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.