Yesterday I took the technological plunge and brought home my first Blu Ray player. In fact, I am surprised that it took me nearly two years to make the decision to buy one, since when it comes to most tech toys I’m eager to adopt right away. Especially home cinema hardware. And so far I regret nothing. True, while most of my beloved films are not yet available in the high-resolution format, film studios are releasing new and catalog titles at a breakneck speed, no doubt fueled by the upcoming Christmas shopping season. However, the question that plagues any adopter of new tech is whether or not there is a marked difference between the “new” format (that being Blu Ray) and the “old” (that being DVD, and for those that never took that plunge, VHS and LaserDisc).
The short answer is “yes.” The slightly longer answer is “yes, if you have a high-def television and audio processor.” If you’re still living in a world of tube televisions and rudimentary stereo sound, then HD media is of no importance to you. Scanning a recent thread of a home theater forum, I read one post where someone asked if they should invest in Blu Ray technology even if they still have a CRT (tube) television. To me, that would be like fitting a spoiler onto your Ford Focus. Or purchasing the finest culinary equipment when your idea of cooking is dialing for Dominos delivery. In other words, why bother? Either way, I believe it’s safe to assume that HD technology is hear to stay. And, pardon the hyperbole, once you’ve tasted the quality of HD broadcasting and other HD media, it’s hard to go back to standard definition.
In my field, which is academic film studies, there is a certain pride in being a technological luddite. One of the purveying philosophies of the film scholar is that if it’s not projected on film (16mm or 35mm), then it’s not “authentic.” I use that term very loosely since — as I suggested in my last post — we cannot assume there is an original or definitive experience of any film. They are, for the most part, approximations. Used incorrectly, this framework can become a catch-all excuse for even the poorest quality film presentation. And it does not dispense with the erudite film scholar’s preference for a 35mm presentation over that of DVD. I once endured a 35mm screening of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry in a fourth year seminar that was almost entirely pink from wear. So, not only was Harry Callahan’s face a warm shade of lavender, but also the San Francisco skyline was bathed in shades of salmon and amaranth. Could this be part of Siegel’s mise en scene? No, just the professor’s preference for the feel of film over the pixely grains of digital. By this logic, even the poorest 35mm print is superior to the most pristine digital one.
The pride of celluloid authenticity makes little sense in this case. I’ve spoken to some professors who feel they’ve been pushed into the digital realm because of simple economics. It’s far cheaper to house a collection of DVDs than a library of 35mm prints. It has also become more convenient to find early cinema shorts and a wide range of international titles on high-quality DVD transfers than on expensive 16mm or 35mm prints. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the age of video that this dichotomy seems so trivial to me.
Make no mistake, I can see and hear the difference between a celluloid presentation and a digital or analog video presentation. But with the state of film studies departments as they are — at least the ones I’ve visited — I would hardly call the classroom presentation “pristine.” My study of sound film in the classroom has been hindered by poor sound reproduction to the point that some rooms are not even equipped to handle simple stereo playback! In some lectures and conference presentations I’ve had to cue my audience to low frequency stings because bass is non-existent.
My embrace of Blu Ray partly stems from this frustration. There’s no doubt in my mind that I fetishize the cinema experience to the point that I complain about poor maskings in theaters and poorly aligned loudspeakers. I appreciate the control of my own cinema environment. I like the lights to be dimmed to a certain level, the conversation hushed, and I especially like the comfort of my own sofa and ottoman. Even though I question the relevance of the “pristine” movie experience I, too, fall victim to its trappings.
Of course, sound mixers hate to hear that their work is being tampered with by over-eager cinephiles who insist on cranking the subwoofer and rear channels to “enhance” the sonic experience. If they could control how you set up your living room equipment, they would surely try.
Which brings me back to Blu Ray. After doing some simple A/B comparisons of the same film on DVD and Blu Ray, the visual and aural differences were striking. DVD colors seem dull and lifeless by comparison. Re-watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind again on Blu Ray I was immediately struck by the level of detail that was missing from the previous DVD incarnation. I specifically chose a film that I thought I knew very well, and I was surprised to notice textures and definition in the alien spacecraft and visitors.
Ironically, the A/B comparison of this film highlighted for me the remarkable quality of 35mm film to be able to retain such deep blacks, vibrant colors, and sharp detail. For the last thirty years video has tried to play catch-up with little success. Remember when we were told that VHS came so close to capturing the details of real life that we could hardly tell the difference between the two? Now, “Is it live or is it Memorex” is down-right comical. Similarly, we’re being told now that HD media produces “the look and sound of perfect.” So, does that mean it’s better than real life?
And yet as I embrace this format I fear other developments such as digital movie downloads. Apple TV is one example of a growing number of services that allow users to download films onto their computers or media center hard drives. Do I really want to watch movies on my laptop? My iPod? No. Will “new media” encourage new viewing habits? Perhaps, but I have a hard time believing that digital copies will completely replace hard copies. In this sense, Blu Ray discs encourage viewing habits of the video age: pop something into a player and watch it on your television. However, companies like Apple who have invested in the wireless, objectless future with products like the MacBook Air and Apple TV have recently expressed concern with adding Blu Ray players to their products. Steve Jobs, as recently as October, stated that Blu Ray represents a “bag of hurt” due its licensing and hardware obstacles. Or maybe Apple is betting that the digital download will emerge as the real format winner.
Blu Ray isn’t perfect, though. There are some drawbacks that will invariably affect the way I watch movies. For one, there is the whole issue of repurchasing a slew of titles on Blu Ray. So, that means that now I have three copies of Close Encounters: Criterion LaserDisc, DVD collector’s edition, and now the 30th Anniversary Blu Ray. To connect the dots to my earlier post on multiple versions, I’d like to point out that this new edition contains all three versions of the film: the theatrical cut (1977) , the special edition (1980), and the final cut (which excises the interior of the mothership sequence, which Spielberg admits he should “never have done”).
The Blu Ray format also possesses some limitations. I can’t, for example, upload any Blu Ray frame grabs since my computer DVD drive does not support the format. That goes for classroom showings and conference presentations, too. So for the meantime if you want to see and hear How the West was Won in its Cinerama glory, you’ll have to knock on my door or invest in a player yourself. We will also have to wait for some prized films to be released in the format; namely the first Star Wars trilogy, much of the Criterion catalog, and my own personal favorite the Back to the Future series.
So, while Blu Ray may be another video format destined for the garbage heap in a decade’s time, it seems to provide the closest approximation yet to 35mm and uncompressed audio clarity. Even the purists must admit that these high-res formats force major studios to revisit their catalog titles and remaster worn out negatives and re-release forgotten gems. It’s no surprise that Blu Ray received a boost in credibility when the Criterion Collection announced earlier this year that they too will be releasing select titles in the HD format to satisfy their own interest in preserving and presenting acclaimed films in their finest quality. And to those who prefer to watch a pink Dirty Harry, I respect your commitment, but I’ll stick with the shiny disc.