(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2002)
Given my obvious enthusiasm for movies, it’s often been surprising to people that I haven’t built up an extensive video collection. Fact is, I never saw the point – there’s always too much new stuff to watch. Initially, I approached DVDs in the same way. But I’m gradually breaking down. Since I bought a DVD player about a year and a half ago, I’ve built up a collection of 43 years. I know this is peanuts by the standards of hardcore library builders – but since I never meant to buy any at all, it seems like a lot to me.
The first DVD I purchased was Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. I kept reading about the Criterion Collection and its pristine restorations and fascinating extras, and it had been a long time since I’d seen Grand Illusion, so I bought it as an experiment. Shortly after that, I bought Eyes Wide Shut, tempted by some kind of $10-off deal. I didn’t even think I liked Eyes Wide Shut, but I had a feeling it would repay further study (as it did). Soon after that, my wife gave me a Kubrick boxed set for Christmas. I’ve written before about how this opened my eyes to a director about whom I’d generally been lukewarm.
Since then the collection has evolved in an idiosyncratic way that doesn’t yet represent the breadth of my taste, although it’s getting there. In addition to eight films by Stanley Kubrick, the 43 films contain three Cocteau, three Dreyer, four Rivette, two Bertolucci, two Herzog and two Spike Lee. It has a number of staples – Welles’ Citizen Kane, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part One (haven’t got round to Part Two yet), Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tati’s Playtime, Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. With time there will surely be more than one Hawks (Rio Bravo), one Antonioni (L’Avventura) and one Hitchcock (The Birds). And I can’t imagine going too long without acquiring some Bresson, Cassavetes, and – unfortunately – all too many others.
Some of my favourite contemporary American films are in there too – Magnolia, Heat, Nashville. And I bought George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, of which I had excellent twenty-year-old memories – fully confirmed on rewatching. There’s also one film I wish I didn’t have – Lewis Teague’s Cujo. This was given to me as a gift, and I have no idea why. I think maybe the people saw The Shining on my DVD shelf and figured I was a Stephen King fan. I’m not saying Cujo is an altogether bad movie, but when I look at my alphabetized DVD shelf, casting my eye lovingly across the titles, it stands out as grotesquely as a porno flick. I’d like to move it to a different shelf, but that seems silly, so it just stays there.
None of this means that my original hypothesis was false. I’m still too occupied watching new stuff. Here’s the shameful statistic – as of today, I haven’t yet watched 12 out of the 43 disks. And there’s not a single one that I’ve watched twice. I’m confident that I’ll remedy this…but then I’ll probably buy more disks as well and the backlog will just accumulate. And how often would you need to watch a disk to really justify the economic investment – four, five times? This is exactly the kind of logic that successfully dissuaded me from buying videos. But it doesn’t seem as off-putting for disks.
Where’s the Pasolini?
That’s partly a feeling, based on analogizing to my experience with music cassettes versus CDs, that the videos would merely have crumbled slowly to dust on the shelf whereas the DVDs will last to the end of time. The visual appeal of the disks themselves and of their packaging undoubtedly helps. But I fear the sad truth is that having taken the first step, I just can’t stop now. If I never bought another DVD, the arbitrary point at which I cut off my collection would always gnaw at me. I mean, I’ve at least got to have Ugetsu Monogatari in there. And how can I have The Birds and not Vertigo. And shouldn’t there be at least one Godard, one Pasolini (we named our dog after him for Pete’s sake), one Fassbinder? And wouldn’t it be great to have a pristine version of The Band Wagon? At this point, getting to 100 films will be a cinch.
My impression is that much of the non-mainstream material available on DVD was never available on video, although I never really looked. I’ve written before at my amazement that the Rivette material is available. His are almost the only DVDs that I bought without previously having seen the films – I’d never had the opportunity to watch Joan of Arc or The Gang of Four or Secret Defense. After chasing down Rivette movies for years, it’s a huge thrill to me to have those titles just sitting at home, to watch whenever I like. I’d love to watch all those films again right now, if I didn’t have all this other stuff to catch up on.
My DVD collection has reinforced one thing I already knew about myself – it really is about the joy of watching the movie. I don’t think I’ve tapped even 2% of the bonus materials contained on these disks. I’ve listened to not one second of the voice-over commentaries. I’ve watched a few trailers, some deleted scenes (most interestingly on the Bamboozled disk), some oddities like Tippi Hedren’s screen test on The Birds disk. But this stuff quickly bores me. I guess I’ve never felt time was best spent in getting to know a particular movie in minute detail, when instead you could be exploring the uncharted area of a whole new film.
Staying at home
So what does this all mean? Well, I’ve always thought that the intangible nature of movie watching makes it slightly dissatisfying as a hobby. All you have is the memory. I think that’s why movie fans often seem to be into list-making, and maintaining scrapbooks, and otherwise giving their ethereal experiences some solid existence. Having a video or DVD collection fits right in with that, and now I’m there with all the other movie geeks. Secondly, if I’m ever banished to a desert island with nothing but a TV and a DVD player, I’m well on the way to making the sentence a little more palatable. And thirdly, I may yet live up to the possibilities of the investment I’ve made in my DVD shelf. The week I write this, eight new movies open in Toronto. I’m only going to one of them. Given how I just got this new disk of Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast, I don’t have the time…
(November 2015 update – well, that’s even more of a nostalgia read than usual. It all exploded from there: for example, I ended up with fifteen Ozu films, twenty-one Godards, and so forth. But then it died down, and I’ve hardly added to the collection at all in the past few years. Things moved on again!)