Film Geeks of the World Unite!

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?


  1. kenrufo Said,

    August 18, 2003 @ 4:22 pm

    As an academic (well close enough), one of the things that I love about DVD’s is the ability to think of the movie as a text. In a recent essay I talked out a chapter of the original Matrix movie and references particular events by their chapter and timestamp, writing about the scene in one window with the DVD player open in another window. It just seemed like the “natural” thing to do, and it wasn’t until a friend emailed me about the piece and noted my DVD-based notations that I realized that I hadn’t included the endnote explaining the practice. In part, I suppose the ommission indicates that I never thought explanation was necessary. While films have always been thought of as “texts,” the DVD format really provides the level of detail and control needed to think of the film as a textual event, complete with standard notations. It’s an interesting event, and one that I think is still relatively unmapped (Brookey’s piece (in Critical Studies in Media Communication) about the Fight Club DVD extras notwithstanding).

    I do take issue with the belief that film commentaries preclude resistant readings. To me it’s a question of the power awarded to intentionality relative to the consumer’s tendency to resist dominant meanings. If the consumer is resisting the dominant encoding of a text, they are often doing so painfully aware that they are doing so (for example, when they root for the “bad guy”, or alternately when they figure out ways to read the original Star Wars trilogy as a cautionary tale about technology), and in those instances, hearing the director’s commentary will not eclipse those readings. Foucault and Barthes were wrong to think the author function would vanish, but I don’t think that intentionality still holds the allure it once had. On the other hand, for people reading the movie according to its privileged encoding, the description of a movie as “not something” opens up the very possibility of that reading since there’s a good chance the consumer didn’t realize it was about that possibility in the first place. Again, the question is one of suasory appeal – does the director govern the film. DVDs encourage that particular belief, but they do so (medium is the message and all that) in a manner that delivers more and more control over the text of the film to the consumer.

    The other cautionary note is, of course, that commentaries often suck. This cuts against the argument on both sides, but remains an important aside regardless.

    Good thoughts, Chuck. Thanks. And I haven’t seen Funny Games, which I will now definitely look for.

  2. chuck Said,

    August 19, 2003 @ 11:22 am

    I’ll certainly agree that DVDs have made studying film “easier,” for the reasons you describe. I had a similar experience when I was writing a paper on La jetee. I found an online copy at Atom Films (I think), and was playing and stopping it at will. A friend across the computer lab where I was working overheard the music and recognized it immediately….At the same time, I wonder if being able to stop the film so precisely isn’t a loss itself–after all, films themselves rarely stop while they are being projected. In fact, those stoppages/freeze frames are quite rare in mainstream film. I’m not sure about that–just thinking out loud.

    I agree that resistant readers often construct their interpretations fully aware that directors might not share (or even see) the reading you’re (we’re) making. Alex Proyas doesn’t mention the “ways of seeing” allegory that I find central to Dark City, but it’s absolutely there. That being said, I think that director’s commentraies are a bid for control over the image, a way of “protecting” the image against resistant readers.

    In terms of auteurism, I was thinking more about Deleuze’s cinema books and D.N. Rodowick’s defense of Deleuze’s “auteurism.” Deleuze tended to organize his accounts of the time-image via great directors (Welles, Ozu, Resnais, etc). For someone so interested in breaking down subject-object dualities, this seems like a strange move. Rodowick’s argument is that th auteur is the figure who can work against the “cinematic rubbish,” against the commodification and proliferation of “information” that threatens to prevent thought. That’s a too-quick summary, and I have problems with Deleuze’s position. It seems to reinforce a cinematic and political modernism that forecloses resistant or ambivalent Hollywood/mainstream films.

    And, yes, some commentaries just plain suck.

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