Looking back, VHS was rubbish wasn’t it? How did we endure all that tracking, endlessly turning the dials in a futile attempt to remove that unsightly snow from the top and bottom of our picture? And what good is a VHS copy of Basic Instinct if the screen shakes like an epileptic whenever you press pause? Even worse, while we paid good money to forever own VHS copies of our favourite films, the quality would inevitably deteriorate, and after a few short years a team of experts was required to determine exactly what the battered black rectangle previously contained.
DVD changed all this. Our shiny little friends sell like water in the desert, and only a blind man or a fool could argue with the picture quality. But, crystal clear visuals aside, are those silver circles really so wonderful?
The problem can be summed up in those two unintentionally ironic words: special features. It sounds promising doesn’t it? Not just extras, but ‘special’ features. The classic example is the trailer. Whether you’ve paid ten dollars, fifteen pounds, twenty euros or several million yen, you should not have to see the words ‘original theatrical trailer’ sitting all alone under the heading ‘special features’. It’s an insult, not only to your intelligence and your wallet but to the word special itself.
Now, I love a good trailer as much as the next man, maybe even more so. But, I hear you ask, what is it that trailers do? They sell the film, that’s what they do, so if you’ve already made the commitment of either buying or renting the DVD that’s in your machine, then why do you need the trailer? Are you going to go out and buy it again?
I think we’d all be better off if the powers that be came up with a new phrase so they could be a little more honest with us. Something like ‘stuff we’ve put on here just fill a bit of space’ or ‘things no one will ever watch more than once’.
In this more realistically monikered section, alongside the trailers you’d find the obligatory, and obligatorily bad, ‘making of’ featurette (is it just me or is featurette just a horrible, horrible word. Purely aurally, I mean, it just sounds so unpleasant. Say it to yourself, “featurette”. Ugh.) The ‘making of’ will usually have a title that’s nothing more than an extraordinarily bad pun on the films original title. For example, the Pulp Fiction ‘making of’ is called ‘Tarantino Fiction’. If you stare at the disc hard enough, you can almost see the laziness.
I’d guesstimate that something in the region of 95% of ‘making ofs’ are garbage, but this leaves the other 5% which are genuinely good. I’m thinking of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Magnolia Diary’ which does exactly what it says on the box. It’s an honest diary of the making of Magnolia. It provides an insight into how Anderson works — both visually and in terms of directing actors — as we follow him through the conception, pre-production, shooting and post-production.
The making of a film is often a dramatic narrative all of its own, so with some real thought and effort the capturing of this process can stand up as a work in its own right. A good example is The Joy of Madness, Hana Makhmalbaf’s documentary about her sister Samira’s filming At Five in the Afternoon, which was deemed to be so good it was released in theatres. Hana was just 14 years old at the time, which begs the question: if a little girl can make a decent fist of it, why can’t a multi-million dollar production studio?
Of the remaining 95% it’s safe to say that about half of these are press-kit patchworks. Basically, some hateful individual gathers up all the promotional interviews that surrounded the films release, edits them together so that the interviewees are talking about more or less the same thing and then hires whoever it is that seems to do all the voiceovers for these things — I’ve always wanted to meet the mysterious voice-over man — to vaguely link it all together and give it some semblance of authenticity. The resulting compendium of promotional interviews is about half an hour of co-star backslapping, and directors lying through their teeth about how J-Lo was so easy to work with and not the power mad diva she’s been made out to be.
As with the trailer, it’s just marketing, encouraging you to buy the film you already own. If you do own any discs with a ‘making of’ like this, and if you can work out how to do it, I recommend scratching the disc in a very precise manner so that just the ‘making of’ featurette is ruined.
What of that other DVD stalwart, the director’s commentary? A good one can be a wonderful thing. It can provide fascinating insights, reveal aspects of the filmmaking process and be a source of interesting trivia. Good examples include Richard Kelly’s commentary on Donnie Darko, which goes some way to solving the riddle of the film. There’s also the ‘in character’ cast commentary on This Is Spinal Tap which is almost as good as the film itself.
More often though it’s either far too technical, even for those who are interested in such things, or too chummy, heading back into ‘Julia was wonderful to work with’ territory. As a result, many commentaries are duller than waiting for a bus, and the chief reason for this is that the directors you really want to hear from are the ones most reluctant to exercise their vocal chords. Can you imagine a Tarantino commentary? And wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what the famously reticent Coen brothers have to say about Barton Fink?
All this aside, the most offensive aspect of the whole DVD industry is the aggressive marketing, which again makes elaborate use of the word ‘special’. Not just special editions, but collectors editions, anniversary editions, double disc collectors editions, ultimate editions and all other kinds of editions which are just the same film with varying degrees of second, thirds and fourth rate supplementary material. Did you know there’s a regular Terminator 2 DVD, a Terminator 2 Ultimate Edition DVD and a Terminator 2 Extreme Edition DVD?
And you might think that Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring is a long enough title but now you can buy The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring – Platinum Series Special Extended Edition. Title still not long enough for you? Then you need The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring – Platinum Series Special Extended Edition Collectors Gift Set.
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
It’s been said before, and it will be said again, but all these ‘special’ editions exist purely to squeeze more money from the DVD buying public. That goes double for ‘special platinum extended collectors’ editions. The spotty teenage Gandalf enthusiast who shelled out for the original Lord of the Rings DVD now has to dig even deeper into his pockets for the new, more elaborately titled disc. A ‘making of’ here, a ‘behind the scenes’ there and voila, we’ve got an ‘edition’. And did Police Academy really warrant a 20th Anniversary Edition?
We’re being force fed the idea that it’s necessary to collect these shiny expensive circles, but who can honestly say they get their moneys worth? Outside of a few absolutely classic films that stand up to repeated viewing (I’m thinking The Godfather here) are DVD’s really worth owning? All those people who rushed out and paid good money for Bad Boys II, how many times will they sit through that in their lifetime?
Worst of all, the crystal clear image and faultless pause facility of the pixilated image, means that I’m now fairly certain that Sharon Stone was wearing underwear after all.