Thursday, July 2, 2015

Miscellaneous Musings

July 2, 2015

On Losing My Passion For Blu-ray

The first movie I ever owned was Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. It came in wrapping paper, and despite the fact that it was secondhand, I was ecstatic. I had seen the film at the Magic Theater in Nevada City and been utterly enthralled from start to finish. Over the years, I would come to acquire a small, but impressive collection of films on VHS, films by such directors as Yimou Zhang, Ang Lee, Michael Carne, and Orson Welles. Back then, it was hard to come by some of these films. Some of them had been released by small companies such as Kino and New Yorker Films, and rarely did they cost less than $80 new.

When DVD (and DIVX, briefly) hit the market, I was unconvinced. Not being a technophile, I knew little about the latest technology, and I had never been a purchaser of laser discs, which at the time had the reputation of being strictly for collectors with a lot of money to spare. Eventually I relented. Heck, I even went as far as to get the monster cable, which a salesman had assured me was “essential” if I wanted to get the full DVD experience. I came to view DVD as an upgrade, and as such, I was willing to replace the aging VHS tapes that had made up my collection thus far. My DVD collection would eventually grow to seven times my original collection, as DVDs were far cheaper than some VHS tapes had ever been. Even better, I didn’t have to rummage around San Francisco looking for venders who didn’t mind parting with a copy of The Wooden Man’s Bride or Minbo: The Art of Japanese Extortion. It was, in short, a great time to be a collector.

Nonetheless, even then there were troubling signs. The worst of these was the double (or should I say triple or quadruple) dip. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling frustrated by the studios’ incessant recycling of titles whenever one of their prized films had what they considered to be a significant numerical anniversary. Then there was their habit of selling inferior versions of films, all the while knowing that they planned to release better ones later on. I remember hearing of an executive who was asked when a special edition of Titanic would be released. His response: Not for a while – the old one was still selling well. In other words, they planned to sell as many of their inferior copies as they could before releasing the version that customers really wanted, but didn’t know was coming. It didn’t strike me as the most respectful of sentiments.

In the years that followed, I watched as DVD began increasingly to resemble VHS – not in quality of course, but in what sold. The majority of customers went for popular Hollywood films, and as such, too many stores were unwilling to stock foreign or independent films. Lists like the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films were marketed as if they made up all of the films that a collector would need in his collection, and soon it became clear that certain films were not likely to appear on DVD at all. The market for them, it seems, was deemed to be too small. It is still surprising to me that after all these years I have VHS tapes of films that have never been released on DVD in the United States – foreign films such as The White Balloon and Olivier Olivier; documentaries such as Anna, The 442nd and Jonathan Demme’s Cousin Bobby; and lesser-known films by famous directors like Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth. Other films such as Close to Eden and Ang Lee’s Pushing Hands have been released, yet not in versions likely to please the people who most want them.

When Blu-ray came along, I immediately saw its potential. Here was a device that cut the number of region codes to three, and therefore I thought there was a chance that it would expand people’s exposure to cinema by combining three markets – North America, South America, and parts of Asia. I was sure this meant that I would be able to watch many more films from such places as Japan, China, Brazil, and Taiwan. Thus far, this has not turned out to be the case.

Much of my disappointment comes from the fact that Blu-ray discs are still produced primarily for their domestic markets, meaning that far fewer Blu-rays of non-English films have subtitles than they should. The explanation is simple enough. Someone at the top has decided that the market for these films internationally is minimal and therefore does not justify the added expense of English subtitles. For example, here in Taiwan, hardly any films from Japan – either DVD or Blu-ray - are subtitled in English, and for some unexplained reason, not even the Academy Award-winning Departures has received a Blu-ray release in the United States. When there are English subtitles on Blu-ray, the quality is often suspect. For every well translated film from Hong Kong, there are two or three with subtitles that should shame the company that released them.

Perhaps what is most unfortunate is what Blu-ray has apparently inspired Hollywood studios to do – to return to the tried-and-true strategy of the double dip. Convinced that the days of physical media are waning, companies seem intent on milking their catalogue once again instead of continuing to dip into their vault of the previously-unreleased. Thus, we get such releases as Goodfellas: 25th Anniversary, Dog Day Afternoon: 40th Anniversary, and yet another version of Dances with Wolves, while an increasing number of catalogue and previously unavailable films are relegated to Made-on-Demand and released with little fanfare. At the same time, the number of foreign films, independent films and documentaries released on Blu-ray continues to dwindle. In fact, what often determines whether a movie is released of Blu-ray at all is its sales on DVD - the more a movie sold on that format, the more likely it is to be released on Blu-ray. The expectation is that people will buy it again if only to own it in its supposedly superior form.

I do not wish to discredit the hard work of companies such as Twilight Time, Flicker Alley, Olive, Kino, and the Criterion Collection, who continue to produce Blu-ray discs of both catalog and foreign films. That said, releases from Twilight Time, Flicker Alley, Olive and Kino, with their discs’ costing around $30 - $40, remain for collectors, and lately, it has seemed that Criterion is more interested in getting their entire catalog out on Blu-ray than it is in releasing films that are completely new to home video. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the price of Blu-rays, which can be two to three times as much as DVDs. Casual film fans or fans with families can’t always justify the added expense.

When I first got a Blu-ray player, I made one rule: I would not buy anything that I already owned. While I have relented somewhat, I often find little in stores that I must have on Blu-ray. There are always new releases, yet for the kinds of films I collect, DVD is often the only option. There isn’t likely to be anything after Blu-ray for people who value physical products, meaning that years from now many films may only be able to be seen on out-of-print VHS tapes or on DVDs so poorly done that future generations may find them hard to sit through. And, as we all know, the clock on these remaining VHS copies is ticking.  

For a brief time, DVD and Blu-ray offered people like me hope. That hope has simply not been met, and there’s something profoundly sad about that.  

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