Bright Lights Film Journal

A 40 year old escapist rewinds to the UHF past.

The question one hears leaving the movie theater these days, assuming everyone enjoyed it is: Are you gonna buy it when it comes out on DVD?” Or you hear–or even say–“That was good, but I don’t think I’ll buy it.” As someone with a huge DVD collection I’m always a little horrified to hear my fellow filmgoers say such things. As if the experience of watching a film can be bottled up and canned. Which of course, it can… and we love it. It’s only that we’re growing accustomed to not having to “let go” of our peak cinematic experiences. The benefits outweigh the bad, I guess… but if you can’t let go at the cinema, how are you going to let go in real life?

Back in the 1970s before even the VHS, I longed and daydreamed for a day when I could have all the great Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff movies from Creature Double Feature on UHF. I wanted to own them, to watch them projected on my wall. But of course this was impossible outside of those little 3 minute highlight reels of super 8mm, sold for too much $$ in camera stores and useful only if you had a super 8 projector.

Here is is a scant 30 years later and I am able to buy most of those films and even more. We are living in some weird golden age when the movies you used to long for are now coming out in big boxed sets looking beautiful and packed with extras.

DVDs are now, on average, already cheaper than pre-recorded VHS tapes ever were. In the early days of the VCR for example, the average pre-recorded tape sold for around $80. And people bought them! I bought the 1931 SCARFACE for $40, and later RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK for the same price. The SCARFACE one is still in good shape, by cracky! Then there were laser discs, even more expensive… and now the DVD, which performs better than the laserdisc (arguably) and is cheaper than either one. What a world in which to be a cinephile.

One thing I don’t really understand though is this rabid clamoring for extras. Fancy labels like Criterion will devote a whole disk to extras which are often no more than a few handheld making-of docs and a couple of trailers and maybe an “excerpt of the shooting script.” YAWN! The documentaries are only “real” as in made at the time of the shooting if you are lucky, but more often then not, hastily assembled as “A look back” for the DVD, filled out with a random mix of clips from the film itself and aged talking heads bearing shaky credentials like “Sound technician” and “Film historian.” These DVD labels are no fools. They know for example that film geeks out there will buy a deluxe three disc version of their favorite title for even the vaguest of reasons; they cut a 45 minute documentary up into three separate documentaries, thus tripling the amount of bonus features, and so on.

I’m not knocking bonus features, and I love audio commentaries, especially by self deprecating auteurs like Ridley Scott, John Carpenter and Ken Russell. And I’m not knocking anything film buffs love. And I’m not blaming the marketing departments for releasing yet another spiffy extended version of “T*A*P*S just so the devoted fans can hear an alternative audio mix for the end credits. Hell, I’m not knocking a damn thing about it. I just think it’s worth examining from a sociological perspective.

And what’s really creepy is to watching what 20 or 30 years can do to a person, to go from seeing them young and sexy to old and gray haired, with false teeth and wrinkled skin, in a matter of seconds. Ask not for whom the bell tolls!