wandering through the final days' wreckage of Sam the Record Man's 50-per-cent-off, must-sell-everything sale, I see evidence of bad decisions. Stacks of The Mexican, the Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts stinker, which, to be fair, finally disappeared when the sale price dropped to 50 per cent. Endless rows of Jurassic Park III. Piles of Nutty Professor 2. Racks of Anchor Bay's boxed special edition of Halloween 4.
You really have to wonder whose bright idea it was to release this stuff on DVD. Halloween deserves that kind of attention, being a classic of the genre and the granddaddy of all the dead babysitter movies of the 80s, but who thought Halloween 4 deserved the deluxe treatment?
Why does Halloween 4 get a DVD release at all, given the films that are languishing in the vaults? The original King Kong is out there somewhere. Miller's Crossing. The Conformist. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Force Of Evil. Tokyo Story. Persona. Don't Look Now. California Split. Point Blank. L'Amour Fou. The Magnificent Ambersons. I'm not talking about films that have been held back by the filmmakers themselves, the way Spielberg has held back Schindler's List, E.T. and Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Lucas has held back Star Wars.
Obviously, DVDs are making an impact. Sam's Boxing Day sale had hardly begun when an awful lot of prime DVDs were just gone. The Criterion Collection discs, the Cadillacs of DVDs and priced accordingly, were picked cleaner than a corpse in the Serengeti. You could flip through the Hitchcock rack disc by disc without finding Psycho, Rear Window or Vertigo.
As the DVD descends on us (trust me, soon most of you will own a player), let me tell you what I'd do if I were the boss of the new medium.
The first thing I want when I get a DVD is a great movie in a good print and the proper aspect ratio. I don't care if The Searchers or Touch Of Evil comes with extras or not.
If the extras are there, though, I like director commentaries. They often settle once and for all the question "What the hell was he thinking when he did that?" A lot of them, like Ridley Scott's nuts-and-bolts account of the making of Alien, are cheaper than film school and probably more valuable.
Also, I'd encourage more shared commentaries. When directors talk about their films alongside collaborators with whom they have a rapport -- Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson on Rushmore, David Fincher with Brad Pitt on Se7en and Fight Club, Brian Singer and scenarist Christopher Quarrington on The Usual Suspects -- they're informative and fun.
Sure, commentaries can be a waste of time. There's almost nothing more tedious than a commentary by a director who doesn't have anything to say but says it anyway. I was on the fence about Swordfish until I listened to Dominic Sena's track and thought, "This guy's three IQ points away from a job that demands the wearing of a paper hat." Robert Altman's remarks on Cookie's Fortune and MASH are perfunctory and not particularly informative.
Extended versions, too, should be issued judiciously. I swore up and down that as much as I liked Almost Famous, I didn't want to see it 40 minutes longer. I was wrong. The 160-minute cut is better than the two-hour version, especially when you watch it with the commentary track on. Cameron Crowe discusses the film with his mother, played in the movie by Frances McDormand.
Then again, have you seen the super-duper secret third cut of Terminator 2? The one with Linda Hamilton in cheesy old-age makeup?
It's been reported that Schwarzenegger demanded, and got, $75,000 to do a commentary track for the Total Recall DVD. Doom and gloom abound, and Hollywood insiders are expressing fears that if this trend continues there won't be any DVD extras at all.
I don't buy it. Directors generally have egos big enough that they'll find a chance to expound for two hours on their work almost irresistible.
These shiny discs have become part of the archival process. Nobody may actually need the 12 hours of extra stuff on Planet Of The Apes (though the featurette about the actors going to "ape school" is almost worth the rental), but these editions set a certain standard. A bloated, out-of-control standard to be sure, but people like the goodies, and they are often a plus. The "making of" documentary on Taxi Driver is a model of how to do these things, and the "video diary" on the making of Magnolia is fascinating, if almost as exhausting as the film itself.
I say open up to the new medium. On a personal level, I'm having fun rediscovering my inner film geek. And it means I've virtually stopped watching films on ordinary TV.
But don't worry. Given my druthers, I'd still see everything in a theatre, in a pristine print. But, please, can we train projectionists to frame the films firstname.lastname@example.org