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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

One Disc, Two Disc, Red Disc, Blu Disc
(or: Why I Couldn't Possibly Care Less About The Format War)

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Over the past week or so, I've followed the skirmishes in the format war play out with what can best be described as bemused detachment. Both Harry Knowles' endorsement of HD-DVD over at Ain't It Cool News and Bill Hunt's rebuttal on this very site tickled me no end. But more than either of those articles, I was fascinated by the discussions that followed in talkbacks and forums around the net, raising the issue of which high-def format to support to Sophie's Choice levels. After giving the matter much thought, I thought I'd speak out and offer my own stand on the dueling formats.

I don't care.

I know, I know. I'm writing for The Bits, so I should be singing the praises of Blu-Ray, right? Or, in the interest of creating a fair and balanced environment, I should take the contrarian position and support HD-DVD. But it just doesn't matter all that much to me. This worried me a bit. After all, I'm a movie lover. I write about DVDs and such. I've even got a spiffy HDTV (I was shocked to discover that the "HDTV" logo on the set didn't simply stand for "Hot diggity! TV!") I should be heavily invested in all this, shouldn't I? What's the matter with me that I just don't care?

To find out, I decided to run a very unscientific poll of friends and family members to see what they knew about the format war. All of them are movie fans, watch DVDs regularly and most have HD or HD-compatible televisions. The good news is that all of them but one had at least heard of both formats. One had no idea what Blu-Ray was and only deduced what HD-DVD was because he knew what HD stands for (although I didn't press him on that…for all I know, he may think it stands for "hot diggity"). Most had no plans to buy either format any time in the foreseeable future. Some had seen one or the other demonstrated and while they were not unimpressed, they weren't blown away enough by the improved picture and sound to slap their credit cards down on the counter.

Turns out I know exactly one person who has bought a high-definition player (well, two if you count Bill but I think we all know where he stands on this matter, so I didn't bother to talk to him). His choice: HD-DVD. His reasons: price and title availability. He strolled over to the movie section, glanced over what was on HD-DVD versus what was out on Blu-Ray, saw more that he liked on HD and went with that. (Interestingly, the currently-only-on-HD movie that sealed the deal wasn't King Kong or The Matrix or anything like that... it was Brokeback Mountain. This actually tells you more about the kind of friends I have than about the format war but it amuses me.) He seems relatively happy with his choice, although in retrospect, he suspects he may have jumped the gun. He shouldn't, necessarily. He's enjoying his new toy and good on him.

So in my circle of friends, HD-DVD is outselling Blu-Ray by a margin of two to one. Good news for the HD-DVD camp, I guess. But the cold splash of water on that happy news is that having nothing at all is outselling both by about ten to one. At this rate, it'll be a good long time before either format gets enough of a foothold to become anything even close to mainstream, if it ever happens at all. And if it doesn't, I guess I won't be all that disappointed.

Don't get me wrong. Of course I want the movies I watch at home to look and sound as good as possible. But once you get past the initial novelty of seeing your TV transformed into a machine of Luis Bunuel-level eyeball-slicing clarity, at the end of the day, you're left with the movies themselves. On some level, I may even resent any technology that fools you into thinking that The Matrix Reloaded or Alien Vs. Predator are in any way good movies. They're not. They may well show off your home theater to their fullest but no matter how cool it looks, Keanu Reeves telling Carrie-Anne Moss that he just loves her too god-damn much is retarded.

Some of the best movies I've ever seen were in terrible condition but that didn't make me love them any less. Likewise, some of the worst were given flawless presentations with crystal clear picture and eardrum shattering surround sound. I could rattle off countless examples of the latter but instead of focusing on that, let me give you one for the former.

One of my favorite filmmakers of all time is Krzysztof Kieslowski. The first time I saw his 1988 masterpiece The Decalogue was in a tiny but great theatre in Seattle called the Grand Illusion (if you're in the Seattle area and you love movies, you should support it faithfully). At that time, there was only one print of The Decalogue with English subtitles. If you wanted to screen it in the States, and every arthouse and repertory cinema worth its salt did, that was the print you got. Seattle was its last stop before heading back to Europe. Even if every projectionist at every theatre treated the print as if it contained the only existing footage of Christ himself scarfing down the last supper with his twelve pals, film prints accumulate a lot of wear and tear being transported from state to state and running through projectors. So it wasn't in great shape. Parts looked like they'd been dragged across a parking lot once or twice. Even so, it was one of the most memorable filmgoing experiences I've ever had. If anything, the condition of the print made us appreciate what we were seeing even more. It felt like we were seeing something rare and precious. There was certainly no indication back then that The Decalogue would ever come to DVD, so we focused intently on the screen, aware that we may never get to see this again.

The Decalogue did eventually make it to DVD thanks to Facets. But do you think I'm holding my breath waiting for it to be released on any high definition format? Nuh-uh. This whole situation is the studios' tune and they expect us all to dance to it. And this is perhaps the biggest reason why the next-gen formats trouble me. The most enjoyable aspect of DVD's explosive rise to prominence, for me anyway, is the thrill of discovering obscure movies, both from independent labels as well as the studios themselves. That's slowed down a lot recently and I don't think it's because every movie worth seeing has been uncovered.

The independents have struggled lately, partly perhaps because shelf space they used to enjoy in retail stores has been usurped by these two new formats. Good stuff is still trickling out. Anchor Bay's Jodorowsky box set is one of those releases I never thought would see the light of day. Tartan is doing a good job with more recent foreign language films like El Crimen Ferpecto. BCI/Eclipse is doing great work with their 70s and 80s TV sets. And Criterion of course is Criterion, and I have no doubt that they will continue to forge ahead regardless of what the next format is. But what about Blue Underground, Mondo Macabro, Fantoma, NoShame, Dark Sky, Panik House and others? Most of them are still around, as far as I know, but if you want any of their titles you're better off ordering them online because you're going to have a harder time than ever tracking them down in any brick and mortar store.

As for the studios, I think most of them would admit that DVD's rise to power took them by surprise. To satisfy the public's hunger for product, they were forced to dig deep into their vaults. As a result, we've seen discs for great cult movies like Fox's Emperor of the North, Warner's The Loved One, MGM's Duck, You Sucker! and lots more. The introduction of a new high-def format will essentially let the studios off the hook. Of course the major studios want a new format to enter the mainstream as soon as possible. They're happy to sell a few copies of the smaller titles, sure, but they'd much rather sell you new versions of stuff you've already bought.

None of this means that I want the new formats to just go away. I'm probably about six to nine months away from being in the market for a new DVD player anyway and when I am, it'll probably be one or the other of these new-fangled machines. There are a few newer movies I've held off buying recently in anticipation of the next generation but I can all but guarantee that I won't be replacing perfectly serviceable DVD versions of movies with either HD-DVD or Blu-Ray and judging from my conversations, neither will most folks. This isn't like switching from VHS to DVD. A shockingly large number of people with new widescreen HDTVs don't even have them set up correctly and don't seem to notice that the picture is all smooshed when they play DVDs. If they can't see that, how do you expect them to be able to tell the difference in quality between regular DVDs and high-def?

And if the music industry has taught us anything, it's that convenience will trump quality every time. DVD-Audio and SACD were noticeably superior formats to their predecessor, the lowly CD. Audiophiles loved them. Most people didn't care. As far as mainstream America was concerned, the only format better than compact disc was…no disc at all. I hate to say it but that's likely what the next mainstream video format will be, too. If video on demand, whether or not it's in high definition, can become as easy to use as music downloading software before the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray camps can get their shit together, it's all over. Ten years ago, no one ever thought that CDs would become a niche format but it's rapidly becoming one. It may shock those of you who visit sites like this regularly but most people don't like having stacks and stacks of movies cluttering their homes. And as much as I love having a great big collection of movies and music, there are definitely times when I can't say I blame them.

Personally, I don't think VOD is going to take the place of movies on disc any time soon. But the day is almost certainly coming. The bottom line is this whole format war is a tempest in a teapot. While the arguments continue online, most of America is blissfully unaware of any of it. If you're ready to leap into high-def, pick a format and enjoy. At this stage of the game, you might pick wrong but that's OK. It's not like if HD-DVD wins, all your Blu-Ray discs will suddenly self-destruct. And while it would be nice to think you can buy a Blu-Ray player and never again have to worry about buying another piece of hardware, that isn't very realistic. Win or lose, technology is not going to stop. Sooner or later, something else will come along to take the place of this. Regardless, it shouldn't be the format that dictates how much you enjoy your home theater. It's the content. If you don't like Pirates of the Caribbean, watching it on Blu-Ray shouldn't make you hate it any less no matter how cool it may look. And if you're like me and prefer movies like Django to any of the big studio stuff that's currently available on high-def, don't worry about it. There is no shame in being a conscientious objector to the format war.

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

[Editor's Note: No, there isn't. But in the interest of total disclosure, it's worth noting that Adam, fearing that his beloved DVD player is soon to give up the ghost, has just asked me about getting a Blu-ray Disc player. ;) ]

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