ReelThoughts: October 21, 2011

"The DVD Collector's Lament"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


I have amassed what I consider to be a respectable DVD & Blu-Ray collection: about 1300 movie titles and a fair number of TV shows (although not nearly as many). A few years ago, when I moved into my current house, I thought that by the end of 2011, I would have about twice my then-1100 films, but it hasn't happened. In fact, through the first ten months of this year, I have purchased four movies. For those who are curious, they are: The King's Speech, Love and Other Drugs, The Social Network, and The Tree of Life. Only one of those, it should be noted, is a 2011 movie. (To be fair, I will pick up Super 8 and the final Harry Potter movie when they become available, although probably not anything else. Maybe The Ides of March, but that won't be out until early 2012.)

I have three rules when it comes to spending my hard-earned cash on a DVD. For me to buy it, a title has to satisfy one or more of these conditions. (1) I love the film and intend to re-watch it at least once, and likely more than once. (2) Being a film critic, I would look like a moron if I didn't own a copy. It's also good for reference purposes. (3) I respect the film and filmmaker enough to show my appreciation by buying his/her work. Concrete examples: (1) Star Trek movies, Star Wars movies, etc. (2) Citizen Kane. Can't recall the last time I watched this (I have seen it three times), but I need to have a copy. Not necessarily the latest special edition, but at least one version. (3) The War Zone. I'm not sure I want to revisit this harrowing motion picture (already have seen it three times, and that's enough), but I have it if I am so compelled.

For the most part, (2) no longer applies. I already have most of the movies I "should" have. (3) is typically the exception to the rule, but The Tree of Life is a good example. I will likely re-watch the movie around the end of the year as I'm compiling my Top 10 list, but it's something I respect and appreciate more than love. I can't see myself coming back annually to view this the way I do Patton (for example). That pretty much leaves (1).

Over the years, most of my DVD purchases (and VHS and Laserdisc before that) have fallen into this category. I own a copy of every one of my personal Top 100 films. I buy a movie if I want to have the convenience of watching it at any time, including when the Internet is down, and without having to worry whether a streaming service like Netflix is offering it this month. The problem is, there aren't many of those movies coming out any more.

Movies today are made more for instant gratification than for long-term savoring. If a film gives up all it has to offer in a single viewing, why revisit it? I'm a fan of the maligned Cowboys and Aliens, but I feel no compulsion to watch it a second time. Same for Cedar Rapids. And Hanna. Those films satisfy on a first viewing but there's nothing about any of them that makes me think I should give up another two hours. Most current movies, especially those germinated in Hollywood, are like that. Which explains why I am buying so few DVDs and Blu-Rays, and why the number of older titles and TV shows I purchase exceeds the newer ones.

Recently, a visiting repairman paused when he saw DVD shelves that line the walls of my basement. After a few minutes, he said. "Wow. That's a lot of movies. But where are the newer ones?" I responded that there hasn't been much in the past few years worth buying. His reply: "Yeah. I guess you're right. My wife and I go to the movies every week but I haven't used my DVD player in years. I'm not even sure it still works." So it's not just movie snobs who feel this way.

Consider home video sales. They haven't simply leveled off, they're in retreat. Hollywood has tried any number of schemes to staunch the bleeding, but nothing has worked. A few years ago, the savior was supposed to be Blu-Ray. But, while the format went mainstream with the arrival of lower-priced players, it never caught fire. Few people are "upgrading" perfectly good DVDs with Blu-Rays, and that's where a lot of the money was hoped to be made. More people are opting to download titles (or use Cable's VOD approach) than ever before, but they're choosing the cheaper "rent for 48 hours" option than the "own" choice. Streaming services like Netflix, which offer a large number of titles for a single monthly fee, are popular. Viewing tastes have shifted from collecting movies to pure consumption.

Hollywood is quick to blame the home video market's collapse on the economy and on people's growing immersion in the digital world. The latest scheme is to sell DVD/Blu-Ray hard copies coupled with digital versions residing in a "cloud." The idea is that you can start watching a movie at home, pause it, pick it up later on your iPad, pause it, and finish it on your work computer. For today's movies, which don't lose a lot when broken into pieces, this is an appealing option.

The problem isn't the economy. It's not ease of accessibility. It's the movies themselves. If you can break a viewing experience into multiple pieces, the film isn't doing its job. It's not arresting attention. It's not demanding to be seen from beginning to end. It has been assembled so that little is lost by pausing, stopping, or even fast-forwarding through the "boring bits." I can recall times when I planned to see a movie in two parts because of time constraints. More often than not, I ended up blowing my schedule because, when the time came to stop, I kept going. A good movie makes you want to stick with it. A disposable one allows you to approach it like a magazine article.

The segmentation of movies has its roots in television. When TV began broadcasting films, narratives designed to be experienced in one sitting were splintered by the inclusion of intermissions (commercial breaks). Although these might be considered boons for the small bladder population of the world, they did incalculable damage to the immersive nature of the narrative. Contrary to what some might argue, it is possible to become engrossed in a tale unfolding on a small screen (even an 11" b&w set, which were at one time very popular), but not when there's a two-minute timeout every 15-20 minutes. Over the years, viewers became accustomed to the concept of the interrupted movie. The only real difference today is that home video audiences are interrupting the movie on their terms, not those of a network programmer. And filmmakers have become complicit in the process.

Many directors, especially those who make films with limited depth and artistic value, know that American multiplexes represent only a fraction of the overall market. So, when they "craft" a movie, they do so with consideration of foreign distribution and home video sales and rentals. Things are dumbed down and sped up. Dialogue is reduced in favor of visual chicanery. Viewers suffering from ADD need to worry about being unable to sit through an entire feature because the films suffer from the same condition. This sort of production adapts easily to being watched in four or five chunks. There's little penalty for not being able to remember details. But who wants to own such a film? Transformers movies are watched by a lot of people. Who buys the DVDs? Fan boys and girls - full stop. No one else. Others rent the movie if they didn't see it in theaters and (inexplicably) want to watch it at home. But they don't buy it. Want to know how many die-hard Transformers fans there are? Check out the number of DVDs and Blu Rays sold.

When I was a teenager, there were movies I adored. Sometimes I'd discover them like buried gems in a video store. Other times, I'd find them in multiplexes. Even before my parents bought a VCR, I wanted copies of them. I could rattle off titles, but that would be boring, but many remain with me to this day, and I have all of them on either DVD or Blu-Ray. I wonder, is it the same today? Do children and young adults have the same reverence for movies that I had? Or is the magic gone? Is a movie, like a TV show or a Youtube video, designed solely as a means of ephemeral pleasure? Is there a 2011 production that people will look back on in 25 years with more than the passing fondness of nostalgia?

Is there a path back? Is there a way to once again make movies more than fast food that goes down quickly and is pooped out expeditiously? Sadly, I think not - at least not in today's society. People are less interested in generating something that will stand the test of time than in making something that will earn an easy buck. We're geared toward rapid consumption, not savoring. Movies reflect this. They have always been a product, but the audience has changed. So blame the movies but blame the audience more. For better or worse, this is what we want, and our DVD collections suffer as a result.


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