DVDs: A New Form of Collective Cinephilia
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
For far too long, an absolutist either/or mentality has been ruling the debate about changes in global film culture brought about by DVDs (and much the same mentality has needlessly assumed that we have to “choose” between reading about film on paper or on the Internet). Presumably, one is forced to either go along with the doubts and demurrals of some of my favorite programmers and archivists, such as the Austrian Film Museum’s Alexander Horwath and the Cinematheque Ontario’s James Quandt, who stand up for original formats, or to embrace the more optimistic projections of bloggers such as myself and Girish Shambu, who tend to emphasize how many films can be seen nowadays on DVD over the diminished properties and quality of image and sound found in nontheatrical venues.
Perhaps the most detailed recent expression of the archivist position was voiced by Quandt in a roundtable on cinephilia in the Spring and Fall 2009 issue of Framework, as well as in an online interview with Michael Guillén on the latter’s blog, The Evening Class, where he maintains, “I think we’re all lying to ourselves... when we analyze a film on DVD [and] we act as if we’ve seen it and we haven’t…. What has been lost in the whole discussion is the fact that you are seeing a facsimile, sometimes a very good facsimile, but we’re fooling ourselves that we’re seeing the real thing. I fear that the real thing is going to be lost.” Among his more persuasive examples are the films of Robert Bresson (discussed in Framework) and Lisandro Alonso (discussed in his interview with Guillén). And even in Per-Olof Atrandberg’s pidgin English on the invaluable DVDBeaver Website, in a discussion of three separate DVD editions (American, English, and French) of Jacques Rivette’s Histoire de Marie et Julien, the same message comes through loud and clear: “Histoire de Marie et Julien is made for cinema distribution, and it’s there this film is at the best. Shot in dark scenes in low light (natural light), the DVD can’t capture the atmosphere. Where it should be black it becomes greenish and some scenes don’t function as well as in a cinema.”
As Quandt puts it, we tend to be far too accepting of degraded substitutes for theatrical 35mm screenings. But to some extent this has always been a major problem, and not something that only became an issue with DVDs. The first several times I saw Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, over roughly a quarter of a century, the quality of both the sound and the image was so inadequate, regardless of whether I was seeing the film in 16mm or (less often) 35mm, that I scarcely had a clue about the film’s greatness before I finally saw a restored, new print during a Paris rerelease in the late Eighties. And it’s very important to add that seeing the Criterion DVD is much closer to the latter experience than it is to the former. For that matter, the last time I saw Dreyer’s Vampyr, when I was showing it in a course at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, I had a choice between showing an unsubtitled German print in 35mm and a subtitled DVD, and I had no problem with opting for the latter.
Surely the varieties of contemporary film viewing are already wide enough to encompass both kinds within the experiences of most cinephiles. Even those film lovers I know who live in remote rural outposts and depend mainly on digital viewing typically venture into cities periodically in order to view some films in more optimal form. I would argue, in fact, that what qualifies as “optimal” viewing can vary enormously from film to film and from one set of conditions to another. Although obviously all of us should see Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in new 35mm prints, I’m not at all certain that all of us should forego the rich edifications of Yuri Tsivian and Joan Neuberger’s audiovisual essays about the film on Criterion’s DVD in exchange for that privilege. So we need to step away from absolutist positions about the future and make use of the best possible choices available to us in the present.
It’s also worth considering new and mostly untapped possibilities of ciné-clubs forming in which DVDs can be viewed in people’s homes or various storefronts—a collective form of film watching that could ideally combine some of the best features of traditional repertory, art-house, and film-club exhibition with some of the newer possibilities brought by DVDs and Internet film culture. It might be argued that this practice already exists and even flourishes with various agitprop documentaries by Robert Greenwald (e.g., Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, Unconstitutional, and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price) via Moveon.org. (Outfoxed, one should note, briefly became the top-selling DVD on Amazon in 2004 without a single theatrical showing.) Why this practice hasn’t become more popular with art movies and Hollywood revivals is difficult to fathom, unless one chalks it up to the general passivity of the audience in allowing the film industry and its various flacks (Peary’s beloved film critics, present company included) to preselect its consumer choices and thereby program its film culture. Or unless we accept the fact that viewers can be swayed in a different way when it comes to both DVDs and the Internet, even though they (again, present company included) haven’t yet figured out ways to make a nonprofit pastime out of it. One notable exception to this rule, which I’ve written about elsewhere (“Film Writing on the Web: Some Personal Reflections,” Film Quarterly, March 2007, Vol. 60, No. 3), is the network of small-town ciné-clubs in Córdoba, Argentina, organized by Roger Alan Koza, which includes fare as challenging as Kira Muratova’s Chekhov’s Motifs and boasts a combined membership of between 700 and 800 people; and I’m sure there must be other exceptions that I haven’t yet heard about.
Furthermore, as I wrote in Film Quarterly, “a model configuration might be touring ‘retrospectives’ on DVD in which the DVDs could be sold at the screenings (perhaps along with relevant books and/or pamphlets), in much the same way that CDs are now often sold by music groups in clubs between their sets. And if enough circuits for these retrospectives could become established in this fashion, this could ultimately finance the production of these packages.” Maybe this is a pie-eyed dream, especially if one starts worrying about copyrights and regional barriers set up between various digital formats—all of which are supposed to make us more interested in the money that other people, and often boring people at that, make out of our own interests than anything else. But it’s also possible that some version of this fantasy is already starting to happen, and not only or necessarily through some form of piracy. The paradox is that our “improved” media don’t necessarily guarantee that we know what’s already happening around us, even in our immediate vicinity.
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