In Sunday’s New York Times (subscription required), Elvis Mitchell argues that DVD players have profoundly altered the way that consumers, er audiences, view films. Mitchell argues that DVD players are transforming the more quotidian film fans into “film geeks.” I’m tempted to agree with his argument. After all, I’ve been a fan of directors’ commentaries ever since I started viewing films in the DVD format in Agust 2000 (soon after I moved to Champaign, Illinois). I’m also well aware of the tendency toward “letterboxing,” the practice of presenting films on DVD in their original rectangular aspect ratio, rather than the “squared off” television format. Even certain television shows, such as 24 use rectangular aspect ratios in order to establish their artsy cred. So, yeah, it seems reasonable that DVDs are part of this process.
I’m not entirely sure, however, that DVDs are the only–or even the most important–cause. Mitchell’s article takes a rather short view of recent cinematic history, ignoring the whole “film geek” tradition associated with the “New Hollywood” auteurs of the 1970s–Altman, Scorsese, and Coppola among them whose use of pastiche seems to imply an aleady existent “database aesthetic” (Manovich’s term). Scorsese’s update of The Searchers in Taxi Driver is just one example of this practice.
I realize that DVDs might be seen as an expansion of this film geek culture, but the cult followings associated with these directors, with Hong Kong action films, with the European art cinema (all of which manifest themselves in Quentin Tarantino’s films) all antecede the existence of DVDs. At the same time, a nation of film geeks hasn’t prevented the production of some really crappy (and, yes, “really crappy” is a legitimate evaluative term in film theory) high-concept films.
I do think that DVDs are an incredible tool for teaching film–you can use chapter stops to replay certain scenes, you can freeze on a single “frame” without a significant loss of quality, and you can learn a lot from directors’ commentaries, but I think the difference–in this context–is more in degree than in kind. At the same time, chapter stops and directors’ commentaries cause certain things to be lost–specifically the unimpeded flow of film frames through a projector at 24 frames per second. It’s one of the reasons why David Lynch resists both chapter stops and commentaries on the DVD releases of his films (as Mitchell points out).
Perhaps more significantly, DVDs reproduce an ideology of mastery over the film text; our access to the director’s thoughts about his or her film have the potential to limit how viewers think about a film. These commentaries most notably work against resistant readings that might challenge the authority of the director as responsible for the content of the film. This new state of things isn’t quite a return to the auteurism of the film theory of the 1960s and 70s; it’s something quite different. Rather than seeing the auteur as an oppositional figure, one who challenges the limits of the studio system, of generic conventions, of “Hollywood” ideology, the author’s vision becomes yet another commodity.
I do think that DVDs and other contemporary viewing technologies result in new ways of thinking about cinematic time, as in the German film, Funny Games, where one of the film’s villains prolongs his sadistic domination of a vacationing family by picking up the family’s remote and rewinding the film in order to undo the death of his partner in crime (full disclosure: I think it’s a VCR remote, but the same logic applies, roughly speaking). The presence of bifurcating narratives (such as the cycle of alternate-reality films around the year 2000) seems to reinforce this point.
I’m not sure I’m right about this. Have other film fans found their viewing practices significantly altered by DVD players? To what extent is the production of film geeks relevant to cinematic production?