DVD Pre-Post-Mortem

The AV Club critics ask “Is the Golden Age of DVD Over?” The answer in my opinion is yes. Stagnating sales, and the increasing move toward downloading entertainment rather than buying shelf-busting discs, makes it kind of inevitable that DVD will have trouble lasting very long. I don’t think Blu-Ray is the answer either; unlike the advantage of DVD over VHS, the advantage of Blu-Ray over regular DVD is just not clear enough to get most people to upgrade. The future will probably be in downloads of one kind or another; but those of us who get a kick out of actually physically owning stuff will find it difficult to adjust. Or maybe I’m wrong and we’ll see a revival of laserdisc, the way we’re now seeing a revival of vinyl records.

The DVD boom was great while it lasted, for two reasons. One, it rescued movie and TV history at a time when it seemed like anything made before 1990 would be lost to history. There were hardly any repertory film theatres left and the ones that were around couldn’t make any money on old movies (in Ottawa, there was a theatre that responded to a request for more pre-1980 movies by saying that their revival of North By Northwest had the lowest attendance they’d ever gotten, and they couldn’t afford more debacles like that). AMC was on its journey to becoming “that channel that shows crappy chopped-up prints of ’70s movies.” Classic-TV channels were phasing out classic TV. Without DVD to revive old movies and TV shows, the awareness of older work — and therefore, where today’s stuff came from — might have died out. And the instant availability of movie and TV history has paid dividends, particularly in allowing more films and shows to have access to historical influences. For example, P.T. Anderson watched Treasure of the Sierra Madre over and over while he was writing There Will Be Blood, and to do the Murdoch Mysteries TV series, Cal Coons watched shows with a similar mix of genres, like Wild Wild West and Brisco County. DVD made that kind of research easier than it ever was; VHS certainly got a lot of credit for helping to create a new generation of movie brats like Tarantino, but DVD expanded into areas where VHS didn’t really go.

The other thing DVD helped with is that it raised the standard of how much restoration work needed to be done on old movies and shows. The studios had been in the habit of letting their movies and shows circulate in terrible shape, not doing anything to fix the available prints or remaster from the original negatives. DVD changed that, because a studio usually couldn’t get away with releasing an inferior print in that format. So studios put a lot of work and a lot of money into restoring and remastering their old movies, putting back the TV scenes that were cut in syndication, and so on. And this trickled down to non-DVD formats; the quality of movie prints available to Turner Classic movies is quite a bit higher now than the versions of those same films that played on TV in the ’80s.

To give you an example of the improvement that DVD brought in — and that we’ve sort of learned to take for granted — here are two versions of the same scene from one of my all-time favourite movies that I can never stop talking about on my other blog, Artists and Models with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. (It’s timely now because it’s all about comic books in the ’50s, and even features a scene that parodies the whole “Seduction of the Innocent” controversy that inspired recent books like David Hadju’s “The Ten-Cent Plague”). Here’s a short scene with the two leading ladies, Shirley MacLaine and Dorothy Malone, discussing the inexplicable fact that MacLaine wants Jerry Lewis, as it appeared on VHS. (This scene was almost cut by censors who, in true ’50s fashion, objected to the innocuous content; but that’s not why I put it up here; I put it up because it happened to be uploaded already.) This was a commercial DVD release from a major studio, Paramount. They charged money to own it and video stores charged money to rent it. And it looks like crap (note: the “letterboxing” here is not from the VHS; YouTube creates that by accident for some clips):

And here’s how the scene looked on the DVD released last year by that same studio, Paramount:

This was not a major release at all, just one of a bunch of Martin & Lewis movies that Paramount threw on the market, but it was expected that they would get the colour right, have it in the original widescreen, and so on. One thing that worries me about looking toward a post-DVD era is that studios might look on it as an excuse not to spend that kind of money on better prints; it’s online, or in [fill in name of medium], so who cares? (Again, Blu-Ray is a red herring here; most studios are not interested in releasing most non-recent movies in that medium anyway.) I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, or [fill in name of favourite cliche].

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