In "Pan, Scan, Venkman," I consider the impact of selective framing on my interpretation of the narrative in Ghostbusters (1984) and specifically Dr Peter Venkman’s place in it. This is not framing as defined on set by the director or cinematographer, but rather the re-framing of the widescreen image for release on VHS, employing the much maligned Pan and Scan process (James, 2001; Salas, 2003). It is hard to think of any circumstance where a process which might result in as much as 50% of the image being stripped away is thought of as a good thing. However, in "Pan, Scan, Venkman," I offer some mitigation for Pan and Scan, or at least in this very specific case.
I have been a fan of Ghostbusters since I first saw it in the early 1990’s, and my thesis concerning Peter Venkman and his place in the film developed over multiple viewings of the film. This was not the result of any investigative agenda on my part, but rather my desire as a fan of the film to engage with every aspect of it as closely as possible. As such, some of these viewings were partial or spread out over multiple days, while others where the film played in the background. Crucially, though, these viewings and my formative experience of the film was on VHS. It was that specific format of the film’s release which led to my ‘enhanced’ understanding of Dr Venkman’s place in the film. And it wasn’t the image alone, or lack of it, that influenced my reading of the film. Sound also played a role and, in particular, lines of dialogue delivered from the off-screen space, ‘acousmatically’ as Chion would term it (2012). Though entirely derived from the inherent restrictions of the VHS format, my reading enriched and enriches my appreciation of the film. It formed a textual template that I used to engage with the rest of the film, uncovering an additional level of complexity which I would later discover was solely predicated on the vagaries of the Pan and Scan process.
In creating this visual essay I digitised my VHS copy of Ghostbusters, an ex-rental version produced by RCA in 1985. It is a fascinating physical artifact of the film, and indeed of the VHS rental process itself, and it raises some questions for me about film authorship and versioning. Though at the time this RCA VHS was considered a ‘definitive’ release of the film, it is not representative of the film shown in theatres. The soundtrack and picture have been intentionally modified for the transfer to VHS, and then further modified by the quality of the playback medium and, over time, the inevitable decay of that medium. Whilst there exists a ‘new’ definitive version of Ghostbusters on 4K Blu-Ray (released in June 2019) I can’t discount the authenticity of the experience I had with the VHS version, nor the pleasure and surprise I derived from uncovering my own cinephiliac moments within the film, all thanks to Pan and Scan.
Chion, M. (2012). "The Three Listening Modes." The Sound Studies Reader, 48-53.
James, M. (2001, Apr 09). "LETTER BOXING widescreen film formats have followed DVDs' rise in popularity - but not without a fierce debate." The Sun.
Salas, R. A. (2003, Oct 03). "Big adjustment for small screen." Deseret News.