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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Scenes from a Revolution

By Norman Lebrecht / November 2, 2005

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DVD is killing CD - what will it do to the book?

The start of a cultural revolution is often imperceptible, and there is one taking place right now on your living-room shelves. In between the tattered paperbacks and last year's birthday cards a new format is demanding space, pushing at the party walls of categoric hierarchies. Digital Versatile Disc has invaded our homes and the cultural consequences are going to be considerable.

The intrusion has occurred in the past year or so, without fuss or fanfare. I hardly noticed its effect on my own habits until a New York friend with an Adams-to-Zemlinsky opera collection and more CD versions of the Brahms concertos than is probably healthy mentioned the other day that he is building a DVD library of must-have movies. So, I realised, was I ö one by one, and somewhat haphazardly until the pre-Christmas flood of gift sets established an addiction.

The complete works of Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut are about to go on sale and no self-respecting cineaste will walk by without feeling a tug at the purse strings. To have and to hold every film that guided your artistic and emotional maturation, through adolescence and beyond, is something many will find irresistible. Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky and the Ealing comedies are equally on offer. What was formerly part of a romanticised past, glimpsed infrequently on late-night TV, has become urgently present (perhaps the perfect present). The eternally elusive turns up in plastic boxes.

What this means, in cultural terms, is that film now takes its place beside literature, music and visual imagery as an art that can be owned and bookmarked. Where once you had to visit a cinema or spool through half a mile of clunky videotape in order to access a seminal scene in an essential movie, you now zone into it on DVD as quickly as finding a name in the index of an artist biography.

I no longer need to conjure up in the mind's eye the sight of Jean Moreau toppling off a bicycle in Jules et Jim or Liv Ullman playing Chopin in Autumn Sonata. Using the scene selector that is standard on most DVDs, a frozen frame is but a fingertip away and what was once an ethereal impression is resolved by immediate evidence. Did she fall off? Now we know. How did she play? Not badly at all.

Film has become fact on DVD. It has left the cinema and joined us for drinks, an emancipatory moment for the last of the great western art forms. Books and music have always furnished our rooms, but to have film as a point of home reference, like Oxford English Dictionary and the complete works of Shakespeare, signals a revolution in cultural reception and, inevitably, creation.

It will, for instance, make it that much harder for Hollywood to remake its own milestones when half the world has the originals to hand for instant comparison. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), with its dream cast of Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh was unlikely to be bettered by Jonathan Demme's 2004 reshoot with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep. But if anyone had foreseen that the original DVD would be around in the public hands, Demme's studio would never have raised the finance, let alone the enthusiasm, for an otiose update. With DVD to hand as a mass medium, directors will have to be more careful about clichŽs. Some, like Titanic's James Cameron, are so involved in shaping a definitive DVD version of past works that they have given up making new movies. Among the haughtier auteurs, DVD is the route to self-obsession.

But it is in public hands that DVD will make an impact, and one that is beyond present calculation. Television will be the first to suffer. Why zap through 139 brain-rot channels when you have just bought Some Like it Hot at Woolworths and can play it without adverts, programme trails and other network interpolations. Beside frenetic TV directors who change camera angles 20 times a minute, the long, cool takes of Billy Wilder, Fellini and John Ford make a sweeter ending to the working day. TV will have to change its ways.

And then there are the half-hidden extras. After seeing Ushpizin, a gripping Israeli drama of born-again orthodox zealots on selective international release, I cued in a DVD sidebar on the making of the film. It revealed that the lead actor, Shalom Rand, had given up his movie career to embrace a life of ritual observance - only to decide to film his new world through the unsentimental eyes of a sceptical director who had once been his mentor. Their dialogue on DVD adds a third dimension to an already memorable film, an edgy negotiation of polar outlooks.

The reason for such add-ons is to persuade people who have seen the film to pay again for the memory. But their insertion makes DVD something more than a replica of film. The array of interviews, deleted scenes and sundry curiosities, allied to the indexing facility, endow the DVD with what amounts to the critical apparatus that would accompany a modern edition of a literary classic ö Gibbon's Decline and Fall, for instance, equipped (as one would expect) with scholarly preface, textual footnotes, celebrity commendations and comprehensive bibliography for further reading.

These fillers distance the DVD from the original film in much the same way as an audio disc is removed from live music. Recording may replicate a moment in art, but it also exists as an artform in its own right, with a history and archive that are quite separate from musical evolution. In much the same way, DVD is not just takeaway film. It is a genre that both presents film and describes it, content and context together, a bilateralism in tune with post-modern philosophies. Over the next year or so, DVD will come to be recognised as a stand-alone genre as DVD collections form an essential part of a civilised household.

The DVD won't replace the printed book which has withstood more serious threats in the past half-millennium. But it will accelerate the obsolescence of the audio-only disc, which cannot compete much longer in an image-centred culture. The internet, the I-pod and other new-tech marvels will challenge for precedence as entertainment carriers, but none can rival DVD for instant access and archival use. DVD has got the movies bang to rights and gives them equal status with music and printed arts. It is the medium of the Noughties, the remaking of our memories.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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