Robert Fulford's column about DVDs

(The National Post, February 20, 2001)

The first disc we watched, right after two guys from the appliance store connected our new DVD player to our old television set, was Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the 1998 cockney crime comedy by Guy Ritchie. Right away, the charm of DVD became obvious. It displayed the film in wide-screen format, sharper than on video, and with better sound. And the slightly eccentric features that were added made the package more enticing.

There was a cockney dictionary, for instance, and English subtitles you bring up on the screen if you can't follow the dialogue. There was a system of chapter headings, so you could easily flip through the film and find passages you wanted to see again, the most striking characteristic of DVD. There was a documentary about making the movie, which solved a mystery that was bothering me: Why didn't I recognize Sting as he went by, playing a substantial role? It turned out that Ritchie had photographed him entirely from unfamiliar angles, and kept his famous smile off the screen. Perversely, Guy Ritchie had done his best to make the one international star in his cast invisible.

That night, a few weeks ago, our house became part of what the foreword to Videohound's DVD Guide (2001) calls "the fastest growth of any entertainment format in the history of the world." The author of this portentous remark happens to be Paul Culberg, president of the DVD trade association. He may be biased. Even so, it seems clear that DVD ("digital videodisc") has moved into the mainstream faster than TV, the LP, the video cassette or the CD. While it's new to me, and still an unknown quantity to most people, it's now part of everyday life for millions. About one in 20 North American households has a DVD player, and the figures are similar in Europe and Japan. There are at least 8,500 DVD titles available.

Remarkably, the first DVD players didn't appear in the stores until just four years ago this month, in February, 1997. At that point, their future wasn't promising. Few movies were available on disc, and the studios weren't eager to issue more. The electronics companies saw DVD as the next big thing, but it was hard to see why.

For one thing, it doesn't record and therefore can't replace videotape. It won't record The West Wing and let you watch later while spinning through the commercials -- and that's the greatest appeal of video for many people.

But the electronics companies were right. The pleasures of DVD offset that drawback. DVD also had the good fortune to arrive in the stores in an economic boom period. Now it's a solid part of the media system. Last summer, The Matrix became the first movie to have three million DVD copies in distribution.

The DVD seems to have been invented for curious people who want to know a lot about movies and how they are made. Judging by the sales figures, there are far more such people than we might have guessed.

The ideal DVD customer is the kind of moviegoer who likes to read half a dozen newspaper features about a film even before the reviews start appearing, then see the movie, then maybe rent a couple of the director's (or the star's) earlier films. The DVD encourages amateur film scholarship, an attentiveness to details and history. Those who look on mass culture with contempt will find DVD a surprise. Those who believe (as so many say) that we are now enduring the "dumbing down" of the media will be astonished.

The producers of DVDs, searching for added features that will make us rent or buy their work, try to devise options we never knew we wanted but will love when we get them. They sometimes include scenes that were deleted from the distributed film, alternate endings, and the original trailers that played the theatres. Sometimes the director speaks on a commentary track: You watch the whole film with the voices and sound effects turned low while the director explains why this or that was done. If the director is dead, as with Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (a perfect DVD production), then you get the writer, in that case Ernest Lehman, taking you through the whole film.

Not every director is delighted to provide this service. Werner Herzog, for instance, remarked that while he's glad his old films (like Fitzcarraldo) are on DVD, he doesn't like going back and figuring out what scenes to put in as extra features -- "A carpenter shouldn't sit on his shavings."

Sometimes the DVD becomes a work of art in itself, like the one devoted to Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer made it in 1927, when St. Joan's canonization (in 1920) was still recent. His film was censored and butchered, but finally restored in 1984. The makers of the video have put Richard Einhorn's beautiful oratorio, inspired by the film, on the soundtrack. They also include production photos from 1927, an account of the melancholy history of the film, an interview with the daughter of Renée Falconetti (who played Joan), and commentary by a film scholar that you can follow while re-watching the whole film.

A DVD looks like a CD: It's a thin, aluminum-coloured wafer, 12 cm in diameter, but it comes in a box that's easily opened and designed to be shelved like a video. Obviously, the designer of the unopenable-by-human-hands CD package (who now burns in Hell, if we believe Steve Martin's rumination on that subject) wasn't allowed near the packaging of the DVD.

A DVD holds seven or eight hours of material, which suggests wonderful possibilities for the future. It could be as important as the CD in the business of reviving forgotten or nearly forgotten material. We can imagine DVDs of great TV interviews, or reconstructions of historical events as seen in five or six different countries, or maybe fine-art material. Films about art have never prospered on video, but the DVD, with its relatively precise images, could turn out to be a cheap and interesting replacement for art and photography books.

Those who have studied the subject since ancient times, as far back as 1998, are probably plotting far more interesting uses. I'm still a newcomer, rapturuously in love with my DVD. What's not to love?

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