Wednesday, May 07, 2008

How "Home Entertainment" Ruined Movies

Not too long ago, I was having lunch with my friend, Carrie Rickey, movie critic
for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and I asked her a question which, up until that point, had merely been an elusive thought - a thought that had been nagging me for a few years.

"Why is it," I asked, "that I find it more special to watch 'Vertigo' when it's shown on Turner Classics than to watch my DVD of it?"

Fact is, I've never watched my DVD of "Vertigo," even though I made a point of rushing out to buy a copy as soon as Tower Video (remember Tower Video?) had it in stock.

Carrie's theory is that it's a holdover from the moviegoing experience itself, which limits to a degree where and when we can see a movie. The fact is, Turner Classics has replaced the neighborhood rep house, recreating the experience of seeing a specific title at a specific time. And, by doing so, it makes a film that is fully accessible on DVD seem, well, almost rare. And special again.

Movies are not difficult to see anymore and, frankly, I'm not sure that's a good thing.

When "Vertigo" was first released, I was a kid. I'm not sure I undersood the film - in fact, I'm fairly certain that I didn't - but I loved it nevertheless. It played at my neighborhood theater for only three or four days. (Back then, two new films opened every week - one on Sunday and then one on Wednesday.) I had to see it whenever I could because, once it was gone, it was gone for good. I think I saw it at least three times during its engagement; I know I sat through it twice in one day.

It may have been committed to memory but it was still missed once it left our theater.

I wouldn't encounter it again until many years later when it popped up on television. Each TV showing, sometimes spaced years apart, became an occasion for a party. Friends would join me, even if it was on The Late, Late Show, and we'd indulge ourselves in bad food and good Hitchcock.

Occasionally, I'd venture to New York to see a revival showing of it at the Thalia or the Waverly.

It was difficult to see. A fact which made it precious. My inability to see "Vertigo" whenever I wanted somehow made it even more special.

By the mid-1970s, things changed. I didn't have much time for friends - or family - because my new friend was my Betamax, which was inevitably replaced by a VCR. On any given night, and certainly every weekend, I could be found locked away in my little apartment with - what?- five television sets, three video recorders and 547 videotapes which contained, by my count, 1,064 movie titles.

The problem was, I taped films but I didn't necessarily look at them. Once I had "Vertigo" on tape, I stopped watching it because, well, it was always there. It was suddenly accessible. It was right there in my bookcase. Now, I could watch it whenever I wanted to. But I didn't.

I eventually purchased a studio-produced VHS of "Vertigo," which traveled from apartment to apartment, from house to house, until I ran out to buy the aforementioned DVD of it. Which, as I've said, I've also never watched.

I only see "Vertigo" now when it's on Turner - which actually is often, given that it's a staple of the cable network.

With a kind of perfect circuity, I pencil it on my calendar whenever I see it listed in the Turner Classics guide, blocking out the afternoon or night when it's being televised. My wife and I open wine - from Northern California's wine country, which is apt - and eat popcorn. Sometimes we share Scotch and thick steaks, just as James Stewart and Kim Novak do at Ernie's in the movie.

"Vertigo" has remained one of my special films - no thanks to home entertainment and the video/DVD revolution.

Now, anyone want my unopened DVD? Cheap.

(Artwork: Vintage lobby card for Hitchcock's "Vertigo," featuring Stewart and Novak in an intimate moment.)


Adam Ross said...

I think you could extend this thought beyond film and say that we no longer value information as much as we used to, because of how easy it is to obtain. My Vertigo DVD actually gets quite a workout, though just yesterday I had to stop what I was doing because the opening to Citizen Kane was on TCM.

Great post, Joe, I think I'll post some thoughts about the subject on my blog.

Daryl Chin said...

Agree that it was an excellent post, because i've found myself in the same situation: as a collector, i seem to hoard DVDs, but if i've seen the movie, i might look at the DVD once, and then that's it. Even if it's a favorite movie.

I've talked with friends who admit that the whole practice of getting screeners is also a problem: once you stick the DVD in your machine, it's part of the furniture, you walk to the kitchen to get something to eat, etc. The idea that you can watch it again is the key: you don't pay attention because it's there whenever you want.

That's why the broadcast or cablecast of a movie is a little like the theatrical experience: it's the real time experience of seeing the movie at the time of its transmission/projection. (Of course, you can tape the movie, but that defeats the purpose.)

But the problem with the easy-to-access internet age is that not all knowledge is available, just as not all films are available. But to suggest something beyond the readily available seems to be verboten. (Look at the hostility that your post about IRON MAN elicited, when people seemed incensed that you were providing a possible "interpretation" of the movie re: Afghanistan/Iraq. These people seemed not to understand what a critical interpretation is, and what criticism of popular entertainment was supposed to be - to suggest meanings and interpretations inherent in the work, allowing for social/cultural/political meanings behind the obvious. And what was so striking was the active hostility... as if suggesting possible meanings was some sort of rash that you were trying to give them, and they had to stamp you out before you infected their minds.)

Because, until Robin Wood in his book HITCHCOCK'S FILMS made it "obvious", VERTIGO was viewed as a Hitchcock failure: it got fair to middling reviews, and it did not do well at the box office, because it seemed like a "failed" mystery, with the "shock" revelation in the middle puzzling to most people. (Puzzling because if the movie is a mystery, what would be revealed at the end?) Children seemed to love it (yes, i'm another person who saw it as a child, and loved it) but some of that seems to be because of the visual lushness (it's self-consciously Hitchcock's most "dream-like" film), but one wonders what would happen now, to movies like CITIZEN KANE (a critical fave always, but a major box office disaster on release) and VERTIGO (critically rehabilitated and now enshrined), if critics weren't around.

But one good thing about having DVDs of favorite movies is that you can come up with your own "dream double bills" when you're at home. (Examples: MASCULINE FEMININE and LA CHINOISE, which always seemed to me to be perfect together, but were never programmed together because they were always with different distributors... even now, they're out on DVD with different companies, MASCULINE FEMININE with Criterion, LA CHINOISE with Koch Lorber; Preminger's FALLEN ANGEL and ANGEL FACE, again, different studios and now different DVD companies.) And it's a comforting accompaniment when you're at home to have your favorite films with you. But there is a resistance to giving that DVD your full attention, and it's hard to explain.

joe baltake said...

Adam & Daryl--

Thanks for the great feedback. I really do believe that the easy accessibility of movies has made them "unspecial." I'm not sure most people could grasp that idea but it makes complete sense to me.


I do agree with you on the "comfort" of having access to a favored film, even if one doesn't regularly watch it. And the dream "double bills" idea that you mention is one reason to have a personal library of DVDs. Every Christmas eve, for example, my wife and I make a night of watching "Bell, Book & Candle" and "Auntie Mame." I can't really explain why.

A few years ago, when I was working for McClatchy Newspapers, I wrote a column on idiosyncratic double-bills - such as James Bridges' "Mike's Murder" with Debra Winger, and James Foley's "At Close Range," with Sean Penn and Christopher Walken. Just as you think that "Masculine Feminine" and "La Chinoise" are perfect together, I believe that Bridges' and Foley's films somehow complement one another.

Axel said...

I used to create double and triple feature shows. The whole concept was to find thematically similar films, like “The Mind of Mr. Soames” and “Big” – boys in grown up bodies -, and put both together. Other fake double and triple features were “Cinderfella” (1960)/ “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946)/ “An American in Paris” (1951) – movies with huge stairways; and “It´s Alive” (1974)/ “Yours, Mine and Ours” (1968) - horrors of fatherhood.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to back you up on this phenomenon. A few weeks ago I actually found myself getting caught up in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King on pan & scan, commercial-laden TV, despite having an unopened widescreen DVD in my collection.

Something about the limited-time availability of a TV or theatrical showing... the same reason I will probably buy a new TV this weekend during a Memorial Day sale (even though there are bargains to be had year-round).

joe baltake said...


I love your selection of off-beat double-bills, particuarly “The Mind of Mr. Soames” and “Big.” Upending your idea, I once had fantasies of pairing up "The Virgin Spring" with "The Wizard of Oz," only because they are so opposite of one another.


I really think it's the lack of control that, for some bizarre reason, makes watching films shown in theaters or on TV that makes them so appealing. One actually has to make time to watch them and the discipline of that makes them seem special

wwolfe said...

I think there's another reason for preferring to watch a movie on TCM, versus your DVD. I was talking to a friend of mine within the past year or so, and I mentioned how funny it seemed to me that I preferred watching one of my favorite TV shows on its cable syndication showing, rather than on my DVD boxed set, despite the commercial interruptions and deleted scenes that come with the former choice. She pointed out that watching it on TV makes it feel that its an experience your sharing with other members of an audience, rather than a private act. That made perfect sense to me, and I think it's part of why many of us - myself included - understand your post.

joe baltake said...


Excellent point. Even though one may be alone at home watching, say, "Vertigo" on Turner Classics, one is also aware that millions of other people are watching the movie at the same time in their own homes. We may be alone but we're still part of an audience.

Piper said...

I just recently wrote about this as well. I agree that it's not a good thing. On July 4th, I sat and watched Rear Window. I own it on DVD and yet I sat there while burgers burned and fireworks exploded around me and watched this movie I could watch at anytime, and yet I don't.

The other thing that movies on TV do is the make the movie disposable. Make you not care that the kids interrupt or that you may have to leave at any time. It makes it less a movie going experience.

And that's probably why I skip the DVD. Because mentally, I don't want to make the commitment that I should.