Friday, August 8, 2008

12 Monkeys for just $14.95?! I can't turn that down!

This Onion AV Club feature about the Golden Age of DVD reminds me that I had been meaning to post some things about the decline of DVD anyway. It also made me think about the last ever post at DVD Journal, which is just about a year old.

Both articles make similar points – DVDs used to be new and exciting, but now they’re old hat. Film geeks could barely breathe when the format was new, waiting to see what wonder would come next. Now we have high-definition discs, digital downloads, and all kinds of things that make DVD seem as old and tired as 78 RPM records (Hey, it was the only comparison I hadn’t seen anyone else make yet.)

Both pieces say most of what I would have to say on the subject better than I could, but what amazes me while reading them is how nostalgic they make me feel. Excuse me for a while, then, while I ramble on about how much DVDs have meant to me over the years.

I remember seeing Roger Ebert’s TV mention of the Fight Club 2-disc special edition in the summer of 2000 when I was 15 – it blew my mind. Commentary tracks? Documentaries galore? Deleted scenes? I had no idea DVDs had any of that stuff. Up to that point, I had assumed they were just like VHS, only with better quality and widescreen picture. I decided right then and there that I was going to get a DVD player as soon as possible.

I bought my first DVD player in December of that year – a big giant Toshiba that offered a friendly LCD “HELLO” when you turned it on and had a screen saver of a whale for some reason. I had to buy it for myself, because my dad said that DVDs were stupid and a waste of money. It cost me $140, but I didn’t care. In those days that was cheap for a DVD player, and anyway I would have paid a thousand if I’d had to.

I also bought the Toy Story Ultimate Toy Box three-disc set featuring both movies and a disc of special features. It was the perfect place to start. Two terrific pictures, looking clearer and more amazing than I’d ever seen them. And the crew from Pixar in their prime, completely geeking out over getting to share all these cool behind-the-scenes stories with people at home who didn’t get to work at Pixar every day. I ended up watching the commentary track for Toy Story 2 about four times. I had gone crazy for the fifteen-minute featurettes on Disney VHS tapes in the ‘90s. Here they were, amplified a thousand times. I was in heaven, and I loved every single second of it.

After seeing how great Toy Story could be, I started buying up my other favorites as quickly as possible – This is Spinal Tap, Young Frankenstein, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. They might not have been as stuffed with extras as the Pixar stuff, but they had plenty of good stuff. Spinal Tap, you may recall, had two completely separate special editions – the MGM one, where all the extras had the band in character, and the long out-of-print Criterion one, with features about the actual making of the movie. I bought the former as soon as I could, and my brother Christopher paid a ridiculous amount to buy the latter for me on eBay. I felt like he had given me a kidney.

It wasn’t just extras that had me hooked – DVD was my real introduction to the concept of seeing movies in their original aspect ratios. In particular, I remember watching Ghostbusters and being blown away by how many gags worked better when you could see everything as intended. Yes, Ghostbusters. I know it should probably be Star Wars or Lawrence of Arabia or something, but it wasn’t. It was Ghostbusters. So there. In any case, I was a complete widescreen zealot in high school – preaching the evils of pan-and-scan everywhere I went.

I quickly became known as “The DVD Guy” in my class. Just two weeks after I bought my DVD player, I got two copies of my all-time favorite movie - Duck Soup – for my sixteenth birthday. That same day, my friend Jason lured me away from the scene of my surprise party with the promise of watching the new Chicken Run DVD. I was late for the party because I insisted on staying through the end of the credits.

But I didn’t just stick with my favorites. In high school, I bought just about every movie I saw and even slightly enjoyed – I remember taking trips to Best Buy and leaving with six or seven movies. Most of these were completely superfluous. By the time I graduated, I had copies of Catch Me If You Can and All That Jazz and the Matthew Broderick movie The Freshman and many other things that I never watched once I owned them.

I did, however, watch the extras for those movies. I was a special features fiend. I tried to watch the extras for everything I owned. And by “the extras”, I mean everything. I didn’t skip over production notes or storyboards or trailers. I couldn’t risk missing even one piece of neat information about a movie. Of course, insisting on watching everything didn’t combine very well with buying DVDs at an unreasonably fast rate – I soon fell fifty or more titles behind in my extras-watching.

Even with all the DVDs I had, I (like all geeks in those days) still had a wish list of things I wanted to see released – Back to the Future, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Godfather, a non-flipper version of Amadeus, special editions for Casablanca, Aliens and most of the classic Disney animated pictures. These were just the tip of the iceberg, of course. The list went on and on and on. Eventually I got most of them. Anyway, I remember screaming like a small child in October of 2001, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Godfather trilogy were released just two weeks apart.

It was shortly after that, in fact, that the animation boom hit. Disney released the first wave of their Disney Treasures collection that December. I excitedly bought the two collections of shorts – Mickey Mouse in Living Color and Silly Symphonies – and excitedly ignored the other two. I was even more excited two years later when the first volume of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes Golden Collection came out. Here I was, sitting in my own house, watching entire discs full of short cartoons.

By the time I went to college, I had a collection that was the envy of all my geek friends. I was constantly loaning movies and TV shows out to people. In fact, I used my obligatory college dry-erase board to keep track of who was borrowing DVDs from me. I was the DVD king of my neighborhood, and nothing in the world could have made me prouder. I genuinely felt like I was accomplishing something by being DVD Guy.

So why has that feeling faded in the years since? I mean, I still love DVDs. I buy them sometimes, I enjoy watching extras whenever I get the chance. But it just isn't the same. And I'm not quite sure why.

A big part of is exactly what those articles talk about – DVDs aren’t exciting anymore. The thrill of seeing The Indiana Jones Trilogy on the shelf in 2003 has been replaced by the skepticism that is the only possible reaction to the Repackaged to Tie In with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull edition of 2008. There’s nothing new happening anymore. I have most of the movies I want, and if I don’t, I could probably go buy them.

Also, I eventually realized that I simply had too many. All those unnecessary discs I bought in high school that never got watched? They became an easy way to make a little money back once I graduated college and had rent to pay. Sure, I only got rid of the ones that I probably shouldn’t have bothered buying in the first place, but I was still reducing rather than enlarging my collection. In high school that thought would have been unconscionable. That’s reality for you, I guess. It’s always spoiling my fun.

Maybe getting in to comic books as a college freshman made my enthusiasm for DVDs lessen. Here was a new, exciting thing; just as DVDs were starting to seem less than revolutionary. I might have owned Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for a couple years, but Watchmen and Kingdom Come were staring me in the face, and they were brand new.

I suppose it was none of those things. I suppose the time has just passed. I suppose everyone has those things they did in high school that they get nostalgic for when they can’t recapture the same sense of excitement. In my case, it happens to be DVD collecting. I guess I’m just a lot nerdier than most.

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