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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

On Knowing One's Place
or The Point and Purpose of the DVD Review
in Modern Society


Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Not long ago, I was checking out a few threads over at the Home Theater Forum. One in particular caught my eye. It seems a number of people took issue with someone's negative review of a movie (not, I should add, a review from this site). Not the DVD, which was apparently quite good, but the movie itself. Quite a few people seemed annoyed in general with DVD reviewers who waste valuable bandwidth with their irrelevant opinion of the movie they're discussing. A DVD reviewer's job, these folks said, should be to assess the quality of the picture, sound and extras on a disc. And that's it. If they wanted to know what somebody thought about a movie, they'd read something by a "real" film critic.

Needless to say, I was a wee bit annoyed by all this. As someone who's received more than my fair share of hate mails after posting a dissenting opinion of a beloved movie (check out my review of A.I., for instance, and if you come away pissed off, please keep it to yourself... I've heard it all before), I immediately felt for the poor sap who dissed this particular film. But besides the insult that those of us who write for DVD websites are nothing more than dilettantes who can't possibly hold a candle to the wit and wisdom of Richard Roeper, there was the issue of what people apparently expect from a DVD review. The whole thing got me to thinking. Have I been going about this all wrong? Should I just keep my big trap shut about what I think about these movies and instead reach for the thesaurus and start looking up new adjectives to describe great picture and sound quality?

First off, let's take a quick look at the history of DVD reviews. Back in the 20th century, when DVD was first introduced to a skeptical buying public, things were different. Those of you who've been around for awhile will remember the long, slow process of waiting for the various studios to pledge their support to the new format. And, as with any new technology, there were still a few bugs in the system. In the first year or two of the format, your first impression of DVD hinged a lot on what the first disc was that you stuffed into your brand new player. Depending on what you'd picked up, you could expect to either be blown away by the improved picture and sound and all the cool extras... or you could be ready to smash the outrageously expensive machine into a billion pieces, because this thing looked worse than a VHS tape. In those days, sites like this one were doing studios a favor, telling them what looked good, what looked awful, and what needed improvement.

To their credit, the studios actually paid attention. As the quality of the software became consistently better, the popularity of the format grew. Today, the technical issues are pretty well ironed out. A really great looking and/or sounding DVD will make your eyes and/or ears melt off your head with how amazing it is (think Send in the Clones or whatever the hell that last Star Wars thing was called). An average DVD is still just fine and about a zillion times better than VHS. If a movie was a recent theatrical release and you're buying it on disc, you can basically expect that it's going to look and sound very good to excellent. Yes, there are still some lousy looking discs out there but you can usually predict which ones are going to suck. They're from labels that have a bad track record with technical issues or are of movies that are really old and not well taken care of.

So that's it. I have just taken care of every video and audio question you will ever have about a new DVD. It'll either be great or it'll be good or, if it's a $2.50 public domain title, it'll suck. I guess this means that we never have to post another DVD review again. Good night, everybody!

Well, of course that's not true. Reviews will continue to be posted here and elsewhere on the web. But why? What the hell do we think we're doing if we're not helping with the technical issues and nobody cares what we think about the movies? Answering the second part of that question first, believe it or not, some people DO care what we think about the movies. Even if nobody else does, we sure do. I have read some arguments that a review of a certain title should only be assigned to someone who already knows and likes that title. Well, I can't speak for other websites but I can guarantee that if that rule went into effect here, The Digital Bits would be running even fewer reviews than we do already. Believe me, I do not think I was fighting off the rest of the staff to earn the privilege of reviewing Windtalkers.

The simple fact is that movies are an art form. DVD's are a commodity designed to package and sell that art form. If we just wrote about the commodity, we'd all get really bored really fast. Now, producing an exceptionally good DVD is also an art form and when that happens, we're the first to shout it to the heavens. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. The reason we're doing this in the first place is we love movies. None of us are getting rich off this site (at least I'm sure not... Hey, Hunt, perhaps it's time to renegotiate our arrangement here!).* But I believe you can see in the quality of what's put on this site that we all take this stuff very seriously. Granted, there are a lot of very bad writers out there posting DVD reviews. That's inevitable considering how many sites there are devoted to this particular obsession. Personally, I think The Digital Bits boasts some of the highest caliber film writing on the Internet, even if I do have to say so myself. Hey, they don't just hand out book contracts to anybody, y'know.

So what are we doing here exactly? First and foremost, I think part of our job is to keep the studios honest. When they release a not-so-special two-disc "special edition", we're here to call foul. When they go above and beyond and create a DVD that's bursting with high-quality features, we're here to make sure that work doesn't go unnoticed. With the huge A-list titles, we know that most of you have probably already made up your mind whether or not to buy it weeks, if not months, ago. In those cases, we're around to help you make an informed decision. Say, for instance, The Two Towers. We can say, "The two-disc set's no good, wait for the extended dance remix in November," or "Actually there's some good stuff on the two-disc version that you might want to check out." With the smaller titles, we try to pick out interesting movies that would otherwise fall through the cracks.

As for those technical questions, if you're reading my stuff in particular for technical advice, you've come to the wrong place. If you've got a home theater system that you can refer to as a "home theater system" with a straight face, then you've got a better setup than I do. I consider my system to be above average, meaning it's slightly better than my father's, who doesn't know or care about such things. I've got five speakers and a subwoofer. I can play both Dolby Digital and DTS. I recently upgraded to a color television, because apparently most movies these days are being released that way. I'm not exactly tickled pink with what I've got but it gets the job done. If somebody out there wants to buy me a widescreen HDTV in the interest of getting higher-quality reviews, drop me an e-mail and I'll let you know where to have it delivered. Until that happens, I'll muddle through with what I've got.

Personally, I've become resigned to two realities. First, DVD reviews aren't likely to ever receive the same kind of respect as film reviews. Especially if we continue to refer to ourselves as "reviewers" instead of "critics". A critic is expected to analyze and express his or her opinion of a work. A "reviewer" is just supposed to summarize and shut the hell up. Second, writing that appears on the Internet isn't likely to receive the same kind of respect as print. When the holocaust of misspellings and bad grammar that appears on a regular basis on Ain't It Cool News is dismissed as part of the site's homegrown, populist "charm", you know you're fighting an uphill battle.

Be that as it may, I'll continue to write for The Bits as long as Bill and Todd will have me. If you occasionally disagree with what I think about a movie, good. Just don't tell me that I should keep my mouth shut. If you're really only interested in the disc as commodity, there are plenty of reviewers out there who'll give you what you're looking for. But there's a handful of websites that feature critics instead of reviewers. This is one of them.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com

* [Editor's Note: Adam's right. None of us are getting rich. We are, however, getting plenty of gray hair. In any case, rest assured that as long as there's a Bits, Adam's welcome to go gray in our company. We're honored to have him here.]


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