Something Blu

Glenn Kenny and Matt Singer have been reflecting on whether Blu-Ray discs are better than traditional DVDs, and both of them express some skepticism about the necessity of Blu Rays.  While I generally agree with both Kenny and Singer that we need to interrogate the claim that new technologies are inherently better, I think their underlying points about Blu-Ray consumption also speak to some of the questions I’ve been thinking about lately when it comes to movie consumption, especially in the age of Redbox and streaming video.

First, as Kenny points out, Blu-Ray was touted as a transformative experience, one that would “CHANGE THE WAY YOU WATCHED TELEVISION” (all caps emphasis Kenny’s).  A similar hype has accompanied both 3-D film, especially during the relentless promotion of Avatar, and 3-D television.  That hype, especially the predictions that 3-D projection would supplant 2-D, was tedious at best, and now that the Avatar buzz has essentially run its course, audiences seem more or less indifferent to the format.  But as Kenny observes, cinephilia, with its interest in idealized projection situations, is often bound up in some of the language of “technological minutae,” details that may be difficult to glean for all but the discerning eye.  Singer acknowledges, for example, that there are many Blu-Ray discs that seem almost identical to their DVD precursors.

Kenny goes on to add that many films were not made to “shimmer.”  The naturally-lit Breathless, for example (as Jeffrey Wells points out), gains little in its Blu-Ray upgrade.  The same, perhaps, goes for Ozu’s Tokyo Story.  On a similar note, Jonathan Rosenbaum comments that a restoration of Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman appears brighter, less murkier than the original.  But is that what the filmmakers wanted? Rosenbaum also speculates about the accuracy of his memories of that original screening, which he saw as a grade-schooler in the 1950s, bringing to the surface questions about the subjetcive experience of moviegoing and its relationship to cinephilia.  Rosenbaum’s comments, in my reading, complicate any simple definition of an idealized encounter with a film.

A more pointed question is raised by Richard Brody in a comment left on Kenny’s blog during a prior discussion of the Blu-Ray format, arguing that the biggest question about a DVD is its accessability, suggesting that “to obsess about the quality of a transfer without discussing the film that’s being transferred” is, in some ways, missing the point.  Brody’s comment, to my mind, helps to illustrate why there is a lack of urgency to adapt the Blu-Ray format.  What matters, to a great extent and for a large number of viewers, is whether the film is available at all and why the film might be of value or interest.  What might also matter, with regard to the consumer-guide DVD review (or the critical studies scholar interested in movie ephemra), is how the movie is “packaged,” a question that becomes complicated when many audiences are accessing movies via streaming video options such as Netflix and Mubi.  What are the “extras?”  What do they tell us about the movie? Its history of production?

Singer concludes by revisiting the question of an “ideal” moviegoing experience.  Is a movie always better when it’s projected on a big screen? When its a 35 mm print?  What about the guy in front of you who won’t stop text messaging?  All of these questions are caught up in practices of cinephilia, discourses of technological innovation, and even the social role of movie consumption.  Singer’s conclusion is that enjoyment is subjective and that we should embrace what we like, which is fair enough.  I don’t feel enough urgency to go Blu-Ray just yet, even though I recognize that some films may be enhanced by it.  For the most part, DVD fulfills the “good enough” criterion: good (albeit not immaculate) image quality and plenty of access to a wide array of movie choices.  But I’m also intrigued by how these tastes are formed, how they come to define a technological format such as Blu-Ray while also being shaped by the hype that inevitably accompanies technogical innovation.

4 Comments »

  1. Tony Comstock Said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    Whether broadcast, on-demand, or on disc, I enjoy HD versions more than SD versions because if the increased detail. Any questions about range are largely in one’s own mind until you have a side by side comparrison. And liberites that can be taken with an HD transfer can also be taken with a digital internegative, so “blaming” HD is a technical red herring.

    From a commercial stand point, one of the reasons we shot our last batch of films on film was in anticpation of demand for HD, but (sadly) this has not materialized, or at least has not matrialized to teh point of it making sense to press HD disc. (If you think seeing real lovemaking shot on film is special, seeing it at 12 bit 4:4:4 is wonderous!)

  2. Derek Kompare Said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    Any media technology is ultimately a container, when it gets down to it. However, I’m also interested how those containers are differentiated and debated. Blu-Ray continues the DVD project of pursuing “ultimate fidelity” to the source material, however dubious the concept is (as Rosenbaum indicates in your post). That is, by promising “restoration” and “enhancement” (in terms of audiovisual quality and paratextual bits like trailers and BtS featurettes, etc.), both forms are premised on a desire for satiety. DVD knocked our socks off a decade ago vs. VHS, but Blu-Ray has a tougher job of it (especially since so many Blu-Ray players are pretty decent line-doubling DVD players, rendering the latter virtually HD, on HD sets).

    The only Blu-Ray discs I’ve purchased are the first season of the original Star Trek, which I’ve enjoyed for delivering not only this burlesque-like (what you think you see is not what you’re seeing) version of fidelity, but also for offering up both the original and 2006 “remastered” versions of the series. Neither is exactly what Star Trek was in 1966-69, but that’s OK: they’re compelling historical accounts. In this case, I chose Blu-Ray for simply offering more of that in fewer discs.

  3. Chuck Said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    Tony, you’re right to point out that the image quality is superior. One of the points that seems to be coming up is that some transfers do not serve their “original” versions very well. I think I’m interested in interrogating the idea that new technologies are necessarily better.

    Derek, that’s definitely one of the advantages of Blu-Ray (i.e., the ability to pack way more information onto a single disc). Like you, I’m probably more interested in how these technologies get debated and defined, a point that probably didn’t come across as clearly as I would have liked.

  4. Tony Comstock Said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    RE: Transfers

    One of the thing that the HD xfer/DI process allows is far greater extraction/manipulation of infomation from the negative than purely optical proceess allow. More than once I’ve told my dp to go ahead and roll some film in a nearly black room, only to later be amazed at what the telecinist could pull out of the negative.

    I think what’s happening with new transfers in the range/tone department is that they’re getting into the “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”; sort of like George Lucs “improving” the effect in Star Wars, or the “improved” versions of Star Trek.

    Blueray is still nowhere near the resolution of projected 35mm. Hell, it’s not even the resolution of 16mm. But a 4 inch disc is a lot more convenient than the 4 foot platter it take to show a film without a reel change in 35mm!

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