MCN Columnists
Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

DVDs: The First Decade

2007 marked the end of the first decade of DVDs and represented a profound change in the motion picture business. Where previously, home video was an ancillary market, with the full penetration of the inexpensively manufactured 5-inch (actually, 12cm) format (and while artists and film executives-and television producers-are not entirely willing to admit it yet), DVDs are now the final product. Theatrical or broadcast distribution has become an occasionally profitable marketing step to that end. No theatrical film and virtually no non-reality network television program today is budgeted without the knowledge that it will also be released on DVD. Additionally, DVDs have altered the artistic designs of the films themselves, providing an emotional steam valve for writers, directors and so on, allowing them to compromise the theatrical version of a production with the knowledge that their personal vision will eventually be disseminated to perhaps an even larger audience. This has disadvantages-the creators do not fight as hard, initially, to preserve their artistic integrity; and their alternate versions can lack the necessary discipline that boxoffice responsiveness would require-as well as the more obvious advantages-not only do DVDs foster greater artistic freedom, but they expand the audience’s consciousness by revealing the alternative dramatic and artistic dimensions in which a film exists (in the most general terms, that characters can both live and die simultaneously; that there is drama and comedy in the creative process itself; and so on). Regardless of the pluses and minuses, it is unquestionable that DVDs have, in effect, altered the playing field of making movies, forever.

The following ten titles are an ordered representation of the most significant DVDs to reach the marketplace during that first decade:

1. The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions (New Line Home Entertainment). By the time Peter Jackson finished shooting his paradigmatic fantasy trilogy, it was clear that the theatrical films were simply a way station and that the opportunity to create the longer DVD versions was fueling the fire of his creative enthusiasm and industry. First and foremost, the three films are ideal programs for DVD playback. Their length is less taxing in a home environment, while their many special effects and action scenes create one demonstration sequence after another that can utilize the full expanse of audio and video playback. Additionally, the three films in the trilogy are each accompanied by production featurettes of lengths equal to the features themselves (every film and its supplement is spread to four platters), and numerable commentary tracks in which every major artist who worked on the films has an opportunity to reflect upon his contribution and share his memories of the production.

2. The Ultimate Matrix (Warner Home Video). The original Matrixwas the first blockbuster DVD, again because in addition to the basic, uncompromised intelligence of the drama, the film contained many spectacular special effect sequences that were especially invigorating in the home video environment. The film’s two sequels may have been an artistic and intellectual letdown, but the visceral stimulations continued, and in the outstanding ten-platter set, the flaws of those films are confronted head on by ‘pro and con’ commentary tracks, as well as extensive and stimulating supplements that examine not only how the films were created, but what scientific and philosophical resources served as their inspiration. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s The Alien Quadrilogy performed a similar feat with the less directly related quartet of Alien films, each presented in both original theatrical format and in a longer director’s cut, with exhaustive supplements and commentaries. On a smaller scale, Fox’s The Star Wars Trilogy, Warner’s Blade Runner The Final Cut and Lionsgate’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day combine spectacular transfers with copious supplements.

3. Brazil (The Criterion Collection). The supplementary sections and commentaries on DVDs did not arise suddenly from nowhere. In the decade the preceded the first DVDs, 12-inch laser discs (LDs) provided a high-end home video outlet that allowed filmmakers to share their experiences about the filmmaking process, with trial by error determining what sort of commentary and supplemental formats were effective and what were not. From almost the very beginning of LDs, the Criterion Collection specialized in producing ‘collector’s editions’ of important films, and it was essentially their template that DVD producers utilized as soon as the format became cost productive. Criterion itself made the shift almost immediately from LDs to DVDs and has produced scores of outstanding presentations that deliver not only sterling transfers of classic and stimulating films, but extensive supplements that enhance a viewer’s appreciation of both the film itself and its context within human culture. Many fans simply make it a habit of obtaining every title Criterion releases, knowing that each program will be rewarding and its presentation nearly flawless. Brazil, which Criterion created initially for LD and then issued on DVD, is nevertheless probably the best representation of how the DVD format can be advantageously employed. Firstly, although the film’s audio track does not have an elaborate surround mix, Terry Gilliam’s movie is nevertheless a highly phantasmagorical experience well suited to repeated home video playback. Secondly, its production history could serve as a topic for a feature film itself (as nearly every Gilliam film seems to, and one, at least, has). Taken away from Gilliam and re-cut with the very best intentions by Universal Studios executives, not only is the complete story of the troubled production presented, but three very different cuts of the film are all featured, allowing the viewer not just the opportunity to pass judgment on those responsible, but to share in the alternative perspectives each version offers of Gilliam’s vision.

4. The Simpsons The Complete Sixth Season (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment). There were complete collections of television shows in shelf-busting videotape formats, and near the end of their run, hefty, expensive boxed sets of popular American TV series had begun to appear in Japan on LD, but it was the concise size and relative inexpensiveness of cramming TV episodes onto DVDs that allowed that portion of the market to achieve (much to the surprise of traditional-minded distributors) relative parity with popular feature films. At first, companies attempted to issue ‘best of’ packages, but they quickly learned that viewers themselves wanted to pick and choose their favorites, and that the ideal organized delivery format was the ‘complete season,’ which indeed, normally, represented a complete, singular artistic effort on the part of TV series creators, who were essentially living or dying, from an economic and production logistic standpoint, from one season to the next. Television shows with continuing stories actually play better on DVD than they do on the TV, because you don’t have to wait a week or a month from one cliffhanger to the next and, more importantly, it is easier to access a show’s greater themes when it is viewed as a whole (you aren’t nearly as annoyed by the digressions in HBO Video’s The Sopranos or the loopy turns that occur in Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s Lost). If you ever get a free month and the chance to do it, watch all ten seasons of Warner’s Friends from beginning to end and you will realize that it is a magnificent six-character romantic comedy with a brilliant, single-narrative arc, about the beginning, middle and end stages of male and female bachelorhood. As fulfilling as such programs have been, however, the best TV DVDs are those that equal the experiences of the best theatrical DVDs in terms of supplementary features. Indeed, when you hear the commentaries on MGM Home Entertainment’s Stargate SG-1 The Complete Fourth Season advance brilliantly from episode to episode, creating what in essence is a complete filmmaking seminar (and a very entertaining one at that), then the efforts on most feature film commentaries pale in comparison. With its outstanding, morally dense, continuing story, terrific commentaries and other superb supplements, Fox’s The Shield, which might just be the best television show ever created anyway, comes close to achieving the ideal DVD, particularly in The Complete Third Season. Nevertheless, television is inexorably central to the American family, depictions of that family have long been a primary topic of popular shows and, with animation allowing the characters to avoid aging (although their voices change and the advancement of time has created various cultural paradoxes), The Simpsons has become the penultimate American television show. And, season after season, the Simpsons collections have been exceptional not only for the basic humor and insightfulness of the program itself, but for the DVD supplements, especially the commentary tracks, which, like the Stargate commentaries, strive to open up as widely as possible the creative process that the artists went through to achieve both the images and the stories. Sixth Season represents the best so far, as the creators were still in their initial throes of invention. Every season has brilliantly funny episodes, but Sixth Season has the fewest that are less than that.

5. The Fantasia Anthology (Walt Disney Home Entertainment). No film company has been more conscientious of preserving its artistic legacies and, therefore, no film company has been in a better position to draw upon those resources for its DVDs than Walt Disney. Disney has just one primary challenge, and that is to satisfy without confusion the interest its product generates in both adults and very small children. To this end, Disney has released its best known titles as many as three or even four times to date, usually with the initial release designed for general audiences, followed by a more sophisticated collector’s edition for enthusiasts, and then subsequent versions with modified extras to continually massage its forever renewable market. The best Disney collector’s editions exhibit an unabashed pride in the Disney legacy and make use of the company’s comprehensive archive not just to present a historical portrait of a film’s creation, but to explore the dynamics of that creation. From Snow White to the Pixar films, the sets have combined interviews with artists past and present, explored the inspirations for both designs and narrative, and have offered related works that allow the viewer to better understand the significance and uniqueness of the central program. Like Warner’s Looney Tunes collections, Disney’s boxed sets of classic cartoon shorts have included extensive background and archival materials, and pristine transfers. Yet, even within this context,Fantasia Anthology stands out for the comprehensive scope of its historical supplement, for the aural and visual impact of its central programs (both the original Fantasia, and Fantasia 2000), and for an effort so reverential that animation originally conceived and then dropped from the films has been expressly completed for the DVD.

6. Ford at Fox (Fox). Whenever an outsized collection of less-than-blockbuster films is issued in a pricey DVD set, it is dogged by derisive remarks about ‘ego trips’ and unjustified expenses, but for a true movie fan, such collections are a godsend, the very best of which replicate what was once accessible only to a few hardy souls-the ‘museum retrospective.’ Warner’s Oliver Stone Collection, when it first came out, included supplementary features and expanded versions of films that were not available as single DVDs, all with fresh commentaries by Stone. Taken individually, they might not even be that interesting-who wants to sit through Nixon to begin with, let alone a longer version of it?-but given the opportunity to access so many works by one artist that are presented with the intention of being viewed in tandem, and especially with that artist’s own reflection upon his work so readily at hand, turns the whole into a sum much greater and more rewarding than its parts. For Fox’s gargantuan set, representing about half of the movies John Ford made at Fox, the collection reissues excellent special editions of great classics (Grapes of Wrath, Criterion’s Young Mr. Lincoln), presents forthright editions of classics for the first time (The Iron Horse, The Prisoner of Shark Island), unveils largely forgotten gems (Seas Beneath, Pilgrimage) and demonstrates that even Ford’s most rote, studio assignments (Wee Willie Winkie, Judge Priest) contain invaluable moments of cinematic brilliance that might easily be passed by if they were not thusly anthologized. As much as Fox is offering up some great entertainment with the set, it is, even more so, planting a flag on the shores of film history for the utilization of the DVD as a primary tool in the exploration and understanding of cinema.

7. King Kong (Warner). It took Warner a long time to get around to releasing a movie that ought to have been included with its first sloppy batch of introductory titles, but at least when they did finally put the classic 1933 feature out, they did so in smashing style. Not only was the transfer pristine and the historical supplement exhaustive, but they even allowed Peter Jackson the ultimate fan indulgence of attempting to replicate the infamous ‘spiders in the canyon’ sequence, in black-and-white, so it can be optionally inserted in the running of the film. Not every classic movie needs this kind of treatment-Warner has done a lovely if more traditional job putting out extensive collector’s editions of The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, The Jazz Singer, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gone with the Wind and many, many other great films in its library-but the King Kong DVD contemporizes the film’s popularity without spoiling its legacy, and preserves its joys for fresh generations of fans.

8. Firefly The Complete Series (Fox). Fox has demonstrated an uncanny ability to utilize DVDs in the resuscitation of supposedly dead television programs. The popularity of its Family Guy sets was the primary inspiration for the animated series’ belated renewal. While Futurama has not been quite that lucky, its success on DVD has facilitated new direct-to-DVD episodes. ForJoss Whedon’s short-lived sci-fi action series, Firefly, the DVD set was a revelation, presenting the episodes for the first time in their proper order and unveiling several that did not achieve a broadcast before the series was misguidedly cancelled. Seen coherently, the show was both exciting and stimulating in the best tradition of science-fiction programs, and the popularity of its definitive DVD release inspired the production of the feature film,Serenity, which was itself issued as a reasonably enjoyable Collector’s Edition by Universal. By way of comparison, the normally resourceful Warner completely dropped the ball with the potentially awesome Birds of Prey, which will probably never make it to DVD.

9. The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (Criterion). DVDs are for more than just movies and TV shows. Music programs are ubiquitous and range from platters containing a single music video, sometimes glued to a CD on the flip side, to boxed sets of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (you want some interesting dreams? Watch the entire Ring Cycle in a single day…). Operas have benefited greatly from DVDs, with excellent sound mixes, optional subtitling and the visual perfection of high definition image recording. Ballet, although much more beholden to the whims of camera angles and editing, has also benefited, particularly in superb artist-oriented collections such as Criterion’s Martha Graham Dance on Film.From pristine looking and sounding concerts to exhaustively researched ‘Review’ programs, rock music has been thoroughly represented on DVD, and while individual tastes will determine the appeal of most programs, productions such as TGA’s Rolling Stones Four Flicks are representative of the potential DVDs have for not only delivering incredible picture and sound, but supplying a fluid supplement of behind-the-scenes images and revelations. As for Criterion’s Monterey program, its heart is the classic D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the watershed 1967 music festival, but from there the collection expands to include extensive background information about the festival itself and exhaustive selections of unused footage, all transferred with exquisite care and a good deal of audio power.

10. The Up Series (First Run). Finally, while special effect action films greatly benefit from the quality of their audio and video transfers on DVD, and fictional films, classic or otherwise, are enhanced by well-made (or amusingly wrong-headed) supplements, no genre has benefited more from DVD design than the documentary. The reason for this is quite specific. The documentary is meant to teach, and the DVD supplement is meant to teach, so a documentary with a supplement is enhanced not doubly but exponentially in its educational rewards. From the Ken Burns and David Attenborough epics to small or challenging works like BBC Home Video’s Into the Arms of Strangers or HBO’sCapturing the Friedmans, DVD supplements greatly enhance and sometimes even alter a viewer’s understanding of the material presented in the original program. It should also be noted that extensive sets of classic championship sports competitions, also accompanied by extensive supplements, are beginning to proliferate. Yet there is one documentary DVD set that is as unique as it is rewarding. Michael Apted’s monumental lifework, revisiting and re-interviewing individuals every seven years for nearly five decades, The Up Series, enables the viewer to see each iteration of the project in its entirety and also hear Apted’s insightful commentary on the 42 Upfilm, in which he discusses the challenges the project has presented and goes over the backgrounds of the individuals in ways that the films cannot.
January 9, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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The Ultimate DVD Geek

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon