gold Room. In the unofficial release, the scene jump-cuts from Jack muttering in the hallway to his dark figure standing before the pitch-black Gold Room. The Shining remains a deeply frightening film even after many viewings, but this jump cut made my stomach drop. It unintentionally highlights the discontinuity between light and dark that codifies the film – the extreme tension between the actual demands of family life, and the seductive darkness of the hotel.

For me, the meaning of these unofficial scans does not depend on the way the films were ‘meant to be seen’, though I am usually all for authorial intention, and these versions are certainly not definitive. But I think what matters is that the unofficial nature of these releases represents a recall of the way films were originally seen in the practical sense – unrestored, on a 35mm projector, scratched, loved. Such an experience is well mimicked in these scans, never mind the unmatted frame. The scans also bleed into something a little more ephemeral and esoteric that is unique to the movies: the experience of watching a film is about as important as the film itself. Cinema is art media primarily concerned with visual perception; so, it must preserve the essence of its past phenomenal experience as part of its history. Enthusiasts with the patience and the equipment to scan these unofficial films, have been doing just that.

Published 8 Jul 2024

Tags: Alfred Hitchcock Martin Scorsese Stanley Kubrick

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